The Tower of Babel
The image of the Tower of Babel has a hold on the Western imagination that is out of proportion to its actual importance in the Bible. The story is told in just nine short verses (Gen 11:1-9) and is not mentioned again. Yet it is one of the most evocative images in the entire Bible—a spectacle of creaturely aspiration toward deity that finds its counterpart in the mythological story of the Titans who tried to supplant Zeus and were punished by being hurled into Tartarus.
Artists have imagined the tower as a physical and architectural phenomenon reaching massively into the sky. More recent biblical commentary entertains the possibility that the tower was a ziggurat—an astronomical observatory for use in divination and occult mastery of the universe. The meaning of the image remains the same in either case. Although in the popular mind Babel denotes confusion and discord, the image encompasses much more than this.
In the biblical text the Tower of Babel begins as a venture in human autonomy: “Come, let us build ourselves a city; let us make a name for ourselves”. As we overhear the excited talk, we catch the hints of the timeless human urge for fame and permanent achievement, as well as for independence and self-sufficiency. The tower is thus an image of human aspiration and pride, accompanied by a spirit of boasting in human achievement. Lurking in the background is the classical notion of hubris-overweening human pride that leads people to think themselves godlike, as hinted by the desire of the builders to include within their city “a tower with its top in the heavens”. Since heaven is the abode of God, we can interpret the venture as an attempt to storm God’s dwelling place. We should note also that in the ancient Near East temples to the gods were built on high places, with the human city surrounding the dwelling place of a deity.
The fact that the builders conceive of their enterprise as a city awakens a whole further set of associations. The city is par excellence an image of human community—an image of the universal human dream of unity with other people (in the story the people speak “to one another,”, combined with a desire for sedentary permanence (“lest we be scattered abroad upon the face of the whole earth,”. We should note that this collective pride is mingled with fear, so that the city becomes a *quest for safety as well as achievement. The dream of unity is enhanced by Babel’s being a unilingual city: “Now the whole earth had one language and few words”.
Babel, of course, is also a symbol of human inventiveness and ingenuity—a triumph of both reason (as the people calculate their needs and consider the means of meeting those needs) and imagination (as the people create a brand new vision of how things might be). It is a place of language and communication: “they said to one another”.
The city, moreover, is a picture of human ability to control and master the world. The Genesis narrative hints at this by emphasizing the specific building materials: ” ‘Come, let us make bricks, and burn them thoroughly.’ And they had brick for stone, and bitumen for mortar”. This is a picture of technology (note that the people make bricks instead of mining *stone), of material power, of monumental architectural ability, of culture and civilization, of forethought and planning. Fire is a universal symbol of civilization, art, and craft; while bricks are the symbol of permanence and stability. But bitumen or asphalt is hardly an adequate mortar, so already we sense a flaw in the blueprint.
Babel symbolizes the dream of human civilization. It is an attempt to meet human means by the peaceful means of invention, language, utopian planning, social cooperation, creativity, culture, and technology. Yet God declares the dream a nightmare in a story that to this day represents a primal act of divine judgment.
Halfway through the story, the focus shifts from the human perspective to God’s perspective: “And the Lord came down to see the city and the tower, which the sons of men had built”. We can see in this reaching down a counterpoint to the human aspiration upward, with an implicit irony in the fact that whereas the human builders envisioned their architectural feat as a skyscraper, from a more transcendent viewpoint it is so small that God must come down to catch a glimpse of the tower. The story is thus “a remarkable satire on man’s doing” (von Rad). God disapproves of the dream of limitless human achievement: “Behold, they are one people, and they have all one language; and this is only the beginning of what they will do; and nothing that they propose to do will now be impossible for them” (Gen 10:6). God, therefore, thwarts the attempt at unity by diversifying human language, with the result that “the Lord scattered them abroad over the face of all the earth” (Gen 10:9).
Behind this statement by God we can infer retrospectively that the dream pursued with so much zeal and with such apparently innocent motives was really a picture of idolatry-an attempt to make people and civilization the basis of security and the object of ultimate allegiance. The Tower of Babel as envisioned was implicitly a substitute deity, and it carries the same divine scorn that idolatry carries everywhere in the Bible. In God’s view, division of the human race is preferable to collective apostasy, and the experiment in human initiative apart from God ends in judgment. What began as a stunning example of unity (one language) ends in dispersal, a motif inverted on Pentecost (Acts 2) when a multiplicity of spoken languages in the city of Jerusalem produces the new unity of the Christian community.
What a wealth of human meanings converge in the single image of Babel! It is an ambivalent image, evoking powerful feelings of a wide range. On one side we can see the human longings for community, achievement, civilization, culture, technology, safety, security, permanence and fame. But countering these aspirations we sense the moral judgment against idolatry, pride, self-reliance, the urge of material power and the human illusion of infinite achievement. It is a picture of misguided human aspirations ending in confusion—in literary terms an episode of epic proportions that follows the downward arc of tragedy. Acting as a single entity the human race reached for everything and ended only with division. The concluding picture of a half-built tower and city is a monument to human aspiration gone awry and to divine judgment against human illusions of infinity. The very etymology of the word Babel suggests the two aspects of the story: the Akkadian word Bab-ili means ‘gate of God,’ while the Hebrew balal means ‘to stir up, to confound.’
Bibliography: G. von Rad, Genesis: A Commentary (Philadelphia: Westminster, 1972) 148-152; L. R. Kass, “What’s Wrong with Babel?” The American Scholar 58 (1989-90) 41-60.
I take no credit for writing this, I simply posted it for those who may be interested in biblical matters.
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