Commentary on Gen 11:1-9
Today we come to the end of our selected readings from the story of Creation and our tragic fall from the life that God originally intended for us, the “original blessing” described by the writer Matthew Fox.
The story is based on the temple towers called ‘ziggurats’ in ancient Babylon, a city with few happy memories for the Israelites and, for them, the home of idolatry and religious corruption. The context is used by the writer to show humanity’s increasing wickedness, here shown by an arrogant desire to create an urban culture without God. A secondary theme is an explanation of the huge diversity of languages and dialects in people who, in most respects, seem so similar and also an explanation for the meaning of the name ‘Babylon’.
Like the garden of Eden story, it is a folktale of human pride and folly and reflecting Israel’s strong anti-urban bias.
We are told that originally the whole of humanity had just one language and one vocabulary. Then the world’s people migrated from the east and settled in the plain of Shinar. This is ancient Sumer in southern Mesopotamia (today, southern Iraq) and also known as Babylonia.
Here they developed construction techniques learning how to make bricks instead of stone and bitumen as mortar. Bricks were so easy to make and so convenient when compared to the tedious process of cutting stone. Buildings could be bigger and constructed so much more quickly. Stone and mortar were used as building materials in Canaan, rocky country where the Israelites lived. Stone was scarce in Mesopotamia so mud brick and bitumen were used, as indicated by archaeological excavations.
The people in Shinar decided to build a whole city with a tower that would reach penetrating the heavens. This is a direct reference to the chief ziggurat of Babylon, the E-sag-ila, signifying “the house that raises high its head”. Ziggurats were pyramidic temples intended to serve as staircases from earth to heaven. They were square at the base and had sloping, stepped sides that led to a small shrine at the top. They could be called the earliest ‘skyscrapers’.
They were intended to symbolise the holy mountain and resting-place of the deity and the builders were apparently seeking a means of meeting their god. But the biblical writer sees their project as an act of arrogant pride. The theme of the tower is combined with that of the whole city, as a condemnation of urban civilisation.
They built this tower because “otherwise we shall be scattered abroad over the face of the earth”. As so often, the root of overweening ambition is often fear. (The very rich are often those who were once very poor.)
God was not at all pleased with what he saw. They were all one people, united by a common language and this was only the beginning of what they could do. Nothing would seem impossible. There would be no limits to their unrestrained rebellion against God. The kingdom of Man would try to displace and exclude the kingdom of God (something often seen today).
In order to put a stop to such ambition, God says: “Let us go down, confuse their language and they will not be able to understand one another.” The result was that, divided by incomprehensible languages, they were scattered over the face of the earth and the building of their city had to be abandoned. The very thing they feared took place.
Finally, the city was called Babel, because it was there that the Lord had thrown the language of the earth into confusion and scattered the earth’s peoples in all directions. ‘Babel’ is the Hebrew form of the name ‘Babylon’, originally ‘Bab-ili’ meaning “Gate of the gods”. Apparently the name referred originally only to a certain part of the city, the district near the gate that led to the temple area. There is a play here on the similarly-sounding Hebrew word balil, which means “he confused”.
For the biblical writer, the dream of building a tower reaching up to heaven is just another example of the sinfulness of the human family, this time of their arrogance and pride. It is a repetition of the sin of the man and the woman in the garden who thought they would gain infinite wisdom by eating the forbidden fruit.
There is also a theological explanation of why our single species, once thought to be living in one place and sharing one language, is now so divided by language and why we are scattered and separated over such a wide area.
Arrogance can be found in many places today and a feeling that we are in total control of our lives and our destinies. But a September 11 or a tsunami reminds us just how fragile and contingent our existence really is.
On the positive side, however, the divisions of Babel and mutual incomprehensibility are reversed on the day of Pentecost. As Peter speaks to the crowds coming from so many different places, they are amazed that they can all understand the message. It is a Message for Everyone and one which is in total harmony with the deepest needs and desires of every single person. (Acts 2:5-12) There is a similar gathering of the whole of humanity in the presence of God described in the Book of Revelation (Rev 7:9-10).
It is our mission as followers of Christ to work for the establishment of the Kingdom where all are united in truth and love as brothers and sisters. There is still a lot of work to be done.