The Tower of Babel and Biblical Community

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Appeared in The Association of Presbyterian Christian Educators Advocate Journal 32/2 (Summer 2007): 4-5.
The Tower of Babel and Biblical Community
The story of the tower of Babel in Genesis 11:1-9 is one of the most important biblical statements about community: who’s in it, what it’s like, and what God wants it to be. It’s an important statement because it is the Bible’s first, foundational explanation of the origin of the human community in which we all find ourselves. It explains why and how the tiny, homogenous culture of a single family after the flood became the lavish multicultural mosaic of human society today. Yet for all of its crucial importance for the biblical view of community, it is one of the most misunderstood stories in the Bible.

Though this story is fundamentally misunderstood, as I will explain in a moment, we are all pretty sure we know exactly what it means. When I have asked students at McCormick and in adult education class in Presbyterian churches around Chicago to retell the story as they have learned it, their accounts all come out remarkably the same. The story of the tower of Babel, they say, is about human pride and God’s punishment of it. The people built the tower of Babel because they were proud and defiant and wanted to take control of the world for themselves. To put down this human rebellion, God punished them by confusing their languages and scattering them across the world, making it impossible for them to launch another attack against God’s authority. Some of these accounts even include the detail that God destroyed the tower with a great lightning bolt, just to be sure.

There are two big problems with this story of the tower of Babel as we remember it. The first is a theological one. If the story means what we think it means, then the rich diversity of the human community, its multiplicity of languages and geographies, is God’s punishment on us for our pride and arrogance. Our differences are a kind of divine curse we must bear because of our sinfulness. This, of course, is not a promising starting point for a theology of human community in all of its diversity, in all of its shapes and forms. The second problem is that the story as we remember it has little relationship to the actual story in the Bible. The story in our memories and the story in Scripture are two very different stories. To reencounter the real biblical story of Babel, we must reread it carefully, paying close attention to what it says and what it doesn’t say. Only then will we talk properly about its true aim and its actual view of community.

The story of Babel is an ingeniously concise narrative in two parts: an account of the people’s plans to build Babel, revealing their notion of community, followed by an account of God’s response, revealing God’s view of community.

The Human Idea of Community

1All the earth had one language and the same words. 2When they traveled toward the east, they found a valley in the land of Shinar, and they settled there. 3They said to one another, “Come, let us make bricks and let us fire them.” The bricks were stones for them, and asphalt was mortar for them. 4And they said, “Come, let us build for ourselves a city and a tower with its top in the sky, and let us make a name for ourselves, so that we will not be dispersed over the surface of all the earth.” (Translations are mine).
Let’s first notice what the story doesn’t say about the people’s ideas and plans. It does not say they were proud or that they wanted to take control of the world from God or that they were defiant or sinful. All of these things that we have learned to associate with the people have been inferred by interpreters from a single image, the “tower with its top in the sky.” In fact, it is just because interpreters thought this image was the key to the story that we now call the whole story, incorrectly, “the tower of Babel.” When we investigate the sense of this image elsewhere in the Bible and in other ancient literature, we find that it has nothing to do with storming the heavens or attacking God at all. It is simply a cliché for something really tall, exactly like our English word “skyscraper.”

Now let’s notice what the story does say. Building a city with a tall tower and making a name (creating an identity) were actually not the aims of the project but simply the means to achieve its real purpose: “so that we will not be dispersed over the surface of all the earth” (v. 4). Speaking one language (v. 1), the people wanted to stay in one place (v. 4). That’s what their project was all about: preserving their common identity and homogeneity. They were all alike and they wanted to keep it that way. We can see in these people’s actions and impulses our own deep human desire for identity and cultural solidarity with those like us in our own social group. It is part of the brilliance of this storyteller that this human impulse to sameness and solidarity is presented straightforwardly as a fact without judging it to be sinful or warped or immoral.

The Divine Idea of Community

5Then Yahweh came down to see the city and the tower which the human race built. 6And Yahweh said, “There is now one people and they all have one language. This is what they have begun to do, and now all that they plan to do will be possible for them. 7Come, let us go down and let us mix there their language, that they will not understand one another’s language.” 8Then Yahweh dispersed them from there over the surface of all the earth, and they stopped building the city. 9Therefore, he named it Babel, for there Yahweh mixed (Hebrew: bālal) the language of all the earth, and from there Yahweh dispersed them over the surface of all the earth.
Again, let’s first notice what the story doesn’t say about God’s response to these human plans for community. It does not say that God worried about the tower or about an attack on heaven, or that God felt threatened by the people’s arrogance or by anything the people were doing. Nor does it say that God punished the people or that God cursed them with any suffering or hardship. All of these things that we associate with God’s response have been assumed by interpreters as the only way God could respond to pride. And you will see, if you compare my translation with those in many modern English translations, that translators have embellished the Hebrew to imply such a negative response on God’s part. For example, they spin v. 6 to suggest God feared future human rebellions, “this is only the beginning of what they will do” (NRSV); and they translate the neutral Hebrew verb bālal, “mix,” in vv. 7 and 9 with ominous words like “confound” (KJV) and “confuse” (NRSV, NIV).

Now let’s notice what the story does say about God’s response. The first thing God saw was cultural homogeneity. The people were all alike: “There is now one people and they all have one language” (v. 6). And God realized, to put the Hebrew accurately though a bit colloquially, that “from what they have accomplished already, it looks like their plans to remain one people with one language will succeed” (v. 6). God recognized that the human impulse toward identity and solidarity would, without intervention, succeed and continue to define community. So God put God’s own plan into effect, introducing the cultural diversity and difference that make the world the complex, rich, and sometimes challenging place it actually is. Whereas the human plan for community aimed at sameness, God’s plan for community aimed at distinctiveness, complexity, and multiformity.

Babel and the Biblical View of Community

The consequence of giving the story back its own voice is a new and different way of thinking about community in the Bible. According to our remembered version of the story, the diversity of the human community is God’s punishment upon us, a burden we must bear because of our sinful pride. But according to the story itself, the diversity of the human community is God’s plan for the world, a design for community that embraces the differences, diversity, and complexity of being human. The story of Babel presents diversity not as the problem for community but as the plan for it.

This changes everything. If we start our thinking about community with the idea that difference is a curse, a punishment we must bear, we will retreat more and more into the comfort of our small and safe communities, as the builders of Babel planned to do. But if we start our thinking about community with the idea that difference is God’s intention for the world, the design God built into the very core of human life, then we can turn our attention outward and discover the ways that diversity can enrich and deepen our experience of the world and of God. In a society in which we are coming face to face with increasing change and difference, we need more than ever the expansive courage of the ancient storyteller who told us about the people of Babel and about God’s plans for the world beyond Babel.

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