Sunday, 19 February 2012

The Tower of Babel

The final fall story in Genesis is the story of the Tower of Babel, found in Genesis 11:1-9.  Here it is.

1 Now the whole world had one language and a common speech. 2 As people moved eastward, they found a plain in Shinar and settled there.

3 They said to each other, “Come, let’s make bricks and bake them thoroughly.” They used brick instead of stone, and tar for mortar. 4 Then they said, “Come, let us build ourselves a city, with a tower that reaches to the heavens, so that we may make a name for ourselves; otherwise we will be scattered over the face of the whole earth.”

5 But the LORD came down to see the city and the tower the people were building. 6 The LORD said, “If as one people speaking the same language they have begun to do this, then nothing they plan to do will be impossible for them. 7 Come, let us go down and confuse their language so they will not understand each other.”

8 So the LORD scattered them from there over all the earth, and they stopped building the city. 9 That is why it was called Babel—because there the LORD confused the language of the whole world. From there the LORD scattered them over the face of the whole earth.

Unlike the earlier stories, here we are leaving the "dreamtime" environment and starting to enter the realm of history.  The story has an identifiable place - Babylonia or Shinar - and highlights a historical conflict, although this isn't all it does.  It carries echoes of both the universal rebellion of the flood story, and the hubris of the Garden of Eden with humans tempted to challenge God.


The story is located in Babylon, but the name of that city, which in Akkadian means "gate of god", is parodied with a pun on the Hebrew word "balil", meaning confusion.  The tower which is at the centre of the story is the Etemenanki Ziggurat in Babylon, a 91m tall temple built in typical Sumerian style.  In Babylonian mythology, this temple was built at the centre of the world, on the axis of the universe, and served as a bridge between heaven and earth.  Ordinary mortals were not permitted to ascend to the shrine at its summit, but the King and the High Priest would go on their behalf to sacrifice at the shrine and, for all mere mortals knew, speak face to face with the supreme god Marduk.

The original of this temple may have been built as early as the 14th century BCE, but was destroyed by the Assyrians in 689 BCE and rebuilt by the Neo-Babylonians in the late 7th century.  Given the history of composition of Genesis, the final form of this story could date from either period, but perhaps the destruction suggests a later period.

Either way, it is clear that the Hebrew authors are not as impressed with the mighty ziggurat as the Babylonans would like them to be.  The story implicitly accepts the Babylonian explanation of their temple as a bridge to the heavens, but does not accept the corollary - that all the peoples of the earth should be united in revering it.  Instead, its creation is seen as an act of presumption, as a threat to the LORD's sovereignty.  Perhaps we see here a kind of heavenly rivalry, with the Hebrew God YHWH (rendered here as the LORD in accordance with Hebrew scribal tradition) challenging the Babylonian Marduk and defeating him. 

However, it is also a comment on the human desire for domination, the drive for empire.  The Babyonian vision is for one people, one language, one nation and one religion.  It can sound attractive, but the LORD is not convinced.  "If as one people speaking the same language they have begun to do this, then nothing they plan to do will be impossible for them."  This much power and dominance can only be dangerous, and the LORD puts a stop to it, destroying the tower and spreading confusion and diversity.

I have mentioned that each fall story carries a hope of redemption.  After humans are evicted from the Garden, the LORD teaches them to make clothes.  After the flood comes the rainbow, after Cain is outed as a murderer he is given the mark of the LORD's protection.  In this case redemption is at the heart of the story, not tacked onto the end.  Empires are all very well for the elite who control them, but for the little people who are controlled they spell trouble.  The message of hope here is that their power will never be absolute.  No matter how dominant they may seem, the LORD is greater than them, and can confound them at will.  The little people need not despair.

The warning applies to all our empires. I could talk about the Greeks who attempted to impose their own worship in Jerusalem in the second century, about the Romans, so graphically compared to the Babylonians in the Book of Revelation, even the empire builders of Jerusalem trying to impose their temple worship on the surrounding communities.  Instead, maybe we should think about our own behaviour.  The English conquerors of Australia, including the Christian missionaries, attempted to enforce their own culture and language on the 500 Aboriginal nations of Australia, settling them in missions, providing them with tailored clothes, educating them in English and trying to prevent the continuation of traditional rituals and customs.  Even now, education in traditional languages is subject to regular attacks because it doesn't prepare children for the "real world".  Is this the world of the LORD, or is it the world of Babylon?

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