I want to begin with comments about the 1970s. For many people, they were well along in years when that decade arrived. For a vast part of our population, they hadn’t been born yet. Their parents hadn’t even been born. For those in my generation, right after the baby boomers, many if not most of those years were spent in elementary school.
This is an oversimplification, but the 70s were largely a decade in reaction to the perceived anarchy and rejection of authority of the 1960s. The 70s gave us punk rock, with its reaction to the reaction. It also gave us disco, with its ignoring of politics, and an urge to mindlessly lose oneself in foolishness. (I guess you can gather my opinion of disco!)
But for my purposes here, I want to mention another phenomenon of the decade: disaster movies. There was a flurry of them, many with ensembles of A-list actors. There was Earthquake. We had The Poseidon Adventure. And then, there was The Towering Inferno, with another impressive list of top-notch actors, such as Steve McQueen, Paul Newman, Faye Dunaway… and a host of others.
Those Hollywood luminaries aside, the real stars of those movies were the disasters mentioned in the titles. The Towering Inferno provided a cautionary tale about the dangers of those buildings reaching up to the sky—skyscrapers. Of course, skyscrapers had been around for almost a century, but this was the 70s. A decidedly negative impression was portrayed. After watching that movie, people might understandably be hesitant to live or work in such edifices.
There’s another structure which is featured in Genesis 11: the tower of Babel. And like those disaster movies, it has usually been cast in a negative light. Actually, it’s usually been cast as a truly wicked affront to God. The builders have been seen as thumbing their noses to the Lord.
Again, it’s perfectly understandable to have that viewpoint. There are several interpretations to this text: the good, the bad, and the ugly!
The decision of the people to construct a city and tower, “with its top in the heavens,” in order to “make a name” for themselves could easily be seen as an act of arrogance (v. 4). Actually, that’s a very good way to see it. Whatever the motivation, preventing themselves from being “scattered abroad upon the face of the whole earth,” given the circumstances, could be seen as logical.
And what are those circumstances? The stage is set: “Now the whole earth had one language and the same words” (v. 1). There has been no end to speculation as to what that means. This comes on the heels of chapter 10, in which the descendants of Noah form nations spread throughout the world. More than once we are told of their families, languages, lands, and nations.
This enterprise appears to be a rejection of that diversity, indeed a God-ordained diversity.
The story’s location is pivotal. They settle in the land of Shinar, later known as Babylonia. It is a vast plain, unlike the mountains, islands, and forests from which they came. It’s the perfect terrain for bringing everyone together. Of course, if you’re out in the middle of nowhere, a construction project becomes necessary!
["Tower of Babel" by Josh Dorman, 2016]
The tower is likely a ziggurat, a structure resembling a pyramid, though with sides that are terraced, giant steps leading to the top. They were built throughout ancient Mesopotamia (which is modern day Iraq and western Iran).
Considering the multiplicity of ethnic groups on hand, making a name for oneself could be seen as a way of establishing a one-world government. A major part of that is how we speak. When languages disappear, they take with them all the intricate subtleties unique to their thought processes, based on the experiences of the people who use them. They are irreplaceable.
The saying is true: “it gets lost in translation.” It is vital to realize the theme underlying the entire story—words and tongues, messages and languages.
The way the Lord figures out what’s going on is something we see in much of the Old Testament. There’s a term called anthropomorphism. It means describing as having human attributes. We see it in verse 5: “The Lord came down to see the city and the tower, which mortals had built.” It’s almost like God had to use a ladder, or maybe take an escalator, to check out what those humans were up to.
This is an unpleasant discovery. Something about this doesn’t sit well. What could it be?
The story basically hinges on verse 6. “And the Lord said, ‘Look, they are one people, and they have all one language, and this is only the beginning of what they will do; nothing that they propose to do will now be impossible for them.’” Why is intervention needed? Why is the decision made to confuse their language, so they won’t understand each other?
Maybe the assumption that what humans “propose to do” will work out for the best needs to be questioned.
I am reminded of George Orwell’s 1984, in which conformity in service to the state is required. The government, overseen by a shadowy figure known as Big Brother, has four primary ministries. There is the Ministry of Peace, in charge of waging war. There is the Ministry of Plenty, running the economy and keeping the population poor and dependent. There is the Ministry of Love, in charge of arrest, torture, and execution to make sure folks stay in line.
Finally, as especially relevant to our story, there is the Ministry of Truth, which has as its purpose the spreading of propaganda and lies. One of its primary purposes is to take language and continuously remove any nuance of independent expression. We might add, cracking down on misinformation, however that’s defined. Three slogans encapsulate the effort: war is peace, freedom is slavery, ignorance is strength.
(Safe and effective. I am the science.)
I wonder if the drive for what we think of as “progress” is not also a factor. We think of economic success by figuring out at what rate the economy is growing. Growing more quickly is better than growing more slowly. It’s always about growing. Can’t enough be enough—at least, for a little while? The earth and our fellow creatures would thank us. How much do we care about them?
Rabbi Shai Held, a widely respected figure in Jewish thought, has spoken of the Tower of Babel as a “tower of uniformity,” saying its meaning concerns “the importance of individuals and the horrors of totalitarianism.” He expands on this idea, saying, “An inevitable consequence of uniformity is anonymity. If everyone says the same words and thinks the same thoughts, then a society emerges in which there is no room for individual tastes, thoughts, and aspirations or for individual projects and creativity. All difference is (coercively) erased.”
When we take all of that into consideration, the words “this is only the beginning of what they will do; nothing that they propose to do will now be impossible for them,” have an ominous sound.
Rabbi Held comments on something remarkable. No names are mentioned in the story “because there are no individuals. This is especially ironic (and tragic) in light of the people’s express wish to ‘make a name’ for themselves… When people are anonymous, they are reduced to insignificance. If no one is anyone in particular, then who cares what happens to them?”
Something else to understand is that by coming together in one place, the people have rejected the call of God to go forth throughout the world. After the flood, “God blessed Noah and his sons and said to them, ‘Be fruitful and multiply and fill the earth’” (Gn 9:1). It’s difficult to impose unity if your population is spread all over the place.
When the Lord imposes the punishment / blessing, all the work comes to a screeching halt. Building plans aren’t very useful if no one can read them!
I wonder, can we see this scattering of peoples and confusing of languages as acts of love? Here’s one more thought from Rabbi Held: “To try and eradicate human uniqueness is to declare war on God’s image and thus to declare war on God.” One of the age-old temptations of the human race is trying to put ourselves in the place of God—to idolize ourselves. That could manifest itself by idolizing a single person, or a single group: to idolize or obey a kind of “Big Brother.”
When we do that, we do violence to the beautiful and wondrous creation that each of us is. There is a Jewish saying, “To save one person is to save an entire world.” I’ve often thought about that. We live in our own world. It’s not that we ignore the rest of the world, but we are a world unto ourselves. Every single human has experiences of their own. We each have our own experiences of the divine. We are loved by Jesus in our own exclusive way.
The day of Pentecost in Acts 2 is seen as a reversal of Babel. There is a reunification of language, although it’s not done by human effort—it is not an achievement. It is a gift granted by the Spirit of God. “All of them were filled with the Holy Spirit and began to speak in other languages, as the Spirit gave them ability” (v. 4). The people are still speaking different languages, but they comprehend each other!
The language beyond all languages is the heavenly language.
We can see the Babel project as an endeavor to overstep our place, to overstep our boundaries. However, Brent Strawn who teaches at Duke Divinity School, has another perspective. Rather than a case of hubris, outrageous arrogance, it can be seen as a case of sloth, under-reaching what God has set out for us.
He says, “Maybe at those times when we aren’t one, it is because we’ve fallen short of making every effort to be what we are in Christ. Maybe when we aren’t one, instead of giving up on the unity that God desires and provides—maybe instead of refusing to believe in that unity when we don’t experience it—maybe we ought, instead, to grieve over it.”
It is right and proper and essential to grieve. It is necessary to lament.
“Grieve that we don’t have it, grieve that we aren’t yet one. Worry about it, wonder about it, and redouble—make that re-triple—our efforts, making every effort to maintain the unity of the Spirit in the bond of peace.”
In the book of Acts, St. Peter quotes the prophet Joel, “In the last days it will be, God declares, that I will pour out my Spirit upon all flesh” (v. 17). People will prophesy, see visions, dream dreams. Signs will appear in the heaven and on earth: “blood, and fire, and smoky mist. The sun shall be turned to darkness and the moon to blood, before the coming of the Lord’s great and glorious day” (vv. 19-20).
It sounds like a 70s disaster movie!
But wait for the finale. “Then everyone who calls on the name of the Lord shall be saved” (v. 21). Calling on the name of the Lord.
We are freed from the compulsion to make a name for ourselves. We are liberated, knowing that our Lord has cherished and named us like none other in the cosmos. It is a name of endearment, known only to the Holy One.
Let all of you understand, you are the child of God. There can be no better name than that. That is the one language we speak.
 Rabbi Shai Held, “Tower of Uniformity: What Really Went Wrong at Babel,” Christian Century 134:23 (8 Nov 2017), 12.
 Held, 13.
 Brent Strawn, “Unity, Diversity, and the Holy Spirit,” Journal for Preachers 40:4 (2017), 13.