Seeding the Nations: Babel as an Etiology of Human Flourishing
[This is my term paper for the first semester of “Old Testament Interpretation”. At the bottom is a link to a pdf with proper footnotes, but here is just the text with the references listed. I like to think of it as a cross between academic writing and a sermon, hopefully not compromising the integrity of either of those disciplines.]
One of the most fascinating (but also most tyrannical) reactions to linguistic diversity is the legend of the Egyptian pharaoh who wanted to find out what the universal primeval language of humanity was. So, he took some infants and had them raised in isolation, nursed by mute servants. Who tells this legend determines what language the kids end up speaking. Sometimes it is Latin. Sometimes it is Hebrew. Sometimes it is Sumerian. What actually happens if you put a bunch of kids together with no prior systematic linguistic input is that they invent Nicaraguan Sign Language, but that is a story for another paper. The point is that language has power, and being the speakers of the “original language” could lend you some power of antiquity. English speakers even today appeal to “the Queen’s English” or “the language of Shakespeare” in an attempt to make their own language superior to the inevitable changes and mutations of linguistic variation. Is that what the Tower of Babel story in Genesis 11:1-9 is doing? Establishing Hebrew as the language of God’s people? Perhaps. But more than that, the story establishes God’s omnipotence and benevolence over humanity towards the flourishing of creation over the face of the entire earth, and it establishes the importance of community: a thread which runs throughout the biblical texts.
Upon first read of the entire passage, Genesis 11:1-9 seems like a complete unit and a fairly straightforward folkloric etiology of linguistic diversity from the Yahwist source. However, if the gaze is widened to even the immediately preceding passage of the so-called Table of Nations from (mostly ) the Priestly source, the integrity of this purpose becomes more questionable. Genesis 10 lists the descendants of Noah and the clans and tribes descended from them, each with their own language and nation, a repeated refrain in multiple translations (e.g. JPS , NRSV ) throughout the Table of Nations (vv. 5, 20, 31). The linguistic history implied in the Table of Nations makes more sense than the cataclysmic change of Babel, given how we (in the modern field of linguistics) understand language change and diversification to occur. Languages are not (usually) the product of a single generation, but change over time as peoples grow and spread and communication patterns shift . In fact, this is the origin of “Semitic” languages as a term: the language family descended from family of Shem . The genealogy of Shem follows the Tower of Babel narrative in Genesis 11. And the Table of Nations, removing the Tower of Babel narrative, fits in with the plot of the Abram/Abraham story neatly, with the genealogies slotting right in to the beginning of his tale. So why is the Babel story here in the arc of the Genesis narrative as a whole? It does not quite make sense to explain how each of the descendants of Noah had their own language, since that was already established. Do we need another language diversity etiology? Maybe. Maybe including both the Table of Nations and the Tower of Babel is a redactor’s way of reconciling the Priestly and Yahwist narratives. And maybe we do need the Tower of Babel explanation for why people can never quite understand each other fully. For why there is always confusion. Maybe it is not about language. Maybe we need an explanation for the nomadic goat-herding patriarchs’ wariness of urbanization. What then is to be made of the narrative of the Tower of Babel?
The first contextualizing verse in chapter 11 takes some explaining, given the immediately preceding and following acknowledgment of multiple languages and nations. “The whole earth had one language. ” But the text just said that every descendant nation of Noah had its own language! One explanation could be that the Babel story is a capstone or bridge story between the primeval history stories (Genesis chapters 1-11) and the patriarch cycles in the rest of Genesis. So, despite its dischronological location, it fits better in the long arc of the narrative to end with a bang than a gradual spread (despite the probable historical/linguistic accuracy of the gradual model!). Other Ancient Near East literature contains similar dischronologies for plot/narrative reasons (as does modern literature, e.g. flashbacks).
If Genesis already had a perfectly good, historically accurate etiology of linguistic diversity in the Table of Nations, why did the Babel story make the canonical cut? Besides being a high narrative point to end on, the story tackles the basic questions that humans have wrestled with throughout the primeval history of Genesis. In 11:2 we see the people migrating to this “plain in the land of Shinar” (a.k.a. Babylonia ). They are moving with some relationship to the direction “east.” Whether they are moving eastwards or from the east is ambiguous in the Hebrew text, and a question best left to archaeology and possibly genetics. The trend for early humans was to move northwards and eastwards away from the continent of Africa , but depending on whether this story is remembering that very early time or a later time when a search for arable land was underway is up for interpretation. Literarily, canonically within the Hebrew Bible tradition, “east” recalls the direction towards which humanity was expelled from the Garden of Eden in Genesis 3:24 . Perhaps the people have been wandering since then (despite the intervening great flood of Noah) in the unexplored lands east of Eden.
In vv. 3-4 we get to the heart of the people’s goal. They want to make building materials, bricks, in order to build a city and a tower . Why? So that they will “not be scattered abroad over the face of the earth.” The people stop their migration and invent civilization so that they can make bricks and make a tower. The first part of that seems to be actually a not bad historical representation of how cities got started. People settled on plains with arable land and diversified skill sets so some people farmed while others made bricks. The more interesting question is not how historically accurate is this folkloric story, but what is it saying about humanity, and the original storytellers’ conception of humanity. For that, we look to the reasons for building the city and the tower.
First, there is a description of what the tower is supposed to be: a tower “with its top in the heavens” . Given the cosmology that makes Noah’s flood possible, with a solid firmament not that high up there, this probably was not meant as hyperbole. Why do the people want to do this? For the fame! They want to “make a name ” for themselves. What does that mean? It is interesting that this comes right on the heels of the Table of Nations, listing all the names of the tribes and nations. Perhaps this desire to make a name for themselves is another indication that the Tower of Babel story is not in chronological order with the rest of the primeval history. Or that the Yahwist and Priestly sources were not originally composed to be placed adjacently.
What are the connotations in the surrounding canon of making or having a name or fame? In Genesis 6:1-4 , there is the story of the Nephilim, the result of the illicit union of angel and human. The Nephilim are known in the NRSV as “warriors of renown”, translating a Hebrew idiom “great men of the name”. The Nephilim and their illicit-by-nature birth were one of the direct causes for the necessity of the cleansing by the Great Flood of Noah, so calling attention to yourselves using a phrase reminiscent of an inherently illicit being might not be the wisest move.
What of the other reason for building the tower? So that they will “not be scattered”. On one level, it makes sense: The people have seen great trauma in the few generations of creation. Angels coming down and fathering the generation of Nephilim. God almost wiping out humanity and all the rest of animal life too. It is no wonder that humans want to huddle together and try to build a city and a tower. But the narrative, and the deity, have other plans. “Scattered” is the word that is picked up again and again in the passage for what ends up happening to the people, despite their wishes.
In the tradition of Yahwist stories, in verse 5 the deity comes on down to see what the humans are getting up to . This is reminiscent of the deity coming down to see what’s up in the garden of Eden after Adam and eve have eaten the fruit of the forbidden tree. The irony here is that the tower was supposed to reach up to the heavens, and the deity still has to come down to see what’s happening. But leaving that aside, what is the deity’s reaction to the people’s efforts to make a name for themselves and to gather themselves together? The LORD speaks aloud his thoughts in verse 6: the people are all united as one with one language, they can accomplish anything they propose! This is not a good thing, to the LORD’S mind. Is the deity threatened by the humans’ ambition? Perhaps. But even in their great ambition, the humans’ tower was not so great that the deity did not still have to “come down” from the heavens. It seems that there is something else to be worried about than humans building too tall of a tower.
What does God propose to do about this problem, of the people being able to accomplish anything they propose (such as it is a problem)? Using plural pronouns, God proposes to go down and confuse the language of the people, so that the people will not be able to understand each other . God does not propose to destroy the city or the tower. The problem is not necessarily with the things they have built (I mean, they did not really reach up into the heavens after all!). The problem is that these building projects have artificially created places for humanity to huddle together as scared survivors of a disaster. The people are afraid of being scattered, they said. And they are using all the power of their one language to prevent that scattering from happening. God has other plans. God takes away the crutch of a shared language, confuses that one shared thing, so that they will not understand each other. God does not destroy their work. But in making communication difficult, God forces (or perhaps…encourages) the people to scatter.
And this scattering is what happens in verse 8. “The LORD scattered them abroad from there over the face of all the earth. ” This is the very thing the people were afraid was going to happen! Why did this punishment happen? The verse ends with, “and they left off building the city. ” Perhaps this is an indictment of the urban Canaanites and the Babylonians on behalf of the nomadic shepherd Hebrew peoples. Leave off building cities: the LORD does not want that! But what of the scattering? The very thing they did not want to happen, God makes happen. Is God just making their worst nightmare a reality as a punishment for hubris and overreaching? No. Verse 9 repeats the point, explaining: this place, on the plain of Shinar where they built the tower, was called Babel, because the LORD confused the language of the whole earth . The Hebrew word for “confuse” balal sounds like “Babel” . The second clause in verse 9 is perhaps more important for understanding the “why” of the deity’s actions: “and from there the LORD scattered them abroad over the face of all the earth. ” The people are no longer just on the plain of the land of Shinar. This is not just the founding of Babylonia, not just an etiology of one nation that we’re talking about. The people are no longer huddled together in shock after the destructive trauma of the Great Flood. The people have been scattered over the face of the whole earth as a farmer might scatter seeds over an entire field. The earth has been sown with humanity, a diversity of humanity, a diversity that can now flourish over the entire earth and not stagnate. God did not want humanity to just redo the badness of the age of the Nephilim when men and angels and their offspring were all trying to “make names for themselves” and rot with evil that required the cleansing of the Great Flood. The deity was giving humanity a chance at new and flourishing life!
What is the point of language? What is the point of confusing languages? The point of language is to communicate, to bring people together. The point of confusing languages is to force people to scatter, to seed the earth with humans, to encourage them to grow and spread. The first command given (Genesis 1:28) was to be fruitful and multiply . By staying all in one place, the fruitfulness was stifled. The multiplying was stopped. God forced humanity’s hand by making it so groups could not communicate and had to spread out. Humanity feared the change that scattering would bring. But scattering was not meant to be feared. Scattering is what a farmer does to seeds. Scattering is what is needed for humanity to grow. Scattering is what is needed to fulfill the first and original purpose of creation. The people feared scattering as a punishment. But what if God meant scattering as a blessing, as a fulfillment of creation? What if The Tower of Babel is not about language at all, but about scattering the earth with the seeds of humanity?
What happens at Babel? People stop being able to understand each other. There then is not the unity of humanity that there was at the beginning of the primordial age. Now comes the long arc of history where humanity must learn the right from the wrong and what it means to listen to God. The people must learn what it means to be community even when they do not have the magic unity of the same words as each other. We are still working on this, trying for that famed, (forbidden?) unity. The centuries-long work of linguists and translators to painstakingly build up the body of knowledge that allows for communication between minority languages and the linguistic giants parallels the goals of the original Tower of Babel. We are still trying to huddle ourselves together rather than grow and flourish upon the whole earth. Is there another way to create unity of community that is not restrictive?
The convention in a Christian interpretation is to immediately overturn the consequences of Babel with an appeal to the Pentecost event of Acts 2. The confusion of languages and misunderstandings is “rectified” by the “speaking in tongues” and everyone hearing the gospel in their own language. The scattered diaspora of the Jewish community is gathered together to hear of the resurrected messiah and receive the gift of the holy spirit. What a miracle! But this interpretation of Babel as a story that has been overturned in the apostolic age does not quite make sense in a world where ~7,000 languages still exist. The people at Babel were afraid of disunity. Is the unity of creation the purpose of creation? Yes. And no. The unity that is the purpose of creation is the unity of being in the will of God. The unity of doing the will of God. This is the unity of Pentecost. Not that every being is the same, but that all are united in purpose. The scattering feared at Babel is the scattering of aloneness, not disunity.
Language at minimum is descriptive of what is. When it comes to describing the divine, the numinous, the spiritual, the words can fail to capture nuance or complexity. Language can be used to coerce, to force people to think and behave in certain ways that dominate people or parties desire. Language has such power. And perhaps it was this power that required humans to learn how to handle before we could be gathered together in unity again. Perhaps we had to learn how to be community before we could have the possibility of universal communication. The real power of language comes when a community uses language creatively. To define new ideas, and thus create them. To suggest new metaphors for things that cannot be defined easily, thus expanding people’s conception of e.g. divinity. Perhaps Babel is the true planting of humanity over the face of the earth, and the entirety of scripture is the story of us growing and learning and flourishing. We still speak a variety of languages. But we have the possibility of overcoming the confusion and creating a unity of community that is not opposed to God, but working with God towards the flourishing of creation.
Attridge, Harold W. Harpercollins Study Bible. Harpercollins, 2006.
Brueggemann, Walter. Genesis: a Bible Commentary for Teaching and Preaching. Atlanta: John Knox Press, 1982.
Day, John. From Creation to Babel Studies in Genesis 1-11. London: Bloomsbury, 2013.
Jewish Study Bible. Place of publication not identified: Oxford University Press, 2015.
McWhorter, John. The Power Of Babel: a Natural History of Language. London: Cornerstone Digital, 2011.
Ostler, Nicholas. Empires of the Word: a Language History of the World. London: Harper Perennial, 2005.
Sherman, Phillip Michael. Babels Tower Translated: Genesis 11 and Ancient Jewish Interpretation. Leiden: Brill, 2013.