What do you make of the Tower of Babel?

Monday, September 24, 2007


I was thinking about the concept of unity this morning. For now, we are all of different colour and creed, different languages and nationalities. The day will come when we will come to the Kingdom of God: as one people, with one creed, one King, one language.

Why then do we live in such differences right now? Does the Tower of Babel incident have anything to do with it? In light of the Kingdom of God, why would God want to frustrate human’s efforts to come together?

The account of the Tower of Babel is one of the most popular Sunday School stories. I am so familiar with it that it did not occur to me to ask questions. But I am now.

Genesis 11:1-9
1Now the whole earth used the same language and the same words.
........2 It came about as they journeyed east, that they found a plain
........in the land of Shinar and settled there.
....................3 They said to one another, "Come, let us make bricks and
................burn them thoroughly." And they used brick for stone,
................and they used tar for mortar.
..............................4 They said, "Come, let us build for ourselves a city,
........................and a tower whose top will reach into heaven, and
........................let us make for ourselves a name, otherwise we will
........................be scattered abroad over the face of the whole
........................earth."
........................................5 The LORD came down to see the city and the
................................tower which the sons of men had built.
...............................6 The LORD said, "Behold, they are one people, and
........................they all have the same language. And this is what
........................they began to do, and now nothing which they
........................purpose to do will be impossible for them.
......................7 "Come, let Us go down and there confuse their
................language so that they will not understand one another's
................speech."
...........8 So the LORD scattered them abroad from there over the face
........of the whole earth; and they stopped building the city.
9 Therefore its name was called Babel, because there the LORD confused the language of the whole earth; and from there the LORD scattered them abroad over the face of the whole earth.

First, a bit of exegesis. All along, Christians, from Sunday School teachers (I, included) to scholars have interpreted Gen 11:1-9 to be an account of the preposterous pride of human and the divine punishment for all such acts of arrogance and hubris. We have adopted v.4, “a tower whose top will reach into heaven” as key to the theme of the story: the human attempt to assert autonomy, attack heaven, and challenge God. Therefore God’s response was to frustrate their plans by separating them by languages, and thus discouraging anymore attempts to be better than God.

Lately, there have been some scholars who questioned the aspects of the traditional pride-and-punishment reading of the account and paid more attention to its theme of cultural origins on its own terms. I read Hiebert’s article “The Tower of Babel and the Origin of the Worlds Cultures” and here are some points to consider:

1) The theme of the story is about the origins of cultural difference and not about pride and punishment at all.

2) This story is explicitly about language: the existence of a single, uniform language spoken by all people. To emphasize this theme, the narrator repeats it in v.1 – “one language” and “one collection of words”. The key word “language” is used five times in the account and “words” once.

3) The motive of the people in the account is explicitly stated: their desire to stay in one place (v.2-4). They wanted cultural homogeneity of the human race.

4) The word “pride” was never used by the narrator. The idea was inferred from a single image, the tower with its top in the sky, which is only for the people to stay in one place. It is not the narrator’s center of attention. It is mentioned only twice and only in stock phrase, “a city and a tower” (v.4, 5). The tower is therefore only an aspect of the cityscape the narrator describes, rather than the primary object of attention. In addition, it fell out of the narrative entirely in the second half of the account. The description “its top in the sky” is an ancient Near Eastern cliché for height and it implies neither an attempt to scale the heavens nor an arrogant revolt against divine authority.

5) On the phrase “let us make a name for ourselves”, a thorough survey of biblical usage will show that making a name is never used to describe self-centeredness, vanity or insubordination. In fact, it is a noble venture, essentially the act of establishing an identity that will endure. The people wanted to establish a common identity, which is closely related to the larger goal of remaining together to preserve a single culture. As such, the phrase expresses no conceit or defiance but an impulse toward cultural homogeneity at the heart of the human project.

6) Verse 5 is the story’s turning point – God came down to see the human project. He did not come to respond to the tower at all but the cultural homogeneity of its builders.

7) Verse 6 basically is where God said, “Looks like from what they have accomplished already, it looks like their plans to remain one people with one language in one place will succeed,” which spurred him to confuse the language, the primary markers of culture.

8) God diversified culture in order to disperse the human population, as opposed to the people wanting to stay in one place – “Be fruitful, and multiply, and fill the earth” (9:1-7). From the data of the story, God’s response to counteract the human desire for homogeneity by introducing heterogeneity is without any negative connotations or consequences. It is his will for diversity and he “scattered the people for their own benefit” (Ibn Ezra, Commentary, 143).

Now comes the pertinent question I am asking right from the start of this discourse, why did God introduce diversity and pluralism into the human race? Would life be better and fairer if we spoke one language and carried one look? Would there be massacres and genocide, discrimination and prejudice?

But then again, can a world that is homogenous in attributes be any different? Would there be less violence and evil?

Regrettably, I think not.

pearlie
Picture by Rodolfo Clix

Theodore Hiebert, “The tower of Babel and the origin of the world's cultures,” Journal of Biblical Literature 126 no 1 Spr (2007): 29-58.

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11 comment(s)

  1. The day will come when we will come to the Kingdom of God: as one people, with one creed, one King, one language

    The day I LONG for and the day I try and work a little toward in my small say.
    Susan

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  2. Hmmm..tat's interesting!! But I wonder how Hierbert arrived such conclusions through his exegesis. It sounded that he emphasised at the grammatical level of the exegesis that reach his conclusions of his interpretation. I'm not sure I should agree with his conclusions. Looking at the context and the big picture of Torah and the author who compiled the TOrah, to me the message of Gen 11 sounded more towards pride and that led God frustrated it. It was at Gen 9, God had thought that human has learnt a lesson and would not sin. But again in Gen 11, He saw human still never learn a lesson and getting worst until they think they can become God through unity of languages and culture. That's why GOd frustrated it to get worse further like the Noah's flood incident. Then God proceeded by choosing ABraham which is his next plan to bring people to Him. So, using biblical theology approach, through Abraham, we are now considered the Israelites through Christ who is the descendant of Abraham. So, now, we are actually as Christians are in one nation through Christ but in different skin colour, culture and languages. We are actually experiencing the presence of the kingdom of God as one people, with one creed, one King, one language through Christ;)

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  3. Susan,
    And from that day I can get hugged everyday!! lol

    God bless! (i've got 4 cents in the box now ;)

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  4. Chee Keat,
    God had thought that human has learnt a lesson and would not sin. But again in Gen 11, He saw human still never learn a lesson
    Would that statement be in contradiction to an all-knowing God?

    Could it be that Gen 11:1-9 is a division between primeval history and the history of Israel as we know it?

    Your biblical theology approach seems to me pointing to Gen 11 as the origin of cultures, not as pride-and-punishment: first there is one language, then there is a breaking into different cultures. From one culture, God chose his special people. From that people, God became incarnate, bring people back into one people and one language in Christ. Make sense? :)

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  5. "Would that statement be in contradiction to an all-knowing God?"

    Not sure that's the right question to ask - using dogma systematic theological proposition to impose on the theological intentional messages of torah. Perhaps shouldn't we ask: would that statement be in contradiction to the theology of Torah - all-knowing God if that's the emphasis of Torah theology?!! Anyway, it sounds quite a philosophical question which requires lots of time to think and study for me. So, "ONe culture-to multiple cultures - one culture in Christ" perhaps could be the possible answer although I would want to see how author exegete the passage. But also, I dun think there's anything wrong to say "pride of one culture - punished by dividing the culture - finally unite in one culture through Christ's obedience" although that's my preferance interpretation using the dominant blessing-cursing principles in TOrah theology. Again, one would need to question: which interpretation is favoured or intended by the Torah authors or compilers ? So, looks like need to do a thesis on this of Gen 11....- hmm.. prob need to think of doing DTheo in future, hee hee;);)

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  6. Not sure that's the right question to ask - using dogma systematic theological proposition to impose on the theological intentional messages of torah.
    hmm .. why not? I don't think we should segregate them. We only put them in different frameworks to help us to understand God. God is still God however we try to understand him. All these should come together and still stand true.

    :) I am not saying that you are wrong in taking the traditional interpretation, taken to be since the Church Father's time I think. I just thought this is quite plausible because upon reading their explanation in exegesis including comparing it to the whole message of Genesis, I find them quite convincing. But then again, I am no OT expert :) I have sent you the articles, got them? Take a read and let me know what you think.

    God bless!

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  7. "Hmm .. why not? I don't think we should segregate them. We only put them in different frameworks to help us to understand God."

    Ayyy...i back to differ. I think we should ask the right question when we do literal criticism on the text. Otherwise, it juz for the sake of argumentative purpose that trying to suit our curiosity needs. It's like some of my friends asking me, "Who is Cain's wife in the Bible?"; "Why Bible is silent about Cain's wife?". Okay, shall read the article then...Hai...shouldn't have so busy body responding to ur blog. Now, have to do homework. Realise not easy to be a theologian. Hee hee;)

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  8. I think we should ask the right question when we do literal criticism on the text.
    ;) i think i am asking the right question.

    It's like some of my friends asking me, "Who is Cain's wife in the Bible?"; "Why Bible is silent about Cain's wife?".
    If it is about the questions being genuine. If your friends are genuinely asking, then it is valid and answers are to be provided. And my question is genuine. ;)

    shouldn't have so busy body responding to ur blog. Now, have to do homework. Realise not easy to be a theologian.
    But hey ... that is how we learn, and blogging has been a blessing to me in learning, both in myself as I articulate what I have thought through the day, in discussion with the others and in checking other minds. You should get going on your blog!

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  9. And we are sharpening our minds, that is good :)

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  10. 'God had thought that human has learnt a lesson and would not sin. But again in Gen 11, He saw human still never learn a lesson
    Would that statement be in contradiction to an all-knowing God?'

    okla...i tink if u read the whole context of my statement or argument, m not pointing to challenge whether God is all knowing or not and I dun think my point is leading towards God is not all knowing. I tink my challenge was more on because of human pride rebellion, God punished by dispersing them into different race ..based on blessings and cursing principles. It juz I felt u pik my statement out of context and throw a theological ques fault on me...juz felt like my non Christian friend picked fault in the bible to throw at me. so, i need to defend. Otherwise, I have to write slowly and think cautiously of what i said to post the blog which may take lots of time.

    anyway, thanks for the article u sent. haf read them through, perhaps u r right, this could be the alternative interpretation that is worth to be considered;)

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  11. Out of context, eh? Hmmm ... I get what you mean but it is just that I am taking the whole picture of who God is, and in this case his onmiscience to question your view. I am not asking IF God is omniscient, I say that he is and how then can that statement you make it true.

    Anyway, let's not get on and on about this. Haha ... we have not even sat down before to do this and if we do I think your wife(to-be) and my husband will be thinking what is these 2 mad people arguing about (and they seem to be enjoying it!) hahaha

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