Genesis 11:1-9 tells of an enormous building that the first ancestors of the human race began to build, tall enough to reach the heavens. When the work was still only half finished, the Lord, offended, gave a severe punishment by causing confusion in their language. Stunned and confused, the frustrated builders abandoned the project, left the city and went their different ways speaking their own language. This is a story of the birth of different languages in the world.
Two stories in one
The story appears abruptly in the text, following the account of the children of Noah, through whom the ancient people dispersed, and new languages and distinct nationalities emerged.
If we carefully study the story, two stories emerge, blended by a master storyteller. You can pick this up from verse 4 where it says that the people built a city; but the following verses say they built a tower. The project from v.4 is to build a city that would be famous, and the construction of a tower that would reach the heavens and not let the people be scattered. God descends twice from the heavens: first, to see the construction (v.5) and, second, to cause disorder in their language (v.7). Two punishments follow: the confusion of language (v.7) and the dispersal over the face of the earth (v.8). Two stories have been sown together into a single story.
A sin that was not a sin
Nothing is said in the text as to what the sin was. Some say it was the sin of pride—building a tower to reach the heavens—but in oriental language this means ‘very high’ rather than an act of defiance against God.
Archaeology identifies the tower as a ziggurat, a religious building, a stepped pyramid of up to seven storeys, with the seventh floor dedicated to a god. These were a common feature in Mesopotamian cities. In this case, the city of Babylon is implied in the name ‘Babel’.
The story had a long and complex history before it ended up in its place in Genesis. Some points of agreement have emerged. First, there are two stories, both unconnected to Genesis, with one story expressing admiration and enthusiasm for the construction of a city, symbol of civilisation and human progress.
The other story recounts the efforts of a people who were faithful worshippers, in the building of a religious tower or ziggurat. Both stories came from Mesopotamia, probably Babylonia, because bricks burned under the sun were unknown in Palestine, where rocks were the main construction material, and bitumen; in Palestine mortar was the main sealing material (v.3). Both stories had a positive meaning without reference to punishment by God or confusion of languages.
Babylon was a prosperous, impressive, and beautiful centre at the heart of the ancient world. It was famous for its majestic buildings and hanging gardens. Within its walls dwelt many races of peoples, brought together by commerce. In many ways it was like one of our modern cities in its ethnic variety.
An especially breathtaking construction was its ziggurat, the tower that ‘reaches to the heavens’. Notable among these was Etemenanki, meaning the ‘foundations of the heavens and the earth’. This became the topic of many conversations of visitors to Babylon who took their awestruck tales to their homelands.
Stories about the city and its ziggurat soon became confused. Bedouin ancestors of the Jewish people observed the ways of the people of the city, including how they adored their gods. They thought the Babylonians acquired their great prosperity through the way they dominated their neighbouring peoples. And they felt contempt. They interpreted the kind of life in the great city, with its difficulties in communication due to diverse languages, as punishment from God. New interpretations were put on the stories about Babylon and what had once been considered an expression of faith was now interpreted as signs of idolatry and defiance.
Second stage of the story
As the story changed, it is now told about a group of people who decided to establish a city to make a name and earn glory and fame. But God intervened to cause disorder in language so they no longer understood each other.
This story is told in vv.1, 3a, 4ac, 6a, 7, 8b and 9a. The second story is about a group concerned about having to soon scatter and lose contact with each other, so they agree to build a tower so high it would be visible anywhere; it would reach the heavens. Again God descends to disperse them. The story is told in vv.2, 3b, 4bd, 5, 6b, 8a, and 9b.
Mockery of the city
In time the stories merged in the retelling by the desert dwellers who asserted their God was superior to the gods of other cities. The more powerful God of the nomads intervened to force the abandonment of the building. The legend was carried by this people when they arrived in Palestine and became integrated into their folklore.
Around 950 BCE, the Yahwist in the days of Solomon thought the Tower of Babel an appropriate sequel to Noah’s story. The Adam and Eve story showed the suffering of a conjugal community when it separated itself from God. The Tower of Babel story showed how a social and political community disintegrated when it deviated from God. The builders of the city and tower were no longer faithful (as at first stage), or idolatrous (as in second stage). In the third stage, these people disregarded God in their work. No society could survive or complete its tasks if God was disregarded in its projects, works, and activities.
Like but unlike Babel
While there are many complexities in the story of the Tower of Babel, this does not take away from the real value of God’s word, its message and meaning. Acts 3 shows the opposite of what happened at Babel. People working apart from God were confused in their language; at Pentecost they began an attempt to build a world according to God’s plan.
Today, all nations are attempting social and political reconstruction. But more often it is behind God’s back—so like Babel! Deceit, fraud, corruption, and misunderstanding mark such attempts. Only when personal interests (as in Babel), are left behind and guidance sought of the Holy Spirit (as in Pentecost), will we see the coming of justice, peace, harmony and social understanding. Then will we understand all people in our world ‘each in their own language’ (Acts 2:6).
Reference: Valdes, A A The Bible: Questions People Ask. Used with permission of Claretian Press.