Genesis 11 introduces the story of the Tower of Babel, the mythos behind the world’s many languages. While I am familiar with this story, as a secular person and 90’s kid, I must admit that I also associate this phrase with the Tower of Babble, the desert hideout in Carmen Sandiego Word Detective. (Wow, now I know why I grew up to be an English teacher. I identified parts of speech for fun.)
As an English teacher, I also know that failure and/or inability to communicate is one of the most frustrating aspects of life. So what exactly did humanity do to warrant this scattering of a previously monolingual culture?
Well, this tower was supposed to “reach unto heaven” (11:4). But the omniscient God finds out about this plan.
Speaking of omni- words, one interesting piece of diction is that the Lord “came down” (11:5) to see Babel. This seems to imply a movement through space, but I thought God was supposed to be everywhere? This might be idiomatic phrasing, but, again, it manages to gives God more human-like qualities while also emphasizing his higher level of being.
Once he sees the city, he utters,
“Behold, the people is one, and they have all one language; and this they begin to do: and now nothing will be restrained from them, which they have imagined to do.” (11:6)
One interesting challenge I’ve found in analyzing the Bible is deciphering tone. In American culture, being able to achieve anything you can imagine is (generally) a good thing, the kind of aphorism teachers put on their classroom walls. But God apparently is not praising them: given what he does to them, more like looking down in anything ranging from dismay to anger. Ever since Adam and Eve, God doesn’t trust humanity not to use this kind of power for evil. He doesn’t mention this explicitly, but God’s need for humanity’s “restraint” — shadows of original sin and the need for parental control — certainly are.
But I think that this Tower scared God: as an authority figure, he would see this is a direct challenge. The Earth is humanity’s domain; he gave it to them. But now they want to reach heaven? See what all the fuss is about? No way in heaven (pun intended) was he going to let that happen.
And the fascinating thing is — it would have worked.
Or at least God thought so. If the Tower of Babel wouldn’t have reached heaven, he wouldn’t have done anything to punish humanity. He admits “nothing will be restrained from them” because he knows humanity would be capable. And you know what? That’s pretty awesome, in both senses of the word. So 11:6 is my favorite line.
And so, God “confound[ed] their language” and “scattered them abroad” (11:7-8) thus bringing the first foreign language classes into existence. Clearly, one lesson here is that people can (or could) accomplish more united than apart. But there’s evidence that humanity already knew that when they started building the Tower.
“And they said, Go to, let us build us a city and a tower, whose top may reach unto heaven; and let us make us a name, lest we be scattered abroad upon the face of the whole earth.” (11:4)
The line “lest we be scattered abroad” mirrors exactly what God does. So is this a storytelling device, foreshadowing four lines in the future? Or does this mean that humanity was aware of the consequences of trying to reach heaven, but tried anyway? This makes them even more rebellious than previously thought, even hinting at a mutiny. Now this is interesting. I’d like to have a been a fly on the wall at the Babel planning meetings (well, before all the languages got mixed up).
Having different languages is part of what separates humanity, but also what makes a multicultural and interesting global society. And this sort of multicultural world gave rise to different religions, too. Ironic, i’n’t it? So perhaps it makes sense that Bible literalists are stereotypically monolithic: you would want to be, if multiculturalism was seen as a punishment — and a temptation to think differently from your neighbor.