In Genesis 11, the last chapter of its opening ‘primeval history’ (an oxymoron) section, there’s the story of the Tower of Babel. Why does it appear here? In 587 BCE, the remaining southern Israelite kingdom, like its northern counterpart previously, was defeated and most of its people taken into exile in בָּבֶ֫ל (babel) which is the Hebrew word for Babylon. In Genesis 11:9, however, the writer/editor engages in a bit of word play. Thinking about the babble of different languages, he associates ‘Babel’ with בָּלַל (balal) meaning to mix or confuse, but I suspect that he didn’t really take this far-fetched suggestion seriously. Word play is the name of the game.
While the exiled Israelites were in Babylon, they would have seen one of the wonders of the ancient world, the Ziggurat, or Temple of the God Marduk, which was around 100 metres high, had three great staircases, and an imposing temple at the top. There, the heavens met the earth, and the God Marduk his subjects. The Babylonians would have believed that Marduk had utterly defeated the Israelite’s God Yahweh, whose Temple in Jerusalem had been reduced to dust and ashes. The Babylonians therefore, to quote 11:4, had “made a name for themselves“, at the expense of Yahweh and his people.
After 70 years, however, as many of the Israelites as wanted to, were allowed to return to what now became known as Judea, and to rebuild their Temple to Yahweh in Jerusalem. The Babylonians, and therefore their God Marduk had, in their turn, been defeated by the Persians. This story about the ill-fated Tower of Babel, then, pokes fun at the Babylonians’ ill-founded triumphalism, which had been so humiliatingly demolished.
As mentioned above, this story looks at the puzzling fact that the world had many different peoples in it with different languages, and offers an ‘explanation’ for this. Claiming that the name “Babel” comes from the word for ‘mixed’ or ‘confused’, allows the story teller to paint a picture of Yahweh ‘mixing’ up the languages of the tower’s builders, so that in the resulting ‘confusion’ they had to stop their work. But why should that have been an issue for Yahweh?
In the myths of the ancient near east, there is a recurring theme of the gods becoming upset because humans are beginning to get a bit above themselves. They make such a raucous din with their unruly behaviour that the gods can hardly get peace to sleep. And here they’ve even begun to “build a tower with its top in the heavens“. They’re invading Yahweh’s territory, perhaps with a view to ‘calling the shots’. Enough was enough! Humans, according to Psalm 8, were made “a little lower than the angels“, and it was time to put them back in their proper place.
Some wit once remarked that if only humans hadn’t tried to climb higher than the skies, things mightn’t have ended the way they did. There’s an aspect of human psychology which surfaces when people are asked why they want to cross the Antarctic, or climb life-threatening mountains, The reason often is – because they’re there, and because we can. Sometimes that’s fine, but at other times alarm bells should ring.
Why are we mining and burning fossil fuels? Because they’re there, and they’re warming our homes, but also now our planet. Why did we smash the atom? Because we could, and we’re producing energy that lights our cities, but also stockpiling nuclear weapons that can destroy our world. Genesis 3 would say that ‘our eyes have been opened, and we’ve become like gods, knowing good and evil’. We need to learn how and when to call a halt, to leave the fossil fuels where they are, and to destroy the weapons of mass destruction, before we destroy ourselves, or hand on to our children a planet struggling, and perhaps failing, to survive.
The Greeks had an equivalent myth, that of Icarus, whose father made him wings of feathers glued on with wax, and taught him how to fly. He warned him not to fly too near the sun, but Icarus ‘could’ fly higher, and so he ‘did’ fly higher. The wax melted, the boy fell to the ocean, and sank into its depths. The wings of Icarus, the tower of Babel – we can’t say we that the ancients haven’t warned us.