This story begins by stating that “the whole earth had a common language and a common vocabulary”, which is a splendid example of ‘never let the facts get in the way of a good story’ since we’re told, in the previous chapter, that the nations had been “separated into their lands, every one according to its language”! But let’s leave that be, and just enjoy this amusing tale. Why was it included, in the 5th century BCE, in the Book of Genesis? The reason has to do with the recent return to Judea of a remnant of Israelites from exile in Babylon.
By 587 BCE, the Babylonians devastated Jerusalem, destroyed its Temple, and took the vast majority of surviving Israelites into captivity. Here’s another “solution to the Jewish problem” which, thankfully, failed in its aim. It must have seemed, however, as if the Israelites had indeed been wiped out and, with the destruction of the temple, their God as well. But the Ancient Near East was volatile and, by 538 BCE, the Babylonians had been smashed by the Persians, who allowed Israelites who so wished, to return to Judea to rebuild Jerusalem and its Temple.
This story is a satirical ‘yah-boo’ to shattered Babylonian pretentiousness. Once again, facts mustn’t hinder a good story. In the language of the Babylonians, “bab-ili” meant “gate of God” but, to the Hebrew editors, “bab-ili” sounded like the Hebrew word בָּלַל (balal), meaning “to mingle, mix, confuse, confound”, which suggested a good story line. The Babylonians had pyramid shaped temples called ziggurats, with storied layers culminating, close to the heavens, in a ‘meeting place’ with their god Marduk. Now, rather than the Jewish Temple, it’s the Babylonian ziggurat that’s going to get its comeuppance.
We’re told the Babylonians wanted “to make a name for themselves”, by building a tower “with its top in the heavens”. With a finger-hold in the realm of the gods, they’d be able to call some of the shots. The Jewish God Yahweh, however, gets wind of something going on, and says to his Divine Council, “let’s go down to see” what’s happening. Divine Council members were called (Genesis 6) “sons of god”, which is what the Babylonians aspired to become. But in verse 5 there’s a reminder they were only “sons of man”, about to be put decisively in their place. Yahweh, to hinder their ability to work together, made them suddenly babble in different languages and, for good measure, “scattered them across the face of the entire earth”. Yah-boo indeed!
What we have here, is a well-crafted, good fun, ‘get our own back’ story. It echoes a common motif in Canaanite and Mesopotamian myth, of the gods making humans do the world’s necessary ‘donkey work’, but not anticipating the likelihood of their misbehaving, their wanting to get above themselves, and even to replace the gods themselves. The ‘downshot’ of this, for humans, was punishment by plague, pestilence, famine and, finally, universal flood. What lesson does it teach?
The Greeks wrote about Phaethon who talked his father, the Sun God, into allowing him to drive the solar chariot across the sky. He lost control, risked setting the world ablaze, and had to be zapped with a paternal thunderbolt. There was also Icarus, whose father made him wings fixed on with wax, and warned him not to go too near the sun. But Icarus could go high, and did go high, and ended down, drowned in the sea. These Hebrew editors tell us about the presumptuous aspirations symbolised by the Tower of Babel and how, after divine intervention, to quote Shelley, “Round the decay of that colossal wreck, boundless and bare, the lone and level sands stretch far away”. As it says in Proverbs 16:18, “Pride leads to destruction, and arrogance to downfall”. We have been graphically warned.