You know that odd little narrative in Genesis where God scatters humanity all over the world just because they build a city with a massive tower (Genesis 11:1-9)? I am starting to realize just how much this story may have to say for the modern American church. I think the story may be as prophetic for us as it was for its original audience. After all, America is not the only empire which places its trust in skyscrapers and all that such towers may represent.
Through creative storytelling, the author of the Babel episode communicates a vision for the recently exiled Israel which is theological (i.e. a true basis unity under YHWH), ethical (i.e. unwillingness to adhere to corrupt imperial standards) and missional (i.e. motivation to avoid hegemony and remember the promise to Abraham). The response by YWHW need not be angered punishment. It may actually serve as a reminder of the folly of pride and the dangers of self-sufficiently. It may actually be a reorientation of an empire not unlike Egypt or Babylon.
Creativity in Genesis 11:1-9
The Tower of Babel story might be the most tightly woven work of rhetorical artistry in the Bible. In this brief text, the rhetorical devices such as repetitions of speech, mirroring parallelism, ironic wordplay, and alliteration are creatively employed—you just have to know a little Hebrew to catch most of them. Here is some of the stuff going on:
- The text is mirroring itself—the opening verses (where the people talk) match the closing verses (where Yahweh talks) in vocabulary and theme (e.g. “let us”, “one language” etc.). But when Yahweh speaks, Yahweh’s intent humorously shows the folly of the people’s desires. The author uses 3 or 5 scenes depending on who you ask. Either way, Yahweh “goes down” into the city exactly in the middle of the ongoing events.
- The word Scatter (v. 4,8,9) connects what seems to be an isolated story to the previous story of humanity’s spreading (Again, Hebrew helps) in the story of Noah after the food. But in this case scattering is a good thing–it is the explicit will of Yahweh.
- The words, “that they may not understand” (v. 7) is better translated as shema’ or “that they may not listen to each other”. Walter Brueggeman says of this phrase, If the world is rendered ‘understand’ it may reflect only a verbal, semantic problem. But if translated as ‘listen’ the text may pose a covenantal, theological issue.”
So just from wordplay we can conclude that the author is implicitly stressing a few points:
- Yahweh is a God who enters in the middle of events (literally) and reveals the folly of human error with simply Yahweh’s speech.
- The scattering of the city is likely a good thing, rather than only punishment. This is backed-up by the fact that the fulfillment of the spreading at Babel may be the Abrahamic call in Gen. 12.
- The confusion at Babel is likely more than language—it is of understanding and unity.
The Tower of Babel Through the Eyes of the Oppressed
The Babel episode was likely written while the recently enslaved Israelites were in exile from Egypt. The best starting place in understanding the circumstances at Babel may be Israel’s slavery in Exodus 1-3. The echoes that connect the Gen. 11:1-9 and the opening chapters of Exodus are at least threefold:
- There are apparent negative connotations with the cities being built in both Genesis 11:5, 9 and Exodus 1:11.
- David Smith notices that Exodus 1:12 tells that the more the Israelites were oppressed, “the more they multiplied and spread, so that the Egyptians came to dread the Israelites.”
- There may be an intentional connection between the building materials in Ex. 1:14 and Gen. 11:3. The question must be asked: when the Babel story talks about building a tower with baked bricks, what images might run through the heads of exiled slaves who “built with bricks” the empire of Egypt (Ex. 1:14)?
Here is another wordplay: Babel not only means confusion, it is also the name Babylon. The Tower of Babel = the tower of Babylonian empire. An empire that overshadowed Israel as a powerful cultural adversary.
Two historical items that the Babel account provides is the location of “Shinar” (v. 1) and the centrality of the city’s tower. While the precise location of Shinar may be unknown, the city of Babel is likely the southern part of Mesopotamia.This location is important as it reveals the socio-religious context in which the story takes place.
The massive ziggurats of Mesopotamia are described by Walter Brueggemann as “a temple-tower presented as an imperial embodiment of pride and self-sufficiency.” These, massive towers were located in every important city in Babylon as they served not only an illustration of human achievement but also as religious structures for the worshipers of Marduk. In the Babylonian creation myth Enuma Elish, the making of Babylon and of its brick-made temple tower, called Esagil, is done by the gods as they affirm and celebrate Marduk as king. Gordon Wenham shows that this aspect of the narrative becomes important in the development of the empire as it was commonly thought that Babylonian temples must be rooted in “the netherworld” as their tops reached to the heavens.
While there may be many points of similarity between the ziggurats of Babylon and the Tower of Babel, it may not be safely concluded that Genesis 11:1-9 is wholly dependent on Enuma Elish or Babylonian religious tradition.
It is far more likely, it seems, that the folly seen in the Babel episode is better understood as Israelite commentary on the foolishness of the Babylonian empire who take pride and comfort in their tower’s magnificent brickwork and supernatural upholding. By likening the people of Babel to Israel’s cultural adversary, the biblical narrator might be using a(n) (a)historical episode as a means of both undermining the dominant rule of the empire while consequently reminding the people of Israel that they need not assimilate nor take refuge in any sort of pseudo-security like that which is found in the ziggurats of Marduk. With great power YHWH may at any time “go down” and “scatter” the arrogant and reveal the folly that underpins prideful human achievement.
The Tower of Babel episode has much to teach the modern church as the story may serve as a guide for its own trajectory.
As postmodernity intersects with and even consumes the structures and forms of the American Church, its communities must continue to adapt and innovate with great discernment. In this time of cultural transition, is the American Church open to reorientation by God (YHWH) in things theological, ethical, and missional? Or will our efforts for unity manifest only in a homogenous attempt to make a name for ourselves under a pseudo-unity grounded in fear and self-actualization?
At a more societal level, the Babel narrative may also serve to remind the Church to be mindful of assimilation into any system of fear-based empire. Like Israel in the shadow of Babylon, the American Church must be mindful in its loyalty to the “ziggurats” in society. In churches the question must be asked, on whose backs are our American Towers being built? What kinds of people are making all those bricks? Does our nation reflect more the Pharonic/Babylonian systems of empire or YHWH’s vision for societies to be liberated and diversified?
These questions brings up even more questions. Josiah Daniels wonders:
“Will churches continue to hire ethnic persons but remain wholly uninterested in their interpretive methods and opinions on race relations in the US?”
“Will churches continue to promote ‘quick fix’ justice projects while remaining at a safe distance, never completely involving themselves in projects that require sacrifice?”
“Will churches continue to ‘pray for peace’ yet promote violent and outmoded ways of attaining said peace?”
We live in an empire that offers ziggurats of its own:
- a salvific hope in certain political party or leader
- the comforting presence of wealth
- the dehumanization of those with disabilities who “do not fit” in our economic or social system
- the intentional use of slave-crafted products
- the desecration of the earth
In all of these ways, are we just adding more bricks to our tower? How much of a ideological difference is there between Babylon’s ziggurats and America’s skyscrapers? I suggest, little to none. But there is hope.
Our God is one who goes down into empires of theological, ethical, and missional error and scatters the people in their ideals and communication. Will the American Church desire or dread the chance for such reorientation? As we decide, we may have hope that within any divine reorientation, our God is the one who brings the hope of blessing, even in the midst of scattering.
What else do you see the Babel episode teaching our society and/or the Church?
 Brueggemann, Walter. Genesis. Edited by James Luther Mays, & Patrick D. Miller Jr. Louisville: John Knox Press, 1982. 234.
 Smith, Daivd. “What Hope after Babe: Diversity and Community in Gen 11:1-9; Exodus 1:1-14; Zeph 3:1-13 and Acts 2:1-3.” Horizons in Biblical Theology, 1996: 169-191. 180-181.
 Alexander, T.D. “Authorship of the Pentateuch.” In Dictionary of the Old Testament: Pentateuch, edited by T. Desmond Alexander, & David W Baker, 61-71. Dowers Grove: InterVarsity Press, 2003.
 Walter Brueggemann, Genesis. 98.
 Osborne, W. “Babel.” In Dictionary of the Old Testament: Pentateuch, edited by T. Desmond Alexander, & David W. Baker, 73-75. Donwers Grove: InterVarsity Press, 2003. 74.
 Wenham, Gordon J. Genesis 1-15. Edited by David A. Hubbard, Glenn W. Barker, & John D.W. Watts. Vol. 1. Waco: Word Books, 1982. 237.