An exegesis of The Tower of Babel

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Diversity: God’s Gift and the People of Shinar Who Rejected It
An Exegesis of Genesis 11:1-9

The story of the Tower of Babel is the final account of Primeval History in the Old Testament scriptures. Following Genesis 11:1-9, the narrative shifts to Ancestral History, introducing Abram as a descendant of Shem in Genesis 11:10-26, thereby setting the stage for the tale of Israel’s ancestor in the faith—their origin story. These few verses about Babel may at first seem awkwardly placed within the larger text. As Allen P. Ross points out, this story actually occurs before the diversification of nations and languages in Genesis 10; chapter 11 is the cause and chapter 10 the effect.[1] Thus, their arrangement in scripture is not chronological but thematic, an interpretation that is shared by Bill Arnold, who notes that the multi-ethnicity depicted in the Table of Nations seems to most naturally be a follow-up of the Babel narrative.[2] This is a deliberate and thematic arrangement to show what Arnold conveys as the “larger creation-uncreation-recreation theme of the Pentateuch.”[3] These nine verses, though brief, follow that pattern. God’s original mandate was diversity, but the people of Shinar rejected it, so he intervened to return humanity to that diverse state.

The People’s Plan to Make a Name For Themselves (11:1-4)
    The text states in verse 1 that all the earth had one language, though André LaCocque rightly cautions against understanding this to mean that the entire population of the world spoke the same common tongue.[4] Rather, this is intended to mean not that the words were necessarily identical but that the subject matter was; the people all had common content in their speech.[5] So, what was that common content? It seems impossible to say with absolute certainty, but I find myself agreeing with David Smith’s analysis of Christoph Uehlinger’s research, which explores the possibility of the one language as representative of subjugation, oppression, and forced assimilation.[6] Babel (read: Babylon) is reported throughout scripture to be Israel’s oppressor, (see 2 Kings 25:1-22 for a detailed account of their violent subjugation), enforcing Babylonian customs, education, and language on the Jews held captive. An explicit example of this is found in Daniel 1, after the capture of Judah, when Daniel and his friends are brought to the Babylonian king’s court to “be taught the literature and the language of the Chaldeans” (Daniel 1:4). Thus, though the one language mentioned in Genesis 11:1 may be defined in varying ways, it makes sense, when exploring Babylon in the larger biblical context, that it likely speaks to the idea that the people thought their language was the only one that mattered, and that everyone else should speak it.

Likewise, the phrase “the whole earth” needs interpretation as well; it is not meant to convey the literal entire population of the world but instead a particular subset of Noah’s descendants. The people’s ancestors, after the Flood, had been given specific directions from God to “abound on the earth and multiply in it” (Genesis 9:7);  this echoed God’s original mandate to the first humans, Adam and Eve, in Genesis 1:28. Arnold accurately notes that the canonical placement of the Babel story, then, is meant to portray the significance of the people’s sin; their building in the land of Shinar included an attempt to directly and deliberately defy God’s commands to scatter and multiply.[7] God intended for migration to continue, but they, as verse 2 shows, decided to stall it and settle in Shinar.

The plans to build a city and a tower so large in their new homeland that it would reach the heavens are noted in the text to be born of their intent to make a name for themselves (11:4). Some commentators, such as Ross, assert this shows the people’s extraordinary pride as they worked for security, unity, and fame.[8] In this vein, more concerning than that is the people’s inclination for evil; if they have their way, they will “ultimately nullify God’s purposes.”[9] This interpretation seems a bit incomplete; more will come on this matter in the following paragraphs that detail God’s response.

            For now, let us turn to the people’s building. The language used in verse 3 (“Come, let us…”) is exhortative and seems to be indicative of the people’s unanimity, evidenced earlier by their commonality in language. The text shows a contrast between bricks and stones and bitumen and mortar, which J. Richard Middleton notes can appear to simply be a narrative detail, for Mesopotamia (contrasted with Israel) had an absence of naturally occurring stone, which is why the people there historically built with brick.[10] However, is that all that is really going on there? Or might the text have a bit of irony to it, as Middleton suggests when he points out that the words for brick (lebēnāh) and stone (le’aben), as well as the words for bitumen (ḥēmār) and mortar (ḥomer), have incredibly similar sounds in the Hebrew language?[11] It seems the irony comes from pointing to the fact that the people “almost got it right—but not quite.”[12] Though it is unclear as to when the text was originally written, it is very likely Genesis as a whole was complete by the time of the Israelites’ exile in Babylon. Thus, the Hebrew-speaking Jews who had been forced to speak Babylon’s language would be well aware of the linguistic wordplay when they heard the text.

God’s Response to The People’s Plan (11:5-8)
The text notes in verse 5 that the Lord came down to see the city and tower, which implies that the tower was not large or tall enough for God to see it from God’s dwelling place in the heavens. There is another note of irony here, for the people’s intent was to build a tower with its top in the heavens. Clearly they failed at doing so. There does not seem to be a consensus on what type of tower it actually was. Ross takes the viewpoint that the tower referenced is a ziggurat, a tower typical of Mesopotamia.[13] As was the case with ziggurats in Babylonian architecture, he notes, the tower’s purpose would be to worship the local god Marduk, which draws parallels between the Babel story and the Babylonian creation narrative recorded in Enuma Elish which demonstrated the supremacy of Babylon over all other cities and predominance of Markduk over any other god.[14] Furthermore, the traditional purpose of ziggurats was to provide a place for the deity to dwell after its descent from the heavenly to earthly realm,[15] a journey with the sole purpose of the god blessing its people. This viewpoint is shared by Middleton, evidenced in his declaration that the story portrays a human attempt to receive divine affirmation for their man-made civilization.[16] That said, the people’s motivation behind building the tower is just as, if not more, important than the actual tower itself.

            This is where God’s investigation and judgment come into play for, as Waltke correctly points out, “God thoroughly investigates a situation before giving a judicial sentence.”[17] God, noting the unity of language and purpose among the people in verse 6, recognizes that their plan to make a name for themselves to avoid being scattered is in direct contradiction of God’s mandate for humanity to “fill the earth” (Genesis 9:1). This unity in their disobedience shows God that if the people’s plan is allowed to continue, the implication is that they will be able to do anything they put their minds to, even if it is against God’s will. 

            God’s judgment of the plan, however, is not an act of fear on his part but rather an act of protection and even mercy for the people. God even goes so far as to observe that the builders were mere “mortals” in verse 5, showing, as Waltke points out, the frailty of their humanity.[18] Why would an almighty God feel threatened by mortals? He would not. That is an inaccurate translation, this assertion that God is concerned the people will somehow become as powerful and omnipotent as God himself is. The real concern, which is the interpretation that Smith takes, is revealed by paying attention to preceding narratives; God’s unease is that conditions are developing that could potentially lead to a necessary intervention of catastrophic proportions like the great Flood.[19] The people are revealing their refusal to live within God-given mandates and boundaries; if there is sin to be found in the Babel story, it is there. This matches up with LaCoque’s interpretation, that the hubris of the people aligns with the Primeval narrative of humanity’s rebellion and desire to play God, as evidenced in the Adam and Eve story of Genesis 3.[20] God has seen this story before, which is why God intervenes to cut it off before it gets out of hand.
This leads to God moving among the people in a way that confuses their speech and disrupts their language and, thereby, their plans and construction (11:7). If the people had any hopes of fame and making a name for themselves, they are cut short with the halting of construction. Next, the Lord takes the people from their city in Shinar and scatters them (11:8). This is not, as Ross asserts, an act of punishment without any hope of restoration or redemption.[21] One must take a more holistic view of God’s judgment, as Smith does when he contends that this is actually an act of salvation, one that is echoed at other points throughout scripture, such as when God rescues his people from the Egyptians in Exodus.[22] God’s disruption of the building and the scattering of the people is a way for God to bring about the original blessing that comes from the mandate to scatter and be fruitful. It also is how God restores diversity, which appears to be his original intent. The homogeneity of place and words is discouraged because it does not celebrate the diversity that God created in the first place. Adam, in Genesis 2:19-20, illustrates a diversity of language when he names the creatures God made. Diversity is part of what God declared to be good (Genesis 1:31).

            This act of walking on a tightrope between unity and diversity is what the crux of the Babel story truly is, a point that Waltke beautifully extrapolates by reminding his reader that the genealogies represented in the Table of Nations (Genesis 10) are indeed interconnected and unified.[23] Unity is not a bad thing by any means! However, the danger of unity is that it can lead to tribalism. When humans act as an insular group, as those in Babel did, they turn their focus inward and refuse to work collaboratively with God’s redemptive power to all parts of creation to wholeness and flourishing. 

            To go a step further, taking into account Middleton’s suggestion that the story is a sociopolitical commentary,[24]tribalism’s negative effects can include ego and, in worst cases, oppression, as the group attempts to force its way of doing things on others. Seen in this light, which makes logical sense knowing that the original readers may very well have been Israelites with knowledge of being enslaved and forced to assimilate into the dominant empirical culture, the text acts as a warning against tribalistic thinking and behavior.

Summary of the Interaction Between God and The People (11:9)
            In the summary of the story, the narrator shares that the land in which the people had settled is given a new name. It is now called Babel, which is a reference to the confusion of language that the Lord brought about there. Arnold rightly notes the clever wordplay in this final verse, for Babel (bābel) bears a striking similarity to the word denoting God’s action, confused (bālel).[25] What the people had hoped would be a great source of fame was, in the end, nothing more than confusion, a creative nod to the English word “babble,” which means to talk in an incomprehensible manner. The story concludes with the repetition that the people were scattered abroad after all, which, of course, was the very thing they were trying to avoid. 

To some in our contemporary world, this text may seem to be a hard word, full of God’s judgment. However, the implications of God’s mercy could not be clearer. God’s original mandate to multiply and fill the earth is ultimately born of his desire to see humanity flourish through diversity, and the Babel text shows humanity’s return, albeit a forced one, to that diverse state.

[1] Allen P. Ross, Creation and Blessing: A Guide to the Study and Exposition of the Book of Genesis (Grand Rapids: Baker Book House, 1988), 243.

[2] Bill T. Arnold, Genesis (New York: Cambridge University Press, 2009), 119.

[3] Arnold, Genesis, 119.

[4] André LaCocque, The Captivity of Innocence: Babel and the Yahwist (Eugene: Cascade Books, 2010), 26.

[5] LaCocque, The Captivity of Innocence, 26-27.

[6] Christoph Uehlinger, Weltreich und ‘eine Rede’: eine neue Deutung der sogenannten Turmbauerzahlung (Gen. 11:1-9) (OBO 101, Freiburg, Schweiz: Universitatsverlag, 1990), quoted in David Smith, “What Hope After Babel? Diversity and Community in Gen. 11:1-9; Exod. 1:1-14; Zeph. 3:1-13 and Acts 2:1-3.” Horizons in Biblical Theology. 18.2 (1996): 173.

[7] Arnold, Genesis, 180.

[8] Ross, Creation and Blessing, 245.

[9] Ross, Creation and Blessing, 246.

[10] J. Richard Middleton, “The Deceptive Simplicity of Babel: Questioning the Literary Text and Social Reality of Genesis 11:1-9”, Paper presented at the Genesis Consultation Society of Biblical Literature, Chicago, November 2012, 8.

[11] Middleton, “The Deceptive Simplicity of Babel”, 8.

[12] Middleton, “The Deceptive Simplicity of Babel”, 8.

[13] Ross, Creation and Blessing, 239.

[14] Ross, Creation and Blessing, 240.

[15] John H. Walton, Ancient Near Eastern Thought and the Old Testament: Introducing the Conceptual World of the Hebrew Bible (Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 2005), 25, and 119–123, quoted in Middleton, “The Deceptive Simplicity of Babel”,10.

[16] Middleton, “The Deceptive Simplicity of Babel”,10.

[17] Bruce Waltke, Genesis: A Commentary (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2001),180.

[18] Waltke, Genesis, 180.

[19] Smith, “What Hope After Babel?”, 178.

[20] LaCocque, The Captivity of Innocence, 58.

[21] Ross, “The Dispersion of Nations”, 242.

[22] Smith, “What Hope After Babel?”, 186.

[23] Waltke, Genesis, 181.

[24] Middleton, “The Deceptive Simplicity of Babel”, 14.

[25] Arnold, Genesis, 121.

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