The intriguing, funny, and cutting story of the Tower of Babel (Genesis 11:1-9) is the last in the collection of stories that makes up the preface to the book of Genesis and, therefore, to the Bible itself. We do well to attend to these stories, not as histories, which is to distort them and lose their meaning, but as they were always intended: stories to ponder. Stories to help see the truth of our own time and place.
These stories are concerned primarily with relationships: relationships between heaven and earth, God and humanity, humanity and the rest of nature, and humans with other humans. Just before this story in Genesis 10 we have a sort of anthropological geography of the known world, called traditionally “the Table of Nations.” From the names listed in the chapter, it seems to represent a survey of ethnic groups from sometime in the 1st century BCE, not earlier. The groupings, under the names of the three sons of Noah, Japheth, Ham, and Shem, are not racial as it has often been thought but geographical. Ham, for example, groups together Egypt and North Africa (along with Crete and Cyprus) with Mesopotamia, and, between the two, with the whole Levant. There is much to be mined from that chapter, but I’ll not pause on it here, except to mention that it comes as a surprise when our story begins after exploring all these different nations and ethnic groups, “Then, all the world had a single tongue and a single vocabulary.” Suddenly, we are plunged back to a time before the nations and ethnic groups of Genesis 10 were formed to an earlier, mythical time when there was but one group of humans, and everyone spoke the same language. We are plunged back to that earlier time for a reason. The reason is that Genesis is about to introduce a pair of lonely people from whom the salvation of humanity will come, Abraham and Sarah.
In telling that story, Genesis wants to steer our eyes away from the great and vast, from empire, to a small story about to take place in an out of the way part of world, the land of Canaan. In this transition, Genesis gives us the delicious satire of the Tower of Babel.
The writer of the story was surely an exile living in Babylon (Babel), perhaps in the time of Nebuchadnezzar or a little later. I imagine the writer in the city, in the temple district, where the great temples to the gods of Babylon were located, and contemplating Etemenanki, the vast mud brick pyramid or ziggurat, the name of which in Sumerian means “house of the platform between heaven and earth” (or “between heaven and the underworld”). Etemenanki, a vast tower, 300 feet square at the base, but still, always in that time, a ruin.
For me, the key to the story has long been the 3rd verse: “They said, one to another, ‘Come on, let’s make bricks and bake them,’ so bricks became their stone and tar their mortar.” Mud bricks, whether baked or not, are hardly stone, and tar is hardly mortar, as the history of Etemenanki, the great ziggurat of Babylon amply illustrates.
The history of this imposing edifice, the Tower of Babel, is outlined in a long review article by A. R. George, an eminent scholar of ancient Mesopotamian literature (“Babel: archaeology, history and cuneiform texts,” Archiv für Orientforschung 51 (2005), 75-95, a review of Hansjörg Schmid. Der Tempelturm Etemenanki in Babylon, Baghdader Forchungen 17: Mainz am Rhein, 1995).
The tower was a sort of staircase to heaven or, better, a staircase from heaven to earth (the story of Jacob’s ladder in Genesis 28 is also based on this tower). It was located in Babylon in the area of the great temple to Marduk, Esagila. The tower was ancient—perhaps going back to the time of dynasty of Hammurapi—and quite imposing. The original structure, built of mud brick, had been 65 meters square at its base, a little more than 213 feet. It was later expanded with baked brick to 91 meters at its base, almost 300 feet. Big, but perhaps not or no longer beautiful.
For much of its history it was partially ruined. In the time of the Babylonian exile, it was almost continuously under restoration, this partly because the Assyrian king Sennacherib when he raided Babylon tore it partially down. His son Esarhaddon and his grandson Ashurbanipal worked to restore the old temple, but they apparently didn’t get far. It was too far gone, not just because of Sennacherib’s destruction but because over a long period of time water seeping through the mud brick that made up much of the structure was turning the old bricks back into the mud from which they came. Bricks, as I noted above, are not stone.
We know much of what we know of Etemenanki from a building inscription originally inserted in the old structure by Nabopolassar, the father of the Nebuchadnezzar and the founder of the Babylonian dynasty that briefly ruled the world, conquered Jerusalem, and led some of its inhabitants into exile. Nabopolassar says of the tower, “Before my day it was very weak and badly buckled.”
He set about trying to fix it using thousands, perhaps millions of baked bricks and, as he says, “asphalt and bitumen like a mighty flood”—the bricks and tar of the biblical story. He repaired the mantle perhaps 15 meters up the slope; his son Nebuchadnezzar raised it farther, but always it was a project. George says that for 43 years under Assyrian and Babylonian kings alike the restoration of Etemenanki went on, draining their financial resources.
The writer of the Genesis 11 story, whoever he (or she) was, labored over the writing. It’s artfully done. Throughout the writer puns on “Babel,” Babylon to us. In the sentence quoted above, for example, the words that I’ve translated “let’s make brick” are rare in the vocabulary of the Hebrew Bible but common in Akkadian, the language of ancient Mesopotamia. And they are full of l’s and b’s anticipating the final, “Thus, they call the name of the city “Babel,” because there YHWH confused (bālal) the [single] language of all the inhabitants of the earth. . . (11:9). Hovering around the edge of this piece of ancient writing but never actually mentioned is the word that sounds in Hebrew very much like “making bricks,” nābĕlāh, “fool.” It’s a story designed to make the reader laugh, an early example of Jewish humor.
You see where this is going. The story is about Babylon, but not just Babylon. Throughout the Bible, Babylon is a symbol for empire, whether Babylon itself or Rome or, for that matter, America, or any other empire. In the story, the people gather to build a city and a high tower (“top reaching to the sky” is an ancient cliché often used for temples, including Etemenanki) in order to make a name for themselves. The name in this case is “Babel,” Babylon. But as they go up, YHWH comes down (the first and second halves of the story are neatly matched in a contrasting way). When YHWH looks down and sees what is happening on earth, he says, “If they are all one people and have one language, and this they begin to do, nothing they propose to do will be impossible for them.” With this in mind, YHWH confounds their language and scatters them across the earth. Oh, and last but notably, YHWH stops the laying of the bricks. Like Etemenanki at the time of the exile, the tower stretches up incomplete, a partial ruin, a symbol of the failure of human aspirations.
Big or small? Global or local? Unity or diversity? These remain the terms of a forever conversation within the heart of the human race. In later parts of the Bible, you have empire—the empires of David and Solomon. All one people and one language. There are voices in the Bible that side with empire. One day, these voices say, we will rule over all. But even then, in the time of David and Solomon and their successors, you have other voices, voices against empire, prophets, some like Elijah living off the grid. In the end, the Bible seems to side less with empire—even the empire of “the people of God”—and more with the small, the local, and the different.
It’s the divine preference for the small and forgotten, the powerless and poor that is manifested in the cross of Jesus Christ. It’s the irony on which Luke dwells in the birth story: “In those days Caesar Augustus issued a decree. . .,” the summons that begins the story of the savior whose salvation is not in his army but in his death. The ultimate triumph of the small over the large.
It’s a reverse irony that often in our eschatology we go back to trying to build the tower. We imagine the day when we will rule all, when there will be all one language and all one people. But this surely is not the vision of God. It is sometimes said that at Pentecost Babel was reversed, but this is not true. At Pentecost, when the Spirit descended upon the followers of Jesus, they did not speak all one language; they spoke in every language. The gospel is always translatable. It can be spoken in every tongue. By every tongue.
God has a preference for diversity. God loves the human race not for the towers we build to our own name and pride but for who we are in our own individual communities. A preference for the small. What are the towers today that some would build? White nationalism? A monolithic Christianity? Facebook? What are we building with bricks for stone and tar for mortar, edifices that like Etemenanki will not stand and in the end will serve not as symbols of our great success but of our great failure? It’s those questions the little story in Genesis 11 asks, the reflections, I think, of an ancient, now forgotten, Jewish exile looking on the trappings of empire, on Etemenanki, and seeing not so much glory as ruin. We who live in the time of disintegrating empire might well take a seat along with this ancient Jew and consider the ruins of our own time.