1 Now the whole world had one language and a common speech. 2 As people moved eastward, they found a plain in Shinar and settled there.
3 They said to each other, “Come, let’s make bricks and bake them thoroughly.” They used brick instead of stone, and tar for mortar. 4 Then they said, “Come, let us build ourselves a city, with a tower that reaches to the heavens, so that we may make a name for ourselves; otherwise we will be scattered over the face of the whole earth.”
5 But the LORD came down to see the city and the tower the people were building. 6The LORD said, “If as one people speaking the same language they have begun to do this, then nothing they plan to do will be impossible for them. 7 Come, let us go down and confuse their language so they will not understand each other.”
8 So the LORD scattered them from there over all the earth, and they stopped building the city. 9 That is why it was called Babel—because there the LORD confused the language of the whole world. From there the LORD scattered them over the face of the whole earth.
I‘m about to use a big(gish) word: etiology (or aetiology).
Not to be confused with etymology – the study of words and their origin – although that is not entirely off the point!
Definitely not entomology – because that would be talking about the study of insects.
Etiology looks at causation in general, matters of origin.
What we have here, you might say is an etiology of language – at least, the proliferation of different ones.
We start with one reality – one language and a common speech, and we move to a different reality – confused language, confused speech.
Come let us bake bricks. Come let us build for ourselves a city with a tower that reaches to the heavens.
With their common language, the humans summon one another. They summon one another to build a city. We often forget that a whole city is involved. The focus is on the tower – but it accompanies a city.
Babylonian theology (at least I’ve scribbled this down from somewhere) was that humanity could reach the gods. This is reflected in the building of the tower -was it, like many suggest, a Ziggurat that the author was talking about? The idea of Ziggurats was to ‘bridge’ heaven and earth. They were also associated with worship of gods like Marduk – nasty character.
The humans, instead of spreading out to fill the earth, decide they’d prefer to settle down (slightly reminiscent of Cain’s wandering-turned-to-city-building perhaps?).They wanted to make a name for themselves, to preserve human autonomy, to stop themselves from being scattered.
It seems to be a story heavy with irony.
Firstly, the very thing they are trying to prevent, they actually cause. They want to stop themselves from being scattered, but the outcome of their project is that is exactly what does happen. The apparent preventative becomes the trigger.
Then – this idea of being able to reach God. God here is pictured as coming down
. Yahweh was so high that he had to stoop to see their mighty tower. That idea was a non-starter.
Their ‘god’ was too small.
God responds with his own summons, echoing the human words of verse 4: Come, let us go down. God intervenes in their building. The power of communication is noted – what they can achieve by working together! Why does Yahweh perceive this as a bad thing? We’re not told. Perhaps that’s not the narrator’s point. Perhaps, knowing as we do that the inclination of the human heart is evil, then human ‘plans’ are perceived as suspect, corrupt.
However this may be, God decides to scatter them, and he confuses their language.
More dividing lines. This time, not just within certain relationships but in the very act of communicating with each other.
There are lots of words plays, here, apparently. For example, the words for making bricks and confusing language – to ‘mix up’. Plus, lots of alliteration we can’t see without knowing the Hebrew. Must learn Hebrew. Still trying to re-learn Greek at the moment…
Image: Albrecht Dürer