The Plurality Preceding Babel

In my Whitley Lecture (summary here and responses from fellow bloggers here, here, here and here) I picked up James K. A. Smith’s idea that the Tower of Babel narrative in Genesis 11 should not be understood as a story of human diversity as the result of divine punishment for human pride.  In the lecture I only allude to this point, but am now delighted to see in a recent issue of JBL an article which adds significant exegetical weight to this argument.  In ‘The Tower of Babel and the Origin of the World’s Culture’ (JBL 126 (2007), 29-58, Theodore Hiebert makes the following exegetical arguments in favour of the view that Christian interpreters of the story have ‘outdone the story’s own characters in the quest for ethnic uniformity … and devalued difference, seeing it as an obstacle, a source of confusion and chaos, a catastrophe and a curse upon the human race and ultimately, a judgment of God’ (p.58).

1.  The use of repetition in the story emphasizes its main theme: that of there being one language and the same words: שָׂפָה אֶחָת וּדְבָרִים אֲחָדִים (note the repetition of אֶחָד and the repeat of the motif in 11.1 and 11.5)

2.  Thus the focus of the narrative is the whole human race.  The interpretation that understands the building to be the work of one culture (usually the Babylonians – most artistic portrayals understand the tower to have been a ziggurat of some sort and this cultural reading underlies most post-colonial readings of the text).

3.  The tower is pretty much an irrelevance on the story.  What is built is a ‘city with a tower’: עִיר וּמִגְדָּל .The tower drops out of the 2nd part of the story altogether (see 11.6-9).  Thus the story is actually poorly-named.

4.  The motif of the tower with ‘its top in the sky’: וְרֹאשׁוֹ בַשָּׁמַיִם is misconstrued by those who think the narrative focus is on human pride and hubris.  The phrase is idiomatic and means ‘a very tall tower’ – nothing more.  Likewise the people’s desire to ‘make a name for ourselves’  וְנַעֲשֶׂה־לָּנוּ שֵׁם is not an expression of a desire for human self-aggrandizement, but the quest for a stable, common identity.

5.  In the second part of the drama, God ignores the city and the tower, but instead addresses the fact that human beings look like they will probably succeed in their enterprise or bing one people with one language in one place.  English translations read ideas of condemnation into 11.6 – they are not there in the Hebrew which is a basically neutral statement of fact.

6.  God’s action is therefore not to be understood as punishment, but the creation of a multilingual world and human dispersion.

These points only begin to touch on the arguments in this important article (Hiebert also attends to the setting of the Babel story within Genesis 1-11 and biblical theology more generally).  What is clear is that difference, particularity, heterogeneity are all understood as God’s intention for the world.  Difference must be understood, therefore, as ‘God’s aspiration for the new world after the flood’ (p.58).