I was recently listening to the punk band Bad Religion’s album Recipe for Hate. The song Skyscraper, whose passion and composition I’ve always enjoyed, centers around the metaphor of the tower of Babel (you can listen to it here: https://youtu.be/37Jlj0_FsZU). I can’t claim to understand the lyrics to the song in toto, but it does seem to be criticizing the destroyer of the tower (God), not the builders. In Greg Gaffin’s midrash, the tower builders are trying to reach God and God is afraid that if they find him they will abandon him (presumably because he doesn’t exist). Gaffin sings: I know why you tore it down that day, you thought that if you got caught we’d all go away, like a spoiled little baby who can’t come out to play, you had your revenge. Gaffin sees the destruction as a bad thing: Well madness reigned and paradise drowned when Babel’s walls came crashing down. The song also seems to contain an implied criticism of the story of the tower itself- the last verse of the song characterizes the story as hardly understood and never any good.
Leaving aside Gaffin’s somewhat bizarre atheist fantasy midrash, this got me thinking about the story. How good of a story is it?
This question resonated in my mind more because of some reading I was doing lately, in a book called Ancient Near Eastern Thought and The Old Testament by John Walton. This book, which I recommend, strives to let people know what more than a century of intense archaeological investigation has uncovered about the cultures surrounding ancient Israel. It puts the Torah into context. Walton says, as many have before him, that the story of the tower of Bavel takes its central image from the Babylonian ziggurat.
In Genesis 11:1-9 a group of early humans settles in Shinar, probably Sumer, an area in southern Mesapotamia associated in the Torah with Babylon. The Mesapotamian building materials are foreign to Israelites, so the Torah describes them for us. The “city and tower” being built (see below), if true to history, would have been an urban area housing public buildings. In this case it was a temple complex. These structures, which began being built at the end of the 4th milennium BCE, were still visible in Nebuchadnezzar’s Babylon. The tower in the story is almost certainly based on the ziggurat temple complexes of Sumer, which are frequently described in Mesapotamian literature as”with head touching heaven”, as in the Torah as quoted below.
The story in the Torah is as follows:
The whole earth was of one language and of one speech. It came to pass as they journeyed from the east that they found a plain in the land of Shinar and they dwelt there, and they said one to another: ‘Come, let us make brick and burn them thoroughly.’ They had brick for stone, and bitumen for mortar, and they said: ‘Come, let us build us a city and a tower with its top in heaven and let us make us a name lest we be scattered abroad upon the face of the whole earth.’ And YHWH came down to see the city and the tower which the children of men built. And YHWH said: ‘Behold they are one people and they have one language and this is what they begin to do. Now nothing will be withheld from them which they aim to do. Come, let us go down and confound their language that they may not understand one another’s speech.’ So YHWH scattered them abroad from thence upon the face of all the earth; and they left off building the city. Therefore was the name of it called Bavel; because YHWH did there confound the language of all the earth; and from there did YHWH scatter them abroad upon the face of all the earth.
This enigmatic story seems to warn human beings about the hubris of using technology to storm the heights of heaven and make themselves secure from any danger. Sound familiar? Far from being a story that should irk Bad Religion, a band which continuously snarls warnings about human arrogance and self-deception, I would think this story might make it on to their “acceptable biblical stories list”. I suspect that such a list does not exist. In any case let’s look a little more at the story itself and its ancient context.
In the story YHWH confounds people’s languages and spreads them out over the world. The story then explains the existence of multiple languages: they are there to prevent the creation of a mega-mono-culture and the attendant human hubris and blindness, one in which people make themselves God and depend on their own technology and might.
The fact that the story appears based on ancient Israelite perceptions of Babylon is also interesting. Babylon was a sophisticated, expanding empire with technology beyond Israel’s. Israel, a society of farmers and shepherds, looked up at the urban megalopolis of Babylon and its temple towers and saw nothing but a symbol of human arrogance and, it seems, a force that threatened to destroy smaller cultures and impose it’s own hegemony on everyone. Babylon was an imperialist state whose leaders glorified themselves and exalted in their technology and military strength. The story criticizes what Israel perceived as Babylon’s dream of a monocultural, invincible empire.
One interesting thing about this story, though, is that the Israelite perception of the nature of ziggurats- temples reaching upwards to heaven- is wrong. As Walton points out, ziggurats had a different nature and purpose. Humans did not use them, did not live in them or climb up them. Ziggurats existed as stairways upon which the gods descended to bring blessing to the earth, and to receive offerings. The ziggurats were not for the use of human beings, but for the use of gods!
We can thus see that the Israelite story is not an accurate depiction of Sumerian or Babylonian religion but rather takes up an image from the civilization of their neighbours and riffs on it to make a point- a point that is both a shot at perceived Babylonian arrogance and a broader statement. Anyone familiar with the sourcing of the story of Noah and the flood in older Akkadian and Mesapotamian stories knows that this is not a singular occurence in Israelite literature. It appears that the crafters of Israelite literature took up motifs from the literatures and civilisations of their neighbours and ran with them in a completely different direction. The religious sensibilities of Israel were truly an anamoly in the ancient near east (see Created Equal by Joshua Berman or the excellent discussion in Fight by Preston Sprinkle, ch.3-5).
To answer my own question: is the the tower of Bavel a good story? I think it’s a very good story. The story’s lesson seems to me to be that cultural diversity is a divinely willed protection against human hubris. Think of this-when there is only one human culture, from where does diversity, criticism, and challenge come from? Israel seemed to intuit that an unchallenged culture possesses an unlimited potential for evil.
Technology tends to empower empire and its accompanying arrogance. The technical-industrial explosion of the last 300 years has not only allowed us to touch the heavens. We have also exterminated more than 50% of the cultures and languages of the world, reducing ethnodiversity as well as biodiversity. We have pierced the atom and the gene and are quickly approaching the doleful day when “there is nothing they cannot do”.
I am reminded of a verse from the Daodejing, the ancient classic of Daoism by the Old Master (Laozi) which describes the ideal civilization (translation by Red Pine):
Imagine a small state with a small population
let there be labor-saving tools
that aren’t used
let people consider death
and not move far
let there be boats and carts
but no reason to ride them
let there be armor and weapons
but no reason to employ them
let people return to the use of knots
and be satisfied with their food
and pleased with their clothing
and content with their homes
and happy with their customs
let there be another state so near
people hear its dogs and chickens
and live out their lives
without making a visit.