This is only the beginning… nothing that they propose to do will be impossible for them. Come, let us go down, and confuse their language there, so that they will not understand one another’s speech. (Genesis 11: 6-7)
So God messes with humanity’s communication system. At least it’s better than mass murder…?
The story of the Tower of Babel, like the stories of the expulsion from Eden and the flood from Noah’s ark, at first seems to be a petty, vindictive overreaction on God’s part.
All the people of the world share a common language, and they come together to build a tall tower. God freaks out and fears that if they succeed, “nothing that they propose to do will be impossible for them.”
So just as humanity is getting going again, after the flood, God seems to get jealous. Adam and Eve falsely perceived themselves to be in rivalry with God… is God becoming infected with the spirit of rivalry now too?
As always, we must look deeper than these surface-level interpretations.
God doesn’t want a world built on a foundation of sacrifice.
Here, understanding philosopher René Girard’s insights about human nature illuminates much that is left unsaid. When all humanity shares a relatively small space and a common language, they also share something equally fundamental – the same desires. We are made to learn what we want from one another; recognizing the desires of others ignites our own desires. When we can share resources, valuing the same things can be a source of friendship. But when we can’t or won’t share… we fight.
The flood of violence that consumed the world likely stemmed from being unable or unwilling to share what was commonly desired. Cain saw God’s appreciation as a zero-sum game; when he perceived Abel’s gift was appreciated, he believed his wasn’t, so he killed his brother. Of course, like God’s love, the world is full of abundant resources for all… and yet, to this day, we still so often refuse to share.
Sharing a space and a language, of course, makes understanding possible. But it also makes rivalry possible. Commonality does not necessarily lead to peace.
But in this story, everyone is cooperating, not fighting. So what’s the problem?
After the flood, or, after proto-nations destroyed themselves with rivalries spinning out of control, people found a way to stop the violence by converging on a scapegoat. Coming together in blame against a random (but usually marginalized) victim turned the fighting of all-against-all into all-against-one. The community believed the scapegoat to be guilty and came together in killing or expelling the unfortunate victim. At the beginning of human civilization, the process happened randomly, but over time, as a stop-gap to violence, it became ritualized. Sacrifices to ruthless, demanding gods, as the people perceived the divine powers to be, given the precarious nature of the world, seemed to produce miraculous results.
In reality, the terror of violence and all its attendant problems (disease and famine come when blood is shed) wasn’t solved by a blessing from the gods in exchange for sacrificing the “guilty” victim. Rather, the miracle was the catharsis of mutual cooperation in coming against a victim, the release of “righteous” anger, and the relief of the violence coming to an end with the scapegoat’s death.
Ritualized sacrifices often occurred “close to the gods” on tops of mountains. Or… towers.
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“Let us build ourselves a city, and a tower with its top in the heavens, and let us make a name for ourselves,” the people say. With a sacrificial system to keep the people together in mutual cooperation over and against the “bad guys,” the people can accomplish great and glorious things. The system of sacrifice, like many consider the military today, provided psychological (more than physical) security for the people so that they could accomplish and achieve… anything they set their cooperative minds to.
Reach for the stars! And pay no attention to the dead bodies, the exploited and sacrificed, that make up the rungs of the ladder.
God doesn’t want a world built on a foundation of sacrifice. “Go and learn what this means,” God-in-flesh (Jesus) says, “I desire mercy and not sacrifice.”
So, God scatters the people and confuses their languages.
The plethora of human languages and cultures is for human good, not for human discord.
This reminds me of my favorite verse from the Qur’an:
“Oh Humanity! Indeed, We created you from a male and a female, and made you into peoples and tribes so that you may get to know one another.” (49:13)
We have different cultures and languages not so we can be kept apart, but so we may come to appreciate each other. Our differences are to be celebrated, for they help us learn and grow. While a single world culture may sound harmonious, the truth is too much similarity leads to conflict. But diversity and difference can spark curiosity and wonder and open minds and hearts.
God thwarts the unity that comes at the expense of victims. God makes a world of diversity and difference, and to work together, we must get to know each other in all our uniqueness.
But after scattering the people, God will bring humanity back together again, not in one place or with one language or even one religion, but in one embrace of Love. God will call upon someone through whom the whole world will be blessed. More on that next time.