BY RAY INKSTER
Genesis 11 begins with the story of the Tower of Babel-but why on earth was it include in the sacred text?
In the first eleven chapters of Genesis we are in the realm of myth, which is the expression of the truth in story form. the book itself reached its more or less completed form around the sixth century BC, when Jewish people were allowed to return to their own land after seventy years exile in Babylon.
While there, they would have seen one of the wonders of the ancient world-the Ziggurat, or temple of the God Marduk, which was almost 100 metres high, with seven tiers, three great staircases, and an imposing temple at the top-where the earth met the heavens and the God Marduk his subjects. The Babylonians believed that Marduk had defeated the Jewish God, whose Temple in Jerusalem had been reduced to dust and ashes and that, as a result, to quote 11.4, they had made a name for theselves.
The Jews who returned to what now became Judea did not, of course, share that opinion, especially since the Babylonians and their Marduk had in turn been overthrown by the Persians. In part, therefore, this story about the ill-fated Tower of Babel pokes fun at the Babylonians god-like pretensiousness.
In common with other instances in Genesis, the story also offers an “explanation” for a puzzling fact-in this case, that the world was found to have different peoples in it with different languages. In a similar manner, Genesis also provides “explanations” for names. The name “Babel” in Hebrew, sounds like the word for “confused”, and so is said to reflect the fact that God had “confused” the speech of the tower’s builders so that they no longer understood each other and, in their frustration, “left off building” the tower.
Apart from the fun, however, there is a more serious point being made. In a number of the myths of the Ancient Near east at that time, there is the theme of various gods becoming upset that humans were getting above themselves. They make such a raucous din with their unruly behaviour that the gods can hardly get any peace or sleep. Steps had to be taken to put them back in their proper place.
Echoes of this theme appear in Genesis 3 where, after their disobedience in the Garden of Eden, God says to members of the divine council that”man has become like one of us”, and must therefore be driven out of Eden into a world which will now be much less of a “paradise”. Similarly, in Genesis 6, “the wickedness of man was great in the earth” and the Flood was necessary to clear that wickedness away and make a new start, this time governe by a covenant between God and man.
Humans are incorrigible, however, and so, in Genesis 11, they decide to “build a tower with its top in the heavens”. They’re going to show God what they can do, pay him a visit on his own territory and try to call the shots. Having promised after the Flood that “never again” shall all flesh be cut off”, God now devises a less drastic but effective stratagem for reminding human beings that he has made them, “a little lower than the angels”, and that they must learn to keep that place.
And this is where the story has something to say to ourselves in our 21st century. Some wit once remarked that having built the tower, if only they hadn’t tried to climb to the top things might not have ended the way they did. There is an aspect of human psychology which suggests itself when people are asked why they climb life-threatening mountains, or want to visit distant planets, the reason being, “because they’re there”. Sometimes that’s fine, but at other times alarm bells should ring.
Why are we mining and burning fossil fuels? Because they’re there, and they’re warming our homes, but also now our planet. Why did we smash the atom? Because we could, and we’re producing energy that lights our cities, but also stockpiling nuclear weapons that can destroy ourselves and our world. Genesis 3 would say to us that “our eyes have been opened, and we’ve become like gods, knowing good and evil”. We need to learn discipline and to rein ourselves in-to leave the fossil fuels where they are, and to destroy the weapons of mass destruction. Our scientists need to understand that they aren’t gods, who can produce a “theory of everything”, which would explain all that is physical yet solve nothing that is moral or ethical. Our religious leaders need to understand that they aren’t gods, who exclusively possess all truth, while any who differ from them are infidels to be treated accordingly. The Tower of Babel story reminds us that we are not gods, but human beings. There is so much that we can, and will, never know. We need to understand and accept our limitations, recognising that though that might often lead to our frustration, in other ways it could well be our salvation.
The Greeks, of course, had their own myth-that of Icarus, whose father made him wings of feathers glued on with wax and taught him how to fly. He warned him not to fly too near the sun, but Icarus “could” fly higher, and so he “did” fly higher. The wax melted, and the boy fell into the ocean from which he did not emerge. The wings of Icarus, the Tower of Babel-we can’t say we have not been warned.