I here use the King James ( or Authorised) version of the story:
“And the whole earth was of one language and one speech. And 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 to one another, Go to, let us make brick and burn them throughly. And they had brick for stone, and slime had they for morter. And they said, Go to, let us build us a city and tower whose top may reach unto heaven; and let us make us a name lest we be scattered abroad upon the face of the whole earth. And the Lord came down to see the city and the tower, which the children of men builded. And the Lord said, Behold, the people is one, and they have all one language and this they begin to do; and now nothing will be restrained from them, which they have imagine to do. Go to, let us go down, and there confound their language, that they may not understand one another’s speech. So the Lord scattered them abroad from thence upon the face of all the earth: and they left off to build the city. Therefore is the name of it called Babel; because the Lord did there confound the language of all the earth; and from thence did the Lord scatter them abroad upon the face of all the earth.
The myth is designed to explain the breakdown of humans into different languages. The original language is clearly seen as uniting all humanity in one language. We have seen from earlier discussion of Genesis stories the significance of language, of speech. By speech, the ordered universe is brought into being; the creation of Man, at the pinnacle of creation, in the image of God, is reflected by his being introduced to the God-given power of speech ( see post ( Why Does God get Adam to Name the Animals?). But this brings a danger to the fore, the danger of Man over-reaching himself, assuming powers for which God alone is responsible.
In the tale we hear two sets of voices: the collective voice of humanity and the voice of God and God’s counsel ( hence “Let us go down” Gen.11.7). The collective voice has assumed self- conscious awareness of power. They speak with one voice, they are gathered together. Their aspiration is to show off their strength by building a tower up into heaven, so as to “make a name” which will vindicate their authority and make them secure.
God sees this as an arrogation of power, that must be confounded. Hence the confusion of their speech so that communication will become broken and divided. The people from being a great collective will become divided, at odds, and scattered.
Hence has arisen the use of the word Babel to mean ” a confused medley of sounds; meaningless noise (E16)” or “a scene of confusion; a noisy assembly” (E17)” (S.O.E.D.).
More powerfully, perhaps, the Tower of Babel can be seen as a symbol of arrogance. We are told Muslims build their cities so that no building shall over-top the minarets that link the mosques to God. Mohammed Atta, a student of architecture, who led the terror attack, against the World Trade Centre (2001), aimed deliberately at a building higher than overtopped any mosque and was therefore seen as arrogating the power of the West and globalised capitalism. (See Roger Scruton The West and the Rest).
Without, obviously, seeking to justify the reasons for that heinous act, it might be said the attack pressed upon us the same question as the Tower of Babel myth: to what extent have those of us in the Judeo-Christian West allowed the values of secular materialism to over-top our accounability to God as Creator?
Note. Roger Scruton The West and the Rest Globalisation and the Terrorist Threat Continuum 2002. Details on Atta found in chapter on “Holy Law” P101.
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