The Tower of Babel story (Genesis 11:1–9) is among the most famous in the Bible. It might even be considered an iconic text—famous beyond its actual content; since the story was originally written it has come to mean much more than its actual words. Although many Westerners have a vague idea of what the story is about, or at least know the name “Babel,” it is best to (re)read the text in full. Here it is in the New Revised Standard Version:
1Now the whole earth had one language and the same words. 2And as they migrated from the east, they came upon a plain in the land of Shinar and settled there. 3And they said to one another, “Come, let us make bricks, and burn them thoroughly.” And they had brick for stone, and bitumen for mortar. 4Then they said, “Come, let us build ourselves a city, and a tower with its top in the heavens, and let us make a name for ourselves; otherwise we shall be scattered abroad upon the face of the whole earth.” 5The LORD came down to see the city and the tower, which mortals had built. 6And the LORD said, “Look, they are one people, and they have all one language; and this is only the beginning of what they will do; nothing that they propose to do will now be impossible for them. 7Come, let us go down, and confuse their language there, so that they will not understand one another’s speech.” 8So the LORD scattered them abroad from there over the face of all the earth, and they left off building the city. 9Therefore it was called Babel, because there the LORD confused the language of all the earth; and from there the LORD scattered them abroad over the face of all the earth.
That the story is tightly constructed and a well-designed unit is apparent even in English translation. Note, for instance, how the humans say “Come, let us. . . .” (vv. 3, 4) and this is balanced by a divine “Come, let us. . . .” (v. 7). This balance is actually an imbalance because the humans twice make this statement whereas the deity says it only once—an indication, perhaps, that the deity’s singular comment is decisive, trumping the repeated and collective efforts of the humans. That impression is underscored because what the humans fear most—being “scattered abroad upon the face of the whole earth” (v. 4)—is exactly what God accomplishes in the story, again decisively, and this time twice told (vv. 8-9). We can find irony elsewhere in the story as well: the humans design to make a tower “with its top in the heavens” (v. 4), but it is said that the Lord had to “come down” to even see this massive city and the tower (v. 5). Finally, there is an important instance of word play in the story. The name of the city, “Babel” (Heb bābel), is a play on the verb used for the confusion or confounding (Heb bālal) of the languages that happens there. Also, the name of the city, “Babel,” is the same term used of “Babylon” elsewhere in the Bible, suggesting that the story functions not only as a narrative explanation or etiology for the confusion of languages, but also for the etymology of “Babylon” and thus the Babylonian empire that would wreak such havoc on Israel in the early sixth century B.C.E.
“The tower of Babel story is replete with gaps—notable lacks in important information.”
Despite these literary features and the high level of literary artistry in the story, much is left unsaid. In this regard, it resembles other biblical narratives, which are often rather spare in narrative detail. The tower of Babel story is replete with gaps—notable lacks in important information. It does not indicate—at least not clearly—what is wrong with this city and tower that God should be bothered by it in the first place. The height evidently was not an issue because, again, God had to come down to see it. Yet despite that detail, God immediately states that this building project is the beginning of something apparently threatening (v. 6). Something is clearly wrong with the tower—or rather the city (v. 8)—but we do not know what that is exactly.
All literature contains gaps like these (lawyers, after all, are often hired to find loopholes in supposedly airtight legal discourse), but careful readers can identify them and determine where and when such gaps can be filled and how to do so. Indeed, the history of biblical interpretation could almost be described as a history of gap-filling, and the tower of Babel story is no exception. So, while the text of Gen 11:1–9 does not clearly indicate what the problem is, that has not prevented subsequent readers and interpreters from doing so. Such tendencies are present in modern interpretations, and are evident already in very early texts. For instance, as James L. Kugel shows in Traditions of the Bible: A Guide to the Bible As It Was at the Start of the Common Era, the book of Jubilees says that the people built the tower in order to “ascend on it into heaven” (Jub 10:19). 3 Baruch 3: 7–8 goes further, saying that the people not only wanted to ascend into heaven but wanted to pierce it—that is wage war against heaven and God, an explanation also found in the Babylonian Talmud (b. Sanhedrin 109a), Philo of Alexandria, 3 Baruch 2:7, and one of the Aramaic translations of Genesis (Neophyti). Such interpretations are not outlandish—or at least they are not completely fabricated out of thin air. They are fabricated in the sense that they are constructed, but early interpreters typically constructed their interpretation on the basis of other biblical texts. In the case of the war-on-heaven idea, interpreters often referred back to the story of Nimrod in Gen 10:8–10, which also mentions Babel, (re)interpreting the obscure statement about Nimrod there as indicating something evil or devious about him—he was proud, arrogant, or sinful. Kugel summarizes the “transformation” of Genesis 11:1–9 in such early interpretations as follows:
The real crime involved in the building project was the tower itself, which was intended for the purpose of “storming heaven” or some related evil desire. For this plan and the arrogant attitude underlying it the builders were punished. Their leader was Nimrod. He himself was a wicked giant and a rebel against God; he may have been aided by other giants. As a result of this deed, the people themselves were scattered and their great tower was cast down to the ground.
An impressive (re)interpretation to be sure, but—and here’s the rub—one that is not obvious from Gen 11:1–9 itself. What is fascinating in this particular case is how this “(re)interpretation” of the tower of Babel story—that the builders wanted to storm heaven—is often the common understanding of the text now. The content of the text has been usurped and replaced by its “(re)interpretation,” which is another indication of the story’s iconic status. But a return to the words of the text itself suggests other, equally compelling interpretations.
While the text does not clearly indicate what is wrong with the tower/city, God’s judgment and punitive action imply some sort of problem. And while the text does not clearly indicate that the humans wanted to storm heaven, it does hint at two possible motivations. First, there may be a hint of pride in the humans’ desire to “make a name for ourselves” (v. 4). This is a relatively common assumption in the history of interpretation. In the very next chapter it is God, not Abram himself, who makes Abram’s name great (Gen 12:2). However, David makes a name for himself later (2 Sam 8:13) without any negative repercussions or divine reprisals, so it is hard to say that “making a name” is always bad.
The second hint about the builders’ motivation seems to involve fear: they do not want to be scattered over the whole earth (v. 4). Indeed, this note of fear is the climactic one: building a tower and making a name is precisely to prevent (“lest. . . “) such scattering.
The first hint (pride) ties in with the history of interpretation, which has often hung much on a theory of hubris, but the latter hint (fear) is the opposite of hubris. It envisions a small group of humans hunkering down—afraid, perhaps, of this large new world. Far from storming heaven, this reading suggests the humans wanted to sink deep roots into local soil and not go anywhere on earth, let alone in heaven.
[T]he story of the tower should be read in its larger literary context, the entire book of Genesis, and in its immediate literary context, the first eleven chapters of Genesis.
If this fearful reading is correct, one might well wonder what is wrong or even sinful about being afraid and wanting to stick together. Perhaps nothing, but the story of the tower should be read in its larger literary context, the entire book of Genesis, and in its immediate literary context, the first eleven chapters of Genesis. There we find that God created humans precisely to fill the earth and steward it (Gen 1:26–30)—a point reiterated after the Flood narrative (Gen 9:1, 7). In this larger perspective, the hunkering down in Gen 11:4 is a refusal to fulfill the creational mandate. God’s punishment, while definitely a reversal of human desire, is not negative: it actually enables the humans to comply with God’s initial command. Describing the scattering as “God’s judgment,” in this light, is overstated: the judgmental act has nothing to do with the tower as such but with the city (a place of settlement) and the scattering abroad (v. 8). Moreover, this non-judgmental “judgment” is predicated precisely of Babel/Babylon, which, later in the Bible, will represent a dire threat and mortal enemy to Israel.
The scattering also has to do with the confusion of languages (vv. 7, 9), and this leads to another curiosity. The closest linguistic link to the scattering abroad is not Genesis 1 or 9, with their mentions of filling the earth, but rather with 10:18 which uses the exact same verb as Gen 11:4-9 (Heb pūş), and discusses how the family of the Canaanites “spread abroad” (Heb pūş). Similar sentiment, though different terminology, is found in 10:5, 32 (Heb pārad).
What is curious is that Genesis 10, which discusses different family/ethnic groups, comes before Genesis 11, which discusses the separation of languages, because one of the primary ways we distinguish different groups is precisely via language differentiation. To be sure, one should not expect ancient Israelites to be expert linguistic theorists; moreover, Genesis 10 probably comes from a different source/tradition than Genesis 11:1–9. Even so, the final ordering of the chapters is intriguing, if for no other reason than they are “dischronologized”.
At least two results of this (dis)ordering are worth noting. First, following the diffusion of people groups in Genesis 10, the hunkering down of the people in Genesis 11 can be more easily seen as a refusal to fulfill God’s command to populate the earth. Such unification is not what God wills. The story can thus be seen as an early witness to the importance—indeed, the divine legitimation—of pluralism and diversity. There is, according to the story, a kind of unity (national, linguistic, otherwise) that God does not will and a diversity (national, linguistic, otherwise) that God does will.
Second, it is possible that the unusual ordering of Genesis 10–11 functions to bring these chapters into line with a pattern previously established in Genesis, according to which humans cause some sort of problem to which God must respond. Fitting Gen 11:1–9 into this pattern means that it segues nicely into the call of Abram in Gen 12 and beyond, which thus becomes God’s next “response” to what humans have done. This interpretation may depend overmuch on a judgmental reading of God’s actions in Genesis 11, which, as we have seen, can be challenged, but if right, it would indicate that, in the final analysis, whatever its literary features, gaps, and ideology, the tower of Babel story may be a setup for the story of Abraham, another iconic text from the Hebrew Bible.
Feature image: The Tower of Babel, Pieter Bruegel the Elder, Kunsthistorisches Museum. Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons.