Friday, 24 October 2008

The tower of Babel

At the end of the day today I had an intriguing conversation with a colleague about the tower of Babel. The story is only nine verses long but what is the myth about? Are we to understand that the various languages that exist on the earth are in some way a curse of a jealous and worried God preoccupied with his status?
In our conversation I said that it seemed to me that the story had a lot of different levels of myth wound into it. Was there really some idyllic past time when all human beings spoke the same language, when we really understood one another? Hmm ... I think not.
Then there is the myth of the single uniform project - the wonderful city and tower reaching up to the heavens. Human beings seemingly speaking the same language have projects that make them want to be like God - is this the message? Is the confusion of language a way of representing a confusion of human projects where human beings overreach their humanity and try to take on God's role? If we all start speaking a language which believes we are God then that language would need confusing and scattering perhaps.
In his seminal and much reworked text on language and interpretation, After Babel, George Steiner indicates that the language any of us use is only ever an approximation, to speak or write or interpret is "to translate" to some extent from thought, emotion and experience to approximate words. So a pre-existing single uniform language where people were able to communicate so effectively is an attractive idea but almost certainly a nonsense - we all know that speaking the same langauge doesn't necessarily mean we understand one another.
Of course we could take the story simply as a naive primitive way of explaining the number of languages in terms of divine intervention.
But it's also interesting that the story of the tower of Babel comes at the end of the stories of creation, the fall and the flood. Might we understand that tower-building uniformity is not part of God's plan but that confused linguistic diversity might be? I rather hope so.
So what are the towers of Babel we've been building today? Do we need a single uniform global market or are we allowed to imagine a more diverse, locally coloured internationally linked world economy?
Anyway for now here is the text.

Now the whole earth had one language and the same words. And as they migrated from the east, they came upon a plain in the land of Shinar and settled there. And they said to one another, ‘Come, let us make bricks, and burn them thoroughly.’ And they had brick for stone, and bitumen for mortar. Then 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.’ The Lord came down to see the city and the tower, which mortals had built. And 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. Come, let us go down, and confuse their language there, so that they will not understand one another’s speech.’ So the Lord scattered them abroad from there over the face of all the earth, and they left off building the city. Therefore 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.


Tom Zweifler said...

This is a vivid Biblical story whose very dramatic scope means that we "know it so well" that we don't always read the text. The tower and the languages, the God who confuses (or should that better be con-fuse (to pour together) to "mix or mingle things so as to render the elements indistinguishable" which seems to be the exact opposite of what is happening in the text) we miss one key element of what the story is really about. At the beginning the "whole earth" (the oikoumene maybe) was a band of people migrating westwards. By the end of the text the "whole earth" is literally that, they are scattered "over the face of all the earth". And the deeper meaning? I'll leave that to fellow bloggers.

Rachel said...

We must have been pondering this story at about the same time because yesterday I looked at this with my under 5s ministry. We used oversized garden Jenga blocks and I expected them to demonstrate perfectly the fact that because we don't communicate successfully with each other, harmony is hard to achieve but they proceeded to build the most perfectly-balanced tower, higher than some of them can reach without any tantrums or disagreements...

Perhaps it demonstrates that being corporate in our witness and worship, we have much to learn from the 'little children' who trust each other and God better than their grown-ups who embroil themselves in wrangles and seek to define themselves in opposition of other parties (current conflicts in Anglican communion).

God bless
Rachel (re vis.e re form)