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The Tower of Babylon

July 16, 2012

The story of the tower of Babel (Genesis 11:1-9) is normally told as a just-so story about the origin of languages.  However, a very important fact is almost always obscured in translation: Babel is a known place.  It shows up some 262 times in the Old Testament and another dozen times in the New Testament.  In two of those places (Genesis 11 and Genesis 10:10) the name of the city is routinely translated as Babel.  Nearly everywhere else1 it is translated as Babylon.  This is not due to some confusion about whether Babel is Babylon.  Babel is on the plain of Shinar and in Daniel 1:2 Nebuchadnezzar, king of Babylon, brings items from Jerusalem to his home in the land of Shinar.  In Genesis 10 Babel is grouped with other cities from the original Babylonian Empire2.  There is no reason to avoid translating בבל as “Babylon” in Genesis 11 except that people expect a Tower of Babel not a Tower of Babylon.  In fact, even the tower is somewhat overrated as the story never mentions the tower without also mentioning the city.

There’s quite a lot more we could delve into in regard to how realizing that Babel is Babylon might change our interpretation of Genesis 11.  Is the one language mentioned meant to be some primeval state of speech or the enforced language of an empire?  Mesopotamian empires routinely brought one language to their subjects who were displaced across the empire and forced to learn their master’s language to be governed (Akkadian and Aramaic both spread this way).  Is the mention of bricks important?  The next place such loving detail will be lavished on bricks will be in Egypt under the slave-driver’s whips.  Perhaps bricks are routinely made by slave or corvée3 labor, perhaps this is merely meant to connect the stories of Babylon and Egypt, or perhaps it is meaningless coincidence.  Is the judgment on Babylon at the end of the story enforcement of the divine mandate to spread out and fill the earth or is it terrible punishment?  I am going to ignore almost all of these interesting tangents.  Instead, I wish to focus on two clear points: this story is about Babylon and in this story Babylon does what is wrong and God puts a stop to this.  God and Babylon have a conflict, God wins, Babylon loses.  At the end of the story we learn that Babylon actually means “confusion”4 and, given the strong sense in the ancient world that a name is reality Babylon really is, to some degree, confusion.

This is the point that I find interesting.  We’ve now established that the Tower of Babylon is a completely useless story with no application, right?  It used to be about all of us and all our languages and now it’s about some boring dead people in some civilization we probably learned about in history class (but we’ve tried to forget).  The Tower of Babylon risks becoming one of those reasons we don’t read the Old Testament – it’s not about us, it’s about Israel and their ancient, boring neighbors5.  I am about to argue that actually The Tower of Babylon: Babylon’s Secret Sordid Origins is a far more interesting and relevant show than The Tower of Babel: The Origin of Foreign Language Requirements.

Babylon is, as I’ve pointed out, the sort of civilization we continue to learn about.  It is a “great” civilization.  It had huge buildings, enormous temples and palaces, ziggurats, and monuments.  It boasted a wealthy aristocracy who invented myths, commissioned artwork, and worked out systems of astrology to which the horoscopes printed in many newspapers today still owe a debt.  Babylon introduced writing across a vast empire both through conquest (and the necessity of sending written orders and reports across that conquered empire) and through cultural conquest.  People learned the language of Babylon because it was big, it was important, and all across its empire there were people who knew it.  Other huge empires like Assyria picked up Babylonian culture and repurposed it.  The Amarna Letters, written between Egyptians and their Canaanite vassals (none of them Babylonians), are written in Akkadian, the language of Babylon and its precursor.  The myth Enuma Elish replaced revered Mesopotamian deities with Babylon’s city-god, Marduk and did so well that soon non-Babylonians were telling the tale of how Marduk became king of the gods.  Some of them, large, powerful neighboring empires, modified the tale so it focused on their city-god, but even in doing so they were borrowing from Babylon.

God hates Babylon.  He is not impressed by their building projects or their single language.  “With all of this,” He says, “they’ll be able to do anything they scheme to do.”6  He scatters it all, confuses the language, and ends the building projects.  Instead, having looked at all the glories of the crowning jewel of Mesopotamian civilization, God calls Abram to wander in a far-off land and beget a nation of rustic hill-folk without kings or grand building projects.  And when those hill-folk reject God as their king and demand a monarchy to be like the nations (those Babylonian-influenced nations with their Akkadian-speaking priests and scribes) and began their grand building projects and raised up aristocrats, God sent them into exile in Babylon where, after all, they were secretly asking to be.

God hates Babylon.  But, here’s the key, we don’t.  We love Babylon with its building and artwork, its myths and its ancient glory.  Perhaps God hears the cries of the thousands sold into slavery, the dispossessed marched across an empire, the dead slaughtered in the sack of their cities, and thinks the cost too high.  Perhaps God thinks that a ziggurat is a bad use of resources while the poor starve in the streets.  Perhaps God just thinks the mountains He made are better.  But that’s the point: we still love the trappings of Empire.  We still love the glory of Babylon and we still wish to make a name for ourselves.

Today there is no Babylon.  Iraq, the country where Babylon’s remains lie, is not about to take over the world.  But even there Babylon shows its influence.  In 1983 Saddam Hussein began to rebuild Babylon, stamping bricks with his name listed as “son of Nebuchadnezzar”.  One dictator to follow in the footsteps of another, seeking to claim glory in the same way.  I, for one, am willing to give Saddam this much: he was a true son of Babylon.  But Saddam is dead and Iraq is in shambles, more likely to collapse in civil war than to rise to world-ruling empire.  So why should we care about Babylon?

The systems that make us see Babylon as great when God hates it are still at work today.  We still look at the grand, successful world around us and borrow.  Our pastors style themselves after the celebrity-kings of our new empires.  Our churches bow their knees to the priests of marketing and accept the proffered structures of business.  Have we asked ourselves whose system of values this is?  Does this come from Abram and his hill-folk tribes, from Jesus the homeless wanderer, or from glittering Babylon, from Imperial Rome?  When we ask ourselves who we want to be do we incline our hearts towards Nebuchadnezzar and his ilk?  Do we want power and glory, acclaim throughout the world, richness beyond reckoning?  Do we wish to erase all who oppose us, to enforce on the whole world a single language that we might command whatever we wish?  Maybe you don’t.  I do.  I am more a man of Babylon than I am of God’s Kingdom.  And that’s why we need the tower of Babylon.  Sure, it’s not a new theme.  It’s one echoed in the choosing of David, when Jesus stops what he is doing to heal a little girl or a leper, when we read the Law with its repetition of the poor, the orphaned, the widow, and the sojourner.  We need the Tower of Babylon to remind us that God wants us to follow an entirely different system of rules.  God’s Kingdom is not Babylon.  It is not the glories of empire, old or new.  God is doing something different.  That is what the Tower of Babylon reminds us of.

[1] Psalm 87:4 sometimes has Babel in it as well.

[2] Babylon was the chief city of a native empire at two different times, the old Babylonian Empire and the Neo-Babylonian Empire.  It is the Neo-Babylonian Empire that brings Israel into exile.  Babylon was also an important city and even a capital in some other empires that conquered Babylon and used its existing infrastructure and bureaucracy for their own ends.

[3] Corvée labor is essentially a labor tax owed by lower-class individuals to the king or aristocracy.  An individual would owe a certain amount of work to their superior which would often be used to build or maintain infrastructure or to build projects that brought glory to the aristocrat in charge.  This type of labor, rather than simple slavery is probably what the Hebrews are engaging in within Egypt since they maintain their own villages, crops, and livestock.  The Hebrew language would not clearly differentiate between such classes of servitude (indeed, it does not even differentiate between a servant and a slave).

[4]The word play at work here is between Babel (בבל) and balal (בלל) which means confusion.  Note that early Hebrew did not write vowels and so the written forms I have provided are more like one another than the English forms – BBL and BLL, essentially.

[5] Not that Israel’s neighbors are actually boring but if you aren’t reading the Old Testament because it’s not about you this statement might reflect your thoughts well.

[6] I choose “scheme” because the word used here often implies planning evil although not always, much like the English “scheme” or “plot”.  Now, there’s not a lot of data so this is a weak conclusion but in my review of Biblical uses it appears that this word (zamam, זמם) can be used in two ways.  In the first you specify what the scheme is.  In these cases the word can be good – in Zechariah 8:15 God says that he zamams to do good (not that adding an “s” is the way to make the verb past tense first person singular in Hebrew).  In the second there is no plan specified, one simply zamams or zamams to someone.  These uses appear to mean something like “plan evil” or “plot against”.  For instance, see Psalm 37:12 which reads “the wicked zamams to the righteous” although  context makes it clear that this is a plan for evil.

5 Comments leave one →
  1. July 16, 2012 12:59 pm

    Very interesting. I’ve written a non-fiction book (currently undergoing editorial review) that casts Babylon as the culprit in a mystery-themed format. I have her as the femme fatale, the wicked queen, the sneaky villain that nobody pays any attention to because they’re all on the lookout for little red devils and big black dragons. She’s a mind-set, a system opposed to God on every front. I find your piece refreshing because MOSTpeople think “she” doesn’t appear on the biblical scene until the end times. I contend that she’s been around practically forever. Your article demonstrates that clearly.


    • Eric permalink
      July 16, 2012 9:26 pm

      Yeah, Babylon seems to show up in the end-times stuff only because Babylon has already done enough to symbolize all the evils of an opposing civilization. I tend to think that the civilization in view in something like Revelation is the Roman Empire.

  2. July 16, 2012 9:21 pm

    I never made the connection about the bricks and Babylon and Egypt before. Nice catch!

    • Eric permalink
      July 16, 2012 9:24 pm

      The brick connection might be spurious – I’d want to look more carefully at the words being used and even then it might be unclear. (If the word were identical and odd I’d assume it was a deliberate connection.)


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