Tower of Babel

Now—all the earth one language and one speech—and as they set off eastward they found a plain in the land of Shinar and became citizens in that place.

They said each to his neighbour 
Come! Let us make bricks and burn them with fire.
And bricks were for them stone,

and asphalt was for them mortar
And they said Come! Let us build for ourselves

a City-and-Tower
And its head in the heavens,
And let us make a name for ourselves
Lest we be scattered on the face of the earth.
…
     And the LORD came down to see 
      the city and the tower 
      which the sons of man built …
And the Lord said, “See, one people one language, all of this, and this their start of work
And nothing will be impossible for them,

all they plan they will do
Come, let us go down to that place

and mix up their language
That they will not hear,

each the speech of his neighbour
So the Lord scattered them from there

over all the earth,
and they stopped building the city.

That is why it was called Babel, because there the Lord confused the language of the whole world and from there the Lord scattered them over the face of the whole earth.” – Genesis 11.

Main structure

The so-called “chiastic” or crossover structure—in which the second half of a story or section (or even a single sentence) mirrors & reverses the first half, is a common structure in the bible’s literature.

The structure exposes the themes. The opening and closing sentences tell us the theme of the story and when you contrast the opening with the close you see how the turning point — often the exact middle sentence — has changed things.

The rest provides the detail. Comparing the detail of the first half with the detail of the last half shows what has changed in the light of the central turning point.

Reversals abound. The united language is disunited. The settling together is reversed by scattering. They want to build up to heaven, but instead God comes down from heaven. They want to make a name for themselves but instead are confused.

Less obvious is the importance of the place name. Babel is not named at the beginning because it serves as a pun for “Balel”—to confuse—at the end, which is appropriate after the turning point, not before it. Before then it is referred to as ‘that place’ in Shinar.

Second Structure

As well as this main structure, there is a second parallel structure between the two halves. The parallels rest as much on the words and sounds as the meaning, and again v5 is the mid-point:

v1
One language One Speech
In That Place
They speak, each to his neighbour
Build a City and a Name
Lest We are Scattered over the face of the whole earth
v5
And the LORD came down to see the city and the tower which the sons of man built.
v6
One People One Language
In That Place
They cannot hear, each the speech of his neighbour
Stop Building the City, 'great' Babel
Scattered Over the face of the whole earth

In this structure we can see that the second half of story repeats, in the same order, the vocabulary of the first half.

Third Structure

The parallel structure can be folded one more time into a third, ‘anti-parallel’ structure:

v1
One language One Speech
  In That Place
    They speak, each to his neighbour
  Build a City
Lest We are Scattered over the face of the whole earth

v5
And the LORD came down to see the city and the tower which the sons of man built.

v6
One People One Language
  In That Place
   They cannot hear! each his neighbour
  Stop! Building the City
Scattered Over the face of the whole earth

The point here is that the first half of each parallel half is parallel-by-similarity (One language; one speech; in that place); but the second half is parallel-by-contrast. Each half is a mini-chiasm on the theme of unity vs scattering. The turning point inside each half is speech; successful in the first half but unsuccessful in the second half. In this structure, the them is speech (successful vs unsuccessful) whilst the place and the city serve as the examples of what might have been when people are united in speech.

Words

We mentioned that Babel is punned in Hebrew as Balel, to mix or confuse. Invisible in English is the more extended alliteration in the short speech v3-4 of the consonants n, b and l in the words for, come let us build, brick, stone. This same alliteration is picked up again in the pun in verse 7 & 9 on “let us confuse” (nbl), Babel (bbl) and “he confused” (bbl).
[Hebrew was first written with just consonants not vowels; the letters h & m in this section are mostly parts of grammar not vocabulary]

Archeology

You can see pictures of Babylonian & nearby towers on Wikipedia:

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Ziggurat

The oldest surviving one is dated to about 3000BC but similar earlier structures have been suggested as early as 6000 BC.

Meaning

The genesis text seems easy enough to interpet: The towers were intended to reach, figuratively at least, to the heavens. The “name” in “Make a name for ourselves” should be understood as fame or reputation.

Polemics?

The genesis text suggests the idea of men reaching heaven and makes no mention of the polytheist religion of Babylon. On the other hand:
• Babylonian texts probably consider the name Babel to derive from “Gate of god”.
• Herodotus says the top of the ziggurat was a shrine for the dwelling of gods.
• The Enmerkar epic has the confusion of languages being due to Enki (a senior god) making mischief and suggests that in the future (possibly the past; interpretation is uncertain) the languages will be united again.
• The main 1st millenium temple to Marduk in Babylon was Esagil–”house with the uplifted head”—and was next to the (probably 2nd millenium) Etemnaki–“Temple of the Foundation of Heaven and Earth”.
• The Enuma Elish considers the Babylonian template to be the “a likeness on earth of what he has wrought in heaven”. Indeed it says it was built by the minor gods the Annunaki:

The Annunaki wielded the hoe
For one whole year they moulded its bricks.
When the second year arrived
they raised the head of Esagil, a replica of the Apsû.
They built the lofty ziggurat of the Apsû
and established its … as a dwelling for Anu, Enlil and Ea [3 of the main gods].

Politically, the Babylonian empire was a major power for much of the period from the time of Genesis 12 in the 2nd millenium BC through to Babylon’s defeat by Persia in 539BC.

All of which raises the question whether early readers understood the story as a polemic against the power and religion of Babylon. Like all empires, Babylon thought itself the centre of the world and the divinely blessed pinnacle of humanity.

But the Genesis story mocks. The tower to the heavens is so small that God has to come down to see it. All-conqueroring empire-building Babylon was once defeated by a little trick of speech; the resurgent Babylonian empires of the readers’ times should be taken no more seriously.

Readers with their eyes open will be well aware that the impressive structures of Babylon—look again at those pictures on Wikipedia—were, like the monumental architecture of every other empire in history, built on the back of slaves,paid for by conquest, murder and theft. What is alleged to be the impressive demonstration of united humanity is in reality a testament to oppression & forced labour.

This is not the point made in the text however. Rather, the point made by God’s interference is more, perhaps, the foolishness of human boasting? They who think themselves great achievers do not notice how contingent their achievements are. They who aspire to fame and monumental achievement should realise how futile those things are

References

• Enmerkar https://www.britannica.com/biography/Enmerkar
• Esagila https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Esagila
• Etemnaki https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Etemenanki
• Enuma Elish 6:59-64 : Full text at https://www.ancient.eu/article/225/enuma-elish—the-babylonian-epic-of-creation—fu/
• Babel as Gate of God: Wenham’s Genesis commentary quoting Gelb, I. J. “The Name of Babylon.” Journal of the Institute of Asian Studies 1 (1955) 1-4

Creation Myths : the Status of Human Beings

The Babylonian epic Atrahasis opens on tablet 1 with the background to the Babylonian gods’ creation of humans:

Atrahasis Tablet 1

When the gods instead of man
Did the work, bore the loads,
The gods’ load was too great,
The work too hard, the trouble too much,
The great Anunnaki made the Igigi
Carry the workload sevenfold

Made the Igigi bear the workload.
The gods had to dig out canals,
Had to clear channels, the lifelines of the land, The Igigi had to dig out canals,
Had to clear channels, the lifelines of the land. The gods dug out the Tigris river
And then dug out the Euphrates.

They were counting the years of loads.
For 3,6oo years they bore the excess,
Hard work, night and day.
They groaned and blamed each other, Grumbled over the masses of excavated soil
‘Let us confront the chamberlain, And get him to relieve us of our hard work!’


so the lower gods, the “Igigi” go to complain (with weapons!), and the higher gods discuss the matter, and eventually a solution is proposed:

‘Beletili the womb-goddess is present-
Let her create primeval man
So that he may bear the yoke,
So that he may bear the yoke, the work of Ellil, Let man bear the load of the gods!’
They called up the goddess, asked
The midwife of the gods, wise Mami,
‘You are the womb-goddess (to be the) creator of mankind!
Create primeval man, that he may bear the yoke! Let him bear the yoke, the work of Ellil,
Let man bear the load of the gods!’


And so Enki, one of the Gods, acts. They sacrifice a god, mix his flesh and blood with clay, and create humans.

If we ask, “what view of humanity does this story suggest?” then it seems to me the answer is, human as slave. The raison d’être of humans is to work so the gods don’t have to. Later, the story suggests an element of mutual need: when Atrahasis makes a sacrifice to the gods after the Flood, they flock to the smell “like flies to dung”.

It forms an interesting contrast with the more familiar (to us) Genesis chapter 1:

In the beginning God created the heavens and the earth. Now the earth was formless and empty, darkness was over the surface of the deep, and the Spirit of God brooded over the waters.
And God said, “Let there be light,” and there was light. God saw that the light was good, and he separated the light from the darkness. God called the light “day,” and the darkness he called “night.” And there was evening, and there was morning — the first day.

And God said, “Let there be lights in the vault of the sky to separate the day from the night, and let them serve as signs to mark sacred times, and days and years, and let them be lights in the vault of the sky to give light on the earth.” And it was so. God made two great lights—the greater light to govern the day and the lesser light to govern the night. He also made the stars. God set them in the vault of the sky to give light on the earth, to govern the day and the night, and to separate light from darkness. And God saw that it was good. And there was evening, and there was morning —the fourth day.

Then God said, “Let us make humankind in our image, in our likeness, so that they may govern over the fish in the sea and the birds in the sky, over the livestock and all the wild animals, and over all the creatures that move along the ground.”
So God created humankind in his own image,
in the image of God he created them;
male and female he created them.
God blessed them and said to them, “Be fruitful and increase in number; fill the earth and take control of it. Govern the fish in the sea and the birds in the sky and over every living creature that moves on the ground. ”

Then God said, “I give you every seed-bearing plant on the face of the whole earth and every tree that has fruit with seed in it. They will be yours for food. And to all the beasts of the earth and all the birds in the sky and all the creatures that move along the ground—everything that has the breath of life in it—I give every green plant for food. ” And it was so.
God saw all that he had made, and it was very good. And there was evening, and there was morning —the sixth day.


Genesis makes several points that, compared to other ancient literature are eyebrow-raising. Firstly that the stars, the sun and the moon are not divine or even spiritual beings. They are mere “things”, lights in the sky. They are, as it were, demythologised.

Secondly, the place of humans. Humankind is first of all described as “made in the image of God.” If we ask what that implies, the proximate explanation given is that humans are made to govern. This is evidently a much more exalted view of humanity than that reflected by the Atrahasis epic.

We should notice this appears to apply to all humans. Egyptian, Greek and Roman empires all used the idea of Kings being divine (like a divine right of kings, but on steroids) and therefore having authority to rule as justification for exercise of brutal power over other humans.

Genesis, by contrast, describes all humans as made in the divine image, and the task of government over the earth is given to all.

We should also notice that female and male are included simultaneously. The one Image is created male and female; the command to govern is given to both; and obviously the command to be fruitful (if we take fruitful to mean having descendants!) requires both.

In a less individualistic society than our own, the relationships are key. In Atrahasis, humans relate to gods by being slaves, offering labour and food. In Genesis, there are no such gods, and we relate to the one Creator as authorised representatives, governing—that is, taking care of—the world on his behalf. Our fellow-human beings, female and male, are co-rulers, divinely appointed to govern, all given the authority of a ruler, not an underling.

Notes

  1. Atrahasis text translation taken from Myths from Mesopotamia. It’s hard to find on the web, presumably because all the translations are still in copyright.
  2. Genesis text mostly from NIV except I translate רדה as govern, not rule; and כבשׁ as take control, not subdue. If you want to dispute my translation, I’m up for an argument. (In my view it will mostly revolve about connotations of words in 21st century English vs 16th century English. In the 21st Century we associate ‘rule’ with monarchy, and we suspect monarchy of implying inherently bad government. But the entire human race cannot be a monarch, and government is not inherently bad. So rule now seems a poor translation).
  3. “Be fruitful and increase; fill the earth” sounds in English like an emphatic command to have lots of children. But all three of the Hebrew verbs can be read as about fulfilling potential rather than as about fertility specifically.

The Christmas of Politics

The Christmas story is all about politics. Look:

‘Now after Jesus was born in Bethlehem of Judea in the days of Herod the king, behold, wise men from the east came to Jerusalem, saying, “Where is he who has been born king of the Jews? For we saw his star when it rose and have come to worship him.” When Herod the king heard this, he was troubled, and all Jerusalem with him; and assembling all the chief priests and scribes of the people, he inquired of them where the Christ was to be born.’

Let’s translate that a little for the benefit of those of us who don’t live in the 1st century Roman empire:

Now after Jesus was born in Bethlehem of Judea during the lifetime term of office of Herod, president and chief justice, behold, wise men from the east came to Jerusalem, saying, “Where is he who has been born the legitimate ruler of the Jews? For we saw his star when it rose and have come to submit to his goverment.” When president Herod heard this, he was troubled, and all Jerusalem with him; and assembling all the government ministers, chief judges, and lawyers, he inquired of them where the real president was to be born.

Or, from the other end of the political scene, Mary the pregnant teenager proclaims Christmas is about this: “God has sacked the proud and brought down the powerful from their places in the government and the lawcourts, and has exalted the humble; he has given food and more to the starving, and he has sent the rich packing.”

Forgive the loss of poetry but the Good News of Christmas, according to the angel Gabriel, is the coming of a government, a ruler, a judge, who will do it Right. Jesus, rightful ruler of the world. Laws will be just, courts will not cost the earth, and the rich will not shaft the poor.

And so the church that follows Jesus attempts to demonstrate a new society, in which the starving are indeed fed, the poor protected and the weak defended in court.

It is apparent that Jesus’ government doesn’t favour the usual tools of government — armies, lawyers, yearly reams of new legislation, police enforcement. It is more a person-by-person “if you’re following Jesus, then do what he would do” method. Which may sound small and slow but like the mustard seed turns into something surprisingly big. Bigger than the Roman empire. And a lot lot nicer.

It’s a government you could believe in.