Tower of Babel

Here’s an old exegesis of the Tower of Babel story I wrote in college:

The structure of this text frames the story around action. After the introduction in verse 1, the story begins in earnest with human action, which occupies verses 2-4. God’s actions follow in verses 5-8, with an epilogue in verse 9 explaining the effects of God’s actions. When God acts, it is with such great force that humans are instantly overcome. The author simply emphasizes that God acts powerfully and finally. God’s strong actions in creating these different languages show that God clearly desired a diversity of languages among members of God’s creation. These details clearly establish that the author intended this text as an etiological myth, or story of origin.[1] It attempts to account for the diversity of languages in the world and to relate that diversity to the divine.

Understanding the story as an etiological myth does not require or disallow the actual historical existence of a tower or city of Babel. It also makes no comment on the prior existence of other languages: the text, as etiological myth, simply explains why the whole world doesn’t use a single language. According to its genre, the primary meaning of the text lies in its conclusions about the relationship of God to language, diversity, power, and pride. Though this story discloses characteristics of God from a time thousands of years ago, the fact that God does not change ensures that observations made in ancient times still have relevance today.[2]

Examining the structure of this text has shown that this etiological myth has implications for multilingualism. God says in this passage that unity will make “nothing they plan to do” impossible. While a modern viewpoint might see God attempting to limit human innovation and progress, God also prevents humanity from achieving new heights in the practice of evil as well. It may seem that multilingualism, then, came about due to a punishment by God, which seems to imply that those who attempt to unite the world, create common languages, or simply learn other languages subvert God’s will. However, God explicitly connects the ‘punishment’ here to a desire for power.[3] Diversity, on the other hand, is not punishment, but a fulfillment of God’s purpose[4]. Humanity strayed from that purpose at the Tower of Babel, and diversity was such an important part of God’s plan that God stepped in and changed the course of human events.

That God does not use linguistic diversity as a punishment will become clear when examining the word ‘confuse’ in verses 7 and 9, which tends to carry a negative connotation in modern society. This negative connotation, however, comes largely from modern interpretations and does not accurately reflect the original nature of the word. According to Gesenius, the word used here stems from a word that implies something like ‘to pour together’ or ‘to anoint.’[5] When God ‘confused’ the language of the people, God ‘mixed’ their languages to restore their original diversity, which had been lost in the Flood. It is also possible that in the aftermath of the flood, the language divergence that might have happened naturally over the course of generations was artificially blocked in an attempt to consolidate power. This hypothesis is based on the pattern of action established in 11:1 and 4, in which the population worked to maintain its monolithic culture and prevent “scattering.” Where God saw the possibility for healthy diversity, the people saw potential weakness and feared what might happen if they separated from each other. And so, in ‘mixing’ the languages of the people, God removed the artificial barriers against native languages that had resulted in a single vernacular. God acted not to destroy community, but to restore diversity within humanity and to prevent evil.

[1] Brueggemann, Genesis, 97.

[2] Psalm 90:2.

[3] Brueggemann, Genesis, 99.

[4] Ibid.

[5] Gesenius, Hebräisches Handwörterbuch, 101. Gesenius records the German mischen, mit Wasser erweichen, and others.