The Tower of Babel and the Holy Spirit

The Tower of Babel by Pieter Bruegel the Elder (1563)

One Language: Utopia or Dystopia?

The whole world had the same language and the same words. When they were migrating from the east, they came to a valley in the land of Shinar and settled there. They said to one another, “Come, let us mold bricks and harden them with fire.” They used bricks for stone, and bitumen for mortar. Then they said, “Come, let us build ourselves a city and a tower with its top in the sky, and so make a name for ourselves; otherwise we shall be scattered all over the earth.”

The Lord came down to see the city and the tower that the people had built. Then the Lord said: If now, while they are one people and all have the same language, they have started to do this, nothing they presume to do will be out of their reach. Come, let us go down and there confuse their language, so that no one will understand the speech of another. 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 speech of all the world. From there the Lord scattered them over all the earth.

Genesis 11:1-9

Language and Imperialism

The story of the Tower of Babel opens with the seemingly utopian vision of a primeval world sharing one language and one speech. However, deeper reflection demonstrates that the single world language poses a problem rather than an ideal in the sacred text.

The preceding chapters chronicle a multiplicity of peoples, lands, and cultures. Following the Flood, the sons of Noah “populate” the whole earth (Genesis 9:19). The Hebrew verb for “populate” (naphats) also means to disperse or scatter. Furthermore, languages, lands, and nations branch out in the Table of Nations (Genesis 10). 

Sandwiched between the list of names and the ancestry of Israel (Genesis 11:10-32), a world of nameless uniformity rises and falls. A world dominion subjugating all peoples and lands by the imposition of a single language and vocabulary signals empire building. 

Assyrian Empire

Rabbi Lord Jonathan Sacks writes:

The reference seems to be to the imperial practice of the neo-Assyrians, of imposing their own language on the peoples they conquered. One inscription of the time records that Ashurbanipal II “made the totality of all peoples speak one speech.” A cylinder inscription of Sargon II says, “Populations of the four quarters of the world with strange tongues and incompatible speech … whom I had taken as booty at the command of Ashur my lord by the might of my sceptre, I caused to accept a single voice.” The neo-Assyrians asserted their supremacy by insisting that their language was the only one to be used by the nations and populations they had defeated. On this reading, Babel is a critique of imperialism.1

Babylonian Empire

Indeed, the Book of Daniel explicitly refers to the “land of Shinar” (Daniel 1:2; Genesis 11:2)—the ancient name for Babylonia—when introducing the narrative of King Nebuchadnezzar’s siege of Jerusalem. Daniel, Hananiah, Mishael, and Azariah enter the king’s service by force and receive new names honoring Babylonian deities. Imperial edict seeks to wipe out their Hebrew identities by teaching them the language and literature of the Chaldeans (Daniel 1:4). As the book unfolds, Daniel and his companions heroically resist assimilation by keeping kosher and remaining faithful to the God of Israel. Three are cast into a fiery furnace for refusing to join the nations in worshipping the golden statue of Babylon.

Technology: Tool of Homogenization

The Lure of Knowledge and Power

The story of the Tower of Babel offers profound insight into the human condition. From the original transgression of partaking of the tree of knowledge of good and evil, sin intensifies. In both accounts, the disordered pursuit of knowledge and power ensnares humans.

Human Creativity Unleashed

Wandering “from the east” away from Eden, the descendants of Adam fall into fascination with the work of their hands.

When they were migrating from the east, they came to a valley in the land of Shinar and settled there. They said to one another, “Come, let us mold bricks and harden them with fire.” They used bricks for stone, and bitumen for mortar.

Genesis 11:2-3

The invention of bricks gives rise to new possibilities:

Then they said, “Come, let us build ourselves a city and a tower with its top in the sky, and so make a name for ourselves; otherwise we shall be scattered all over the earth.”

Genesis 11:4

Oddly, the intention of building a city and tower follows rather than precedes the invention of bricks. Bricks are not a means to an end, but an end engendering further ends. In the absence of stones in the valley of Shinar, humans find a synthetic alternative. The possibilities are endless!

The Artificial City

Technology fuels the drive to homogeneity and forced unity in the artificial city. Having lost sight of their identity as sons of God, the “sons of man/Adam” (Genesis 11:5) seek to reach the heavens from the valley of the earth by their own ingenuity. United by the same language, they band together in building a fortress of pride and security to avoid being “scattered all over the earth.”

The 19th-century Polish rabbi, Naftali Zvi Yehuda Berlin, comments:

…One language – that is what caused the first sin. This is that they agreed to stop in one single place. And this is against the will of God that said to “fill the land and replenish it” – that is, to walk to all its places, since the land was created to be settled.

Haamek Davar on Genesis 11:1

Divine Scattering

God commanded humans to spread out over the earth: “Be fruitful and multiply, and fill the earth and subdue it” (Genesis 1:28, RSV). In the chapter following the story of the Tower of Babel, God makes his covenant with Abram in the wilderness, far away from the city of Ur of the Chaldeans: “You are to become the father of a multitude of nations” (Genesis 17:3). God makes his covenant with Israel in the wilderness, away from the cities of Egypt: “You will be to me a kingdom of priests, a holy nation” (Exodus 19:6). Moses receives the Ten Commandments in a “face-to-face” encounter with God at the top of Mount Sinai (Exodus 33:11; 34:29), a divinely created “tower with its top in the sky.” 

Thy Name Be Praised

The people of God respond in a manner diametrically opposed to that of the builders of the Tower of Babel:

Not to us, Lord, not to us
but to your name give glory
because of your mercy and faithfulness.

Psalm 115:1

The Slavery of Brickmaking

Moses frees the Israelites from the slavery of brickmaking to worship God. The tower builders, mesmerized by their bricks, become enslaved by their ambition to create and “be like God” (Genesis 3:5). 

The Torah stresses the madness of the project with the image of God descending to observe the tiny city and tower. 

The Lord came down to see the city and the tower that the people had built.

Genesis 11:5

Totalitarianism

Then the Lord said: If now, while they are one people and all have the same language, they have started to do this, nothing they presume to do will be out of their reach.

Genesis 11:6

Unity is not good in itself; unity in falsehood leads to collective destruction. Language shapes thought; false words enchain a populace in tyranny and oppression. 

Language and thought control pave the way for totalitarianism:

And since the opinions of people are not identical, they feared that people might abandon this philosophy and adopt another. Therefore they sought to ensure that no one would leave their society. And one who veered from this uniformity among them was judged with burning… And the “same words” can also be seen as the fact that they would kill whoever did not think like them.

Haamek Davar on Genesis 11:4

Divine Mercy Diversifies

Come, let us go down and there confuse their language, so that no one will understand the speech of another.

Genesis 11:7

Divine mercy snaps the coiling and serpentine chain of uniformity to liberate a diversity of peoples to flourish. Like flowers in a garden, variety reflects the unity-in-diversity of the Godhead.

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 speech of all the world. From there the Lord scattered them over all the earth.

Genesis 11:8-9

The city of man represented by Babylon, from the Akkadian Bab-ilu, hubristically means “gate of God.” However, the true gate and city of God rises not from the earth, but comes down from heaven: 

I also saw the holy city, a new Jerusalem, coming down out of heaven from God, prepared as a bride adorned for her husband.

Revelation 21:2

Unity-in-Diversity at Pentecost

At Pentecost, the “tongues as of fire” from the Holy Spirit supersedes the confusion of Babel (a wordplay on Babylon/Bab-ilu from the Hebrew verb balal, “to confuse, confound”). Neither language nor technology, but the Holy Spirit, is the principle of unity in the Body of Christ. No return to a single language occurs; rather, the Holy Spirit speaks to each person in their own language. 

When the time for Pentecost was fulfilled, they were all in one place together. And suddenly there came from the sky a noise like a strong driving wind, and it filled the entire house in which they were. Then there appeared to them tongues as of fire, which parted and came to rest on each one of them. And they were all filled with the holy Spirit and began to speak in different tongues, as the Spirit enabled them to proclaim.

Now there were devout Jews from every nation under heaven staying in Jerusalem. At this sound, they gathered in a large crowd, but they were confused because each one heard them speaking in his own language. They were astounded, and in amazement they asked, “Are not all these people who are speaking Galileans? Then how does each of us hear them in his own native language? We are Parthians, Medes, and Elamites, inhabitants of Mesopotamia, Judea and Cappadocia, Pontus and Asia, Phrygia and Pamphylia, Egypt and the districts of Libya near Cyrene, as well as travelers from Rome, both Jews and converts to Judaism, Cretans and Arabs, yet we hear them speaking in our own tongues of the mighty acts of God.”

Acts 2:1-11

Mystical Union in the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit

Ultimately, the kingdom of God transcends human words, which only connect minds externally. Oneness in Jesus Christ—the divine and personal Word—is a mystical union. Diversification of persons by the anointing of the Holy Spirit transfigures the Church in the image of the Trinity.

After this I had a vision of a great multitude, which no one could count, from every nation, race, people, and tongue. They stood before the throne and before the Lamb, wearing white robes and holding palm branches in their hands. They cried out in a loud voice:

“Salvation comes from our God, who is seated on the throne, and from the Lamb.”

Revelation 7:9-10

Reference

1 Rabbi Lord Jonathan Sacks, “Individual and Collective Responsibility,” https://aish.com/399324521/

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