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.
The Babel story is believed by many to have entered into the Jewish consciousness during the Exile in Babylon. It’s not surprising – Babylon was a huge city – by ancient standards – and had nothing on Jerusalem. Often the story is used to try and explain the origin of human languages (though our languages don’t have common roots) and is sometimes used to show that diversity is God’s punishment on a proud humanity. The story, however, is much more subversive than that!
Cities are difficult places as within them the accumulation of wealth and power is more easily seen. We see from Solomon’s building projects how people are enslaved in order to provide the rich with the palaces and monuments they need. I suspect the poor were dragooned into building Babel’s tower. Imperial systems (and remember Babylon was an empire just as brutal as Rome) have to impose uniformity of language, custom and faith on their conquered peoples to ensure ease of control. All empires have done this and continue to do so through more subtle, but no less brutal means.
The writer sees God destroying the tower of Babel and, from the point of view of Empire, confusing the languages of the earth. We might read this as the Tower, which represents not just the pride of the rulers, but the labour of slaves being destroyed by a God who brings His people to freedom. The languages weren’t confused as much as allowed to be spoken again.
In our own age many of the symbols of empire we use each day are made by the poor and oppressed. Our phones and clothes are made by people on miniscule wages having to work long hours; our food is grown by farmers often paid a pittance for their labour, our insatiable need for oil kills our planet. English and Chinese have become the global languages and we kid ourselves that our political systems ensure freedom. Maybe we will be as confused when God pulls down the towers of our ideology and society as those Babylonians were when their Empire fell.
God of our world,
Help us appreciate the huge diversity of your people
of every tongue, ethnicity, faith, age and way of life.
Help us to see you at work in all the cultures of our world.
Forgive us when we seek to impose our culture as normative,
our political systems as proper,
and our understanding of your Will as definitive.
When we do those things
bring the towers of our mind crashing down,
that in our brokenness we may see your world as it really is.
Andy Braunston is an ordinand at the Scottish Congregational and United Reformed Church College and is the coordinator of the URC Daily Devotion project.