This blog offers a meditation on the Common Lectionary daily readings along with a headline from world news:
1 At first, the people of the whole world had only one language and used the same words. 2 As they wandered about in the East, they came to a plain in Babylonia and settled there. 3 They said to one another, “Come on! Let’s make bricks and bake them hard.” So they had bricks to build with and tar to hold them together. 4 They said, “Now let’s build a city with a tower that reaches the sky, so that we can make a name for ourselves and not be scattered all over the earth.”
5 Then the Lord came down to see the city and the tower which they had built, 6 and he said, “Now then, these are all one people and they speak one language; this is just the beginning of what they are going to do. Soon they will be able to do anything they want! 7 Let us go down and mix up their language so that they will not understand each other.” 8 So the Lord scattered them all over the earth, and they stopped building the city. 9 The city was called Babylon,[a] because there the Lord mixed up the language of all the people, and from there he scattered them all over the earth.
This is a wonderfully impertinent critique of power. Babylon from the time of the Hammurabi in the 18th century BCE was a by-word for civilization and power. A thousand years later it was the capital of the Chaldean dynasty who developed its famous hanging gardens. The author gives a satirical re-interpretation of its name which means “Gate of the God”, but is associated by him with the the Hebrew “balal” which means mixed up or confused. The great city is seen as a communal repeat of the sin of Adam and Eve, the human arrogance of wanting to be Gods. Their unity as a great city is oppressive because it exists for domination rather neighbourliness. Their common language which could have assisted friendship and civilisation has become a medium of empire.
God is depicted as mixing up their language and scattering their people over the earth. This is no outburst of rage but rather the exercise of a cool wisdom.In this story the creator has begun to catch up with his troublesome human creatures; he intervenes before evil can flourish and frustrates it by confusion and dispersion.
The image of Babylon as an evil parody of divine power is used throughout the Hebrew Bible and surfaces again in The Revelation in the New Testament, where it takes on the identity of Rome. In effect it becomes THE Biblical image of the political dimension of human sin. Christian thought never neglects individual sin; the individual human being has to decide for the love of God or the love of self. But in its best times it has also remembered the potential of sinful people to combine into a demonic unity which thinks it can do “anything it wants”. All empires are subject to this temptation and none have so far as I know, resisted it. All have become arrogant and oppressive. When this happens, the image of Babylon lies to hand as a tool for exposing injustice.
The “one language” crusade is usually a sign of arrogance. That’s why a corrupt Russian-speaking State is backed by a corrupt Russian -speaking Church to exercise rule over over other peoples and languages. That’s why the ability to speak English is lauded as a condition for UK citizenship. The unity that is being fashioned is not neighbourly but rather concerned with collective identity and power. “One language” points to what Herbert Marcuse called “One Dimensional Man”, a state in which nobody can envisage any alternative to the dominant culture. It’s the kind of language spoken by acolytes of the great leader of North Korea or indeed by the intolerant clones of competing fundamentalisms throughout the world.
The story of the great tower continues to provide a seriously comic view of human empire.