The Babel Tale: A Polemic Against Imperialistic Unity and An Affirmation of A God-Willed Diversity



What is the Babel story all about? In contrast to what has been traditionally posited concerning the Babel story, this article will postulate that the Babel story signifies humankind’s defective attempt to establish a self-made brand of unity that entails uniformity over and against a God-ordained unity that embraces diversity. Therefore in light of my thesis, this article will be divided into three sections. The first section of this paper will attempt to examine the structure and language of the Babel story. The second section will explore the literary and cultural background of the text while the last section of this paper will attempt to bring all the material together into one practical conclusion in order to provide a practical exhortation.

Structure and Language

The Structure

From the story’s careful choice of the words to its satirical presentation of its human protagonist (vv.1-4); the Babel story is a remarkable literary work that communicates by means of literary prose to communicate the overall thrust of the narrative. In reading the Babel story, closely one can immediately notice the symmetry throughout the whole entire story which is evinced by the writers’ use of antithetical of parallelisms[1]. For example, the Babel story can be broken up into five scenes: (1) the travels of the people from the east, (2) the eastern peoples plan to build a city and a tower, (3) the Divine inspection, (4) the Divine plan to confuse the plan of the eastern people and (5) the scattering of the eastern people. Furthermore, these fives scenes are enveloped by an introduction (v.1) and a conclusion (v.9) that provides the overall thrust for the entire story.[2] However, in light of all that has been said concerning the division of the Babel story, the most telling feature of the tale lies in the way that the writers of the story use each scene to parallel later scenes within the tale. In looking carefully at each scene, one notices that each scene has its own opposing counterpart that uses similar key words to enhance the scenic parallelism.[3] For example, vv.1 and 6 parallel each other in that these verses use phrases such as “one language” (v.1) and “one people” (v.6); vv. 2 and 8 parallel each other with phrases such as “there” (v.2) and “from there” (v.8); vv. 3 and 7 parallel each other in that it uses the phrase “each other” (v.3) and “each other’s language” (v.7); vv. 3 and 7 parallel each other in using the common phrase “come, let us make bricks” (v. 3) and “come, let us confuse” (v.7); vv. 4 and 5 use the common expression “let us make for ourselves” (v.4) and “that the humans built” (v.5); vv. 4 and 5 also parallel each other in their usage of the phrase “a city and a tower” (v.4) and “the city and the tower” (v.5).[4]

Thus, after a close reading of the Babel tale one encounters that the structure is telling of an eastern people who have found themselves in absolute conflict with the will of God. Even more vividly, the general structure of the Babel story describes a people whose fears and aspirations to build, conquer, and make a name for themselves has reached heaven prompting the coming down action of God. A coming down that resulted in the eventual confusing of the one common language and the scattering of the people over the entire earth.[5] Who then are these eastern peoples in the tale of Babel found competing with the will of God?

The Language of Babel Story

Though the name of the main protagonist is not directly mentioned until later in the narrative, the writer makes uses of literary devices known as “paronomasias” – a literary device where the writer pairs groups of words together that are different in origin and meaning but similar in sound – which provide readers with interpretive keys for the entire tale and eventually the revelation of the main protagonist.[6] Such “paronomasias” (or literary devices) are quite difficult to notice for readers of the English text chiefly because the particular word plays and repetitions were artistically done in the Ancient Hebrew. For example, throughout the entire Babel story consonants b, l, or p and m – speaking of the Hebrew alphabet – enhance the entire tale.[7] For example, verse 3 reads, “come let us make bricks…they had brick for stone” is linked to verse 4 which has “come let us build ourselves”. In verse 5 there are the words “the sons of humankind built” this, is liked to verse 7 where we hear the words “and confuse”. Also in verse 8, the sounds continue with the phrase “and they ceased” and finally in verse 9 one comes to the anticipated culmination where the sound “babel” plays of the term confused – in ancient Hebrew the verb to confuse is the word balal.[8] Genesis 1:9 then artistically reads in this manner: “Therefore it was called Babel, because there the Lord confused (balal) the language of all the earth; and from there the Lord scattered them abroad over the face of all the earth.” Babel was the Hebrew name for the ancient empire of Babylon. Literally, the name Babylon from the Akkadian term bab illi meant “the gate of the gods”, however, artistically and ironically (in this Hebrew tale), Babel is characterized as a place of confusion.[9] The so-called “gate of the gods” fell far short of expectations, ending in confusion and chaos.[10] Thus, in light of the literary prose put forth by the writer one learns not only about an eastern people who’s will is pitched against God’s will but through the antithetical parallelisms, paronomasias (or word plays), and repetition the reader subtly encounters this primeval tale to be also about an eastern people called Babylon.

Literary and Cultural Context

The Scattering Action of God

In reading the Babel story, the unity of language presented in verse 1 is often interpreted as the unity that God desires for humankind. In paralleling vv.1 and 9 it would seem that in the succeeding chapters of the Babel narrative, the unity experienced at the beginning of the Babel story is disrupted by means of human arrogance, pride, and fear which ultimately leads to the scattering action that takes place in verse 9. Thus, from this perspective, the unity of language is seen as positive while the scattering of language is looked upon as negative. However, while this interpretation is plausible it can be posited that such a negative understanding of the scattering action is unnecessary. Perhaps another interpretation seems more reasonable, that is, perhaps the unity of language depicted in verse 1 does not represent what God desires and maybe the scattering of language in verse 9 is representative of both God’s condemnation of the arrogance and pride of imperial Babylon and God’s outworking of his purposes for creation.[11]

Oh the Splendor of Babylon!

Babylon was a city of wonder in the ancient world. The ancient city of Babylon covered over two thousand acres, making it one of the largest ancient Mesopotamian sites.[12] However, while geography is important it is not the focus of this paper. The reference to Babylon in v.9 appears to illuminate something very interesting about the building project that our text mentions in vv. 3-4. In these verses the Babylonian people comment 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 phrase “let us make bricks” is a very interesting expression because it is used only of the Hebrews making bricks in Egypt (Exod. 5:7). While this phrase is only found in connection with the Hebrews of the Exodus this expression is common in Akkadian – Mesopotamian; Babylon is a Mesopotamian city – literature.[13] Also, another interesting phrase is the expression: “So they had bricks for stone and asphalt for mortar”. This particular expression further represents a comparison of building technique in Israel and Mesopotamia. However, this gathering of materials leads the Babylonian people to “build a city, and a tower with its top in the heavens in order to make a name for themselves” (v.4). This very statement leads into the very arrogant ideology of tower (or temple) building in the Mesopotamian culture. For these ancient Babylonians the tower (or temple) building was a sign of dominance. In their ambition to “build themselves a city, and a tower with its top in the heavens” and to “make a name for themselves” these Babylonians spit in the face of the Divine and attempted to make themselves divine.

Thus, in setting out to build a grandiose tower (or temple) and city the Babylonian people were directly “flaunting the superiority of their civilization, believing that one day the Babylonian language, the chief expression of that culture, will be adopted by all peoples.”[14] Even more in attempting to build a tower and city that reached to the heavens, these eastern people also desired to claim divine prerogatives for themselves. Lastly, a note is needed to be made about the character of the building that the Babylonian people set out to build. While the composition date of this tale is unknown, most scholars comment that the tower/temple was called a ziggurat.[15] “A ziggurat was a stepped temple with a rectangular or, later, square base, built mostly in Mesopotamia. Ziggurats usually had a sanctuary on the ground level, which perhaps was matched by a sanctuary on the Ziggurats summit, where the gods were thought to appear. Ziggurats were built from the protoliterate period on.”[16] Though the exact date of when the composition of the Babel tale is not known most scholars allow for the ancient Ziggurat to be constructed in the old Babylonian period which fell into ruin under the Cassites.[17]

God’s Condemnation of Imperial Babylon

Though subtly, the Babel story clearly identifies the main protagonist as the Babylonians. By the structural symmetry of the text and through the different literary devices used by the editors of the text the reader’s attention is artistically drawn to the climactic revealing of the main protagonist in verse 9, namely, the Babylonians. However, if looked at more closely the very character of the texts places it even more sharply pronounced. From the building of the tower 11:1-9 which was probably patterned after the great ziggurat, – a stepped temple or tower with a rectangular or, later square base, built mostly in Mesopotamia – to the building techniques and phraseology (11:3); Indeed the narrative is set in Mesopotamia (11:2,9).[18] Nevertheless, perhaps there is another discreet descriptive reference in the Babel story that can tell us more about these eastern peoples in the Babel story.

In 11:2 we learn of an unidentified “they” who set out to “build a city and a tower with its top in the heavens in order that they may make a name for themselves and not be scattered abroad upon the face of the whole earth.”[19] Who then is this unidentified “they”? Though the text does not explicitly identify the “they” until verse 9, verse 2 subtly directs the reader’s attention to the word Shinar which happens to be where the unidentified people settle when they migrated from the east. While the term Shinar is only mentioned once in the Babel Story, the term Shinar links the readers to the previous chapter where 10:8-10 where the term Shinar is mentioned. Consequently, in reading 10:8-10 we hear these statements concerning the people of Shinar: “Cush became the father of Nimrod; he was the first on earth to become a mighty warrior. He was a mighty hunter before the Lord; therefore it is said, “Like Nimrod a mighty hunter before the Lord.” The beginning of his kingdom was Babel, Erech, and Accad, all of them in the land of Shinar.” Thus, taking 11:2 together with the 10:8-10 we gain insight into knowing who these unidentifiable people in 11:2, that is, we learn that the “they” are the descendants of Cush and their leader is Nimrod. Notice how 10:8-10 speaks of Nimrod, the text identifies him as a as a mighty warrior and a mighty hunter. “These two descriptions belong together, for the same Hebrew word, gibbor, is employed to describe Nimrod: he is a gibbor (a mighty warrior) and a gibbor sayid (a mighty warrior of beasts).”[20] From 10:8-10 we gather that Nimrod was a “tyrant with respect to both humans and beasts, “a true prototype of the Babylonians monarchs.”[21]

Therefore in light of all these references, the reader not only comes to identify these eastern peoples as Babylon but in a more pronounced way it appears that the kingdom of these eastern peoples was characterized by an attitude of absolute superiority. The Babylonian empire was a prideful and arrogant empire which forced all other nations to be gathered under the banner of Babylonian identity. The eastern peoples and their tyrant leader Nimrod desired to “make a name for themselves” by means of a Godless unity that placed themselves at the center of their – placed them in power – entailing an imperialistic uniformity. Hence, it is to this type of audaciousness that prompts the “coming down” of God, namely, the audaciousness of Babylon to take God’s prerogatives upon themselves – they attempted be God – and dangerously attempt to unify the world under the banner of Babylonian pride.

 Scattering as the Outworking of God’s Purposes for Creation

However, not only does this narrative pronounce condemnation on imperial Babylon, but the story also highlights God’s purposes for creation. This particular purpose is evinced through the entire Genesis narrative leading up unto the Babel story. Beginning with Genesis 1:28 we notice that God blesses humankind and he tells them to “be fruitful and multiply, and fill the earth and subdue it.”[22] Contrary to unifying people altogether in one particular space, it would from this verse appear that God’s purpose since the beginning has to been to “fill” or to “scatter” his people over the entire earth. Thus, the filling of the earth in Genesis is something that is looked upon as something negative, but the filling of the earth is something that is rather positive that represents the outworking of God’s plan. However, not only do we find God’s desire for humankind to multiply and fill the earth in Genesis 1:28, but all throughout Genesis 1-9 we find God’s desire being affirmed.  However, it is not until we reach chapter 10 that we begin to see God’s desire to “scatter the people abroad” become a reality. In reading chapter 10 the reader hears of many languages, families and people being “scattered all over” the earth after the flood. However, it should be noted that this particular “scattering” that is occurring in Genesis 10 is not something that is looked upon negatively by God. Rather, chapter 10 appears to indicate that God’s vision for filling the earth is coming to its fulfillment. Notice the structure of Genesis 10 along with the numerical unity that appears to ungird the chapter. In Genesis 10 there is total number of seventy nations laid out in multiples of seven – a number in the Bible that represents the concept of totality and perfection.[23] Consequently, from the perspective of Genesis 10 it would appear that the scattering action of God is perhaps something that is positive rather negative.

In light of all that has been said, we turn to Genesis 11:1-9. It is obvious that Genesis 10 and 11 are linked together in the way that they both attempt to give a description of how human diversity began, but a problem seems to develop when we explore the explanations given for diversity in each account. For example, on the positive side Genesis 10 appears to suggest that the human diversity is the positive outworking of God’s purposes for creation, while Genesis 11:1-9 seems to suggest otherwise, namely, that human diversity came as the result of human arrogance, pride, and fear. Thus, in light of all that has been said, how then do we evaluate the apparent disagreement between Genesis 10 and 11:1-9? The fact that there are different traditions at work within these texts is quite obvious. It is believed that the Genesis 10 and 11:1-9 is representative of two editors, that is, an older editor entitled (J) known as the Yahwist and a newer editor entitled (P) known as the priestly writer.[24] Thus, the very point that the final editor of Genesis included Genesis 11:1-9 and 10 shows that he regarded the material as complementary, not contradictory.[25] “The dual mention of the ‘flood’ and ‘Babel’ (10:1, 10, 32; 11:9) and other keywords, such as, ‘scatter’, ‘build,’ ‘land,’ shows how the two narratives have been brought into mutual relationship and shed light on each other” which suggest that 10 and 11:1-9 must be read together.[26] Even more, the overall framework of Genesis seems to suggest that the narratives are not setup chronologically as we tend to assume but theologically based upon the beggettings formula throughout the whole book of Genesis.[27] For example,

The editor of Genesis begins with the priestly creation story (1:1-2:3); then, after the begettings formula (2.4a), he adds a block of older material (2:4b-4:26) which at the outset duplicates and parallels the Priestly account of the creation of humankind, male and female. That is, he resumes the story from an earlier point. Also, in ch.5 he presents the begettings formula of Adam up to the birth of Noah’s sons; then, resumptively, he introduces a block of old material (6:1-7:8) which at its outset (6:1) reaches back to an earlier, indefinite point in time. Similarly, after the Flood story he continues with (basically) Priestly Table of Nations; then he adds the Babel Story which resumptively reverts to an earlier time before the proliferation of Noah’s sons into ethnic and linguistic groups.[28]

From this perspective, Genesis 11:1-9 actually represents an earlier time before Genesis 10, a time when the diversification of peoples and languages had not occurred. Thus the editor concern is not chronology but a theological presentation of the material tracing the development of humanity from the sons of Noah.[29] Rather than having conflicting stories in Genesis 10 and 11:1-9 about how human diversity began. In Genesis 10 and 11:1-9 we have supplemental stories that must be read together, for the final composition demands that we read these two stories together.[30]  Hence, while Genesis 10 positively ends and begins on an optimistic note about the outworking of God’s plan, namely, diversity; Genesis 11:1-9 seems to want to say that this outworking of God’s plan did not come without threats, namely, threats like the ones embodied in the ancient empire of Babylon. From this perspective, the fear of scattering expressed in 11:4 is interpreted as opposition to God’s purposes for creation. The Babylonians did not wish to spread but wanted to unite the world under the mode of Babylonian imperialism. Therefore, the tower and city are undertakings at a self-serving unity which retaliates against God’s scattering activity.[31] Moreover, perhaps one could propose that the scattering action of God is two-edged, that is, in one sense the scattering action of God acts to thwart the project of the false unity and domination of imperial Babylon and on the other hand God’s scattering action acts to liberate the nations that possess their own places, languages and families. Hence, the punishment of the Babylonians is simultaneously the liberation of diverse nations.[32]

Reflecting on the Babel Story

God Willed Diversity Over and Against Babylonian Uniformity

Consequently, Genesis 11:1-9 is a story that seeks to affirm a God-willed diversity over and against a self-made imperialistic unity that opposes God’s purposes for creation. This self-made unity is particularly dangerous in that it privileges a particular people, language, culture, and ethnic group over and against another group to establish the basis of the unity. Thus, though this type of unity parades itself as the “the ideal” it is only “the ideal” for those who occupy the center or choose to fit into that mold determined by the center. More simply, this imperialistic unity and Godless unity “enables human beings to rise above the limitations of their environment and, with cooperative effort and technological ingenuity, to build a city that affords unity and protection. There is only a security for people who are of one kind: who speak one language, live at one center, and share one goal.”[33] This type of unity is intrinsically dangerous because it demands that those on the margins adapt to those in the center. This type of unity demands that a marginal person should loose her culture and her ethnicity in order to be accepted. The particular type of unity treats those on the margins as non-humans, uncivilized, and barbaric while ensuring privileges to those who occupy center stage. This imperialistic unity misrepresents the blessing of God that “produces a rich variety of people’s different races, colors, tongues, orientations and nationalities” and “transforms it into an antagonistic division between peoples who speak different languages, live in separate territories, and belong to particular ethnic groups or nations. This distortion of God’s blessing is frightening and simultaneously threating. Who then is Babylon? As noted throughout the entire paper, the Babel story acts as a polemic against the Babylonians, namely, the entity who embodied arrogance, anxiety, rebelliousness, cultural pride, the colonialist spirit, and oppression. Even more, the tale acts as a polemic to condemn the spirit of those who would try to play the role of God making themselves and their entire beings superior to others. These are the attitudes that the Babel narrative stands in passionate opposition against, namely, those who express the audaciousness to play God while oppressing others. Hence, Babylon is personified in those particular persons and institutions that raise themselves above others by means of race, color, language and different living-spaces. Even more, Babylon is embodied particularly by those in the homogenous center, those who impose their language – language of being the chief expression of culture – upon those in the margins.

However, over and against this imperialistic unity emerges a God-willed unity in diversity, namely, a God-willed unity in diversity is that “humanity should not be confused, that is, with parts inappropriately combined, nor divided, with parts treated as autonomous. But the human community as both scattered (diverse) and gathered (unified) is like the character of God who in oneness is simulataneously a plurality.”[34] Even more simply, a God-willed unity in diversity is a “world that is organized for God’s purposes of joy, delight, freedom, doxology, and caring – such a world partakes in the gathering God wills and the scattering God envisions.”[35] This God-willed unity in diversity creates a world that liberates nations, peoples, and cultures to be fully their diverse beings (Isa. 2:2-4; Isa. 19:18-25; Rev. 22:2).[36]  Also, this God-willed unity in diversity is represented in the book of Acts at Pentecost – Babel’s Parallel Story. In this narrative, while there were Jew and Proselytes present from different territories in the Pentecost narrative these Jews and Proselytes still could not escape from the grasp of the imperialistic unity on them by empire.[37] Thus, again even with the New Testament we see God outworking and affirming his scattering vision by sending the Spirit and enabling these Jews and Proselytes to speak in different languages. From the beginning to a renewed beginning God vision encompasses tribes from every tongue and nation (Rev. 7:9).

Thus, when we read the Babel narrative we find that the narrative embodies a critique against urban cultures, namely, any imperialist culture that would choose to makes itself superior to any other culture.[39] From this viewpoint, a God willed unity in diversity liberates people from oppressive imperialistic unities that embody the Spirit of Babylon and frees people of different races, genders, orientations, colors, languages, nationalities and living-spaces to be fully and truly their diverse selves, for just as we rejoice in the rich variety of the non-human creation: trees, plants, birds, fish, animals, heavenly bodies. The whole diversity of creation human and nonhuman bears witness to the extravagant generosity of the Creator.”[40] However, not only does this narrative stand as a critique against urban cultures, but I would posit that the Babel narrative stands as a critique against those in the Church who would adopt a Babylonian ideology; an ideology of church that fails to acknowledge the diversity of people within the body of Christ. More simply, the body of Christ – though united together by that what God has done in Christ through the Holy Spirit – is a diverse body that embraces diverse peoples who express their living-faith differently using different language both metaphorically and literally. From this perspective, diverse communities are wholly encouraged to be themselves. Thus, while we as Christians represent a gathered community joined together by God in Christ through the power of her/his Spirit, we simultaneously represent a beautifully scattered (diversity) community that epitomizes the “scatteredness” of God. Moreover, Christian communities should strive to be a community that recognizes that she is both gathered and scattered. She should strive to seek after a God-willed unity in diversity over and against an imperialistic unity that entails uniformity.

Conclusion: How Do We Practice a God Willed Unity in Diversity?

In conclusion, I posit that the Christian practices this God-willed unity in diversity by being a person who loves God with all  her heart as well as her neighbor. This love for God and neighbor is not simply mere “liking” but this love for God and neighbor implies that we love unconditionally God and the entire person. This love is not void of emotion nor is it driven by emotion but when we Christians speak about love, we speak about an active and transformative action that is rooted in what God has done for the world in Jesus Christ through the dynamism of the Spirit. Thus, allow me to end this paper with a prayer: O God, you made us in your own image and redeemed us through Jesus your Son: Look with compassion on the whole human family; take away the arrogance and hatred which infect our hearts; break down the walls that separate us; unite us in bonds of love; and work through our struggle and confusion to accomplish your purposes on earth; that, in your good time, all nations and races may serve you in harmony around your heavenly throne; through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.


[1]Allen P. Ross, Creation and Blessing : A Guide to the Study and Exposition of Genesis (Grand Rapids, Mich.: Baker Books, 1996). 235

[2]Gordon J. Wenham, Genesis. 1-15 (Waco, Tex.: Word Books, 1987). 235

[3]Ibid. 235

[4]Ibid. 235

[5]Walter Brueggemann, Genesis (Atlanta: John Knox Press, 1982). 98

[6]Ross. 235

[7]Ibid. 235 (Also see Wenham.  235)

[8]Ibid. 235

[9]Mark Allan Bandstra Barry L. HarperCollins Powell, The Harpercollins Bible Dictionary (New York, NY: HarperOne, 2011). 4322 (Kindle Edition)

[10]Ross. 247

[11]Brueggemann. 98

[12]Powell. 4322 (Kindle Edition)

[13]Wenham. 239

[14]Ibid. 237

[15]Ibid. 238

[16]Powell. 49874 (Kindle Edition)

[17]Wenham. 238

[18]Powell. P. 49874 (Kindle Edition)

[19]Priscilla Levison John R. Pope-Levison, Return to Babel : Global Perspectives on the Bible (Louisville, Ky.: Westminster John Knox Press, 1999). P. 14

[20]Ibid. 14

[21]Ibid. 14-15 (Also see: J. Skinner, A Critical and Exegetical Commentary on Genesis [Edinburgh:

T. & T. Clark, 1930] 208.)

[22]Holy Bible : Nrsv, New Revised Standard Version (New York: Harper Bibles, 2007). Gen 1:28

[23]Everett Fox, The Schocken Bible : A New Translation (New York: Schocken Books, 1995). P.44

[24]Anderson, Bernhard W. “Unity and Diversity in God’s Creation: A Study of the Babel Story.” Currents in Theology and Mission 5 (1978). 76

[25]Wenham.  243

[26]Ibid.  243

[27]Ibid. 243

[28]Anderson. 77

[29]Fox. 44

[30] Anderson. 77

[31]Brueggemann. 98-99

[32]Pope-Levison. 15

[33] Anderson. 80

[34]Brueggemann. 100

[35]Ibid. 101

[36]Ibid. 101

[37]González, Catherine Gunsalus, and Justo L. González. “Babel and Empire : Pentecost and Empire: Preaching on Genesis 11:1-9 and Acts 2:1-12.” Journal For Preachers 16, no. 4 (January 1, 1993): 22-26.

[38] Ibid.  23

[39]Brueggemann. 101

[40] Anderson. 79


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