Once, before the dawn of recorded history, the whole earth was a single tribe that spoke a single language. Humankind migrated from the east and settled in a plain in the land of Shinar. Through their singleminded cooperation, they quickly mastered the art of baking bricks and mixing mortar and began to set their sites on building a large beautiful city. With one voice they said, “Let us build a city large enough for all of us. In its center let us place a ziggurat so large that its top will be in the heavens. Then we will make a name for ourselves. Otherwise, we may be scattered across the whole earth.”
When God came down upon the earth to see the city and tower that humankind was building, he was distressed. “Look at this,” he said, “The whole earth is a single tribe with a single language. This is only the beginning of what they will do. Nothing they come up with will be impossible for them now!”
So God confused their languages so that they could no longer understand one another. Then He scattered the people all over the face of the earth and the city was left abandoned. So the city, which still stands unfinished, is called “Babble” because the people there could not understand one another’s babble.
The story of the tower of “Babble” (the pun works the same in Hebrew as it does in English), from the Hebrew Bible, exists not only to explain the presence of languages and abandoned cities, but also as a warning against the ways of empire. The original hearers of the story would have known exactly who the people of Babble represented: the Babylonian Empire. Their presence loomed large over the ancient world. They were feared for their superior armies and revered for their marvelous cities with Zigurats that indeed appeared to reach the heavens. They were the dominant super power of their day and no one could imagine a future in which they wouldn’t be. The Babylonian empire, like the Assyrians before them, practiced a policy of conquering by assimilation. They would conquer cities and then disperse their inhabitants, forcing them to marry Babylonians, practice Babylonian religion, and speak the language of the Babylonians. Then, within a generation or two, the conquered peoples would forget that they were ever anything but Babylonians. Babylonian culture was not only spread by force though. Their way of life was quite attractive to their neighbors. Other peoples willingly adopted their culture and customs, along with their pantheon of gods. This story would have been understood as a cautionary tale against adopting the ways of the Babylonians. The ideology of Empire was a threat to everything that made the Hebrews distinct: their traditions, their language, and their special relationship with an unseen God. But this radical story makes clear that God’s plan is not that the people’s of the earth should be gobbled up by an oppressive empire, but that they should remain distinct. Diversity, not conformity is God’s will for humankind. This story also makes clear that the fate of Babylon will be just like Babble before it. God will scatter the people and leave their empire in ruins. An audacious unthinkable claim. Yet, that is precisely what happened. The Jewish people remain distinct to this day with their own tradition, language, and relationship with an unseen God. And the Babylonians? You can read about them in history books and visit the ruins of their once great cities. Empires rise and fall but the Word of The LORD is forever!
Whoever has ears to hear, let them hear…