The legendary Tower of Babel
One of the many fantastic stories in the Book of Genesis is the Tower of Babel. The gist of the story is thus: All human beings used to speak the same language. As they came to settle in Mesopotamia, they decided to build a city with a tower to reach the heavens. Through this endeavour, mankind intended to create a name for himself. God, however, had other plans. Mankind’s language was confused, and they were scattered over the earth. As a result, the city and the tower were never completed. Regardless of whether one believes that this story actually took place, there are several interesting ways of looking at it.
One way of approaching the story is the literal approach. If one accepts that the Tower of Babel was a historical fact, then it would be expected that some sort of remains or ruins of the tower would exist. This, however, has not been identified by archaeology. The closest candidate for the Tower of Babel may perhaps be the Etemenanki of Babylon. This was a ziggurat dedicated to Marduk, the patron god of Babylon. It has been claimed that this structure was the inspiration for the Tower of Babel. Given that ziggurats were found in Mesopotamia, the setting of the story, and that they were monumental structures, it is not too difficult to see how they may have been used in the story of the Tower of Babel.
Another approach would be the symbolic approach. The context of the story, i.e. the story of the Tower of Babel being recorded in the Book of Genesis, would make it reasonable to expect a religious message behind it. It has been suggested that the Tower of Babel is a symbol for humanity’s vanity. For instance, the use of brick and mortar represent pride in man-made materials. Thus, the use of these materials over stone and tar, which are natural and more durable materials, may be read as mankind’s misplaced confidence in his own abilities. Thus, the Tower of Babel may be seen as a monument to mankind’s ability and achievement. Man is promptly reminded of his frailty when God decides to confuse their languages and scatter them. While some regard this story as a warning against the sin of pride, others would prefer to question the kind of God that is being portrayed in the story. Regardless, the story seems to convey a notion of doom and gloom for humanity.
Gustave Dore's depiction of the Tower of Babel according to the biblical interpretation. Image source: Wikipedia
Another way of viewing this story, however, may shine a more positive light on the Tower of Babel. Instead of being a lesson against pride, this may be a tool to explain the diversity of peoples in the world. After all, the chapter preceding the story of the Tower of Babel deals with the various nations that descended from the sons of Noah. This aetiological approach, in which myths are used to explain human conditions, is visible in many other cultures. For instance, in the mythology of the Blackfoot Indians, Old Man, the creator, gave different coloured water to people to drink. As a result, different peoples began to speak different languages. Without the knowledge that we possess today, these myths would have served to throw light on the great mysteries of life. Besides, they make pretty good camp-fire stories.
Although language was confused, and mankind scattered across the world, I can’t help but think that we’ve come full circle, almost at least. Take this article as an example. It will probably be read by people from different parts of the world. In that sense, we are connected, rather than scattered. Also, through translations, we are able to overcome language barriers. Moreover, at times we may even communicate through empathy, without the need for speech. Yet, there’s one part of the story we have not achieved. The people in the story of the Tower of Babel were working together to build a monument. Sadly, human beings aren’t quite doing that today. Wars, the exploitation of the poor, and human trafficking are just some examples of the ways in which we are destroying our fellow man/woman, instead of cooperating with him/her. Perhaps it’s time we finish building the Tower of Babel.
Featured image: ‘The Tower of Babel’, by Pieter Bruegel the Elder. Photo source: Wikimedia.
Ashliman, D. L., 2003. Blackfoot Creation and Origin Myths. [Online]
Available at: http://www.pitt.edu/~dash/blkftcreation.html
[Accessed 18 April 2014].
Fairchild, M., 2014. The Tower of Babel - Bible Story Summary. [Online]
Available at: http://christianity.about.com/od/biblestorysummaries/p/towerofbabel.htm
[Accessed 18 April 2014].