The tower of Babel

The legendary Tower of Babel

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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.

By Ḏḥwty

References

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].

Comments

How about: the people built the tower to escape the 'next' flood, so they could continue wallowing in their sins?

Tsurugi's picture

There's no mention of sin in the biblical account of the tower. It specifically says they were building it "to make a name" for themselves, which seems to me an alliteration, the meaning of which is lost in both time and translation.

The only thing that comes to my mind is the Solomonic concept of "True Names", unique and complex symbols each of which represent a different powerful demonic or otherwise spiritual entity. Supposedly, the power of these beings is intimately connected somehow to the symbol of their True Name, which they endeavored to keep secret because anyone who knew the name and could reproduce it accurrately could summon the spirit and have complete control over it.
Part of the Wisdom given to Solomon by God was thought to be knowlege of the True Names of many demons and djinni on earth.

How might that connect to the Babel story, I'm not sure. The things God says about the matter before scattering the humans could be implied to mean he was worried of humans becoming god-like themselves....perhaps they sought, through construction of this tower somehow, to aquire True Names?

Excellent and well thought-out comment

malisa wright

I agree with you they had a hatred toward God and in return wanted to escape the flood and reach the heavens to try and overthrow God. Although som say they believe the tower may have been a portal or star gate?

Hey wanted to try and Escape a second flood, and sin doesn't have to be mentioned it is already implied by there thoughts and actions.

imo, this story represents the evolution and mis-development of the human ego.
The ego is a brain mechanism that develops in children, and exists to maintain separateness. It exists in the linguistic level of consciousness, working with the meaning of words. It allows the person to analyse incoming information and chose wether to accept it or not. This prevents others from affecting the self-state. So if someone tells you that you are an idiot, you can chose to accept or reject that information.
Before humans evolved the ego, the linguitic/meaning level was not hampered by the ego layer of meaning. Communication was a free exchange on information without conscious meaning.
the building of the tower (clearly figured in tarot as 'the tower') represents the development of ego. Like most 'towers' it was built incorrectly (the root of our current issues) and shattered in the face of the divine.
the extra element to the tale, that we were scattered across the planet and no one could understand anyone else anymore; is a cautionary tale. Language is not a tool of common understanding anymore, but rather a tool of isolation, dominated as it is by the filtering systems we have evolved. No symbol / conscious meaning based language on earth is capable of true communication (and i sigh as i write this as i know that few, if any will be able to understand what i write, since this will be triggering every ego that comes across it)
there is hope. We are all BORN speaking the original tongue. Some religious fanatics re-embrace it in a limited way with the practice of glossolalia. More of us speak it consciously...

I can appreciate what seems to be an affinity for Terence McKenna in what you write, though I'd like to know what so-called language you're referring to that isn't based on symbolic or conscious meaning--both intrinsic to language--and why you think the babbling of an infant or religious fanatics rolling around speaking in tongues represent superior communication.  I'll concede the ego can get in the way of good communication sometimes, but the dissolution of ego does not remove conscious elements of language (how could it?), nor the symbolic aspects so long as sound is married to meaning.

> i sigh as i write this as i know that few, if any will be able to understand what i write, since this will be triggering every ego that comes across it

Perhaps you should have tried jibberish.

that was faster than expected. The Ego is strong in this one.
perhaps, rather than attacking, it would be more peaceful to rather ask... i'd happily teach you how to speak, and could provide you with concrete examples of how conscious understanding is far less important in the conveyance of information than our egos like to think.
i'm not a proponent of ego dissolution, although i'm amazed that you've found words in that state, i spent years constructing bridges of language between transcendental states and human normal. That quest led to my (re)discovery of our pre-babel language.
perhaps, rather than reject out of hand, you could take a look at computational science, in particular P / NP problems. Or, prosaically, think about the 'leaps of understanding' that occur when a concept is first grasped.
the 'cone of attention' of the mind is a small thing, compared to the whole, and it is within this cone that our conscious mind resides. Of course it is incapable of fully comprehending the whole, it is but a part.
language can be working within that small cone, or with the whole. Any language that works with the whole is inaccessible to conscious comprehension.

You must be pretty sensitive to interpret my response as an attack.  It would be better understood as a challenge to what would seem a fantastic overestimation of your own mastery over language.  You admitted that you didn't think many would understand what you're trying to say; perhaps you should figure out a better way to say it before you go around offering speaking lessons.

And as long as you're aspiring toward perfection, starting all your sentences with a capitol letter will allow others to read what you're trying to communicate with greater ease.

Take a big deep breath. Go outside, look at some trees, go for a swim. You've been on the internet too long today and have lost your sense of civility.

What you take as a lack of civility is a fairly restrained response to arrogance.

I'm with you Rizzman, I was trying to figure out how infant gibberrish and religious fanatics "speaking in tongues" are able to communicate at a higher level than us "normies" but the response is a blatant attempt to distract and throw judgement on you. I thought your questions were valid. Seems to me your ego and use of logic are pretty normal but the arrogance and sense of superiority is quite vast with the "babbler".

Ironically the type of "speaking in tongues" that seems to take place in the modern charismatic movement has nothing whatsoever to do with the description of speaking in tongues found in the New Testament. Having personally seen people "speak in tongues" etc I can say that it was one of the creepiest things I have ever witnessed and seemed to be more about the ego of the person "performing" than anything else.

Here’s a thought.  What if the actual Tower of Babel story was a variation of an older story that Jewish scholars upgraded based on what the witnessed during their forced exile in Babylon?

 I believe many languages were used in the streets of Babylon as this Mesopotamian empire brought slaves and prisoners from all over the middle-east. They were merchants coming from India and Egypt and probably from further away. Babylon was a cosmopolitain mega-city like no Hebrew has experimented before. It must have been shocking.

Since gates, ziggurat and walls are all made of bricks, building them must have been labor intensive and slaves speaking different languages were put to work.

I understand that Genesis is older that the Exil (obviously) but we must keep in mind that the shape of the bible as we know it was set during the Babylonian captivity (500 BCE) and that the oldest record of the Bible is no older than the 2nd century BCE.  

any one ever hear of a space elevator?

My idea is that human civilization was more advanced than we thought. They unified Earth and started using a universal language. They built a space elevator to explore the stars but a rival alien civilization(gods) sent them back them back to the stone ages. Just a thought

Another thought might be that the survivors of the flood were remembering the previous civilization, that had been destroyed by the flood. IF there was a worldwide civilization, the survivors were “scattered” throughout the world and began speaking other languages when they lost contact as the generations passed. I know this is not biblical thought but just throwing it out there for consideration.

maybe it was a space elevator?

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