|The Tower of Babel. Lucas van Valckenborch, 1595|
THE TOWER OF BABEL ACCOUNT IN GENESIS
Now the whole earth had one language and few words. And as men migrated from the east, they found a plain in the land of Shinar and settled there. And they said 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, lest we be scattered abroad upon the face of the whole earth." And the LORD came down to see the city and the tower, which the sons of men had built. And the LORD said, "Behold, they are one people, and they have all one language; and this is only the beginning of what they will do; and nothing that they propose to do will now be impossible for them. Come, let us go down, and there confuse their language, that they may not understand one another's speech." So the LORD scattered them abroad from there over the face of all the earth, and they left off building the city. Therefore its name was called Ba'bel, because there the LORD confused the language of all the earth; and from there the LORD scattered them abroad over the face of all the earth. (Gen. 11:1-9)
So what is the meaning of this strange account of a giant tower that reaches heaven? Why does it seem at first glance that God is against the people being "one"?
NIMROD, THE MAN BEHIND THE TOWER
Let's rewind a chapter earlier:
Cush became the father of Nimrod; he was the first on earth to be a mighty man. 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 Ba'bel, Erech, and Accad, all of them in the land of Shinar. (Gen. 10:8-10)
Nimrod is the ruler behind this kingdom which included Babel. It is Nimrod who commissions the construction of the Tower. Let's look at a few characteristics of this ruler.
The ancient Jewish Talmud collects traditions by Rabbis who devoted their lives to studying Scripture. Much of the value in this work includes Judaism's understanding of the Old Testament, itself written through inspired Jewish authors. The Talmud sometimes elucidates on Scriptural stories with related oral traditions passed through the centuries. Some of these teachings expound on the life of Nimrod.
Cush, the son of Ham and grandson of Noah, married in his old age a young wife, and begat a son whom he called "Nimrod," because in those days the people were beginning to rebel again against the Lord's command, and Nimrod signifies rebellion. ...
And Nimrod dwelt in Shinar in safety, and gradually became ruler over all the world; and at that time all the people of the earth were of one language and of one speech. Nimrod in his prosperity did not regard the Lord. He made gods of wood and stone, and the people copied after his doings. His son Mordon served idols also, from which we have, even to this day, the proverb, "From the wicked, wickedness comes forth." (The Talmud: Selections, translated by H. Polano, 1876)This sheds light on the Genesis account why God might break up this people who were unified in "one language." The language of their unity was a "language" opposed to God, a language including idolatry.
The early Jewish text, 3rd Baruch, conveys a tradition of crude slavery during the construction of the Tower:
These are they who gave counsel to build the tower, for they whom thou seest drove forth multitudes of both men and women, to make bricks; among whom, a woman making bricks was not allowed to be released in the hour of child-birth, but brought forth while she was making bricks, and carried her child in her apron, and continued to make bricks. (3rd Baruch, 3:5-6)The earliest Christians also viewed Nimrod as a wicked man.
In regard of this, he says, it has been written that [Nimrod] was a mighty hunter before the Lord. And there are, he says, many who closely imitate this (Nimrod): as numerous are they as the gnawing (serpents) which were seen in the wilderness by the children of Israel, from which that perfect serpent which Moses set up delivered those that were bitten. (St. Hippolytus, Refutation of All Heresies, 5.11)St. Thomas Aquinas reveals Nimrod as the possible culprit to have invented idolatry.
Further, those things which have a cause in man are found among men at all times. Now idolatry was not always, but is stated [Peter Comestor, Hist. Genes. xxxvii, xl] to have been originated either by Nimrod, who is related to have forced men to worship fire, or by Ninus, who caused the statue of his father Bel to be worshiped. (Thomas Aquinas, Summa Theologica, 2.Q94.4.O2)
Josephus, the first century Jewish historian, likewise includes Jewish tradition about the multitudes in that time and this character, Nimrod:
[T]hey, imagining the prosperity they enjoyed was not derived from the favor of God, but supposing that their own power was the proper cause of the plentiful condition they were in, did not obey him. ... Now it was Nimrod who excited them to such an affront and contempt of God. ... He also gradually changed the government into tyranny, seeing no other way of turning men from the fear of God, but to bring them into a constant dependence on his power. He also said he would be revenged on God, if he should have a mind to drown the world again; for that he would build a tower too high for the waters to be able to reach! and that he would avenge himself on God for destroying their forefathers! Now the multitude were very ready to follow the determination of Nimrod, and to esteem it a piece of cowardice to submit to God; and they built a tower... (Josephus, Antiquities of the Jews, 1.4.1-3, ca 94 AD)You notice in this excerpt an attitude in which God cannot "win." When things go well, the people take the credit. When things go bad, they give God all the blame.1
Understanding the prideful, powerful earthly character Nimrod makes greater sense of the rest of the Tower of Babel account. The phrases "Let us build ourselves...a tower...in the heavens" and "let us make a name for ourselves" (Gen. 11:4) reveal the godless orientation of a people turned toward themselves.
The family of man bands together to build a secular civilization that glorifies human achievement and the strength of social and political unity. ... [A]s the broader context of Genesis shows, the "name" coveted by the sinners at Babel is never acquired; rather it is Abraham and his descendants whom God promises to bless with a great "name" (12:2) ... 11:5 the LORD came down: Implies that man's attempt at reaching the heavens (11:4) has failed... (Hahn, Scott and Mitch, Curtis. Ignatius Catholic Study Bible: Genesis. Ignatius Press, San Francisco. 2006. p. 32)
Notice in the Genesis account, we are not quite told how God confused the language of the multitudes. Perhaps the best understanding is what Catholic theology would call God's "permissive will." (cf. Discerning God's positive and permissive will by Emily Stimpson, Our Sunday Visitor). God's "permissive will" is the idea of crediting God for an action even if He merely allows it. In the case of the Tower of Babel, the confusion of the multitude could be understood as the development of their own factions, languages, and loyalties due to their own free wills. The Old Testament writers appear to have employed this literary construct regularly, by attributing to God actions He merely permits, but are positively committed by another. If the OT authors wrote in accord with how they experienced God in their lives, then we must interpret the text in light of that understanding, culture, and modes of communication.
The Navarre Study Bible hints at this idea in its commentary on the Tower of Babel story:
We have here an instance of literary devices being used to expound deep convictions––in this case the view that disunion in mankind is the outcome of men's pride and sinfulness. (The Navarre Bible: Pentateuch. Scepter Publishers. Princeton, NJ. 1999. p. 80
AT PENTECOST, THE TOWER OF BABEL IS REVERSED
[I]t will be in the Church, the new Jerusalem, that men of all nations, races and tongues will join in faith and love, as will be seen in the Pentecost event (cf. Acts 2:1-13). There the phenomenon of Babel will be reversed: all will understand the same language. In the history of mankind, in effect, the Church is a kind of sign of sacrament of the union of God and men, and of the unity of the whole human race. (Ibid.)
Consider: "[T]he multitude came together, and they were bewildered, because each one heard them speaking in his own language." (Acts 2:6b) Whereas at Babel, the multitude scattered unable to understand each other, at Pentecost, the multitude is reunited, able to understand each other. And, whereas the multitude at Babel sought to make a name for themselves, at Pentecost, Peter announces: "Repent, and be baptized every one of you in the name of Jesus Christ for the forgiveness of your sins; and you shall receive the gift of the Holy Spirit." (Acts 2:38b)
Thus, the message of the Tower of Babel story is to teach the futility of man seeking to achieve some "heavenly" goal without the assistance of God. The story also emphasizes the underlying sin behind the world's confusion. And the antidote is Jesus Christ.
1This is an easy trap in which to fall. It is easy to attribute an act of nature, like a flood, to someone else. Yet, the multitudes did not attribute other features of nature, such as the very fertility of the soil or the resources of the earth, which enriched their prosperous condition, to God. Likewise, the story of the flood is one of theological value. In Christian thought, this account is understood as a cleansing from sin (cf. 1 Pet. 3:18-21). According to tradition preserved in the Talmud, Noah even warned others of the coming flood, shouting to those who did not make it on the ark: "For a hundred and twenty years I entreated ye to follow my words; alas, ‘tis now too late." Even according to the Biblical text, the flood was understood as a consequence of sin:
And God saw the earth, and behold, it was corrupt; for all flesh had corrupted their way upon the earth. And God said to Noah, "I have determined to make an end of all flesh..." "For in seven days I will send rain upon the earth forty days and forty nights; and every living thing that I have made I will blot out from the face of the ground." (Gen. 6:12-13a, 7:4)
The "Nimrod interpretation" of the flood story denies any sin by the multitudes. It misses the theological message that sin leads to destruction. Both the Jewish and Christian understanding of the story uphold this view.