On the Tower of Babel


And they said, Go to, let us build us a city and a tower, whose top may reach unto heaven; and let us make us a name, 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 children of men builded.

And the Lord said, Behold, the people is one, and they have all one language; and this they begin to do: and now nothing will be restrained from them, which they have imagined to do.

Gen. 11

“To reach for heaven” adopts the Jewish custom of replacing “heaven” for the name “God”. Since these people are coming off the memory of the great flood their motive is to use technology to escape the consequences of divine judgment. As we’d put it, they’ll science themselves out of their (moral and religious) problems.

“Let us make a name for ourselves” plays on the scriptural idiom of “making a name” which is a properly divine act (cf. Genesis 12: 2, 2. Samuel,  1 Chronicles 17: 21, Zephaniah 3: 20). The sense is therefore that we will constitute ourselves as a people and set our own destiny apart from, and even in opposition to a divine action.

Both of these are only means to avoid being scattered over all the earth, which is an admirable goal that is even recognized as a divine act.  The ur-thought motivating this whole tower episode is the builders seeing that the unity of the whole world is a divine act. To achieve it by themselves, the builders know they must appropriate divine power for themselves.

God’s response to the project is two-sided. On the one hand, as many commentators point out, God has to “come down” in order to see the tower, IOW, any attempt to build to the heavens falls laughably short. On the other hand, God describes the danger in the unity of all persons as their unlimited growth in power, and so even if all human self-appropriations of divine power fall infinitely short of the genuine article they can nevertheless extend without limit.

As the myth describes, human power extends without limit through the hands, the imagination, and above all in speech. Our skill in building and making things suggests infinite power to the imagination,  and we proceed to make ourselves divine beings within the world created by speech. Some things really do exist within speech, above all political order and its possibility of extending indefinitely. If everyone imagines and says you are king, it does not follow that you are an imaginary king existing only in speech. This is the sense of the unity in speech, together with some technological skill* as giving rise to as sense that humanity can achieve the divine act of unifying all nations.

Nevertheless, human words can’t speak things into existence, and even if real political power arises from opinion, opinion as such need not rest on anything, and the attempt to make a name for ourselves is just this sort of substanceless opinion.

*In Genesis 11, this consists in advanced brick-making and building materials technology referenced in v. 3 

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