Does the Bible teach that we all spoke one language until a sinful rebellion created diversity? Or that redemption means one language in heaven? This article was first published in Horizons in Biblical Theology 18:2, 1996, 169 191 It grew out of an attempt to get to grips with whether the Bible’s stories about differences (especially the Babel story) really see diversity of languages and cultures as a result of human rebellion. Some digging in the literature on the Babel story and a lot of time with the text and its intertextual echoes in Scripture changed my view of a number of texts quite significantly.


Appropriately enough, the Babel narrative of Gen 11:1-9 has generated a scattered array of interpretations, with most of its details disputable in one way or another. Further additions to this particular industry may risk achieving little more than adding to the confusion. Interpreting Babel remains, however, a serious and necessary task, not least because of the cultural power exercised by its image of building and dispersion. This power has led to the narrative being used to reinforce a diverse collection of worldviews, from apartheid in South Africa to Derridean deconstruction.1 The question of how we should live after Babel is still very much alive, and must continue to draw us back to the text – and its context.

1. Not forgetting the context… The quest for extra-biblical parallels and the documentary analysis of the Babel narrative can lead to a neglect of an exploration of how it functions in its canonical context. Even Bernhard Anderson, after complaining that readings of the narrative have been “not sufficiently contextual,” proceeds to describe Gen 11:1-9 as “a pericope in the literal sense of the Greek term: we can ‘cut all around’ it – clip it from its context – and it has its own integrity.”2 In this article I work from the opposite assumption, that it is precisely by exploring how this passage is interwoven with its broader canonical context that increased understanding may be gained not only of the passage itself, but of how our readings of it condition our readings of related texts. A first step, therefore, will be to consider relevant features of the preceding narrative which brings us to Babel, in particular the themes of language, diversity and spreading.

At the very outset of the biblical narrative we are presented with a God who revels in diversity, in rich creativity. The separations of Gen 1:1-2:3 are proclaimed “good”, even “very good”. This simple observation should contribute to our expectations as we consider later texts which focus on other kinds of diversity. It should also be noted that in the commission to “be fruitful and increase in number; fill the earth and subdue it” (Gen 1:27-28) the command to subdue is preceded by a command to fill. The move out of the garden which followed the fall is already implicit in the dynamic initiated by this command. The garden is a place from which not only rivers, but also people are to spread, bringing blessing. This theme forms part of the background to the recurrent genealogies in the following chapters and becomes a central theme in Gen 9-11.3 This will be dealt with in more detail below – for now it should be noted that spreading, like diversity, is rooted in creation prior to the fall.

A further point of interest is the relation of Gen 1:27-28 to Gen 2:19, where God brought the animals to Adam “to see what he would name them; and whatever he called each living thing was its name.” Much discussion has revolved around the command to ‘subdue’ the earth, and Gen 2:19-20 is generally seen as an outworking of that instruction, an assertion of mastery through ordering-by-naming. It will be helpful in the present context to consider another aspect. In significant contrast to other accounts of language which include a divine element, the man’s use of language displays a positively celebrated creativity, to the extent that God himself is bound to the results of Adam’s creative choices. There is nothing in the narrative to suggest that Adam was a kind of unfallen rationalist, able to discern the ‘essence’ of each creature and download the ‘correct’ name from a Platonic store of ideally corresponding names. To the contrary we are told that God wanted “to see what he would name them” (v.19), that the man “gave names” (v.20) and that “whatever the man called each living creature that was its name” (v.20) – in other words, from now on, if God wants to refer to one of the animals in conversation with Adam, he must use the name given by Adam. Given this endorsement of human creativity in the realm of language, it is by no means self-evident that language was designed to remain uniform as people responded to the call to spread and to invent. Concrete language is not a given but a responsible response – the diversity of human response is reflected in linguistic diversity. This creativity is not unbounded and autonomous – behind it and undergirding it as both its source and its norm is the call to image God; facing it as that to which it responds is an ordered creation.4 As Middleton comments, imaging God involves “an element of artful discernment, in imitation of God’s wise acts of ordering and crafting that which was formless into a habitable world.”5

Before turning to Babel it remains to inquire in what manner the ‘primeval history’ leads us to the plain of Shinar. One way of re-telling this history is as a narrative of sin and decline. After the opening burst of incandescent goodness come sin and degradation in growing measure, rendering human existence increasingly broken and problematic. At the end of a series of dead-ends comes the Babel story, a full stop at the end of a sentence which, despite its arresting opening, has degenerated into incoherence, bringing ‘the end of communication’, the ‘deconstruction of language’ in what Wenham calls “the last of the great tales of universal judgment that punctuate the primeval history.”6 Here, hope comes to an end: “the years roll on without a hint of renewal. The last word is Babel.”7 Not until Abraham do we get a fresh glimmer of hope, a sense of “all things new when all things had become old and weary and hopeless.”8

However, as judgment follows judgment, the door to the future is carefully left ajar. In the midst of the curse on Adam and Eve comes a hint of promise (Gen 3:15). After the death of Abel and sentence on Cain comes protection for the latter and a son to replace the former (Gen 4:15, 25), that there might still be those who called on God’s name (c.f. Gen 4:4 and 4:26). The most catastrophic judgment ends with the brightest rainbow of promise, a newness expressed in both mandate and covenant (Gen 9:1-17). The enmeshing of Noah and Ham is still followed by the fruit of the mandate (c.f. Gen 9:1, 10:5, 18, and esp. 32). Keeping an eye open for this pattern might suggest that our expectations of the Babel story should be more complex than the above accounts allow for. With such complexity in mind, we can now turn to that story.

2. Babel and the Babble of Readings. Much ink has been spilled in commenting on these few verses. Faced with the babble of competing interpretations, I propose to approach the text by means of some key questions highlighting points of controversy; this will bring us more swiftly to the heart of the matter than would a verse-by-verse commentary.

a). Was there one language? Given the statement in the opening verse that “the whole world had one lip and common words”, and the assumption held through most of the history of interpretation that this means “one language and a common speech” (NIV), a golden age of linguistic uniformity, this might seem an odd question. It is, however, an issue over which there is continuing disagreement.9

The traditional approach sees here a single primeval language, the corollary being that linguistic diversity is a consequence of the events at Babel. This approach is still found both in conservative commentaries and in commentators who read the story as an aetiological myth explaining the origin of the puzzling diversity around us. If the story is taken to refer to historical events, then these events must clearly be located at the dawn of history in order to reach a period when the existence of a single language might be plausible. This, of course, makes Babylonian references problematic, unless they are taken as material used to comment aetiologically on developments in the more distant past.

It is sometimes assumed that the assumption of linguistic uniformity in Genesis 11:1 is in conflict with the references to linguistic diversity in Gen 10:5, 18 and perhaps 25. This is not necessarily so; the narrative displays “deliberate dischronologization.”10 It is quite clear that Gen 10-11 are not arranged chronologically. Genesis 10 presents three successive historical sweeps with vague time-scales before returning in summary to the time of Noah in verse 32 (and again in 11:10!). The reference to Shinar in 10:10 (as well as the traditional association of Nimrod with Babel) may indicate that the Babel episode is presented as being contemporaneous with 10:8-12 and is included as a more detailed narrative which would have been out of place in the genealogical exposition of chapter 10 but can be inserted once the genealogies have been rounded off. The difficulties have, then, more to do with the narrative’s relation to history than with its internal coherence.

A second approach to Gen 11:1 reads it as referring to a lingua franca, a language for international communication supplementing the diversified languages of family and ethnic communication.11 The confusing of this language is then read as a commentary on the break-up of a social order in which Babylonian served as a lingua franca. This is one possible solution to the historical difficulty mentioned above.

A third approach has been provided recently by Uehlinger’s impressive study of the background of the Babel narrative.12 Citing Assyrian royal inscriptions, Uehlinger finds a recurring pattern of the motifs of one speech, building, naming and world empire. The first three are clearly present in the Babel narrative as we have it, and if the traditional association of Babel with Nimrod has merit, then the fourth is present too in Gen 10:11-12. Of particular interest in relation to the present question is his analysis of the ‘one speech’ motif as representing a metaphor for the subjugation and assimilation of conquered peoples, as exemplified in inscriptions such as the following, referring to Ashurbanipal II as one who “made the totality of all peoples/people speak one speech” and who “through his sovereign approach made the unruly and ruthless kings speak one speech from the rising of the sun to its setting.”13 The ‘common words’ of Gen 11:1 are taken to refer to the speech reported in verses 3-4. Uehlinger’s findings are striking and extensive, but they do not close the question of how such motifs function in the canonical context. In view of the creativity of language discussed above and the shape of the Babel narrative discussed below, it is highly interesting to find the one speech motif itself identified with oppressively instituted conformity.

This is, of course, not in conflict with the lingua franca theory, but adds to it an emphasis on the ethical dimension of such situations. Nor does it preclude an aetiological function for the narrative (albeit a somewhat differently understood one) in the final canonical context.14 A reading of the power dynamics hinted at by the narrative may still help to shape our view of linguistic diversity. The point which should be underlined is that it is by no means clear that Gen 11:1 speaks of the utopia which many have glimpsed there. However, in what follows I hope among other things to show that even if Gen 11:1 is read in traditional, utopian terms, it still does not follow that Gen 11:1-9 has a gloomy view of linguistic diversity. This brings me to my second question.

b). Was there a sin? In the history of interpretation there has been a tendency to overemphasise the element of sin. Christian interpretation has tended to read the narrative through classical lenses, importing the idea of hubris to comment on an attempt to storm God’s throne by means of a tower up to heaven. In reaction against this, some recent commentators de-emphasise sin, sometimes in terms of a false dichotomy between sin and socio-political developments.15 It is therefore pertinent to inquire whether there was a sin and if so what was its nature?

The tower has traditionally and popularly been taken as the focus of the sinful assault on heaven. In one of the cruder articulations of this view, Redlich writes:

“Their endeavour was a threat to Yahweh, for they planned to reach ‘heaven’…Yahweh, afraid of mankind’s aspirations, as he feared Adam might become immortal, confounds their plan by making them speak different languages. Yahweh first comes down to see what the men were doing, for He is ignorant of their building plans, then returns to heaven to report to the angels what He has seen and heard, and to them expresses His surprise at the power and resources of man which might threaten heaven itself.”16

Such a reading makes little sense in the worldview context of Genesis 1-11 – the God who has just been portrayed as intervening (with no recorded perspiration) by flood is unlikely to feel threatened by a tower which he has to stoop to see (v.5). Moreover, several commentators have pointed out that the narrative is less interested in the tower than has often been supposed – it disappears after verse 5. What then are we to make of the tower with its head in the heavens?

Most modern commentators identify the tower with a Babylonian ziggurat, pointing out that such a structure was topped by a shrine where heaven and earth were believed to connect. The main temple in Babylon was known as the house with the raised head (Esagil).17 The purpose of the reference to the tower then becomes a critique of Babylonian theology. This is supported by the connecting of Babel with Babylon in Gen 10:10 (?), 11:9 (plus the play on the letters b, n and l throughout the Babel narrative) and Jer 51:53.

There is, however, another possibility. When Gen 11:4 is compared with Deut 1:28 and 9:1, some question whether the reference to the tower with its head in the heavens is to be read any more literally than the references to cities with walls up to heaven. Might it not be largely a question of poetic hyperbole, much like the English word ‘skyscraper’? In support of this doubt Uehlinger, pointing out that the building style described was used predominantly for civil structures, argues that the most plausible translation is ‘citadel’ or ‘acropolis’ rather than ‘tower’.18 It is relevant to note here that the focus in Jer 51:53, with its reference to Babylon reaching the sky, is, as in Deuteronomy, clearly on military fortification, and that there is no indication that the reference in another important related passage, Isa 14:12-15, to a prideful attempt to ascend into heaven refers to either a building project or a shrine.19 Gen 11:4 would be an exception if its point of reference were a shrine. Finally, it should be noted that the narrative seems to imply that it was “the building of the city, and not the tower per se, that provoked the divine displeasure.”20

The arguments on neither side are conclusive – as Uehlinger concludes after a detailed discussion, the reference to a city with a tower “can be, but need not be seen as an allusion to Mesopotamian ziggurat rhetoric.”21 The presence of idolatrous religion in the city is by no means to be precluded, but it is not at all clear that the narrative itself focuses on the cultic dimension of such religion. It is more interested in the deformation of human community which results from deformed worship.22 Explanations of the sin at Babel along the lines of a ziggurat and shrine should therefore be treated with some caution, despite their popularity. There are, however, other indications of sin. Our attention should be refocussed from speculation concerning a somewhat shadowy ‘tower’ to the motivations for building which the narrative places much more explicitly before us.

The first of these is “so that we may make a name for ourselves” (Gen 11:4). Here we do have pride. Given the association of naming with conquest in the archeological parallels,23 associations with empire are not far off. This is also clear in the only other Old Testament reference to someone making a name for himself, 2 Sam 8:13-14: “David made a name for himself after he returned from striking down 18,000 Edomites in the Valley of Salt. He put garrisons throughout Edom and all the Edomites became subject to David.” A contrast is provided in the Genesis narrative in the call to Abram, which closely follows the Babel story: “I will make your name great and you will be a blessing” (12:3). Gen 11:4, the building of the imperial city, is juxtaposed with the call of one man to vulnerable wandering, in faith that the one who called (as opposed to his own might and assertion) will make him into a “great nation”. Abram, far from being self-named, goes on to receive a new name, expressive of God’s promise; this name is a gift of covenant, not a heroic accomplishment. The builders are more interested in speaking, naming, designing their fortress than in listening, being named, remaining open to God’s future.

The second motivation is so that the builders “may not be scattered over the face of the whole earth” (Gen 11:4). This picks up on a theme which has threaded its way through the narrative since creation, and which is central to the Babel story – that of spreading and scattering. Echoing Gen 1:28, after the flood humankind is again instructed to increase in number and fill the earth (c.f. 9:17). Genesis 10 presents the response to this command. As the lines of descent are traced, we are told that “the maritime peoples spread out” (10:5), that “the Canaanite clans scattered” (10:18), and, in summary, that from these clans “the nations spread out over the earth after the flood” (10:32). This is as it should be, a responsive outworking of the command to fill the earth, an appropriation of God’s “blessing” (Gen 9:1). Then come the Babel builders. Their intentions run counter to the spreading, to the direction set in Genesis 10; they intend to consolidate, to settle, to centralise. Accordingly, the blessing has come to be perceived as a threat (“lest we be scattered”), as a process not motivated from within but imposed from outside (“lest we be scattered”), as a splintering of a tightly grasped whole (“lest we be scattered”).24 God’s yoke is rejected as oppressive, and the real oppression of autonomous human rule results. Language, a gift of God for human connection and fellowship is used (“Come let us…”) to construct a unity which, in Brueggemann’s words, “attempts to establish a cultural, human oneness without reference to the threats, promises or mandates of God. This is a self-made unity in which humanity has a ‘fortress mentality.’ It seeks to survive by its own resources. It seeks to construct a world free of the danger of the holy and immune from the terrors of God in history. It is a unity grounded in fear and characterised by coercion. A human unity without the vision of God’s will is likely to be ordered in oppressive conformity. And it will finally be ‘in vain’.”25

This interpretation of the motives for the building project fits well with Uehlinger’s discoveries regarding the association of the motifs of one speech, building and naming with Assyrio-babylonian claims to world domination through the subjugation of the diversity of peoples in an empire built on military might. Two more details in the narrative suggest a theological commentary on the sinfulness of this project. First, the repeated “Come let us…” of verses 3-4, answered by Yahweh’s “Come let us…” in verse 6, echoes (especially taken with the spreading motif) Gen 1:26f, where God announced his creative intention, “Let us make man in our image.” Humanity now seeks to create its own identity, to order its world in ways which do not image its creator, and in so doing seeks to take over the role which is properly God’s. Second, this theme is hinted at further in verse 6: “nothing they plan to do will be impossible for them.” This phrase not only echoes Gen 3:22 in its focus on the prevention of further calamity, but is also very closely parallelled in Job 42:2, where Job declares: “I know that you can do all things; no plan of yours can be thwarted.”26 This allusion implies that it is God’s prerogative to be able to plan and execute without constraint. These three allusions taken together suggest that there is a sense of hubris in the account, of humanity overstepping its boundaries and seeking to become like God. Comparison with Isa 14:12-15 underscores this point. This hubris is, however, associated with the motivations of the builders (autonomous rule and refusal to spread) and not with the spatial proximity of their tower to God’s dwelling.

c). Was there a judgment? The question of the degree to which the story should be read as a story of judgment forms a third site of contention which brings me to the heart of my argument. As with the question of sin, there has been a tendency to over-enthusiasm among commentators. In rabbinic exegesis the judgment reached truly theatrical proportions, with the builders being transformed into monkeys, demons or other monsters.27 When patristic interpretation set the Christian trend with its focus on hubris, the emphasis on punishment remained, and the story is still presented as “the last of the great tales of universal judgment that punctuate the primeval history”, ending on a “note of fierce condemnation of mankind’s sinful folly”.28 My case for a different reading will not be complete until later passages have been brought into relation to Genesis 11, but some clear indicators that there may be more going on than “fierce condemnation” are to be found within the narrative itself.

The first statement which must be interrogated is that in verse 6 which tells us that “this is but the beginning of their doing” and that if this is what flows from their unity, then “nothing they plan to do will be beyond them.” The traditional reading of this as incipient titanism, as if omnipotence really were only just beyond reach so that soon nothing will be “impossible” (NIV), has been mentioned and found wanting above. Such a picture simply does not cohere with the biblical narrative in which the Babel story is situated.29

The English expression ‘nothing will be beyond them’ preserves the ambiguity of the verse. As with the question of sin, it pays to cast an eye back at the shape of the preceding narrative. The flood which resulted from comprehensive human degeneracy was followed by a promise that no further flood would occur (Gen 9:15) and a covenant with all creatures (Gen 9:8-11). In the light of this, the renewed degeneration of Gen 11:1-5 is a problematic development. For if the sin is allowed to continue it can only get worse, nothing will be beyond them (c.f. Luke 23:31).30 This is what makes intervention so urgent: we know from the preceding narrative that a further cataclysm must not occur, and we see precisely the conditions developing which might make one necessary. And so the LORD comes down, stooping to see the pathetic, puny efforts of the city builders (skyscraper indeed!), and, in mocking imitation of the builders’ exhortations (no scared deity this), declares “Come, let us go down and confuse their language, so that they will not understand each other.” The biting ironies continue. Those who attempted to name themselves are, despite their best efforts, named, and not with a name they would have chosen (their own choice is not recorded for posterity). Their sinful solidarity, the “Come let us” of disobedience, is disrupted as exhortation begins to fall on deaf, or at least uncomprehending, ears. The plot to avoid spreading “lest we be scattered” proves to be a sure route to being scattered “over the face of the whole earth.” The ‘one speech’ of empire gives way to the many speeches of peoples on the face of God’s earth.

And so, it seems, we are back to judgment. Or are we? That the pretensions of the city builders are mocked and undone is clear. That their project is judged and thwarted is equally clear. But to stop there is to miss what else is going on. It is at least as important to note that the danger has been averted – they have “stopped” (v.8), their plans have been cut off, things cannot develop any further in this direction.31 There is no need now to begin scripting “The Flood II” and looking for a candidate for the Noah character. In fact the outcome (stressed twice in the last two verses of the story, in case we missed the point) is not destruction but an enforced return to the path of blessing announced in Gen 9:1: the LORD “scattered them over all the earth” (v.8,9). Of course, things are not as simple as if sin had not intervened – active, cooperative ‘spreading’ has become disciplinary ‘scattering’ – but even the discomfort of discipline can have a positive purpose. As the empire is dismantled, maybe it will be possible to build human community again. Thankfully, in verse 10 we are still “after the flood”, we can still go back to the sons of Noah to continue the narrative; that water-shed has not been superseded by a further cataclysm, necessitating a beginning over. The genealogy breathes a sigh of relief after the potentially catastrophic interruption of Gen 11:1-9 and strides forward once more,32 moving us on to Abram (whose migration is likewise obedient and redemptive) and a more focused hope for the future of the post-Babel world.

In answering these three questions I have suggested that the unity at the start of the narrative may not be entirely innocent, that the sin has more to do with oppression and disobedient fixity before a God of spreading and celebrated diversity than has often been thought, and that interwoven with the tone of judgment is a sense of judgment averted, of new possibility, of the re-release of the forward movement of human history after a bated-breath pause.33 The linguistic virtuosity of the Hebrew narrative in Gen 11:1-9 with its careful structure and its puns, alliterations and plays on sounds underscores the note of hope by its display of creativity.34 Before drawing more general conclusions, it is time to reconsider in the light of this reading what role the Babel narrative plays in the rest of the Bible, and whether this role has any bearing on the matters already discussed.

3. The Imperial City Revisited. Various commentators have pointed out in passing the parallel between Gen 11:3-4 and Exod 1:10 (the only other place in the Old Testament where the “come let us” formula occurs) as bare fact.35 There is also much commentary on the significance of the creation and flood narratives for interpreting Exodus 1-2. Little seems to have been made, however, of the echoes of the Babel story in Exodus 1-3 or of the significance of the two texts for each other.36 I shall attempt to address both of these issues.

The initial confessional context for the events recounted in Exodus 1 is set by the reference to creation in verse 7: “the Israelites were fruitful and multiplied greatly and became exceedingly numerous” (c.f. Gen 1:27-8). Verse 10 introduces the first allusion to Babel: “Come let us deal shrewdly with them, lest…,” echoing the “come let us build…, lest…” of Genesis 11. As in Genesis 11, this “Come let us…” has as part of its motivation the avoidance of dispersion, a dispersion willed by God: “Come let us deal shrewdly with them, lest they become even more numerous…and leave the country.” This is backed up in the succeeding verses by at least three further echoes. First, there is reference to a building project (v.11), in fact the building of cities (which we have seen to be the primary focus to the so-called ‘tower of Babel’ story): “they built Pithom and Rameses as store cities for Pharaoh.” Second, we are told that the Israelites “multiplied and spread”: “the more they were oppressed, the more they multiplied and spread; so the Egyptians came to dread the Israelites” (Exod 1:12). This is clearly another echo of Genesis 1, but we have also found it to be a key theme in Genesis 10-11. Given that in Exod 9:26 the Israelites are so clearly confined to Goshen that judgment can be executed along geographical lines, the specific inclusion of ‘spreading’ is a little surprising – unless it serves the purpose of allusion. Third, the building materials are specified in verse 14 and found to be the same brick and mortar commented upon in Gen 11:3.37 Taken together, these echoes seem more than coincidental. In the light of these three motifs, and bearing in mind on the one hand the identification of the Pharaoh of the Exodus, the one who bore the brunt of God’s ‘coming down’, with Rameses II, and on the other the links noted by Uehlinger between city building, naming and claims to empire, it may not be entirely fanciful to see a fourth echo in a naming motif in verse 11, where the building project is specified as “Pithom and Rameses as store cities for Pharaoh.”38

If the references to creation and flood are not accidental, but designed to offer the attentive reader a commentary on events, one rooted in Israel’s faith, then the allusions to Babel must also serve some narrative purpose; the identification of that purpose may confirm the intentionality of the allusions. How, then, do these allusions help us to gain perspective on the Exodus narrative?

It should first be noted that just as in Gen 11:3, the ‘Come let us…’ is interruptive. It is set up as a counter-statement to the creational process of multiplication and spreading (“…lest they become even more numerous…”), as a negation of God’s command and blessing, as an anti-creation (and therefore anti-Creator) stance: Pharaoh’s role in the drama is thereby made clear to us.39 But more than this is suggested. If we read these words and the subsequent echoes with Babel in mind, a particular expectation is invited, a narrative tension introduced. We know that this “come let us” must be futile, that a city built in this manner cannot be allowed to stand unchallenged. In Genesis 11 the initial “come let us…” was met by the divine retort: “come let us go down…”. Knowing this, we begin to look for God’s descent, his response to this unallowable turn of events, for to identify a project with Babel is to prophesy its demise. This is why we know at the end of the first chapter, despite the reiterated creational blessing of verse 20-1 (“the people increased and became even more numerous…”), that the plot is not yet resolved, for the speaker of the “come let us” is still on his throne, (in)secure in his city. In Genesis 11 God saw; now he hears, and in Exod 3:8 announces “I have come down to rescue them from the hand of the Egyptians and to bring them up out of that land into a good and spacious land” – to remove the constriction and free the path to blessing. Israel’s migration out of Egypt follows, echoing that of Abraham out of Ur, returning us to the continuing development of God’s purposes in and for creation.

What relevance does this in turn have for a reading of Gen 11:1-9? It is striking that here in Exodus 1 we have a combination of tyrannical power, a monolithically ordered society, a building project associated with imperial renown and God’s disruptive intervention. It should be noted that God’s descent results not only in judgment on and dismantling of Egyptian oppression but also in the creation of new historical possibility, of a way forward within which God’s intentions for human community might just become visible again. Here, then, is some intra-biblical confirmation of the reading of Gen 11:1-9 advanced above.40

4. Faith in the Future? Despite the polemic of Exodus 1, perhaps intended to contrast with the way of the covenant nation as the Babel narrative contrasted with the way of Abram, later in her history Israel herself began to resemble Egypt and proved once more that unity without a vision of God is first oppressive and then divisive. And so, predictably, Israel in turn became set on course for dispersion. As this process unfolded, Israel’s prophets articulated a bold hope for the future, for a day when Yahweh would bring into being that which had so far always failed, a human community in his image. Did this include a hope beyond Babel? Perhaps the third chapter of Zephaniah points towards such a hope. This chapter presents images of eschatological judgment and redemption which rapidly break the bounds of their initial focus on a corrupt Jerusalem. Some, though not all, commentators have seen here an allusion to Babel.41 What case can be made for drawing such a connection?

First, in Zeph 3:9, the LORD promises that “Then I will purify the lips of the peoples (‘turn to the peoples a pure lip’), that all of them may call on the name of the LORD and serve him shoulder to shoulder.” This time of consummation is contrasted with the prophet’s own time, when language brings disintegration because of crookedness, lying and deceit (v.13). Such speech prevents the building of true human community and also makes true worship from the same lips an impossibility.42 The focus here is not, then, on the restoration of the “one lip” of Gen 11:1, an event which, if the above account is valid, would be a dubious redemptive goal in any case, but on the purging of language for worship.

Second, this healing of lips finds its place in a passage dealing with the “city of the oppressors” which will not obey or trust in the LORD, and with the demolition of such cities (Zeph 3:1-2, 6-7). Here again judgment is a response to a closing down of possibilities for human community to exist in openness before God. Redemption involves the removal from the city of “those who rejoice in their pride” (v.11), leaving behind “the meek and humble, who trust in the name of the LORD.” (v.12) Pride and the question of names are once again, albeit less clearly, bound up with expulsion from a disobedient city.

Third, linked with the motifs of lips and cities is a prophetic language of gathering (v.8, “I have decided to assemble the nations…”) and dispersion (v.10, 11: “my scattered people will bring me offerings…I will remove from this city those who rejoice in their pride”). It is interesting in the light of the discussion thus far that gathering is here associated with sinful solidarity and God’s judgment (v.8, c.f. Joel 3:9f.), as is expulsion from the city (v.11), while acceptable offerings are brought by the scattered ones. (v.10)

The use of these motifs does not appear to be as clearly orchestrated for intentional narrative effect as in Exodus 1-3. Whether they are conscious echoes of the Babel tradition or the result of a shared stock of language and motifs is therefore open to question. Inasmuch as several motifs are shared, however, we might be justified in finding here a faint glimpse of what a redemption of Babel in its destructive aspects might look like. It may be noted that neither an amalgamation into linguistic uniformity nor an independent separation of the nations is envisaged in the redemptive vision. The peoples are seen shoulder to shoulder but not fused; they remain peoples (plural, v.9), restored to each other and to their creator, unified not for their own purposes this time, but in harmonious joint service of God. The same may be said of other eschatological visions such as Isa 2:1-4 or Rev 7:9f and 22:1-2. This renewal comes through “a decisive change in the depths of the inner person…a miracle in the directing of the human heart that remains a secret in that it is one aspect of God’s recreating work.”43 The question of uniformity or diversity of language is not taken up here, while the question of oppression and disobedience versus the freedom of common worship among diverse peoples is very clearly addressed. It now remains to see what the New Testament, with its focus on fulfilment, does with the themes which have been traced through the Old Testament.

5. God Comes Down Once More. The choices made in interpreting Gen 11:1-9 have consequences for a consideration of Acts 2:1-13, the coming of the Spirit at Pentecost. Willimon, for example, argues that associations of the latter passage with Babel are mistaken.44 This cannot be a redemptive reversal of Babel, since we are left with a continuing multiplicity of languages. The assumptions are that a return to linguistic uniformity would be redemptive and that such a redemption should be immediate and universal rather than unfolding and promissory. The present study has suggested different expectations regarding redemption in a post-Babel world. Are they realised in Acts 2?

The Babel narrative provides a model for Luke’s story of Pentecost. Aside from the verbal correspondences between the Greek text of Acts 2:1-13 and the LXX rendering of Gen 11:1-9 the shape of the narrative echoes Babel.45 In both narratives a call to spread into all the earth echoes in the background (Gen 9:1; Acts 1:8). As before on the plain of Shinar we have people gathering together. In response, God comes down. Confusion is said to ensue, and the sequel is dispersion. There are, of course, also significant differences. For the disciples the command to go into all the world is to be heeded only after a period of dependent waiting. As disobedient gathering is replaced by yielded community, God’s descent brings empowerment and life. The result is not now failed communication and mutual isolation, but a renewed hearing, the surprise of rediscovered understanding.

However, even here all does not run smoothly. Both narratives are preceded by a command to spread; as rebellion led to scattering at Babel, so a lingering after the promised Gift has been given leads here also to being scattered (Acts 8:1).

As in Gen 11:1-9 and Exodus 1:6-14, the Babel motifs stand alongside echoes of creation; the wind of God is accompanied by a process of separating in which individuality is affirmed (Acts 2:2-3, c.f. Gen 1:2-4). In keeping with this context, the gift of tongues affirms the linguistic individuality of the hearers. Most of the hearers would have been familiar with Aramaic (those from the east) or Greek (those from the west), so there was not an insurmountable language barrier, although the presence of linguistic diversity among God’s people does raise the question of hope beyond Babel in poignant form.46 Even if there had been simply a confusion of local dialects, one could imagine a miracle whereby the hearers were enabled to understand a single speech, where linguistic uniformity was restored (as the more negative readings of Gen 11:1-9 seem to require). In fact the Holy Spirit steps over any actual or potential uniformity to affirm the diversity present, each hearing the wonders of God proclaimed in his or her own language. As the wind of recreation (c.f. Ezek 37:9, John 3:8) blows over the vanguard of a renewed humanity, hearing, an important mark of humanity before God, is restored (c.f. Gen 11:7).47 Yet in this restoration diversity is not negated, but affirmed.

This episode is not only authoritative for the life of the church, which experienced its birth at Pentecost, but it also gives a promissory vision of recreation. Zephaniah’s vision is not yet fulfilled in its entirety, but there has been an initial glimpse, fleshed out with real people, a promise for the future. Here is the strongest hint that recovered uniformity may not be the best way of reading that future. How fellowship before God is to be combined with continuing diversity of language, a diversity which we have so often experienced as barrier and struggle, remains a mystery. Perhaps this is not surprising. Sin and brokenness do not have an ordered place in creation; they are not to be harmonised with creation but to be agonised over, repented of, wrestled with, hoped through. The least that we can learn from Pentecost is that our solutions to the fragmentation which we face will not be genuinely redemptive if they trample upon human diversity, including diversity of language.

These themes do not end here. Despite the distinction between glossolalia and xenoglossia, it seems unlikely that Pentecost (or, for that matter, even Babel) can have been entirely absent from Paul’s mind when he wrote 1 Cor 14:6-12. Here we find once more a concern for the hearer, a focus on the church community and how it should be built up, an affirmation of the basic worth of all human languages and a recognition of the inability to hear which makes us foreigners to each other: “there are all sorts of languages in the world, yet none of them is without meaning. If then I do not grasp the meaning of what someone is saying, I am a foreigner to the speaker, and he is a foreigner to me” (v.10-11). It is more common in such circumstances for dysfunction to be attributed to the speaker of the alien tongue, the ‘barbarian’ who lacks full humanity. The embrace of all languages as meaningful, both here and in Acts 2, counters the common human tendency to define humanity in terms of the ability to speak the definer’s language and the tendency in subsequent church history to regard most vernaculars as too uncouth to carry God’s truth.48 On more than a few occasions through history the church has behaved more like Assyrian rulers, imposing a single language on subject peoples and persecuting and imprisoning champions of the vernaculars, than like the Spirit-filled group of disciples on the day of Pentecost. Once again the warning dimension of the Babel narrative turned out to be needed.

6. Concluding Observations. In this study I have sought to show that the Babel narrative is not such an isolated story as is sometimes assumed, but rather introduces motifs which echo through the rest of the Bible. I have argued further that these motifs are more complex than scattering as judgment on pride. Diversity is affirmed and oppressive conformity negated, a message which is reaffirmed at highly significant junctures in the Biblical narrative. Is it mere coincidence that the three most focused treatments of the Babel motifs (Genesis 11, Exodus 1 and Acts 2) precede the call of Abraham, the Exodus of Israel and the birth of the early church, while a possible fourth (Zephaniah 3) directs us forward to the realised kingdom of God? The recurrence of these motifs at the most decisive turning points of the Biblical narrative gives them a broader theological import than has often been noted, and suggests that they are to be taken very seriously. These passages, taken together, constitute an invitation to reflect on the kind of human community which we build, and in particular how it deals with questions such as diversity (ethnic, linguistic, cultural), power, name-making, vulnerability, settlement, wandering. As Brueggemann comments in relation to Genesis 11, to identify unity with the good and diversity with sin is too simplistic, even dangerous: “God wills a unity which permits and encourages scattering. The unity willed by God is that all of humanity shall be in covenant with him (9:8-11) and with him only, responding to his purposes, relying on his life-giving power. The scattering God wills is that life should be peopled everywhere by his regents, who are attentive to all parts of creation, working in his image to enhance the whole creation, to bring ‘each in its kind’ to full fruition and productivity…The purpose of God is neither self-securing homogeneity as though God is not Lord, nor a scattering of autonomous parts as though the elements of humanity did not belong to each other.”49

It is a glimpse of this kind of community, a redemptive work of God manifest in human responsiveness, which is given to us in Acts 2, a passage the implications of which have not always been grasped by the church. This glimpse does not, of course, answer the difficult and detailed questions of concrete situations. However, in our world of simultaneously increasing globalisation and deepening pluralism, where hope after Babel is in short supply, it is a glimpse which is still worth contemplating carefully.

Footnotes I would like to thank Drs Sylvia Keesmaat and Brian Walsh for their helpful criticisms of an earlier draft of this article. Remaining failings are, of course, my own.

1 See G. Daan Cloete and Dirk J. Smit, “Its Name was called Babel,” Journal of Theology for Southern Africa 86 (1994) 81-7 for discussion of the use of Babel by apartheid theologians; Jacques Derrida, “Des Tours de Babel,” Semeia 54 (1991) 3-34.

2 Bernhard W. Anderson, “Unity and Diversity in God’s Creation: A Study of the Babel Story,” CurTM 5 (1978) 69-81, p.70-1.

3 Gen 9:1,7,19; 10:5,18,20,25,31-2; 11:2,4,8,9.

4 For further discussion see Colin Yallop, “Linguistic Diversity,” Philosophia Reformata 58 (1993) 113-119; David Smith, “Can Modern Language Teaching be Christian?” Spectrum 25/1 (1993) 25-38.

5 J. Richard Middleton, “The Royal Metaphor in Genesis 1: A Rhetorical Reading of Imago Dei as Power,” paper read at the Institute for Christian Studies, Toronto, October 1995.

6 See, respectively, Ulrich Berges, “Babel oder das Ende der Kommunikation,” Biblische Notizen 74 (1994) 37-56; Theodore M. Klein, “Babel and Babble – The Edification and Deconstruction of Language,” Helios 8/1 (1981) 61-69; Gordon J. Wenham, Genesis 1-15 (Waco: Word, 1987) 244.

7 Wenham, Genesis, 245.

8 Walter Brueggemann, The Land (Philadelphia: Fortress, 1977) 17.

9 E.g. Umberto Eco, The Search for the Perfect Language (Oxford: Blackwell, 1995) 8-10.

10 Victor P. Hamilton, The Book of Genesis Chapters 1-17, (NICOT, Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1990) 350.

11 See Hamilton, Genesis, 350-51 esp. 350 n.7.

12 Christoph Uehlinger, Weltreich und ‘eine Rede’: eine neue Deutung der sogenannten Turmbauerz„hlung (Gen. 11:1-9) (OBO 101, Freiburg, Schweiz: Universit„tsverlag, 1990).

13 “der die Gesamtheit aller Völker/Menschen eine Rede führen liess”…”der durch sein herrscherliches Nahekommen die wilden und schonungslosen Könige von Sonnenaufgang bis Sonnenuntergang eine Rede führen liess.” Uehlinger, Weltreich und ‘eine Rede’, 464.

14 C.f. Uehlinger, Weltreich und ‘eine Rede’, 534-5, 572-84.

15 E.g. Anderson, “Unity and Diversity,” 73; Uehlinger, Weltreich und ‘eine Rede’, 5, 396, 535-6.

16 E. Basil Redlich, The Early Traditions of Genesis (London: Gerald Duckworth and Co, 1950) 121.

17 Wenham, Genesis, 237-9.

18 Uehlinger, Weltreich und ‘eine Rede’, 372-8; Hamilton (The Book of Genesis, 352-3) agrees but oddly still asserts that the identification of the tower with a ziggurat “cannot be gainsaid”.

19 Uehlinger, Weltreich und ‘eine Rede’, 537-46.

20 Hamilton, The Book of Genesis, 356.

21 Uehlinger, Weltreich und ‘eine Rede’, 380: “…kann man, muss man aber nicht eine Anspielung auf mesopotamische Ziqquratrhetorik sehen.”

22 It is interesting to note that there may be a more direct polemic against Mesopotamian religion in Genesis 10:8-10 if (as Van der Toorn and Van der Horst argue) Nimrod is to be associated with the deity Ninurta. Ninurta’s acts of heroism as a warrior and hunter were portrayed in Mesopotamian mythology as preceding his founding of Mesopotamian civilisation, and he was regarded as king of the universe; in Genesis 10 he is firmly “before the LORD.” See K. Van der Toorn and P. W. Van der Horst, “Nimrod Before and After the Bible,” HTR 83/1 (1990) 1-29. If a more traditional identification of Nimrod with a human Mesopotamian ruler is followed, the parallels with the Babel narrative as interpreted here are clear.

23 Uehlinger (Weltreich und ‘eine Rede’, 383) notes that naming is associated with military gain and dominion, heroic feats and guaranteed dynasty in Ancient Near Eastern kingship ideology.

24 The more peaceful “spreading” is now construed as a more violent “scattering”. In this connection, it is unclear why the Canaanite clans “scattered” (Gen 10:18) rather than “spread”. C.f. also 9:18-19 which may anticipate 11:1-9.

25 Walter Brueggemann, Genesis. Interpretation, A Bible Commentary for Teaching and Preaching, (Atlanta: John Knox, 1982) 99.

26 See Hamilton, The Book of Genesis, 354-5 for a comparison of the verbal parallels.

27 Hubert Bost, “A propos de Babel comme Symbole,” ETR 56/3 (1981) 419-29, esp. p.419: the builders are “transformés en spectres, démons ou singes; ou ils errent dans l’enfer, sous l’apparence monstrueuse d’animaux … tête de chien et … pieds de cerf…<> rend la chute du récit imaginaire bien plus théâtrale, plus angoissante que celle du récit initial.”

28 Wenham, Genesis, 244-5.

29 The allusion to Job 42:2 mocks the pretension to divine competence rather than endorsing its realisability.

30 Uehlinger (Weltreich und ‘eine Rede’, 403-4), following Cassuto, suggests that all that is envisaged is the completion of the building project. If the project is in fact the bringing of all into subjugation under imperial rule, this is not incompatible with my account above.

31 C.f. Gerhard Von Rad’s comment (Genesis, London: SCM, 1960, 145): “A humanity that can think only of its own confederation is at liberty for anything, i.e. for every extravagance. Therefore God resolves on a punitive, but at the same time preventive, act, so that he will not have to punish man more severely as his degeneration surely progresses.” Gowan also notes that the threat was not to God, but to humanity; D. E. Gowan, From Eden to Babel – Genesis 1-11, (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1988) 119.

32 It is interesting to note that Gen 10:8-12 forms a similar interruption to the genealogical flow.

33 C.f. Calvin’s comment (Genesis, Edinburgh: Banner of Truth, 1979, 322): “Men had already spread abroad; and this ought not to be regarded as a punishment, seeing it rather flowed from the benediction and grace of God. But those whom the Lord had before distributed with honour in various abodes, he now ignominiously scatters, driving them hither and thither like the members of a lacerated body.” There has been a broad tendency among Christian commentators to focus on judgment and among Jewish commentators to focus on restored blessing. c.f. Uehlinger, Weltreich und ‘eine Rede’, 573-4.

34 See e.g. Wenham, Genesis, 234-6; Isaac M. Kikawada and Arthur Quinn, Before Abraham Was: The Unity of Genesis 1-11 (San Francisco: Ignatius Press, 1985) 72.

35 E.g. Hamilton, The Book of Genesis, 352; Benno Jacob, The Second Book of the Bible: Exodus (Hoboken, N. J.: Ktav, 1992) 11.

36 Kikawada and Quinn (Before Abraham Was, 116-117) have made a few steps in the right direction, noting in addition to the repetition of ‘come let us’ the further parallel in building materials, but they offer little commentary on these correspondences.

37 Kikawada and Quinn (Before Abraham Was, 117) overstate this parallel by mistranslating “mortar and brick” as “bitumen and mortar”, but the echo may still be heard in the reference to “mortar and brick.”

38 Given the possible connection noted above between oppression and linguistic uniformity, it is interesting to note in addition that Egypt is characterised in Ps 81:5, in the context of the removal of the burden of slavery (v.6), as a place “where we heard a language we did not understand.”

39 This parallel places a large question mark over Anderson’s contrast (“Unity and Diversity,” 75) between the “democratic concert” of Gen 11:4 and the imperial rule of Nimrod in Gen 10:8-10.

40 Hinrich Stoevesandt (“Die eine Menschheit und die vielen Völker: Die biblische Erzählung vom Turmbau zu Babel,” KD 37 (1991) 44-61) argues that readings of the Babel narrative in terms of power and oppression are an imposition of contemporary concerns upon the text: such ideas are “clearly read into the text” (“klar in den Text hineingelesen,” p.52). The parallels between the two passages cited here offer grounds for resisting this conclusion.

41 See Odil Hannes Steck, “Zu Zef 3,9-10,” BZ 34/1 (1990) 90-5, where the connections with Isa 19:18 are also detailed; also Elizabeth Achtemeier, Nahum-Malachi. Interpretation, A Bible Commentary for Teaching and Preaching, (Atlanta: John Knox, 1986) 82, following J. H. Eaton, Obadiah, Nahum, Habbakuk and Zephaniah (London: SCM, 1961) 153. C.f. O. Palmer Robertson, The Books of Nahum, Habbakuk and Zephaniah (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1990) 329.

42 There are echoes here of Isaiah’s cry (Isa 6:5, c.f. Jas 3:9-12).

43 Maria Eszenyai Szeles, Habbakuk and Zephaniah: Wrath and Mercy (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1987) 107, commenting on the verb ‘haphak’ (turn).

44 William H. Willimon, Acts. Interpretation, A Bible Commentary for Teaching and Preaching, (Atlanta: John Knox, 1988) 32.

45 See J. G. Davies, “Pentecost and Glossolalia,” JTS, n.s., 3 (1952) 228-31. This is not, of course, to suggest that the Babel narrative is the only background to the Pentecost narrative.

46 C.f. F. F. Bruce, The Book of Acts (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1988, rev. ed.) 54. There is no indication that Peter’s subsequent sermon underwent miraculous translation for the audience.

47 C.f. Brueggemann, Genesis, 103.

48 C.f. David Smith, “Rediscovering a Heritage: Lull, Bacon and the Aims of Language Teaching,” Spectrum 28/1 (1996) 9-28; Even Hovdhaugen, Foundations of Western Linguistics, From the Beginning to the End of the First Millennium A.D. (Oslo: Universitetsforlaget, 1982).

49 Brueggemann, Genesis, 99.

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