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Sunday, September 1, 2013

Random Thoughts on Babel

Welcome to another rambling meditation.  Image: Pieter Brueghel the Elder

Our adult Sunday School class has been going through the Old Testament book of First Samuel.  During discussion of the Israelites' desire for a king (I Sam. 8), the Tower of Babel came up.

It's really an interesting story:

And the whole earth was of one speech. And it came to pass, as they journeyed from the east, that they found a plain in the land of Shinar; and they dwelt there.  And they said one to another, Go to, let us make brick, and burn them thoroughly.  And they had brick for stone and slime had they for mortar.  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 earth.  And the LORD came down to see the city and the tower, which the children of men had 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.  Go to, let us go down, and there confound their language that they may not understand one another's speech. So the LORD scattered them abroad from thence upon the face of the earth; and they left off to build the city.  Therefor is the name of it Babel; because the LORD did there confound the language of all the earth; and from thence did the LORD scatter them abroad upon the face of the earth.

These are the generations of Shem...(Gen.11:1-10, AV)

Having recently had my elder son and his family move back in (he is pursuing a Master's) and entertaining my younger while he is home from college, I feel a sneaking pride in playing the patriarch of a three-generation family. To have those over whom one has once exercised authority gathered around is a satisfying feeling.  Write it large, and you have the perennial centralizing temptations of power.

The Land of Shinar is lower Mesopotamia, and Babel is the Hebrew name for the city of Babylon. "Babel" means "Gate of God", and the city was the center of the region's first centralized absolutist state. The book of Genesis reads this back into the immediate post-deluvian era, and gives us a warning about the dangers of such totalitarian centralization.

It is the divine plan for humans to spread; to subdue the whole earth.  It is the divine plan for a man to leave his father and mother and cleave to his wife (Gen.2:24--and Hebrew, being hopelessly gendered, makes it clear that it's man and _female_ wife).  This is how the human race is to live, grow, propagate itself, and survive.

Hence, Moses, as editor of Genesis, warns us of the temptation of centralized power.  It both keeps the family of man from fulfilling its mission of spreading out and provokes divine jealousy.  It begins with a proud challenge to Heaven, and ends with confusion, when Babel, the Gate of God, descends to become Balal, or confusion.

Has this not been the story of the rise and fall of kingdoms throughout history?  Is it not the case that the Thousand-year Reich lasted for exactly twelve, while the Soviet state that was to usher in the final stage of history collapsed after seventy years, leaving some who had seen the birth of the Soviet Union alive to see its demise?

And what of those who were free while under the rule of God, who suddenly decide to be "like the nations round about." (I Sam. 8:5.20).  To be a free people with the knowledge of God is not to be in anarchy, but to have God for a ruler--the ultimate blessing a society may enjoy.  But to trade it for the proud tower of an all-powerful earthly ruler is to invite the very confusion and dispersion such a powerful state is established to avoid.  This, perhaps, is the ultimate lesson of both the Tower of Babel and the narrative of Samuel-Kings.  The hoped-for "Babel" invariably becomes"Balal"--a confusion of tongues.


  1. The story I heard was somewhat different. The owner refused to use an architect and turned it over to a Construction Management Team. The CM group neglected to use critical path scheduling and went 100% design build value engineering. Jobsite safety meetings were discontinued where upon the entire project descended into Balal or more locally known Laredo.
    Sorry couldn't resist.