The Tower of Babel was
climbing high. Alleluia.
People bragged they would reach the sky. Alleluia.
All at once the Lord came down, Alleluia.
Scattered those babblers all around. Alleluia.
Why do we call a baby a “baby”?
We got a visit from our daughter Marit and the two grandchidren.
Stella was holding Lara in the easy chair, and Marit asked Stella to sing some
songs to Lara. So she did. She sang the ABC song and “Ba Ba Black Sheep” and
then another whole song. I think this one was called “Hanna Bressa Waresah,
Hanna Wasa Du.” That’s a language that I have completely forgotten how to
speak. It shows the connection between “baby” and “babble,” though.
The dictionary says “babble” started out as a repetition of the
syllable “ba.” I always thought these words came from the Bible’s story of the Tower of Babel, but the Online Etymology
Dictionary says, “No direct connexion with Babel can
The series of stories in the Bible up to and including this one
follow a definite theme: God’s creation is good, but mankind introduces evil
into the world. And this evil is steadily increasing. Funny thing is there’s
hardly a clue as to just what these evil things that we keep doing are. There’s
the disobedience of Adam and Eve, of course; but it’s not as though eating a
piece of fruit in itself is evil. Then came the first murder. Other than that
all we hear is something like “The Lord saw that the wickedness of man was
great in the earth, and that every imagination of the thoughts of his heart was
only evil continually.” It’s like being brought to trial without being told
what the charges are.
Maybe the story is telling us we’re not so dumb. We know what
we’re doing wrong. At any rate,
the Babel story
finally specifies one charge against humankind: They’re building a tower. How
terrible! God seems to be condemning just those human qualities that we value
highly today—independence, ingenuity, accomplishment. We shoot a rocket clear
out of the Solar System, but God gets upset when the Babylonians build a tower
to the sky.
I mention the Babylonians because the prototype for the Tower of Babel may have been one of the
ziggurats, pyramid-like structures found in the area around the Tigris and Euphrates Rivers. There
was one in the city of Babylon.
These people had no intention of reaching the sky. The ziggurats were meant as
a place where a god could come down and stay awhile. If there was any pride in
it, it was about the same as the pride the Israelites justly took in their
temple. But pride was the sin of
the tower builders as the story comes down and as it's been understood
traditionally. They wanted to “make a name for ourselves.” The storyteller might have mentioned
at the start that any resemblance between characters in the story and real
individuals is purely coincidental. The Bible story isn’t about any particular
individuals but all of us. Pride is one of the “seven deadly sins.”
I suspect the Israelites might have seen another angle to the
sin of building this tower “with its top in the heavens.” And there are
frightening parallels in today’s world. We now know that we could create a
“nuclear winter” and wipe out most higher forms of life if we ever used our
stockpiles of nuclear bombs. Global warming might be nearly as ruinous. And
there are powers scientists are now gaining over the very building blocks of
life. We can modify genetics, maybe even someday engineer a new type of human,
or a new disease, or create life from scratch. What could scare an
ancient Israelite as badly as some technological possibilities scare people
today? A tower to the sky could.
The sky according to Israelite science is an upside down bowl
over the earth, holding out the water that completely surrounds us. The sun,
moon, planets, and stars travel around the inside surface of this bowl. The sun
and moon, of course, have a lot of influence down here on earth. Most ancient
people believed that the stars and planets did, too. Scattered around the bowl
are floodgates so God can let down just the right amount of water from above
the firmament. Now imagine humans
up there in the sky. They might open the floodgates and flood the world again
just so a few could have it all to themselves. They could even change the
courses of the lights in the sky, messing around with the cycles of life below.
No wonder God says, “This is only the beginning of what they will do; and
nothing that they propose to do will now be impossible for them.” Humankind,
having climbed outside and above nature, would have no limits. Back then some people knew that was a
disastrous situation. Today environmentally aware people are trying to convince
an unheeding world of what people knew long ago. Ecologically I think this
is a very relevant story.
God is not going to come down and stop us from doing whatever we
propose to do, as he does in the Tower of Babel story.
But that wasn’t really the story’s point. According to Bible scholars, this
story is designed as the end of an introduction to the main theme of the whole Bible.
The first 11 chapters of the Book of Genesis set the stage for the rest of the
Bible story—the record of Israel’s
faith concerning God’s action in the world. They specify the relevant
characteristics, according to Israelite belief, of the world God acts in—a
world in which sin abounds and which, left to itself, is completely hopeless.
This introduction to the Bible story says in no uncertain terms: God is our
These are stories. The real world was never completely hopeless.
God never actually left the world on its own. The whole series from the Fall to
the Tower of Babel,
especially the last story, expresses in a mythical way what the Israelites
believed the world would be like without God. This
last story is unlike the others. It doesn’t have a happy ending or even a
moderately hopeful one. All the previous stories do. God drove Adam and Eve out
of the garden, but at least he made some new clothes for them to wear. God sent
Cain into exile for killing his brother but gave him a mark to protect him. God
destroyed the world by flood, but he saved one family and all the animal
species, and he made the rainbow, a sign that he wouldn’t do it again. In the
story of the Tower of Babel, God
prevents the building of the tower, and the people are scattered all over the
earth amidst a din of babbling voices. And that's all the grace there is in
this story, though it's grace indeed. As a line from C. S. Lewis (in That
Hideous Strength) explains, mercy imposes a limitation on man's
power "as a protection from the full results of his fall." In
this story there’s no saving grace after that. It’s a marvelous bit
of story-telling restraint. The saving grace, which we call Salvation History,
is about to begin—in the very next chapter.
Now the introduction’s done. Alleluia.
Salvation’s story has begun. Alleluia.
On to Abraham