Updated: Apr 23, 2022
Most of us are familiar with the Biblical story of the Tower of Babel (Genesis 11: 1-9). Superficially, its meaning seems obvious. A footnote in the New American Bible explains it this way:
“This story illustrates increasing human wickedness, shown here in the sinful pride human beings take in their own achievements apart from God.”
“Secondarily, the story explains the diversity of languages among the peoples of the earth.”
But what if something else is going on here? Something much deeper? In this essay, I will propose that the story of Babel is not primarily a story of human sinfulness but rather an account of the evolution of human language and socio-economic classes.
Although the story of Babel is only 9 verses long, it is divided into three distinct parts. Verses 1 – 4 present “just the facts, ma’am” (Sgt. Joe Friday, Dragnet).
Verses 5 – 9 consist of commentary on the initial verses, some (v. 5 – 7) presented in the form of God’s reaction to the events themselves, some (v. 8 – 9) presented in the author’s own voice.
Let’s first look at the story itself:
The whole world had the same language and the same words (v. 1)
They said to one another, “Come, let us mold bricks and harden them with fire.” (v. 3)
Then they said, “Come, let us build ourselves a city and a tower with its top in the sky, and so make a name for ourselves; otherwise we shall be scattered all over the earth.” (v. 4)
Now to God’s reaction:
The Lord came down to see the city and the tower that the people had built. Then the Lord said, “If now, while they are one people and all have the same language, they have started to do this, nothing they presume to do will be out of their reach. Come, let us go down and there confuse their language so that no one will understand the speech of another.” (v. 5 – 7)
And finally, to the author’s overview:
So, the Lord scattered them from there over all the earth, and they stopped building the city. That is why it was called Babel, because there the Lord confused the speech of all the world. From there the Lord scattered them over all the earth. (v. 8 – 9)
In my view, early human language was primarily concerned with relationship. “In the beginning is the relation.” (Martin Buber, I and Thou) With the rise of human consciousness, folks were more concerned with understanding their place in the world, and with each other, than they were with transforming that world.
At that time, ‘middle voice’ verb forms were pervasive, at least in most Indo-European languages. (Unlike the active and passive voices, the middle voice allows a speaker to detail a ‘relationship’ without designating a ‘subject’ or an ‘object’.)
If we accept the idea that the principal function of early language was to form and strengthen relationships and to communicate information about the nature of relatedness itself, then a middle voice dominant syntax was well suited to the task at hand.
It perfectly corresponds with the ontology of Anaximander, the father of Western philosophy. In the 6th century B.C., Anaximander taught that distinct entities only come into being when they grant each other “reck”.
‘Granting reck’ involves sublimating one’s own self-interest to the interests of another; it means pausing one’s own drive for self-actualization to enable another to actualize along with you.
When we read pre-Socratic philosophy, we marvel that these early thinkers were able to come up with such imaginative and profound existential models. The explanation is that these ideas were already embedded in their language, just as many of our so-called ‘modern ideas’ are really just projections of the language we speak.
Co-actualization also plays a critical role in Judeo-Christian theology. God is, of course, God: eternal, unchangeable. Yet God’s relationship with the world is historical:
“And the Lord brought us out of Egypt with a mighty hand and an outstretched arm and with great terror and with signs and wonders.” (Deut. 26:8)
Unexpectedly, the leading 20th century existentialist, Jean-Paul Sartre (JPS), resolved this conundrum: God is the being whose essence precedes his existence (humans are beings whose existence precedes their essence – hence, ‘existentialism’).
Essentially, God is “ageless, timeless, lace and fineness…beauty and elegance.” (Rod Stewart).
Existentially, God embraces and interiorizes all that is. After all, God is Being, so nothing that is can be apart from God.
In Exodus, God says of himself, “I am what am” (3:14).
‘What am’ refers not just to Being itself but to everything that participates in Being.
Jeremiah summarizes God’s relationship with the people of Israel (and by extension, all people) in two cryptic verses:
“…I will be your God and you shall be my people.” (Jer. 7:23)
“And you shall be my people and I will be your God.” (Jer. 30:22)
It is important to note that Jeremiah summarizes the covenant in reciprocal verses, mirroring the reciprocal nature of the relationship between God and his people. There is no subject, there is no object, just relatedness.
There is no covenant without God; there is no ‘people of God’ without covenant; but there is no covenant without ‘people of God’. Is this not the paradigm of co-actualization?
The complex relationship between God and the world and the importance of co-actualization in that relationship is also evident in the so-called Great Commandment. Although all three synoptic Gospels (Mt 22: 35 – 40, Mk 12: 28 – 34, Lk 10: 27a) include this text, it originated in the Old Testament Torah (Deut. 6: 4 – 5 & Lv. 19: 18):
“…A scholar of the law (Scribe) tested him (Jesus) by asking, ‘Teacher, which commandment in the law is the greatest?’ He (Jesus) said to him, ‘You shall love the Lord, your God, with all your heart, with all your soul, and with all your mind. This is the greatest and first commandment. The second is like it: You shall love your neighbor as yourself. The whole law and the prophets depend on these two commandments.” (Mt. 22: 35-40)
Note that the Scribe does not ask Jesus to name the greatest laws (plural) but the greatest law (singular). The Great Commandment is one law, not two. It is not even one law with two parts. It is one law with at most two aspects.
“The second is like it…” Like it! Jesus is effectively saying that love of God and love of neighbor are one and the same thing. They are co-equal mandates of a single law. Together they form “the greatest and first commandment”.
But that’s still not all. Jesus quotes Leviticus, “You shall love your neighbor as yourself.” Not like yourself (above) but as yourself! Am I my neighbor, then?
Of course, in certain respects you are not your neighbor. You have a different genetic make-up, you’ve had different life experiences and you think differently on many, if not all, subjects.
Yet, ontologically speaking, you are your neighbor! You have the same essence (‘freedom’, according to Jean-Paul Sartre) and the same ‘facticity’ (relationship with the world, again per Sartre). In the language of Medieval Philosophy, you have different ‘accidents’ but the same ‘substance’.
So now, returning to the story of Babel, we find an ancient people speaking the language of co-actualization (same language, same words). They understand each other as ‘neighbors’ in the sense of the Great Commandment. They co-actualize. Their lives are symbiotic.
But technology disrupts this. They say to one another, “Come, let us mold bricks and harden them with fire”, and then “Come, let us build a city and a tower with its top in the sky…”
It’s not that technology is bad. After all, according to Genesis (4:17), Cain built the first city as part of his journey of redemption. In fact, ancient cities were most often built, not in defiance of God’s will, but in celebration of it.
Ecbatana (“the city of patterned streets” – Ezra Pound, Cantos), for example, was built in concentric rings to mirror the 7 celestial orbits known at that time. Dante used the same model to present his vision of Paradise in the Divine Comedy.
Technology is not bad per se; it’s just that engineering requires its own language, one less focused on relationships and more focused on subjects and objects. A middle voice dominated syntax is ill-suited to this mission, so with the rise of new technologies, active and passive voice verb forms became predominate.
Architects and engineers became active subjects; raw materials, tools, and laborers became passive objects.
The middle voice is an ecological voice, a democratic voice. On the other hand, active voice dominance goes along with the idea that humanity can impose its will, unilaterally and without consequences, on nature. A close corollary is the idea that certain nations, races or classes are justified in imposing their wills on others.
After Babel (figuratively speaking at least), the natural world was no longer a symbiotic ‘other’; it became a medium for the impress of human will. Our neighbor ceased to be an end in herself (co-actualization) and became instead a means for our own self-gratification.
According to the 20th century existentialist philosopher, Martin Buber (above), ‘language’ (in the broadest possible sense) consists of just two fundamental words: “I-Thou” and “I-it”. When we say I-Thou, we are speaking the language of relationship, the language of co-actualization; when we say I-it, we are speaking the language of fabrication (bricks) and construction (tower).
According to the story of Babel, the impact of active voice dominance is linguistic confusion. Without a vibrant middle voice, folks can no longer communicate with one another regarding matters of ultimate consequence. As Wordsworth wrote, “Getting and spending we lay waste our powers…we are out of tune.”
While the phenomenon of Babel may not account for the proliferation of human languages per se, it certainly accounts for the specialization of that language. While once upon a time “the whole world had the same language and the same words”, now each segment of society has developed its own medium of communication.
Architects speak a different language than engineers who speak a different language than laborers. Inner city youth communicate with a vocabulary and grammar foreign to middle-aged suburbanites. Parents use Pig Latin to hide meaning from their children. In 19th century England, miners in Northumberland and Durham counties developed a dialect called Pitmatic which was completely incomprehensible to other English language speakers.
Our language has become confused! According to Babel, the urge to make bricks and build cities was based on a desire to “make a name for ourselves” lest we be “scattered over all the earth”.
Ah, the irony of it all! It was the very act of making bricks and building cities that ‘confused’ human language and ‘scattered’ people, if not geographically, then socially. While active voice dominance gave the citizen of Babel the tool needed to build a magnificent city, it limited their ability, and perhaps even their desire, to talk with one another. It led to social stratification: class structure.
We don’t often think to look for parallels between Genesis and the works of Karl Marx; but the story of Babel offers just such a parallel. Marxism defines a socio-economic class in terms of the relationship its members have to the “means of production” (i.e. technology). Bourgeoisie vs. proletariat, for instance. The ‘Babel project’, and the new linguistic forms it birthed, created new relationships to the means of production and hence new socio-economic classes. This emerging class structure, in turn, undercut the role of ‘neighbor’ in society.
But wait, we are almost totally disregarding God’s commentary. How can we do that, especially considering that this is a Biblical text? My surmise is that the Babel story line existed long before it was incorporated into Genesis. As with many other parts of scripture (the story of Job, for example), the Biblical authors used cultural materials close at hand to convey their spiritual message.
Thus, in the hands of St. Patrick, the 3-leaf clover became a symbol of the Trinity; and Tannenbaum became our beloved Christmas tree. The authors of Genesis used Babel to make a point about human sinfulness, but the real import of the story lies much deeper.
So, the story of Babel is not primarily a story of human sinfulness, at least not in the usual sense of that term. Rather it is an account of technology’s impact on the evolution of human language and, in turn, the role of language in the rise of socio-economic class structure.