Babel Meanings

061026_mov_babelex.jpgIn this week’s Torah portion, Parashat Noach, we learn that humanity originated in one common culture and language. They subsequently band together in Biblical history’s first technological effort to build a tower to the heavens, “so that we may make a name for ourselves and not be scattered over the face of the earth.” (Genesis 11:4)

Of course, this is precisely what happens. God foils their plan, creates multiple languages to confound them, divides them up into peoples, and scatters them throughout the world, lest “nothing they plan to do will be impossible for them.” (11:6) The plain meaning of this Biblical fable seems to imply that cultural diversity is a curse – or at least that humanity’s inability to communicate as one has its roots in a decidedly darker side of our collective nature.

The tragedy of our “confounded” and “scattered” world is the central theme of the recent movie, “Babel,” which portrays the dark consequences of 21st century human/cultural miscommunication in agonizing detail. As a Beliefnet review of the film puts it:

The Babel of the Bible is nothing compared to the many forms of Babel in our time. People today are cut off from each other by race, language, culture, and tradition. Ingrained ideas about who belongs in our communities, coupled with prejudice against outsiders and fear of terrorists, have us clustering in small barricaded units while we ignore religious understandings that we are all connected in one human family. Babel exists wherever people are at each other’s throats or stuck in situations that bring out their fear, anger, hatred, or violent behavior.

This is not, however, the only lesson we might take away from this Biblical tale. In his essential book “The Dignity of Difference” Rabbi Jonathan Sacks, Chief Rabbi of Britain, makes the case that the Babel story imparts an critical lesson about the nature of human diversity:

Babel – the first global project – is the turning point in the Biblical narrative. From then on, God will not attempt a universal order again until the end of days. Babel ends with the division of mankind into a multiplicity of languages, cultures, nations, and civilizations… (p. 52)

Biblical monotheism is not the idea that there is one God and therefore one truth, one faith, one way of life. On the contrary, it is the idea that unity creates diversity. That is the non-Platonic miracle of creation. What is real, remarkable and the proper object of our wonder is not the quintessential leaf, but the 250,000 different kinds there actually are; not the idea of a bird but the 9,000 species that exist today; not the metalanguage that embraces all others, but the 6,000 languages still spoken throughout the world. (p. 53)

Centuries after Babel, we still struggle with the meaning and ramifications of difference. Do we understand diversity as a source of division and fear, or could our very particularity possibly be an opportunity for wonder and understanding between between peoples and faiths? Rabbi Sacks’ exquisite conclusion:

Our particularity is our window on to universality, just as our language is the only way we have of understanding the world we share with speakers of other languages. God no more wants all faiths and cultures to be the same than a loving parent wants his or her children to be the same. That is the conceptual link between love, creation and difference. We serve God, author of diversity, by respecting diversity. (p. 56)

3 thoughts on “Babel Meanings

  1. Stan

    Nice commentary – while I agree that God does not want uniformity, I want to take a bit of an evolutionary twist on this.

    I think the Tower of Babel represents the outcome of the first emerging human civilizations – the first groups of humans who spoke the same language, were in the same closed community, and were connected with the same cultural practices. What happened when these small groups began to grow?

    It seems clear that the migrations of humans were due to a number of factors, both geographical, cultural, and practical. But in light of this story I see groups who realized that no matter how tight and cohesive a single community was – no matter how much they worked together – they were limited in their abilities.

    I don’t see God as worried about their abilities, but rather their own realization that they were limited in their abilities to reach God and acheive greatness. That being the case, there were those in the first community who were brave enough and smart enough to venture out and look for a greater vista, a greater God than they could imagine within their first insular community. These brought forth new communities, new ideas, new cultures, new languages.

    In an evolutionary sense, humanity had to start with a single type of language which then diversified as the populations did. It is only when these populations met each other again after long periods apart that they would realize their languages were no longer the same.

    So, I view the Babel story not as God punishing humanity, but as humanity venturing forth to diversify once they found their small compact world limiting – to find a more complex world, and a more complex and rich vision of God. A kind of foreshadowing of Abraham’s going forth to new lands when he found God.

    My hope is that now, in a world where all these cultures can reconnect at the switch of a cell phone, we will have the humility to see our common roots, and the courage to embrace each other’s differences.


  2. Shirley Gould

    I was about to write about the value of differences, when I read Stan’s comment. I want to add that in reaching out to others at this time in our civilization, we enrich our own lives. No one person or group has all the answers, or all the capabilities. Only when we get to know one another and learn to grow and learn from one another, can we have mutual fulfillment.

  3. Irwin Wagner

    I see this as a comment on the ineffability of God. By building a Tower we were were trying to communicate more directly with God and reach God’s level. We needed a lesson. God is ineffable and in fact we can’t really communicate directly with God.

    Only God is one. Human individuals are not in the same league. Instead we should recognize that we can be at one with other human beings and are at one with God only when we are in unity with each other. We may have different languages and racial characteristic but we will only be one with God when we are at one with other human beings.



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