Analytic Theology

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The Tower of Babel

September 8th, 2007 by David Kronemyer · 3 Comments


A. Statement of the Problem

The story of the Tower of Babel at Genesis 11:1-9 is one of the most celebrated fables of the Old Testament. It recounts how the ancient Israelites commenced building a gigantic ziggurat in order to reach unto heaven. Concurrently, they sought a “name,” lest they “be scattered abroad upon the face of the whole earth.” God became concerned. If “this they begin to do,” then “nothing will be restrained from them, which they have imagined to do.” God therefore confounded their language, so they could not understand each other. Whereupon they not only stopped building the Tower, but also were scattered abroad.

In this manner, they were unable to realize any of their ambitions. (a) They did not complete the construction of the Tower. [God did not smote it, as he was wont to do on many other occasions, so presumably it remained standing, in its unfinished state, for some period of time.] (b) They abandoned this methodology for reaching unto heaven. Further initiatives to do so would have to be pursued via other means. (c) They did not obtain the “name” they sought. And (d), against their express wish, they were scattered abroad – an early and eerie echo of their subsequent exile and diaspora.

God’s actions, on the other hand, were not particularly well conceived, nor efficacious. His logic was conditional: if they could build an edifice like the Tower, then who knows what else they’d be capable of doing. As a matter of fact, they might be able to do anything “which they have imagined to do.” God thus specifically was concerned with the unity of intention and action: intention expressed in action, or action as the result of intention. If they just were off building a very tall spire, without the intention of reaching unto Heaven, then presumably God would have been OK with it. Similarly, no matter how badly they wanted to reach unto Heaven, if they hadn’t started making mud bricks, then presumably God would not have become exercised.

Which suggests that if this really was the problem God was seeking to prevent – future imaginative action – then there would be other, better ways of addressing it. For example, God could have impaired their imagination, so they no longer had frivolous ideations. Or, he could have disconnected their imaginations from their ability to act – let them think whatever they want, in peace, so long as they don’t do anything about it, or, let them do whatever they want, so long as it is meaningless and without purpose.

Instead, though, he chose to confound their language – the very Adamic language he had bestowed on them, shortly after the Creation. This seems like a peculiar way to accomplish his stated objective. For example, in principle, there’s no reason why they couldn’t have continued building, using, say, ostension instead of words. The trade secrets of making mud bricks can’t be that complex.

More concernful, though: what is it about this particular act – the building of a tower in the middle of the desert – that so incensed God? So what if his chosen people had a restless imagination, and were prone to express themselves by means of elaborate construction activities? Why wouldn’t God want to encourage this form of initiative by the very people he had created in his own image, rather than squelching it? Clearly, God isn’t worried so much about the Hebrews’ tower-building proclivities. Rather, his primary concern is the fact they’ve amassed themselves, gathered together, and amalgamated their energies into a single, collective, quasi-industrial function – that is, to build the tower.

Compounding the problem, God seems to regret what he did. For example, at Isaiah 66:18-21, God says, “I know their works and their thoughts, and I come to gather nations of every language; they shall come and see my glory,” emphasis added. This makes it sound as though he wants to get everybody back together again, which surely carries with it at least the possibility of a recurrence of the same dynamic.

Then there is the curious episode of religious xenoglossia occurring at Acts 2:4, when the Apostles acquired the peculiar ability “to speak with other tongues, as the Spirit gave them utterance.” How are we to consider this, in light of the Tower of Babel episode, when God brought about precisely the opposite result?

B. Interpretations of the Tower of Babel

Conventional theological interpretations of the Tower of Babel have focused on its linguistic aspects, that is, the differentiation of languages. A good example is Frazer, J., “The Tower of Babel,” Folk-Lore in the Old Testament: Studies in Comparative Religion, Legend & Law (1918). “Among the problems which beset any inquiry into the early history of mankind the question of the origin of language is at the same time one of the most fascinating and one of the most difficult. * * * [T]he diversity of languages spoken by the various races of men naturally attracted the attention of the ancient Hebrews, and [this is how] they explained it.”

To me, this analysis seems backwards. I am inclined to think that a single language would tend to promote a monotheistic outlook, just as monotheism in turn offers an explanation for the divine right of kings. Whereas, a plurality of languages would tend to promote polytheism, if only because each language parses the same phenomenon differently, with resulting nuances, ambiguities and subtleties of meaning.

Post-modern interpretations of the Tower of Babel have viewed it as a metaphor about mutual incomprehensibility, entropy, or the futility of an appeal to the gods. “The tower of Babel does not figure merely the irreducible multiplicity of tongues; it exhibits an incompletion, the impossibility of finishing, of totalizing, of saturating, of completing something on the order of edification, architectural construction, system and architectonics,” Derrida, J., “Des Tours de Babel” in Anidjar, G., Jacques Derrida – Acts of Religion 104 (2002). In this way, it stands for “the attempt at totalization made by metaphysical discourse,” Casey, D., “Luce Irigaray and the Advent of the Divine: From the Metaphysical to the Symbolic to the Eschatological,” 12 Pacifica 27 (Feb. 1999).

Elaborates another commentator: “The failure of the tower marks the necessity for translation * * * Philosophy is the ideal of translation. * * * The necessity of philosophy is defined in the collapse rather than in the project itself. As the desire for translation produced by the incompletion of the tower is never completely frustrated, the edifice is never simply demolished. The building project of philosophy continues but its completion is forever deferred. The tower is also the figure of deconstruction. * * * Deconstruction identifies the inability of philosophy to establish the stable ground, the deferral of the origin which prevents the completion of the edifice by locating the untranslatable, that which lies between the original and the translation,” Wigley, M., “The Translation of Architecture, the Production of Babel,” 8 Assemblage 6 (Feb. 1989).

This “translation motif” has been responsible, in a way, for an entire school of existential psychology, based on the fragmentation of personality. Says Rollo May: “The chief characteristic of the last half of the nineteenth century was the breaking up of personality into fragments. These fragmentations … were symptoms of the emotional, psychological, and spiritual disintegration occurring in the culture and in the individual,” May, R., “How Existentialism and Psychoanalysis Arose Out of the Same Cultural Situation” in The Discovery of Being 60 (1983). Although he does not cite the Tower of Babel specifically, May observes: “This compartmentalization went hand in hand with the developing industrialism, as both cause and effect,” 63.

C. Neither of These Approaches Really Gets It

While intriguing, the post-modern interpretation still does not get to the true meaning of the Tower of Babel story. What it misses is the concept of salience, or juxtaposition, of the human project of fabricating mud bricks, and then piling them on top of each other into the shape of a tower – against the flatness, or the sheerness, of the empty desert sand. The ancient Israelites were attempting to express themselves and, much like Adam in the Garden of Eden, to attain a quantum, however small, of divine knowledge. In frustrating this objective, God meant to indicate the impossibility of doing so, through any empirical means.

An echo of this is found at Wisdom 9:13 – 16: “For what man is he that can know the counsel of God? or who can think what the will of the Lord is? For the thoughts of mortal men are miserable, and our devices are but uncertain. For the corruptible body presseth down the soul, and the earthy tabernacle weigheth down the mind that museth upon many things. And hardly do we guess aright at things that are upon earth, and with labour do we find the things that are before us: but the things that are in heaven who hath searched out?”

Which means, man never will “know” God’s will, in the sense of having epistemological certainty. Not only is man embodied, but he is-in-the-world. While he might “museth upon many things,” his “devices are but uncertain.” This is not because of any failure of ratiocination, or lack of insight or creativity. Rather, man’s thoughts and ideations are circumscribed and delimited, from the start, by the “earthy tabernacle” upon which he resides. It’s all man can do to “find the things that are before” him; it’s beyond his purview to search out “the things that are in heaven.” In fact, even an attempt to do so would be futile (I read the last phrase as more of a rhetorical question, than an invitation to start looking).

Jesus himself alluded to the same problem at Luke 14:28 – 30: “For which of you, intending to build a tower, sitteth not down first, and counteth the cost, whether he have sufficient to finish it? Lest haply, after he hath laid the foundation, and is not able to finish it, all that behold it begin to mock him, Saying, This man began to build, and was not able to finish.” Jesus might as well have added, if you’re planning to build a tower to reach unto the sky, you better do a whole lot of planning, because there probably isn’t enough mud in the world, to make enough bricks, to reach that high.

We might be able to imagine this algebraically. If the set {p1, p2, p3 … pn} comprises all the elements of human purpose and endeavor, then it never will have sufficient members to equal “the divine.” In a weird kind of analogy to Godel’s first Incompleteness Theorem, it would be impossible to demonstrate such a set comprised all the true propositions attributable to God, but no false ones. Or, to look at it from God’s perspective, consider the mathematics of infinity, particularly as developed by George Cantor. Cantor demonstrated that almost any set of natural numbers – evens, odds, squares, take your pick – have the same “cardinality,” that is, they can be put into one-on-one correspondence with each other. The equation (infinity + 1) therefore equals the equation (infinity + 2), and (infinity * 2) = (infinity * 3), etc. It doesn’t matter how many elements we add or subtract. If we understand the infinite as a kind of proxy for “God,” then God remains similarly indifferent.

In their own ways, Wilfred Bion, Rudolf Bultmann and Paul Tillich understood this dynamic.

Bion’s concept is muddled with notions of the tower representing a breast, or a penis. He also is distracted by the language metaphor. However, he does observe: “One point that immediately obtrudes is the hostility of the Deity to the aspirations of men who wish to build a city and a tower to reach to Heaven. * * * The people are making bricks and slime, which are then to be put together to make the tower to reach Heaven. * * * It is the God who is opposed to the hypothesis … and it seems as if the people who have come together are to be scattered; the hypothesis or selected fact is to be destroyed, the fragments scattered upon the face of all the earth. This is an attack on an attempt to reach Heaven,” Bion, W., “Tower of Babel: possibility of using a racial myth,” Cogitations 241 (1992).

Although preoccupied with other concerns, Bultmann observes: “[I]t is an illusion to suppose that real security can be gained by men organizing their own personal and community life. There are encounters and destinies which man cannot master. He cannot secure endurance for his works. * * * It is the word of God which calls man away from … the illusory security which he has built up for himself. It calls him to God, who is beyond the world and beyond scientific thinking. * * * By means of science men try to take possession off the world, but in fact the world gets possession of men. * * * To believe in the Word of God means to abandon all merely human security,” Bultmann, R., Jesus Christ and mythology 39 – 40 (1958). In other words, no human ideation, activity or project can provide sufficient empirical justification for religious belief, because some element or ingredient always will be missing.

Tillich characterizes Christian theology as the attempt to unify these two factors. It “implies the claim that it is the theology. The basis of this claim is the Christian doctrine that the Logos became flesh, that the principle of the divine self-revelation has become manifest in the event ‘Jesus as the Christ.’ If this message is true, … Christian theology has received something which is absolutely concrete and absolutely universal at the same time,” Tillich, P., Systematic Theology – Volume One 16 (1951).

Being a Christian necessarily entails acceptance of this inherent tension. “Something that is merely abstract has a limited universality because it is restricted to the realities from which it is abstracted. Something that it is merely particular has a limited concreteness because it must exclude other particular realities in order to maintain itself as concrete. Only that which has the power of representing everything particular is absolutely concrete. And only that which has the power of representing everything abstract is absolutely universal. This leads to a point where the absolutely concrete and the absolutely universal are identical. And this is the point at which Christian theology emerges, the point which is described as the ‘Logos who has become flesh,’” 16 – 17. Not mentioned by Tillich: it follows that one cannot be a Christian if one holds out any hope that the transcendent (say, “God”) is something more than merely a collection of the manifest (as embodied in the physical body of the person “Jesus”).

He never mentioned it, at least insofar as I know, and I would hesitate to characterize him as “post-modern.” Nonetheless, it’s Martin Heidegger who provides the best explanation for the Tower of Babel. To see why this is, we need to traverse one of his later works, “The Question Concerning Technology” in Krell, D. (ed.) Basic Writings 283 (1977). In this essay, Heidegger gets to pondering just what is it that technology is all about. His argument is nuanced; for our purposes, and as applied to the Tower of Babel, it goes something like this:

1. The technology of the ancient Israelites, as deployed in the construction of the Tower of Babel, was making mud bricks and then stacking them into a tall, tower-like shape. This can be characterized “instrumentally,” that is, as a “means to an end” (that end being, to erect the Tower); or, “anthropologically,” that is, as a form of human activity (attempting to reach unto heaven). Both of these definitions are “correct but not true,” because they do not show us the technology’s “essence,” that is, the way it “concerned” them, 288 – 289.

2. Rather, Heidegger claims technology is a “way of revealing” or “bringing forth” that which otherwise might be concealed or obscured, 294 – 295. It “gathers together in advance the aspect and the matter of [that which is to be revealed or bought forth] with a view to the finished thing envisioned as completed, and from this gathering determines the manner of its construction,” 295. Even though they might not have had building plans or permits, or architectural renderings, the ancient Israelites had to have some kind of concept of what they were trying to accomplish. Otherwise, they wouldn’t have been able to decide to use mud bricks, as opposed to some other form of building material; or, what size they should be, how much straw should go into them, their solidity and consistency, and similar factors.

3. The way in which technology accomplishes this “revealing” is by “challenging nature,” 296. Unlike more prosaic, one even might say “gentler” forms of Dasein-activity, technology “sets upon” nature. It “unlocks” or “exposes” nature, 297. An example of the former might be plowing furrows into the earth and planting wheat, or whatever forms of agriculture the ancient Israelites engaged. [Heidegger attempts to distinguish between what he calls “modern technology,” like a hydro-electric power plant on the Rhine River, and what we might call “prosaic technology,” that is, something like a water-driven sawmill on a creek leading into it. This distinction is untenable, however, because both meet Heidegger’s criterion of “challenging nature.”]

4. This “unlocking” or “exposing,” however, “is always itself directed from the beginning toward furthering something else,” 297 [emphasis added]. For example, coal isn’t mined simply to have it sit around. Rather, it is burnt for heat, to make steam, which (in an odd industrial revolution-type of example) “turns the wheels that keep a factory running,” 297. This has a curious side-effect, which is, it inverts the relationship between Dasein and nature. “The hydroelectric plant is not built into the Rhine River as was the old wooden bridge that joined bank with bank for hundreds of years. Rather, the river is dammed up into the power plant,” 297. It makes more sense now to think of the river as a water-supplier (not a “river”), because of its status vis-à-vis the power plant. For these reasons, the ancient Israelites didn’t just get up one morning and decide to make a lot of mud bricks. Rather, they wanted to build a Tower. The Tower in turn redefined the landscape. It didn’t perch, or sit on the landscape; rather, the landscape became the pedestal, or place of display, for the Tower.

5. Heidegger refers to anything harnessed or deployed in this way as the “standing reserve.” Who knows where he got this kooky phrase. A better way to think of it is, “capacity to be utilized by Dasein to further Dasein’s interests.” However described, it is “ordered to stand by, to be immediately on hand, indeed just to stand there just so that it may be on call,” 298. In this way, nature becomes “present,” because we “challenge” it by utilizing (or getting ready to use) its capacity, 298. Things that are caught or suspended in this mode of readiness, or standing by, no longer are “objects.” Rather, they are vehicles or devices to the completion or accomplishment of Dasein-intended projects. An airplane, for example, is not simply a “machine.” Rather, it is the “possibility of transportation,” 298. Similarly, the mud bricks are not just blocks made of dirt. Rather, they are the possibility of being assembled into the Tower.

6. But let’s consider Dasein’s role further. Dasein indeed may “conceive, fashion and carry through this or that in one way or another,” 299. However, Dasein does not do this of Dasein’s own initiative. Rather, Dasein already is challenged by nature. In this sense, Dasein also is part of the “standing reserve,” that is, a capacity to be utilized. For example, the forester who fells trees in the forest is “ordered” by the commercial wood-producing industry, even as he “challenges nature” by cutting down trees. Wood in turn is “challenged forth” by paper, which is made into newsprint, which in turn delivers “a set configuration of opinion” to the public. Each prior element, then, is evoked by its successor.

With regards to the Tower, we might say: the ancient Israelites were challenged by nature to embark upon its construction. Nature invited, or solicited them, to proceed. This includes the immense flatness of the desert; doesn’t it cry out for a tall, perpendicular structure, so as to better display that flatness? And the blueness of the sky, so far overhead; every now and then there is a puffy white cumulous cloud. Wouldn’t it too be better displayed in contrast with a fine, erect tower? It would be like a bauble, or a piece of jewelry, to adorn it. And then of course there is the sand, marvelous in its smoothness, its roundness and tactility. It’s possible they never had seen finer sand for the purpose of making mud bricks. The scene tantalized them. Mesmerized by it, they began to build.

7. Dasein has a special capacity, which is, Dasein is capable of both instigating revealing-resulting events; and, being acted upon as a downstream facilitator of the same process. In this manner, Dasein not only is “brought into the unconcealed” – but also “responds to the call of unconcealment,” which is one of the “modes of revealing allotted to him,” 300.

Heidegger’s poetic language aside, what he’s trying to say here is that one of Dasein’s proclivities is to approach and challenge nature. This urge is provoked by none other than nature itself, and Dasein’s being-in-the-world, in salience or juxtaposition to it. The equation therefore goes something like this:

Nature (or some component, aspect, or feature of it) reveals itself (or is present) to Dasein (who is being-in-the-world) → Dasein thereupon impinges or acts upon nature → to accomplish a purposeful result or outcome → that in turn requires nature (or some of its ingredients or elements) in order to occur or to be fulfilled.

We therefore might say, the ancient Israelites responded to the call of the flatness of the desert, and the blueness of the sky, by building the Tower. In turn, they utilized natural elements – the mud, the straw, and the water – to do so.

8. Heidegger has a good word for this reciprocal, interactive process: “enframing,” 301. In this way, “that which is” – the “real,” and its capacity to be utilized by Dasein – is revealed. In fact, one might call Dasein “the enframer,” because Dasein is the one who catalyzes this reaction. Otherwise, nature simply would sit there, as it did before Dasein arrived on the scene.

9. Says Heidegger, this is Dasein’s “destiny,” 306. I think “destiny” is far too teleological, and that it’s better to say simply that Dasein is naturally curious, and responds quizzically yet energetically to anomalous events and instances in the world, such as mountain ranges (which must be climbed), rivers (which must be bridged), valleys (which must be cultivated), and so forth. This is part of Dasein’s “nature,” not something outside of it. Yet, let us think again of the ancient Israelites. Might there be a sense in which they were “destined” by God to build the Tower – was it part of their “destiny” to do so? Probably not, at least not in the way the Old Testament uses the concept of “destiny.” For example, we can state credibly it was the ancient Israelites’ “destiny” to flee Egypt, because at that point they had become God’s Chosen People. It is less likely this applies to the Tower, if only because, during the course of its construction, God decided he wanted nothing to do with it.

10. One consequence of all of this poking and prodding is that Dasein might misinterpret or misconstrue that which Dasein reveals (or “unconceals”). This can happen if Dasein comes to view its role as “nature-orderer,” as more important than nature itself. Or, reciprocally, if Dasein comes to conceive of itself as nothing more than that which nature itself impacts.

An example of this (though not from the Old Testament) might be the flooding of New Orleans, following hurricane Katrina. Earlier, the Army Corps of Engineers had attempted to “order nature” by building dikes, dams, and what not, and in doing so, thought it had brought the Mississippi River, and Lake Pontchartrain, under control. We might go so far as to characterize this the “hubris of the nature-orderer.” Says Heidegger, “In this way the illusion comes to prevail that everything man encounters exists only insofar as it is his construct,” 308. As a result, “man everywhere and always encounters only himself,” 308.

When it kept on raining and the levees broke, however, there was catastrophic flooding. Upon which, the displaced residents of New Orleans undoubtedly came to conceive of themselves as victims of nature (and possibly of technology, that is, the technology of the dikes) – which is a far cry from being a nature “orderer.”

This distinction is particularly appropriate for the builders of the Tower of Babel. Unquestionably their mission – to build the Tower so as to ascend unto God – was the most important thing in their lives (in much the same manner that the construction of the pyramids must have been to the Egyptian Pharaohs). In doing so, they were attempting not just to order “nature,” but God. All the Genesis account says is that there came a time when construction of the Tower stopped, because nobody could understand one another, whereupon everybody went their separate ways. Literally not being able to understand your co-worker – in the flash of an instant – must have been mind-numbing. Yet, Genesis does not recount the ancient Israelite’s reaction to the event. I don’t think it’s too much of a stretch to imagine that, after it occurred, as they were disassembling their wooden brick-forms and packing up their belongings, and getting ready to be scattered to the corners of the earth, the ancient Israelites must have felt as though they had been victims of nature – or, perhaps, God also.

On the other hand, it’s not clear how God’s message was conveyed to the ancient Israelites, or if there even was a message, to begin with. We know the reason why God confounded their speech was to prevent them from engaging in imaginative behavior, such as Tower-building, because if they could do this, then they might be able to do anything – even conceive of a God comprising elements only of human invention. But God never says this to them. Rather, according to Genesis, God just went ahead and made it impossible for them to continue their work, because now they all spoke different languages.

From their perspective, this left open two equally-explanatory possibilities: either (a) God was sending them a message, to stop building the Tower; or (b), they suddenly suffered a population-wide speech impediment. The story certainly does not compel the selection of (a). In which event, we wonder, how were they supposed to know they were receiving a message from God? That is, in effect, they were being punished – their objectives thwarted, their project discontinued – because of their hubris in undertaking it? If it was God’s intention to deliver them such a message, then there is a significant possibility, revealed by the text itself, that it was not accomplished.

11. “Enframing” requires that Dasein is both the actor, and the acted-upon. This is not so with a “non-technological” event or occurrence, such as an earthquake, a volcano, or a tidal wave. Those don’t require Dasein’s intervention; Dasein is the “acted upon,” not the “actor.” Events or processes like these simply “happen” or “transpire.” It’s indisputable they take place, even absent Dasein’s meaning-conferring activities.

When technology is involved, on the other hand, Dasein acts by imprecating nature – we might say Dasein lures it forth. Enframing particularly is beguiling, because it gives Dasein the illusion of control, which appeals to Dasein’s self-interestedness and self-centeredness. Believes Dasein: the plain of the desert would remain flat and arid, unless Dasein mixed mud with straw, and baked it in wooden forms, in the desert’s relentless heat, in order to make bricks.

12. This presents a “danger,” because there is a risk that Dasein will forget about nature, because of Dasein’s predisposition towards enframing activities. In a sense, any other modes of revealing are “crowded out,” 309. “The rule of enframing threatens man with the possibility that it could be denied to him to enter into a more original revealing and hence to experience the call of a more primal truth,” 309, emphasis added.

13. Fortunately, technology’s power to “block” these other ways of revealing also implies the reverse, which Heidegger calls its “saving power,” 310. This “saving power” consists in understanding what technology is, “through our catching sight of what comes to presence in technology, instead of merely gaping at the technological,” 314. We must be vigilant and alert, because “The coming to presence of technology threatens revealing, threatens it with the possibility that all revealing will be consumed in ordering,” 315, when in fact there are other, non-Dasein-like ways of more original revealing. [Although he spends considerable time comparing and contrasting them, Heidegger ends up calling this poiesis, as opposed to techne.]

As expressed by Hubert Dreyfus: “Heidegger’s concern is the human distress caused by the technological understanding of being, rather than the destruction caused by specific technologies. * * * The danger … is not the destruction of nature or culture but certain totalizing kinds of practices,” Dreyfus, H., “Heidegger on the connection between nihilism, art, technology, and politics” in Guignon, C. (ed.), The Cambridge Companion to Heidegger 360 (2nd ed. 2006). Heidegger refers to this as technology’s “frenziedness,” 316.

Was this a danger for our ancient Israelites? In fact, it was their ultimate danger – and the one that did them in, at least insofar as their project of erecting the Tower of Babel was concerned. Because they misconceived its purpose, they failed to achieve an appropriate understanding of the being of technology. They thought they could deploy it in order to create a tower that would ascend to the stars. Their practices became redefined and “totalized” to the point where this was their only concern.

God, however, decided to discontinue construction. While we might question the efficacy of the means by which he did so, they were effective, and work on the Tower ceased. “Technology” – understood as the sum of Dasein’s background practices and activities – never would be sufficient to achieve an understanding of the meaning of being of anything more than the totality of all of those practices. In particular, it would be insufficient to achieve an understanding of God, much less communicate with God, much less aspire to be God (or, at least, be “like” God). Thus is the nature of human folly. It would take several thousand more years before this issue would be revisited, as Tillich intimates.