Being inspired by irony in Genesis 11

By Aian Macpherson

Imagine a clown standing in the circus ring. The clown looks pleased with himself having knocked his fellows in to the bin and squirted them with water from the flower on his lapel. He is victorious – the last clown standing. There at the far end of a plank is the reward, a custard pie. The clown leaps onto the plank, only it is not a plank but a seesaw, so as the clown lands his end goes down and on the far side of the fulcrum the plank throws the pie into the air. Down the pie falls upon the head of the victorious clown. In grasping victory the clown is delivered to defeat. Such is the humour of the tower of Babel.

Babel 7

But before the irony, let’s set the stage. If we take the sections of the text marked by ‘accounts’ seriously, then the first nine verses of chapter 11, often referred to as the Tower of Babel, must be read in continuity with chapter 10. The fable of Babel, as I shall dub it, is the conclusion of the account of Shem and Ham and Japheth. The trouble is that it seems to be out of continuity. During the ancestry of chapter 10 we are told that the maritime people spread out into their territories each with that nation and their own language. ‘All of these sons of Noah spread out over the Earth after the flood’. But the fable of Babel begins by claiming that ‘all the world’ had one language and the implication is that all the people are gathered together.

However when we looked at the creation accounts of Genesis 1 and 2 we recognised that you can tell the same story from a different angle. Genesis 1 takes a universal view of creation. Genesis 2 zooms in upon humanity. What if Genesis 10 and its genealogy has a focus on humanity spreading over the earth, but the fable of Babel again zooms back out to take a whole earth view, looking down from the top of the tower itself over the face of the whole Earth. Gazing uneasily first upon the continuing breakdown of human relationships with the world and then on human resistance to divinely gifted vocation. With this in mind the Babel narrative completes ‘the prologue of the Bible’ – it makes a bracket around the first 11 chapters of Genesis.

Once we understand the fable of Babel to be the same story told from a different perspective we perceive points of continuity. At the end of the flood there must have been a time when the sons of Noah and their children were, in the logic of the story, gathered in one place with one language. A time before they spread out over the Earth. There is not only continuity with the past but with the future story of Abram as the setting for this city and its tower in Babel in the land of Shinar, is a nod in the direction of Babylon in the land of Ur of the Chaldeans from which comes Abram in the very next ‘account’ of Genesis.

The fable of Babel is in continuity with the rest of the prologue. And at the same time like other sections of the prologue it resists being limited to a single time or place. It is part of the global picture in which God has commanded that humanity increases in number and fill the Earth for the sake of creation, not as conquering rulers but as stewards continuing the creative work of God. This command from the beginning of Genesis is repeated again to Noah and his sons after the flood in the form of God’s blessing upon them. Now the stage is set. Let the drama begin.

Babel 1

We are introduced to people who have a common language and who have moved to the plane of Shinar. They settle and say to one another. ‘Come let’s make bricks and bake them’ They use bricks instead of stone and bitumen for mortar. As with previous references to developments in human skill this is not pejorative.

The descendants of Cain introduced the development of music, animal husbandry and metallurgy, Noah develops a vineyard and the creation of wine, and Nimrod founds the city and kingdom of Babylon and so presumably the rule of law that any kingdom requires. Here we have a reference that shows awareness of Babylonian building methods. There could be a slight hint towards slavery because the next time ‘baking bricks’ appears in scripture it is the work of the Hebrew slaves in Egypt. But the text seems to indicate that all these people are working together. The next thing they say is ‘come let us build ourselves a city with a tower that reaches to the heavens so that we may make a name for ourselves’. They appear united.

Does the building of the city itself indicate a problem? The story does nod towards the city of Babylon. The location on the plain of Shinar and playing on the similar sound of Babel – which means confusion – both indicate that this city is in one sense Babylon. But the story begins by stressing that this is a story of the whole earth. Furthermore we have already heard in a positive light that Babylon was founded by Nimrod who was a ‘mighty hunter before the LORD’. This story is the second side of the same coin, an alternative angle. But it does not undo what has been established. The founding of the city in and of its self is not the problem.

What about the tower, the infamous Tower of Babel itself. It appears to be a reference to the Babylonian ziggurat. Babylonians built these great mountains of brick with foundations on the Earth that reached to the heavens as bridges to the gods accessed only by priests. The ziggurat therefore distanced the gods from the people as they were an exclusive place that stressed the distance to the heavens. So when we are then told that the ‘Lord had to come down to see this city and the tower that they were building’ – which marks the fulcrum of our clowns seesaw – it certainly introduces our first ironic note. Man’s best efforts to build up to God are insufficient. Ultimately it is always God who comes down to mankind, resting his glory in the midst of the people of Israel in a ground level tent. Immanuel coming down to be born and to ‘Tabernacle’ – camp – among us. But the tower itself is trivialised by its absence after this point in the story. Tower building projects are critiqued but not faulted.

Gen 10

Could the ambition of having a glorious name be the fault that brings ruin? Taking a wider perspective we see that King David’s desire to make a name for himself is presented at worst ambiguously. Such a desire could represent a rather hollow search for immortality, the immortality of fame. Like the tower, the longing for a name of their own making is critiqued. Again ironically the name they end up with is Babel – confusion – they go down in history but hardly in the way would they have wanted. But it is not the fatal flaw.

So what else do the people say? They say that they wish to build this city and its tower not only to make a name but in order that they are ‘not scattered over the face of the earth’. Here is the first thing that directly contradicts God’s plans for humanity. They are isolationists, with a limited ambition for humanity – survival.

Babel 2

So as we have already read the LORD comes down to see what is going on. The Lord observes that if the people are speaking one language then nothing they plan will be impossible for them. In other words they will keep getting their own way. God says, with perhaps a touch of mimicry, ‘let us go down and confuse their language so that they will not understand each other.’

This is hard reading. We are so used to considering unity and achievement as things good in themselves. But consider the basis of this unity. Unity in this story is based on living in one location and achievement relies on being homogenous. To put it another way, this is the city of the Borg collective, the tower of the wasps nest! Not wanting to be scattered over the face of the Earth is a problem. Being scattered over the face of the earth has until this point been seen only in a positive light. This story, in continuity with the preceding chapters, is presenting God’s scattering of the people as a blessing. It is only these people who try to hold together by shutting out the rest of the Earth and building their city. There is an element of judgement, but as so often with God’s judgement this is setting things right, correction, rather than punishment for its own sake. The ending of the building project is a consequence of being scattered. Their ambition for a name was founded on being unified by homogeny as a mono culture of one location. It is ironic that they were named confusion and scattered because their one language was diversifying. It is ironic that from this one place and one culture – a shallow unity – they were scattered over the face of the earth.

green plastic toy soldiers
green plastic toy soldiers

But why beyond an ironic humour does God do this? God is restoring the vocation of humanity to engage in a relationship with the whole of creation and to find unity not through homogeny but through understanding of difference. That is the kind of unity created at Pentecost when each language continues to be represented but each person understood the Gospel in their own tongue.

We may reflect back to the beginning when the earthman and woman were created. In each other they recognised kinship and likeness, but also difference. They understood and were united with one another as bone of bone and flesh of flesh, and they were a man and a woman. They were not homogenous but they were one. That is a vision of the unity God seeks for us – in each ‘other’ being we find God, and in finding God we find both likeness and mystery. All creatures are our neighbour and are alien.

Living like wasps in a nest the people of Babel and the peoples of modernity alike devour the world without any recognition of heaven or earth, mystery or neighbour. The fable of Babel continues to challenge any theological notion of humanity as existing only for our own good. Scattering people God “promotes diversity at the expense of any form of unity that seeks to preserve itself in isolation from the rest of creation.”[1]

Babel 6

As we face environmental disaster on a global scale because of the mass consumption of our vast cities it again is ironic that if the worst predictions of environmental change take place ultimately it will be humanity that suffers. Individual species may become extinct but the face of the earth will recover, the ecosystems will survive and in the long run adapt. But the anthropocentrism of the capitalist metropolitan system, which generates consumption in order to create growth, could be the very thing that pulls the roof down on us all.

Even among humans we can see the shallow unity of sameness at work.  Mounting tensions in Europe over refugees is not the soul domain of right wing nationalism or authoritarian states. Some extremely liberal countries have nonetheless experienced a social backlash against taking in foreigners. The liberal socialism of countries in Scandinavia has, it has been observed, been based on homogeny. People have looked the same and people have acted the same. It has therefore been easy to be united, liberal and generous with one another. But as people who are ‘other’ disrupt the status quo the fragility of homogenous unity becomes apparent. (e.g.

The church on the other hand must learn to understand that “we receive true unity finally as a gift, found in those things that are not tangible or centred on one’s own self-interest”.[2] We find unity in recognising the mystery of the natural world a neighbour – as brother sun and sister moon. We find unity in the joy of languages in diversity, each with its own array of word’s which ‘are but the outer clothing of ideas’.[3] So each language opens up new possibilities of thought and creativity.

Babel 5

Perhaps we can be encouraged, in the church at least, by the knowledge that the rise and fall of nations and empires, and the scattering of peoples is from the beginning to end part of God’s action to restore creation as well as a sign of human failing. The ambition of the city to stand against God’s gracious intentions was not decisive, and the scattering of peoples a blessing, albeit incognito. Exile from Jerusalem in Babylon is not the end of the story. The church scattering into the nations because of persecution after Pentecost fulfilled Jesus command to go fill the earth with good news.

Is’ent it ironic don’t you think? And in this irony there is some hope even for the clown.

All Photos courtesy of Pixels unless otherwise stated

[1] Fretheim T.E. Genesis in The New Interpreters Bible.

[2] ibid.

[3] The words of Agatha Christie’s Poirot in the ABC Murders.



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