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What's with the story of babel?

What's with the story of babel?

Deborah Stoll continues her project to read the Bible from cover to cover

Deborah Stoll continues her project to read the Bible from cover to cover

Deborah Stoll | Summer 2009

So the flood waters have abated, and we now find ourselves deep in the valley of Shinar, where a brand new people are living together in a brand new world, washed clean by God Himself.

The people of Shinar decide to build a city for fear of being “scattered all over the world". Tales of strange lands and twisted tongues clearly haunted these people, who became so anxious about the world beyond what they knew that they toiled feverishly to preserve their way of life. They thought a tower would keep them safe.   


And the Lord said, "If, as one people, with one language for all, this is how they have begun to act, then nothing that they may propose to do will be out of their reach."


God initially seems to be praising his people for their industriousness, but that wouldn't explain His next take: “Let us, then, go down and confound their speech there, so that they shall not understand one another’s speech.” 

And so we have the story of Babel, another case in which God plays sadist to human fallibility. The self-proclaimed creator of these folks does little to understand their fears, nor does He try to abate them. (This is the patriarch of the therapist's couch, for sure.) Instead He brings on the punishment, without warning, confounding their speech and sending them across the face of the earth. Presto: their deepest, darkest fears realised. Thanks God.

I just can't make sense of this. Is Babel a cautionary tale about xenophobia? Is it meant to capture God’s own diva-like arrogance, His desire to keep towers from entering His personal space? Or is it simply a folksy way of explaining why people are so scattered across the globe, and speak so many different languages?

I am not religious, but I'm finding it challenging to read the Bible without trying to comprehend God's actions. Given that so many people look to this book to guide the ethics of their own lives, I find myself struggling to interpret the God character as a heroic one.

So I've finally settled on an interpretation of Babel that just so happens to reinforce my own cultural omnivorousness and wanderlust: perhaps God looked down on the homogenous, fearful people of Shinar and found them boring. He saw that His clean new world was too simple, too lifeless, so He scattered everyone to make them more interesting.

I'm not so sure that a story about an ill-fated tower can explain what's so amazing about our many colours, races, languages and species. But really, how can anyone explain the way Sabah, Malaysia alone has more than 20 indigenous tribes and some 80 languages or dialects? Or the fact that for every person alive there are roughly 1,000 pounds of living termites? Or that the Milky Way has something like 68 suns for each one of us? How awesome! How terrifying!

Unlike those Shinar milquetoasts, I'm thrilled by the unknown. Wrestling with this story has me craving the delicious feeling of being a stranger in a strange land. So I'll settle for the next best thing: a walk around my neighbourhood. If you’ve ever spent time in Los Angeles's Koreatown, then you know it is a very strange land indeed.

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