Tower of Babel: The Hidden Transcript
In one of his marvelous aphorisms, Franz Kafka wrote: “If it had been possible to build the Tower of Babel without ascending it, the work would have been permitted.” As usual, Kafka shows penetrating insight into the paradoxical qualities of the stories of Genesis. The Tower of Babel story in Genesis 11:1-9 tells about the unlimited ambitions of primal humanity and about the dangerous consequences of human pride. It tells how God created the multiplicity of languages and nations in order to curb the human tendency to overstep our proper bounds.
If people had built the Tower of Babel without ascending it, this would have demonstrated that humans have a capacity to restrain our ambitions. But, as Genesis observes, we lack this capacity. In Babel, the story tells us, the madness of crowds prevailed. As a consequence, our present lives are restrained by the limits of mutually unintelligible languages and the unbridgeable divisions among nations. The primeval unity of humanity was replaced by the internal divisions of politics and speech. We are divided by society, geography, and language, and we cannot return to life before Babel.
Babel and Eden
In some ways the Tower of Babel story replicates the dynamics of the Garden of Eden story. People living “in the east” attempt to become “like God” by ascending to heaven on a tower “with its top in heaven.” This is a biblical image of the monumental ziggurat in Babylon, which the Babylonians called Etemenanki, “House of the Bond of Heaven and Earth.” This architectural ascent to heaven is a collective assault on God’s domain that is reminiscent of Adam and Eve’s effort to cross into the divine world by eating the forbidden fruit of knowledge that will make them “like gods” (Gen 3:5). As a consequence of this boundary-crossing, the first couple are cast out of paradise into a world of toil and trouble.
From Eden to Babel the human community has increased in size and complexity. But in both settings the people’s unrestrained imaginings lead them to acts of transgression, and God then casts them out into an existence where their imaginings are restrained by new limits. Since humans can’t exercise self-restraint – since we can’t build a tower without ascending it – we are cast into circumstances that limit us despite ourselves. As Kafka might say, we are held in chains, and even though we know they are unbreakable, we cannot stop pulling at them.
The chains at the end of the Babel story are the multiplicity of languages and the multiplicity of nations, which entail lack of communication and mutual hostility. This is the world that is recognizable today.
The Origin of the Story
The storytellers in ancient Israel know that their language was one among many, and that their nation was one of the least powerful in the region. The most powerful were the empires of Mesopotamia, which ruled over Israel for many centuries, up to the Babylonian conquest and exile. The Tower of Babel story was probably written during the Assyrian Empire (ca. eighth century B.C.E.), during which the city of Babylon retained its ancient mythic glory. (In comparison, the great Assyrian cities were relative newcomers, lacking cultural gravity.) The symbolism of Babylon as the emblem of Mesopotamian imperial power resonates in this story.
The Meaning of the Story: External Critique
In a sense the story is both about “us,” all peoples and nations, and about “them,” the city of Babylon that in the present era is the foreign imperial city. People as a whole are filled with hubris and dangerous ambitions, but most particularly so are the powerful men in Babylon. The story is a hidden criticism of present political realities, ridiculing the pretensions of the ruling foreign empire, which is masked in a story of primeval times. This is how powerless, subjected people often criticize their rulers – through indirection, through stories that implicate “them” in a parabolic way. The Babel story has, in this sense, a “hidden transcript,” which is subversive of imperial power.
The Meaning of the Story: Internal Critique
Yet, the story is also about us; the ancient Israelites, though not yet formed as a nation, are not exempt from the criticism it offers. The story is a critique of human nature at the same time that it ridicules the pretensions of contemporary Babylon. Perhaps in this sense the story somehow overcomes the boundaries between languages, nations, and cultures. It is not just about the “other,” but also about the “self.” Both are implicated in the sin of human pride, both pull at the chains of human limitations. Israelites, Jews, Babylonians and every other people are compelled to overreach themselves. This is why we are divided by incomprehension and nationalism – because we are dangerous to God and to ourselves.
If we could build the Tower without ascending it, the work would have been permitted. But if we could have done this, we wouldn’t be human, and we would be something else – perhaps something better, but not human.
There is a rough realism in the Genesis stories, which emphasize over and over that we are flawed creatures – even our patriarchs and matriarchs are flawed. Even our most powerful enemies, the Babylonians and Assyrians, are not wholly different from ourselves. In a transnational sense, we all come from Babel, and so we are all perpetually living in a state of confusion. This is one of the lessons of what Kafka called this “old and strangely simple story.”
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October 19, 2014
January 6, 2021
Prof. Ronald Hendel is the Norma and Sam Dabby Professor of Hebrew Bible and Jewish Studies at the University of California, Berkeley. He holds a Ph.D. from Harvard University in Biblical History and Northwest Semitic Philology and is author of many articles and books, including recently The Book of Genesis: A Biography (Lives of Great Religious Books, Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2013). He is the general editor of The Hebrew Bible: A Critical Edition, a text-critical project sponsored by the Society of Biblical Literature
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