A few years ago I was listening to one of my favorite podcasts, On Being, where the host, Krista Tippett, was interviewing Juno Díaz, an author and fiction editor. At one point in the interview, Díaz, rather out of the blue, mocked the Tower of Babel narrative (Genesis 11). Here’s what he said:
“I mean shoot, we’ve got the Babel myth at the heart of the Bible, the idea that God struck down humans by making them more diverse. [laughs] Only a kind of obsessive monoculture would think that’s a terrible thing. But, you know, so it goes.”
Juno Díaz, “Radical Hope Is Our Best Weapon,” interview by Krista Tippett, On Being with Krista Tippett, September 14, 2017. https://onbeing.org/programs/junot-diaz-radical-hope-is-our-best-weapon-sep2017/
Is he right? Well, we must affirm that the nature of his critique is accurate. Any narrative where language or culture is given to humans as a punishment is problematic. Imperialistic, even. Yes, even if it’s in the Bible. But while his critique is accurate, is his reading (which also happens to be the most popular reading)?
At first glance it seems like this is a story about some proud people building a tower. God is upset with their pride and decides to do something about it. Up until this point there was only one language, but now God sends language to confuse the people so they can’t build anymore. Language, in this reading, is the instrument through which God sends confusion. It’s no gift, it’s a disruption. A punishment for pride.
Genesis 11:1 says this:
“Now the whole world had one language and a common speech.”
Okay, so up until this point there weren’t multiple languages in the world. Except that a careful reader will notice something strange. In the previous chapter we’re told this:
“From these the maritime peoples spread out into their territories by their clans within their nations, each with its own language.”
Well this is awkward. Apparently the editor of Genesis got sloppy and sent this out to print before catching the error. Unless, of course, something else is going on. Indeed, something else is going on. Monica Jyotsna Melanchton asks,
“Is it possible for the common language here to be deemed as the language of the oppressor? Subjugated communities often internalize the language, the symbol, and metaphor of the oppressor….”Monica Jyotsna Melanchthon, “A Dalit Reading of Genesis 10-11:9,” in Scripture, Community, and Mission, ed. Philip L. Wickeri (Hong Kong: Christian Conference of Asia & World Council of Churches, 2003), 177. Quoted in Niles, Doing Theology with Humility, Generosity, and Wonder: A Christian Theology of Pluralism, (Minneapolis, MN: Fortress Press, 2020), 45
The Oppressor’s Language?
Could she right? Are people speaking one language in Genesis 11 because the oppressor is forcing them to? I believe she is exactly right. A few fascinating things to note. First, there is an interesting intertextual link between our Babel passage and Exodus chapter 1. Exodus 1 describes the slavery of the Israelites in Egypt. Richard Middleton points out this link by looking closely at Genesis 11:3-4 and Exodus 1:10, claiming that “‘Come, let us make/build…lest [pen] we be scattered’…finds a powerful echo in pharaoh’s words, ‘Come, let us deal shrewdly with them lest [pen] they increase…and rise up against us.’” Further, Middleton notes that Pharaoh’s words “occur in the context of a monumental building project…and that it is a project explicitly built on the backs of the oppressed.”1
Perhaps you’re not convinced yet. Fair enough. But two inscriptions from this time period have been found which shed significant light on our reading of the Babel narrative. The first is an inscription that says this:
“Ashurbanipal II ‘made the totality of all peoples speak one speech…his sovereign approach made the unruly and ruthless kings speak one speech from the rising of the sun to its setting.’”David Smith, “What Hope After Babel? Diversity and Community in Gen 11:1-9; Exod 1:1-14; Zeph 3:1-13; and Acts 2:1-3,” Horizons in Biblical Theology 18 (1996): 169-91. Quoted in Middleton, The Liberating Image, 224.
Again, same time period. The “unruly people” were “made” to speak one speech. It’s one language, but it’s a forced language. Here’s a second inscription from Sargon II where he brags:
‘Populations of the four world quarters with strange tongues and incompatible speech…whom I had taken as booty at the command of Ashur my lord by might of my scepter, I caused to accept a single voice….’”Stephanie Dalley, “Occasions and Opportunities 1: To the Persian Conquest” in The legacy of Mesopotamia, ed. Stephanie Dally (New York: Oxford University Press, 1998) 27. Quoted in Middleton, The Liberating Image, 224.
Why is there one language? Because the Assyrian empire engaged what Ngugi Wa Thiong’o refers to as “the cultural bomb.” What is a “culture bomb?” Thiong’o says it like this:
“The effect of a cultural bomb is to annihilate a people’s belief in their names, in their languages, in their environment, in their heritage of struggle, in their unity, in their capacities and ultimately in themselves. It makes them see their past as one wasteland of non-achievement and it makes them want to distance themselves from that wasteland.”Ngugi Wa Thiong’o, Decolonizing the Mind: The Politics of Language in African Literature(Oxford: James Curry, 2009), 3. Quoted in L. Daniel Hawk and Richard L. Twiss, “From Good: ‘The Only Good Indian Is A Dead Indian’ To Better ‘Kill the Indian and Save the Man’ To Best ‘Old Things Pass Away and All Things Become White’: An American Hermeneutic of Colonization” in in Smith, Lalitha and Hawk, Evangelical Postcolonial Conversations, 55.
We know this story all too well, unfortunately. History reveals that culture bombs were set off all over the place. In Canada, we set them off in residential schools. The one language spoken at Babel was the language that the Assyrians forced people to speak. This story, then, is about imperialism. This is the lens through which we must read Genesis 11.
So back to Díaz. I believe he was both right and wrong about Babel. He was right to critique a reading of Genesis 11 which implies that God was judging the people via a plurality of language and culture. But he was also wrong, in my view, because this text means the exact opposite of what he thinks it means (and what most people think it means). Babel is not an example of God being against plurality. Rather, as Rabbi Jonathan Sacks writes, “Babel is a critique of imperialism.”2
The reason I bring all of this up as I launch into a series on Pentecostalism is because it is popular, even outside of Pentecostal circles, to say that Pentecost is a reversal of Babel. When we say this we mean that in the first instance God gave language as a punishment, whereas in the second God gave it as a gift. I want to insist that Pentecost is not a reversal of Babel. Rather, the same God is up to the same thing. Pentecost stands in continuity with Babel, not against it.
*This post can also be found on my substack page.
- J. Richard Middleton: The Liberating Image: The Imago Dei In Genesis 1 (Grand Rapids, MI: Brazos Press, 2005), 223.
- Rabbi Jonathan Sacks, Not in God’s Name: Confronting Religious Violence (New York: Schocken Books, 2015), 192