The Very Tall Tale of Babel


By Rabbi Arthur Waskow

After we swim our way through the story of Noah, the Flood, and the Rainbow, the Jewish community reads the Torah's very tall tale of a very tall tower - Babel.

It is a story of two profoundly different kinds of universality, and it is for that very reason a story of universal significance. Not for Jews alone.

The story is a political satire, aimed against the imperial culture that God commanded Abraham and Sarah to leave.

Abraham's family lived in Chaldean Ur and Haran - the outposts of Sumer, in which the chief city was Bavel, or Babylon. This was the land between the great rivers Tigris and Euphrates, later named in Greek "Between Rivers" -- Mesopotamia.

To set the scene of Sumer before Abraham and Sarah walk onto the stage, the Torah tells us -_"Now all the earth was of one language and one word-set."

But then the story shifts at once to the early inhabitants of this specific land between great rivers:

"Now, they said:

" 'Come-now! Let us build ourselves a city and a tower, its top in the heavens,

" 'and let us make ourselves a name,

" 'lest we be scattered over the face of all the earth!'

"But YHWH ["Yahh," the Breath of Life, Wind of the World, Breathing-Spirit of the Universe] came down to look over the city and the tower that the humans were building.

"YHWH said:

" 'Here, they are one people with one language for them all, and this is merely the first of their doings -_now there will be no barrier for them in all that they scheme to do!

" 'Come now! Let us go down and there let us baffle their language,
so that no one will understand the language of his neighbor.

"So YHWH scattered them from there over the face of all the earth, and they had to stop building the city.

"That is why its name was called Bavel/ Babble,

"For there YHWH baffled the language of all the earth,

"And from there, YHWH scattered them over the face of all the earth."

The tale is an ironic parody, a joke at Babylon's expense. "Bav-El" meant the "gate of God" in the Babylonians' own language, but the Israelite legend parodied it as "Baffle/Babble Town." As the Israelites told the story, the arrogant Sumerians built an imperious tower for an empire whose power they intended to rule the earth so that everyone would have to speak the same language.

Their rigid tower challenged "YHWH," the breezy, whirly, swirly Breath of Life.

But the Breathing-spirit of the Universe, the Wind of the World, (Ruach ha'Olam) baffled them by turning their world-language into babbling. They became Babylonians, "Babble-onians."

This diversity was not so much a punishment as a consequence of and a cure for their disease: Try to unify all humankind into a single empire, talking the same language so as to storm Heaven -- and the almost inevitable consequence, as well as the cure for this disease of arrogance, is that the top-heavy empire will dissolve into many many peoples, grass-roots communities of many tongues and cultures.

The trouble began with the imperious attempt to "make a name for ourselves." And as soon as the story ends, the next one in the Bible begins, "These are the begettings of Shem." This name means simply "a name." Shem's offspring - the "Shemites" or "Semites" - become the forebears of Abraham and Sarah, two cousins who espoused each other. To these edgy people on the edge of civilization came God's calling: "Go forth into your self."

The arrogance of making a name for one's own imperial self by storming Heaven, getting above one's self, is to be cured by God's making a "name" through which a family and community can emerge to become Godwrestlers, engaging the earthy God.

So we can look at this whole story as a political and spiritual parody: a joke at the expense of Imperial Babylonia, as well as a joke at our own individual efforts to make a name for ourselves by towering rigidity.

What was the spiritual and political collision that gave rise to such an acerbic story? Why did Torah - the record of the spiritual searchings of one branch of the Western Semites - tell this story as the framework for the origins of its own peoplehood?

I am suggesting that we look beneath these tales of Torah to explore what sort of history and spiritual conflict gave birth to the tales. For what the West-Semitic peoples lived through was an earthquake that sent them forth into a new life, into their deeper selves. Out of this crisis they shaped the very foundations of Biblical Israel's peoplehood and spirituality.

To understand what the great collision was, I am drawing on an extraordinary book -- The Ecology of Eden by Evan Eisenberg. It is an anthropological/ historical analysis that shows how West-Semitic small hill-farmers, shepherds, or hunter-gatherers were resisting in their lives and stories the encroachment of the great Babylonian mono-crop agricultural empire into their world.

We too live in an earthquake of Modernity, of attempts to "globalize" the world, make it into a single-voiced culture and society ruled by a Towering empire.

Indeed, we are just now before our very eyes seeing how an empire that thought itself impregnable, overwhelming, all-powerful, is being entangled in a mesh of troublesome reality in its attempted "conquest" of -- how ironic, how painful, how tragic! - the exact same land as Sumeria, Mesopotamia, the land between the Euphrates and the Tigris -- IRAQ!

May the result of the collapse of this Imperial vision of storming Heaven be as benign as the one in the Torah - that a world-wide community of communities emerges from the wreckage of that Empire.

For that to happen, we will need to take on new names for ourselves. Instead of storming Heaven with a surfeit of carbon dioxide, instead of jamming our oil-rigs, our subterranean Towers, deep into the raped and wounded body of our earth, we will have to live by the power of the Wind. The power of the unpronounceable, only breathable, Name: YHWH, "ruach ha'olam," Wind/ Breath / Spirit of the world.


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