Deconstructing Babel

The story of the Tower of Babel is one of those enigmatic reports contained within the first volume of the Torah, a sefer (i.e. scroll) known as "Beresheet" in Hebrew and "Genesis" in English.  The term generally means "beginnings", and so each portion of the scroll describes beginnings of some sort:  the beginnings of the shamayim (heavens) and the earth, the beginnings of man, the beginnings of sin, the beginnings of murder, the beginnings of the Covenant and the righteous men with whom it was made and renewed, the beginnings of Yisrael (Israel) in the land of Aram, in the land of Kena'an (Canaan), and in the land of Mitstrayim (Egypt).

The reason I say that this story of the Tower of Babel is enigmatic is that although I hold that it is entirely factual, I glean most of that fact in the form of a reading of it as very likely heavily built upon allegorical material.  I've come to see that much of Sefer Beresheet is purposefully low on detail and  high on allegory, especially up to the point in which Abraham and his story are introduced.  Only very basic details are listed, and when they are told, they are wrapped up in Hebrew word plays and grammatical musings which belie the hand of a skilled poet rather than just a skilled reporter, one who attempts to report meaning and significance first and detail second.  Up to that point in which Abram is introduced, the Torah is much less specific, much more generalized, and is heavily symbolic.  That is not to say that it isn't a factual account up to that point, though.  Whether the Torah up to that point is historic fact or not is another debate entirely, and despite what many would say in a rush to defend a factual reading of these early chapters of Beresheet on any mention of allegory in the text, it is actually possible for the reading of a majority of these verses to be expressed figuratively most of the time, and for the detail drawn out of their reading to be simultaneously factual, without any need to identify contradictions or other logical fallacies.  An account can be a combination of literal and allegorical, of fact and the figurative, because the mode of expression is not mutually exclusive to the veracity of the details being expressed.

This is a very difficult thing for some to put their heads around, especially if, like me, their faith is invested in these books being the literal Word of Elohim (God), but even those who would object to it when stated explicitly like this rely on the process implicitly.  Even when they don't always openly agree, and perhaps even when they openly disagree with this position of mine, they often actually do agree with this point in practice, often without fully realizing it.  A few years ago, during Sukkoth (The Festival of Tabernacles), I made the point to someone observing that Hag (Festival) with me in Yerushalayim (Jerusalem), that if we don't accept that much of the Torah, especially these early portions, are heavily wrapped up in symbolic language, and that this information can be factual without being written in literal terminology, we risk missing important lessons hidden within the original Hebrew of the text.  Saying this caused some minor agitation for him and he took it upon himself to defend the literal reading of Genesis to me in a friendly debate.  As we were discussing further, out of the blue he mentioned that the "Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil", the tree which was a sin to consume in the first few chapters of Beresheet, might actually just be referring to a type of sexual activity, and he posited that the Serpent in the Garden might have simply seduced the first two people to participate in that activity with him, thus he was saying that the eating of the fruit of the tree represented Adam and Hawah (the actual Hebrew name for "Eve") taking part in a sexual act with that Serpent.  This line of reasoning of course took me by surprise.  The problem was not an objection on my part to that interpretation, which I think is at least a fair reading of the text regardless of whether it is the correct reading,  My surprise was that my friend and opponent in this discussion had just turned the tables on me and was arguing my original point for me, and he didn't even realize he was doing it.  The very thing he was arguing against, that early chapters and verses of Beresheet were not allegorical and were thus only reporting literally, he had reversed himself on, and he didn't even realize he had done it.  So our own personal recognition of the enigmatic structure of the early verses of the Torah can itself be a bit of a personal enigma.  Most of us aren't comfortable enough to admit it, even when we tacitly accept it enough to put the tools of such analysis to use on those very verses.

With that bit out of the way, the point I would like to make is that regardless of the exact circumstances of the Torah's account of the construction of the so-called "Tower of Babel", and Elohim's subsequent intervention to prevent its construction from going further, there are very interesting tidbits to glean from the story that we won't get if we spend a lot of our time trying to push either an entirely literal account or an entirely figurative one.
"And all the earth had one language and one speech. And it came to be, as they set out from the east, that they found a plain in the land of Shin'ar, and they dwelt there. And they said to each other, 'Come, let us make bricks and bake them thoroughly.' And they had brick for stone, and they had asphalt for mortar. And they said, 'Come, let us build ourselves a city, and a tower whose top is in the shamayim (heavens), and make a name for ourselves, lest we be scattered over all the face of the earth.' Then YHWH came down to see the city and the tower which the sons of men had built. And YHWH said, 'Look, they are one people and they all have one language, and this is what they begin to do! And now, they are not going to be withheld from doing whatever they plan to do. 'Come, let Us go there and confuse their language, so that they do not understand one another’s speech.' And YHWH scattered them from there, over the face of all the earth, and they left off building the city. That is why its name was called Babel, because there YHWH confused the language of all the earth, and from there YHWH scattered them over the face of all the earth." (Beresheet / Genesis 11:1-9)
So there are a few things we can easily glean from this account:
  • Every human being on earth spoke one language and lived in close proximity.
  • After travelling together from the East, they settled in a land called "Shin'ar".
  • Upon arrival, the most politically savvy of this early race of men saw the potential of creating a city to keep themselves unified.
  • Part of this act was to create a monument, reaching to the shamayim ("heavens" or rather, "skies").
  • YHWH Elohim considered both the tower AND the city to be a problem, so He took action.
  • His action was twofold: scattering peoples over the face of the earth, and confusing their languages.  We are not told the order of the actions, nor the time frame in which they occurred.
  • This effectively brought an end to the construction of the city and the tower.

A couple of things to note right off -- the name Shin'ar seems to come from an amalgamation of a Hebrew phrase which means "between two rivers", which seems to refer to the area between the Tigris and Euphrates Rivers, basically early Mesopotamia.  It could also be a Hebrew form of the Akkadian word "Shumeru", which also refers to "Sumer" or Sumeria, a prominent region within Mesopotamia.  This would make sense given that the larger area of Mesopotamia was one of the first areas considered to be the cradle of human civilization, the area in which human beings were thought to have first organized into a structured society.  While this theory of one beginning civilization is no longer the norm among experts, who have now adopted a theory of several such "cradles", namely "Mesopotamia, the Nile River, the Indus River, the Yellow River, the Central Andes, and Mesoamerica" (ibid), the easiest way to understand this in respect to the Torah's account is that these were simply a fragmented continuation of these efforts after YHWH's action to scatter the population over the face of the earth.

And that leads us to the second note before moving on: that this story is describing something more than the mere construction of a tower.  I feel that it's describing an attempt to organize, unify, and combine efforts.  Though it's commonly believed that the "Tower of Babel" was intended to reach literally into the throne room of Elohim, this is one of those cases where I think an allegorical reading is more apt.  Otherwise we are faced with an interpretation that rings overly simplistic and unrealistic, especially given what we now know about the nature of what lies beyond the Planet Earth's upper atmosphere.  Such a move would be fatal to these individuals, and not really a threat to Elohim or His plans at all.  Of course, it's possible that they believed this in their naivety, but it seems much more likely that the tower was a much more symbolic assault on Elohim -- an attempt to control their surroundings and make themselves immune from the Elohim who had only recently punished man so severely.  Keeping in mind that these people are very close descendants of those who survived the Flood, it seems that they may simply have been trying to find a way to gain stronger control over their environment, and to attempt to preserve themselves from future calamities.  This is actually indicated by the term that English translators render as "tower" in "Tower of Babel"; the Hebrew word is migdal, which has the sense of a highly positioned military structure, or basically a "watchtower".  Its functional purpose is very likely political or even militaristic, something that helps to consolidate power. But there's more to the purpose really than that, which we can see when we examine the root term gadal, which has the meaning "to become great", and "to grow up"... or more precisely in this case, "to advance".  From this, it seems that these individuals felt that by remaining unified, under one language, one culture, and one politico-religious creed, they would be able to achieve far more in every available direction than they would if they were to spread out and diversify.

Certainly, YHWH Elohim seems to have agreed with them on this point, that this move would in fact allow them to advance much faster.  And it seems this speedy advance would occur much too quickly for His purposes.  Note that when He comes down to observe their activities before He intervenes as He did, He actually observes not only the tower but also the city they are building (Beresheet / Genesis 11:5).  He then expresses the core of His concern when He states: "Look, they are one people and they all have one language, and this is what they begin to do! And now, they are not going to be withheld from doing whatever they plan to do." (Beresheet / Genesis 11:6).  YHWH introduces "confusion" to the story, which is the meaning of the name "Babel".  This indicates that, at least at the time, the people involved may not have named this area or the city in question by that name, but that this name emerged over time due to the actions that Elohim introduced to the project.

Earlier I said that Sefer Beresheet, i.e. the Book of Genesis, is about beginnings, sometimes enigmatic beginnings, and this story gives us a few of these enigmatic beginnings:
  • The post-flood ascent of Mankind, that is, his attempt to organize himself into a single people under a single political/religious system.
  • The beginning of language variation among peoples.
  • The beginning of the dispersion of those peoples over the face of the earth.
  • In general, the beginning of the diversity, or "confusion", of the operation of our present world

Our ancestors were not really building a "Tower of Babel", but rather a tower of unity, in their attempts to create and organize a society that would be more united than scattered, make their world less confusing and less unpredictable, and give them the tools to reshape it to fit their needs, that is, to make it subject to them rather than being subject to it themselves,  Man was building a Tower, but it was Elohim who built "Babel" by introducing suppressive trends into their plans.  As mentioned, the term "Babel" itself implies confusion -- a confusion of tongues, a confusion of nationalities, a confusion of religions, and a confusion of general dogma.  In a sense, the story is about Elohim putting a mixer into a hot pot situation before it actually boiled over.

We often hear that hindsight is 20/20, and that is certainly true for all of us very mortal human beings.  Unlike YHWH, we cannot tell the end from the beginning.  Up until the last 150 to 200 years, it might have seemed very unclear what exactly YHWH was trying to prevent here.  However, those of us who are alive in this day and age of technological marvel should be a little less mystified at what YHWH's concern might have been.  As a species, we have been advancing in precisely this way, conquering so many aspects of our environment in almost every conceivable way through technological breakthroughs.  We have dug down to the tiniest organisms.  We've harnessed incredible amounts of energy from the tiniest building blocks of matter.  We've reached out into the realm beyond our sky, and we've done so well beyond what our ancestors could have imagined to be possible.  We have reached a point where we could, in an instant, destroy all life on the Planet Earth.

We have been able to explore and conquer almost anything we have put our minds to, and the progress is only accelerating exponentially.  To do this, we've had to find ways to bridge several debilitating barriers, barriers that have kept progress from expanding as quickly in previous centuries and millennia.  Each time we bridge yet another barrier, we seem to advance that much further.  And just what have been the strongest of these barriers?  They have been culture, religion, distance, and language.

We have been slowly unraveling the confusion that Elohim introduced into our mixing bowl, and the result has been an astounding level of progress that no one could have anticipated.  The more quickly and resolutely we bridge the confusing barriers in our path, the more quickly and resolutely we cross the divides between what we are able to theorize and imagine and what we are able to implement and accomplish.  And this has a domino effect -- distance is really no longer a difficult issue to overcome -- going to distant areas that in times past took months and even years of travel now takes mere hours or at most a day.  As a result, an understanding of cultural differences has accelerated, to the point that cultural concerns are now often only taken seriously if they are held by primitive peoples -- nationality and culture among the more enlightened set is treated as something base, something that should be suppressed.  Religious beliefs of all varieties are slowly crumbling under the weight of each new technological discovery.  More and more man is becoming his own deity, his own object of worship, and the heavens are just one more area to explore, settle, and ultimately reshape into his own image.  And yes, even language barriers are disappearing at an accelerated rate.  These factors have allowed us to slowly but surely mitigate the barriers imposed by language.

I have a good friend who has been working the last several years on a doctorate in Linguistics.  Linguistics is the scientific study of languages, how they are structured and how they develop.  As a result of his interest, I took it upon myself to more casually pursue knowledge of the field.  My motive for doing this was primarily to be able to speak to him intelligently on the subject during his bi-annual visits; however, there is also a bit of interest on my part that goes beyond my association with my friend.  Being a software engineer, I was interested in language structure and syntax at an early age, my interest first appearing with computer programming languages, but eventually moving on to human languages.  I spent many of my teenage years learning Spanish, and lately my interest expanded to learning both ancient and modern Hebrew, as well as to study Aramaic to a far lesser extent.

In pursuing those languages, a lot of questions had come up on how there can be so many different forms of language among all the peoples in the world, and how these originated.  The differences between English, Spanish, Hebrew, and Aramaic are so profound, despite the first two and the latter two being classified in the same overall language families, that it gave me a taste of just how incredibly diverse even related languages can be from each other.

Languages come in so many forms with so many features and varieties of grammar.  These are so thoroughly different from each other that even without the religious significance they can be thought of as the very definition of "confusion".  Languages can differ incredibly on the sounds that make up their vocabulary, varying from Western and European languages that I am more familiar with, to tonal languages in which the syllable is pronounced with a notation that can be described as semi-musical  and which is used to distinguish words which consist of the same syllable from each other, or languages can consist of a series of very complex guttural sounds and clicks.  Languages can have grammatical genders, such as male, female, or neuter, and have these applied to every noun, verb conjugation, or additional vocabulary, and this usually happens whether those terms express a real human gender or not; in fact, there are languages that have more than ten grammatical genders.  Languages can have several registers, which from the outside eye would almost seem like different languages within the same language, modes of speaking which alter practically every word in a sentence or even compose the same sentence with entirely different words or grammar based on the target audience.  Sentence structure among languages can be so varied, from the order in which subject, verb, and object are expressed, to the ways in which they are denoted, to structures that express entire sentences of meaning into a single word.  Frankly, the number of variances defy any attempt I could make to summarize them here.  This listing doesn't even scratch the surface.

When you begin to grasp the sheer breadth of variety in the subject matter, you really want answers as to how these things come about. How does a language become tonal?  How do languages develop what seem like needless grammatical indicators?  How does a language come up with the concept of grammatical gender, and then, how does it apply those genders to words for everyday things that clearly have no real gender?  The answers aren't easy, because they are long-term developments which take place over hundreds or even thousands of years, and they are natural, gradual developments, not targeted changes mapped out and implemented by a planning committee.  Studying linguistics, even on the armchair as I have, has helped me to understand the process of  how languages develop and diversify, and how this process is happening all around us every day.  It has also, as it happens, helped me to put this story from the Torah about the beginning of language diversity into perspective and to glean much more from it.  Language is most assuredly a pronounced barrier to progress.

One course I listened to recently and highly recommend to anyone interested in the subject is part of the Great Courses series.  It was entitled The Story of Human Language, and was presented by Professor John McWhorter, Ph. D.  You can find this course on the Great Courses website, but it is also available on the audio book site, Audible, which I prefer for more casual listening.  Here are a few things I've learned from this course and some other studies:
  • Language is a natural occurrence among human beings.  It's believed by many linguists to be built into our DNA and thus our brains that we can readily absorb a standard of communication at a young age and then communicate ideas fluently within that language.
  • "Language" refers to active verbal forms of communication, or substitutes for verbal when these are not possible (such as sign language).
  • When we speak of "language" we are not speaking of writing systems.  Language development is a natural process which takes place over time without intentional planning.  Writing systems on the other hand are considered a form of technology, i.e. a planned and artificial system developed from a naturally developed language, rather than a natural occurrence itself.
  • Most languages are never written, and even when they are, the writing systems usually do not evolve at the same pace as the natural spoken language.  This is why, for instance, English has a silent "e" at this point, and why most French endings are not pronounced yet are still written.  These now-silent extensions were once pronounced, but are not any longer.  They remain in the written language, but can't be said to actually exist in the real language, that is the spoken vernacular.  The written language does not evolve in the same direction as the spoken.  The former usually lags far behind the latter.
  • There very likely was in fact one original human language.  All other languages very likely developed from that language in varying branches, which themselves fathered more families of languages, in a very large family tree.
  • Evolution of an existing language occurs naturally all the time, but proximity of the speakers tends to ensure that these changes are shared among those speakers.  Separation, distance, and isolation of those speakers are keys to the development of dialects.  Even short distances between peoples who speak the same language over a period of time will lead to variances.
  • The longer the time of separation and the more complete the isolation, the more these variances will develop into distinct languages which are no longer mutually intelligible.
  • When you have a large family of languages which clearly descended from one common ancestor, it is possible to reconstruct a good deal of that common ancestral language by analyzing and comparing the variances in its children, using several natural "rules" surrounding which sounds change most frequently over time, and how those sounds most commonly change, to determine where the variations occurred.
  • For instance, the ancient ancestor of most European languages, such as English, German, French, Italian, Spanish, Latin, Russian,,as well as other non-European languages such as Hindi and Persian, and even long-dead languages such as Sanskrit (one common in India and still used in Hindu liturgy), Tocharian (once common in China and used in Buddhist liturgy), and even ancient Hittite (a language readers of Scripture will remember), can all be traced back to a common ancestral language which is named in modern terms "Proto-Indo-European".  A good deal of this language has been reconstructed by examining and comparing the grammar, etymology, and morphology of all of the known languages that emerged from it.
  • Contrary to what one might surmise, the languages of primitive peoples are generally far more complex than the languages of more advanced cultures, especially around the sounds present in the language (and thus pronouciation), and the sheer complexity of the grammar.  The trend of primitive cultures without much inter-cultural contact is towards language complexity, while the trend of more advanced cultures with more inter-cultural contact is towards language simplicity.  This is primarily because more advanced cultures tend to be more open to communication across language barriers, and over time, these attempts to find common ways to communicate results in a gradual simplification of the grammar of the target language(s).  In the absence of those exposures, complexity results rather than simplicity.
  • Languages are always diversifying throughout history, and the process still continues to happen; however, the greater trend in the last few centuries has been one of language death occurring much faster than language diversification, leading to a much smaller set of living languages as time goes on.

I really want us to consider that last point.  In lesson 33 of this course, entitled Language Death -- The Problem, Professor McWhorter discussed a recent trend that caught my ears.  Language death has been occurring at an accelerated rate in the last few centuries, one that almost defies logic.  We have very likely lost thousands of languages which can never be recovered in the last few hundred years, and we will lose many many more in a very short time.  As he points out, 96% of the current population of the world currently speaks one of the 20 most spoken languages.  He lists these 20 languages in order of highest number of speakers to lowest number of speakers, as follows:

RankLanguageLanguage Family
and Sub-Family

I've encountered some lists with a slightly different order, and some different languages, but the differences are minimal.  While there are currently more than 6000 languages spoken on the earth, most of those who speak one of them also speak one of these top 20 listed, and increasingly, they are speaking the latter language more often in their day to day lives than the former.  The 5980+ remaining languages are rapidly falling out of general use, and thus fewer of their speakers are propagating these languages to their children.  Given that the vast majority of these languages are not written in any form, once one of those languages dies, it is impossible to revive.  If this trend continues, the prognosis is that by the year 2100, we will likely lose about 5500 or more of those languages.  In other words, the number of active languages in the world is on course to drop by an additional 80-90% in just 80-90 years.  As Professor McWhorter points out, this means that a language is dying out completely on earth around every two weeks.  By 2100, we can expect to go from 6000+ languages to a mere 500-600.

To me, it seems much more than a coincidence that as we overcome these barriers of "Babel" that were imposed upon the world in the days of our ancestors, we have exponentially progressed in doing exactly what they were trying to do in the first place.  An increase in progress has went hand in hand with a decrease in the functional size of the world and the barriers of communication.  We have been deconstructing the "Babel" that Elohim suffused into our society.  At the same time, we are in the process of constructing our own new "Tower", in the same spirit as our ancestors once attempted.  Realistically, I don't think we ever stopped trying.  We were merely faced with a number of new logistic challenges that caused a delay in our progress.  This new "Tower" is a monument of Man as well as to Man, and Man intends to stand boldly upon it.

After millennia of effort chipping at the walls of separation, the lines are basically disappearing: political lines, social lines, cultural lines.  Barriers are being mitigated: time, distance, language.  The world is becoming a smaller place.  People are becoming more unified.  Nations are losing a great deal of their autonomy.  Cultures are losing a lot of the substance of their culture.  Groups of nations are now more likely to form into unions, unions which tend to join themselves with other larger international bodies such as resource conglomerates (i.e. OPEC), defense alliances (i.e. NATO), or global political bodies (i.e. the United Nations).  Collaboration is at an all-time high, and despite an atmosphere that prides itself on being pro-diversity, such diversity is in many many ways in decline.  There are a great many good, even wonderful things, that have resulted from these technological leaps mankind has made, in addition to many that we would consider to be negatives.  Sometimes the distinctions are rather elusive.  As a result, I didn't want to concentrate on the potentially expansive subject of which aspects of this progression are good or bad.  Rather, I think it its much more important to concentrate on what this might mean for the overall narrative that the Scripture gives us of the past and what it indicates that we can expect in the future, perhaps even the very near future.

YHWH is the Elohim of purpose.  When He plans something, it happens just as He plans it, and nothing is able to act against His Will without His allowance of the acts in question.  If He had intended for the confusion He introduced into human affairs to be a permanent barrier, nothing we could have done would have ever mitigated that pronouncement.  We would be living in a permanent state of ever-varying confusion to this day if that had been His purpose.  In my opinion, that we see this level of confusion being neutralized is the greatest indication that Elohim intended this to be a temporary delay to that progress, not a permanent one.  Elohim acts in his own time, and His plan will fall into place according to His own purposes.

In the story of the Tower of Babel, He shares with us a few basic and somewhat vague details describing a set of actions He took to delay the progress of our ancestors in the past.  As I've stated, I believe that He did this because that progress was happening outside of the time frame that suited His purposes.  Now that the snow He laid for us is being tread and scraped and plowed, will it be time for Him to intervene again?  I won't presume to know the answer to such questions.  What I will say is that we know He promises to intervene in the future and end all confusion forever with the establishment of His Kingdom.  Though He has delayed this most final of interventions for His own reasons, there should be no doubt that YHWH Elohim intends to rule, and when He does, this will inevitably mean wresting power away from the hands of the rulers of men, every single one of them.  It will be a rude awaking for a culture that sees itself as entirely self-reliant and even more importantly, self-ruling, one that has found every excuse to exclude Elohim from its consideration and which wouldn't be all that welcoming of His hand suddenly entering unmistakably into in its affairs.  And, as we who accept the Ketuvim Netzarim (i.e. the "New Testament") know, language will not be a barrier to Elohim.  He is able to bridge the gaps of language, distance, and culture, and make both His Besorah (Good News) known, as well as his warning of judgement to come.  And as we also know, Babel features prominently in the judgement He will render when He chooses once again to intervene in the affairs of the world:
"And I saw another messenger flying in the midst of the shamayim (heavens), holding the everlasting Besorah (Good News) to announce to those dwelling on the earth, even to every nation and tribe and tongue and people, saying with a loud voice, 'Fear Elohim and give esteem to Him, because the hour of His judgment has come. And worship Him who made the shamayim and the earth, and sea, and fountains of water.' And another messenger followed, saying, 'Babel is fallen, is fallen, that great city, because she has made all nations drink of the wine of the wrath of her whoring.'" (Hit Galut / Revelation 14:6-8).
Here, Elohim's first messenger (usually translated "angel" in most Bible translations) unmistakably declares that His message of His coming Kingdom will reach the entire world; the scattering of His audience all over the world and the confusing plethora of languages and cultures will not be a blocking factor. And by referring to that world at the time of His future intervention as "Babel", His second messenger makes it clear that Elohim counts it as the modern progeny of Man's attempt to unite in the Land of Shin'ar all those millenia ago, a prostitutional union that has brought all of the nations of that world together into one brothel. Perhaps this latest techno-political explosion was being delayed in the land of Shin'ar and reserved precisely for our time today as a precursor to that intervention, as a reservation of sorts for His future intervention at a point when such intervention becomes critical.  I can't say with certainty, but examining the story of the Tower of Babel against the backdrop of the current state of the world, human language, and human progress has definitely renewed my interest in watching the subject much more closely.

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