The Bricks of Babel

This is coming out of the biblical order in my journey through the Bible’s emphasis on social justice. The initial reason was that I only encountered this understanding of the story of The Tower of Babel recently, after my posts on the Exodus were already starting to publish, at the True City 2014 conference in Hamilton. However, even though it is the last story of the Bible’s “pre-history,” there is plenty of reason to believe that this story was written much later, during the time of the Babylonian Empire. In any case, I’m releasing it now while it is still fresh in my mind.

There are usually two lessons drawn from the story. Some see it as a criticism of the pride of the people, showing off that they can build such a big tower that God can come down to them. Others see it in terms of the violation of the command to spread out and multiply as they instead opted to settle in comfort. There is probably some truth to these as well. I’m not dismissing those, just suggesting that there might be something bigger we usually completely miss: a radically anti-Empire message.

Where am I getting that message from? Here’s the short version.

Bricks in the Hebrew Scriptures signify Empire. Bricks were what the Babylonians – and the Egyptians (Exod 1:14) and other Empires – used to create their giant buildings to show off their power, just like is being talked about in this story. It typically wasn’t a great egalitarian team building project where everybody gets paid fairly and everybody gets to share in the rewards of the work. No, it would have been built by slaves or at the least the desperate lowest of the low in society who put up with being treated terribly to put food on the table at least occasionally. It wasn’t the rich and powerful doing this; it was the rich forcing others to do it.

Another important distinction to note is that between bricks and stones. Bricks are all the exact same and utilitarian for the purpose of the builder. Stones are all unique. Building stone towers would take a lot longer because they aren’t in nice convenient shapes. It’s also much more beautiful, but if you’re in a hurry to get something up that shows up your power, bricks are a much better way to do it.

Stonework

© Copyright Stefan Czapski and licensed for reuse under this Creative Commons Licence

That whole line of thought probably would seem like a stretch to me except that Israelites are always commanded to use stones and never bricks (Isaiah 9:10, Exodus 20:25, any time they are commanded to build something it is with stones).

There’s some more support from the previous chapter where we hear about Nimrod. He is said to be a great hunter. Our usual assumption in English is to applaud him as the guy who provided food for his family and friends. Unfortunately, this phrase in Hebrew actually means something much darker. Nimrod was not hunting animals for food. He was hunting people

Oh, and of course there’s something that is obvious once you start down this path: along with Babel meaning confusion, it should be pretty clear that Babel is Babylon. The story is about Babylon. They didn’t even really bother to change the name in writing this story about their oppressors. The rest of the details of the story also point to Babylon – the location in Shinar and the centrality of the tower to the city, common religious practice for the Babylonians.

Ok, so with all of that in mind, what exactly does God accomplish with what I used to think of primarily as a temper tantrum or at least some harsh discipline? Scattering would mean freedom for the oppressed workers. If those in charge can’t communicate, they can’t keep working together very effectively on a tower. Furthermore, introducing languages means we are forced to recognize diversity. We can’t treat everybody as if they are all the same, lacking any unique God-given beauty, if we can’t even communicate with them because we’re all speaking different languages.

To sum that all up, the story of the Tower of Babel is actually a radical statement about the foolishness of Babylon’s Empire model. It critiques how they treat people like bricks, all the same and just for the betterment of the rich. It critiques their hubris about controlling the gods. It critiques their greed. And most importantly, it demonstrates how God will dismantle Empires like Babylon and Egypt and free the oppressed.

So go and treat people like stones. We are all beautiful image-bearers of God. When put together, we can create some amazing things. But if we downplay that uniqueness of those on the top of the social ladder to raise up those on the top, we have adopted the attitude of Empires like Babylon, Egypt, and Rome.

Ryan Robinson

It is easiest to identify Ryan as both theologian and tech guy. By day, Ryan is a Technical Consultant work with PeaceWorks Technology Solutions. There, he works on websites, CRMs, and SharePoint implementations. Along with blogging here, Ryan is a founding member of the MennoNerds blogging network and a contributor to the book A Living Alternative.