Out of all of the Old Testament’s curious tales, my absolute favorite is the Tower of Babel. Coincidentally, it’s also one of my favorite Elton John songs — but unfortunately, both he and the church seem to miss the mark on the moral of the story.
In the book of Genesis, the Tower of Babel is the crowning collective achievement of humanity. Generations had passed since the fall of man, as well as the great flood (you know, that time when God decided to commit genocide). Now, the various tribes of the world had agreed to stop relentlessly murdering each other, choosing instead to work together “lest they be scattered abroad upon the face of the earth” (Genesis 11:4).
This was, perhaps, the world’s first attempt at a humanist utopia. People banded together to create a common culture under a common language, personified in a beautiful tower that served as a beacon of unity. For some reason, this was deeply offensive to God, who promptly punished them for their peaceful cohabitation. By splintering the common human language into many distinct tongues, God removed the possibility of humans ever fully understanding each other, cursing them to scatter and war once again.
If you’re an American evangelical, you were probably taught that the moral of this story is hubris: humans foolishly thought they could be singular, powerful and divine without God. Pride cometh before a fall, so God toppled the tower to prove it. You were also probably taught that these people were prone to all sorts of kinky Sodom-and-Gomorrah like behaviors, because humans are filthy and disgusting creatures.
Here’s the problem: none of that is in the scripture. Read it right now if you’d like (I’ll wait). There’s no wickedness, no hubris, no debauchery — only humans working together. There’s also no mention of whether they were with God, or against God. Literally, their only stated goal was not being scattered aimlessly across the earth. They decided that forming the world’s first civil society was better than being separated and fighting.
But God sees that when humans cooperate and cohabitate, nothing can stop them from turning their wildest dreams into reality: “nothing will be restrained from them that they could imagine to do” (Genesis 11:6). And for some reason, God chooses to destroy this possibility forever. Humanity would never again be able to truly communicate with each other — and the scripture doesn’t even say why.
One possibility — as shown throughout other Old Testament stories — is that God is a flippant and jealous asshole, prone to fits of rage against his own creation. But that interpretation is as obvious as it is boring, and also unconstructive. We all know the OG-God-of-the-OT loved to fuck people up, and we’ve all mostly decided that the New Testament covenant is a gentler “correction” of that fairly shitty philosophy.
Anyway… if not for a lesson in hubris or wrath, then WHY, GOD? WHY?!
To an American evangelist, the entire point of God’s message is to share the good news of salvation by communicating the *Absolute Truth* to the world. Of course, that would have been substantially easier if God didn’t single-handedly destroy the common language we shared.
Now — because of Babel — we can’t even understand God’s Word without translating it first. If you’ve ever used a Greek or Hebrew Concordance to research scripture, you know that task is far more daunting than it seems: every single term is relative, tied into an endless web of context and changing meaning. Devout theologians argue over “true” translations, splintering the church into different denominations, and declaring anyone they disagree with as heretics while executing or excommunicating them.
Having one human language would have eliminated the possibility of miscommunicating, mistranslating, or misunderstanding God’s will for humanity. So, if God’s goal was really to share absolute truth, why absolutely destroy the ability to communicate it? Why destroy the possibility of an absolute language?
Why leave the interpretation of a story in Genesis up for debate? Why let the devout students who seek to better understand God’s will be branded as blasphemers?
And — while we’re at it — why kick off the Bible with two different accounts of creation? Why insist that the Israelites never speak the ineffable name of God? Why state that the sun stood still in the sky, instead of the earth in space? Why let the Christians of history be unable to even read the Bible for themselves for over a thousand years?! Why let the Spirit gift us speaking in tongues, when we could simply state the truth?
To me, the key to the Tower of Babel — and the resolution of these difficult but fair questions — is simply this: God was trying to show us that language itself is incapable of encapsulating the divine.
God saw that humanity had one singular language, and decided it would be better if there were many. God saw that we could communicate without error of misunderstanding, and decided that misunderstandings were, somehow, more divine. God saw to it that our language would forever be relative, limited, contextual — that every single word spoken, from Babel on out, would ultimately be undermined.
This is not a radical concept — at least, not in Christianity. The early church leaders understood this problem thoroughly, and advocated for what we now call an apophatic theology: a way of understanding what God is through discussing what God is not. And what God is not is… well, everything. Because God, ultimately, is not anything that you could possibly express in language.
Our words and thoughts feel absolute, especially when we feel the presence of the divine. I do not challenge that presence, whatever it may be, because I have felt it too. But when you attempt to talk about that feeling, or what it means for all of us, you are translating it into a deeply limited language. The absolute cannot be contained within a relative language; words are the ultimate false idols.
The name of a thing is never the same as the thing being named. A painting of an ocean cannot fully contain the essence of that ocean. The words you use to declare *Absolute Truth* are never the same as *Absolute Truth*. That is beyond the capabilities of language; God saw to that at the Tower of Babel.
If you view this as an attack on Christianity, you may be comforted to know it’s also an attack on science, mathematics, and basically every other method — sacred or secular — we’ve ever devised to comprehend the world around us.
More appropriately, it’s an attack on what we foolishly demand all those things be. Babel undermines the very idea of the Absolute in all forms of language, for all purposes — political, religious, academic, or otherwise.
While this may feel like a punishment, is as just as easy to see it as an eye-opening gift.
Because, lucky for us, the loss of the absolute opens us up to something far greater.
It opens us up to the spirit of a God more willing to self-sacrifice than command and control. It guides us to choose faith over belief, and wisdom over knowledge. It allows us to turn the other cheek when everything we have and believe is threatened.
It helps us see, faintly and delicately, that we can never truly understand the thoughts and lives of our neighbors, keeping us forever open to the mystery of their true natures in the faith that they — like the divine — are beyond everything we insist they must be.
A New Language, Part I:
Writing the Undying Word: