Babel as Ideological Critique (RJS)

Babel as Ideological Critique (RJS) June 10, 2014

The previous post on J. Richard Middleton’s book The Liberating Image: The Imago Dei in Genesis 1 looked at the way in which Middleton sees Genesis 1-10 as an ideological critique of the dominant and dominating Mesopotamian culture. The creation of humankind in the image of God takes on added theological and societal significance in this context. Middleton also considers Genesis 11 and the Tower of Babel story as ideological critique. I have chosen to consider it separately from Genesis 1-10 because I think it is worth some serious thought and discussion.

This well known Sunday School tale is a passage that defies the literal reading often attached to it. The text has elements of a etiological story, that is a story designed to explain an observed phenomenon (in this case the diversity of human languages and peoples). It is unlikely, however, that this is the reason the story is included in Genesis. The story isn’t a condemnation of urbanization, it isn’t a condemnation of the use of burnt brick, or of human cooperation. It isn’t even about human conceit as they try to become like God and reach the heavens (this isn’t the ancient context of the ziggurat if the tower is, in fact, a ziggurat). It isn’t a historical account of the origin of languages or of the scattering of people throughout the earth.

The story is short – a mere nine verses.

Now the whole world had one language and a common speech. As people moved eastward, they found a plain in Shinar and settled there.

They said to each other, “Come, let’s make bricks and bake them thoroughly.” They used brick instead of stone, and tar for mortar. Then they said, “Come, let us build ourselves a city, with a tower that reaches to the heavens, so that we may make a name for ourselves; otherwise we will be scattered over the face of the whole earth.”

But the Lord came down to see the city and the tower the people were building. The Lord said, “If as one people speaking the same language they have begun to do this, then nothing they plan to do will be impossible for them. Come, let us go down and confuse their language so they will not understand each other.”

So the Lord scattered them from there over all the earth, and they stopped building the city. That is why it was called Babel—because there the Lord confused the language of the whole world. From there the Lord scattered them over the face of the whole earth. (Gen. 11:1-9 NIV)

Last December I put up a post, Babel in Ancient Context, based on insights from John Walton and Peter Enns that discussed the significance of the Tower of Babel. Richard Middleton has a somewhat different take and his interpretation contains a number of element that differ significantly from the interpretation of Walton or of Enns. He proposes that this story should be read as a critique of Babylonian ideology and empire, but not (directly at least) a critique of Babylonian religion.  According to Middleton:

This short narrative both deconstructs the pretensions of Babylonian ideology and, in the process, lends support to the interpretation of the imago Dei as the affirmation of human agency. The story portrays humanity, which had previously been expelled east of Eden (3:23-24), now attempting to return to Eden. … This attempt to recover a lost paradise, which may be understood as representing the mimetic impulse of ancient Near Eastern religion, is portrayed in terms of a human decision to settle in one place (contrary to the mandate given in 1:28 to fill the earth) and to build a city with a tower that reaches heaven. (p. 221)

This isn’t about the Tower! Although most interpreters, including Walton and Enns, emphasize the tower and connect this with the ancient Mesopotamian ziggurat (see above), Middleton thinks that this is not the true emphasis of the story.  The people are not judged for building a tower or for trying to reach the heavens. They are judged for building a city and uniting under one language, for trying to avoid being scattered. Rather than a tower with cultic significance, the “city with a tower that reaches to the heavens” could be a city of great military strength. The desire to reach to the heavens reflects a desire for domination on earth.  Middleton provides a number of references from the Old Testament that illustrate this general use of elements that comprise the Babel story.

This intertextual association of various elements of the Babel story with oppressive military/imperial power coheres well with the suggestion of David Smith [Horizons in Biblical Theology, 18 (1996): 169-191] that the story does not portray an idyllic world unified by a single primal language, but reflects the Neo-Assyrian imperial practice of imposing the single language of the conqueror on subjugated peoples.  (p. 223)

There are a number of Assyrian inscriptions that emphasize the imposition of one language on conquered peoples. An inscription of Sargon II (reigned 722 – 705 BCE) explicitly talks of conquered peoples with  strange tongues and incompatible speech who are made to accept a single voice.  Middleton also notes that the tower of Babel follows the formation of nations and languages in Gen 10. The sons of Japheth, Ham, and Shem are described as giving rise quite naturally to clans and languages (10:5, 20, 31). Thus the confusion of tongues cannot “be understood by canonical readers in any unproblematic way as simple punishment.” (p. 224-225) Rather Middleton suggests that “this is a fundamentally restorative move, reversing an unhealthy monolithic movement toward imposed homogeneity.” (p. 225)  The scattering of the population is also redemptive, allowing the people to fulfill the commission of Genesis 1:28 to be fruitful and multiply, and fill the earth, and subdue it.

Instead of denouncing false religion, the Genesis 11 ideology/critique unmasks the human impulse that masquerades as religious legitimacy. Genesis 11 thus strips off the religious veneer of imperial Babylon (as the paradigm of Mesopotamian cultural achievement) to expose the underlying human impulse to exercise power over others – that is, the impulse to violence. (p. 226)

Mesopotamian civilization portrayed itself as the pinnacle of civilization, power, and achievement. This mythic ideal would be alluring to the smaller nations around, including Israel and Judah. But this success comes at a high cost – and one that is inconsistent with God’s ordained order for the world. According to Middleton:

It is my contention that the narrative of Genesis 11:1-9, even if it first suggests a superficial, surface reading that positively affirms Babylonian/Mesopotamian civilization, ends up subverting that reading. A canonical interpretation of the text suggests that it ultimately protests the hidden, systemic violence beneath the Babylonian/Mesopotamian civilization by stripping away its putative divine legitimation. Babel is thus disclosed as as nothing more than a human construction, and a violent one at that, in which those with power suppress the perceived social forces of chaos in the name of divine order. Thus, contrary to the mythic tradition that the name Babel means the “gate of god(s),” Genesis 11 ironically claims that the true significance of Babel is “confusion.”  (p. 227)

The story of Babel is a fitting conclusion to the primeval history – a history that subverts and deconstructs the human desire for power and dominion over others.

When read against the background of Mesopotamian ideology, Genesis 1-11 discloses a worldview in which humanity is created in God’s image and gifted by God with significant agency – able to make history, to affect the outcomes of events in the real world, for good or ill. … It is thus a brilliant ironic move that the primeval history, which grounds its critique of Mesopotamian civilization in the creation of humanity as the imago Dei, in Genesis 1, actually utilizes a transformed (democratized) version of Mesopotamian ideology in order to subvert this very ideology. (p. 227-228)

And then we have Abram descended from Shem, coming from Ur of the Chaldeans … God’s call, community, and mission is very different from the empires of Mesopotamia. Power is not (necessarily) an indication of God’s favor and his ways are not the human ways of the world.

Final Thoughts. The reading that Middleton gives to the story of Babel is more or less completely different from those I have heard before. The confusion of tongues and the scattering of the people are redemptive acts undermining Mesopotamian ideals, not punishments. If Middleton is right many a sermon goes into the trashcan (although many good new ones can be written).  At times, however, it seems that he is stretching a point to make all of the elements fit into this critique of empire, there seems to be more to it than just this. Nevertheless there is much to chew on here.

What do you think?

Does Middleton’s reading of empire critique make sense?

What insights or shortcomings do you find in this reading?

What is the significance and intent of the story of Babel?

If you wish to contact me directly you may do so at rjs4mail [at]

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