No Biblical scene speaks louder to the contemporary moment than the depiction of the aftermath of the Tower of Babel. A community that once spoke a common language yet falls prey to the hubris that oftentimes accompanies human achievement splinters into small factions, retreating to their own corners and abruptly abandoning their common goals. The story itself is tragic, in both the ancient and the contemporary sense. It relates to the fall of those with power and high status, and it tells our story as well.
The account narrates a self-fulfilling prophecy, yet one that was not inevitable. “The possibility of victory must be there in tragedy…The pathetic is achieved when the protagonist is, by virtue of his witlessness, his insensitivity, or the very air he gives off, incapable of grappling with a much superior force.” For the generation of the dispersion, their demise was not prescribed because their stated goal was too ambitious. It was because the means by which they set out to accomplish it revealed their underlying desire.
The generation feared becoming scattered all over the earth, only to fall victim to such a fate. Well, not exactly victim. The way in which they chose to preclude their fear—i.e. to make a name for themselves—sowed the seeds of their undoing. “Come, let us build us a city, and a tower with its top in the sky, to make a name for ourselves; else we shall be scattered all over the world.” The declaration itself shows the community’s priorities. It reveals that what they proffered as the means was truly their objective; the fear of dissolution being only a rationalization to justify what they knew was suspect.
God’s punishment of causing the people to be misunderstood was also a natural consequence of the community’s drive for power. Yet, it may also lead to our ultimate rehabilitation. It should be a lesson for us today.
Language allows individuals to connect with one another—to reveal to others one’s inner thoughts and make experiences common. When words are understood—not only in their semantic sense but also in how a given context contributes to their meaning—they serve as bridges that connect atomized individuals into a community. By understanding another’s situation, empathy for others grows. By contributing diverse ideas and viewpoints through a shared means of expression, culture flourishes. In a Biblical turn of phrase, language allows humans not to be alone but rather to have companions who are a fitting match for them.
Yet language can only achieve this when people are already inclined towards one another. It is a means to facilitate community engagement, but it can also become a means to generate factionalism and community dissolution.
When the people collectively turned towards making a name for themselves instead of using their technology and human creativity to improve each other’s lives, they tragically set themselves against what Arthur Miller called “a much superior force.” Yet more than that, they began to seek out an identity based on a zero-sum game. They were going to make a name for themselves at the expense of God’s name. Their reputation, their power, could only rise if God’s fell. Once they sought collectively to define themselves in contradistinction to the Other, it was a small step for them to seek, individually, to define themselves vis-à-vis each other. With this turn, language lost its ability to connect individuals, since people were no longer inclined towards one another.
When used as a means to establish a power dynamic, words lose common meaning. In its stead, words become signals. Like the “shibboleth,” they point to specific connotations and mark identity and ideology. They become tools to exclude others who do not speak the same political language. At the beginning of this war of words, people may still try to further the public conversation. But, eventually, people will find no one else with whom to converse. At that point, there is no community, since no one understands another’s speech. At that point, people scatter over the face of the whole earth, and they stop building the city.
Multiple languages, however, can nevertheless be a corrective to this political dissolution. The Talmudic Sages state that there are seventy ways to understand the Torah and that every single word that God spoke was also said in seventy languages, the number 70 traditionally corresponding to the seventy nations of the world. The existence of multiple languages mitigates intellectual hubris. It shows that there is more than one way to talk about and understand an issue. There is more than only one perspective to consider. In this way, the existence of multiple languages reminds us that we are not self-sufficient, even if we may be alone. It reminds us that there are others with whom we have not yet built bridges of connection. They invite us to develop empathy and, hopefully, a desire to come together once again.