Yesterday I read Theo Darling’s provocative rewrite of a story that always fascinated and mystified me as a child: Genesis 11:1-9, or The Tower of Babel. As a student of comparative religions and a lover of mythology and the imaginative thinking of Joseph Campbell, I could palpably feel this rewrite opening up a whole array of new dimensions: new meanings, metaphors, and even exegetical and historical directions. I am grateful for Theo letting me share it here. You can follow his blog at The Neon God They Made.
Now the whole world was one community, one big family. There was only one language, and that was enough. Ideas flowed freely, everyone had a chance to be heard, and no one was left out. The people began to migrate East, but their shifting circumstances could not sever ties between them. Some found a good place to settle in the Shinar plains and began to build a new home base there.
Someone knew how to make bricks, and some others were architects and designers; they pooled their resources, and each person shared whatever specialized knowledge they had cultivated. “Work with us!” said the skilled laborers to the rest. “We’ll build a city for ourselves; its strength and beauty will remind us of how hard we worked to get here and how much potential we have. We’ll build a tower taller than any before and our future will be bright.” The people gladly pitched in together, sharing responsibilities and growing their skill sets. Brick and tar foundations set firmly and promising.
But the war god came down to examine their work, and he found it offensive. And the war god said, “No. These people cooperating and investing in each other are building more than just a city. When people work together this honestly, they are surprisingly powerful! With this much faith in each other, they have no lasting discord and they have no need of me. Let me destroy their togetherness, and then they’ll welcome me. Let me clip the cords of their throats–when they lose all ability to communicate with understanding, we’ll see how fast they turn on each other.”
So the war god punished the people for binding together. Some suddenly found themselves speaking new tongues, the very sounds of which were unfamiliar to their own ears. Some became deaf, and were made to rely on the inventive use of their hands and body language. Some could no longer form words at all, as though their tongues had been severed, and perhaps they had–who can say?
It was just as the war god had hoped: once they felt the bewildering pangs of verbal disconnection, the people could no longer keep a grasp on the close-knit community they had invested so much in. Suddenly split, the newly-formed factions clung tight together for fear of losing even the few they had left, and they began to view the others with suspicion and hard eyes.
The people, now identifying as self-interested tribes rather than a universal family, scattered in all directions–staking private claims for themselves and marking their territories. The dreaming was over, and the city remained unfinished and uninhabited. And the magnificent tower, half-built, came to be known as Babel, because it marked the place where Us-vs.-Them thinking was born.