Early on in this series “Why Christianity Must See Itself From the Outside,” I suggested that one key to seeing from the margin lies in listening to the different kinds of languages spoken within the Christian tradition. Let’s look at an ancient Hebrew story help explain why.
Remember the old story of the Tower of Babel? Just to refresh your memory, it goes like this:
In the beginning, everyone in the world spoke the same language. A bunch of Middle Eastern folks settled in a nice place—a plain near Shinar— and decided to make some more permanent structures rather than living in their bedouin-styled tents. So, they made a bunch of really strong bricks and built a tower.
Now the tower was really, really tall, and so they exaggerated quite a bit and said it reached all the way to heaven. The reason that they wanted it that tall was because they wanted to really stand out, but mostly because they were worried that their people were getting wanderlust and would disperse unless they had a “main attraction” keeping them powerful and together.
The problem started when God noticed what was going on. God said, “Look what they have done! If they are starting to do this, there will be no end to the possibilities. Let’s go down there and make them speak a bunch of different languages so they can’t understand each other and do this kind of thing again.” So, that’s just what happened, and everyone scattered into little cliques.
(Well, it sort of goes like that. For the official story—a short story like this is called a “pericope”—from the Hebrew Scriptures, see Genesis 11: 1- 9. )
The Common Interpretation
It is quite likely you know that this pericope has come to represent God’s judgment on arrogance. The people’s “scattering” is the result of their making a very bad move—building this tower— and a prevention of further transgressions. The people—originally unified—are dispersed as both a retribution for this action and a prevention for further “tower” building.
This interpretation has a very long history in all three of the original monotheistic religions: Jewish, Christian, and Islamic. Here are some examples (you can find the books listed below):
- al-Tabari, 9th century/2007
- Gen. Rab. 38 (Hebrew Midrash)
- Ibn Ezra, 12th century/1988
- Irenaeus, Epid. 23, edited by MacKenzie & Robinson
- Origen, Cel. 4:21
This is, thus, a venerable interpretation that has been with us for a very long time.
Let’s take a moment to look at this traditional interpretation respectfully from the “outside,” practicing standing on the margin looking “in” on the tradition.
So understood, Babel is explanatory and representative of an apparently undesired outcome: the differentiation and dispersal of humanity. Rather than catalyst for an enriching diversity, divine recompense for the industrious, Babel-building effort of the narrative’s protagonists mercilessly imposes cultural-linguistic differentiation upon the peoples of the world.
What is up with that?
Critiques of This Interpretation
Contemporary sensitivities regarding diversity and cultural inclusivity have questioned the validity of such an interpretation. Why would difference—in this case, so cataclysmically judged by God—be a punishment? What does this say about difference, or “otherness”?
Where might this understanding lead Christianity (and perhaps where has it historically led)?
God’s preference for sameness and homogeneity seems implied if diversity is a punishment.
Thinking in this vein, many postmodern, liberation and feminist theologies, among others, will challenge the assumption that differentiation is the devastatingly negative outcome traditional exegesis has implied (Croatto, 1998; Fewell, 2001; Hiebert, 2004; Míguez-Bonino, 1999; Oduyoye, 1984; Song, 1999).
Nonetheless, we find numerous scholars maintaining the traditional view, making it the dominant, “firmly fixed” (Hiebert, 2007, p.29) interpretive theme throughout commentary on the Genesis text (Sarna, 1996; Strong, 2008; von Rad, 1972; Wenham, 1987).
How Does Babel Help Us See “In” From the Margins?
So what might be a way to interpret what is going on at Babel?
More directly, what insight might this problematic passage give us as we stand at the margin, looking “in” on Christianity?
Next time, we will explore how the Babel story gives us a key means of stepping outward into a wider view, the marginal space of seeing “not from the center but rather from the periphery.”
Croatto, J. S. (1998). A reading of the story of the Tower of Babel from a perspective of non-identity. In F. F. Segovia & M. A. Tolbert (Eds.), Teaching the Bible: The discourses and politics of biblical pedagogy. Maryknoll, N.Y.: Orbis Books.
Fewell, D. N. (2001). Building Babel. In A. K. M. Adam (Ed.), Postmodern interpretations of the Bible: A reader. St. Louis: Chalice Press.
Hiebert, T., & McCormick Theological, S. (2004). Toppling the Tower: Essays on Babel and diversity. Chicago, Ill.: McCormick Theological Seminary.
Ibn Ezra, A. b. M., Strickman, H. N., & Silver, A. M. (1988). Ibn Ezra’s commentary on the Pentateuch. New York, N.Y.: Menorah Pub. Co.
Miguez-Bonino, J. (1999). Genesis 11:1-9: A Latin American perspective. In J. R. Levison & P. Pope-Levison (Eds.), Return to Babel: global perspectives on the Bible. Louisville, KY: Westminster/John Knox Press.
Oduyoye, M. (1984). The sons of the gods and the daughters of men: An Afro-Asiatic interpretation of Genesis 1-11. Maryknoll, N.Y.: Orbis Books.
Origen. (2nd century). Against Celsus. Retrieved from the New Advent Web site: http://www.newadvent.org/fathers/04164.htm
Sarna, N. M. (1996). The Mists of Time: Genesis 1-11. In A. Feyerick (Ed.), Genesis: world of myths and patriarchs. New York: New York University Press.
Song, C.-S. (1999). Genesis 11:1-9: An Asian perspective. In J. R. Levison & P. Pope-Levison (Eds.), Return to Babel: Global perspectives on the Bible. Louisville, KY: Westminster/John Knox Press.
Strong, J. T. (2008). Shattering the image of God: A response to Theodore Hiebert’s interpretation of the story of the tower of Babel. Journal of Biblical Literature, 127(4), 625-634.
Tabari, M., & Popovkin, A. V. (2007). The history of al-Tabari. Albany: State Univ. of New York Press.
von Rad, G. (1972). Genesis: a commentary (J. H. Marks, Trans.). Philadelphia: Westminster Press.
Wenham, G. J. (1987). Genesis. 1-15. In Word Biblical Commentary. Waco, TX.: Word Books.
For other segments in the “Marginal Invitation” series see: