27 February 2014

A Tower Model of the Babel Story

Mario Larrinaga produced a commanding view of ancient Babylon. The subject of the painting is not the ziggurat temple tower of the city (silhouetted in the background) but rather the “Hanging Gardens of Babylon,” listed by classic Greek authors as one of the Seven Wonders of the World.

In the nine verses that make up the account of the Tower of Babel, we have “a short but brilliant example of Hebrew story telling.” To begin with, we marvel with J. P. Fokkelman at how little room the narrator had to do his job, yet he managed to keep “within the square meter. He who has something to say and must, speaking in terms of sound and time, do so in 121 words or two minutes, or, in terms of writing and space, within half a page of thirteen lines, is forced to confine himself.” Yet within this highly constrained setting, the author has created a literary masterpiece. Ingenious word and sound parallels between verses, “ironic linkages between sections and ideas,” and a beautiful economy of style are readily apparent to readers of Hebrew. In its original tongue “the prose turns language itself into a game of mirrors.” Addressing the meaning of this densely packed scripture gem, Everett Fox writes of how its general message of measure-for-measure allotment of divine action in direct response to human hubris “is transmitted by means of form”:
The divine “Come-now!” of v. 7 clearly stands as an answer to humankind’s identical cry in vv. 3 and 4. In addition humans, who congregated in order to establish a “name” and to avoid being “scattered over the face of all the earth” (v. 4), are contravened by the action of God, resulting in the ironic name “Babble” and a subsequent “scattering” of humanity (v. 9). The text is thus another brilliant example of biblical justice, a statement about a worldview in which the laws of justice and morality are as neatly balanced as we like to think the laws of nature are.
Many scholars have noted the obvious chiastic features of the story. For example, Ellen van Wolde explains her tower model of the Tower story that visually demonstrates how city of Babel is incrementally built up by men and taken down by God. A scriptural word-picture of this image is provided by Proverbs 11:11: “A city is built up (literally raised up) by the blessing of the upright, but it is torn down by the speech of the wicked.”

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