26 February 2014

Building The Tower of Babel on a Mesopotamian Foundation

With its intriguing imagery of a tower reaching to heaven and the fantastic tale of the confusion of languages, the story of the Tower of Babel in Genesis 11:1-9 has fired the imaginations of readers, authors, and artists for thousands of years. One of the most famous depictions of the Tower of Babel is the one by Pieter Bruegel the Elder shown above. While it is not accurate from what we know of ancient archaeology, it is a beautiful example of how each generation of people has mapped the concerns and issues of its time onto the biblical story:
Bruegel’s depiction of the architecture of the tower, with its numerous arches and other examples of Roman engineering, is deliberately reminiscent of the Roman Colosseum, which Christians of the time saw as both a symbol of hubris and persecution … The parallel of Rome and Babylon had a particular significance for Bruegel’s contemporaries: Rome was the Eternal City, intended by the Caesars to last for ever, and its decay and ruin were taken to symbolize the vanity and transience of earthly efforts. The Tower was also symbolic of the turmoil between the Catholic church (which at the time did services only in Latin) and the polyglot Lutheran Protestant religion of the Netherlands.”
In addition to its universal lesson for humanity, the story mocks the power of the kingdom of Babylon, the modern name for the biblical Babel. “By portraying an unfinished tower, by dispersing the builders, and by in essence making fun of the mighty name of Babylon, the text functions effectively to repudiate the culture from which the people of Israel sprang (Abram’s ‘Ur’ of [Genesis] 11:28 was probably the great Mesopotamian metropolis).”

While the account of Babel is valuable in its own right, we should not forget its important role as the final flourish in a prologue to the rest of Genesis and, indeed, to the primary history of the Old Testament. After the destruction of Babel, “God will abandon efforts to educate all of humankind all at once; instead, He will choose to advance His plan for human beings by working first with only one nation. After Babel, the Bible will turn directly to its main subject, the formation of the nation of Israel.” However, in God’s turning of attention to Israel the other nations will not be abandoned. Through Abraham, Israel will be commissioned to be the instrument through which God will bless all the nations of the earth. Working toward ultimate fulfillment of a glorious vision that dwarfs the self-serving pretensions of Babel, God will continue to carry out His objective to make of the whole earth “a temple-city filled with people who have a holy or priestly status.”


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