Bible, Babel, and Diversity

Before I came to Iraq, my sense of Mesopotamia was somewhat muddled. I had a hard time distinguishing among the many civilizations that seemed to jostle one another on these shores. Sumer bled into Babylon, gave way to Assyria, back to Babylon. That mix of cultures continues today. Iraq is still one of the most heterogeneous countries in the Muslim world, with an ever-shifting balance of influence among Sunnis, Shias, Kurds, and their various outside supporters.

But having traveled from one end to the country to the other, I was struck that one iconic image links all three ancient cultures I visited — Sumer, Babylon, and Assyria — the ziggurat. Yet each was built to a different god. The Bible casts this structure as the Tower of Babel, a ziggurat leading humans closer to the one God. The story of Babel has traditionally been viewed as God’s punishment against humans for encroaching on his authority. “If, as one people with one language for all, this is how they have begun to act,” God says, “then nothing that they may propose to do will be out of their reach. Let us, then” — note again the plural — “go down and confound their speech, so that they shall not understand one another’s speech.”

But rereading the story in Iraq, I came to view it somewhat differently. In the episode that precedes Babel, the Flood, God is so angry at humans’ lawlessness that he opts to wipe out all of humanity, “t put an end to all the flesh.” Five chapters later, after humans build the Tower of Babel, God no longer seeks to annihilate humans; he merely scatters them over the face of the earth. His leniency is telling. God is not threatened by humans’ industry; he is threatened by their unity. Specifically, he worries that if humans put aside their differences and act as one, they will think of themselves as more powerful than God. To reinforce his view, God’s response to homogeneity is instructive: He re-creates humans in heterogeneous groups, forcing them to live as distinct cultures, speaking multiple languages.

The message here is unexpected but powerfully relevant today. When humans try to create one language — when one group of people tries to impose an artificial order on the world — God views this as a hubristric attempt to usurp his powers and slaps down the arrogation. God insists on diversity. He demands that humans accept their differences. In rejecting the Tower of Babel, God rejects fundamentalism, the idea that one way of speaking is the only way of speaking and can be imposed on others at will.

God’s solution is a cacophony of voices, living side by side.

Bruce Feiler, Where God Was Born, 260-1

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