The Tower of Babel
A Modern Confusion
by Joseph Barabbas Theophorus
In understanding the story of the Tower of Babel and the confusion of tongues, it is common for people to believe that the event was primarily one of God giving each person a different verbal language. However, the Greek text (called the Septuagint or LXX) provides us with a richer interpretation. It reads (Genesis 11:1):
καὶ ἦν πᾶσα ἡ γῆ χεῖλος ἕν καὶ φωνὴ μία πᾶσιν
The Greek word for language is "γλώςςα". Notably, this word is not found anywhere in the above verse. In fact, it is only found in one place in the entire story of the Tower of Babel, despite the fact that many English translations use the word
language throughout the story and seem to make the event to be entirely one of confused linguistics. However, a more thorough reading of the text and the Church Fathers seems to suggest that different peoples were already speaking different languages, or at least different dialects. Genesis 10:5, 20, and 31 all record that the sons of Noah were already gathered into tribes which spoke different tongues (γλώςςα). To understand Genesis 11:1, then, we must understand that it contains a figure of speech.
In Genesis, Moses communicates in a figurative way of
all the people being of one voice and one ear, meaning not that they all spoke exactly the same way, but that they were of one mind. That is, the human race was acting together in its rebellion and its sin. When one sinned, all the people went along with it. When one was held sway by a passion, the others would be held as well. And when one decided to fight against God, everyone joined in, taking part in the building of the tower. The confusion at Babel was just as much a confusion of purpose and thought, then. God caused the people to fight with each other, giving each over to a different passion, so that they were no longer of
one voice and one ear, but divided amongst themselves. They could not complete the tower because they could not
hear the voice of their neighbor; that is, they could not bend to the will of their brothers and sisters. They could not bear to submit and place their own ideas for the tower after those of the others. They could not stand to hear the opinions of their fellow workers.
In speaking about the coming of the Holy Spirit at Pentecost as an overcoming and completion of the confusion of tongues, St. Gregory the Theologian says (Oration 41:16):
But as the old confusion of tongues was laudable, when men who were of one language in wickedness and impiety, even as some now venture to be, were building the Tower; for by the confusion of their language the unity of their intention was broken up, and their undertaking destroyed; so much more worthy of praise is the present miraculous one. For being poured from One Spirit upon many men, it brings them again into harmony. And there is a diversity of Gifts, which stands in need of yet another Gift to discern which is the best, where all are praiseworthy. And that division also might be called noble of which David says, Drown O Lord and divide their tongues. Why? Because they loved all words of drowning, the deceitful tongue. Here he all but expressly arraigns the tongues of the present day which sever the Godhead. Thus much upon this point.
Likewise, St. Cyril of Jerusalem, in speaking about the same Feast of Pentecost, observes similarly (Catechetical Lecture 17:17):
The multitude of the hearers was confounded—it was a second confusion, in the room of that first evil one at Babylon. For in that confusion of tongues there was division of purpose, because their thought was at enmity with God; but here minds were restored and united, because the object of interest was godly. The means of falling were the means of recovery...
By speaking of its fulfillment at Pentecost, both of these Fathers make clear that the intention of the heart is a key aspect of the story. The tower could not be completed because
the unity of their intention was broken up and
there was a division of purpose. Thus, the modern emphasis on spoken language can obscure the deeper meanings of this story, meanings which have little to do with how people, as St. Gregory of Nyssa says,
formulate arbitrary sounds.
What is the significance of this? In the Old Testament, God gave the people over to different sins so that what would tempt one person might not tempt another; the human race would not all fall together in sin. The confusion of tongues was an act of Grace. In the New Testament, Pentecost effected something similar but even greater: no matter what language a person speaks (and, symbolically, no matter what passions a person is held by), the Holy Spirit can communicate the Good News, which is Christ Himself, to that person. Sin is both destroyed by the will of the Father in a universal way in Christ and in an immediate way by the Holy Spirit, so that the entire Trinity participates in the
death of death. For mankind, this means that no human persons are completely cut off from God, no one is completely unreachable. A person's "language" may be very unusual, but God knows it and is able to save them from wherever they are spiritually. St. Paul says this even more eloquently than I (Romans 8:38–39 (KJV)):
For I am persuaded, that neither death, nor life, nor angels, nor principalities, nor powers, nor things present, nor things to come, nor height, nor depth, nor any other creature, shall be able to separate us from the love of God, which is in Christ Jesus our Lord.