At the heart of symbolism

The tower of Babel, from earth to heaven


Tower of Babel

Enlarged imagePieter Bruegel the Elder
Tower of Babel, 16th century

Babel, the ambiguous

The tower of Babel mostly represents in people's mind the structure that men wanted to erect to reach the sky. God would have interrupted its construction while spreading confusion among the master-builders that had undertaken the realization of this insane project. If the word Babel derives from the radical “bll” that effectively means confusion, disorder, it is also desconstructed into “bab-el” or even better “bab-ilu” meaning Gate of Heaven. This etymological ambiguity suggests that one should delve a bit further in the study of the Genesis text and look beyond the simple explanation of a justified divine punishment sanctioning the excessive pride of men.

To deepen the interpretation of the text, it is useful to look into different Genesis translations, in particular verses 1 to 9 of chapter 11.

Common translation:

  1. And the whole earth was of one language, and of one speech.
  2. And it came to pass, as they journeyed from the east, that they found a plain in the land of Shinar; and they dwelt there.
  3. And they said one to another, Go to, let us make brick, and burn them thoroughly. And they had brick for stone, and slime had they for mortar.
  4. And they said, Go to, let us build us a city and a tower, whose top may reach unto heaven; and let us make us a name, lest we be scattered abroad upon the face of the whole earth.
  5. And the LORD came down to see the city and the tower, which the children of men builded.
  6. And the LORD said, Behold, the people is one, and they have all one language; and this they begin to do: and now nothing will be restrained from them, which they have imagined to do.
  7. Go to, let us go down, and there confound their language, that they may not understand one another's speech.
  8. So the LORD scattered them abroad from thence upon the face of all the earth and they left off to build the city.
  9. Therefore is the name of it called Babel; because the LORD did there confound the language of all the earth: and from thence did the LORD scatter them abroad upon the face of all the earth.

Text based on André Chouraqui's translation:

  1. And all the earth is one lip and unique words.
  2. And while journeying from the East, they find a valley in the land of Shinar and settle there.
  3. They say, man to companion: “Let us offer, let us brick bricks! Let us burn them to the blaze!” Brick is stone for them, bitumen is clay for them.
  4. They say: “Let us offer, let us build ourselves a city and a tower with its top in the skies, let us make ourselves a name not to be scattered over the faces of all the earth.”
  5. Adonai YHWH 1 descends to see the city and the tower the sons of the glebe man had built.
  6. Adonai YHWH said: “There are one people, one lip for all! This is what they begin to do. Now, nothing will prevent them from all they will plan to do!
  7. Let us offer, let us descend and confound there their lip so that man no longer understands the lip of his companion.”
  8. Adonaï YHWH scatters them from there over the faces of all the earth: they cease building the city.
  9. Whereupon, he screams its name: Babel, yes there, Adonai YHWH confounded the lip of all the earth and from there Adonai YHWH scattered them over the faces of all the earth.

1 back Lord God.

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