The tower of Babel, from earth to heaven
Verse 11.1: “And the whole earth is of one language (lip), and of one speech.”
Before chapter 11. Genesis tells us that the descendants of Noah multiplied and dispersed themselves on earth in different territories and languages (Gen. 10.5-20-31). And then, it happened that they spoke the same language. Which language is this ?
According to the Tradition, the original language is the gift from God to men to name beings and things. This sacred language of non human origin was given by God to the first men and transmitted from generation to generation until the edification of the tower of Babel. The sacred language can be distinguished from the purely formal secular languages by the use of analogy, intuition and symbol. The function of the sacred language consists in communicating with the higher states of the being and world, i.e. the spiritual and celestial states; the secular languages serve to communicate with the lower states of the being and world, i.e. the physical and terrestrial states. All languages have a role to play in their respective domains and none of them are meant to supplant the others. In order to distinguish the unique language, the sacred language from the secular languages, A. Chouraqui calls it “lip“ without s.
Verse 11.2: “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.”
Just as East calls West, light darkness, the journey calls the installation. The traveller becomes sedentary when he succeeds in finding his refuge, a place where he feels in harmony with his environment and is at one with it.
The travelling camps ended up becoming fixed dwellings and the nomadic peoples started settling. The nomadic peoples edify nothing lasting for they have an open space in front of them; the sedentary populations construct dwellings destined to last on a comparatively restricted area. The nomadic peoples live in space (fixed and permanent element), disperse themselves and change place constantly; the urban populations live in time (changing and destructive element), settle on a limited area where they erect their buildings.
Verse 11.3: “And they said one to another, Go to (Offer), let us make brick, and burn them thoroughly. And they had brick for stone, and slime had they for mortar.”
Let's go forward. Barely installed, the people start to involve themselves in building, edifying. Due to the lack of stone, let's do bricks; due to the lack of mortar, let's use slime. Even if the means are not to their expectation, the work will nevertheless be edifying.
Instead of commitment (Go to), A. Chouraqui suggests offering (Offer). To whom is it destined ? To God or to men of the entire earth ?
Verse 11.4: “They said: Go to (Offer), 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.”
Let's go (Let us offer). Let's gather our forces, build us a city, a tower, a name.
Men intend to edify a city. The time of wandering, dispersion is over. Now, we take up one's abode. And which space is offered to them ? For the nomadic peoples, space opens onto the horizon; for the sedentary populations, space is horizontally closed, but vertically open. Then, let's construct a tower up to the skies. Could it be different for the followers of the unique language, the sacred language devoted to the higher states of the being and world ? And let's have by the same time a name, a fame that will bring other peoples to us and exempt us to go towards them.
Verse 11.5: “And the LORD came down to see the city and the tower, which the children of men (the sons of the glebe man) built.”
Any ascending movement from earth towards heaven is accompanied by a descending movement from heaven towards earth. The descending movement leads to the manifestation of the lower states of the being and world and are properly physical and terrestrial. The ascending movement allows, on the contrary, the attainment of the higher states of the being and world, which are truly spiritual and celestial.
Instead of talking about children of men in general, A. Chouraqui talks about the sons of the glebe man or Adam. He does not only stick to the present generation, but evokes their succession since the first man. He puts the emphasis on the transmission from generation to generation of the Adamic tradition and language.
Verse 11.6: “And the LORD said, Behold, the people is one, and they have all one language (lip); and this they begin to do: and now nothing will be restrained from them, which they have imagined to do.”
The added exclamation marks in the original text, notably by A. Chouraqui, indicate the happy surprise of the Father in front of his children at work. There is nothing negative about this astonishment, but, on the contrary, a sincere admiration for the accomplished work. Nothing will henceforth prevent men from realizing all what they will undertake.
Verse 11.7: “Go to (Offer), let us go down (descend), and there confound their language, that they may not understand one another's speech.”
Why this sudden turnaround after so much benevolence ? To construct a tower up to the sky is like climbing a mountain, the summit of which disappears in the clouds. Several paths are offered to those who want to undertake the ascent. Each being follows the path adapted to his rhythm, aptitudes, aspirations etc. whatever his originated land or language is. Each being only sees a part of the side he is climbing and if, inadvertently, he turned round, he would only see a patch of the surrounding landscape. Nevertheless, when beings will have succeeded in reaching the summit through different paths, they will see the same surrounding landscape, be able to evoke the same thing, use the same words and speak the same language.
Now, the master-builders of the tower already spoke the same language before starting its construction and attaining the sky. They had already succeeded in reaching the summit of the tower before even building it. Then, why materialize and bring back to earth what belongs to the spiritual and celestial heights ? Was it an absurd willingness to conquer ? Or rather the ineluctable consequences resulting from a degenerated transmission of the tradition ? Any tradition degenerates when it transmits the letter only and forget about the spirit. While erecting a tower plunging into the ground, the master-builders left the celestial summit for the terrestrial foundations just as Adam and Eve moved away from Eden's garden while tasting the fruit of the Tree of knowledge of good and evil. They could only know the brutal fall to earth and rediscover the condition of wandering beings. God could do nothing for them and only scatter them upon the face of all the earth.
Let us note that A. Chouraqui does not employ imperative or exclamation marks in this verse in order to underline that it is not a matter of an intransigent God here, but of a compassionate God pushed by necessity.
Verse 11.8: “So the LORD scattered them abroad from thence upon the face of all the earth and they left off to build the city.”
The master-builders are not sent back where to they come from, but are instead scattered upon the face of all the earth. They have lost the faculty of speaking the language of celestial origin and can only communicate through the intermediary of secular languages proper to the terrestrial world. They stop constructing the city and especially the tower. No more language community, no more edifying project.
Verse 11.9: “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.”
The access to the Gate of Heaven (meaning of “Babel”), to the higher states of the being and world, to the spiritual and celestial states does not demand the climbing of mountains and even less building towers reaching the sky. It is not necessary to take things literally and confuse physical and symbolic worlds. To attain the heights, it is best not to get stuck in the terrestrial depths, especially if they are meant to last, but to progressively relieve oneself of cumbersome luggage during the ascent. To deliver oneself from the weight of the terrestrial world and of all that it is supporting is the first step on the celestial path.
When the being has lost the vital lead of tradition, he again falls into the depths of terrestrial gravity. Only the initiation to the traditional principles and their transmission from generation to generation can maintain the being on the path of his accomplishment, of his elevation towards the celestial heights.
And mostly, progression is proper to each being and no people grouping can impose the way its members should follow. It is up to each of us to find out his path among the twists and turns of life. And only then, will we be able to climb mountains, rediscover ourselves at the summit and speak, at last, the same language.
- René Guénon:
- “The Reign of Quantity and the Signs of the Times”. Sophia Perennis Publisher, 2002;
- Notably, chapter 21 entitled “Cain and Abel”.