The Qur’an and Torah on the True Meaning of the Tower of Babel and Multiple Languages

The conventional understanding of the Tower of Babel (Genesis 11:1-9) is that humanity arrogantly challenged God ‘s space through invading it by building a “tower; with its head reaching up to the heavens”. Thus, the Qur’an says that Pharaoh, mockingly and arrogantly asks his associate Haman to build a lofty tower. Pharaoh said: “O Haman! Fire up (a kiln to bake bricks) of clay, and build me a lofty tower, that I may mount up to the God of Moses: but as far as I am concerned, I think (Moses) is a liar!” (Qur’an 28:38)

However, a careful reading of the Torah text shows that what the people built was an entire city made out of manufactured uniform bricks (Genesis 11:3); and the reason they built the city and the tower was not to challenge God, but to “make a name for themselves, lest they be dispersed over the whole earth.”

‘The Tower of Babel’ (1594) by Lucas van Valckenborch. (Public Domain)

‘The Tower of Babel’ (1594) by Lucas van Valckenborch. ( Public Domain )

Pharaoh knows this, but since he thinks he is the son of the God Horus , he sees the Prophet Moses’ challenge in the terms of a lowly human who is invading Pharaoh’s own domain. Pharaoh will counterattack the God of Moses first.

The Qur’an informs us that the multiplicity of human languages is one of several signs of God’s power and planning: “And of His signs is the creation of the heavens and the earth; and the diversity of your languages and your colors. Indeed in that are signs for those of knowledge.” (30:22) so multiple languages is not a punishment, but an act of mercy, as I will show below.

‘Pure Diversity’ (1993) by Mirta Toledo. (Mirta Toledo/CC BY SA 4.0)

‘Pure Diversity’ (1993) by Mirta Toledo. (Mirta Toledo/ CC BY SA 4.0 )

Post Flood Fear and the Tower of Babel

In the aftermath of a catastrophically destructive flood in the days of Noah, many generations of humans were fearful and anxiety ridden. They felt very weak and vulnerable; and they only wanted to huddle together in one place. Humanity did not want curiosity to lead people to explore other locations and thus promote change and development (going against God’s blessing to “fill up the earth”); and they did not want to expand their knowledge and vocabulary because that promotes non conformity and diversity. Humans were proud that every single human being spoke the same language, and that their one language had only “a few words” (Genesis 11:1 literal translation from Hebrew).

When the post flood humans said, “to one another; come let us make bricks and burn them thoroughly.” (11:3) they were doing much more than discussing building methods. Bricks are one of the first building materials created by human beings.

Sun dried bricks made of mud and straw, are called adobe’. They were used in the famous ziggurat temples of Mesopotamia. But over time rain and flood water dissolve sun dried mud and straw bricks, and cause them to crumble and break apart. Ancient brick makers learned to “burn” bricks by baking them in a very hot oven called a kiln. Then the bricks became very hard and durable. Manufacturing hundreds of thousands of bricks for very large building projects produced the first mass production factories.

A brick kiln furnace. (CC0)

A brick kiln furnace. ( CC0)

When the post flood humans said, “to one another; come let us make bricks and burn them thoroughly.” (11:3) they wanted to build their city with uniform manufactured bricks, instead of natural unhewn stones. They did not want each stone to be a different shape and color from all the other stones because they wanted to unify themselves by highly organized, conformist, teamwork, factory behavior, as well as an all-encompassing common purpose.

The Meaning of the Tower Babel: Uniformity

Also. the use of uniform bricks made it easier to build giant building projects with much higher buildings, even a skyscraper temple tower; for they thought that if another flood occurred, perhaps they could survive on the roofs of their tall buildings, or on top of their temple tower.

German Late Medieval (c. 1370s) depiction of the construction of the tower. (Public Domain)

German Late Medieval (c. 1370s) depiction of the construction of the tower. ( Public Domain )

Torah opposition to the use of baked bricks in a ritual/spiritual context may also be connected with our interpretation of the sin of the city builders. Immediately after the giving of the ten commandments the Torah says, “An altar of earth you shall make for me…(Exodus 20:21) and “If you make me an altar of stone, do not build it of hewn stone, for if you use a tool on it, you pollute it. (20:25). Thus, an altar of natural unshaped building materials are preferred by the Torah to manufactured materials.

The fear of dispersal and the need to make a name for themselves shows that the generations following the flood lacked both a self-confident individual identity and an established positive group identity. Their polytheistic account of the flood, found in the ancient Epic of Gilgamesh , relates that the gods decided to destroy humanity because humans made too much noise, and kept the gods from sleeping. These early humans believed that violence was natural, normal, and thus inevitable. Widespread human and animal violence would not be punished by the gods because, in polytheistic myths, the gods themselves spent a lot of time fighting and killing each other.

Finally, they believed that one language would guarantee co-operation, so they would not have to learn to respect social or personal differences because there would be no differences between individuals or groups of people. There would be only one group of people, with one and the same language for all humanity. This seemed to them to be an ideal way for humans to create harmony and avoid strife and violence.

‘The Confusion of Tongues’ (1865-1868) by Gustave Doré. (Public Domain)

‘The Confusion of Tongues’ (1865-1868) by Gustave Doré . ( Public Domain )

Multiple Languages, A Blessing in Disguise

Their plan for the city might have been modeled on bee hives or termite mounds: lots of close contact, with a high degree of conformity and common purpose. When God sees what they are scheming to do, and what effects that master plan will have on the future of humanity; God confounds their language as a blessing, and disperses them all over the surface of the earth. This geographical expansion will promote linguistic, cultural, and religious diversity which in turn will greatly enrich humanity’s cultural, artistic, and spiritual productivity.

Indeed, there are 6,909 known spoken languages today, although about half are endangered, and will very likely no longer be spoken in another two to four generations. While globalization will lead to the disappearance of many languages and cultures; new religions seem to still be growing rapidly. How long they will last is not yet known, but it is hard to argue that we should, or will, ever go back to the days when humanity had only “one language with a few words.”

Le mur des je t'aime (The I Love You Wall) in Paris features the phrase 'I love you' 311 times in 250 languages. (ConstantineD/CC BY NC ND 2.0)

Le mur des je t’aime (The I Love You Wall) in Paris features the phrase ‘I love you’ 311 times in 250 languages. (ConstantineD/ CC BY NC ND 2.0 )

The almost 7000 languages still spoken across the globe belong to roughly 150 language families. And they vary widely in the way they put sentences together. For example, the three major building blocks of a sentence, subject (S), verb (V), and object (O), can come in three different orders. English and French are SVO languages, whereas German and Japanese are SOV languages; a much smaller number of languages, such as Arabic and Hebrew, use the VSO order. Arabic and Hebrew put the verb first to teach us that what we do/build determines what we become in the judgement of Allah.

Top Image: ‘The tower of Babel’ (1550-1584) by Pieter Balten. Is it possible to interpret another meaning of the Tower of Babel? Source: Public Domain


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