The Babel Syndrome

L_tschorr_towerofbabelIn the liturgical life of the Church, the event of Pentecost, when the Holy Spirit descended on the Apostles and they began to speak in various languages, is linked to the story of the Tower of Babel in the Old Testament. There, too, people began to speak in different languages but with an entirely different outcome. Pentecost brought the unity of the gospel, Babel brought the scattering of peoples through the diversity of languages. There are lessons within the Babel story, however, that are worth noting.

I leave it to others to worry about the historical nature of the Tower of Babel. Linguistic evidence points to widespread language differentiation for most of human history. But the lesson of Babel should not be lost in historical analysis, for some of it is quite contemporary.

In Genesis, the building of the Tower provokes a crisis for all of humanity.

And they said, “Come, let us build ourselves a city, and a tower whose top is in the heavens; let us make a name for ourselves, lest we be scattered abroad over the face of the whole earth.” But the LORD came down to see the city and the tower which the sons of men had built. And the LORD said, “Indeed the people are one and they all have one language, and this is what they begin to do; now nothing that they propose to do will be withheld from them.” (Gen 11:4-6 NKJ)

God’s action in “confusing the languages” is similar to His action in Genesis 6:

And the LORD said, “My Spirit shall not strive with man forever, for he is indeed flesh; yet his days shall be one hundred and twenty years.” (Gen 6:3 NKJ)

God has not destroyed humanity – but He has mercifully placed limits on us. Those limits are not punishments, but restraints. He saves us from ourselves.

Though Orthodoxy does not view human nature as poisoned or utterly perverted, it nevertheless recognizes certain tendencies and dangers. This is one of the deepest flaws in modernity. The myth of the modern age is rooted in a view of progress. Historically, progress is the transferral of the ultimate hope within the Christian faith, the coming of the Kingdom of God, to a present tense project of human civilization. Utopian visions are transferred from paradise and transformed into moral caveats. “To make the world a better place” is a moral platitude that finds almost universal moral acceptance.

Strangely, the story of Babel is God’s rebuke for just such an effort.

The Scriptural account of humanity is not one of progress. It is the story of salvation and salvation is not the outcome of any form of progress, technological, political or spiritual. The concern in Genesis is stated rather plainly, and in a timeless fashion:

“Now nothing they propose to do will be withheld from them.”

It is interesting that the Babel account does not specifically treat the question of the tower. There is no sin attached to the tower itself. Equally problematic are tower, city, and a “name for ourselves.” The Biblical writers were sure to have known that many “towers” were built in the Ancient Near East. Cities and names continued to be built. It is the unity that is attacked in the Biblical account. The confusion of the tongues creates many cities, many towers, many names. It also creates competing cities, towers and names. We can even say that it creates wars between cities, towers and names. And somehow, in the Biblical vision of humanity, those confusing and often tragic outcomes are to be preferred to “nothing being withheld from them.”

This is the fearful aspect of the love of God. For the God who loves and saves us, also loves us enough to save us from ourselves. I think it is wrong to say that God creates wars, but our wars are allowed lest something worse should come. Who cannot say that the tragedy of the Second World War was better than the looming tragedy of an unchecked Nazi Empire? The darkness that destroyed over 30 million persons still pales against the darkness it overthrew.

Biblically, our “shortened” life-span is also a Divine limitation imposed on us for our own relative good. It would be surprising to most, but the Scriptures tend to think that living longer (than 120 years) only leads to more trouble and intractable evil in our lives. The Scriptures do not think of human beings as inherently evil, but the Scriptures are extremely realistic regarding all human beings. It should be noted that nothing has ever made the Scriptures human skepticism seem incorrect in this regard.

The modern period has been marked by numerous Babel-like hopes. As noted earlier, we believe in progress. The modern project is all about building a better world and creating a better future. Of course, the better future has been through several versions. For some, the better future was the arrival of the “Classless Society,” i.e. Communism. In the name of a better world, many people were killed. The same could be said for a variety of other “future” projects.

A weakness in all “projects” is their tendency towards utilitarian approaches. Utilitarianism is a moral philosophy in which “good” is measured by “useful” (utilis in Latin). Here in East Tennessee, for example, we built large dam projects to produce electricity. It was a great leap forward for rural electrification, but displaced many communities. It was considered to be an “end” that made the “means” acceptable.

Such reasoning has always been part of the human project. New, however, are the scales to which the modern imagination can reach. And with the size of our modern “towers” (projects), so, too the size of our modern failures and dangers.

Christian eschatology includes some reference to this phenomenon. In 2Thessalonians, St. Paul writes:

Let no one deceive you by any means; for that Day will not come unless the falling away comes first, and the man of sin is revealed, the son of perdition, who opposes and exalts himself above all that is called God or that is worshiped, so that he sits as God in the temple of God, showing himself that he is God. Do you not remember that when I was still with you I told you these things? And now you know what is restraining, that he may be revealed in his own time. For the mystery of lawlessness is already at work; only He who now restrains will do so until He is taken out of the way. (2Th 2:3-7 NKJ)

Here, St. Paul refers to something that “restrains” the “mystery of lawlessness.” There are many and varied suggestions for what (or who) St. Paul has in mind. Regardless, there are many very identifiable restraints already revealed in Scripture. Death is one of them. Regardless of a man’s evil – he only lives for a lifetime. In the long stretch of things, such fragility plays a very important role. The Soviet Union, just prior to its collapse, saw a string of short-term leaders reminiscent of the Roman Empire during its unstable periods. Such instability, inherent in the fragility of our lives, has a way of collapsing systems.

But, back to Christian expectations, there is an apocalyptic concern with the “man of sin,” described variously as the “Antichrist” and in other manners. St. John says that “there are already many antichrists in the world.” But St. Paul seems to have a particular one in mind. Revelation concerns itself with a particular manifestation of such evil. And there it also hints at a systemic form or power for such evil:

He causes all, both small and great, rich and poor, free and slave, to receive a mark on their right hand or on their foreheads, and that no one may buy or sell except one who has the mark or the name of the beast, or the number of his name. (Rev 13:16-17 NKJ)

The late twentieth century gave rise to widespread Christian speculation about a bureaucratic beast. Everyone from American fundamentalists to newly liberated Russians pondered the meaning of Universal Product Code images on goods and food. Such fears among former Soviet citizens would seem perfectly reasonable. Having just survived a 70-year long conspiracy theory in plain sight, their concern for any centrally-planned system of observation and accounting can only be considered well-founded. I had a young Russian man whose mother sent him to me (the priest) to consult before he obtained a social-security number. As an American, I smiled.

But his fear was not misplaced within the tradition. At some point, the restraints will be removed and the reach of man’s Tower will be manifest. Like every other great project, that tower will be described in benign, even beneficial terms. It is important to note as well, that not all towers are that Tower. Not every benefit is that benefit.

On a more personal level, we do well to contemplate the towers of our own lives. Several of my life’s better-laid plans came either to no fruition or to a costly collapse. Various confusions contributed to their failure. The modern habit is to revisit our failures and “wonder what might have been.” This is an idolatry. We do not know what might have been. More often than not, God has likely spared the world from “what might have been,” for which we should be eternally grateful.

It is difficult to accept that God has placed limits in our lives for our protection. Our dreams and visions of “what would be good,” often exclude our salvation. We treat our salvation as a disconnected reward for the good choices of our life (the consumer’s “heaven”). The process of salvation, including the woof and weave of tragedy and rescue that form the purification and illumination of our lives, are beyond our planning (we wouldn’t dare). But God dares. He smashes towers and raises them up bringing the whole world towards His Kingdom.

About Fr. Stephen Freeman

Fr. Stephen is a priest of the Orthodox Church in America, Pastor Emeritus of St. Anne Orthodox Church in Oak Ridge, Tennessee. He is also author of Everywhere Present and the Glory to God podcast series.


19 responses to “The Babel Syndrome”

  1. Robb Thurston Avatar
    Robb Thurston

    Thank you Father Stephen. The Babel problem, and the Eden problem of knowing good and evil is mentioned in Isaiah 56. We were expelled from Eden because of envy and inexperience and the desire to supplant the Lord, and placed in a land which was unfruitful, at least, related to Eden. Then some smart fellows discovered some tricky means to overcome infertility and other obstacles by building a tower, the symbol of ancient science.
    The problem: we are meant to receive our brief from the Lord and try to carry it out with HIS assistance. We shun subordination and receive problems as our pay. Here in the beginning of Isaiah there is some surprising symbolism of insubordination and subordination, symbols of rebellion, and assurance that the Lord can heal the most shameful of all problems–personal infertility. At least for Jews, that was a terrible problem, and the Lord promises to raise us up and bring us to a mountain. Hints that the infertile will get plenty of fertility within God’s service. Here is the scripture, and I am separating the astonishing symbolism.
    Isaiah 56 21st Century King James Version (KJ21)

    56 Thus saith the Lord, “Keep ye judgment (mercy in the Septuagint), and do justice; for My salvation is near to come, and My righteousness to be revealed.

    2 Blessed is the man that doeth this, and the son of man that layeth hold on it; who keepeth the Sabbath from polluting it, and keepeth his hand from doing any evil.”

    3 Neither let the son of the stranger, that hath joined himself to the Lord, speak, saying, “The Lord hath utterly separated me from His people”; neither let the eunuch say,

    “Behold, I am a dry tree.” (Fruit never came from a dry stump).

    4 For thus saith the Lord: “Unto the eunuchs that keep My Sabbaths, and choose the things that please Me, and take hold of My covenant,

    5 even unto them will I give in Mine house and within My walls a place and a name better than of sons and of daughters;

    I will give them an everlasting name that shall not be cut off. (The eunuchs were defamed by personal loss and here a better name is promised, and defamation abolished.)

    6 Also the sons of the stranger that join themselves to the Lord to serve Him, and to love the name of the Lord, to be His servants, every one that keepeth the Sabbath from polluting it, and taketh hold of My covenant,

    7 even them (also the eunuchs) will I bring to My holy mountain, (A mountain is so much more than the personal loss of the eunuchs)

    and make them joyful in My house of prayer; their burnt offerings and their sacrifices shall be accepted upon Mine altar, for Mine house shall be called an house of prayer for all people.”

    8 The Lord God which gathereth the outcasts of Israel saith, “Yet will I gather others to him, beside those that are gathered unto him.” (The Lord hints that eunuchs will receive a very large group of people, just to cover their need for AN IMMENSE FAMILY.).

  2. Dino Avatar

    What a fantastic article! By coincidence, I was appalled by the ‘humanist’ ideas an acquaintance of mine fervently promoted today (a demonic Babel), and how acceptable previously unacceptable notions have become to many, and then came home to read this -I obviously found myself agreeing vehemently with every word I just read.

  3. Dino Avatar

    forgive me, but the symbolism you described hit me (seems to my feeble mind) as fairly ‘far-fetched’ -rather than astonishing.

  4. Allen Long Avatar

    Thank you, Fr. Stephen. I had never considered limits as mercy. But now I do understand and give thanks for the limits God has placed in my life.

  5. Dino Avatar

    I love how our Saints find a rich variety of ways to proclaim that, (until our eyes are opened through God’s Light), we must remind ourselves and cultivate unceasingly that most of God’s blessings are “in disguise”.

    In fact the greatest blessings of all are those that one would initially hasten to characterise (until one acquire the spiritual vision to see), as unbearable Crosses.

    Even the natural experience of life leads to such a conclusion – however the knowledge that is granted through God’s power to those that have proved their desire for it is -as we see in the example of our saints- of an utterly different plane of being.

  6. Allen Long Avatar

    Thanks, Dino, for the encouraging words.

  7. Paula Avatar

    In light of recent loss in my life, this is a hopeful perspective. Thank you for your wise words.

  8. John Avatar

    What is the Orthodox understanding of the falling away? Not the man of sin, but the falling away.

  9. Panga iota Avatar
    Panga iota

    I think people confuse a desire to always be better, to never give up, to fight the fight…and on an on go the saying with regards to progress. I am not saying that we shouldn’t strive to become better people, but our desires are misplaced in this world. The gospel teaches about contentment. Not to be consumed by daily trouble, by what we will eat or wear. The need for excellence in human terms can only be found in a desire to know Christ. That yearning should power everything we do in our lives, not the desire to become idolaters of this world.
    Thank you Father for this post. I keep seeing a image of a mountain with a faceless human or black faceless figure sitting there. It frightens me. It keeps bringing me back to the icon of Christ I can see behind the altar door where Archangel Gabriel stands. Christ holding a scroll (the Jeruselum side of the altar.)

  10. fatherstephen Avatar

    The general understanding is that before the end there will come a “great falling away,” and we would see this as a falling away from Orthodoxy to whatever. My own thoughts would be that such a falling away would probably carry a great deal of others with it. It is a clear teaching that such circumstances will some day happen. I think that there are also times that “rhyme” with the last days – that mimic that pattern. Thus the rise of certain kinds of evil (like the Bolsheviks) was also preceded by a lukewarmness and a “falling away” particularly among certain classes in Russia. The rebirth of the Church there is nothing less than miraculous.

    A falling away in America and Western Europe has long been taking place and we see the fruit of it everywhere. The educated classes, and particularly those who market opinions (Radio, TV, Movies, print, academics, etc.) have become not only not Christian, but often anti-Christian. It leaves us vulnerable to the rise of greater evil, I think.

    Many people mistakenly think that it is education and similar things that prevent evil. Germany was the most educated nation on the planet in the 1930’s. Today, we have education that is largely wasted in that the general level of accurate knowledge is shrinking rapidly. A professor of philosophy told me recently that it was almost impossible in his class (at a major top-50 State university) to discuss ethics and the like. I’m not a social prophet – but we are in very dire circumstances right now.

  11. Rick67 Avatar

    Thank you for the excellent and thoughtful post. I appreciate the detail about whether the narrative is intended to explain linguistic diversity. The best article I’ve read on Tower of Babel is J. Severino Croatto, “A Reading of the Tower of Babel Story from the Location of Non-Identity” (Maryknoll, 1998) in which (without meaning to summarize the whole thing) he makes that point, God *confuses* their language. Linguistic and cultural diversity (which isn’t quite the point, but is an issue in that text) is actually part of God’s purpose for humanity, which is why the Babel narrative is problematic – the “empire” (whoever the “us” is) wants everyone to live in one place, with one language (culture?), in order to challenge the prerogatives of God (compare Gen 3). Croatto argues it is a counter-narrative, composed during the Exile, in order to mock and subvert Babylonian claims to political-religious-social superiority.

  12. John Avatar

    So the Orthodox would feel that the falling away has probably not yet occurred?

  13. fatherstephen Avatar

    Not yet. Things will be much, much worse than this.

  14. fatherstephen Avatar

    From an Orthodox perspective, though its original intention is not without interest, it’s always just a matter of scholarly speculation. For the Church the meaning rests in how the text “means” in the context of the Church’s life and prayers. Babel has a place, as I noted, in liturgical tradition and it is from that tradition that authoritative use of the text is best derived.

    It’s quite plausible that Genesis in its present form was not assembled until the time of the exile (from materials dating much earlier).

  15. fatherstephen Avatar

    There are not very detailed Orthodox teachings on the End Times. But the Great Apostasy is clearly part of the primitive Apostolic Deposit (as opposed to all the modern nonsense of pre-post-mid – dispensationalism etc. etc.).

  16. Dean Avatar

    Father Stephen…
    With your last post ending I could not help but post this. Someone asks, “Are you an: a, pre, mid, or post-millenial?” The friend replies, ” I’m pan-millenial.” The other asks, “Pan-millenial…what’s that?” “Oh, it’ll all pan-out in the end!” Orthodox are reticent to speculate on the “end-times.” But it has been quite refreshing after all the nonsense I heard growing up. The best thing I can do to prepare for Christ’s coming (probably at my demise since I’m nearing 70), is pray, fast, confess, worship and do acts of mercy as you so often note.

  17. Dino Avatar

    I wholeheartedly agree that we are in increasingly dire circumstances right now…
    However, it must have seemed far worse, far more like the coming of the actual Antichrist for those Russians who lived through the terrible times of the communist persecution in the early 20th century.
    Then again, I see a subtle (rather than a blatantly obvious) de-Christianization taking place nowadays – even in a traditionally Orthodox country such as Greece. It is both methodical, as well as cunning, as demonstrated -for instance- by changes in the content of the official school books in Greece (from earliest ages) that reflect this.
    Then again, (let’s remind ourselves that) if things do not first get worse, even reaching a horrible apostasy that seems utterly all pervasive, how can that most desired of all events, the Second Coming of our Lord come to take place? So, in a sense, we cry out with enthusiastic expectancy amongst these dire circumstances “Come Lord Jesus!”

  18. Janis Schmidt Avatar

    Dear Fr. Stephan,

    Thank you so much for your enlightenment on Babel. I had never thought of it that way, that God puts limits on our “progress.” If more deadly and dangerous weapons of war are a sign of progress, we have certainly progressed. When you mention Babel, a tower reaching to heaven, I immediately thought of the atomic bomb. And the one who has freely used it it the US. Putting the braked on WWIII is Russia, not the good old US of A.

  19. Ralph Williams Avatar
    Ralph Williams

    Fr. Stephan
    This post reminded me Vernard Eller’s “The Mad Morality.” Eller is a Quaker theologian, and seems by his own account to be a bit of an eccentric.
    In The Mad Morality, he explores the 10 Commandments, and argues that God intended them to protect us from those things which enslave us. These restraints are the very things which ensure our freedom; when we break them, we enslave ourselves.
    Or as E. Stanley Jones wrote: God’s laws are all like the law of gravity. You don’t break God’s commands, you break yourself upon them.

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