Like virtually everything in the Bible, the
brief story of
the Tower of Babel is routinely taken literally, which—not to put too fine a
point on it—is ridiculous. Yet although one of my favorite activities is to try
to discern the hidden meanings in ancient texts, I have not paid close
attention to much of the Bible. This is for several reasons. First and
foremost, the Bible has been explained to death from all directions, and I
strongly believe we need to give it a rest. Our society has been mesmerized and
stupefied, as much as inspired, by it. Then too, its symbolic language is very
odd, intentionally obscure in fact, and without the key it is often a hopeless
case. Lastly, the stories it contains, especially in the earliest parts, are
fragmentary. It’s like holding up a few shreds of a decomposed tapestry, and
trying to determine how it once appeared. I’m am by no means the type of expert
who can unearth a fossilized dinosaur toe and provide a plausible rendering of
how the whole creature must have looked. But after the subject of the Babel
Tower came up in our Isa Upanishad class, I read it over again, and a few
things did occur to me.
you haven’t perused it recently yourself. The sketch appears smack in the
middle of two lengthy (very Biblical) lists of who-begat-whoms. The “whole
earth” where it took place was a small area in the Middle East. Babel,
according to the previous chapter, was part of the kingdom of Nimrod, the
mighty hunter, which might be a subtle tipoff that the tower is a symbol for
swaggering egotism. Here’s the fragment that has come down to us, from Genesis
And the whole
earth was of one language, and of one speech.
 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.
 And they said one to another, Go
to, let us make brick, and burn them throughly. And they had brick for stone,
and slime had they for morter.
 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.
 And the LORD came down to see
the city and the tower, which the children of men builded.
 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.
 Go to, let us go down, and there
confound their language, that they may not understand one another's speech.
 So the LORD scattered them
abroad from thence upon the face of all the earth: and they left off to build
 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
to literalism, the story explains why there are different languages on Earth,
although the human race was thought to have begun with just Adam and Eve, who
were on the same page linguistically if not—like men and women
everywhere—conceptually. But we can follow our intuition and take this
explanation as trivial and unnecessary. Any god that is affronted by a tower a
couple of hundred feet high obviously has too much free time on his hands.
meaning of the myth has got to be that we conceive our goals as if we are a
united people, but personal interests sabotage our ability to accomplish those
goals. Our language is
“confounded” and we don’t understand one another, because our selfish
interests, like a secret language, are invisible to our fellows, intentionally
kept out of sight. This produces a kind of historical sine wave, where tasks
are initiated, performed for awhile, and then abandoned, often with
considerable debris left over. To avoid periodic disasters, a truly serviceable
universal language must necessarily be grounded in an ideal greater than
struck me most about the myth this time was that the people built their tower
out of thoroughly burned bricks held together with slime. The
Absolute—including the one in Genesis—is often conceived as a molder of clay.
This means spiritually alive ideas are flexible and light as long as they are
less rigidly formed. As they are burned into our psyches—meaning held onto and
reinforced without regard for their accuracy—they become hard as rocks, flinty,
capable of being hurled at others and causing great damage. The bricks thus
represent the evil of inflexible beliefs. They are the blocks with which the
ego builds its mountains out of molehills, its bombastic towers of misguided
thinking. As Robert Frost so eloquently wrote, with stones like them the ego
walls itself in and walls contradictory evidence out.
fixed ideas are cemented in place by opinions, which are more or less slimy
depending on their degree of selfishness or generosity. The adjective is still
used today. There is something about uncouth opinions that makes us shiver, as
if we’ve noticed slime on the yogurt we’ve just dipped our spoon in. And slime
is slippery, so it doesn’t bind as well as we imagine it is going to. Our
opinions tend to be based on expediency rather than facts, so they don’t hold
up well under pressure.
these slime-coated bricks of ignorance, humans ever go forth to construct their
shortsighted, egotistical fortresses, ignoring the gentle pleading of the
spirit to build a world of peace, justice and fair play. Since such structures
are built of faulty materials, they are bound to fail, but they often get piled
pretty high before they do.
the Biblical story as we have it, God doesn’t actually topple the tower, though
many later commentators consider that a given. He merely scatters the
participants and makes them unable to understand each other. Selfishness is
isolating, like clinging to a personal language that others don’t speak. For
instance, in the world of spies, who do you dare trust? Once you begin to
practice deception, you can never be sure about anyone ever again. Whose side
are they on? Our persona is more an undercover operative than we may realize, a
fictitious character striving to pass incognito through a hostile world, while
trying to gather damning evidence on our opponents. This seems likely to be the
gist of the meaning of the Tower of Babel, though everyone is bound to have
their own interpretation, since we are already Babeling.
did some research, enough to see that most of the commentaries are rather lite.
As usual though, Dr, Mees, in The
Revelation in the Wilderness, provided some pithy exegesis.
For those who
are allergic to overblown Biblical-style language—and I don’t blame you—feel
free to skip this part. If you can stand it, and translate the terms to
something less agitated, Mees throws a lot of light on the scattering of the
people that God accomplished. When everyone spoke the same language:
There was at first
still unity and universality in rational and moral
matters. But when people began to develop ambitious schemes, and built the
Tower, their language became confounded, and they were scattered abroad on the
face of the earth. Rationalism and moralism are claimed by their adherents to
work for synthesis and unity, but it is always evident from the facts of their
manifestation that they fail “to keep the world together,” and easily serve as
tools in the hands of Ahankara. (Vol. II, 296-97)
ahamkara, is Sanskrit for the I-sense or ego.
explaining the Rod of Iron, which is capable of smashing the baked pots of the
potter, similar to the bricks by which the Tower was built, Mees says:
The Power of God will
break the crooked vessels of Maya into fragments….
The soul of him who brings and cuts fragments in the World without will be
separated into fragments in the world within, and vice versa, for the within
and the without are intimately related. This symbolism should be understood in
connection with the Tower of Babel. (Vol. III, 227-28)
The key, then, is
not to identify with the fragments, but to find a non-egotistical way to regain
explaining the whacked-out Book of Revelation, where symbolism is taken to an
extreme of incomprehensibility, Mees mentions Babel in its symbolic role,
standing for the separatist mentality:
A myth is not a fanciful
tale of generations of dreamers but a means of
initiation into the mysteries of our own soul…. Babylon is the Babel of Genesis
(11). The word is said to mean “confusion.” The confusion is that of “language”
(11; 7-9) which implied the “scattering of the fragments.” These fragments are
the “peoples, and multitudes, and nations, and tongues” which are mentioned in
the 15th verse [of Rev. 17]. (Vol. III, 274)
Keeping in mind that
sin means separation from God, or missing the target in our aims, which happens
whenever the isolated ego takes over the reins from our inner guiding light, or
what the Bible here calls the Mystery of God, Mees concludes:
[The kings, who represent
separatism] fulfill the design of God because
they are bound by the very Karma which they represent. Their nature is to obey
the Ahankara. That cannot but lead ultimately to self-destruction. Freedom from
Sin comes when the Commandments of the Tradition are “obeyed.” That happens at
the end of the Spiritual Path, when the Mystery of God finds its fulfillment.
18: “And the woman which thou sawest is that great city, which reigneth over
the kings of the earth.” The great city referred to is Babel, symbol of “the
world,” with its aspects of “confusion” or “chaos,” “wilderness,” moral
“formlessness” and “darkness.” It represents society on the physical plane,
victim of heredity of Maya. (Vol. III, 276)
of the heredity of Maya, it appears that civilization is once again on the
verge of another tower collapse, a real whopper this time, too, almost like
tall twin towers toppling. Our scientific hubris has caused us to play God with
technology, always assuming that it would lead us to a golden age. We have
consistently ignored the shadow side of our achievements, and failed to address
our psychological failings, which turn technology to nefarious ends. And now,
once again the edifice of our efforts is being destroyed by corruption, and
people are flying off in all directions, their umbilical connections severed.
While this may produce a spiritual quantum leap in the long run, it looks like
tough going in the sprint.
hubris is one of our twin towers; the other is humanism as it has been
practiced. Civilization has vaunted goals of achieving equality, liberty and
fraternity, but we too often press toward them with unequal access, punitive
constraints, and hatred. We engage in perpetual war for perpetual peace. Because
we are never honest about the situations we’re facing, as if to admit a problem
is to endorse it, our progress only lasts for awhile, and then there are
serious setbacks as the veneer peels off. Whenever our insecurity increases,
it’s back to everyone for themselves, and place the blame somewhere else. The
ego always defends itself first by blaming others.
the raving assertions of True Believers, the Bible doesn’t foretell the future exactly,
it’s just that the truths of human nature continue to produce repetitions.
History repeats. Humans love to ignore the downside until it creeps up and
bites us from behind. It’s not that we are “playing God” exactly, as Biblical
interpreters like to put it, but we are building our well-intentioned towers
with a structural weakness: positive expectations are highlighted while
negative potentialities are downplayed. The result is everyone involved being
scattered to the winds, as if a bomb has gone off.
cure is to “love God,” in the words of the Bible. Actually “love God” only
occurs in it four times, all in the New Testament, but a lot is made of the
concept. Vedantins similarly suggest we love the Absolute and treat it as the
hub of our actions, and then nothing will be left out. This means we should
stop pretending we are without faults, which is a posture the ego desperately
insists on, and dare to be completely honest. That should ensure that the
modest towers we build in our lives are strong and stable. The wisdom
engendered by sublimated love is the uniting mortar that really can overcome
the ego’s resistance to openness. After all, everyone agrees that love is the
true universal language. Don’t they?