Editor’s Note: This is the fifth installment of a series of five articles on the Tower of Babel. To see the previous articles in this series, click here.
Jeff and David Larsen have just completed a highly acclaimed scriptural commentary on the stories of Enoch, Noah, and the Tower of Babel. It is available for order on Amazon, the FAIRMormon Bookstore (15% discount), BYU Bookstore, Eborn Books, Benchmark Books, Deseret Book, and other select bookstores. See www.templethemes.net for more details.
This lonely scene comes from Old Al Ula, an abandoned town in Saudi Arabia. The stairs of the castle from which this photograph was taken go back 2600 years. The town once consisted of more than 800 two-story houses with lanes passing in front of them. The first story of the house was for guests and storage; the second story was for the living area. The attachment of each house to the others provided fortification against enemies. Gates that opened in the morning and closed at night protected the two narrow lanes (less than two meters wide) that penetrated the town’s interior.
Closer to home, Detroit, Michigan has seen a significant outmigration of its inhabitants. “A city of 1.8 million in 1950, it is now home to 700,000 people, as well as to tens of thousands of abandoned buildings, vacant lots and unlit streets …. About 40 percent of the city’s streetlights do not work … More than half of Detroit’s parks have closed since 2008.” The causes for the city’s decline are many and varied and the subject of heated debate. However some see the trend in Detroit as a portent of the future for other cities in America.
There are regions within the developed world that expect to witness a dramatic population decline in the coming decades as a result of low fertility rates. In one of the most striking examples, “the Japanese Health Ministry estimates the nation’s total population will fall by 25% from 127.8 million in 2005, to 95.2 million by 2050.” Complicating the situation, low mortality rates are expected to lead to a significantly greater proportion of older citizens: “Japan’s elderly population, aged 65 or older, comprised 20% of the nation’s population in June 2006, a percentage that is forecast to increase to 38% by 2055.”
Scattering and Gathering
Neither the Bible nor the Book of Mormon attributes the scattering of the people to the confusion of tongues. In Genesis, no explicit cause and effect is described – we are told only that “from thence did the Lord scatter them abroad upon the face of all the earth.” Likewise, as Nibley describes:
After the brother of Jared had been assured that he and his people and their language would not be confounded, the question of whether they would be driven out of the land still remained to be answered: That was another issue, and it is obvious that the language they spoke had as little to do with driving them out of the land as it did with determining their destination.
Nibley cites Jewish accounts of the destruction of the Tower when it was toppled by wind. Using historical sources, he outlines reasons for believing that such winds and accompanying drought led to sure and swift dispersion of the peoples of the land. He also draws for confirmation on the descriptions of the Jaredites’ journey to the New World which include phrases such as “The wind did never cease to blow“ and “the Lord God caused that there should be a furious wind blow upon the face of the waters; … they were many times buried in the depths of the sea, because of the mountain waves which broke upon them, and also the great and terrible tempests which were caused by the fierceness of the wind.“
Was such scattering inevitable? Does the Lord oppose the concerted effort of peoples to gather and build as a matter of principle? Some commentators lean in this direction. For example, van Wolde opposes the supposition of Christian exegesis “that the people are punished for the sin of building the Tower by their dispersion over the whole earth …. If there is any question of human shortcomings or faults, then it is not a sin against God, but a shortcoming in respect of the earth, because they do not disperse over the whole earth but bunch together in one place in the east, in a valley, in a city and next to a tower.”
However, LaCocque differs with van Wolde’s thesis that God’s edict for the “spreading of nations and multiplicity of languages was ideal. On the contrary, the plurality of the languages epitomizing the human dispersion in the world is also a loss of something that needs to be eventually retrieved with the advent of one language with identical notions,’ only this time not in Babylon.” While God’s near-term initiative in this regard is centered in the election of Abraham, the ultimate eschatological achievement of this ideal will be the return of the city of Enoch to the earth and its uniting with a prepared people on earth who are “of one heart and one mind” – not because their speech is repetitively narrow, evincing a “severe limitation of interest on the part of the crowd,” but rather because their souls embrace the expansive expressions of “righteousness.”
Donald Parry points out the contrast between the scattering of Babylon and the gathering out of His saints in the last days:
The word “scatter[ed]” is found three times in the story of the tower. Nations are scattered as the result of wickedness. The opposite of scattering is gathering, and this dispensation is the era for gathering. The rebellious people … were scattered from Babel, and in our dispensation the Lord’s people are to gather from Babel, or Babylon: “Gather … upon the land of Zion …. Go ye out from Babylon …. Go ye out of Babylon; gather ye out from among the nations, from the four winds, from one end of heaven to the other …. Go ye out from among the nations, even from Babylon, from the midst of wickedness, which is spiritual Babylon.”
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0001pt; text-align: left;” class=”main-body-paragraph”>The Prophet Joseph Smith testified that “the salvation of Israel in the last days … consists in the work of the gathering.” “Men and angels are to be co-workers in bringing to pass this great work,” said he, “and a Zion is to be prepared; even a New Jerusalem.” Another temple city is to be built, but this time under the direction of the true and living God:
What was the object of gathering … the people of God in any age of the world? … The main object was to build unto the Lord a house whereby He could reveal unto His people the ordinances of His house and the glories of His kingdom, and teach the people the way of salvation; for there are certain ordinances and principles that, when they are taught and practiced, must be done in a place or a house built for that purpose.
It was the design of the councils of heaven before the world was, that the principles and laws of the priesthood should be predicated upon the gathering of the people in every age of the world. Jesus did everything to gather the people, and they would not be gathered, and He therefore poured out curses upon them ….
It is for the same purpose that God gathers together His people in the last days, to build unto the Lord a house to prepare them for the ordinances and endowments, washings and anointings, etc.
From Shem to Abraham
The brief story of the Tower of Babel is deliberately sandwiched between two genealogies of Shem. The genealogy of Shem, given before that story, is that of the second son of Eber, Joktan. The second genealogy of Shem, given after that story, is that of the first son of Eber, Peleg:
In arranging the genealogy of Shem in such a way, the author draws a dividing line through the descendants of Shem on either side of the city of Babylon. The dividing line falls between the two sons of Eber, that is, Peleg and Joktan. One line leads to the building of Babylon and the other to the family of Abraham. The author supplies a hint to this division of the line of Shem with the comment that in Peleg’s day “the earth was divided.” As throughout the biblical text, the “earth” is a reference to the “inhabitants of the land.” Thus not only is the land divided in the confusion of languages, but, more fundamentally, two great lines of humanity diverge from the midst of the sons of Shem: those who seek to make a name (Hebrew shem) for themselves in the building of the city of Babylon and those for whom God will make a name (Hebrew shem) in the call of Abraham.
Leon Kass comments as follows:
Shem has gained a name for himself, not by pursuing it proudly but rather for his leadership in the pious covering of his father Noah’s nakedness … Shem fathers Arphachshad two years after the Flood, and is followed by a succession of sons – Shelah, Eber, Peleg, Reu, Serug, and Nahor – each of whom, because of life spans measured in centuries, is still alive when, 222 years after the Flood, Terah is born.
It is with Terah, Abraham’s father, in fact, that the lineage of Abram become interesting. Terah, mysteriously and on his own, leaves his family home in Ur of the Chaldees and sets forth, with Abram, Lot, and Sarai, to go to the land of Canaan. “Chaldees” is a biblical synonym for “Babylonians”; Ur, though not Babylon itself, was a Babylonian city, historically a center of moon-god worship, as was Haran, the city on the way to Canaan where Terah stopped. Abram will continue and complete the migration of his father, from Babylonia to Canaan, but in obedience to God’s command … Abram is the rootless, homeless, godless son of a wanderer (or radical), one who has grown out of, but who has outgrown and rejected, the Babylonian ways and gods. Two more things we know about Abram: he is married to a beautiful woman, Sarai, and he is still childless at age seventy-five when God calls, for Sarai is barren.
In his circumstances, Abram is as far as possible from the self-satisfied and secure condition of the builders of Babel: he has no gods; he has no city; he has no children; he has no settled ways; he is discontent, yet he is not despairing; he is capable of loving a beautiful woman even though she is barren. Everything else we know about Abram is speculative. He was almost certainly a man longing for roots, land, home, settled ways, children, for something great, and for the divine. About the divine, perhaps he has learned something important – albeit negatively – as a result of his experience of the Babylonian way.
“O Babylon, O Babylon, We Bid Thee Farewell”
In light of the literary beauty and importance of the story of Babel, Andr LaCocque finds it striking that:
The tale is never again explicitly mentioned in the rest of the Hebrew Bible. The present narrative on Babel has not stirred any echo in the Hebrew Bible, in spite of its intrinsic power of evocation … Nevertheless, the astounding response that the myth of Babel has since received in a variety of literary compositions and with all forms of art for over 2500 years is itself an indication how much the [author of Genesis] and his readers share a common interest in the story of Babel and see in it a paradigm of the human condition. At the level of imagination, no translation is necessary. The readership of the tale is immediately universal and timeless.
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0001pt; text-align: left;” class=”main-indented-quote”>The story of Babel has never been more relevant that it is today. The expanding global monoculture replicates with cold precision the essential conditions for human projects in the style of Babel to sprout and flourish. Paying homage to the 1563 work by Pieter Bruegel the Elder, Julee Holcombe’s Tower of Babel is “built of collaged digital images of various buildings from crumbling cheap housing to neo-classical palaces and topped by skyscrapers reaching for the heavens.” According to the artist: “Babel Revisited takes an allegorical gaze at history and modernity and how human beings, like nature, are doomed to the continual repetition of what has gone before.” Andr LaCocque concludes that the author of Genesis 11 “wants his readers to realize that, among other things, they participate in Babel’s building. Babel’ then becomes the symbol of all of our constructions and fabrications, with their inexorable outcome: confusion (of our life messages) and scattering (of all the pieces of our projects).”
In light of the scattering of the Babylonians, Kass poses these penetrating questions:
Did the failure of Babel produce the cure? Has the new way succeeded? The walk that Abram took led ultimately to the biblical religion, which, by anyone’s account, is a major source and strength of Western civilization. Yet, standing where we stand, at the start of the twenty-first century (more than thirty-seven hundred years later), it is far from clear that the proliferation of opposing nations is a boon to the race. Mankind as a whole is not obviously more reverent, just, and thoughtful. And internally, the West often seems tired; we appear to have lost our striving for what is highest. God has not spoken to us [speaking of Western civilization collectively] in a long time.
The causes of our malaise are numerous and complicated, but one of them is too frequently overlooked: the project of Babel has been making a comeback. Ever since the beginning of the seventeenth century, when men like Bacon and Descartes called mankind to the conquest of nature for the relief of man’s estate, the cosmopolitan dream of the city of man has guided many of the best minds and hearts throughout the world. Science and technology are again in the ascendancy, defying political boundaries en route to a projected human imperium over nature. God, it seems, forgot about the possibility that a new universal language could emerge, the language of symbolic mathematics, and its offspring, mathematical physics. It is algebra that all men understand without disagreement. It is Cartesian analytic geometry that enables the mind mentally to homogenize the entire world, to turn it into stuff for our manipulations. It is the language of Cartesian mathematics and method that has brought Babel back from oblivion. Whether we think of the heavenly city of the philosophes or the post-historical age toward which Marxism points, or, more concretely, the imposing building of the United Nations that stands today in America’s first city; whether we look at the [Internet], or the globalized economy, or the biomedical project to re-create human nature without its imperfections; whether we confront the spread of the post-modern claim that all truth is human creation – we see everywhere evidence of the revived Babylonian vision.
Can our new Babel succeed? And can it escape – has it escaped? – the failings of success of its ancient prototype? What, for example, will it revere? Will its makers and its beneficiaries be hospitable to procreation and child rearing? Can it find genuine principles of justice and other non-artificial standards for human conduct? Will it be self-critical? Can it really overcome our estrangement, alienation, and despair? Anyone who reads the newspapers has grave reasons for doubt. The city is back, and so, too, is Sodom, babbling and dissipating away. Perhaps we ought to see the dream of Babel today, once again, from God’s point of view. Perhaps we should pay attention to the plan He adopted as the alternative to Babel. We are ready to take a walk with Abram.
Aging of Japan. In Wikipedia. (accessed September 2, 2013).
Bradshaw, Jeffrey M., and David J. Larsen. Enoch, Noah, and the Tower of Babel. In God’s Image and Likeness 2. Salt Lake City, UT: Eborn Publishing, 2014.
Collins, John J. “Sibylline Oracles.” In The Old Testament Pseudepigrapha, edited by James H. Charlesworth. 2 vols. Vol. 2, 317-472. Garden City, NY: Doubleday and Company, 1983.
Davey, Monica, and Mary Williams Walsh. “Billions in debt, Detroit tumbles into insolvency.” U.S. Section, The New York Times, July 18, 2013.
Hymns of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. Salt Lake City, UT: The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, 1985.
Josephus, Flavius. 37-ca. 97. “The Antiquities of the Jews.” In The Genuine Works of Flavius Josephus, the Jewish Historian. Translated from the Original Greek, according to Havercamp’s Accurate Edition. Translated by William Whiston, 23-426. London, England: W. Bowyer, 1737. Reprint, Grand Rapids, MI: Kregel Publications, 1980.
Kass, Leon R. The Beginning of Wisdom: Reading Genesis. New York City, NY: Free Press, Simon and Schuster, 2003.
LaCocque, Andr. The Captivity of Innocence: Babel and the Yahwist. Eugene, OR: Cascade Books, 2010.
LeDuff, Charlie. “Come See Detroit, America’s Future.” The Opinion Pages, The New York Times, July 25, 2013.
Nibley, Hugh W. 1952. Lehi in the Desert, The World of the Jaredites, There Were Jaredites. The Collected Works of Hugh Nibley 5. Salt Lake City, UT: Deseret Book, 1988.
—. 1957. An Approach to the Book of Mormon. 3rd ed. The Collected Works of Hugh Nibley 6. Salt Lake City, UT: Deseret Book, 1988.
Parry, Donald W. “The Flood and the Tower of Babel.” Ensign 28, January 1998, 35-41.
Richter, Stephan G. “What really ails Detroit.” The Opinion Pages, The New York Times, August 15, 2013.
Sailhamer, John H. “Genesis.” In The Expositor’s Bible Commentary, edited by Frank E. Gaebelein, 1-284. Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 1990.
Smith, Joseph, Jr. 1938. Teachings of the Prophet Joseph Smith. Salt Lake City, UT: Deseret Book, 1969.
Stiglitz, Joseph E.”The wrong lesson from Detroit’s Bankruptcy.” Opinionator, Exclusive Online Commentary, The New York Times, August 11, 2013. (accessed September 2, 2013).
van Wolde, Ellen. Words Become Worlds: Semantic Studies of Genesis 1-11. Biblical Interpretation Series 6, ed. R. Alan Culpepper and Rolf Rendtorff. Leiden, The Netherlands: Brill, 1994.
VanderKam, James C. The Book of Jubilees. Guides to Apocrypha and Pseudepigrapha, ed. Michael A. Knibb. Sheffield, England: Sheffield Academic Press, 2001.
 M. Davey et al., Billions in Debt.
 J. E. Stiglitz, Wrong Lesson; S. G. Richter, What Really Ails.
 C. LeDuff, Come See Detroit.
 Aging of Japan, Aging of Japan.
 Genesis 11:9.
 H. W. Nibley, Lehi 1988, p. 175.
 See, e.g., J. C. VanderKam, Book of Jubilees (2001), 10:26, p. 63; F. Josephus, Antiquities, 1:4:3, p. 30; J. J. Collins, Sibylline Oracles, 3:101-103, p. 364.
 H. W. Nibley, Lehi 1988, pp. 174-181; H. W. Nibley, Approach, pp. 331-334.
 Ether 6:8, emphasis added.
 Ether 6:5-6, emphasis added.
 E. van Wolde, Words, pp. 102, 103.
 A. LaCocque, Captivity of Innocence, p. 12.
 See ibid., p. 26.
 Moses 7:18. See J. M. Bradshaw et al., God’s Image 2, Commentary Moses 7:62-65, pp. 158-162.
 D. W. Parry, Flood.
 Genesis 11:4, 8-9.
 D&C 133:4-7, 14.
 J. Smith, Jr., Teachings, November 1835, p. 83.
 Ibid., p. 84.
 Ibid., 11 June 1843, pp. 307-308. See also pp. 310, 312.
 Genesis 10:26-29.
 J. H. Sailhamer, Genesis, p. 102. See Genesis 11:10-26.
 Genesis 10:25.
 Genesis 11:1.
 Genesis 11:4.
 Genesis 12:2.
 L. R. Kass, Wisdom, pp. 240-241.
 Hymns (1985), Hymns (1985), Ye Elders of Israel, #319.
 A. LaCocque, Captivity of Innocence, p. 1.
 Julee Holcombe.
 A. LaCocque, Captivity of Innocence, p. 21.
 L. R. Kass, Wisdom, pp. 242-243.