The Tower of Babel: Culture, Racism and Oppression

I’m sure I’m not alone in this, but there are a number of biblical passages that I struggle with and even some that I find alarming. The story of the Tower of Babel was one of those that I didn’t fully get.

It gives the impression of a God who “toys” with people if they start to get proud. As if in some way he was threatened by what they were trying to do. God…threatened? This just didn’t sit right with the God I think I know a bit about. Does he really toy with us like some child bully?

So it was with refreshing delight that I came across the book Return to Babel. It’s a book that seeks to give global perspectives on stories from the Bible. In it they cover a number of biblical passages from a south american, african and asian point of view.

It’s the south american perspective on the story that intrigued me.

From background research, the writer has come to the conclusion that the Tower was built in the place that would become Babylon. It was a place of slavery and oppression. Immigrants who came to this place (voluntary or not) were forced to speak the language of Babylon and all of its customs. They had to forget their culture, their heritage. Everything that made them, them. They were now Babylonians. This gives a very different interpretation of the story.

God. then, was not just judging the Babylonian rules because of their pride. He was also judging them for their oppression. By “coming down” and destroying the Tower, God gave the people back their own language that they had forgotten how to speak. They no longer had to be Babylonians. They could be who they were meant to be. They were allowed to go back to their own nations and start their heritage and culture again. God’s act then was one of freedom from oppression. 

It’s a refreshing thought. So often I look around my church and see people who all dress the same, act the same. God is saying, we don’t need to be like everyone else. That’s not the point. What links us is our humanity, not our beliefs, our prejudices.

This also has profound implications for foreign and immigration policies and the idea of being “British”. What does that mean? Does it mean that we should all be forced to look the same, speak the same, act the same? Or should being British be known as being accepting of all cultures and creeds. Not forcing our beliefs on to others but accepting everyone for what they are?

Isn’t that what jesus was trying to get at in the first place?


5 responses

  1. like to hear your take on these passages in the bible….i belong to an offshoot of the catholic worker curch here in tampa, fl. and this passage came up recently during bible study…..thanks….tivo….

  2. Never got round to saying thanks for this before. I found it really interesting and actually used it for a staff reflection recently. I’m not sure I communicated it to them very well, but it was a great opportunity to rethink Acts 2 a bit. Cheers.

    1. cheers marsh.

      yeah I didn’t think about the link with Acts 2.

      Affirming different cultures is a message that we have removed when we teach on Acts 2 because we only ever teach on it on Pentecost Sunday. God doesn’t want us to all be the same. Amen to that.

  3. Have just come across this post while trying to figure out how to explain the Tower of Babel to my youth group. Couldn’t quite get past God’s wrathful judgement on what was seemingly a fairly innocent if foolish project. This helped a great deal! Have also been thinking about the Pentecost links to this story and am musing on how we can’t ever build a tower to God but when God sent Jesus and subsequently the Holy Spirit, he built a tower down to us. He broke down the barriers that communication had previously caused.

    Anyway, great post. Thanks


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