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    Tower of Babel

    Tech Cities of the Bible

    Our struggle with technology starts in Genesis.

    By Alastair Roberts

    June 7, 2024

    Make yourself safe. Make yourself a name. Make yourself eternal.

    These three are the drivers behind much of what we humans do, according to the story that the Hebrew Bible tells about the development of human civilization. These are what we, as a species, have treated as our telos, our purpose.

    They are not what God has made us for. But the tricky thing is that they’re not entirely unrelated either. Here’s what God said about our purpose, when he first made us:

    Let us make man in our image, after our likeness. And let them have dominion over the fish of the sea and over the birds of the heavens and over the livestock and over all the earth and over every creeping thing that creeps on the earth.

    So, God created man in his own image, in the image of God he created him; male and female he created them. And God blessed them. And God said to them, “Be fruitful and multiply and fill the earth and subdue it, and have dominion over the fish of the sea and over the birds of the heavens and over every living thing that moves on the earth. (Gen. 1:26–28)

    The human project goes somewhat off the rails with the Fall, when Adam and Eve aim to set up an independent judiciary, “having dominion” in the sense of taking the judgment seat before they are raised in the fullness of time to the divine council, judging on their own terms. This judicial autonomy is only the first example of humans taking their good human task, the creation mandate, and attempting to carry it out without reference to the God who gave them that task.

    The story of building civilization under the conditions of the Fall is a story of technology – language and politics wrenched out of the order they were meant to serve, used to serve grasped glory rather than the glory that is given. This pattern emerges very quickly after the second generation of humans is born.

    After being exiled from the presence of the Lord for the murder of his brother, Cain fathers a son, Enoch, and founds a city named after him. The city is a manmade system that he inhabits, a world in which he lives not as a king who is the living icon of God, but as a king under no other authority. Cain’s city, as Jacques Ellul argues in The Meaning of the City (1951), is an act of piracy, an attempt to harness the creation to his rebellious will and inaugurate a world of his own in opposition to God’s Eden. In naming his son and city, Cain attempts to secure a legacy for himself in the teeth of death and divine judgment. His descendants are responsible for the first great technological innovations in the biblical record: the invention of musical instruments and metalwork.

    Tower of Babel

    Du Zhenjun, Tower of Babel: Crusade, photographic collage, 2011. All artwork by Du Zhenjun. Used by permission.

    After the flood, the city resurfaces in Genesis 10 with the figure of the great champion and empire-builder, Nimrod. A descendant of Noah’s rebellious son, Ham, Nimrod pioneered the Mesopotamian vision of kingship. Although Nimrod’s biblically recorded acts are those of city-founding, his reputation is recorded as that of a hunter, so great as to be referred to as a “mighty hunter before the Lord” (Gen. 10:9). Associations between hunting and kingship are ancient, cross-cultural, and persistent. The hunter embodies the increased dominion granted to Noah after the flood, and the king represents its extension into the power of death and conquest over his fellow men. Again, the pattern: God has given Noah the right to hunt, to eat meat. Nimrod, though, takes that gift and turns it into something that boxes God out of the equation.

    And the civilization Nimrod ends up building is the emblem of the new militarized state-societies of the third millennium BC. In hunting, strength and skill in arms could be honed, proved, and displayed. Bands of hunters could develop into military hierarchies, and, even when kings no longer led their men in battle, a king’s devotion to the hunt was a vital metaphor for the meaning of kingship. The prominence given to Nimrod’s hunting prowess might suggest that subjugation was central to the logic of his kingship. The connotations of “before the Lord” are debated by commentators, but the contextual setting seems to favor negative ones. Nimrod, whose name seems to be a play on the Hebrew root for “rebel,” recalls the Nephilim and the mighty “men of name” who arose from them (Gen. 6:4), becoming, in his power, like a god among men.

    Among Nimrod’s great acts was the founding of the city of Babel, or Babylon. Besides the similarity between the origins of Nimrod’s empire and the description of the origins of Israel’s bondage in Egypt (Exod. 1:8–14), consideration of the nature of such enterprises would suggest that Nimrod’s vast city-building ambitions must have rested upon the shoulders of innumerable slaves.

    Attentive readers of the account of Genesis 11, however, might notice that the Babel builders begin not with a plan to build a city and tower, but with the discovery of a technique for firing bricks. The determination to build the city and tower seemingly arises, at least in part, out of humanity’s intoxication with new technological potential. As in the case of the exiled Cain, a concern to secure their legacy through the achievement of renown motivates the builders. Their ambition has both a horizontal and a vertical impulse: to build a city that gathers humanity under Nimrod’s sway and an immense tower that represents the godlike greatness of their name.

    The project of Babel is frustrated by the Lord, but not without an admission of the genuine danger that the city and tower represent: “This is only the beginning of what they will do. And nothing that they propose to do will now be impossible for them” (Gen. 11:6).

    This judgment upon the Babel builders, upon those whose hearts are turned backward, is reminiscent of the Lord’s judgment upon man in Genesis 3:22–24. There the fact that people had prematurely seized the knowledge of good and evil for themselves, becoming like one of the gods – but more lonely, a divine council all to themselves, led to the Lord casting Adam and Eve out of Eden. Obtained in such a rebellious fashion, the knowledge of good and evil, the wisdom associated with rule and judicial authority, manifests the human aspirations for autonomy and for enjoying the role of God in our own world. Indeed, the Lord grants that human beings achieved something of his intent when he declares that the man had “become like one of us” (Gen. 3:22), like one of the heavenly rulers. To deny this rebellious ambition full rein, the Lord cuts the man and woman off from the Tree of Life and its promise of immortality.

    Humanity’s hubristic quest for autonomy does not cease, however, and with innovations in technology, as Babel demonstrates, it is only inspired to reach for greater heights. In the city of Babel, we see the rebellion of our first parents in the garden coming of age, the “beginning” of a new phase.

    A naive reading of Genesis might give the impression that the scattering of the Babel builders is motivated by the Lord’s concern about a threat to his own throne. Yet the threat is primarily to human beings themselves.

    The Lord’s frustration of the Babel project provides the backdrop for the narrative of the call of Abram and the Lord’s assurance that he would make Abram’s name great (Gen. 12:1–3) – and that therefore Abram did not need to do one of the Ancient Near East’s “make my own name great” projects. He could leave the city and venture out. And in the story of Abraham’s descendant, Jacob, we have a recollection of the story of Babel in a ladder that reaches to heaven and the play upon the meaning of Babel (“gate of God”) in the patriarch’s awed response: “This is none other than the house of God, and this is the gate of heaven” (Gen. 28:17).

    By the end of the seventh century BC, the Abrahamic alternative to Babel seemed to have failed, though, with Jewish exiles being taken in captivity back to the land of Babylon. The story of Daniel begins with this tragic return of Abraham’s offspring to the land of his origin. However, the careful reader of the Book of Daniel might notice familiar themes pervading it, variations of the ancient story of Babel.

    The Book of Daniel is about the distant heirs of the Babel builders, of kings with ambitions for godhood, of attempts to bring all peoples under a single human power, of the frustration of language and interpretation, and of the downfall of great towers. In three successive chapters, the book describes three towering structures: the great statue in Nebuchadnezzar’s dream (Gen. 2), the golden statue of Nebuchadnezzar himself (Gen. 3), and the tree with the top reaching to heaven (Gen. 4). All three represent the empire’s attempt to subdue all things under it.

    The first statue symbolizes a succession of empires, beginning with the golden head of Babylon. This massive image, a marvel of human creation and engineering, its different materials representing the amalgamation of all peoples through human power, is brought down and destroyed by a divine stone cut without hands. The events of chapter three might be understood as Nebuchadnezzar’s resistant response to his dream, as he sought to bring all “peoples, nations, and languages” together through the collective worship of a gigantic golden image erected on a plain. This is a deliberate attempt to reverse the Lord’s judgment of Babel, which had scattered these peoples and languages. The fiery furnace into which the faithful Hebrews were cast was likely used in construction of the image, illustrative of empires’ attempts to melt peoples down into manifestations of their absolute sovereignty. In chapter four, the tree with its top reaching to heaven is Nebuchadnezzar himself, his kingdom gathering the peoples under its shade and in its branches. In a manner that is once again reminiscent of Babel, a “holy one” descends and chops down the tree, scattering those who had dwelt under it. The proud king Nebuchadnezzar, who had pretensions to the throne of God, was humbled, being reduced to a bestial state. One is reminded of Aristotle: “He who is unable to live in society, or who has no need because he is sufficient for himself, must be either a beast or a god.” Nebuchadnezzar, refusing to live in a polity, in brotherhood, and seeking instead to found an empire, refuses to be a man and instead seeks to be a god. And God makes him a beast.

    Tower of Babel

    Du Zhenjun, Tower of Babel: the Wind, photographic collage, 2010.

    Along with the reminders of Babel’s tower, Daniel is a book of confused language and failures of interpretation. None of the king’s wise men can tell him his dream or interpret it in chapter two, and they fail again in chapter four. King Belshazzar’s and Babylon’s doom is foretold by the mysterious writing on the wall in chapter five. Besides being an object of interpretation, language is also a means of human agency and rule. Like the Lord, we seek to make our world by the power of our word. Yet the recourse to the more universal language of music to bring all peoples together fails in chapter three, and both Nebuchadnezzar and Darius find themselves trapped in their own words.

    Babel illustrates the technology-assisted ambitions of people for dominance over others. A naive reading of Genesis might give the impression that the exile from Eden and the scattering and confusion of the language of the Babel builders is motivated by the Lord’s concern about a threat to his own throne. Yet the threat is primarily to human beings themselves. People make dangerous gods for others – and for themselves – and as they progress beyond the infancy of the garden, as the Mesopotamian god-kings arise, along with the later vast empires of Babylon and its successors, this truth becomes increasingly evident. Those who seek to usurp God’s rule establish houses of bondage for their fellows, but they also lose grip on their own humanity.

    Daniel presents us with a further aspect of this when the word through which the king seeks to control his world turns against him. In chapter six, Darius’s officials use the king’s word of law to attempt an internal coup so they can remove Daniel, of whom they are jealous. The irrevocable character of the king’s law, which should represent his sovereignty, turns into a rod for his own back. Something similar happens in chapter three, where malicious officials use the king’s word to advance their own petty court rivalries, making him cast the Hebrews into the fiery furnace. It is “the law of the Medes and the Persians, which cannot be revoked” (Dan. 6:8), which subverts the king’s own desire to do justice.

    The capacity of the word to turn against its supposed master is a biblical warning against the dangers of humanity’s overweening ambitions for autonomous dominion. Unlike the divine Word, who is always with the Father and in whom the Father always dwells, the “words” by which people seek to fashion and control their worlds can escape and betray them. Seen biblically, the role of legal and technological structures in the rebellious systems that people invent – parodies of the creation mandate – should caution us: the words and works of creatures striving for a rebellious autonomy have their own tendencies to autonomy and can imprison those who supposed themselves to be their masters. Make an idol – political or technological – and it will turn on you. The Lord’s frustration of humanity’s ambitions through death, the resistance of creation, the confusion of language, the scattering of humanity, and other such means are ways in which he saves us from those who seek to be, or create, gods.

    Where does that leave us? What can we learn from the projects of these god-kings?

    It is easy to labor under the illusion that things like the car, the internet, or our economic systems more generally are creatures of man, under human control. Yet it should not take much reflection to appreciate the degree to which such technologies, techniques, processes, and entities have autonomous logics of their own, logics that can exert a godlike influence over their former creators. Mammon, as Jesus observed, is something that people serve. It does not need to be a self-conscious artificial superintelligence to hold sway over people’s worlds and hearts every bit as strongly as did the ancient gods of the pagans.

    The more those carrying out the rebellious version of the creation mandate imagine that they are extending their powers, the more they can fall under the thrall of their creations.

    We tend to refer to the totality of our realms of human interaction and cohabitation in ways that foreground their human character, yet such ways of speaking can blind us to the degree to which our Babelic ambitions have crafted vast impersonal technological systems within which all of us, even those supposedly wielding power, are captive and to which we are subservient. Like Nebuchadnezzar, proud in our technological capacities, our humanity is debased as technology empowers our passions to dominate us. Seeking to exercise our good human abilities in illicit ways to attain godlike power, we lose not only the godlike power we thought we had, but even our good human abilities themselves.

    Babel, where we first see the power of technology serving humanity’s quest for godlike autonomy, is a symbol of the City of Man and its apocalyptic downfall. Its biblical antithesis is not merely the Garden, but the glorified garden city of the New Jerusalem. The alternative to the hubris and rebellion of the technological visions of the City of Man is not a rejection of technology and the city, but the joyful obedience to the one true God, who alone is able to save us from ourselves and the terrible gods of our creation, and who alone is able to make our works last and give them value – to give them, in other words, those same godlike qualities that we had sought apart from him.

    Contributed By portrait of Alistair Roberts Alastair Roberts

    Alastair Roberts received his PhD from Durham University, and teaches for both the Theopolis Institute and the Davenant Institute.

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