Breaking Babel


Everyone wants to be remembered. We realize the immanent approach of death- as much as we seek to deny or avoid it- and in this realization is birthed a longing for permanence, for a part of oneself to somehow live on beyond this vale of tears.

This individual existence is brought to a crescendo in the form of a simple word- a name. Whereas we designate individual inanimate objects by more generalized adjectives, for ourselves we hold this mystical appellation as somehow intrinsic to who and what we are. Even if we don a nickname from time to time or give similar titles to the more intelligent of the beasts, nevertheless there is something about a name which can somehow encompass the depth and breadth of each remarkably complex human being, such that we can no longer think in any other terms.

In the Genesis narrative Adam is given dominion over the animals, and in a remarkable sense is given the prerogative to name them. This kind of animal will be called this, this kind called that. This ‘name’ will somehow not only mark out each animal as its own kind, but in the act of naming set forth the relationship between the namer and the named.

For in the ancient Near East names were much more significant than they are for moderns. Whereas we tend to pick out names based on what is popular or novel or sometimes even for shock value, ancient cultures understood a much more integral relation between a person and his name. A name could either define who and what one was, or could be given as a sort of prophecy for that child.

For example, ‘Jacob’ means ‘heel-grabber,’ which was not only indicative of the circumstances of his birth but also portended his future actions.

To know someone’s name, then, was to have some measure of knowledge of someone, and to some extent, some measure of control over them. Ancient gods were often given elaborate names, the idea being that if the right formulae of words were pronounced, the deities would either be bound to act or that the person praying would somehow be initiated into the mystery and know the gods’ will.

Names are important, and become the building blocks of Babel.

The Fall

The first stones are laid in the garden, after our first parents fall from grace. In their innocence both have names that are constitutive of their natures- ‘Adam’ sounds like ‘dust’ in Hebrew, and ‘the woman’ means ‘taken out of man.’  More importantly, the names they bear are given them by God, ordered to the creative action in which he brought them into existence. This relationship of grace means that God’s power and creative action are the definition of who they are, and only in proportion with that relationship can each be understood properly in the fullness of who each is.

It is with the introduction of sin that the first bricks of Babel are placed together. The curse given to the woman is chilling:

“I will make your pains in childbearing very severe;
 with painful labor you will give birth to children.
Your desire will be for your husband,
 and he will rule over you.” (Genesis 3:16 NIV)

This sundering of the one flesh into the dominion of man over woman will take some nasty turns in human history, but it starts off seemingly innocuously enough. We are told that:

Adam named his wife Eve, because she would become the mother of all the living. (Genesis 3:20 NIV)

It must be remembered that Adam’s prerogative for naming was originally for the animals. It was not just because he was made in the image of God, but rather because God specifically gave him dominion over the animals. In such a situation naming is proper to his station, and in doing so he was fulfilling his role as caretaker and ruler of creation.

But God did not give him the charge to name his wife, nor did God bring the woman to him to see what he would name her. The knowledge that is granted by knowing of a name was something he already possessed in their matrimonial union. But sin- once it is in the doors- is hard to to root out, and Adam’s relationship with his wife is forever transformed.

No longer seeing her as his helpmeet- as the one brought out his own being for him, as the bone of his bones and the flesh of his flesh– he now begins to view her with the same relational distance as the animals. And while this new distance implies that he should protect the one who will be the mother of his children and that he should care for her in the sorrow the curse foretells, sin is so insidious that it uses the goodness that still resides in the relationship and tries to twist them into a more wretched and tangled mess.

When Adam names her, he may be trying to come to grips with the disunity wrought by their sin- for he even tried to pass the blame on to her- but in giving her a name he has started down the road to viewing her like the animals in that he presumes to have dominion over her. No longer are they standing side by side before God, naked in their innocence; now they each bear their own painful curse clothed in the skins of the animals, animals whose names they know.

Foreboding indeed.

But Eve’s name contains the promise of a better day, for while Adam and Eve will die, she is the mother of the living, and their names may yet live on.


When we finally arrive at the plain of Shinar in Genesis 11 the whole world has a sort of primordial unity in the form of sharing one language. The hubris of humanity’s unity is found in the desire to ‘make a name for ourselves,’ an attempt to stave off the disunity that threatens to plunge the race into another deluge- that of being scattered over the earth.

Previously we read of the table of nations, all tracing themselves back to Noah and his family. As God does for Adam and his wife, Noah likewise spells out the future blessings and curses for his sons. These prophesies- intricately wrapped up in their names- become the boundaries of their kin and the borders of their kingdoms.

One is meant to understand the pronouncement as leading to a diversity of nations, but the men at Babel seek to reverse its effects. They realize that humanity is splitting off into people groups, each with its own identity, and they will have none of it.

Disunity is not necessarily a good thing, but the sticking point is that Babel represents Adam naming Eve all over again. Rather than accept the lot they have been given by God and submitting to how He would name them, the men of Babel would turn it around. They will make a name for themselves, they will orient the definition of who they are by their own lights.

The unity of man thus becomes merely a pretext for control, another attempt to be like God. For the name they will make involves an invasion of heaven, which is why their tower will reach the sky. The use of bricks and tar over against stone and mortar ironically details the vapidity of human renown, for in the act of trying to make a name as quickly as possible (that is, before they die) they doom their name to transience and instability.

In the garden God was said to walk with the man and the woman in the cool of the evening. But now God can do nothing but walk among man and sow disorder, for their unity has become a wellspring of sin. Whereas God originally said “Let us make man in our image,” now the relation is “Let us go down and confuse their language.”

Thus Babel is brought to nothing, for man was trying to name himself in view of his own mastery, rather than finding his identity in the one who created him and who, as St. Paul tells us,

“marked out their appointed times in history and the boundaries of their lands.” (Acts 17:26 NIV)

The sad epitaph is that the men of Babel were scattered over the earth, locked into the identities they would forge with those they could understand. Whereas language was once a source of union, it is now a barrier, something that sets off everyone else as ‘the other,’ a mindset to become a source of disunity and conflict.

After all, a name you cannot understand might as well not exist at all.

Picking up the Pieces

At the birth of the church the wounds of Babel begin to be healed. When the Holy Spirit comes we are told there is a violent sound like a tornado that the whole city of Jerusalem was able to hear. At the epicenter of this most peculiar event are a group of people babbling on- so it seems- and uttering strange things. But as one listened closer the babbling began to take on form, shaping itself into the sound of one’s own tongue. Luke describes the crowd as ‘utterly amazed,’ and they exclaim:

“Aren’t all these who are speaking Galileans? Then how is it that each of us hears them in our native language? Parthians, Medes and Elamites; residents of Mesopotamia, Judea and Cappadocia, Pontus and Asia, Phrygia and Pamphylia, Egypt and the parts of Libya near Cyrene; visitors from Rome  (both Jews and converts to Judaism); Cretans and Arabs—we hear them declaring the wonders of God in our own tongues!” Amazed and perplexed, they asked one another, “What does this mean?” (Acts 2:7-12 NIV)

Babel tries to raise its ugly head and name this phenomenon:

Some, however, made fun of them and said, “They have had too much wine.” (Acts 2:13 NIV)

It’s easy to confuse ecstasy with drunkenness, especially when the bitter dregs of the latter are always longing for more.

But Peter will have none of this, making the common-sense observation that it is way too early to be drunk. And as the sermon draws to a close, he demonstrates the name that is really behind it all: the name of Jesus. The events of the past month have left their scar on Jerusalem, for its hands are drenched in innocent blood. The ever-poisonous venom of Babel could not tolerate when God-made-flesh came to walk among man again, afraid he would sow discord among them yet again.

After all, did he not say that he came to turn father against son and to bring not peace but a sword?

Peter argues that Jesus really is God’s son, and that the name he has been given- Messiah- is true, for God has vindicated him by raising him from the dead. Only God can really give out names, and he has made Jesus both Lord and Messiah. It is only by resisting the lure of Babel and believing in him, abandoning the pretense of control exerted in the Garden and being open before God about one’s sin that one can be saved. Thus Peter says:

“Repent and be baptized, every one of you, in the name of Jesus Christ for the forgiveness of your sins. And you will receive the gift of the Holy Spirit. The promise is for you and your children and for all who are far off—for all whom the Lord our God will call.” (Acts 2:38-39 NIV)

This promise is the antidote to Babel, for when God calls, he calls by name. The mystery of the tongues at Pentecost reveals that God is beginning to bind humanity together again. These bonds will not be in the fashioning of a name that sets itself as master over creation, but in a submission to the Creator who is calling each one to repent.

Babel Undone

St. John catches a glimpse of the continual warfare of Babel, the tendency of humankind to go bent and get crooked. In the last things this is no different but is brought to a head as the last assault of Babel on Heaven commences.

We find a beast coming out of the sea, which is representative of all peoples and nations and kingdoms. The dragon in fact gives him authority over “every tribe, people, language and nation.” He will be the object of worship for the nations, even as he blasphemes God and the saints. On his heads, we are told, are blasphemous names, symbolic of the authority he claims to wield and the usurpation he intends to accomplish.

In the garden Adam perhaps innocuously named his wife, bringing under his authority that which he had not been given. Who could have imagined that this act would culminate in the beast whose rules encompasses all and whose authority lords over all nations and peoples?

But once the darkness is vanquished by the light of God’s glory and power, a new order is established, one in which all creation acknowledges and submits to the rule of God. Only the Creator has authority over his creation, and thus only he can name it.

Babel has no place in the New Jerusalem, for one simple reason- no one here is any longer trying to make a name for themselves, for they have already been given one by God himself. The promise to those who are victorious is that God will give them

“a white stone with a new name written on it, known only to the one who receives it.” (Revelation 3:12 NIV)

The orientation of Babel seeks to turn one’s identity inwards, creating an insular frame of reference. Making a name for oneself is the sin of the Garden and of Babel for it leaves the Creator out of the whole business entirely.

But the orientation of the New Jerusalem is towards God himself, for he fills the whole city and gives it its light. There is no longer any temple, we are told, for God himself dwells there. At Babel he walked among man to sow discord and limit the damage of hubris and sin, but in the heavenly Jerusalem

God’s dwelling place is now among the people, and he will dwell with them. They will be his people, and God himself will be with them and be their God. (Revelation 21:3 NIV)

Babel has finally been undone, for the name each citizen will bear is not something they have made for themselves but something they receive. This pure gratuitous reception of love and life and existence stands in marked contrast to the vainglorious striving of Babel which promises eternal renown but crashes in a rubble of brick and tar.

In the New Jerusalem God and man are finally united as intended, a communion so deep that it can only be ushered into language under the metaphor of sight:

They will see his face, and his name will be on their foreheads. (Revelation 22:4 NIV)

This is where eternal renown is finally found, for one’s crown does not need to hang on a tower to heaven when heaven actually comes down to earth. The nights that cloak the name of man in darkness are swallowed up forever,

“for the Lord God will give them light. And they will reign for ever and ever.” (Revelation 22:5 NIV)

That is a name worth having.

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