Babel: free enterprise or imperial oppression?

On Wednesdays I’ve been gradually reading through the book of Genesis and reflecting on the stories here. Last week I looked at some of the genealogy after the flood, focussing in on the interruption of Nimrod. Today I want to start looking at another interruption: Babel. Babel is one of the cities that’s mentioned as belonging to Nimrod. The general direction of movement in the genealogy is toward small, autonomous tribal groups with their own unique identities, but I think the Nimrod and Babel interruptions describe imperial assimilation. 

In this story, the world is described as still having only one language. It describes the people of Babel, who are afraid of being spread across the earth and separated. They decide to build a tower with it’s head in the heavens, so they can make a name for themselves and not be scattered. Shouldn’t this be celebrated? Isn’t this a story of humanity banding together to realise their potential?

We could take this at face value, or we could consider whether this might be a commentary on the operations of the Babylonian empire. When Babylon took over Judah, they removed the elites from the land, taking them to their own city. They were expected to assimilate, adopting the language, religion and diet of Babylon. Empires often operate in this way, expecting colonised and migrant peoples to assimilate, to speak one language and relocate to urban centres. In Australia there has been pressure on Aboriginal people to leave remote communities (or consolidate into a few large remote communities). It’s often been presumed that speaking English is more important than speaking traditional languages. There’s also been increasing presure on migrant peoples to assimilate.

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