A few years ago, when I temporarily moved from Victoria to Queensland, some of my new friends called me a “Mexican”. Obviously, I wasn’t really a Mexican, it was just a jovial way to acknowledge I was new in town, therefore could be forgiven for not understanding things like Rugby *really* was better than Aussie Rules. Queensland and Victoria are both be part of Australia and share federal laws, however, some state laws differ (like U-turns) and the climates lend themselves to particular cultural normalities (like coffee shops being open at 6:00am in Queensland – at least so I heard, being a native of Victoria I never ventured out that early). Overall, it bemused me that an American reference to Mexicans being aliens when they crossed the border had been appropriated by Australians. That’s the power of Hollywood movies, I guess.
Humans are creative creatures who like to play with word meanings by applying them to new scenarios. Once a phrase like “Mexican” gets shared, accepted, and used by many, it can become part of the fabric of cultural expression. Thus, language is in a constant flux of change and it is through learning experiences like the one just described, that we build up an urban dictionary of figurative phrases. Essentially, all words are symbolic of concepts that enable the creative studio in our minds to form perceptions and determine meaning.
Biblical writers were no different to people of today in terms of the fluidity of their language and the use of colloquialisms to quickly covey information about groups of people. For instance, “Babylonians”.
Looking across Biblical references, it becomes apparent that in some instances “Babylonians” simply means people from Babylonia. In other instances, “Babylonians” is figurative speech that conveys iconic features of Babylonians, much like calling someone new to an area a Mexican, albeit, unlike my Queensland friends, when ancient Hebrews called someone a Babylonian, they meant it as an insult. To understand the inferences, Babylonians need to be seen through the eyes of Ancient Jews.
Babylonia was a civilisation that arose in the Mesopotamian region. The Babylonian era (1895 – 539 BCE) begun around the same time that events with the Biblical Abraham started to pan out. Long story short, Abraham and his tribe left Babylon in search of land that he believed God had promised him. They wandered into Egypt, where they were held captive by the Pharaoh (who he believed he was a descendant of Ra, therefore had divine leadership). The prophet, Moses, ushered Jews out of Egypt and into the promised land of Israel. A slight hiccup occurred because Israel was already occupied by the Caananities (also known as Phoenicians). This was overcome by killing nearly everyone (this happened to many Caananities tribes, hence, there are none left today to tell their side of the story). The Jews were content with their kingdom until the Babylonians decided they should rule the Jewish territories. The conflict was nasty; temples were destroyed and the Jews went through periods of Babylonian captivity and exile. The rivalry was indirectly due to religious ideology; the Babylonians believed their rulers a had divine right rule because their Kings were supposedly descendants of the Gods. However, Jews believed G-d was the supreme Lord, and that He had given governance rights. In other words, both sides believed they had a divine right to leadership privileges. This a common historical theme.
Getting back to how the ancient Jews perceived the Babylonians …
The history of Babylonians and Jewish interactions is highly detailed, suffice to say Jews were Babylonians, in that both groups of people came from Babylon. Despite similarities between the cultures, like both having Semitic languages, patriarchal leadership, and they both lived according to codes of law, the resentment Israelites had towards Babylonians was intense. In comparison, Babylonians may have been more destructive and demonstrated more narcissistic behaviours. However, to depict the Jews as being a peaceful, hippyish community would be a misdemeanour. Hebrews were not opposed to physical combat and, according to Christianity, their religious leaders, the Pharisees and Rabbis, were often corrupted.
In a nutshell, it is not surprising that Israelites rejected Babylonian values and perceived them as aggressive tormentors who oppressed the freedom of others, however, criticisms of Jewish culture can also be made. Interestingly, the split between the two nations came about very early in history. Jewish resentment can be seen in the first mention of Babylon, in Genesis 11 and with what is commonly referred to in Christian traditions as The Tower of Babel.
The Tower of Babylon
In the following, I go through the story of The Tower of Babel verse by verse (various versions), fleshing out symbolic references in a historical context with the overachieving aim of explaining how and why “Babylon” became a derogatory term that could be applied used as an adjective to describe unsavoury behaviours.
Genesis 11:1 – 9 says: “Now the whole world had one language and a common speech. As people moved eastward, they found a plain in Shinar and settled there.”
Conventional interpretations of the above verse usually take the meaning of the passage to be literal. The New Century Version of the Bible even says: “and everyone used the same words”. From a historical point of view, ancient Jews and Babylonians (who were the whole world of Shinar) probably did speak the one language.
In addition to the egocentric literal interpretation of one language being spoken, I suspect the story is more symbolic, as echoed in The Kings James Version: “And the whole earth was of one language, and of one speech”. The whole earth being of one speech, infers it was not necessarily just the same words that everyone used, rather, it was common communication protocols. Communication is not just words, it can also infer mannerisms, intonations, and visual references, physical gestures. Moreover, a person’s ideology can guide their communication style. For example, therapists strive to listen to others with compassion and try to communicate openly so as to build trust and rapport. Whereas, someone with a criminal mindset is more inclined to communicate in a way that facilitates manipulation through coercive tactics.
Getting back to the Tower of Babel, the story depicts things changing when people settled in Shinar, which is a telling sign of Jewish animosity towards Babylonians. Why? Because Shinar is a Babylonian town. The imputation of the ancient Jewish writers is that life before the establishment of Babylonian cities was more a peaceful experience due to a common speech being used amongst everyone.
Genesis 11:3 “And a man said to his neighbour, Come, let us make bricks and bake them with fire. And the brick was to them for stone, and their mortar was bitumen.”
This shared building project being made out of clay bricks is also ominous symbolism. The evolution of building with bricks instead of stone allowed for ease of construction because it was not dependent upon the laborious task of quarrying. Conversely, clay bricks are not as strong as stone. Hence, it can be surmised that the Hebrew authors were saying right from the start that the building project was not made from the most stable substance.
There is no archaeological evidence to suggest humans around the Earth ever spoke the same language. However, from a psychological perspective, at birth all humans have the capacity to speak any language. By a very early age (about 1-3 years) synaptic connections favour whatever vocal and gestural communication a child is exposed to the most. Young children with limited vocabularies can happily play together and share toys. They can even engage in joined activities like building a tall tower out of blocks, however, it is also common for frustrations to arise because toddlers cannot express themselves clearly and each child may be trying to achieve a different building vision. Without mature communication skills (like compromise and patience), irritably can lead to rash behaviour and brick towers falling. From this level of interpretation, the story of Babel is one of human evolution; a descriptor of early civilisation in which communication between people was like that of children in a school yard in which conflicts arose due to communication barriers between peers.
Genesis 11:4 And they said, “Come, we will build up a city for ourselves and a tower whose top is in Heaven, and let us make a name for ourselves, lest we be scattered on the face of all the Earth.”
The above verse once again hints at the urbanisation in Shinar beginning with people working together. The shift away from communal living is shadowed by grandiose ambition: “let us make a name for ourselves”.
The aim of the tower, to reach heaven, is potentially a reference to a ziggurat, a pyramid-like structure that ancient Babylonians built for religious purposes.
Ancient ziggurat. Source: Wikipedia
The building of a temple (even if it was not a ziggurat), suggests Hebrew and Babylonian ancestors were once united in religious ideology. The physical building of a temple to the heavens exemplifies the notion that communication confusion was intertwined with the building of religion ideology.
Genesis 11:5-6 “And Jehovah came down to see the city and the tower which the children of men built. And Jehovah said, Behold, the people is one, and have all one language; and this have they begun to do. And now will they be hindered in nothing that they meditate doing.
The term “children of men” is a symbolic code that suggests humans are the product of a divine race called “men” that doesn’t necessarily mean biological males, but I’ll go over that theology another time. For the moment, I’d like to emphasise that “the people is one” and are “all one language” infers everyone working on the construction of the tower all were united through a Semitic language and a common faith.
Genesis 11:7 Come, let us go down, and there confound their language, that they may not understand one another’s speech.
Here we see humans moving from an egalitarian coexistence into a state of being at odds with each other. As previously pointed out, confounding language so as people cannot understand one another’s speech is not dependent upon dialects. Potentially, the more important aspect of this sentence is the symbolic shift from people understanding one another, to a lack of understanding being attributed to God’s command. But why would God want humans to be unharmonious? Or was it simply a means of expressing human evolution working in accordance to a divine plan? Or is the word “us” a suggestion that the Jews once acknowledged many deities, therefore indicating that the communication confusion was based upon confusion over which deity was to be followed?
Genesis 11:8-9 So the Lord scattered them abroad from that place upon the face of the whole earth, and they gave up building the city. Therefore the name of it was called Babel—because there the Lord confounded the language of all the earth; and from that place the Lord scattered them abroad upon the face of the whole earth.
To a contemporary English Bible reader, the word “Babel” sounds like it is a reference to babble, as in speech that does not make sense. However, the word “Babel” comes from the Hebrew Bab-ilu (“Gate of God”), which is a reference to the city of Babylon. Contrary to many Christian traditions, The Tower of Babel would be more accurately called The Tower of Babylon.
With the inference of babble being removed from Babel, it becomes even more prudent to interpret the confusion of language as not being dependent upon dialect. Rather, the Tower of Babel is a reference to the establishment of the Babylonian Empire being the beginning of religious conflicts. In terms of whether or not this a true depiction of history, depends upon perspective and keeping in mind that the story is biasedly told by the author/s, ie., the Israelites.
The image of people being scattered due to language confusion while constructing a religious tower, I would argue, needs to be viewed not just in a literal sense, but in the sense that conflict and confusion occurred in the theological construction of a religion. Further, to strengthen the argument, it is worthwhile to consider that the development of “language” often has a sacred history. Alphabets are described in myths as being a gift from them the Gods, words are “spells” as in they can be used for magic, and in Christianity, God is the living Word.
Hence, the story of Babel proposes that everyone on the earth once shared a common faith, further it is a metaphor describing the segregation of people into various religious groups. Following on this train of thought, Genesis 11:6 indicates the belief if everyone on the Earth shared the one faith, the united force would enable anything to be possible. Inadvertently, it appears clear that this did not happen because of the Tower of Babylon, thus, subtle blame is shouldered onto all Babylonians.
Other Biblical References to Babylon
As Biblical stories progress, Jewish hostility towards Babylonians continues and is clearly expressed in verses like Psalm 137:8-9:
O daughter of Babylon, who is to be destroyed, blessed is the one who rewards you as you have done to us. Blessed is the one who takes and dashes your little ones against the rocks.
The verse is by no means a literal desire for a woman’s infants to be killed. Rather, “daughter of Babylon” is a reference to ideology that male leaders of Babylon followed, moreover, the leaders who banished and persecuted the Jews. The desire to take “little ones” and dash them against the rocks is a figurative expression of wanting to all those who follow Babylon protocols to be destroyed.
By the time the New Testament was written, Babylon was no longer a great Empire, nonetheless, it was still referred to with animosity. Revelations 17:5 describes Babylon as being the “the mother of harlots and abominations of the earth”. This description of Babylon as a birthplace of abominable behaviour leads itself to any nation (as expressed by “mother”) that followed and/or had “Babylonian” traits of tyrannical leadership. (See Reading the Symbols of the Apocalypse According to Isaac Newton and The Final Fall of Rome: Babylon and the Harlot on the Beast for more details.)
You could possibly even say that the concept of “Babylonians” is like the concept of contemporary “Nazis”; the Nazis were originally a German political party that initiated wars and subjugated many people, however, the term “Nazi” is now sometimes used colloquially to describe any person who behaves in a militant manner (or simply disagrees with you on Facebook).
In summary, there is a long standing animosity between Babylonians and Jews that can be found in the earliest writings all the way through to the Christian-Judaism era. The appropriation of turning a noun that defines a group of people into an adjective that suggests certain behaviours is not unique to Hebrews. Sometimes when it is done the circumstances are relatively benign, like calling someone a Mexican or saying that all foreign languages sound Greek. Other times, it is done with derogatory intentions, like calling a person a Nazi or … a Babylonian.
Dyck, A. (2017). BABEL OR BABYLON? A LEXICAL GRAMMATICAL ANALYSIS OF GENESIS 10:10 AND 11:9. [online] Available at: https://jbqnew.jewishbible.org/assets/Uploads/454/jbq_454_dyckbabel.pdf [Accessed 20 Dec. 2021].
HistoryExtra. (2020). Your guide to the ancient city of Babylon. [online] Available at: https://www.historyextra.com/period/ancient-history/babylon-babylonia-tower-babel-hanging-gardens-hammurabi/.
Tower | architecture. (2019). In: Encyclopædia Britannica. [online] Available at: https://www.britannica.com/technology/tower.