The Blessing of Babel: A Retelling of Genesis 11: 1-9

Michael Chabon
Nov 19 · 5 min read
“Tower of Babel,” Josh Dorman, 2016

And all the people were one people, and spoke one tongue. They were subject to one king, and one law. Their manner of dress was uniform, and the food of their tables, in its stuff and style of preparation, was the same in every home. They sang one body of songs, followed one calendar of feast days, and told one cycle of tales and legends, into which variation crept only through carelessness or lapse of memory, because experience was everywhere uniformly expressed, and the people’s power to interpret that experience was limited by the patterns and coloration of the solitary tongue. They possessed one vocabulary to speak of love, joy, regret, anger. Across all the face of the land of Shinar there was one culture, one people, one way.

And the people grew smug in their homogeneity, and complacent in their certainty of being understood. And the more readily they understood each other, the less cause they had for speaking, for the set of possible utterances, while in theory infinite, became in practice circumscribed by their ever-more uniform interpretations of an ever-diminishing number of novel experiences. The power of their words, like the charm of an amulet or the weight of a golden coin, was worn away through overuse. In their minds received ideas and conventional wisdom took the place of their own thoughts. And so, into the people’s hearts, over the generations after Noah, there stole a mounting certainty that everything sayable had already been said. Everything that happened had happened before, and the story of what happened had been told before.

And as the generation before the Flood had sunk into iniquity, wickedness and sin, so that generation’s great-great-grandchildren now found themselves awash in a choking tide of monotony, conventionality, and cliche. Life came to have the flavor of one’s own mouth, the scent of one’s own nostrils. A vague lassitude pervaded the earth. Habit took the place of inspiration, and desire and ambition turned to velleity and weak appetite. The people were going through the motions, and over all the land of Shinar sullen silences were commonplace, and prolonged conversations inevitably trailed off into inconclusiveness and wistful glances toward the far horizon.

And the less the People had to say to each other, the more they feared to be alone, because it was only when they were in each other’s company, when they were part of a single integrated whole, that the sheer volume of their ideas and utterances, however familiar, could drown out the hollow echo of shopworn notions that, when they were alone, rattled in their heads like seeds in a dried gourd. And so by slow and labored consensus they arrived at a plan to construct, of brick and mortar, a city and a tower, so high and capacious that they might all live in it together, as a family under a roof, and thus never be left alone to endure the insistent feeble rattling of their own solitary thoughts.

For a time the promise of finding comfort in permanent, undifferentiated mass cohabitation rekindled ancient enthusiasms and energies among the people, and they set about building their tower with joy in their hearts. Because they spoke one language it was a simple matter to share their building plans, and collaborate with one another on construction. As they worked, raising up their common home coil by spiraling coil ever upward into the sky, they sang work songs, making their way through their language’s repertoire until they had sung them all, and then starting over again at the beginning. And when it was time to break for the mid-day meal, they all sat down wherever they happened to be, on the tower or the site that surrounded it, and spread their blankets, and opened their baskets, and ate the food they had packed, and chattered, contentedly enough, about tomorrow’s work, and the new lives they imagined living when their tower was complete.

But the people were numerous, and so the tower must be tall and large to contain them all, and as the years required for its construction dragged on, the old malaise returned. Their ears wearied of their paltry store of work songs, and their palates were jaded by the limited offerings of their lunch pails, and once again the charm and value of the words they shared– and the experience those words defined–began to wear away. And so their progress slowed. People stopped reporting for service on the tower, parroting one of a number of stock excuses–an aching back, a sore shoulder, a sick lamb, an unruly child–that long practice of apathy had coined. In time construction ceased. The city and the tower were abandoned.

Now a great cloud of tedium settled over the land of Shinar, deep and all- pervading as the Flood, and everywhere was languor and sluggishness. One day was exactly as the next, and the people could not name the thing their hearts most desired–strangeness–for none of them had ever met a stranger.

And the Lord looked down on the people in their unhappiness, and pitied them. And in His mercy and kindness, and because He loved them most of all His creatures, the Lord said, Go to, let us go down, and there confound their language, that they may not understand one another’s speech. Therefore is the name of that city and tower called Babel, because there there the richness and novelty of life were worn away.*

And the Lord scattered them abroad from thence upon the face of all the earth, so that henceforward some among them were and always would be strangers to others. And in His wisdom the Lord commanded them–over and over and over again–to love and honor strangers, and to welcome all those who come speaking strange speech, telling strange stories, singing strange songs, eating strange flesh and strange fruit spiced with unknown savors. And thus the people became many peoples, and their ways diverged and effloresced, from their hats to their houses, and the words of their new languages wrought changes in the way they pondered and perceived and explained Creation, and they knew the staggering diversity of which the human family was capable. And it was good.


* Bab belah, “gate of wearing away,” from בלה, “to wear away.”

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