The Tree of Life /7
Reflections on the Book of Genesis by Luigino Bruni

Away from Imperial Towers: dispersed and saved

Many, many years were passed in building the tower. It reached so great a height that it took a year to mount to the top. A brick was, therefore, more precious in the sight of the builders than a human being. If a man fell down, and met his death, none took notice of it, but if a brick dropped, they wept, because it would take a year to replace it. So intent were they upon accomplishing their purpose that they would not permit a woman to interrupt herself in her work of brick-making when the hour of travail came upon her. Moulding bricks she gave birth to her child, and, tying it round her body in a sheet, she went on moulding bricks.” (L. Ginzberg, The Legends of the Jews)

burj-dubai1 After the Ark the people built Babel, a fortified town with a tall tower in the centre. The Book of Genesis (6:15) tells us the size of Noah’s Ark (132 meters in length, 22 in width, 13 in depth), while about Babel it only says that the top of the tower was supposed to reach the heavens (11,4). Based on this indication, some traditions have imagined great heights for the tower (perhaps based on memories of the pyramids of Egypt, or the giant ziggurat of Babylon), much larger than those of the ark that had saved the fathers and mothers of the builders of Babel. The companies of those who build in response to a call and to save themselves and others are not, in general, greater and more powerful than the companies of those who build to create empires.

There are many meanings that have, over time, layered on Babel and should be traced into the Babylonian exile (Babel) and into the memories of the “building blocks” of the slavery of Egypt (“Let us make bricks“, 11:3), and into the eternal critique of idolatry (“let’s make a name for ourselves“, 11:4 ).

The story of Babel contains a radical critique for every empire, and so for power. As regards the founder of Babel (Nimrod), Genesis says: he was the first “who became a mighty warrior on the earth” (10:8). Babel is a symbol of the fortified city, but most importantly it is a symbol of the empire. It is not a radical critique of all types of power (also Adam and Noah have power), but the power that is not used to save. The saving power of Noah and that of the empires of Babel still live next to each other, and are intertwined in our cities and institutions. There are those who use the power they received from citizens or shareholders in a contract – alliance (whether it be political, economic, familial or educational) for salvation, and also those who use it to dominate and to extract gains and privileges – the empire. There is a type of power that saves and another that kills; and we find them often, almost always, cohabiting in the same organizations, institutions, companies, sometimes in the same departments and even in the same offices where the builders of arks are seated next to the builders of Babel.

The Noah-Babel comparison gives us, however, other words and other messages of life. First of all the message regarding work. The builders of both the ark and the city-tower were workers, and they were united with each other – without a form of work solidarity you cannot start any work, either the right ones or the wrong ones. This solidarity appears strongly in the story of Babel, because there is an explicit collective action, the work of a group, a community of work: “Then they said to one another, “Come, let us build ourselves a city, with a tower” (11,4). There is a ‘come’, a ‘let’s go’, which is a mutual encouragement and exhortation for the construction of a work. Not all types of solidarity and cooperation are good, and not all works are good things: the work of the bricklayers and engineers of Babel is not a blessed work, and it gets dispersed. There are some works for which it is better if they get dispersed. Jobs created today by the powerful empires of the mafia, pornography, gamble, companies that are poisoning us, wars and prostitution are not blessed works, and we should disperse them. The works of the empires are works of slaves yesterday and today: forms of slavery and empires may be changed, but their signs and their fruits remain the same.

The fundamental error of Babel was to seek salvation by closing up into a group of only the similar ones: they all had “one language and a common speech” (11,1). The city-tower was built in order not to “be scattered over the face of the whole earth” (11:4). To be scattered was exactly the command issued to those who were saved from the flood: “multiply on the earth and increase upon it” (9:7). But moving eastward the human community arrived in a valley and stopped there (11:2): they sought salvation not in a ‘going’, but in a ‘staying’ away from the risk of diversity and the teeming of life. That human community made a tower – empire (11:4) since it spoke one language and they all had the same words (11:1): it is the single language – the single “lip” – which produces the fortification of Babel. The construction of empires is the ultimate act of human groups that lose biodiversity and are flattened by having just one language, when language and thought are impoverished and become a “one” not after but before being manifold, a unit denying diversity.

So the major fault of Babel was thinking that salvation is found in the creation of high walls, in giving life to a cum-moenia (common walls) type of community that loses the cum-munus (reciprocal gifts-and-obligations). Our history has always been an alternation and an intersection of cities-of-walls and cities-of-gifts, but when the walls killed the gifts it did not bring happy days for civilization.

So God intervenes to save the inhabitants of Babel by a pseudo-salvation. For Babel, too, is a story of salvation: JHWJ continues obstinately to save humanity that stubbornly continues to want to save itself in the wrong manner and places.

In the case of the ark, salvation came with a building process, in Babel it was born from destruction, by dispersion. The first saving dispersion happens in the families that save their children when they send them out to “disperse” in the world and make them fly. This way they do not get “consumed” in “incestuous” relationships. Many companies are saved because they are able to stop in front of the temptation of the empire and not to stay put in times of crisis, but know how to get back on the road to continue their walk and face the risk of the exploration of unknown territories. Many communities (and many companies, too) are saved when their leaders do not fall into the temptation of surrounding themselves with only the similar ones in language and words, thereby expelling the speakers of other languages; or when they realize in time that they do not have to continue to grow in “height” and power, and have the wisdom and the courage to “scatter” the pieces of empire. And all this in order to start again, free and blessed to walk towards a land. The great message of the myth of Babel is then an invitation not to fall into the traps of communitarianism (the pathology of the community), locked inside the protective walls of non-diversity.

The blessing and fruitfulness lies in the popular new worlds, and in the variety and biodiversity of languages, and so cultures, talents and vocations. The corolla of the flower is only fruitful if it disperses its spores. The temptation of Babel arrives promptly as soon as mankind has escaped a flood or is fearing another one. Instead of getting dispersed, leaving, looking ahead with hope, instead of looking for allies among the different ones for exchanges and encounters of mutual benefit, the tent is abandoned and the building of a tower is started.  But in such towers no children are born. The tent is the right home for the human. Today in Europe, in the post (or pre?) flood era, the temptation of Babel is about to return. And still, we must hope for a saving type of dispersion. In the valley of Babel people did not understand that “the heavens” to reach were not above them but in front of them, on the road towards multiples. They did not understand that a humble nomadic tent is more resistant than a sky-high tower.

Out of Eden, in the garden of history, a single language is not enough to utter words of life. The need for unity and the saudade of “home” cannot be answered by rejecting dispersions in multiples, but by meeting them and welcoming them. We shall not find the new language of Adam if we keep turning back or trapping our history inside the towers of the similar ones; we will only be able to retrieve it if we walk following a voice, a rainbow, a star, a wandering Aramean.

by Luigino Bruni

published in Avvenire on 30/03/2014