111 Now all Earth was one language, one set of words. 2 When they migrated to the east, they found a plain in the land of Shinar and settled there. 3 They said, “Gather up! Let us make bricks and burn them hard.” The bricks were a substitute for stones and raw-bitumen for mortar. 4 They said, “Together! We will build us a city and a tower topped with heavens. We will build us a name and not be scattered over all the earth.” 5 And YHWH came down to see the city and the tower the human creatures had built. 6 YHWH said, “One people with one language—with this beginning, nothing they scheme to do will elude them. 7 Come! Let us go down and mix their language so they will be confused by their neighbor’s language.” 8 And YHWH scattered them over the face of the earth, stopping them from building the city. 9 Therefore it is called Babel, for there YHWH baffled the language of all earth-folk. From there, YHWH scattered them over the face of all the earth.
More is going on in the story of Babel than meets the ear. Robert Alter puts it this way, “The story is an extreme example of the stylistic predisposition of biblical narrative to exploit interechoing words and to work with a deliberately restricted vocabulary…. The prose turns language itself into a game of mirrors.” This leads to, “the blurring of lexical boundaries culminating in God’s confounding of tongues.”
This small story, these nine verses, is sandwiched between extensive genealogies. It is set off as a way of looking at all post-Edenic connections, partnerships, and differentiations of post-Tree-of-Knowledge attempts to make sense of good and not-good definitions of interpenetrating intersections between what is too easily named divine or human.
From one language, one “’adam,” the peoples, nations, spread further east than East of Eden. They found themselves interacting on a large “new earth” of Shinar (“land,” as in “land of Shinar” is the same Hebrew word for “earth” or soil; hearkening back to creation 1.0).
Any making of a common, collective identity here is an equivalent of an individual fig leaf to cover their separation, their difference from one another and G*D. This is an attempt to hike a community up by its non-existent bootstraps. A prior unique shaping of clay turns, here, into a mechanized uniformity of a rectangular brick burned into an unchangeable cog in a larger mechanism privileging unity over unique gifts. [Try reading the last sentence backward to get a feel for the mirror effect of a restricted vocabulary.]
A single-minded assault on heavens continually runs into the multi-valence of creation. The very focus on defining the cosmos based on any current technology, from sewing fig leaves or burning bricks onward, runs up against its own limit that there must be only one creation.
The very attempt to avoid being scattered leads to a static structure unable to deal with tectonic changes shaking and scattering every firm foundation, every next creation, every settled doctrine of divinity and humanity. Of building and rebuilding, there is no end.