Sunday, May 30, 2010

Tower of Babel Phenomenon - Part 1

In a tendency nearly as old as history, people have worked towards living in highly populated areas. In present times, we call such a thing urbanization. Yet, such a tendency is not a healthy thing. Scripture clearly takes a stance against such inclinations, and against the Tower of Babel phenomenon.
Now the whole earth had one language and one speech. And it came to pass, as they journeyed from the east, that they found a plain in the land of Shinar, and they dwelt there. Then they said to one another, “Come, let us make bricks and bake them thoroughly.” They had brick for stone, and they had asphalt for mortar. And they said, “Come, let us build ourselves a city, and a tower whose top is in the heavens; let us make a name for ourselves, lest we be scattered abroad over the face of the whole earth.”

But the LORD came down to see the city and the tower which the sons of men had built. And the LORD said, “Indeed the people are one and they all have one language, and this is what they begin to do; now nothing that they propose to do will be withheld from them. Come, let Us go down and there confuse their language, that they may not understand one another’s speech.” So the LORD scattered them abroad from there over the face of all the earth, and they ceased building the city. Therefore its name is called Babel, because there the LORD confused the language of all the earth; and from there the LORD scattered them abroad over the face of all the earth.

Genesis 11:1-9
Typically, in the Old Testament, God only intervenes in the case of fairly major events. He intervened when Adam & Eve sought to be their own moral authority rather than obey God's commands. He intervened when all the people on earth were thoroughly wicked. Here in this passage, He intervened when people decided to congregate in one small region, rather than spread themselves out appropriately. Clearly, there is something about people creating and abiding in densely populated areas that God opposes. This passage doesn't give us a crisp bullet-point summary of the reasons God opposed the Tower of Babel, but that doesn't leave us completely in the dark.

What major social problems does urbanization create? There are several effects that are fairly substantial. It disconnects people from nature. It isolates people from one another. It accelerates the pace at which culture affects individuals and groups. Also, it lends itself towards an undue societal hubris. Each one of these effects are quite troublesome in their own right. In aggregate, they are more than sufficient to persuade a rational person that urbanization is a great evil to be ardently avoided.

Urbanization disconnects people from nature in several ways. The first and most obvious way it does so is simply by the fact that the social planning of high-density urban environments requires that vast amounts of natural resources be stripped away. Whatever plants and trees exist within an urban area are sparse and synthetically added. Fields, forests, lakes and streams become attractions and locations to visit, rather than being everday parts of one's life. Also, the specialization of labor that urbanization lends itself to contributes to a general lack of awareness of our ecosystem. Rather than farming being an indispensible part of one's life and an integral part of a community, it is a distant afterthought. Husbandry is a field of arcane and esoteric knowledge. Our involvement with food rarely stretches beyond the supermarket, restaurants and the kitchen (if that far).

Exercise is another thing that ceases to exist within its natural context. In a state of nature, exercise is an unavoidable part of life. Work requires physical exertion. Travel is a more visceral and physically-involved experience. Regular exertion to provide for oneself and one's family and to maintain one's land are simply facts of life. Contrarily, in an urban world, it is quite simple to pass several days or even weeks without moving substantially. Work means sitting at a desk, standing behind a counter, or sitting in meetings all day long. Traveling is as simple as sitting in your car and operating a couple of pedals. The plethora of entertainment options available to us makes being a couch potato an alluring possibility. And so, to offer people a way to move their bodies, we have created a new synthetic environment: the gym. Working out becomes an artificially-contrived activity, rather than a natural and inseparable part of existence.

Not only does the urban lifestyle disconnect one from natural motion, but when combined with modernity, it also disconnects us from the natural cycle. Day and night cease to hold much meaning when light bulbs allow us to stay up until 4 AM and sleep in until noon. When you spend enough time indoors, even the difference between day and night is quite indistinct. Seasons cease to matter, when local supermarkets stock seasonal fruits year-round. So it is, in many ways, that the tendency of people to congregate in a small area of dense population contributes substanstantially to a major disconnection from nature. Both in our knowledge and experientially, nature becomes something that does not intersect with life as often as it should.


  1. Hrm, I never thought of the Tower of Babel story from this angle before - that it may be a warning against humanity clustering itself and refusing to spread out. You certainly make a good point that God only intervened when it was to convey an important message.

    1. It seems in other biblical examples nomadic life under stars was preferred; Sodom and Gamora, even roaming many years in the desert surviving on manna didn't alter God's judgment. Nomadic life seems to force sharing to come very easy even with strangers. I could be wrong but City life fosters selfishness even seeking privacy comes extremely difficult...... sharing of bathrooms In the city, i guess, is a benefit?

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