Sunday, September 4, 2011

Building the Ziggurat of Babel

Tower Concept - Noida, India

At first blush building the tower of Babel must have seemed like a noble undertaking. According to the account in Genesis, the people of Babel, 'of one language and few words', decided to build a tower and city, 'whose top may reach unto heaven; and let us make us a name, lest we be scattered abroad upon the face of the whole earth'.
It's interesting to me that, at least as portrayed in the language of King James, these people knew what was about to happen, but did not realize that what they were about to do would be the cause of it. Instead they thought the tower and the city would cement them in both history and geography. Not the first time that men have misread the portents of their ambitions, nor the last.
In other accounts—and there are more than a few—the purpose of the tower was so that the builders might be able to commune directly with God. Apparently they had a clearer idea than we do today of where exactly God lived and how to reach him. What they didn't understand was how little, even then, God wanted to have to do with an over-reaching humankind.
By nearly all accounts, the Tower was huge. Not the replica built by Nebuchednazer in Babylon in the 6th century B.C. That little exercise in borrowing thunder from the past measured only 300 feet in height. The real deal, the first Tower of Babel, the one frequently attributed to Nimrod, was 5,433 cubits plus 2 palms tall 13 stades wide and 30 stades long according to the Book of Jubilees.
Translating these measurements into units we are more familiar with today: 9,508.25 feet in height, 7,800 feet in width, and 18,000 feet in length. By comparison, the current tallest structure in the world, the puny Burj Khalifa in Dubai, stands only 2,716.5 feet high, less than a third of Babel's awesome height and the merest sliver of its width and breadth.
A more modest estimate for the Tower in the Third Apocalypse of Baruch puts it at 463 cubits or 810 feet. This would have made it the tallest structure in the world up until the Eiffel tower was completed in 1889. Interestingly, the estimate in the Book of Jubilees is not the most ambitious, for 14th century traveler John Mandeville reported that local residents claimed the Tower had been 8 miles in height. This would make it some 13,000 feet taller than Mount Everest. The Sherpa has not been born that could carry a white mountaineer and all his gear this high. Presumably, when your aim is to talk directly to God, oxygen is not that big an issue.
In the end all the effort came to naught. Again according to the account in Genesis: 'And the Lord said, Behold, the people is one, and they have all one language; and this they begin to do; and now nothing will be restrained from them, which they have imagined to do. Go to, let us go down, and there confound their language, that they may not understand one another's speech. So the Lord scattered them abroad from thence upon the face of all the earth: and they left off to build the city.'
Now I don't presume to know why God objected to the tower. It may be that it was so large that He thought it would throw the earth out of orbit and undo a lot of His handiwork. He already had a lot invested in the dodo bird, the passenger pigeon, the North African elephant, and the Bali tiger, not the least of which was getting them paired up and safely stowed on Noah's Arc. Surely he didn't want them to become extinct because of some misguided land development scheme authored by the movers and shakers of the day.
It may be that he didn't want a bunch of social climbers showing up unannounced and uninvited for dinner. Or it may be, as the narrative seems to suggest, that He didn't want them to succeed to the point where they thought they could undertake other even more ambitious projects. Whatever the reason for His objection, the solution was simple enough—confound their speech so they couldn't understand one another. The people were scattered. The project was abandoned. The problem persists to this day.

Another word for a stepped tower is ziggurat. Ziggurats were common in ancient Mesopotamia. The Ziggurat of Babel is a good name for the infamous tower, especially for those of us whose speech has been confounded by a watchful God. If you drop 'ziggurat' into casual conversations, no one will know what the hell you are talking about. Just, it would seem, as God intended.
I think the InterWeb is a good modern digital analog of the Ziggurat of Babel. For one thing, it is huge. I don't think anyone knows exactly how big it is. It grows every day. If you took all the hardware that it takes to run the InterWeb—servers, cables, disk drives, storage devices, PCs, tablets and mobile devices from all over the world—and piled them up all in one place, that stack would probably reach near to heaven. I don't think that if we climbed up that stack though, we would be able to talk to God.
I do think that some people believed, as the InterWeb developed and grew, that it would make us like God in many ways. The instant and universal availability of knowledge and ideas would foster sharing and collaborations such that 'now nothing will be restrained from [us], which [we] have imagined to do'.
There is certainly a lot of promise in the InterWeb, and, at first blush, it would seem a noble enterprise. What no one seems to have reckoned with, however, is the instant and universal availability of bad information—the modern digital analog of confounded speech. Hardly anyone knows what the hell they are talking about anymore, and every day it gets harder and harder to winnow the chaff.
This is why it is possible for some yahoo to assert with certainty that 4 million innocent Iraqis died at the hands of U.S. Troops as a direct result of the evil machinations of President George W. Bush. The same yahoo believes that the Pope, Jesus, and the Tea Party were somehow complicit in this, and there is nothing about the InterWeb to prevent him tweeting this drivel out into the ether where it can be read by more yahoos who will believe it for no better reason than that they want to. Snopes, no matter how well intended, cannot keep up with the sheer volume of dreck.
Morons are writing our history. They are baking it into mud bricks and cementing it together with pitch slime. We will be well and truly confounded and likely scattered amongst the stars, the Earth no longer being sufficient to contain our ambitions.


  1. This post is so very interesting but I think it's not as bleak as you imagine. Sure, there are tons of people out there spreading false history, but I would argue the Internet also serves as a place where people can go to learn the truth, or at least other peoples' opinion. And even 100 years ago that was an option that you didn't have, if your neighbor or cousin or preacher was insisting something was true!

  2. You are right of course, Megan. I find a lot of useful stuff online, and nothing's as bleak as I make it out to be when I am trying to make a point. On the other hand we humans have always had a penchant for accepting at face value anything that reinforces our preconceptions. The Internet has magnified this proclivity's potential for harm. I think the remarkable lack of civil discourse in politics is one of the natural results.


Comments are always welcome. Tell me what you like and what you don't. Information, encouragement, criticism--I don't care. A day where I don't learn something new is a day lost to me.