This episode is on the Tower of Babel. It is the last of a series that I have been doing on interpreting the Book of Genesis from a nondual perspective.
This episode today is on the Tower of Babel. It is the last of a series that I have been doing on interpreting the Book of Genesis from a nondual perspective. The story of the Tower of Babel is found in the eleventh chapter of Genesis and marks the end of the first section of the book. Genesis can be divided into two parts. Chapters 1-11 are universal in scope. They deal with all the earth, all people and what we might call a universal spirituality.
Starting with chapter 12 the focus of the book narrows down to Abraham and his descendants. In particular it focuses on Abraham’s descendants through Isaac and then Jacob, whose name was changed to Israel. Jacob’s 12 sons became the twelve tribes of Israel. From chapter 12 on, Genesis becomes centered on the Jewish people and the God of Israel. The God depicted is for the most part a tribal God, and then a national deity. He is a henotheistic God – meaning other gods are acknowledged but not worshipped. In later books does the Hebrew God becomes a monotheistic deity, meaning the only God.
Consequently after chapter 11 nondual themes are few and far between in the Book of Genesis. For that reason I am ending my talks on Genesis with chapter 11. Fortunately here in chapter 11 we have a great passage that communicates important truth about nonduality.
The story of the tower of Babel can be read on different levels. On one level it is a myth that purports to explain the origin of different languages. The ancient Hebrews looked around and saw different peoples with different languages. They began to wonder where all these peoples and languages came from. The genealogies in chapters 10 and 11 explain the lineage of all these peoples - how they all descended from Noah. The myth of the Tower of Babel seeks to explain how different languages originated.
On another level this story is political commentary. The setting is Shinar which is Babylonia. The term Babel is a form of Babylon. Babylon was one of the major enemies of the Hebrew people. Babylon is the empire that destroyed the Jerusalem temple and carried the Jewish people into exile. So this story on a political level is about the fall of Babylon and the Babylonian empire.
It can be read an anti-empire literature, the same way that the New Testament Book of Revelation – which by the way uses the symbol of Babylon to represent Rome – is anti-Roman empire literature. It is not a map of the end times. On this level the story of the Tower of Babel contains a lots of warnings applicable to the dangers of empire today. A good preacher can draw parallels with empires throughout history and empires today – especially the aspirations of superpowers like China, Russia and the US.
But my concern today is the spiritual message of nonduality in the story of the Tower of Babel. In this sense the story is a warning to all philosophies and religious systems and the communities that form around these spiritual ideas. It is as relevant to nondual spirituality as any other type. As such it is a perfect way to end this series on Genesis.
The story begins saying, “Now the whole earth had one language and the same words.” In other words they were united not only in language and vocabulary but in their meaning. That is a big deal. People these days seem to mean different things by the same words. Take the words God. A Muslim, a Christian, a Hindu, a Buddhist and an atheist mean very different things by that word. The people of Babel shared not only the same vocabulary, but they shared a common worldview and values.
In Christianity today it is common to hear people talk about the Christian worldview or the Biblical worldview. By that they mean the values and teachings in what Christians call the Old and New Testaments. In my country some Christians believe that the United States was founded on this Christian worldview and that the government should promote this worldview’s values and beliefs. We find the same sort of thinking in other nations, with the Islamic worldview or Hindu worldview or Buddhist worldview. This type of religious nationalism is growing in the world today.
The Tower of Babel addresses this type of thinking. It pictures a people united in a common culture, religion and worldview. In the Genesis story all the people of the world were united as one people with one culture. They had achieved world domination and peace in a human kingdom. In reading Genesis one would think that was a good thing. After all God destroyed the world with a flood because the earth was divided and filled with violence.
God’s restart through the Flood succeeded in creating a world that was united and at peace. One people with one language. This people decided one day to build a monument to their achievement. There is a lot of talk these days in America about monuments. We are tearing down Confederate monuments and building other monuments. Monuments symbolize the values of the culture. The tower of Babel was such a monument.
Historically speaking the writer was picturing a Babylonian ziggurat, which we know well from archeology. It was a Mesopotamian stepped pyramid that had religious and cultural significance. Much like other pyramids of other cultures found throughout the world. These huge towering structures are symbols of the culture – including the religion of the culture. It took a lot of cooperation to build these huge structures.
That is what is being pointed to in this story of Babel. The tower of Babel is symbolic of the human ego, national ego, and religious ego. In the time the Book of Genesis was being finalized this was represented by the most powerful empire in the Middle East - Babylon. The final editor of Genesis was undoubtedly thinking of its downfall. The author of the Book of Revelation written centuries later had the destruction of the Roman Empire in mind.
There is a danger inherent in all cultures and religions to build monuments to themselves and their spiritual vision. In the story of the Tower of Babel the people said, “Come, let us build ourselves a city and a tower with its top in the heavens, and let us make a name for ourselves, lest we be dispersed over the face of the whole earth.” As soon as we do that, as soon as we want to build a name for ourselves and our religion, we have forgotten what spirituality is all about.
As we saw in the creation story that naming is the beginning of duality. As soon as we name something we have caused separation and duality. That is why Jesus never named his movement. Even in the early days of the Christ movement his followers simply called it the Way. As soon the movement was called Christianity and seen as different from and superior to other religions, it was an indication that they had forgotten what it really was.
That is as true in nondual spirituality as in any dualistic religious system. Nondual philosophies and communities built around nondual teachers can build a name for themselves. Be careful when that happens. Nonduality at its best does not name itself or distinguish itself. As soon as you give it a name it is duality. The word nonduality is an attempt not to name itself. But the non-name becomes a name.
The people of the Tower of Babel celebrated oneness and unity. They saw themselves as one people, one language, one religion, one worldview. They were one and proud of it, proud enough to erect a monument to oneness. In reality it was a monument to the ego, albeit one that considers itself a very spiritual and enlightened ego.
That is the danger of hypocrisy in all religion and all spirituality, including nondual spirituality. The danger is that we forget that nonduality is not a religion. It is not a philosophy or a theology. Nonduality can easily forget what it is and fall back into dualistic spirituality.
The Tower of Babel symbolizes spirituality that sees itself as the One Truth, the One Way, with its spire in the heavens. The story says that they wanted a tower with its top in the heavens. In other words they were constructing a stairway to heaven. Those ancient ziggurats were designed as symbolic mountains with the summit in the clouds. Religions see themselves as stairways to heaven. They think their beliefs and practices and rituals will ensure that they will reach heaven, or salvation or enlightenment or awakening or whatever you want to call it.
Even the most open-minded people are vulnerable to this. You have probably heard the expression that all religions are different paths up the same mountain. It is meant to be expression of religious tolerance. I am all for religious tolerance, but think about the image for a moment. It assumes there is a mountain to climb to get to a destination. That is the error of the Tower of Babel. The truth is there is no mountain. There are no paths. The Kingdom of Heaven is here now. There is nowhere to go and nothing to do. It is simply a matter of one’s eyes opening to Reality. But religions want to make it into an achievement that the ego can take pride in.
In the story of the Tower of Babel God brings a halt to the construction of the stairway to heaven. In other words he brings a halt to religious systems that think they provide a path to heaven and describe it in words and doctrines. God stops it by undoing language. In the opening chapter of Genesis he brings the world into existence through language and naming. Here God undoes language, so that no one can name the truth in words and thoughts and doctrines and worldviews.
No one has the truth. Truth has us, and truth is the way. There is no stairway to heaven. When one knows truth one does not build monuments to it and attach a name to it. One does not build monuments, or temples or churches or mosques. One does just the opposite. One seeks the lowest place, Jesus said, and as the Tao Te Ching says, not the highest place. That is what all the great spiritual teachers taught. Genuine spiritual teachers do not found religions or make a name for themselves. They empty themselves and simply point to the Nameless. To build a monument and a name is to invite disaster. That is the message and warning of the Tower of Babel.