The Word in the Wings
The Word in the Wings > From the study: creative limits
From the study: creative limits
By: KAYA WEAVER
Glorify Dance Theatre’s next, short ballet is called Babel, and it’s based on the story of the tower of Babel, found in Genesis 11:1-9. Echoes in this short narrative of the creation account in Genesis 1 raise questions about what God intends for human cooperation and creativity.
1 Now it happened that the whole earth had one language and their words were one.
Genesis 11 opens with a description of the status quo: linguistic homogeneity over the whole earth. The structure and meaning of the first verse echo the description of creation’s beginning: Genesis 1:2 begins, “Now the earth was formless and void,” identifying the earth’s non-differentiation much like Genesis 11:1.
2 And it happened when they set out from the east that they found a plain in the land of Shinar, and they settled there.
3 And they said, each man to his neighbor, “Come, let’s bake bricks and burn them thoroughly,” and the bricks became their stones and bitumen became their mortar.
4 And they said, “Come, let’s build ourselves a city and a tower with its head in the skies so that we’ll make a name for ourselves, lest we be scattered over the face of the whole earth.”
The people’s statement of creative intent also echoes the creation narrative. In Genesis 1:26, “God said, ‘Let’s make humanity in our image, in our likeness…” The humans at the plain of Shinar, like God in the very beginning, use a cohortative verb to introduce a creative activity. God’s creative work reflects God’s own image and likeness. In a similar vein, the humans aspire to build something that marks their achievement and solidifies their collective identity by making “a name” for them–a symbol of who they are and what they can do.
The humans then explain that the intent of their work is to avoid being “scattered over the face of the whole earth.” Continuing to recall the creation narrative, this concern begs to be compared to God’s blessing for humanity in Genesis 1:28: “Be fruitful and multiply and fill the earth and subdue it…” Is humanity’s aim to avoid being scattered at odds with God’s blessing to “fill the earth?”
5 And Yahweh came down to see the city and the tower which the children of humanity had built.
While the reader considers this question, the narrator shifts to Yahweh’s perspective on the humans’ activity at Shinar. Yahweh comes down to see what the humans have made, much like Yahweh sees each thing that God creates in Genesis 1 to evaluate and declare it “good.”
6 And Yahweh said, “Look, the people are one and they all have one language, and they’ve begun to do this, and now all that they’ll devise to do will not be out of reach from them.
Though the narrator says Yahweh comes down “to see the city and the tower,” Yahweh’s observation matches the narrator’s at the beginning of the chapter and notes the non-differentiation of humanity’s language. Taking this together with the building of the city and tower which “they’ve begun to do,” God anticipates a limitless potential to achieve human purposes. Yahweh doesn’t directly condemn humanity’s intention to avoid scattering, but the mention of “all that they’ll devise to do” hints at their expressed purpose to make a name for themselves and solidify their unified position.
7 Come, let’s go down and baffle their language there, such that each man won’t understand the language of his neighbor.”
In parallel to the people saying, “Come, let’s bake bricks,” God now says, “Come, let’s go down,” introducing a divine creative act into this story of human creative effort. God specifically addresses the people’s linguistic homogeneity. Where they’ve been able to communicate “each man to his neighbor” (Genesis 11:3), God now says, “each man won’t understand the language of his neighbor.” God goes down to separate the linguistic monolith into a multiplicity and impede the effortless communication that has led them to consolidate their creative efforts.
8 And Yahweh scattered them from there over the face of the whole earth, and they stopped building the city.
9 Therefore its name is called Babel, for there Yahweh baffled the languages of all the earth, and from there Yahweh scattered them over the face of the whole earth.
The concluding verse uses ironic wordplay to express the narrative’s outcome. The humans intend to make a name for themselves, reflecting their identity and ability, by building a city and a tower together. In the end, the only name that emerges from the story reflects Yahweh’s intervention, not humanity’s efforts. In addition, the humans’ express intention to remain unified in one place is thwarted as God scatters them “over the face of the whole earth.” As noted earlier, there’s a hint that God is seeking to cut off the potential consequences of humanity’s effort to avoid such scattering.
Supposing God’s creative intentions are consistent from Genesis 1 to Genesis 11, what does God want to accomplish in this narrative? In Genesis 1, God creates by differentiating the formless mass of the earth and filling its void–separating light from darkness, skies from waters, dry land from sea, and giving each a designated time and space and filling each with unique inhabitants. By confusing humanity’s languages, God generates diversity out of homogeneity. By scattering humanity, God fills the empty places with humans who have the capacity to build and create.
Perhaps the consequence God intervenes against is the concentration and limitation of human creativity to a single project in a single place. In their effort to build one city and one tower, to make one name for themselves, the people allow their wariness of differentiation to limit their creative potential. By dividing and scattering humanity from Babel, God exchanges this limit on differentiation for a limit on coordination: no longer can each person say to their neighbor, let’s all pursue the creative vision of a single people. Instead, they’ll each find their own space and fill it with unique inhabitants who build unique things. Building a monolith is easy; eventually, humanity has to find a way to build an interdependent system of many peoples.
Join us for Babel and other fun to celebrate GPA’s 5th birthday at our interactive arts event on May 20, 2023. RSVP here by May 13th.
Biblical quotations are my own translation unless otherwise noted.
Translating the Hebrew balal (Genesis 11:7, 9) as “baffle” is borrowed from Robert Alter to retain phonetic similarity with the place name Babel (The Hebrew Bible Volume I: The Five Books of Moses, W. W. Norton & Company, 2019).
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