Surfing the Internet recently I came across the website of the Iraqi daily newspaper Babel. Owned by Saddam Hussein’s eldest son, Uday, Babel isn’t exactly a hard-hitting news source. A typical top-story headline reads: “SCOOP: SAUDI ARABIA, EGYPT AND SYRIA CARRY OUT SEVERAL RESIDENTIAL CENTERS IN IRAQ.” What’s most intriguing about the paper is its name, helpfully translated as Babylon.
The word “Babel” is Scriptural Hebrew’s rendition of “Babylon,” the great metropolis where the book of Genesis tells of a building project that went famously awry. The city’s ruins lie an hour’s drive south of Iraq’s modern capital — a geographical proximity we could dismiss as meaningless were it not for the fact that Saddam insists that his regime stands in a direct line of succession from Babylon’s kings, and were it not also for the fact that the Bible’s story of Babel and its Tower casts a hopeful light on current events in that country.
Western journalists who have visited the archaeological remains tell of a monumental-scale portrait of Saddam looming over the site. He is pictured accepting cuneiform tablets from the great king Nebuchadnezzar (604-562 B.C.), with the caption “From Nebuchadnezzar to Saddam Hussein.” To underline the point, the Iraqi president has built a palace for himself on a nearby hill, overlooking Nebuchadnezzar’s palace.
In the Bible’s brief narrative, nine verses in all, the Tower of Babel is overturned for some unspecified crime. As Hans Blix might say, the “smoking gun” is missing. Scripture’s cryptic style typically leaves out such key details, which is why Biblical traditions that try to fill in the blanks, found in the richest detail in classical Jewish sources like the Talmud and Midrash, are so interesting. When I was researching a biography of the Biblical patriarch Abraham, I found that such material has a funny way of hinting at much later events. I wondered if it might do so here as well.
The Bible says the Tower was intended to reach up to the heavens themselves. As the ancient midrashic collection Genesis Rabbah tells the story, the construction was initiated by a predecessor of Nebuchadnezzar, called Nimrod. This was two years after Noah’s flood. But the Talmud suggests that some quality in “the air [in the vicinity] of the Tower causes forgetfulness.” Nimrod had forgotten the fury of the great floodwaters, thinking he could defy God and survive another deluge by building a high tower — much as Saddam seems to have forgotten whatever he learned from the first Gulf War, still thinking he can hold off an attack by a much superior power.
As a revered 19th-century scholar of Biblical tradition explained, when the Bible records that in Babel they “spoke a single language,” this means that the populace, terrified by their leader, all voiced the same party line. Says Rabbi Naftali Zvi Yehudah Berlin (1817-1893), the tower was a technology of social control, allowing the regime to spy on its citizens. Modern Iraqis have ample experience of life under such a government. Like Saddam, Nimrod imprisoned dissenters, including Abraham himself who miraculously escaped a sentence of death by fire. So says the Midrash, which indicates that the king wanted to create a new religion around a false god — just as many a dictator has established a personality cult around himself.
The world’s superpower, God, grew alarmed and initiated an inspection process. As the Bible puts it, He “descended to look at the city and tower which the sons of man built.” Though the Midrash recounts that Nimrod was given a chance to “repent,” the tyrant refused.
The Bible then depicts God as lamenting that if Babel isn’t stopped, “henceforward nothing that they have a mind to do will be beyond their reach” — precisely the rationale offered by advocates of war on Iraq, who worry about nuclear terror if Saddam isn’t stopped.
So the Tower is destroyed, the “single language” of its builders scrambled into a “Babel” of tongues. While this may appear to be a defeat for the people of Babel, what’s really being described here, I think, is the birth of democracy. Suddenly a variety of ideas are allowed to compete for the citizens’ allegiance, rather than one ideology, one “language,” being forced upon them from above — a victory indeed.
When the upcoming war is done, will Iraqis enjoy a similar victory? You don’t have to be a Bible believer to hope that Scripture and its traditions prove to be as prescient in the end as they have been up till now.
— David Klinghoffer is the author of The Discovery of God: Abraham and the Birth of Monotheism published this month by Doubleday.