If you look closely in the bottom left-hand corner of the Dutch artist Pieter Brueghel’s famous painting of the tower of Babel, you will spy a trespasser. A bearded man towers above the gathered workers. He is supervising the building project. Close readers of
The story of Babel has most often been read as a caution against hubris of various sorts. Babel and its tower point to humanity’s ever-present desire to reach beyond its grasp. Such a reading was encouraged by the image of the tower with its “top in the heavens” (
But what of that mysterious trespasser? He is Nimrod, and adding him to the story was a way for Breughel to highlight the supposed arrogance and impiety of the builders.
The hubris of globalization is an important element in many modern readings of Babel. Colonializing systems have historically insisted on the forceful imposition of the language of the conqueror on the conquered. Thus, the reference to “one language” is frequently seen as pointing to political repression and totalitarian systems. Such political hubris has no place for and does not value the particularities of human cultures and languages.
Most recently, the tower of Babel has even been connected to fears of a coming one-world government. The most visible example of this imagined connection between Babel and the new world order is the claim by a prominent conspiracy theorist that the European Parliament building is actually modeled on the tower of Babel. No word yet on who is to play the role of Nimrod.
- Toorn, Karel van der, and Pieter W. van der Horst. “Nimrod Before and After the Bible.” Harvard Theological Review 83 (1990): 1–29.
- Hiebert, Theodore. “The Tower of Babel and the Origins of the World’s Cultures.” Journal of Biblical Literature 126 (2007): 29–58.
- Fewell, Danna Nolan. “Building Babel.” Pages 1–15 in Postmodern Interpretation of the Bible. Edited by A. K. M. Adam. St. Louis: Chalice Press, 2001.