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A “Babelish” World (Genesis 11: 1–9) and its Challenge to Cultural-Linguistic Theory

Published online by Cambridge University Press:  18 March 2013

Marianne Moyaert
Katholieke Universiteit, Leuven, Belgium


After decades of optimism, interreligious dialogue is now confronted with a considerable amount of skepticism. In theology, this skepticism is primarily being fed by the cultural-linguistic theory of religion. This theory seems to be in keeping with what the Babel narrative has always said: people belonging to different “language” communities can do no more than babble at one another. The author asks, first of all, whether the story of Babel indeed affirms the cultural-linguistic argument for the end of interreligious dialogue. After showing that there are theological and exegetical reasons to doubt the classical interpretation of the Babel narrative, the author demonstrates how a renewed hermeneutic of this story actually challenges the cultural-linguistic discourse concerning the incommensurability of religions. Indeed, she argues, ultimately, the Babel story is not a narrative about the end of communication, but about its beginning.

Copyright © The College Theology Society 2009

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1 Although Lindbeck's most important work, The Nature of Doctrine: Religion and Theology in a Postliberal Age, appeared as long ago as 1984, the cultural-linguistic theory of religion developed therein has only really made its way into theological reflection on interreligious dialogue in more recent years. See Lindbeck, George A., The Nature of Doctrine: Religion and Theology in a Postliberal Age (Philadelphia: Westminster Press, 1984).Google Scholar His cultural-linguistic religious theory laid the foundation for the particularist theology of religions. See, among others, Hintersteiner, Norbert, Traditionen Überschreiten: Angloamerkanische Beiträge zur interkulturelle Traditionshermeneutik (Vienna: WUV, 2001)Google Scholar; Knitter, Paul, Introducing Theologies of Religions (Maryknoll, NY: Orbis, 2002), esp. 178–91)Google Scholar; Moyaert, Marianne, “Interreligious Dialogue and the Debate between Universalism and Particularism: Searching for a Way out of the Deadlock,” Studies in Interreligious Dialogue 15 (2005): 3651.CrossRefGoogle Scholar

2 Lindbeck, , “The Gospel's Uniqueness: Election and Untranslatability,” Modern Theology 13 (1997): 433.CrossRefGoogle Scholar

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5 For the paradigmatic character of Babel, see Ebach, Jürgen, “Wir sind ein Volk. Die Erzählung vom Turmbau zu Babel: Eine biblische Geschichte in aktuellen Kontext,” in Weltdorf Babel: Globalisierung als theologische Herausforderung, ed. Collet, Gabriel (Münster: LIT, 2001), 21.Google Scholar

6 The present article makes no attempt at a historical-critical exegesis of the Babel narrative. Thus, I leave aside issues of source, form, and redaction criticism and consider the passage from the perspective of biblical theology. I consider the Bible as the first theological source of the attempt to reflect, in dialogue with experience, on the enigmas of human existence and the way in which human beings are called to relate to each other and to God. The Bible continues to give rise to thought even in today's complex context of diversity. What more aptillustration than the myth of Babel, which recounts the dispersion of peoples and the confusion of language and culture? In this I place myself alongside more philosophical and literary readers of the Bible like Burggraeve, Roger, “Biblical Thinking as the Wisdom of Love,” Anti-Judaism and the Fourth Gospel, ed. Bieringer, Reimund et al. , Jewish, and Series, Christian Heritage 1 (Assen: Van Gorcum, 2001) 229–38Google Scholar; Kass, Leon, The Beginning of Wisdom: Reading Genesis (New York: Free Press, 2003)Google Scholar; and Fishbane, Michael, Biblical Text and Texture: A Literary Reading of Selected Texts (Oxford: One World Publications, 1998).Google Scholar See also Alter, Robert, The Art of Biblical Narrative (New York: Basic Books, 1981).Google Scholar

7 See Hick, John and Knitter, Paul, eds. The Myth of Christian Uniqueness (London: SCM, 1987).Google Scholar

8 Hick, John, An Interpretation of Religion: Human Responses to the Transcendent (London: MacMillan, 1989), 235–36.CrossRefGoogle Scholar

9 Moyaert, Marianne, “In Response to the Religious Other: Levinas, Interreligious Dialogue and the Otherness of the Other,” in The Awakening to the Other. A Provocative Dialogue with Emmanuel Levinas, ed. Burggraeve, Roger (Leuven: Peeters, 2008), 172.Google Scholar

10 Hick, , “The Next Step Beyond Dialogue,” in The Myth of Christian Superiority. A Multifaith Exploration, ed. Knitter (Maryknoll, NY: Orbis, 2005), 4.Google Scholar

11 Huang, Yong, “Religious Pluralism and Interfaith Dialogue: Beyond Universalism and Particularism,” International Journal for the Philosophy of Religion 37 (1995): 127–44CrossRefGoogle Scholar; Moyaert, , “Interreligious Dialogue and the Debate between Universalism and Particularism: Searching for a Way out of the Deadlock,” in Studies for Interreligious Dialogue 15 (2005): 3651.Google Scholar

12 Knitter, , Introducing Theologies of Religions, 173.Google Scholar

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18 Moyaert, Marianne, “The (Un-)Translatability of Religions? Ricoeur's Linguistic Hospitality as a Model for Interreligious Dialogue,” Exchange 37 (2008): 337–64.CrossRefGoogle Scholar

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20 Slater, Peter, “Lindbeck, Hick and the Nature of Religious Truth,” Studies in Religion 24 (1995): 69.CrossRefGoogle Scholar For a similar critique see also Groh, Jeffrey, Christian Tradition Today: A Postliberal Vision of Church and Word (Leuven: Peeters, 2000), 257Google Scholar; Fredericks, James, “A Universal Religious Experience: Comparative Theology as an Alternative to a Theology of Religions,” Horizons 22 (1995) 81CrossRefGoogle Scholar; Stone, Jerome, “Philip Hefner and the Modernist and Postmodernist Divide,” Zygon 39 (2004): 767CrossRefGoogle Scholar; Cobb, John, “Incommensurability: Can Comparative Religious Ethics Help?,” Buddhist-Christian Studies 16 (1996): 45.Google Scholar

21 Lindbeck, , “The Gospel's Uniqueness,” 426.Google Scholar

22 This widespread classical interpretation of the story of Babel in literature and art is demonstrated in Hiebert, Theodore, ed., Toppling the Tower: Essays on Babel and Diversity (Chicago: McCormick Theological Seminary, 2004).Google Scholar

23 There is an explicit connection made between Babel and to confuse (balal).

24 Steiner, George, After Babel: Aspects of Language and Translation (London: Oxford University Press, 1976), 59.Google Scholar

25 Ebach, , “Wir sind ein Volk,” 26Google Scholar (my translation).

26 Bost, Hubert, Babel: Du texte au symbole (Genève: Labor et Fides, 1985), 215.Google Scholar

27 This longing for a restoration of the original language of unity probably lies at the origin of various projects by theologians and philosophers to undo the curse of Babel. So, among others, there is the search for the Ursprache, the language that was spoken before the confusion of language and that would have been spoken in Paradise. This language not only put people in a position to understand one another and to immediately communicate with one another in a perfectly transparent way; the Ursprache was also in total accord with reality. See Eco, Umberto, The Search for the Perfect Language (Oxford: Blackwell, 1995).Google Scholar

28 Lindbeck, George, “Confession and Community,” Christian Century 107 (1990): 495.Google Scholar

29 Moyaert, , “Interreligious Dialogue and the Debate,” 45.Google Scholar

30 Burggraeve, Roger, “A Conversational God as the Source of a Response Ethics,” in Theology and Conversation: Towards a Relational Theology, ed. Mey, Peter De and Haers, Jacques (Leuven: Peeters, 2003), 337–57.Google Scholar

31 Vroom, Henk, Religions and Truth: Philosophical Reflections and Perspectives (Grand Rapids, MI.: Eerdmans, 1989), 379.Google Scholar

32 Fletcher, Jeannine Hill, Monopoly on Salvation? A Feminist Approach to Religious Pluralism (New York: Orbis, 2005), 76.Google Scholar

33 Marty, François, La bénédiction de Babel: Vérité et communication (Paris: Cerf, 1990)Google Scholar; Geffré, Claude, De Babel à Pentecôte. Essais de théologie interreligieuse (Paris: Cerf, 2006).Google Scholar

34 The reader will notice that the story of Babel is not about the plurality of religions but indeed about the multiplicity of languages and cultures. I answer this criticism with two points. (1) The criticism that the story of Babel is about languages and cultures and not about religions overlooks the historical fact that no specific term comparable to “religion” was available in the Hebrew of the biblical authors. Israel did not consider the covenant with God to be a religion, and likewise did not think about the surrounding peoples and cultures in these terms. (2) Among other things, the practice of inculturation teaches us that lan guage, religion, and culture are usually very closely associated with one another, so closely even that a negative/positive evaluation of the “culture” almost automatically leads to an equally positive/negative evaluation of the religion. See Wilfred, Felix, “Weltreligionen und christliche Inkulturation,” Zeitschrift für Missionswissenschaft und Religionswissenschaft 73 (1989): 205–20.Google Scholar It seems to me that in light of this it would also be correct to argue that the moment in which God scattered the people and confused the languages, and in so doing initiated the multiplicity of cultures, he at the same time gave the initial impetus to the plurality of religions. In light of this, I think that it is fitting to argue that God's attitude towards religions is analogous to his attitude towards cultures.

35 This approach is not concerned with discovering layers of redaction or original literary forms.

36 I will set aside the diachronic issue of authorship in this close reading. The approach developed here is synchronic, taking the texts as they now stand.

37 Brueggemann, Walter, Genesis (Atlanta: John Knox: 1983), 93.Google Scholar

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39 Gen. 10:5, 20, 31.

40 Gowan, Donald, From Eden to Babel: A Commentary on the Book of Genesis 1–11 (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 1988), 115.Google Scholar

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43 This is borne out by the fact that in verse 8, no mention is even made of the tower. It only says that the construction of the city was stopped. From this perspective, the classic focus on the tower, although it clearly speaks to the imagination, is not only mis placed but also lures us away from the actual story line that revolves around unity and dispersion. It would therefore be better not to call this story “the tower builders” or “the tower of Babel,” but rather the story of “the scattering of the peoples.” See Cassuto, Umberto, A Commentary on the Book of Genesis (Jerusalem: Magness Press, 1961), 226.Google Scholar

44 Berges, Ulrich, “Gen. 11,1–9: Babel oder das Ende der Kommunikation,” Biblische Notizen 74 (1994): 3756, 55.Google Scholar

45 Brueggemann, , Genesis, 98.Google Scholar

46 André Neher (1914–88), Jewish scholar, philosopher and writer. Neher was professor of Hebrew and Hebrew literature at the University of Strasbourg. He authored various books on the Torah, the Talmud, the Midrash and the Prophets.

47 Neher, André, L'Exil de la parole: Du silence biblique au silence d'Auschwitz (Paris: Seuil, 1970).Google Scholar We follow the translation The Exile of the Word: From the Silence of the Bible to the Silence of Auschwitz, trans. Maisel, David (Philadelphia: The Jewish Publication Society of America, 1981).Google Scholar

48 Gesenius, Wilhelm and Brown, Francis, Hebrew and English Lexicon of the Old Testament with an Appendix Containing the Biblical Aramaic (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1966).Google Scholar

49 Neher, , The Exile of the Word, 96.Google Scholar

50 Ibid., 94.

51 Ibid., 96.

53 This gap is usually filled in with “let us go to the field.” This occurs in the Samaritan, Greek, Syriac, and Vulgate.

54 Neher, , The Exile of the Word, 97.Google Scholar

55 Ibid., 99.

56 Ibid., 103.

57 Ibid., 95.

58 Ibid., 105–06.

59 Ibid., 98.

60 Berges, , “Gen. 11,1–9, 44.Google Scholar

61 Ebach, , “Wir sind ein Volk,” 29.Google Scholar

62 Brabant, Christoph, “Vertalen en vertellen: Theologische epistemologie van religieuze ervaring in het grensgebied tussen deconstructie en hermeneutiek. In dialoog met Jacques Derrida en Paul Ricœur” (PhD. dissertation, Katholieke Universiteit Leuven, 2004), 154.Google Scholar

63 Neher, , The Exile of the Word, 113.Google Scholar

64 Thompson, John, introduction to Paul Ricoeur, Hermeneutics and the Human Sciences: Essays on Language, Action and Interpretation, (1981; reprint, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1998), 126, at 11.Google Scholar

65 Even though Abraham had discovered dialogue, this does not yet mean that he has mastered this skill. The dialogue proceeds with difficulty. Catherine Chalier notes in this regard, for example, that Abraham speaks to his wife Sarah as a you, but that she is still the object of what he says: “I know well that you are a woman beautiful in appearance” (Gen 12:11). Sarah only speaks to Abraham in Gen 16:2. See Chalier, Cathérine, Les Matriarches: Sarah, Rébecca, Rachel et Léa (Paris: Éditions du Cerf, 1987), 1459.Google Scholar

66 Berges, , “Gen. 11,1–9, 5354.Google Scholar

67 Hiebert, , “The Tower of Babel and the Origin of the World's Cultures,” 40Google Scholar: “The people's wish to establish a common identity is closely related to the larger goal of remaining together to preserve a single culture. A collective name is, as sociologists point out, one of the primary markers of a common cultural tradition. Viewed in this light, the phrase ‘let us make a name for ourselves’ expresses no conceit or defiance but rather the impulse toward cultural homogeneity at the heart of the human project.”

68 Neckebrouck, Valeer, Gij alleen de Allerhoogste: Christus en de andere godsdiensten (Leuven: Davidsfonds, 2001), 19.Google Scholar

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71 Jervolino, Domenico, “Herméneutique et traduction, L'autre, l'étranger, l'hôte,” Archives de philosophie 63 (2000): 7993, at 90.Google Scholar

72 Ricœur, Paul, On Translation (London: Routledge, 2006), 12.Google Scholar

73 Ibid., 4.