The passion for unity and it's very real dangers

Nimrod - Gustave Doré
Readings: Genesis 10:6–12 and Genesis 11:1–9

As you heard in our first reading from Genesis Nimrod was a "a mighty one on the earth" and "a mighty hunter before God". Although the Bible never explicitly states this, later tradition believed that Nimrod was the leader of those who built the tower in Babel. The punishment God metered out to Nimrod and his people for this act was the confusion of multiple languages so that they would no longer be able to understand each other. It’s helpful to know that the city’s name, “Babel”, is derived from the Hebrew word “balal” which means to jumble up and the Hebrew verb “lebalbel” means "to confuse.”

In his poem “The Inferno” (part of his longer poem “The Divine Comedy”) the medieval poet Dante Alighieri (1265-1321) places Nimrod in the ninth and final level of hell, the level reserved for those who had committed the crime of treachery. As Dante passes through this most dreadful of places Nimrod’s only words him are “Raphèl maí amèche zabí almi”. Virgil, Dante’s guide through Hell explains that “every language is to [Nimrod] the same / as his to others - no one knows his tongue” (60: 80-81). Since the poem’s composition seven hundred years ago many gallons of ink have been used up in the attempt to understand what exactly Nimrod (i.e. Dante) meant by these words. However, to this day Nimrod’s words remain – as Dante intended – unintelligible, an important marker to us of the limits of language.

It is important to see that it is precisely because it is possible to understand that these words are unintelligible that we can then go on to make some intelligible use of them. This particular task is, I think, one especially important for a culture such as our own (Western European and North American) that has too often succumbed to the illusion that it is both possible (and desirable) to create one universal human language that would, as Giorgio Agamben has noted, grant reason unlimited power and capable of explaining everything.

But to get to a better understanding of what one intelligible use of these unintelligible words might be, firstly we need to be clearer about in what might consist Nimrod’s crime. What was his treachery, his act of wilful betrayal that resulted in such an apparently terrible punishment? To answer this I'm going to work backwards on the principle that God would naturally be concerned to do nothing less than that desired by the Mikado in Gilbert and Sullivan’s comic opera of the same name:

The Mikado judging the advertizing quack
My object all sublime
I shall achieve in time —
To let the punishment fit the crime —
The punishment fit the crime.

Let’s, for argument’s sake, take it that the punishment delivered at Babel and metered out to Nimrod in Hell did indeed fit the crime and, when understood aright, can help us understand what might be God’s sublime object in enforcing it.

We begin by recalling that Nimrod is known to us firstly as a hunter and not as a builder. What if we take his building of the tower of Babel as simply a side-effect of his hunting? The question that comes to mind when we do this is, for what was he hunting when he built?

Well, Genesis 11 tells us that he and his people were seeking fame (i.e. making a name for themselves) and that amongst them there was a desire to be unified – i.e. from being scattered all over the world and to do this they intended to storm the very gates of heaven.

Nimrod and his people were hunting, as have many before and since those ancient times for lasting power and control. Alas humankind has often thought that our world is best known and possessed, lived in and governed, whenever it can be organised and unified under one common language, whether that language is political, religious, philosophical or scientific or a complex mix of them all.

I hope that here I do not need to elaborate upon the dreadful dangers of following this temptation through to it’s logical human, all too human, end. In our own age the cry of “Ein Volk, ein Reich, ein Fuhrer” – “One people, one empire, one leader” - should forever stand as a dreadful warning of where this idea of unity can lead.

With these thoughts in mind I suggest that the punishment of Babel can be read as revealing how God (the very possibility of there being something not nothing) will never allow the imposition of any oppressive unity of language, belief and practice, upon the whole but instead constantly ensures that any true articulation of human unity is only done by those who are prepared to accept the “punishment” of Babel – that human life will forever be radically plural and diverse.

Now, to those who remain tempted to hunt down and capture any simplistic kind of unity this babble of countless, diverse voices will always be felt as a cruel punishment and something always to rebel against. However, those who have come to accept this punishment as just, begin to see that perhaps the sublime object of God’s punishment is the articulation of a very different vision of in what consists human unity.
It helps us see that the very presence of so many different languages (most of which we do not speak) forces us to bring to every encounter with another person, religion or culture not a predetermined unifying theory but always a radically open, inquiring attitude – one that that constantly calls upon us to look at what is actually happening before our very eyes rather than what our unifying theories would let us, would have us see.

We must always be willing to see that our own language, as powerful as it is, can never admit us into a full and perfect understanding of another person, religion or culture, or the natural world. The “punishment” instead is a constant encouragement to an ongoing conversation with, and the careful paying attention to, each other.

We help find redemption for Nimrod and offer him a way out of hell (and keep ourselves out of hell) by understanding that his meaningless words remind us of the necessary limits of human language and, therefore human life. They remind us never again to attempt to build with our own language any towering intellectual structure that is part of an attempt to claim the power that belongs only to God. It is perhaps worth noting that, as the theologian Colby Dickinson says:

“It seems that the figure of Nemrod [sic] fascinated Dante because his sin is that of which Dante himself appears to be guilty. Nemrod had sought, and perhaps got too close, to the limits of language, a task that every serious author must confront sooner or later” (Agamben and Theology, p. 7).

In my own way I try to be such a serious author myself (whether this hope is justified is, of course, not ultimately for me to say . . .) and I am acutely aware of how close I come every week in my addresses to committing this Nimrodian sin. Indeed I’m sure I have crossed the line on too many occasions. However, to conclude, I feel impelled to push language to the limit by saying one more thing about human unity. It seems to me that the desire for a meaningful and sustainable human unity (internally and with the divine) is a necessary passion, a veritable fire, burning at the very heart of every truly good and abundant life. But, as with fire, whenever we fail to recognise the need to limit unity’s reach, it will always threaten no longer to be warming and sustaining human life, but to burn it completely to ash.

Perhaps every call for human unity, no matter how well intentioned, should always begin with Nimrod’s warning words, “Raphèl maí amèche zabí almi”. Words with no meaning which mark the very limit of our language and, therefore, life.


James Luther Adams

James Luther Adams (1901-1994) speaks about Babel in his essay The Uses of Diversity (Adams, James Luther: "An Examined Faith – Social Context and Religious Commitment", Beacon Press, Boston 1991, p.291-292). I include the relevant section here for your consideration.

What, then, are the right uses of diversity? This is a large question in its scope. The ultimate ground and goal of diversity are not necessarily evident in the institutional arrangements required by the concept of checks and balances, or by the ideal of equality, or by freedom of inquiry, or by the “laws" of the market. From the Judeo-Christian point of view, the ground and goal of diversity are not in our control. They belong to the divinely given creative and redemptive forces to which the Old and New Testament bear decisive, if not exhaustive, witness, forces that grow not old and that elicit a living faith that is not attached to temporal “securities."
          Within the context of the biblical conception of the creative forces of human existence, the story of the Tower of Babel [Gen. 11] by its negative implications offers a partial index to the nature and justification of diversity. The people who erected the Tower of Babel, according to the legend, wanted thus to build a city with its top in the heavens. In face of this demonic storming of the gates of heaven, the Lord is represented as saying, “Behold, They are one people, and they have all one language; this is only the beginning of what they will do; and nothing that they propose to do will now be impossible for them." Whatever the original source and import of this legend may have been, it says something essentially theological; it suggests that absolute unity and conformity in the cultural enterprise will present a threat to viable and meaningful human existence, that the absence of diversity (when it is not simply a sign of exhaustion) is a denial of human creatureliness and also of human individuality and freedom. The legend also offers an interpretation of the role of language. “The whole earth," we are told, had only “one language and few words." This paucity of language is apparently taken as a mark of self-destructive tribalism, or at least as a tempting condition for it. The legend seems to assert that the Lord, in order to keep human beings aware of their dependence upon something not their own and in order to make them the more free from the danger of tyranny, had to scatter them and to give them many languages. By implication, then, we may discern in this conception of “scattering” a striking interpretation of human individuality, indeed a theological interpretation of individuation as a category of the human condition. Diversity of place and perspective and language is appropriate for creatures that under God are scattered, individuated, incomplete.