The Story of the Tower of Babyl(on) plays a crucial role in the literary outline of the book of Genesis. This final, climactic "Fall" concludes what the Israelites would have seen as ancient, global history and transitions the narrative to focus on the specific family history of Israel and its special role in God's plan. This prominent position allows Babylon to serve as an instructive foil for Abraham's descendants. The Babylonians set out to make a name for themselves by working against the human call to "fill the earth" and consequently experience Divine Judgment. Abraham, by contrast, longs to fulfill his call to "be fruitful and multiply" and receives Divine Promise due to his obedient faith.
Ancient Israelites didn't need Genesis to telegraph that the Babylonian pursuit of religious and military power was built on the backs of oppressed peoples but many modern readers miss this. Instead, they read into the story a whole narrative of religion fearing and opposing scientific and technological progress.
Yet for all its importance, the Babyl Story poses serious adaptive challenges to Bible Artists:
Up until this point, the major stories have all focused on named individuals, whether heroic or villainous; in the Babyl Story, however, individual agency (excepting Yahweh) is notably absent. This is not the fall of an individual - not even a king. It is the fall of an entire people-group, working together in concert.
Perhaps one reason that the collective takes center stage is that the writer knows quite well that an empire doesn't arise in a single lifespan. It is the accumulation of the ambitions of multiple generations.
Another reason for the collective focus of the story may be that the writer sees spiritual forces at work behind the scenes. As Michael Heiser has helpfully pointed out, passages like Deuteronomy 32:8-9 suggest that the Babyl event had much bigger causes and implications at a spiritual level than a modern, surface-level reader of Genesis 11 might suspect.
A modern reader may also lack the historical-cultural assumptions that Genesis 11 expects - while bringing in their own historical-cultural assumptions that distort the meaning of the story. Ancient Israelites didn't need Genesis to telegraph that the Babylonian pursuit of religious and military power was built on the backs of oppressed peoples but many modern readers miss this. Instead, they read into the story a whole narrative of religion fearing and opposing scientific and technological progress. In light of this, I've heard modern readers question whether God judged the Babylonians too harshly for a relatively minor mistake
In light of these challenges, over the next few weeks I'll set out to investigate several questions that Bible Artists seeking to adapt Genesis 10-11 need to answer?
Who specifically should this story be about?
How can the scale of the story be captured?
To what degree and in what way should the adaptation show the spiritual influences/implications of this story?
How can modern viewers have their historical-cultural assumptions and understanding reoriented to better appreciate what's going on?