Babel is, in our English Bibles, the name for a tower built at a place with that name (it appears to derive from the Hebrew “confused,” though it is also the Semitic word for the nation/empire of Babylon). In the biblical story (Genesis 11:1-9), mankind has defied God’s command to multiply and spread throughout the earth; instead, they settle at one location and attempt to build “a tower that reaches to the heavens, so that we may make a name for ourselves and not be scattered over the face of the earth” (11:4). But Yahweh God “comes down” (11:5), sees the tower, and confuses the language of the men so that his plan for humanity to spread across the earth might be fulfilled (11:8-9).
The Wirkungsgeschichte of the Tower of Babel story has emphasized the pride of man, humanity’s striving to be like God and approach him on our own terms. This theme is most likely what Marcus Mumford is alluding to in “Babel.” I take it that the opening verses and especially the chorus (below) describe the folly of human pride:
Like the city that nurtured my greed and my pride
I stretch my arms into the sky
I cry, Babel, Babel look at me now
Through the walls of my town, they come crumbling down
The problem (and thus the lie to all forms of human pride), Mumford seems to argue, is that mankind is transient, weak, and powerless:
You ask where will we stand in the winds that will howl
As all we see will slip into the cloud
So come down from your mountain and stand where we’ve been
You know our breath is weak and our body thin
There also seems to pose a problem on God’s side – how can an eternal, powerful God ever relate to such beings? “Come down from your mountain” is a clear allusion to the theme of “your [Yahweh’s] mountain,” namely, Mount Sinai, where God gave the Law to Moses. Whether Mumford had this in mind or not, Christian theology suggests that God did indeed come down from his mountain, taking on the flesh of humanity with all of its suffering and brokenness (cf. Phil 2:1-10). Indeed, what matters is not human effort or pride (the “upward” effort of human religion and achievement) but God’s grace (the “downward” undeserved gift of God). Thus:
Cause I know my weakness know my voice
And I’ll believe in grace and choice
As always, these are just my thoughts on this song, and there are surely other layers of meaning at work, but the biblical allusions are nevertheless central to “Babel,” no matter how you understand it. Here’s an unofficial link to the song.
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