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Literature and Composition Bible Art Paper

Zara Hoffman November 8, 2011

The Bible is the most well-known book in the world and is referenced and translated more than any other piece of literature in history. The Bible has served as the foundation for many of the world's religions. The story of Babel (11:1-9) is important because it tells us about the origin of the different languages spoken today and elucidates why humans are scattered all over the globe. This story is one of the oldest in the Bible and has been interpreted by many people. In 1563, Pieter Brugel the First depicted the construction of the Tower of Babel in an oil painting. The painting emphasizes the power of man and depicts God's temperament as a mixture of benevolence and severity, while the story in the Old Testament focuses exclusively on God's harsh reaction to man's drive for power. The story of Babel teaches two important lessons: that God is superior to humans and that there are severe consequences if humans attempt to aggrandize themselves to the divine. In the beginning of the story, man said:
Come, let us build a city, and a tower with its top in the sky, to make a name for ourselves; else we shall be scattered all over the world. (11:4)

In addition to the suggestion of building the tower, there is also a fear of being separated, and therefore, weakened. Part of the reason that they are building the tower is to ensure that they remain together and that their legacy lives on. When they talk about the top in the sky, it infers that they will be up in the heavens themselves. Their construction was not like building a temple to honor God, but was instead to honor themselves and to raise themselves up to the level of God by standing above the clouds. This appears to be the first time that man has consciously decided to raise his status in relation to God. This theme of man trespassing into divine territory is

revisited when the men of Sodom want to become intimate with [the angels] (19:4-5). God condemned the men's sinful desires and burned Sodom to the ground as punishment. After man had started construction of Babel, God looked down and saw that humankind was building a tower that reached up to the heavens so they could make a name for [them]selves. (11:4) Names are strongly connected with identity and when man tried to redefine himself by building the tower, God became threatened and angry. In response to man's actions, God limited the power he had originally given Adam; the power to name and construct. Adam's naming of the beasts was acceptable, but God censured man when he tried to redefine his identity by building the tower. When God originally gave humans the power to create, he did it so they could continue creating without him always being present. When he sees that they are misusing that ability to build themselves up to heaven, he struck them down because they were overreaching their mortal status.
If as one people with one language for all, this is how they have begun to act, then nothing that they may propose to do will be out of reach. (11:6)

God stops man in order to preserve the line between the heavenly and earthly because God sees man's actions as disrespectful of what he has created and of God himself. He also seems frightened of what he sees man being capable of and feels threatened by their growing power as a group. The story of Babel is not the first illustration of God taking away man's power. As we know, God banished Adam and Eve from Eden when they ate from the Tree of Knowledge and [became] like divine beings who [knew] good and bad.(3:5) Again in the story of Noah and the Ark (Genesis 6:5-9:18), God saw that man had become evil and flooded the earth to wipe humanity out, only saving good Noah and his family. With the story of Babel, God limits man, this time by squelching man's egotistical nature.

Language is the fundamental means of how God communicates with man and how mankind communicates with one another. The story uses the words confound and speech multiple times, indicating the importance of communication with God and each other. When God speaks of separating the humans, he says:

Let us, then, go down and confound their speech there, so that they shall not understand one another's speech. Thus the Lord scattered them from there over the face of the whole earth. (11:7-8)

Whenever God has made a man great in the Bible, he has spoken to him, in one way or another, and man has spoken to others to glorify God. Language and understanding are key components of any religion because it allows it to spread and grow. When God takes this ability away from man and separates them, he has stripped them of an important quality that allowed them to comprehend and communally share religion. The story illustrates the supreme power of God over the capacity of man. Pieter Brugels painting is centered on the Tower of Babel. The main focal point is the tower, which is both light and dark on a somewhat stormy background. Close to us in the bottom left corner, there is a group of peasants listening to the orders of a king. In addition, there are men bowing down to the king, almost as a false idol, instead of God. The painting is heavily focused on man's feat rather than God's power over man because "God," the light in the sky, seems very distant in the top left corner, far from the focal point. In contrast, the king and his entourage are very close to us at the bottom of the canvas. There are also people scattered on each of the tiers of the tower. There are many people at the bottom, but there are two small figures at the top of the tower, who are above a layer of clouds and have transcended the human domain on earth. They appear to be on the same physical level as God.

The tower, however, is not complete or polished. As the eye sweeps across the canvas, left to right, it can see that the darker the tower becomes, the more it crumbles. On the right side of the tower, the structure no longer appears to be constructed of bricks, but of rough rocks and dust consumes the worksites, foreshadowing the fate of the tower:
Return to the groundfor from it you were taken. For dust you are, and to dust you shall return. (3:19)

It speaks of the second half of the story of Babel; how the tower is never finished and is eventually eroded away. The exposed red inner-structure of the tower, representing the

human heart, illustrates how God can see into man's soul. Nothing can be concealed from God and his sight penetrates all barriers, allowing him to see the true essence of all that exists. Despite man's sinful actions, God has not completely given up on him. Instead of leaving mankind completely in the dark, God is still shining light on earth. Even the tower leans toward God and tries to bathe in as much light as it can. However, this makes the tower unstable and also hints at how the structure will eventually fall by the hands of God. While the main emphasis of the painting is on humans and their accomplishments, there is a limited, but powerful presence of God. The story of Babel and Pieter Brugel's painting have different focal points, but do not contradict each other. Man's ambition, God's reaction to man and his subsequent power are present in both the story and the painting, but the way these ideas are portrayed differ from each other. In the biblical story of Babel, man's drive is depicted as an act of egotism and an expression of fear of losing power through separation. In contrast, the painting omits the humans' fear and only illustrates man's vain motivation for building the tower. In the story, God's wrath is fueled by anger and fear of the potential power humanity could achieve if he does not stop them.

In the painting, God's reaction is represented as a combination of censure and benevolence. The painting shows God's warning of destruction and him actively demolishing the tower, while simultaneously shining light on part the structure. Another difference is that the majority of the story portrays God's reaction to man's construction of Babel, but the main concept in the painting is man's creation of the tower. Both the painting and the story illustrate man's desire for greatness and God enforcing his supremacy. Both the story of Babel and the painting show man's desire for power and God's response to that aspect of human nature. In the story, God is exclusively portrayed as wrathful, while the painting shows both the punitive and compassionate sides of his character. The story of the tower of Babel is an illustration of the complex, ongoing relationship between man and God.