It is common these days to read the Bible as an anti-imperial epic, the story of God and Israel, then (for Christians) God and Jesus, against empire. “Come out, come out from Babylon, my people!” is the theme.
It’s a hard sell for all sorts of reasons. Jeremiah urges the people of Judah to enter not exit Babylon (Jeremiah 27, 29). Isaiah invests Cyrus the Persian conqueror with Davidic titles—he is the Lord’s “servant” and “shepherd” and “anointed one” (Isaiah 44-45). Heroes like Joseph, Daniel, and Mordecai end up as chief advisors to emperors. In Scripture, there is no such thing as “empire” but only empires, and they are not all the same. Some are Babels, some beasts; some are rods of discipline, some provide refuge for the people of God.
God does frustrate empires of the Babelic and bestial sort. In the Bible’s earliest account of empire (Genesis 11:1-9), human beings erect a city and tower in the plains of Shinar. The fourfold repetition of “one” (Genesis 11:1, 6) shows their goal is uniformity. Babel, the prototype of all later “Babels,” is intolerant of linguistic, cultural, and religious difference.
The men of Babel want to make a “name” for themselves. Like the later king of neo-Babylon, they want to set a throne among the stars, ascend above the clouds, make themselves “like the Most High” (Isaiah 14:13-14). Augustine recognized similar idolatrous motivations behind the Roman drive for imperial mastery. Lust for glory first inspired Romans to overthrow tyrants, but, having toppled the Tarquins, they remained full of the same lust. Only mastery of the world could satisfy. Desire for freedom morphed into a libido dominandi.
At the same time, Roman desire for glory was infused with anxiety and fear, which paradoxically increased in proportion to Roman success in conquest. Fear of enemies within and without inspired the manly virtus of the Roman warrior. Babel’s founders are also driven by anxiety about “scattering” (Genesis 11:4). Babelic empires are designed to fend off insecurity and fear of dissolution. Anxious glory-seeking takes political form in an empire that permits only one lip and one set of words. God created humans to spread throughout the earth, multiplying to fill the earth (Genesis 1:26-28), but Babelic empires attempt to arrest movement, to stop time and history. Babel aims to be the end of history, beyond which there is nowhere to go and nothing to do. It is the political embodiment of a hyper-realized eschatology, which is always also an eschatology of fear. Babel’s eternal walls are built to ward off the ravages of time. Long before Virgil, Babel announces the formation of an imperium sine fine.
Unlike Ozymandias, Babel learns its limits. As soon as he appears in the narrative, Yahweh begins to dismantle Babel brick by brick, as he ensures that all they fear happens to them. He confuses their unified lip and speech (v. 7) and scatters them (vv. 4, 9). They wanted to build a city reaching to heaven (v. 4), but Yahweh has to “come down to see” it (v. 8). They want a name, and they get one, the mocking name “Confusion” (v. 9). In a laconic nine verses, the narrative exposes the folly of an imperialism that tries to compete with the Creator.
After Babel’s fall, Yahweh calls Abram from Ur to initiate his counter-Babel program (Genesis 12:1-3). Given Yahweh’s vigorous opposition to Babel, it’s surprising that his promises to Abram share many features of Babelic imperialism. He promises Abram a “great name” (12:2). He assures Abram that he will produce “a great and mighty nation” (18:18), but not just one: “I have made you a father of a multitude of nations” (Genesis 17:4-6, 16). Abram will become the father of kings (Genesis 17:6, 16), a patriarchal “king of kings.” The two great promises—land and seed—echo the dual aim of Babel to build a city and a tower. Abram’s children eventually conquer the land and build in it a city and a tower—Jerusalem and its temple, the true “gate of God,” which is the meaning of the name “Babylon.”
On the basis of these Abrahamic promises, the prophets envision a peaceful world order centered in the “imperial” capital of Zion (Psalm 72:8-11; Isaiah 2:2-4; 60:10-11), and these prophetic visions inform the climactic chapters of the Christian Bible. After the harlot city is burned and the Roman beast is tossed into the lake of fire (Revelation 17-19), John sees an imperial vision of kings entering the heavenly city with tribute for the Lamb who bears the imperial title “Lord of lords and King of kings” (Revelation 21:22-27; cf. 17:14). Postcolonial readers bemoan this unfortunate “reinscription” of imperial aspirations, titles, and structures into Scripture. “Reinscription” is the wrong word. Empire is inscribed from the moment Yahweh speaks to Abram.
Israel has an imperial vocation to realize in truth what Babel sought in rebellion—unity among peoples, a link to heaven, a great name, righteousness and peace and security. Abrahamic empire is not a Babel imposing its will but the center of “a unified world community under God’s rule” (Oliver O’Donovan). Israel’s hope, and the church’s, is not “peace in isolation” but “a peaceful international community” gathered around Zion (O’Donovan).
The Bible is not a story of Israel in opposition to empire. It is a tale of two empires, written to assure believers that all Babels will crumble and that Abram’s empire will shine forever.
Peter J. Leithart is pastor of Trinity Reformed Church in Moscow, Idaho, and Senior Fellow of Theology and Literature at New St. Andrews College. His most recent book is Athanasius (Baker Academic). This article is taken from the author’s Between Babel and Beast: America and Empires in Biblical Perspective, forthcoming from Wipf & Stock.