The blogger who goes by the initials RJS has been blogging through J. Richard Middleton’s book The Liberating Image: The Imago Dei in Genesis 1.
In spite of the title, the book includes consideration of Genesis 1-11. Middleton has a unique interpretation of the story of Babel in Genesis 11. According to RJS:
“The reading that Middleton gives to the story of Babel is more or less completely different from those I have heard before. The confusion of tongues and the scattering of the people are redemptive acts undermining Mesopotamian ideals, not punishments. If Middleton is right many a sermon goes into the trashcan (although many good new ones can be written). At times, however, it seems that he is stretching a point to make all of the elements fit into this critique of empire, there seems to be more to it than just this. Nevertheless there is much to chew on here.”
Rather than being a punishment, the confusion of tongues was a liberation from the Babylonian attempt to impose one language and one culture on the people in its empire.
As we know from discussions of bilingualism in the United States or the French/English problem in Canada, language is tied to culture and religion.
The ancient Babylonian empire did have a policy of trying to impose a single language on conquered people. That fact is what gives Middleton’s suggestion plausibility.
I agree with RJS that some authors today shoehorn biblical accounts into a critique of empire. Perhaps Middleton does this. The Bible, after all, does not condemn all empire. The Egyptian empire at the time of Joseph, the Persian empire under Cyrus, and Solomon’s Israelite empire get positive treatments. The New Testament sometimes treats Rome in a positive way. In fact, one condition for the existence of the New Testament was the universality of the Greek language in the eastern part of the empire under Rome.
Still, there is a tendency of powerful governments to undermine cultural and religious diversity. I think it is possible that Genesis 11 may have originally stood over against that.
This would mean that Babel was not about the tower. It was not about an attempt to reach to the heavens. These were just metaphors for the arrogant, overreaching power of Babylon.