57 This state of division into many nations is at once cosmic, social and religious. It is intended to limit the pride of fallen humanity10 united only in its perverse ambition to forge its own unity as at Babel.11 But, because of sin, both polytheism and the idolatry of the nation and of its rulers constantly threaten this provisional economy with the perversion of paganism.12
This paragraph continues a section called “the stages of revelation,” and in the immediate previous segments has referenced the fall of Adam in the garden and the epic of Noah and the Flood. The best way to approach this segment is to look at the possible intent of the sacred authors of early Genesis, which seems to be twofold. Mankind, sadly, is disintegrating. In the preceding accounts of both Adam and Noah, the predominance of sin has nearly destroyed God’s efforts at creating a united humanity. Cain kills his brother Abel, and later the sons of Noah would divide over the sin of the youngest brother. The remainder of the “pre-history” Genesis chapters, through Chapter 11, would emphasize disunion. Alongside this development, God is “revealing,” but his revelation is primarily one of displeasure.
Chapter 11 is something of the climax of disunion caused by sin. This is an intriguing text, and its unknown author does a remarkable job in illustrating something of man’s existential fears about himself and his self-consciousness of his destiny. The sin in this chapter is an ill-fated attempt by the human race to leave its mark on creation by its own designs, isolated from the greater design that God had in mind at the time of creation. The major players in Chapter 11, the text cited in para. 57, are the descendants of the sons of Noah, a genealogy laid out in Chapter 10.
Chapter 11 begins with the observation that despite the shaky beginning of the human race, at least they shared a common language. “The whole world spoke the same language, using the same words.” (Genesis 11:1) Curiously, there is a fear that what unity they enjoyed might be easily lost, and having settled in a valley, the inhabitants agree upon a common purpose. They decide to build a city and “a tower with its top in the sky,” (Genesis 11:4), the purpose being to “make a name for ourselves, otherwise we shall be scattered all over the earth.” (11:4)
The curious point here is that at this juncture in Genesis there are no foreign enemies to intimidate or impress; the purposes for the construction of a tower appear to be related to the inner needs of the residents, fearful of being scattered all over the earth. Whether this tower was intended as a gateway to heaven, as we learned in Catholic school, is hard to say. However, there is a reference in Genesis 11:7 in which God says, “Let us go down…” suggesting that some kind of arrogant gesture is represented by the tower construction. God’s reaction to the entire Tower of Babel venture is a mixture of dismay and love. His first reaction, when he comes to visit the town, is dismay, primarily over what else these fool humans might try, particularly given their common speech. In Genesis 11:7 he decides to scramble their speech, and the sacred author observes that “from that place he scattered them all over the earth.” (Genesis 11:9) The remainder of Chapter 11 describes the divisions of people from that place. The “love” element is reflected in God’s concern that humans might do even more damage to themselves if they continue to enjoy a standard language.
The story of the tower of Babel is mythic in origin, with the term “myth” meaning a story of philosophical or theological searching. It is likely that the story meant different things to different ages of Israel, its most basic purpose being speculation over the polyglot nature of the Near East. By the time it appears in Sacred Scripture here, the story has come to represent God’s revelation and intervention in saving man from his worst self. Our overarching question is how the editors of the Catechism decided to incorporate this Genesis text into its overall teaching in this paragraph.
Para. 57 begins with reference to the “state of division into many nations” as having cosmic, social, and religious implications. The editors see this division as a bad thing, something that limits the pride of fallen humanity. The Babel story is inserted into the paragraph as a primary example of what a sinfully divided world is capable of doing. There is an interesting transition of “polyglot” into polytheism and idolatry; the editors seeming to equate the differences of peoples and lands into paganism. This may be understood in a Biblical sense: when the Holy Spirit descended upon the Apostles at the Pentecost event, St. Luke records that every man understood Peter’s preaching despite the wide diversity of tongues assembled in Jerusalem for the feast.
In looking at this section of the Catechism from a distance, the editors appear to recount these early accounts of pre-historical times to set up a contrast between God’s general revelation to all of humanity and the specific covenant/promise of his revelation to the one special nation, historical Israel, which we generally date back to Abraham in Genesis 12, as early as 1800 B.C. The Catechism’s thrust, then, is to narrate God’s repeated interventions (revelations) with Israel until they are fulfilled in Christ, whose gift of the Holy Spirit will unite creation to its original cosmic unity.