A Temple up to Heaven What do you see when you look at this painting? Does it evoke the bible story?
We have a story explaining what the Tower of Babel represents and what Babylon was. The Bible or The Five Books of Moses tells us that the Tower of Babel is where God finds man trying to build a temple up to heaven. God judges this as arrogant and throws people to the four corners of the earth now speaking many different languages, which we call “babbling.” That’s the story and it and other similar stories generate our feelings about Babylon as a place of sin, darkness, and sex.
What is actually happening when we think of Babylon or the Tower of Babel in this way? We are living in a trance of a story that was generated as political propaganda. This is the view made up by the Judeans taken into captivity in Babylon after their defeat.
City of Wonder Let’s take another view of Babylon for a moment. Let’s imagine around three thousand years ago you were traveling through the desert in a camel train and you’ve never in your life seen anything man made that was taller than a tent. Then, all of a sudden, twenty miles away you spot what looks like the equivalent of the New York city skyline today! You see these towering temples shimmering off in the distance. The main temple is three hundred feet high and three hundred feet around (with seven levels)! Can you imagine seeing that for the first time? Surely, it must seem like a mirage.
Then you approach the city gates that are thirty feet high! In contrast, the Lincoln Tunnel to Manhattan has thirteen feet of vertical clearance. Huge gates are all inlaid with fantastic tile murals of lions and flowers in brilliant blues and golds. In the Pergamon Museum in Berlin, you can walk through one of the gates of Babylon and it is still a marvel to see.
When you enter the gate with your caravan, you leave the world you have known behind and enter the center of Western civilization, a city that is already five hundred years old at the end of an unbroken series of city-states starting with Eridu two thousand years earlier. This is a literate society with weavers and farmers, scribes and high priestesses, craftsmen and traders, with trade routes reaching across thousands of miles from Egypt to the Hindu Kush mountains where lapis lazuli, used for blue in the city gate, is mined.
This gives you a very different view of what Babylon was. It was the greatest city of its time and the center of Western culture. Babylon was an urban, hip, literate cultural mecca of the world, having temples for many different Gods and Goddesses with general tolerance for all. There were advances in mathematics, astronomy, agriculture, literature and of course engineering to build these edifices.
Seven Days of the Week The creation stories of Babylon became many of the stories of The Five Books of Moses. These stories include (just to name a few): the flood and the ark, being built by the inspiration of a helpful god who sees the flood coming and Moses being hidden in a basket of reeds like the myth of the birth of Cyrus the Great who frees the Judeans and returns them to Jerusalem.
We are still living with the influences of Babylon: most superficially, horoscopes today come directly from Babylon. Although the Greeks and Romans renamed the gods, like Ares, it is still a Babylonian system.
More importantly, we have seven days in what we call a “week” because the Babylonians were aware of seven celestial spheres, and associate each heavenly body with a god, and give each god a “day”. Seven becomes a magic number. Everyone stays home on the moon’s day (the seventh day of the week, in which the moon god is called “Sin”) because it is inauspicious to venture outside on that day. Can you believe we live in a Babylonian idea of a seven-day life-cycle, including a day of rest? To recognize the Babylonian impact on our lives, just imagine for a moment that the days of the week disappeared? How would our lives be organized then?
The Origins of Our Literacy Most importantly for us, Babylonian culture coming from its preceding cities, like Ur and Uruk, had been literate for two thousand years! Because it was very difficult to master, only the ruling elites and their staff could afford to learn to read and write what we call cuneiform, so the Aramaic traders and merchants of Babylon in the coastal, sea-faring city-states we now call Phoenicia (some of these cities, like Tyre, are still thriving today in modern Lebanon) developed the first alphabet for keeping records in trade relations. This is the root of written Hebrew, Greek, Roman, and finally our English alphabet (alpha being the first letter of the Greek alphabet and bet being the second letter of Hebrew.) Our literacy comes directly from Babylonian culture.
Shifting Alliances But we have lost that story of Babylon because, at the time (around 598 B.C.), Judeans were taken from Jerusalem by the Babylonian king as captives since they betrayed the king in his war with Egypt. Judea was a land bridge between the two great empires of the time and tried to keep its independence by switching alliances between the Egyptians and the Babylonians. The Judeans were with the Babylonians as long as they were passing through on their way to Egypt but bet on the losing side; they ended up siding with Egypt which was closer, and therefore more threatening, after the Babylonians left town.
On his way back home, through Judea again, after beating Egypt, the Babylonian king destroyed the Judean temple of Solomon and took the ruling elite to exile in Babylon. The Judean priesthood in exile had to build a new political narrative to maintain their identity and their hierarchical supremacy within their tribe.
Gods That can Leave Up until that point in the history of their temple, which starts with the first temple in the first city in Sumeria thousands of years earlier and continues to the destruction of the temple of Solomon by the Babylonians, each God and Goddess lived in his or her temple. There were many Gods and Goddesses and many temples. Temples were the center of city life and the priesthood lived off of the temple properties and the offerings made to the gods. At the time of its destruction, the temple of Solomon was a pre-literate pastoral culture with different gods in play and burnt offerings being made daily. Since Jerusalem was a pastoral (not an agricultural) society, burnt animal offerings were given instead of grain. The meat was then used by the priesthood for both personal consumption and to sell at the market, as commerce was functioning in all temples back to the first.
It was generally believed that if your temple was destroyed, it meant your God or Goddess had left the scene due to the insufficiencies of the population.
A new story was needed.
The new story was that God did not live in the temple, but that God is everywhere, God is in every breath, God sees everything and knows everything, and . . . wait for it . . . we are his chosen people. This is not a universal God, but a tribal temple God, just like the old one. This is not unusual when you realize that every city had a temple and every God had his chosen people of that city. But now, the personal relationship with God stays unchanged, just his location becomes the ether.
This new story was then written in Hebrew by the previously illiterate Judeans using a writing system that they learned in Babylon. That story is what we would now call a novel of historical fiction, combining ancient tribal verbal lineage stories with a modern reinvention: The Five Books of Moses, which the Hebrews call The Torah and the Christians call The Old Testament and Islam looks to for its roots in Abraham.
This book was so successful it spawned two follow-up novels to attract new audiences that were left out of the original: The New Testament and The Koran, both picking up where The Five Books of Moses left off, but now making the new story that God is everywhere more widely available to new populations that were now considered “God’s chosen children”.
Fact From Fiction We now know that historically there was no Moses and the tribes were never slaves in Egypt, let alone having God visiting Moses to give him the Ten Commandments while on his way to the promised land, which is the main narrative of this best-selling book!
But since the Judeo-Christian world won over the Babylonian, we believe the story that Babylon was an evil place where the Babylonians tried to build something so high that they could reach God, when in reality, the Babylonian belief was that God actually lived up in the tower seven levels above the city. The writers of The Five Books of Moses took that story and re-mythicized it.
The three great historical novels of all time are all written when the alphabet appears and oral traditions are written down. The Iliad and The Mahabharata are also written in the same time-frame recounting the chariot bronze age of heroes, and each tells of the time when Gods were in direct relationship with humans: Krishna is the charioteer for the hero; Achilles is helped by his mother, a goddess, and rides a chariot to battle, and we all know about Moses and his people being saved from the Egyptian chariot army.
What does this have to do with waking up and being free?
It has to do with the fact that we’re all living in a story, and it’s not that the story is bad or wrong, but the story is the filter through which we see the world. Do you see Babylon differently now? The facts haven’t changed. Just our point of view.
In our time, of the past thirty years or so, when people first heard that they were living in a story, many people tried to stop their stories. That “stop the story” is also a kind of story. We’re all “babbling” internally inside a story that we don’t even see because it’s the texture of reality; it’s what we overlook, like the fish overlooks the water. We’re immersed in a water of story.
It is possible to wake up and be free not by stopping the story for a moment, although that can be a very useful first step, but by seeing through all stories to something deeper. How does waking up and being free relate to The Tower of Babel? When you stop babbling, when you stop telling yourself your personal story that includes your opinions, likes and dislikes, judgements, guilts, and blames (all stuff that makes up the internal dialogue)—that opens up the space and the possibility for the realization of your true nature.
When you stop believing that your version of a story about yourself, the world, and your place in the world is any more real than the great reggae song, “By the Rivers of Babylon” (The Melodians, 1970)—you have opened the possibility to wake up from the trance of egoic suffering. I loved dancing to the Melodians reggae song, singing about the Rasta lament of being in exile and remembering Zion; it’s a beautiful story, but it’s not real. It has nothing to do with reality. It’s part of a larger bubble of trance that you can wake up from. So, continue to dance to it, just don’t believe it.
To wake up from a bubble of story is to become disillusioned with it. If you really believe your personal or collective cultural stories, they appear real. Whether you believe Moses was real and God came and spoke to him, or that Jesus is really the son of God, or you believe that the angel Gabriel came down and spoke to Muhammed as he claimed, these are all beliefs held by millions of people. Yet, they are all stories, just like the one you are telling yourself about who you are.
Whatever it is you believe in (any religion, any cult, anything at all), belief requires faith in something that is not provable. When you see through the trance of any story, you become disillusioned and this disillusionment is painful. Something that you’ve loved (perhaps the church, the community, or Jesus) is suddenly pierced, and you see through it. There is a great pain of loss when you become disillusioned. Consider: illusion brings pleasure and disillusionment brings pain. Nobody wants pain, so people would rather continue the illusion and just patch it up, repair it, or put new wallpaper up.
The possibility is to see through it all, but for that you have to want the truth more than you want the illusion.
You have to be willing to bear the pain of disillusionment because the pain of disillusionment pierces your heart and opens the possibility of meeting the despair that you thought you were saved from by believing the illusion. As long as the illusion is providing perks (i.e., it feels good, you’ve got the community, the pleasures, or the bliss of worship)—you’ve got whatever it is that brings the group together in bliss or pleasure. The loss of that communal pleasure or bliss is the fear hiding under the illusion.
When disillusionment and the despair that follows disillusionment is experienced, that is the way in. That is where surrender happens and it’s where the possibility of turning your back on the illusion resides. Once you’re disillusioned, you’re also alienated, which means you are now separate in a way. You’re no longer a part of the homogenous mass of whatever it is you were living in the illusion of, whether believing in the church, or the capitalist version of reality, or the Soviet version of reality, or whatever your personal trance may be. So many people were disillusioned with the Soviets and so many people naturally get disillusioned with capitalism (with all its different forms). When you become disillusioned, there’s a pain of loss and sometimes that disillusionment turns to bitterness, anger, and resentment and you go to war with it. That way just causes more pain. That’s the way of pain and conflict. It’s not about going along with it and it’s not about bowing to it. The way is staying true to yourself in the face of everything. That is what we are here for.
People think waking up means that suddenly you see the light and the angels, and you’re in heaven and you can do whatever you want and it’s all okay; it’s much better than that, it’s much deeper. It’s the capacity to actually be a human, a living breathing human that’s not here for the animal drives but is here for something transcendental.
You have already been called and the question is: How do you respond to the call?
If you have read this far, then it is the call of your heart, the call to truth, the call to leave all illusion behind. That’s the test and the question. That is what we’re here to discover together. It is possible for everyone to wake up and be free. That is why we’re here and if you are reading this, something has already called you that’s awake and free, and your function is to surrender to it—to surrender to your own self.
The great trap is that you surrender to something outside yourself; this is the cult or the religion as you surrender to Jesus, the Buddha, the guru, or God. This is not that, it is much more profound. In surrendering to something outside yourself, there’s no responsibility. But to surrender to the truth of yourself, you take full responsibility and that is the possibility of the next step of human evolution.
If you ever get to Vienna to the Kunsthistorisches art museum, I recommend the room with Pieter Bruegel’s work. If you travel to Berlin, I really recommend seeing The Gates of Babylon at the Pergamon Museum.
Babylon or babble, which will it be?