Variation on Genesis: The Tower of Babel

Variation on Genesis: The Tower of Babel
by Carl Napolitano

In the wake of the great flood, humankind found themselves homeless and eager to do better than their predecessors whom God wiped out. So they decided to build a city and, at the center of that city, a tower so tall it would reach up into the sky, all the way to heaven. This way, they could be closer to God and, perhaps, better people.

God saw their plans and their effort and was delighted to see the humans, their cherished creation, working together toward such a noble and lofty—if not somewhat naive and impossible—goal. They didn’t have the heart to tell humankind that heaven was not in the clouds, that betterment already existed on earth, but they saw no harm in letting the humans pursue this ridiculous, resplendent dream.

The humans soon realized how truly massive the scope of their project was, and so they split into groups to better handle each complex factor and facet of their great structure. As each group delved deeper into their assigned tasks, searching for greater understanding, they found themselves needing new words and adaptations in their language to make sense of any of it.

Those tasked with building the high walls and arches found their words elongating, vowels stretched and made airy, consonants made sturdy and hard, so that their speech was both rigid and porous.

Those tasked with constructing canals and aqueducts found their words dissolving into a slurry of sibilants, their sentences rushing then slowing, their syntax diverting order toward new basins of meaning.

Those tasked with making stables and enclosing pastures for animals found their words multiplying, their nouns becoming increasingly plural and then collective; their adjectives growing thick pelts, twisting horns, bright plumage; their verbs driven by instinct rather than logic. 

Those tasked with dividing living spaces for each family and filling them with furniture found their words housing multiple definitions like a series of rooms, each phrase possessing an almost countless number of doors, opening to an almost countless number of interpretations, full of tables to set, beds to rest in.

And so on.

As time went on, these groups settled into their new ways of speaking and slowly started to forget their old, shared language. With each month, each year, each generation, they slipped further away from a common understanding toward separate understandings, and while these separate understandings led to new knowledge, they could no longer understand each other. Their city and their tower stalled, became disjointed—a hodgepodge of misplaced and misunderstood parts. Frustration grew among the people, as well as resent and helplessness. Disputes broiled between them, threatening to burn into violence, and each group developed new names to call themselves and each other. Eventually, one by one, each group left to settle elsewhere and live the best way they knew how, on earth, nowhere near heaven. Eventually, the city was empty and dead like bleached coral, the tower collapsing onto itself like a tree hollowed and eaten alive by termites.

God looked down at the city and sighed. They had been hopeful for the success of humankind’s ambition but prepared for their failure as well. Perhaps they did become better people, God thought wistfully as they ran their hand over the city and wiped it from the face of the earth as a child might level a sandcastle on the beach, pushing the grit and glisten back down, flat and formless and blown by the wind.


Carl Napolitano is a writer and ceramicist from Little Rock, Arkansas. He holds a BA in English-Creative Writing and Studio Art from Hendrix College and is currently working toward his MFA in fiction at the Iowa Writers' Workshop. His work has appeared in Assaracus and Cicada Magazine, and is forthcoming in The Rumpus and The Hunger. He is an associate editor for Sibling Rivalry Press.