Read Genesis 11.
I know I’m supposed to be blogging the New Testament, not the Old, but indulge me if you will. As a student of several languages and the acquisition of language in general, this Biblical story is obviously of interest to me.
You don’t have to look at this Tower of Babel too closely to realize that it’s a complete and total myth, an etiology told to explain why the peoples inhabiting different regions spoke languages that were unintelligible to one another. The story was supposedly written by Moses, but context cues place it more probably in the time of the Babylonian captivity, in the 6th century BC, perhaps a thousand years after Moses’ death. It most likely incorporates the image of the Babylonian ziggurat, Etemenanki, which had been rebuilt by Nebuchadnezzar, with a traditional oral story about how the languages were separated. The impressive, foreboding ziggurats – erected in worship to the god Marduk, were meant to inspire awe; the captive Jews would have seen them as a trespass against the one true God.
Placing the imposing towers into a story about rebellion against God wouldn’t have been much of a stretch – to worship any God but Yahweh was rebellion. Babel, or confusion, would have been a nice play on words; Babylon, a place of confusion, not only of language, but of belief. Any city that shakes its fist at God in such an audacious way will certainly face retribution.
But if you don’t buy into this modern, secular explanation of the story – have a look at the scriptures themselves. I think you’ll find a lot of information that doesn’t quite fit together.
A few generations after God had flooded the Earth, some of Noah’s descendants have headed east to the Plains of Shinar, which is usually a reference to Mesopotamia / Tigris and Euphrates region / Babylon in the Old Testament. Once they got there, they decided to bake bricks – in the OT narrative, they decide to bake bricks first, then to build a city with them, but we’ll assume that the intention was to build a city and a tower all along. Why the focus on bricks? Since important Judean structures were made of stone, the Babylonian custom of building with brick would have been novel – if you admit that the narrative as we have it today were composed during the captivity. If not, it seems a rather strange detail.
These descendants, led by Nimrod, according to tradition, get the idea that they should ‘make a name for themselves’ by building a tower that would reach to the heavens. When I was in Sunday school, my teacher seemed to think that they were literally trying to build a stairway to heaven; later, other Bible teachers seemed to think that they were trying to build some kind of astrological tower, to ‘reach heaven’ in a metaphysical sense, not literally. This second rendering does seem to be more consistent with what we now know of Babylonian ziggurats in general, that they were places of divination and worship.
Now, let’s set aside for a moment the fact that the Bible only counts four generations between this event and the catastrophic, worldwide flood that nearly wiped out humanity. It would seem that such an act of defiance so soon would be unthinkable on the part of Noah’s descendants. What’s really astounding is God’s response.
First of all, the scripture says that God ‘came down’ to see the tower that Nimrod had built. Where was he in the first place? Why did he have to move to get a better view? If Earth is God’s ballpark, why was he sitting in the cheap seats? This sentence gives credence to the idea that whoever wrote the original story did not see God as omnipresent; he was instead an anthropomorphic god who shared some of the same limitations of other Semitic gods – including Marduk. If you believe that every single word of the scripture is inspired – you can’t write off the moving of a supposedly omnipresent God from one place to another as some kind of grammatical error.
Secondly, why was God so concerned about what they were doing? Because they had learned how to build a tower, God decides that “nothing they plan to do will be impossible for them.” Is this a bad thing? Humans working together to do what seems to be impossible? And furthermore, confusing their languages didn’t stop them from building other towers – as evidenced by the Babylonians, Egyptians, Persians, Chinese, and other ancient cultures. And building a tower? Where’s the threat? It’s not like they split the atom – which, incidentally, God did not prevent either. So you’re telling me that God miraculously confuses language because people are building a tower, but stands by in silence while they actually do split the atom? It doesn’t make sense.
If they were trying to build a literal stairway to heaven, no intervention would have been required; they’d have all passed out due to lack of oxygen at around a mile. Actually God should have known that they’d have never made it this far with bricks anyway; kiln-baked bricks would have disintegrated under the weight of the structure long before the mile marker. If they were building an astrological tower, a way of ‘reaching heaven’ through divining the stars – why do the Pyramids, Stonehenge, Machu Picchu and myriad other structures still stand?
And why any need for such sudden intervention? Surely God is aware of the fact that as groups of people are separated by time and distance, their languages become unintelligible to each other without divine intervention. The US and the UK have been separate social and political entities for only a couple of hundred years, and we still technically speak the same language, but you try understanding a Glaswegian or a Yorkshireman with a scotch or two in his gullet – impossible.
Even the Apostle Paul casts doubt on the validity of he story, when he writes in 1 Corinthians 14 that “God is not the author of confusion.”
If this story isn’t literally true – which it certainly cannot be, no matter how you approach it – then it must be some kind of analogy or metaphor, a story with a moral. If the OT contains stories that aren’t intended to be taken as objective truths – who gets to decide which ones are allegory and which ones are literal?
Of even greater significance, to me at least, there is absolutely no evidence whatsoever that God does anything to intervene – for good or ill – in our lives today. Thousands of innocents die daily while God looks the other way. But a tower made of tar and brick – a tower that had absolutely no chance of succeeding at whatever purpose it was being built for – required God’s immediate attention?
Quite literally – unbelievable.
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