Ignorance is Bliss: The Origin of Languages?

July 21, 2007 at 7:35 pm 12 comments

A ziggurat in IraqYesterday, I wrote an article which offered a radically different interpretation of the Adam and Eve story. I do love the stories of Genesis. They are obviously of timeless quality and influence. I was raised to believe that these amazing, but bizarre stories are true – literally true – the Divine account of the universal and human origins. A recent poll done by USA Today shows that 66 percent of American adults are of the opinion that God created human beings pretty much in their present form within the last 10,000 years.I now believe that the book of Genesis like much of the Old Testament, is mythology. Hermann Gϋnkel in his book Genesis long ago laid out the different types of mythology (or as he called them, legends) contained in Genesis, and how to interpret them as ancient myth that make sense to the modern reader. Gϋnkel emphasizes that myth in Genesis is not fiction, rather it is legend that “adopts and works over certain data which come from reflexion, tradition or observation”.

I want to write my thoughts on the legend of how the human language became confused – The Tower of Babel (Genesis 11:1-9). As a Christian, I was taught that the scattering of the languages was a result of the pride and pretension of humanity. It was the first recorded case of secular humanism, which God needed to keep in check. I was taught that the building of this Tower (in all likelihood, a ziggurat) was not an attempt to physically reach heaven, rather a spiritual attempt at humanistic arrogance. Therefore, to keep mankind from its own destructive ways, The LORD (YHWH) confused all the languages to keep mankind from spiritually harming itself. That is basically it, other than I have also heard some bible teachers claim that Nimrod, the founder of Babel (Gen 10:9-10), was the first world dictator, and this is a story not just of the confusion of languages, but also the origin of all paganistic religions. This bit of extrapolation is probably due to Rabbinic tradition.

This is pretty much all the explanation to the story that I was given, probably because this story is pretty much forgotten in the rest of Scripture (Babel is only mentioned here and the previous chapter). The story is isolated, in that it can be completely removed from Genesis and the Bible remains pretty much historically, literarily and theologically intact. Nevertheless, I do have problems regarding the traditional interpretation of this story. Leaving aside the sciences of linguistics and glottology, which I am not qualified to address, I can still doubt that this is the explanation of the world’s differing languages based only on exegesis. In Genesis 10:6-10, we see that the descendants of Ham settled in the land of Shinar, the site of Babel. The sons of Japheth were considered to be the European peoples and Shem to be the Semitic peoples, but they were nowhere in the area when this event occurred. Did God confuse their languages as well, even though they were already scattered “abroad over the face of the whole earth”? This is a puzzling omission. Those familiar with the documentary hypothesis will understand that Genesis 10 and 11 were in all likelihood written by two separate authors, or traditions. The legend of Nimrod, descendant of Ham and the legend of the Tower may not even be related, and this explains why there is that inconsistency between the two accounts.

What is the meaning of this story? How does it have any relevance for the Christian believer in the year 2007? Christian sermons usually emphasize the moral of this story as the need to stay humble, unpretentious and spiritually hungry before God. But this story has larger implications than this that I have never heard addressed from the pulpit. YHWH confused the languages of the people, according to conservative teachers, for their own benefit! Why is this? Why did God do this? Did he feel threatened by mere humanity? I think the legend of Babel clearly implies this, but I know most people will reject this out of hand. First, YHWH being threatened by the emerging power of humanity to the point where YHWH must somehow keep humanity ignorant is a theme consistent with the Eden story.

Consider also that humanity has essentially undone that particular curse with the very tool that you are using to read this article – the internet. All variety of information is now spread across the entire globe at lightning speed. Proper education and technology have rendered language barriers as a mere hindrance to effective communication. At the same time, humanity has accomplished wonders that would make us appear godlike to the crude tribes of Shinar. Our architectural marvels alone make the ziggurats of Babel appear as mudhills. Venus and Mars, luminaries which the ancients worshiped as gods, are now nothing more than real estate for our exploration and scientific whimsy. Our modern pool of knowledge has left the Bronze Age pride of the Semitic tribes in the dust, and pride in our accomplishments has increased accordingly.

With this in mind, how in the world does the Christian reading of the Tower of Babel make any sense? How is it relevant to us in our modern world? Is God angry at us for our knowledge, for our accomplishments, for our explorations, for our attempts at making this world a much better place? Or would he just as soon keep us ignorant, as he forced ignorance onto those who would dare build a giant mudbrick ziggurat?

The response of God to the ziggurat builders on the Plains of Shinar was destruction, confusion and scattering. What should his response be to us?

- HeIsSailing

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Garden of the Gods Declaring War on ‘Saint’ Paul

12 Comments Add your own

  • 1. Jon Featherstone  |  July 21, 2007 at 6:39 pm

    My humble answer to this magnificent post is that humanity appears to pass thorough “ages”, and that with the transition of each age into another God makes a fundamental change in how he/she reveals him/herself to mankind. Jesus himself used this language, referring to “the age to come” and “the age of the Gentiles”. If (if) this is true, then you have to read this Babel story in the context of the age in which it occured. I doubt that any of the factors influencing how “God” behaves in this story are still relevant in this day and age. Just as many aspects of the OT have been superceeded or modified by the NT, I wonder whether we are now moving again into a new “post-Christianity” age, where now a lot of the “Christian age” teaching is being superceeded or modified. If so, the Genesis myths are so old and out of date one has to wonder why you would even bother discussing them at all, any more than go back over arguments of why the earth is flat or that the sun revolves around the earth. My 2 cents worth – feel free to delete if off-topic.
    Jon

  • 2. HeIsSailing  |  July 22, 2007 at 12:16 pm

    Jon Featherstone sez:

    If so, the Genesis myths are so old and out of date one has to wonder why you would even bother discussing them at all, any more than go back over arguments of why the earth is flat or that the sun revolves around the earth.

    Hi Jon. I am discussing this topic because 1) I do love them as stories, and find them interesting, 2) because modern and otherwise intelligent people DO take them seriously and as literal truth. Can such stories and myths have relevence for us today? Absolutely! Because that is what myth is. You allegorize it into whatever purpose or relevance that you wish, and that is the beauty of such stories. Consider the reply by Epiphanist:

    This is the relevance of the Babel story. Communication with your neighbour is much more important than hunting for a pie in the sky.

    Makes sense to me. And the myth building contines…

    But unfortunately, I was raised to think this, and everything else in Genesis 1-11 was literal truth. I wrote this article to show the absurdities of drawing these as literal stories from about an unchanging God into our modern world, despite the attempts of many.

    Jon:

    My 2 cents worth – feel free to delete if off-topic.

    hehe – going off topic is par for the course around these parts.

  • 3. Stephen (aka Q)  |  July 22, 2007 at 4:24 pm

    I agree with your objections to the story as literal history. Indeed, I would add that the whole Bible assumes a flat earth cosmology.

    In other words, the ancients pictured the cosmos as something like a shelf hanging on a wall. Below the shelf was the abode of the dead (Sheol / Hades). On the shelf, the living. And above the shelf — quite literally, “up” — were the heavens and God’s throne.

    Hence Paul’s reference in Philippians 2: every knee shall bow to Jesus, “in heaven and on earth and under the earth”. It was that era’s way of refering to the totality of the cosmos.

    I take it from your subsequent comment that you think the story of Babel might have continuing meaning, as long as we don’t interpret it literally. Again, I agree.

    I would be inclined to see the story as a warning that we will not attain ultimate knowledge by our own feeble efforts: that way lies only confusion. Instead, we must be receptive to “the foolishness of God”, as Paul once put it.

    And I don’t mean a naïve, uncritical devotion to the Bible. Rather, I’m thinking of the myriad, surprising ways in which God makes him-/herself known to us: including the biblical text, but also including the testimony of others and our own experience of life.

  • 4. The de-Convert  |  July 23, 2007 at 10:38 pm

    With this in mind, how in the world does the Christian reading of the Tower of Babel make any sense? How is it relevant to us in our modern world? Is God angry at us for our knowledge, for our accomplishments, for our explorations, for our attempts at making this world a much better place? Or would he just as soon keep us ignorant, as he forced ignorance onto those who would dare build a giant mudbrick ziggurat?

    If you were to believe this story, you’d have to say that God doesn’t want us to gain in knowledge, to collaborate together, because somehow he feels we’d somehow be a challenge to him. Doesn’t sound like an infinite God vs. finite creatures to me.

    I always thought the whole language thing was a bit strange. Similar to the whole origin of the rainbow story w/Noah and the flood.

    Paul

  • 5. superhappyjen  |  July 25, 2007 at 10:20 pm

    This is one of the stories that I heard as a child and my comment was “That’s so mean!”

    ie: “That’s so mean. Why can’t they build a tower?”
    or:
    “He drowned everybody that wasn’t on the ark? Even babies? That’s so mean!”
    or:
    “All she did was eat an apple, he didn’t have to be so mean.”

  • 6. Yvonne  |  August 12, 2007 at 4:23 pm

    @ Jen: The myth of the Flood is found in just about every mythology – again, we have to think, what does it mean on a symbolic level? Incidentally, in the Sumerian myth, the owner of the Ark is Utnapishtim. Nuah is the name of a Babylonian moon-goddess. And it was Ishtar who caused the flood in Sumerian mythology.

    I think the tower of Babel myth is similar to the myth of Atlantis – a society that was destroyed because of its technological hubris (according to New Age interpretations). That myth is once more very popular – it resonates today because of the dangers of global warming. And the tower of Babel story resonates similarly because we could destroy ourselves with our technology.

  • [...] Related Post: Ignorance is Bliss: The Origin of Languages [...]

  • 8. YHVH - Conqueror of the Chaos Monsters « de-conversion  |  September 18, 2007 at 6:57 pm

    [...] ancient myths makes, in most cases, the most reasonable interpretation. As I have written about several times on this blogsite, I love this mythology, but it just does not fit the orthodox [...]

  • 9. Satan: The Greatest Bible Myth « de-conversion  |  April 3, 2008 at 11:20 pm

    [...] several myths of the Bible including the Leviathan, the creation story, the tower of Babel, and the origins of languages. I wrote an entry on the Exodus. However, I believe one of the greatest myths of the Bible is the [...]

  • 10. Ok! Ok! Maybe I never believed… « de-conversion  |  October 12, 2008 at 7:38 pm

    [...] of the woman, Noah’s flood & the origin of the rainbow, the Tower of Babel & the origin of languages, the Exodus, the sin of homosexuality & the bigotry against gays, and a variety of other [...]

  • 11. The myth of the virgin birth of Jesus « de-conversion  |  November 1, 2009 at 12:55 pm

    [...] on several myths of the Bible including the Leviathan, the creation story, the tower of Babel, the origins of languages, and the Crucifixion story. I compiled an entry on the Exodus and wrote a short blog on the myth of [...]

  • 12. cyberpsygen7  |  June 12, 2011 at 11:56 am

    you are missing the most important part of the story, whether you believe the story or not, its out of context without it. the legend is of a time with higher technology and how much higher specifically is not mentioned. anyway, from the top of the tower one could leap into heaven BYPASSING all the regular restrictions and regulations.

    even if they couldn’t build a stargate or an ascension helping device then, all of mankind united under one ruler could eventually if that was its actual goal. i mean i could set up a “you to clone of you” head swap with today’s technology with a 85 percent chance of eternal life, its not even complicated. even though it would give all of us eternal youth, i can’t get a team of skilled but unethical doctors and a sufficiently wealthy patron (much less all of humanity) to back me up on it.

    having established the power of humanity, and that there are those of us that seek power, it is more likely the function of the tower was a lie by nimrod to gain control over that power. just like the current intentional misinterpretations and misrepresentations of our ancient mythologies are used for the same purpose today. i personally do not believe it was always as such, but its undeniably the case today.

    at any rate there are several ways this could go down, but any way you look at it, god HAS to get off his ass to fix that problem. he can’t have the entirety of earth enslaved forever and he can’t let us actually make a machine that kills all ascended beings in the galaxy or w/e else. letting either happens makes him defy his own self image as the christian god concept, like its outside of his nature and established behavior patterns.

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Whether or not you believe in God, you should live your life with love, kindness, compassion, mercy and tolerance while trying to make the world a better place. If there is no God, you have lost nothing and will have made a positive impact on those around you. If there is a benevolent God reviewing your life, you will be judged on your actions and not just on your ability to blindly believe in creeds- when there is a significant lack of evidence on how to define God or if he/she even exists.

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