Ignorance is Bliss: The Origin of Languages?
Yesterday, 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?