Wednesday, September 14, 2005

A nation whose tongue thou shalt not understand (Gen 11:1-9)

The SAB starts the commentary on chapter 11 with a comment using the "Science and History" icon, the issue being that it is generally understood that varied languages did not appear in the world all at once, but gradually over time. Linguistics is an interesting study, and partly because my older sister had studied it in college, I've always had some interest in it. I'm not sure what methods are used to decide how old a language is; as far as linguistic history, most of what I do know is confined to a general understanding of how linguistic lineages are determined. It's fascinating to me the way that linguists can find the similarities that show that most of the languages of Europe, along with many languages of Iran, Pakistan, India and Nepal all are descended from a common linguistic ancestor that probably was spoken somewhere in the Middle East. I've heard some people speculate that all these languages being related is a sign that the Babel narrative is true, and while I suppose it's a possibility, a big problem in my mind is the fact that Hebrew itself is not part of this language family.

While of course at the time of Noah, seeing as they were only eight people who were closely related, there probably was one single language, I do consider this first verse, along with others in this chapter, to be possible hyperbole. After all, the Bible does have a few cases of clear hyperbole: verses where it says "And so-and-so was the richest man that ever lived," or "And so it remained thus until this day." In the former case, one really can't make a claim like that without knowing the future; I tend to suspect Bill Gates has more money than Solomon did. In the latter case, it has to be understood that the writer is referring to up until the time he was writing the story, certainly not up until the time the story is being read, 2-3,000 years later. Getting back to the point here, I wonder if possibly not the whole earth was speaking the same language at the time of the building of the tower, but perhaps a large portion thereof. In any case, the time scale is not fully 100% clear on where this story is meant to fit into history. Also, as with the creation story, God may have made an appearance of many years of language evolution that didn't actually occur, but I can't think of any good reason for that, so chalk that up to wild speculation on my part.

In verse four, a decision is made by the people of Babel to make a tower to reach Heaven. Although the SAB objects on scientific grounds (I assume), the Bible at no point says that this is a project that has any chance of succeeding. (Although it would be impossible to build a tower that would reach to "Heaven" as in the dwelling place of God, I wonder if it would be possible to build a tower that reached into outer space, assuming you had unlimited resources. The meaning of "heaven" is not completely clear here.) While they may have thought that they did have a chance of making it, it's fairly clear that their real purpose is to create a sense of self-importance and notoriety.

So God comes down to see the tower. This is an odd passage, and the SAB places it and many like it on the page questioning God's omniscience. This is something about God that I can't quite fathom, frankly. Doctrinally, Christians and Jews understand God to be omnipotent, omniscient, and omnipresent, but there are times when the Bible portrays God in ways that appear to contradict those attributes. In cases like this and Genesis 18:21, I believe the sense that's being conveyed is not that God does not know what's going on, nor that He's not already there in the plain of Shinar, but that since something important is going on, He's taking a moment to really fully turn His attention on it. While it's essentially figurative speech, I think there's a literal sense to it, as in the latter case, it appeared that God did physically come down to earth to deal with Sodom and Gomorrah. I suspect God was a physical presence in Babel as well.

So God does this because, as the SAB says, God is worried. However, He's not worried for exactly the reason that is cited. There is no threat to God, but there is a threat to God's order and plan for the human race. God intended the human race to spread out and cover the earth, and He did not intend them to become self-important. He notes that the more they all team up together, the more they can accomplish, but they're not accomplishing the things they were meant to accomplish. Thinking that they can get to Heaven simply by building a tower is a grave misunderstanding of the nature of Heaven and the personality of God. In a later chapter in Genesis, we'll see a structure that does reach from the earth to Heaven, and its significance.

So anyway, God figures that the best way to stop this building project and put a little humility in these folks is to make them all unable to understand each other. I actually recently had heard a sermon that touched on the subject that every time in the Bible that people find themselves against their will in the midst of people who are talking unintelligibly, it's a sign of God's disfavor upon them. Here, it's quite obvious that that's what's going on.

Finishing up this story, there are a few lingering questions about the nature of God. Whether God is singular or not is an item I already addressed, and won't go over here, since I think it was well-covered at that point. On the other hand, the SAB asks a very compelling question, straight out of ICorinthians: "Is God the author of confusion?" While I think I have what may be an adequate answer for this case, I have to admit in my weakness for honesty that I think the SAB could have bolstered its case with far more examples than this, such as ICor 1:27 (EDIT: I see the verse has since been added.) and a few choice O.T. passages in which battles were won by God confusing Israel's enemy. Those might be harder to deal with.

In one sense, there may be a misunderstanding of the passage in ICorinthians. The context is about people getting confused because they're all trying to talk at once in church rather than one at a time. Taking this into account, one might make a good case that God allows confusions for His enemies, but not for His children. On the other hand, dealing with this particular passage in Genesis, there are a few things worth noting. It can be said that these people were already confused. They were rebelling against God's wishes, which is not generally a wise thing to do, and they were attempting a task that was impossible. God didn't make them confused as much as change their confusion to another sort. It could also be said that the word here is not "confuse" but "confound", and while "confuse" seems to be a popular choice for translating this Hebrew word "balal", the KJV word choice is suggestive of something more straightforward; that is, that God didn't so much confuse them, but frustrate them. They probably still could get by, but it became much more difficult to deal with their neighbors and get things done on a communal scale. So they got the hint and quit the project.

13 comments:

Steve Wells said...

“[God is] not worried for exactly the reason that is cited. There is no threat to God, but there is a threat to God's order and plan for the human race.”

That is not what the Bible says. That is what you wish it said.

So why is he worried? Well let’s let him tell us in his own words.

“And the LORD said, Behold, the people is one, and they have all one language; and this they begin to do: and now nothing will be restrained from them, which they have imagined to do.” – Gen.11:6

He is worried that humans will be able to build a tower that reaches up to him (or them) in heaven. And that once they do that they will be able to do whatever they want to do. God is worried that hat humans will become omnipotent. (Like he is supposed to be, but apparently isn't.) So he goes down and confounds their language. That’ll stop them.

It’s a fun story to tell around the campfire. Where did all the different languages come from? Well you see, it all started when....

Oh, and I added 1 Cor.1:27 to the confusion contradiction. Thanks.

Brucker said...

"He is worried that humans will be able to build a tower that reaches up to him (or them) in heaven. And that once they do that they will be able to do whatever they want to do."

No, read again. God doesn't say that "once they do" finish their building project they'll be able to do anything; He says that "now nothing will be restrained from them". It's not something in the future God's afraid of, it's something happening in the here and now (at the time of the building) that has God concerned for their welfare.

Building a tower that reaches Heaven and becoming omnipotent just because you know how to lay bricks aren't things that make much sense. This isn't some miraculous thing in which God makes the seemingly impossible happen; this is mere human beings building a tower. The overall idea here is that in their imaginations, the humans believe that if they could just make their own way into Heaven, they won't need God. Like Adam and Eve, they're saying, "Hey, let's just do it ourselves!" And since they imagine it to be so, they live as though it is the case. No God, no religion, no morality. And God says, "No way."

Steve Wells said...

Brucker: “No, read again. God doesn't say that ‘once they do’ finish their building project they'll be able to do anything; He says that ‘now nothing will be restrained from them’.”

Okay, let’s read it again.

God: “And the LORD said, Behold, the people is one, and they have all one language; and this they begin to do: and now nothing will be restrained from them, which they have imagined to do.” – Gen.11:6

Me: “God is worried that humans will be able to build a tower that reaches up to him (or them) in heaven. And that they will be able to do whatever they want to do. God is worried that hat humans will become omnipotent. (Like he is supposed to be, but apparently isn't.) So he goes down and confounds their language. That’ll stop them.”

I think we all three agree now.

Brucker: “Building a tower that reaches Heaven and becoming omnipotent just because you know how to lay bricks aren't things that make much sense.”

It’s the bible, Brucker; it’s not supposed to make sense.

“Like Adam and Eve, they're saying, "Hey, let's just do it ourselves!" And since they imagine it to be so, they live as though it is the case. No God, no religion, no morality. And God says, ‘No way.’”

Where are you getting these things, Brucker? Not from the bible, that’s for sure. God is the one who said, “now nothing will be restrained from them.” Where in the text do the people say “No God, no religion, no morality”?

(Incidentally, Brucker, your implication here is that non-religious people are immoral. That is both offensive and untrue.

I think it’s time for you to live up to the ASAB subtitle: “An honest response”. I don’t see much of it in your responses to Gen.3:22 or 11:6. Maybe you should change your subtitle.

Brucker said...

"Incidentally, Brucker, your implication here is that non-religious people are immoral. That is both offensive and untrue."

Let me respond to this first, as it's a personal pet peeve of mine when I hear people make this claim. I don't intend to imply that only the religious can be moral people, and I do apologize if what I have said comes across as implying that. Atheists can and often are very moral people, and likewise people of religions other than Christianity are often quite moral.

What I was attempting to imply by my statement, "No God, no religion, no morality." is that the people of Babel were rejecting all of these things, which are actually three separate concepts. Now, upon reflection (and I'm glad you're drawing my attention to this, so I could rethink it) I don't think that the people of Babel really were rejecting these things, but rather that they were redefining them to suit their own tastes. They're saying "We are our own gods. Our religion is that we get to Heaven by our own power, and we'll do what we think is right morally rather than accept the morals given to us by the old God." Yes, that reads a lot into the text, I admit it; but it's what makes the most sense within the Christian theological framework.

"I think we all three agree now."

Perhaps. The subtle difference I'm trying to point out is that God's not worried about what the future will bring with this building project, He's worried about what it entails for them in the "now". Whatever power it is that they're not supposed to have, they've already got it. It seems clear that this is not omnipotence (at least not in the dictionary sense), since they are unable to stop God from stopping them. They're not all-powerful, (or becoming all-powerful) just more powerful than God wants them to be, for whatever reason.

"Where are you getting these things, Brucker? Not from the bible, that’s for sure. God is the one who said, 'now nothing will be restrained from them.' Where in the text do the people say 'No God, no religion, no morality'?"

Back in 9:1, God told the people that His plan for them was to go and fill up the earth. Rather than filling the earth, they're filling the plain of Shinar. They're leaving off from following God's plan and trusting in God to look out primarily for themselves in the way that they see fit. Both Christians and Jews believe that this is a wrong attitude, and that our purpose in life is to do things the way God wants them done.

"I think it’s time for you to live up to the ASAB subtitle: 'An honest response'. I don’t see much of it in your responses to Gen.3:22 or 11:6. Maybe you should change your subtitle."

I don't think there's anything dishonest about my responses. You may not agree with my interpretations, but this is what I believe the Bible is actually talking about. If you still have issues with Genesis 3:22, you can go back to the comments there and tell me what's still lacking. As for here, I think it's plainly clear that the people building the tower were powerful people, but they don't have God-like powers, or God wouldn't have been able to stop them.

The fact is, what God says about the people in verse six must be figurative, because He says "nothing will be restrained from them," and then, he restrains them! Like what I said about 3:22, there's an implied "...unless I stop them..." in there. I admit it's confusing, but throughout the Bible, there's a lot of implied "unless" statements. For instance, in the book of Jonah, although it's never said outright, the implication is clear that Nineveh would be destroyed unless they repented; and they did.

Steve Wells said...

Thanks for the explanation, Brucker. And sorry for questioning your honesty.

I think you are trying to be honest. It's just that I get impatient with believers when they deny that the bible says what it clearly does say -- and then add things that the bible doesn't say to make a particular passage consistent with their own theological views.

Brucker said...

Admittedly I am adding to what's there, but I think I'm reading into the text a logical understanding. If you're going to take verse six literally, then rather than an absurdity, it's a direct contradiction to verse seven and eight.

Steve Wells said...

“Admittedly I am adding to what's there, but I think I'm reading into the text a logical understanding. If you're going to take verse six literally, then rather than an absurdity, it's a direct contradiction to verse seven and eight.”

Okay, let’s look at those three verses.

11:6 And the LORD said, Behold, the people is one, and they have all one language; and this they begin to do: and now nothing will be restrained from them, which they have imagined to do.

11:7 Go to, let us go down, and there confound their language, that they may not understand one another's speech

1:8 So the LORD scattered them abroad from thence upon the face of all the earth: and they left off to build the city.

The only reason God gave for coming down and confounding their language was this: “now nothing will be restrained from them, which they have imagined to do.” He was worried that they could now do whatever they wanted, so he came down and stopped them by confounding their languages.

I agree, it is a silly story, and you’d have to be a fool to believe it. So I don’t blame you for pretending that you don’t understand what it says. (That way you can still pretend to believe it.)

But the story presented in these three verses is as consistent as it is absurd.

Brucker said...

"But the story presented in these three verses is as consistent as it is absurd."

Are you saying it's either very consistent and very absurd or inconsistent and completely mundane? I'm not sure I understand you.

In any case, it sounds like you're understanding my position, even though not agreeing with it, of course. They became too powerful, and God knocked them down a peg.

Steve Wells said...

"Are you saying it's either very consistent and very absurd or inconsistent and completely mundane? I'm not sure I understand you."

It is consistent and it is absurd.

Do you believe it actually happened, Brucker?

That at one time (about 4500 years ago?) all humans spoke the same language?
That they all came together at one place (Babel) to build a tower that would reach heaven?
That God came down from heaven and saw what they were doing and saw that they were united and spoke one language?
That God confounded their language and scattered them abroad because he worried that "now nothing will be restrained from them, which they have imagined to do"?
And that this is where the various human languages come from?

Brucker said...

> Do you believe it actually happened, Brucker?

Yes.

> That at one time (about 4500 years ago?) all humans spoke the same language?

At one time, yes, although not neccessarily at the time of Babel; there may have been more than one dialect of whatever language Noah spoke by that time.

> That they all came together at one place (Babel) to build a tower that would reach heaven?

Not everybody, but a very large portion of the world population. And I don't think they really had any chance of reaching Heaven with a tower, although whether they really thought they did, or whether it was hyperbole on their part, I do not know.

> That God came down from heaven and saw what they were doing and saw that they were united and spoke one language?

Yep.

> That God confounded their language and scattered them abroad because he worried that "now nothing will be restrained from them, which they have imagined to do"?

That's waht it says, yep.

> And that this is where the various human languages come from?

Not all by any means, but this was probably one of the main early sources of language rifts in the early world. New languages appear for a variety of unknown reasons. You know, there are over a thousand languages spoken in China today, but most of them are evolved from just a handful of ancient ancestral languages. This stuff is fascinating, and I don't know how much of it is really fully understood.

Chika Tinashe said...

see, I don't read the "confound their language" as establish numerous new ones... I see it as more of a matter of mixing things up into nonsense.

I mean honestly why would you be discouraged that some people didn't understand you. The idea that different languages were established in this moment not only seems not sensical, but it would not have the desired effect. Presumably, in order for them to procreate elsewhere after the scatter you would have to have at least two people speaking each language deciding to go off in the same direction. But if you had even one person who could understand you you'd have no reason to give up, they simply could have divided things up so that only those who spoke the same languages worked together or they could have continued as is and communicated non-verbally...regardless it would not have been catastrophic and forced them to scatter.

On the other hand, if when you went to speak the words you tried to utter came out only as jibberish you might very well be frightened enough to get as far the f*** away from where such an event took place in the hopes that it was the location that was cursed and not you--especially if everyone around you was suddenly speaking jibberish as well. I see the "confounding" more as a moment when even they could not understand themselves...sort of the antithesis of the moment of tongues in Act 2 where miraculously everyone could understand. This also makes the Babel naming more clear as well.

As for the tower to the heavens, I do not see this as a literal goal of those doing the building or the reason for God's worry...because quite frankly if this was their goal why begin in a valley?!? A valley by default would mean there are peaks to either side which would make better starting points if one had the sincere desire to achieve such a nonsensical goal as reaching the heavens. So I see it more as allegory, to symbolize the self-aggrandizing as is reinforced with the "let us make a name" portion of the remark that follows (11:4). The idea being that they were putting their own goals/desires before God's command (9:7 I believe) that they fill the earth...they were fine with the multiplying part but the scatter across the earth bit--well, why be a nomad when you can set up shop here in such a way as to remain notorious long after your demise?

Brucker said...

I think what you're saying has some plausability, but I also think you might underestimate the fear factor involved. Do you think that honestly if you woke up tomorrow and everything were the same except that nobody could understand you, that wouldn't blow your mind? Now imagine that it became clear with investigation that everyone was experiencing the same thing! How exactly are you going to have "divided things up so that only those who spoke the same languages worked together or they could have continued as is and communicated non-verbally" when *nobody* understands each other? I think it's a basis of society that we have at least a partial common method of understanding one another. I work for an international organization in which the various people speak probably hundreds of different languages, but we get by because most of us can communicate in a handful of common tongues, such as English, Spanish, French, Chinese, Arabic and Swahili. If we didn't have that, it would be far more difficult to get anything done.

Now, I do think that people weren't completely isolated. The reason I think this is because of the same reason I think that this event *was* the dividing of people into language groups: the wording of chapter 10. Quoting from 10:20, it says "after their families, after their tongues, in their countries, and in their nations." I think that chapter 10 is a genealogy, but it is also a description of the aftereffects of the event in chapter 11. I think I commented on that in the former post, but I'm not certain.

Now your point about the valley and the literal-ness of the aim of this building project is noteworthy, and as much as I think you are right, I have already noted in the post above. Where I think you may not be right is that I can think of two reasons for starting where they did (which is not called a "valley", but it's probably right to assume that they were in lowlands). First of all, I think that the reason they build a tower on the plain is the same reason they lived there: a flat surface is generally easier to work with in building things, and while a mountain would start higher, the ziggurat-style building that most people seem to think they were constructing would impose certain logistical nightmares if they had to build starting on a peak. Secondly, since their aim is primarily to build fame and secondarily to build an actual structure, they aren't going to use any help from God, including using any natural structures that God has given them to possibly build on. That's all speculation, but I think it's reasonable as anything.

Adrian said...

It would seem a strange thing to do: To destroy common language prior to creating a book which we are instructed to spread to all the nations of the world. It must have taken centuries to translate it into all the languages, and the translation of the it's words are still divisive today: Most of the Christian responses to the SAB seem to be about the mis-translation of the original and general debate about the meaning of the original Greek/Hebrew words. If it were not for Babel 'The Word of God' would be easily spread and the meaning would be clear, leading to fewer divisions and abuses. And that's not starting on 'what are we supposed to do with all these towers we now have, each one an offense to God.