Monday, October 27, 2008

The Tower of Babel

I am introducing a new feature to my blog that I am calling Stories From the Bible. In it I will discuss stories that we legions of Sunday School-educated people have, to date, taken for granted. I have discovered that these stories, when revisited and studied rationally, look absurd and false. Although this exercise is largely for my own amusement, it also serves to underline a valuable point about the so-called inerrancy of the Bible. If just one element of the Bible can be thrown into reasonable doubt, then the entire piece is suspect. If, for example, we are told that God gives a man magic hair and we find legitimate reason to doubt this, then why should we believe the rest of it? Even if the essence of the Bible is correct, (which is not something I am granting) and the details are untrustworthy, then the entire thing collapses and, even if God is planning a fiery judgment for us, then he is unjust for expecting us mere mortals to figure out the details of a poorly-written, ancient and unprovable revelation. Let's begin!

The story of the Tower of Babel has special significance for me as an atheist because, although ther was never any 'lightning bolt of reason' that changed my mind about God, this is one of the first items that struck me as profoundly mythical and completely unrealistic.
Genesis 11:1-9
1 Now the whole world had one language and a common speech. 2 As men moved eastward, [a] they found a plain in Shinar [b] and settled there. 3 They said to each other, "Come, let's make bricks and bake them thoroughly." They used brick instead of stone, and tar for mortar. 4 Then they said, "Come, let us build ourselves a city, with a tower that reaches to the heavens, so that we may make a name for ourselves and not be scattered over the face of the whole earth." 5 But the LORD came down to see the city and the tower that the men were building. 6 The LORD said, "If as one people speaking the same language they have begun to do this, then nothing they plan to do will be impossible for them. 7 Come, let us go down and confuse their language so they will not understand each other." 8 So the LORD scattered them from there over all the earth, and they stopped building the city. 9 That is why it was called Babel [c] —because there the LORD confused the language of the whole world. From there the LORD scattered them over the face of the whole earth.

I was surprised when I reread this to find no mention of a desire to defeat God, no statement of humanity's intent to prove a point, and very little hubris. This was the Sunday School version of the story, by the way: these men wanted to prove that they were superior to God, so they tried to build a tower, therefore they deserved what they got. But that isn't really what is written here. Unless there is a translation that specifically states the mortals' goal otherwise, it seems that their only wish was to stay together. Which seems to me to be a very reasonable goal. In fact, I have since thought that this sounds more like a primitive science experiment. Maybe they wanted to study the stars or even the land. Maybe they wanted to build a watchtower or simply a monument to their own accomplishments, a la the Sphinx or the Pyramids or the Hanging Gardens (something that the Babylonians were able to accomplish without God sticking his supposed thumb into their plans). I know the Bible doesn't actually say any of this, but it doesn't say that they wanted to prove a point to God either. And it doesn't even say that God was trying to teach the mortals a lesson. Instead God's response sounds like any garden variety god trying to preserve his own power. In fact, look at the reason God gives in verse 6: The LORD said, "If as one people speaking the same language they have begun to do this, then nothing they plan to do will be impossible for them..." Yikes! Hey Tim LaHaye: I think I found your Antichrist.

I know that centuries of Biblical tradition have reimagined this story; have put words in "God's" mouth; have crafted a moral that does not make God look weak or petty and turns the blame back on the mere mortals. And yet none of that is there. And that's just the moral of the story. What about the mechanics of the plot? How believable is this story? Well, for one thing, it attempts to explain the emergence of vastly different languages. I'll make the assumption that these languages were as diverse as Latin, Arabic, Yiddish, Chinese, German and so on. This fits the 'think big' theme of this story. Otherwise what's the point? People built a building and God scattered them fifty miles apart by giving them different dialects? Not very impressive. And this was supposed to happen just after the flood - ignoring the population problem, how does this account for archaeological evidence that places humans in Asia over 18,000 years ago? South American civilization has been dated back to 6500 BCE, where, presumably, the people had come from Asia and down the length of the Americas. Clearly, science does not support this story.

But what if this were simply a symbolic story where the principle is what is important? I'll come back to the principle in a moment, but the problem with labelling nonsense stories as symbolic and the slightly more reasonable (or more specific) ones as literal is that the labelling is done by someone with a conflict of interest. Saying this story is real and that one is not is a transparently obvious way of acknowledging the falsity of the Bible without ceding any ground to reason. But what is the principle at stake here? It's basically what Homer says: "So you tried and failed. The lesson here is: Don't try."

I welcome comments so long as they make sense.

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