Sunday, January 09, 2011

The Tower of Babel and Heaven's Staircase

Last week was the first week that I ever told my children that a story in the Bible wasn't true, in the sense of historical, literal fact.

We were actually on the way to church and DH was trying to see if they noticed that one of their Yu-Gi-Oh card references, which was a power called babel, was actually a biblical reference. The power of the particular game card caused confusion for your opponent.
Genesis 11:1-9
1 Now the whole world had one language and a common speech. 2 As people moved eastward, they found a plain in Shinar 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; otherwise we will be scattered over the face of the whole earth.”

5 But the LORD came down to see the city and the tower the people 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--because there the LORD confused the language of the whole world. From there the LORD scattered them over the face of the whole earth.
Eventually, we had to make the connection to the Tower of Babel for them, at which point they said, "Oh....yeah!" Reminding them of the story led them to speculate about what the first, original language was

This was when I broached the idea that some stories are meant to explain ideas and may not be literally true....that there may never have been one original language, but that the story was a way to explain the world as the writer saw it.

What's funny is that, by complete coincidence, DoOrDoNot has a post up about the Tower of Babel right now poking fun at taking it literally. She quotes a parody of "All True Bible Stories for Children". It's funny but also beware that you may be offended by the parodist's parody, not of the text, but of the simpleton attitude portrayed by the literal interpreters of the text.

As a literal story, the Tower of Babel makes no sense to most of us. Why does God care if we cooperate? Why does he want humanity to be confused and separate? Why does he seem afraid of what they might be able to accomplish?

It doesn't make sense. Isn't God the one who wants to live in peace? Isn't God the one who wants us to cooperate within our communities?

Why would he do such a thing? Why would the author of the story cast God in such a light?

The book I am currently reading, Joseph's Bones, by Jerome M. Segal, proposes that God is fearful about man's accomplishments and development of technology; the ability to make bricks and mortar rather than having to rely on stone. They have learned to create things:
...Mankind has an awareness of danger, senses the importance of being unified, and successfully carries out a breakthrough project of technological and social accomplishment.

God experiences the power it represents. He projects it forward, saying that if this is what mankind can do at this early stage, then ultimately nothing, "will be out of their reach." Such a belief is not unlike the belief that if mankind does not blow itself up first, through science, we will will ultimately be able to conquer every constraint.

In the Babel story God expresses a fear of an ever-expanding human capability, a fear of human reach. He envisions that humans will develop powers that will make them godlike, able to achieve whatever they desire.(pg. 88)
I think Segal is right that the story portrays a God fearful of humanity, but I think he gets the motivation slightly wrong. The goal of humanity, in the story, is to build a tower that reaches up to the heavens.

The "heavens" as we think of them today, are simply what we would call stars, or the space filled with the sun, moon and stars. We know what stars are. We have some sense of distance, and matter and the meaning of their movements.

Now imagine a world in which you knew nothing about space, or stars, or celestial phenomena. You would see these incredible lights in the sky, moving predictably for the most part, except for the occasional eclipse, or comet, or meteorite. You wouldn't know what the movements represented, but your culture may have realized that certain heavenly bodies had cycles, like the phases of the moon, or that the sun shone less in winter than it did in summer. You would think that these celestial movements meant something. You might even ascribe personalities to them, or associate them with gods or powerful beings.

Whatever the case, the imagination could populate the heavens with power and beauty that was out of reach, yet somehow also a part of the Earth.

You would have no conception that there were other planets...or even what the word "planet" meant. You wouldn't imagine that there were other "earths" out there with other "suns". The universe was probably a single connected place in your mind.

And the heavens...well they must be where God, or the gods, lived. Because no one ever saw God, or gods, on earth. And....the night sky instilled such wonder in people. Just looking at it can give modern people chills, how much more wondrous did it seem to ancient peoples?


So, assuming that an ancient people believed that "heaven" was where God lived, and that it was a physical location directly above earth, what would it mean for people to build a tower to the heavens?

Could it be that they imagined that they would be able to enter the place where God dwelt? That if the tower was high enough they could knock on his front door?

This conception of God being "up there" wasn't far-fetched in ancient cosmology. When Jacob has a dream/vision at Bethel, he sees angels ascending and descending a "ladder" that reaches from the earth into heaven.

So, when the people decide to build a Tower to heaven, this is a direct threat to God. They will soon be on his doorstep. They will be powerful. They may war against him.

In that context, one in which Heaven is a physical place that could be reached if humanity had the resources to get there, the story of the Tower of Babel makes sense. It is comprehensible. It holds together.

God is keeping humanity from cooperating together in order to prevent a physical intrusion of his dwelling place. He is preventing that in the same way he prevented Adam and Eve from returning to the Garden of Eden, through a physical guard; cherubim and a flaming sword.

If taken in that context, God's move to confuse humanity with different languages and cultures is not arbitrary. He is guarding his home and pre-empting an unwelcome invasion of his space.

The problem that anyone trying to interpret the story literally will have, is that a story which made sense 3,000 years ago, makes no sense today. We know, now, that no matter how high the Tower of Babel became, they were never going to reach Heaven's doorstep....and because we know that, we also know that God would have no reason to fear a million such towers...and because we know that the motivation imputed to God in the story is based on a conception of the world which was based in ancient, incorrect cosmology....the story has lost any sense for us.

This particular story is so reliant upon ancient, cultural context, that to take it literally in our modern times, is to make God an arbitrary trickster. Wouldn't he have gotten a bigger laugh by letting humanity build their towers and discover couldn't reach Him that way?

What's the old proverb?

Man plans, God laughs.


DoOrDoNot said...

I was just talking with my husband yesterday about how we talk about the Bible with our kids, and in particular, the Noah's Ark story. I was trying to get a feel for his reaction if I began helping them understanding some of the stories more as myth than literal historical events.

I hadn't thought through how ancient cosmology would have impacted the way the Biblical writers composed the Tower of Babel story, giving God just cause for confusing mankind, but I like your assessment. It makes much more sense than what I heard growing up.

terri said...


Knowing how to talk about things with the kids is probably the hardest thing about where I am at. When dealing with the creation stories, I have taken the route of presenting it in light of differing opinions that people brief outlines about YEC, Old Earth, and evolution.

I have never told them outright that the world was created in 6 days...or that the creation story is entirely myth.

Mainly....because I haven't known how to and out of respect for my husband. These children are not just mine, and I wouldn't want to make interpretive choices for our kids that would make my husband uncomfortable.

So, I have simply stayed silent on many things, or presented various views that different people have thought over the years when talking about "controversial" subjects.

As my children get older I will be more upfront with them. My oldest is very concerned with rules and what's "right" and he takes the concept of God and right action very seriously.

I want to do my best to respect that spark, because even though I have my doubts, I recognize how special that spark is and I don't ever want to do anything to put it out.

At the same time....I don't want him to have to struggle with some of the things that I have had to struggle with. Yet, he will also have to find his own we all do. It may be the things that have been problems for me will not have any effect on him at all.

Matt said...

Hi Terri,

I found your blog via James McGrath. This post reminded me of when my mother first told me about the Tower of Babble when I was an elementary school student. I asked her, "Does everyone believe this?" and she said, "No." Then I said, "I don't really believe this ether." We never really talked about it again after that.

PS I really like how you discuss how you talk to your children about these things. I don't have children but when I read more intellectual takes on Bible stories I always wonder how that would look in a good Sunday school class.

Robert Hagedorn said...

Yes, from the very literal beginning some things in the Bible have not been literally true. But literal truth is not the only truth that exists. Please do a search: The First Scandal Adam and Eve.

james said...

Whether you take it literally or not the story certainly reflects something real--it is recapitulated in committee meetings every day. Half the disputes are real, and half are language/people talking past each other...

terri said...


I actually agree with you. Actually not that long a go I posted on the Tower of Babel and remarked that it had an incredible insight for an ancient....that if humanity "spoke the same language" literally, or culturally, that humankind had the potential to do very great things.

I think that we all instinctively think that at times. The story, while acknowledging this potential, also portrays reality as it really is....humankind divided, confused and scattered upon the earth.

The story portrays this as God's doing....making him the antagonist against humanity, willing to break us up in order to maintain control.

It's a very strange story to our modern ears.....but it does capture the human condition.

The "untrue" part that I am more concerned with is the portrayal of God as an active antagonist. That was not an uncommon portrayal in the earliest parts of the Old Testament....but I think it is born out of sense that the Israelites had that everything that happened...happened that way because God willed it to be that way.

Assistant Village Idiot said...

james - great point.

Here's an interesting addition. I don't believe the Tower of Babel story is literally true. Linguists can shoot that full of holes pretty quickly. However, it was widely believed until quite recently (in academic history) that there was not an original language, or at minimum, that even the echoes of such were so remote that we could not prove it. The evidence that there was a single original language exploding into significance around 70,000 BC in East Africa - as opposed to independent development in many places - is now quite strong. We did all speak the same language in the remote past.

Does the Genesis story preserve this knowledge via oral tradition over tens of thousands of years, or is it a parable of human understanding - an oblique account of the encounter of Semitic speakers with Turkic and Indo-European languages? More likely the latter. But I would not rule out the former possibility. Odd, terribly odd, echoes of remote materials seem to show up in Genesis.

As for the children, you got to see some of it unfold a few years ago when I posted on this topic. I had introduced the idea of condensation into myth (not using those terms) moderately early to them, but even into highschool, they thought their Dad was merely some misinformed hippie who didn't have the courage to embrace the obvious truth of creationism. When they were middle-schoolers I asked things like, referencing Star Wars, "if you wanted to tell the story of young men who dreamed of destiny, and the need for courage and intensity, how would you tell it?" They sort of got, but not fully, that speaking in general about adolescent development was unlikely to grab the imagination, but telling the story of one young man might stand for all. Children don't even understand metaphor before age six, and abstract thought only begins around thirteen. If then. You might search my site for those references, as your own boys are now entering that territory when they cannot generate much abstract thinking, but they can follow it, and then imitate it on the way to doing it themselves.

Unknown said...

I believe it is important to look at the biblical context here. God told Noah to go forth and multiply in ALL the Earth in chapter 9. This was a command not only to Noah, but to all of humanity that came from his family. This story is less of a simple explanation for how the languages of the world came into being than it is an example of God punishing those who disobey him.

"And they said, Go to, let us build us a city and a tower, whose top may reach unto heaven; and let us make us a name, lest we be scattered abroad upon the face of the whole earth. " Genesis 11:4

It is interesting to note that God's punishment pretty fairly fits the crime. In direct contrast to His mandate to go and populate the whole earth, humanity decided to build a great city where they all would live in one lump. God then forcibly broke them up by confounding their speech, thus separating them in a very effective way.

From what I've said above, I'm sure it is already obvious that I believe this as an actual historical event. As they say, reality is often stranger than fiction. (I hope you don't hold it against me ^^)