Questions of the Tower of Babel for EC

So, I have a question for the community at large to see where everyone stands on the event that takes place in Genesis 11. My questions are this.

  1. Was the Tower of Babel a real historical event or is it a allegory. If it is an allegory then what is the theme or meaning behind it?
  2. When and possibly where did this event take place?
  3. At what extant was the confusion of languages? Was it global or was it local?

I consider Genesis 1-11 as pre-history and therefore don’t expect to find any correspondence with actual history. The Tower of Babel probably has a bit of actual history in it, the construction of ziggurats, but the confusion of languages never happened.

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Whether the actual tower was real or metaphor is of no significance. The point was that God had to prevent a repetition of what led to the flood. The story makes it quite clear that whether real or not, the point of the tower was keep mankind united in a single civilization. But God already saw the result of this in a world where mankind thought only of evil continually. So God employed an evolutionary strategy of competition between cultures and nations, for this would put a limit how how degraded they could be without having neighboring nations conquer them.

The name is rather suggestive and most evidence agrees that the earliest civilizations were in Mesopotamia

The point was to prevent mankind from keeping together in a single culture and civilization. So God encouraged people to migrate and spread the ideas of civilization around the world – no doubt taking the story of the flood with them. The multiplicity of language is a natural consequence of this.

What do you mean? We have a multiplicity of languages. …and we have considerable evidence that most languages have a common origin. Whether all languages have a single origin is conjectured but not known for sure.

So what is it exactly that did not happen? Some magical cartoon portrayal with some divine hoojoo making a bunch of different languages pop into existence instantaneously?

And that is not the point of the story.

That is what Genesis 11 says so no, the vast numbers of languages were not created overnight.

As a YEC I say yes it was a real historical event that probably took place in Mesopotamia. Since all the people were concentrated in one place it was both global and local at the same time.

This probably the origin of different races as well as different languages since each of the small language groups probably followed family groups and there would be a significant founder effect.

This is an interesting question, since the way the story was interpreted to me was that this is how people began spreading out over the globe in the first place, so in a sense it was both. I don’t have a problem seeing it as a mostly historical event, but am not sure of the scope. (I also find it a weird story now, considering that we’ve made rockets, space probes, and satellites… was God really so worried about a little tower?)

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I had wondered about this too, then I read about what Ziggurats really were. They were to bring the god down to earth. People would provide sacrifices (food) to the god, and the god would protect the people. God doesn’t work that way. God doesn’t need food. And God hadn’t told them to build this structure. Note that when the temple was built, it was on God’s terms. He didn’t even let David build it, despite David wanting to.

As far as confusion of the languages goes, I lean more toward it being the opposite of what happened in Acts 2, when everyone heard everyone else in their own language. In this case, it would be a temporary, miraculous confusion - enough to get people to stop what they’re doing. I don’t think it was the beginning of different languages in general. If it were dealing with actual languages, I would think it would just be the semitic languages.

It’s one of those things where I’m not completely sure what exactly happened, but I think the point being made is that God is the authority, not man. Humans wanted to make a name for themselves. That’s not how we’re to act.

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There was some good discussion and I typed out my take on the narrative on this thread:

I think it is important to read the story as an intro to the covenant with Abraham, not as something meant to stand on its own.

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Yeah, I’d tend to agree. Like the flood, the “earth” mentioned in this story is probably simply referring to one land, as they had no concept of a globe.

Part of why I find the story weird is what God says after seeing the tower:

now nothing which they purpose to do will be impossible for them.

It sounds almost as if he’s worried about their growing use of technology, not offended that they offered him food.

This is also the view I have as well with the Tower (Ziggurat) of Babel. The people thought they could charm and twist God’s arm into not flooding the world again and spreading them about but God had the last laugh. I see the confusion of languages as real but in a local extant and believe it created a majority of the ancient and later on modern languages of the Middle East and maybe even the Caucasus regions. Of course the languages would break apart and change over time but this adds to the idea of it being great in extant but local.

It could be a mix of both, in that the people were doing a type of worship that the LORD hadn’t stated to be used. Perhaps, it was the issue that the technology was being used for all the wrong reasons other then what God would have intended for them to use it.

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No it does not say that. None of it, and this is certainly NOT the point of the story. That is an interpretation and a rather childish one at that. There is not even the time markers which are found in Genesis 1 which the majority do not take seriously so there is even less reason to think this is telling of languages popping into existence in an instant than to think Genesis 1 is telling of animals, plants and stars popping into in existence in an instant.

The point of the story is that God saw a good reason for mankind to be divided into many languages and cultures rather than united in a single language and culture. And that reason is demonstrated in the bigger story and this reason is believable.

No. This adding words to the text. There is nothing about technology OR about worshiping. What does the text actually say?

Behold they are one people, and they all have one language…

This is the reason God is wary about what they will do. After all this is what actually He changed. It is not about technology (at least not like those of building) but about organization and power over people. And He says…

“This is only the beginning of what they will do…”

What is God talking about here? To be sure many insert a theology of God’s absolute knowledge of the future and thus imagine that God doesn’t like us to be capable of doing anything. But if you set that theological INSERTION aside, then what naturally comes to mind is what God already saw people do in the past before the flood. He saw that mankind united in a single language, culture, and civilization resulted in a mankind dominated by evil continually.

Just a few observations about the text I wonder about:

11 Now the whole world had one language and a common speech. 2 As people moved eastward,[a] they found a plain in Shinar[b] and settled there.

So…The whole world lived in a plain in Shinar? Small world, isn’t it?

Then:
8 So the Lord scattered them from there over all the earth…

My question is which happened first, the scattering, or the confusion of languages. It is actually understandable that scattering causes languages to differentiate and may be the means God used, where the different languages were the effect, rather than the cause.

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It would appear that all of us, including you, are going beyond what the text actually says, because God chose not to share his entire reasoning process with us. There is also nothing in the text here about “before the flood,” so just because it naturally comes to mind for you does not mean others’ observations (about technology or worship) are wrong.

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Its really no surprise. The text is vague as it is with what small details it gives and we are naturally trying to fill in the blanks and have it all make sense. The reason for the building of the Tower and the Scattering of the Nations might be for a reason that is far beyond our 21st century Western minds to understand.

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That’s very possible. I’m sure in our zeal to form a complete understanding we are capable of overlooking things that would be obvious to the people of the day. I appreciate how discussions like these can bring up aspects of stories that aren’t immediately apparent.

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Just as the promises to Abraham echo the commands to Adam, which NT Wright pointed out. Perhaps all of Gen. 1-11 should be read as intro to Abraham?

Tough questions. First, I should say that “allegory” is too strict and too recent to be the genre. Something more flexible, like “figurative,” is a better fit, although that’s not a genre, strictly speaking. Either way, the Tower of Babel is not “historical” in the sense that the story does not give us a blow-by-blow account of an actual event that occurred.

What is the theme/meaning of the story? Walton has an essay on The Mesopotamian Background of the Tower of Babel Account and Its Implications. Although the essay is from 1995, it’s still quite good with one notable exception. Walton ends by noting that “Enmerkar and the Lord of Aratta” provides a possible reference to the confusion of languages in the early Mesopotamian literature, but the translation that Walton used has been supplanted. The earlier translation of Enmerkar spoke of one language becoming many, but the more recent translation by Vanstiphout reveals that the myth told of the opposite: mankind will speak one tongue, Sumerian. The Sumerian myth Enmerkar and the Lord of Arratta offers the earliest explanation of the origins of writing – to facilitate trade. For 2000 years, Sumerian and Akkadian cuneiform served as the de facto official language of international trade and diplomacy, an effective tool for centralized authority. As Vanstiphout put it:

The will to turn Sumer’s superiority into supremacy is the driving power of the story. This superiority is shown by pointing out Sumer’s superior ethics (cleverness instead of war; technologies for the good of all mankind), its superior knowledge (the technologies involved in solving the unsolvable; writing), its superior organization (setting up techniques and ways of international intercourse; writing again) – in short, its superiority per se (Sumerian). Sumerian here stands, with writing, for the whole Sumerian system of government, nationally and internationally.

As with the rest of Genesis 1-11, the story of Babel functions as polemic against the ANE mythology of empire. YHWH’s descent to confuse their language is for judgment and liberation, and the sin of Babel is not limited to idolatry (cultic alone). The critique applies to all aspects of the culture of empire, Mesopotamian style. The city/tower represent the concentration of power in the hands of kings and priests, but it is not just political and religious power that they maintain over the populace; it is also economic. I don’t think the modern Christian understands that a temple was much more than a “house of worship” in the ancient world. They functioned as quasi-banks throughout most of antiquity. A temple complex was the epicenter of the political, religious, and economic life of every city. God’s intervention is a judgment against the concentration of power in the hands of the few and a liberation for the mass of slaves and peasants upon whose backs the system was built.

In The Liberating Image, Middleton says, “The implication is therefore not, as is often suggested, that Genesis 11 protests a human incursion into the divine realm (heaven). God is not the one threatened by this Promethean act of human assertion. Rather, a careful reading of Genesis 11 in the context of the primeval history suggests that Babel represents imperial civilization par excellence and that its imposed, artificial unity is a danger to the human race. God’s remedy, therefore, not only enables humanity to obey the commission of 1: 28 to fill the earth, but contributes to the diffusion of human power for the sake of humanity.” (Emphasis mine.)

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I totally agree that there is no such thing as an interpretation-free reading of the text. Psychologists have demonstrated that we cannot even look at things in front of us without our beliefs playing a part in how we convert the raw data of the senses into an awareness of the environment. Even without actually inserting things into the text, we have a filter through which what we read passes in order to give the text meaning.

But with that concession, I will still argue that there is a difference between connecting the dots in the flow of the narrative and imposing a system of thought that is totally external to the text. This is not even to say that I am completely free of the latter. Modern science is pretty obvious filter in my case, and one which is unavoidable due to my background, because passing that filter in a meaningful way is a precondition for me to find text at all valuable and worth reading. On the other hand, the fact that I was not raised or indoctrinated in a Christian community made my first readings of the Bible free of the filter of traditional dogmas.

The flood is in the text and not only does it immediately precede this story but clearly God wiping out the vast majority of humanity is a rather significant event – not only that but the description of what drove God is rather extreme…

The Lord saw that the wickedness of man was great in the earth, and that every imagination of the thoughts of his heart was only evil continually. 6 And the Lord was sorry that he had made man on the earth, and it grieved him to his heart.

Surely an event of such deep anguish and significance must color the events which follow immediately after. In this case what naturally comes to mind is a logic so strong that avoiding it would be a little strange.

Well quoted indeed! Thank you.

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Yeah, it makes sense to consider the connection in the narrative. And yet God’s methods of dealing with both sets of people couldn’t be more different. That’s what makes me think there’s more to it than just the potential for the people to do evil – that makes it look like God has somehow “evolved” in his understanding and thought “Eh, I’ll go a bit easier on them this time.”

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Look at the whole sweep. Genesis 1 rejects the Mesopotamian model of kingship that says the king is the representative/image of the gods. Rather, all of humanity - both male and female - are the image of God. Genesis 2-3 rejects the Mesopotamian mythology that humanity was created as the “slave labor” to provide the gods with food and rest. Gen. 4-5 show humanity engaged in culture-making both good and bad, which ANE mythology said was the job of kings. ANE flood myths blame the disaster on the capriciousness of the gods; Genesis 6-9 provide the counterargument – human violence and bloodshed. Which brings us to the table of nations and Babel.

All in all, Genesis 1-11 is a warning against syncretism and an inoculation against the allure of Babylonian power, religion, and culture.

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