The Tower of Babel

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    As our collective knowledge of the world increases and improves, things that once seemed perfectly reasonable stand exposed as false to Reality. If our beliefs about the fundamental nature of Reality are founded on such things, that exposure can be terribly distressing. It may be so distressing that some people reject modern knowledge and insist that the sources of their belief stand in perfect accord with Reality, that they are, in every word, absolutely true to Reality. That proposition is sufficient to explain Creationism.

    But that refusal to accept new knowledge can cheapen their belief and prevent them from discovering that it was misguided from the start. We can see that fact reflected in the story of the Tower of Babel (Gen:1-9):

    Now the whole earth had one language and few words. And as men migrated from the east, they found a plain in the land of Shinar and settled there. And they said to one another, "Come, let us make bricks, and burn them thoroughly." And they had brick for stone, and bitumen for mortar.

    Then they said, "Come, let us build ourselves a city, and a tower with its top in the heavens, and let us make a name for ourselves, lest we be scattered abroad upon the face of the whole earth." And the LORD came down to see the city and the tower, which the sons of men had built. And the LORD said, "Behold, they are one people, and they have all one language; and this is only the beginning of what they will do; and nothing that they propose to do will now be impossible for them. Come, let us go down, and there confuse their language, that they may not understand one anotherís speech." So the LORD scattered them abroad from there over the face of all the earth, and they left off building the city. Therefore it was called Babel, because there the LORD confused the language of all the earth; and from there the LORD scattered them abroad over the face of all the earth.

    The story takes its common name from the reference to "a tower with its top in the heavens", as if the tower is the most important element in the story. It does make clear that the story was composed by someone who had seen a Mesopotamian city with its ziggurat (made of mud brick and bitumen), likely Babylon. But when we look at the story, we see clearly that itís not the tower alone that offends God: itís the city itself and the observation that "nothing that they propose to do will now be impossible for them" that makes God decide to scramble the language and scatter the people across the world. The tower became the focus of the story, especially in classical art, for a subtle reason that reflects the Bibleís original audience.

    The stories in Genesis were composed for an audience of nomadic herders of goats, sheep, and cattle. Those people found the idea of a settled life abhorrent. We need only look at the moral taught by the story of Cain and Abel. The story states clearly that God preferred Abel the herder over Cain the farmer. In the Bronze Age world of the Hebrews farmers were the epitome of evil (after all, a farmer is going to become rather hostile if you try to graze your herds in his fields). Cities were worse - too many people jammed together and doing strange, disturbing things. So we canít really wonder at a story that imputes a hatred of cities to God.

    But then, some centuries later, the Hebrews came to live in cities themselves. Like other people around the world, they discovered that the story got one thing right - "this is only the beginning of what they will do." The Hebrew scribes would not change their sacred writings, of course, so they changed the interpretation: they shifted the emphasis onto the tower as an act of hubris.

    That seemed reasonable at the time. Some people had seen ziggurats in Mesopotamia or pyramids in Egypt and had no reason to believe that no one could build taller structures. But God would know, as we do, that a tower made of mud brick can not rise more than a few hundred feet. If the builders make the tower too tall, the pressure exerted on the bottom bricks will crush them and the tower will collapse.

    In any case, there is no paradisaical estate in the sky for a tower to reach. The ancient Hebrews had no way to know that fact, of course. They conceived the sky as a solid firmament holding back an ocean of water. Thatís why, in the story of Noahís Ark, the writer describes the "windows of the heavens" being opened to let rain fall (Gen 7:11). A real God would know, as we have discovered, that there is no firmament of Heaven: the air gets progressively thinner at higher altitudes until it is indistinguishable from vacuum. Emphasis on the tower is thus nonsense and we must come back to Godís presumed hatred of cities.

    According to the story, God so scrambled peopleís minds that they ended up speaking different, mutually incomprehensible languages and then It scattered those people far and wide. The people stopped building the city and, presumably (happy ending here), went back to being nomadic herders. Yet today the world is covered with farms and cities and even the herders have settled down, on ranches: apparently even God canít stop progress.

    Scholars tell us that the scribes who wrote the story down and incorporated it into the Old Testament lived in cities in Kínaían (Canaan, currently Israel/Palestine). Those scribes appear to have been conducting an exercise on what George Orwell called doublethink: living in and enjoying the benefits of cities while despising cities. But in this story the scribes had a lesson in the wages of human pride with a testable theory to back it up.

    The scientific method consists basically of observing some phenomenon, devising an hypothesis to explain the phenomenon, then seeking evidence to test (prove) the hypothesis. Repeat that process, modifying the hypothesis whenever you find evidence that falsifies it, and continue until the evidence only verifies your hypothesis. At that point you have a theory, an hypothesis that has been tested and verified sufficiently to give you confidence that it gives you a true picture of a little piece of Reality.

    The primary observation would have been easy for nomads to come by: travel far enough and you will encounter people who talk funny. That observation would have perplexed the Hebrews. They assumed that the entire human race descended from one family (twice), so surely everyone must speak the same words: the concept of linguistic evolution would not have occurred to them because it occurs so slowly that they had no experience with it. A phenomenon so large and widely spread as linguistic differentiation could have only one explanation for them - God did it.

    The rest of the hypothesis follows from the Hebrewsí disdain for the settled life. Having encountered the smug arrogance of farmers and city dwellers, the Hebrew storytellers assumed that their God shared their dislike for those people and would punish them for their obnoxious pride. The best punishment would be to turn the city folk into nomads, hence the talk of God scattering the people of Babel.

    To the Bronze Age mind this hypothesis presents a good explanation for the existence of different languages. Even the observation that cities, such as Babylon, Nineveh, Ur of the Chaldees, and even Yerushalayim (Jerusalem), still existed would not falsify the hypothesis, because the Hebrew scholars could not conceive a reasonable (to them) alternative hypothesis to explain the diversity of languages in the world. In the absence of an alternative, the hypothesis that we have must be accepted as true by default. The anomalies that we see would presumably have some other explanation.

    Although hints had emerged as early as the Sixteenth Century AD, an alternative came to light in the Eighteenth Century. In 1786 Sir William Jones first lectured on the similarities he had discovered among Latin, Greek, and Sanskrit while he was in India. After that linguists discovered, from studying a wider array of languages, that most of the languages of India and of Europe had evolved from a language spoken thousands of years ago in eastern Russia west of the Ural Mountains. The linguists called those people and their language Indo-European and archaeologists later discovered that they were the first people to develop and use the technology of harnessing horses as draft animals, a factor that aided their spread across Eurasia.

    The hypothesis drawn from modern linguistic studies tells us that the Indo-Europeans took their superior horse-drawn technology as they spread out of their homeland and came to dominate the people among whom they settled. When they came into new environments and met new people their language changed to accommodate the novelties. Groups that lost contact with each other changed their language in different ways until they became different languages, mutually incomprehensible. For example, north of the Alps Indo-European evolved into the precursor of the Germanic languages and south and west of the Alps it became the precursor of the Romance languages.

    Thatís how evolution, linguistic or biological, works. In a given population people may devise new ways of saying things or mutations occur and those changes get shared throughout the population through direct contact until everyone says the same things or carries the same mutation. If the population gets separated into two groups that lose contact with each other, the changes can no longer be shared and the groups evolve on separate paths, eventually becoming so different that they can no longer share changes with each other.

    Just as life began with simple forms that evolved into more complex creatures, so language began simple and evolved into something complex enough that we can describe the fundamental workings of Reality. Language likely began as hoots and screeches used to warn others of danger, much as vervet monkeys do today. Those hominids who used language, however simple, throve better than those who didnít use language and, thus, had a reproductive advantage that spread the language-use capability throughout the population and kept improving it as the hominids evolved larger brains. Eventually people could go beyond talking only about what is and could talk about what is not yet might be. We see all around us the consequences of that development. In that respect the story in Genesis got one thing right: "nothing that they propose to do will now be impossible for them."


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