The Tower of Babel caught my eye after having decided to read my bible. I attended some 8 years of Hebrew School, and have read the bible before, but it has been a long time. I can’t quote passages from it on a whim, nor do I know it half as well as I know the Silmarillion, which is my preferred historical account as far as scripture goes.
My intent is not to mock the book, but to critique it with the same analysis I would offer any literature, and put it into context with what Christians profess to be an omniscient, omnipotent, and benevolent god that loves us.
While I intend to read and dissect many passages, this seemed as good a point to start as any. One needs not always move in a linear direction. The Tower of Babel is story that could be interpreted as the hubris of Man humbled by their Lord, or a fearful god descending upon his own people to intentionally inflict discord.
The Tower Of Babel
Now the whole world had one language and a common speech. As men moved eastward, they found a plain in Shinar and settled there.
They said to each other, “Come, let’s make bricks and bake them thoroughly.” They used bricks instead of stone, and tar for mortar. 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 to be scattered over the face of the whole earth.”
But the Lord came down to see the city and the tower that the men were building. 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. Come, let us go down and confuse their language so they will not understand each other.”
So the Lord scattered them from there over all the earth, and they stopped building the city. 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. — Genesis 10:15, as read from the international version of the Bible, published by The Zondervan Corporation.
I take care to cite what copy of the bible I’m reading as I welcome any readers to submit alternative translations in the comments for me to answer to. Preferably these should be of a more ancient and ‘credible’ variety. This passage, in the form I have presented above, may well be the commonly agreed upon and perfectly acceptable version in which to present that shall meet with no obstacle, but it’s important at least to acknowledge the many translations over the years.
Declaring The End From The Beginning
One of the first things that came to my mind when reading this was an argument Frank Turek referred to many times in a recent debate with David Silverman. In the debate the topic of free will was often discussed, and that Man was given free will because without it, there could be no love, though in consequence there was also sin, and if one dies with sin, who has not accepted Jesus, they will be without god for eternity in hell.
Frank Turek does defend the concept that god ‘knows the end from the beginning’, when asserting god’s omniscience. This seems to be supported in Isaiah 46:10.
“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.” – Yahweh
This passage infers that god did not foresee that Man would go about the construction of the Tower of Babel, or that if they worked together with one single language and purpose, that they would be able to accomplish anything. He had to, come down to see the city and the tower that the men were building, and his reaction appears to be one of revelation of what Man is capable of, and of fear of what they might accomplish. His reaction also seems counter to the biblical interpretation of Man having free will – or at least enforces the notion that Man has free will up to the point it displeases god and he imposes his will upon Man.
What motive would an all powerful, all knowing, ever present god who is benevolent have for scattering the people across the world, leaving them speaking in tongues one another could not understand, to ensure that they would not be able to work together to construct such a feat?
I will do my best, out of fairness, to try and make the argument for god’s good intentions within the context of this passage. God saw that Man had fallen under the spell of hubris, and that as his creation they could not truly grow without the challenges of a divisive world, learning to overcome the hurdles of clashing cultures and foreign languages. He did this in the spirit of compassion, that Man might be humbled, and given a chance to build their character and learn again to live in harmony.
In writing the above passage, I felt as if I were doing mental gymnastics and being disingenuous. The Tower of Babel does not seem to be a tale of compassion or wisdom. It reads as one would expect it to when considering a tyrant happening upon his people, and in seeing their joint efforts to work as one and accomplish great deeds, reacting in fear of his own place of supreme power. In order to ensure that his people could not reach a point of unity and greatness that would match his own, or leave it unnecessary for them to worship him, he scatters them and confuses their speech, in effect setting into motion thousands of years of war and suffering.
If god knows ‘the end from the beginning’, then it follows that god knew exactly what would come to pass by collapsing the rise of civilization by scattering it and taking away the people’s ability to communicate with one another.
Only On Willful Presuppositions Can This Story Be Construed As Anything But A Fearful, Insecure Act Of Divisiveness
In closing, the passage of The Tower of Babel seems to contradict a notion of a benevolent, all knowing, and all powerful being that wants free will for his children. The only armor against this conclusion it seems would be to argue that a greater good will eventuate from this act of imposing division and disharmony upon a civilization. But given what follows in the bible, and in studying the rest of human history, and observing our present circumstances, this argument requires obstinance an faith aplenty.
It is true that positive events may rise in the wake of a disaster. Let’s take the dinosaurs for instance, if that asteroid had not brought about their extinction, mammals would not have had their chance in the sun to evolve into primates, and as such humanity would never have this hour upon the Earth. Well, positive in the relative sense. Reptiles might argue against my reasoning.
But while I understand this argument, it changes nothing that The Tower of Babel speaks of a being fearful of his own creation’s potential, and whose reaction can only be considered wise and benevolent if you already presuppose that it has to be, and even then, as I alluded to before, a display of mental gymnastics and intellectually dishonest reasoning must be made to justify this tragic tale.