The Tower of Babel and Technological Humility
by Bob Schwartz
This week’s Torah reading, Genesis 6:9-11:32, includes two very different STEM achievements.
The first is the story of Noah, with a boat big enough to hold representatives of everything that lives (but does not swim). The ark’s purpose is to save all life in the face of an ultimate disaster. It works.
The other story is the Tower of Babel, with an immensely tall structure that has no obvious or express practical purpose. It is an early and elegant literary example of “because we can” philosophy. Think of it as a giant cosmic finger by some very arrogant builders.
Giving the finger is always rude and dangerous. Here, though, there is no violent retribution and no smiting by flood or fire. Instead, the result of that technological arrogance is eternal confusion and failure to communicate.
The Hebrew Bible has lots to say about human behavior, psychology, and spirituality. But no story may have more to tell us about life today than the Tower of Babel, especially when read in conjunction with Noah.
If we think we can build a boat big enough to save us from a particular catastrophe, maybe we can. But even then, as the rest of the post-Noah biblical stories and the rest of world history demonstrate, staying dry in the flood is just the beginning of our problems.
And if we think we can just show how smart we are by concocting a bunch of oversized technological wonders, monuments of pride, we may find ourselves, as the saying goes, too clever by half.
Consequences are inevitable. Purposes are necessary. Really big towers are awesomely cool. Just be sure you know, more or less, what you’re doing and why.
And all the earth was one language, oe set of words. And it happened as they journeyed from the east that they found a valley in the land of Shinar and settled there. And they said to each other, “Come, let us bake bricks and burn them hard.” And the brick served them as stone, and bitumen served them as mortar. And they said, “Come, let us build us a city and a tower with its top in the heavens, that we may make us a name, lest we be scattered over all the earth.” And the LORD came down to see the city and the tower that the human creatures had built. And the LORD said, “As one people with one language for all, if this is what they have begun to do, now nothing they plot to do will elude them. Come, let us go down and baffle their language there so that they will not understand each other’s language.” And the LORD scattered them from there over all the earth and they left off building the city. Therefore it is called Babel, for there the LORD made the language of all the earth babble. And from there the LORD scattered them over all the earth.
The Five Books of Moses: A Translation with Commentary
This piece is concerning.
The flood story with a “Noah” character can be traced to the Sumerian culture; therefore it is not “your” story to “use.” The Hebrew bible is a mass of archaeological, logical, and historical contradiction. No evidence of 600,000 Jews (excluding children and women from that number) wandering a desert for a few decades. I’m certain a burning bush cannot communicate with humans–in fact, I’m certain a non-burning bush can communicate.
My article that deals partially with the ‘original’ flood story, sources included: http://moonlithistory.wordpress.com/2014/10/24/archaic-plagiarism-judeo-christian-tales/
Thanks. Your concern seems to be that there’s no mention that the story is borrowed or that it is unhistorical. If you have the chance to read some other of the posts about the Bible, and particularly about the Five Books, you’ll see that it is treated as a big, bold, rich, valuable, enlightening, dangerous literary work that has led and shaped billions of lives and much of world history — for better and worse. I don’t always include a disclaimer that I am not treating a biblical story as history or, for that matter, as an “original” story that the Bible writers came up with first. I hope that the language I use gets some of that point across, but maybe not.
Anyway, regarding originality, any of the better current translations and commentaries include pages of information on the sources. Also about originality in general: creatives (and the Bible writers, editors, and redactors were nothing but creative) almost always stand on the shoulders of others (inspiration, borrowing, whatever).
And as for masses of contradictions, I appreciate consistency and accuracy. But there is something to be said for trying to deal with two creation stories, or two Noah stories, or all the contradiction and illogic that fills the Bible and our world and our lives.
The garden of eden and flood story in genesis are traceable to the Sumerian culture. A first-person themed version of the “Commandments” can be found in the Egyptian Book of the Dead. These ideas and concepts were “taken,” which means the Prince God Ea is no longer the god who tells the “Noah” character to build a boat. These fables were distorted as Judaism’s own, that’s downright plagiarism. Archaeologists have been searching since the late 19th century for evidence of the Exodus story. Nothing has been found; the story is a fabrication. Therefore, the Five Books are not credible
Your point is not getting across, I’m sorry. History and logic is important, we shouldn’t close our eyes and remain stern with “Faith” that the books are “Truth.”
I’m not here to offend you, I just get a little dry when I see intelligent men and women hold up “Truth” that isn’t factually supported.
Can you explain the “Babel/babble”? That doesn’t work. Or is that just the translator’s cleverness?
It may not be an exaggeration to say that this babble/Babel question has been treated thousands of times by translators and linguists. Here is Alter’s note on the point, which is far from comprehensive, but a good summary:
“Meaning in language, as the biblical writer realized long before the influential Swiss linguist Ferdinand de Saussure, is made possible through differences between terms in the linguistic system. Here difference is subverted in the very style of the story, with the blurring of lexical boundaries culminating in God’s confounding of tongues. The Hebrew balal, to “mix” or “confuse,” represented in this translation by “baffle” and “babble,” is a polemic pun on the Akkadian “Babel,” which might actually mean “gate of the god.” As for the phonetic kinship of babble and balal, Webster’s New World Dictionary of the American Language (1966) notes that a word like “babble” occurs in a wide spectrum of languages from Greek, Latin, and Sanskrit to Norwegian, and prudently concludes, “of echoic origin; probably not of continuous derivation but recoined from common experience.””
Yup. Thats what I was looking for. Thank you, Bob. As always, informative and enjoyable reading.