Let’s Read Literally: The Tower of Babel
Last month I wrote a post titled Ascension Day and Astronaut Jesus as part of some conversation around the biblioblogosphere on reading biblical texts literally. Today I would like to look at another narrative: the Tower of Babel. The story is famous enough that I’m sure you know the gist of it, but it’s also short enough that you can read it really quick.
Now the whole earth had one language and the same words. 2 And as they migrated from the east,a they came upon a plain in the land of Shinar and settled there. 3 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. 4 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; otherwise we shall be scattered abroad upon the face of the whole earth.” 5 The LORD came down to see the city and the tower, which mortals had built. 6 And the LORD said, “Look, they are one people, and they have all one language; and this is only the beginning of what they will do; nothing that they propose to do will now be impossible for them. 7 Come, let us go down, and confuse their language there, so that they will not understand one another’s speech.” 8 So the LORD scattered them abroad from there over the face of all the earth, and they left off building the city. 9 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.
Please, be aware that I have a theology degree, so I understand the arguments for accommodation and anthropomorphic language… this is more aimed at the mindset that demands that we need to read Genesis more literally! I’ll give you one guess who lays that false fundamental at their followers’ feet.
But still: does this account portray the abstract ideal God of systematic theology? Is this a story that coheres in any real physical way with what we know about our atmosphere, solar system, and galaxy?
Over the centuries theologians have come up with a lot of fancy words to describe God. One of these words is omnipresent: God is everywhere. But where is God in this story? He’s in heaven and he has to ‘come down’ to see what’s going on at Babel. Why is that? The answer is simple: the people who wrote the Bible thought they lived in a giant snow-globe:
God’s way up in heaven, and the waters above and the firmament are in his way, so he has to come down to see the city and tower. Now, of course, we all know (or darn well should) that the earth is not flat and it most definitely is not a snow-globe. However, some people’s conception of God is often still of him as ‘up there’:
When Ancient Cosmologies Inform Modern Sensibilities
Whose hands are raised towards heaven?
Another thing you’ll hear about God a lot if you hang out with enough Christians is that he is omniscient. Right away, the first obvious question: then why did he have to come down to see the city; he should know! But there’s more. Upon seeing the city and the tower God supposedly says, “Look, they are one people, and they have all one language; and this is only the beginning of what they will do; nothing that they propose to do will now be impossible for them. Come, let us go down, and confuse their language there, so that they will not understand one another’s speech.”
Some small nagging concerns:
One, there have been large groups of people throughout history that have spoken the same language and many things have been quite impossible for them!
Two, exactly what was God worried they would accomplish in the Bronze age that hasn’t been accomplished in the last hundred years? Airplanes? Space flight? Computers? Maybe he was worried that if everyone spoke the same language people would have learned to wash their hands and avoid vermin before the black plague?
I mean really, from the first chapters in Genesis we supposed to believe that God created the world. Shouldn’t he know about the stratosphere and the lack of oxygen if they get too high with the tower. Did he really have to confuse language? Couldn’t he have just waited until they all passed out and then floated a scroll down from heaven with Ecclesiastes 5:2 on it?
Instead he scattered language… and what did that accomplish? Different people groups who didn’t understand each other and fighting wars and killing each other.
Well, at least it keeps the population down so they don’t unite and build a tower to heaven!