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The Tower of Babel

The second installment of “Do You Really Believe That?” will examine another classic Old Testament story, the Tower of Babel. According to this story, in the days after Noah’s flood, all humanity spoke one language. Filled with pride and ambition, they came together and began to build a tower “whose top may reach unto heaven” (Genesis 11:4). God witnesses this and is upset, not because the building of the tower displays hubris, but because he actually fears that humanity will become omnipotent if they complete the tower (11:6). He responds by afflicting them with different languages so that they could no longer understand each other, causing them to scatter across the face of the earth, leaving the tower unfinished.

Again, like Noah’s flood, there are theists who take this story seriously and believe it actually happened, despite its numerous and obvious absurdities. Here’s one such:

As is evident from the above, I believe that the account of Genesis 11 has a solid historical foundation in early Mesopotamia. The details are authentic and realistic. The identification of the urbanization process and the accompanying development of the ziggurat with fundamental changes in the religious perspectives of the people demonstrates the keen analytical insight of the Biblical author.

First of all, what was it about this tower that drew God’s punishment? Human beings today regularly rear skyscrapers and other structures that far surpass anything that primitive people working with mud bricks could have built. The Christian Answers site linked above claims that it was not the height of the tower that invited doom, but its devotion to the pagan Babylonian gods. But even so, we regularly build statues, mosques and other edifices to religions which the Bible claims are false. Why have none of the builders of these structures been stricken with curses? Has God calmed down, so that hubris in the present era enrages him less than hubris of past eras? Or is it simply that, in superstitious and pre-scientific times, miracles could be claimed with less fear of contradiction?

Second: What did God fear the builders would achieve? The Christian Answers site says he was merely jealous of the tower’s devotion to gods other than himself. This is a classic example of smoothing out the rough edges, where subtle theological explanations developed over centuries are blithely read back into the crude, primitive fairy tales that religions start out as, as if that was the author’s intent all along. The Bible says explicitly why God sent his curse:

And the Lord said, Behold, the people is one, and they have all one language; and this they begin to do: and now nothing will be restrained from them, which they have imagined to do.

According to Genesis, God was worried that human beings would become too powerful for him to control if they learned to work together. Thus, his only choice was to keep them divided and separate, prevented from cooperating by barriers of mutual incomprehension. This is, ironically, a fairly good allegory for the effect religion has actually had on the world. But in the context of a literal event, it makes no sense whatsoever. If God was truly all-powerful, it would hardly matter whether people worked together or not. (On the other hand, if the earlier parts of the Old Testament envisioned God as a tribal deity, superhuman but not omnipotent, then this passage makes considerably more sense.)

Third: Why would the confusion of tongues cause the people to give up and scatter? If I woke up one morning mysteriously unable to communicate with my family and friends, I certainly wouldn’t abandon them and flee into the wilderness. Why wouldn’t the people of Babel stay together? Even if they couldn’t communicate, their situation would be no worse than that of many foreign cultures meeting for the first time. (It certainly doesn’t prevent the diplomats of the United Nations from working together.) Over time they could learn each other’s new languages, develop pidgins and creoles, and finally be able to speak again and resume building the tower. Not only was the punishment bizarre, it seems as if it shouldn’t even have been effective.

But the final nail in the coffin of the Babel story is our subsequent understanding of linguistic evolution. Languages did not suddenly appear all at once, the way the biblical authors evidently imagined and tried to explain with this silly fairy tale. Instead, languages drift apart and evolve from each other over long periods of time, with accents becoming dialects becoming whole new tongues. (This Talk.Origins Post of the Month gives some examples of the evolution of English.) Though the ultimate roots of human language may be lost to prehistory, we can trace this evolution backwards to see how many languages, including Hebrew and other Ancient Near East tongues, diversified from each other in a given time period. The linguistic evidence offers no support for the idea that humanity was ever united by a single tongue, nor that the varying languages all appeared at once in a sudden event. Like many biblical stories, the Tower of Babel is a tall tale with no basis in evidence or reality, and so I ask: Do you really believe that?

Other posts in this series:

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DAYLIGHT ATHEISM Adam Lee is an atheist author and speaker from New York City. His previously published books include "Daylight Atheism," "Meta: On God, the Big Questions, and the Just City," and most...