Sunday, February 19, 2017

The Tower of Babel


John  in Why I Became an Atheist  considers this a myth and superstitious. Is it? Do Christians think of it as a myth?

     Well, if the pictures in Sunday school materials are any indication, they do. I especially like the one
painted in 1600 that pictures the tower of Babel pushing its way up into the clouds and the ground disappearing in the distance. Now, That is ridiculous.

     But the writer of this story could not have had anything like that in his head. He lived in the land of ziggurats. And that is what he described in his story.

     In fact, if we read the details of the tower carefully, we can pretty well establish when this tower was constructed and how it syncs with the history of the Middle East in the Sumerian period.

     Of course, John leaves that part out of his quote. But here it is from Genesis 11:
1 Now the whole world had one language and a common speech. 2 As people moved eastward, they found a plain in Shinar and settled there. 3 They said to each other, “Come, let’s make bricks and bake them thoroughly.” They used brick instead of stone, and tar for mortar. 4 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; otherwise we will be scattered over the face of the whole earth.
     Notice the technology. The tower, a ziggurat, was made out of mud bricks. That is the building material used in the ziggurats in the land we now call Iraq. (By the way, ziggurats rose to no more than 300 feet.) In fact, some of those still stand, or the ruins of them. Further, the bricks were fired. See the history of brick making  History of Brick Making In Mesopotamia mud was abundant, and rock rare, just as it is today.

     At first brick was made out of sun-dried brick. We can even find structures of that composition that remain in Iraq. But sun-dried brick is not strong enough to hold up a tall structure, so eventually the Sumerians found that firing the brick made them much stronger. And that can be seen in the ruins around Iraq.

     The Sumerians also discovered that bitumen (a petroleum substance available in the Middle East area of Iraq) was a superior mortar mixture because it gradually mixed with the fired brick to form a rock-hard material. Those technologies were first developed in the fourth millennium B.C. A high tower could not have been constructed in Mesopotamia before then.The pyramids of Egypt were taller but were made of stone and pyramidal in shape allowing for a taller edifice. They were also later in origin, circa 2500 B.C.

     Dr. John H. Walton in an article in Biblical Archaeology writes:
Then the decision to undertake the project may have come toward the end of the fourth millennium, perhaps during the Late Uruk period, or perhaps as late as the Jamdet Nasr period, when we actually have the beginning of baked brick technology. Biblical Archaeology Review
     Notice the history. There is the further evidence of the languages. Genesis 11 says that "the whole world had one language." That does not mean the whole globe. It means the whole people since the word world becomes the subject of the verb traveled. But what about the phrase "the whole world?"

     The Sumerians knew nothing about the globe. Their world was their land. (That is exactly what the word world (eretz) means in Hebrew.) So, the whole land of the Iraq region spoke one language and apparently thought of themselves as "the people" in much the same way as American Indian tribes often referred to themselves as "the people." The Wiki article on Sumer says: "Modern historians have suggested that Sumer was first permanently settled between c. 5500 and 4000 BC by a West Asian people who spoke the Sumerian language (pointing to the names of cities, rivers, basic occupations, etc., as evidence)" In other words, the Sumerians had one language at the beginning of the civilization and the time chronicled in the Tower of Babel story. Wiki Sumer

     How did building the tower result in the differentiation of languages among these people? Perhaps it was the result of urbanization associated with the building of the tower along with crowding. Crowding together of previously nomadic tribal communities built tensions between people  Eventually, those tensions tore the community apart and scattered them.  Dr. Walton speaks to this also surmising:
The project [building the tower] would then result in different (Semitic?) languages being created, or perhaps would represent the differentiation of the Semitic languages from Sumerian.
(If you are interested in a fuller examination of the archaeology of the Tower of Babel read Dr. Walton's article.)

     There is one more correlation between the biblical story and history. It is the origin of the Sumerians. The Bible says they migrated "eastward" to the land of Shinar. (Notice the similarity of the words Shinar and Sumer. The word Shinar is of ancient and foreign origin and probably the word the Sumerians used to refer to themselves and to their land.)  Shinar is the land of the Sumerians in modern southern Iraq. "Eastward" would be from the west or north of Shinar. Everyone in the west or north of Sumer would consider the land of Sumer east because travel east on early migration routes would go through the plains of Mesopotamia, even if in our geography the plains would be southeast of the northern mountains.

     Those northern mountains are where the proto-Sumerians came from. "These conjectured, prehistoric people are now called "proto-Euphrateans" or "Ubaidians", and are theorized to have evolved from the Samarra culture of northern Mesopotamia." Wiki Sumer

     Notice the religion. The tower was to reach up to the heavens. And that is exactly what the ziggurats were intended to do. At their top was a temple or a house for the god that was worshiped in the city.  

     Notice the politics. The goal was to make a name for themselves. And that may be the clue that tells us why God disrupted the building of the tower. The period of time (3000-4000 B.C.), was a period of city states. There was no consolidated nation much less an empire. But that was where the history of the Middle East was headed.

     It appears from the biblical account that it was the consolidation of the Sumerians that God desired to interrupt: "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." (The Sumerians did become an empire and a military force in the early third millennium.)

     Any answer to the question why God did this would be conjecture and theological. But it is clear in the Bible that empires are cast as dangerous to God's people and thus to God's plan for history. At a time when the people of God, Shem's family (the Semites) and ultimately Abraham, were first consolidating after the flood, an empire with powerful kings would have been a threat to these people and a threat to God's plan for Abraham and his family through whom God's Messiah would come.

     One thing, however, is not conjecture. The story of the tower of Babel is firmly anchored in history and locality. The origin of the story is also clearly located in the same historical context. It is highly improbable that the author, had he lived much later, could have gotten all the details right.

     But the particular record of the story we have in the Bible was written somewhat later and from a different locality or at least for a people who were not familiar with Mesopotamia. The writer included this explanation for them: They used brick instead of stone, and tar for mortar. That would be significant to a people who had just come from Egypt, as the Hebrews had, where temples were built of stone. If it had been written in Mesopotamia to the people living there, no explanation would have been necessary. That clue suggests that Moses was likely the author.


     It is not myth. It is history. But it is also theology. It explains how God protected the people who would become the chosen people. 

  Linguistic Trivia. John Loftus makes much of the plural "let us go down" verb in verse 7. It is plural, and John claims that the plural verb requires a plural noun, "gods" in this case, and gods implies  a pantheon of gods like the Sumerians and Babylonians believed in. That would be superstition.


     But a close look at the text reveals that the verb "let us go down" is in a juridical framework in which there are three stages. The first is an investigative stage, " the Lord came down to see the city and the tower the people were building. (v.5).


     The second is the debate,  "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" (v. 6).

The third stage is the sentence and execution, " Come, let us go down and confuse their language so they will not understand each other" (v. 7).  It is entirely appropriate for the judge then to speak using the juridical plural.  Cognitive Linguistic Exploration in Biblical Studies   It is not polytheism creeping in.

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