Nashville Great Books Discussion Group

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Friday, February 24, 2012

BIBLE: Genesis 11 (The Tower of Babel)

And the whole earth was of one language, and of one speech. For many years Latin was a fairly common language understood by most of the educated classes in Western civilization. But those days are long gone. Modern advances in communication technology now opens up an interesting prospect: would it be a good thing if everyone in the world did, in fact, speak one language? If so, which language will we speak? Here’s where the optimism would break down. Obviously Americans would like for the one language to be English. But people living in France would be horrified at the thought of giving up their beloved French. How could Jews give up Hebrew and still remain Jewish? Every society has deep cultural memories rooted in its language. That’s one of the reasons that the story of the Tower of Babel is so compelling. Language is an integral part of who we are. In this sense language is kind of like the Garden of Eden: we can never go back and undo our history. Each culture has its own poetry, history, science and religion written down in its own language. That way the culture gets passed on to the next generation. One obvious question is always: how did things get this way? In this story about Babel everyone spoke the same language and they shared the same culture. Their mistake was trying to build a tower. What’s wrong with that? The real mistake wasn’t in building the tower itself but in the motivation behind the construction: And they said, Go to, let us build us a city, and a tower, whose top may reach unto heaven; and let us make us a name, lest we be scattered abroad upon the face of the whole earth. Building a tower isn’t the problem. But trying to make it “reach unto heaven” is a very serious problem. This is the problem that the ancient Greeks warned against in the concept of “hubris” or excessive pride. Heaven is the home of the gods. Men who try to storm the citadel of the gods by force will be punished. In this case the punishment is to make men misunderstand one another: 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. Go to, let us go down, and there confound their language, that they may not understand one another's speech. Of course this story could be read in other ways too. Maybe this was an early warning against the corruption of urban life: And the LORD came down to see the city and the tower, which the children of men builded. The Lord was not impressed with city life. So the LORD scattered them abroad from thence upon the face of all the earth: and they left off to build the city. In this interpretation the cultivated “city life” may be destructive to our most primitive natural instincts. This is a theme Freud will explore later in Civilization and Its Discontents. It may also help explain why a serpent was the vehicle of temptation in the Garden of Eden story. Scientists tell us that part our brains (the basal ganglia) still contain remnants of reptilian-like instincts. These are the primitive urges Freud talks about: the impulse to eat, to mate, and to kill. Another explanation of the Tower story may be a warning against the concentration of political power into one centralized source. This interpretation would explain why from thence did the LORD scatter them abroad upon the face of all the earth. The Lord wanted political power to be dispersed. If the Tower had succeeded people may have been tempted to come from all over the world and be under the power of one king in Babel, City of the Great Tower. But maybe the best interpretation is the simplest one: just because we CAN do something doesn’t mean that we SHOULD. Modern science has made many great discoveries and we’re on the verge of many more. Some of these discoveries may prove to make our lives better. Others may prove to be our undoing. No doubt building a tower started with the best of intentions then; no doubt cloning and genetic experiments have the best of intentions now. But the stories of the Tree in the Garden and the Tower of Babel stand as warnings: beware of hubris. It contains bitter fruit.


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