28 February 2014

Tower of Babel: What did it really mean to “Confound Their Language”?

The figure above is by the famous Dutch engraver, M. C. Escher. “Although Escher dismissed his works before 1935 as of little or no value as they were ‘for the most part merely practice exercises,’ some of them, including the Tower of Babel, chart the development of his interest in perspective and unusual viewpoints that would become the hallmarks of his later, more famous, work. In contrast to many other depictions of the biblical story, … Escher depicts the tower as a geometrical structure and places the viewpoint above the tower. This allows him to exercise his skill with perspective, but he also chose to center the picture around the top of the tower as the focus for the climax of the action.” Escher later commented on the drawing as follows: “Some of the builders are white and others black. The work is at a standstill … Seeing as the climax of the drama takes place at the summit of the tower which is under construction, the building has been shown from above as though from a bird’s eye view.”

This article will discuss four questions relating to the Lord’s statement of intention for the Babylonian builders: “Let us … confound their language”:

  • Does the Jaredite Record Give Us Independent Confirmation for the Babel Story?
  • Does Historical Linguistics Support the Splitting of an Original Language at Babel?
  • Was God More Concerned about the Confounding of Language or the Confounding of Peoples?
  • Could There Have Been a “Confounding” of Language at Babel?
Does the Jaredite Record Give Us Independent Confirmation for the Babel Story?

The answer to this question is “no.”

The first chapter of the book of Ether describes the origins of the Jaredites at the time of “the great tower, at the time the Lord confounded the language of the people and swore in his wrath that they should be scattered upon all the face of the earth; and according to the word of the Lord the people were scattered.” This and related references have encouraged LDS scholars seeking independent evidence from the Book of Mormon for the biblical story. However, in his lucid commentary on the Book of Mormon, Brant Gardner cautions that things are not so simple as they seem.

He reminds us that Mosiah only summarized, but did not actually translate the “first part” of the record of the Jaredites that spoke of “the creation of the world, and also of Adam, and an account from that time even to the great tower.” Thus, it is unlikely that the passing references to that early history we have in the Book of Mormon are based on the Jaredite record. Rather, it is more probable that they have been carried over by Moroni into the book of Ether from what he had learned previously in his study of the brass plates. Specifically, he argues that “the material being translated and Mosiah’s understanding of the [biblical story of the Tower of Babel] had enough resemblances that Mosiah shaped the Jaredites’ original story to match the brass plates’ story at a crucial point” — namely the description of how the language of the builders was confounded. Continuing, he explains:

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