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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Tower of Babel: The Scattering at Babel and Gathering of the Last Days

This lonely scene comes from Old Al ‘Ula, an abandoned town in Saudi Arabia. The stairs of the castle from which this photograph was taken go back 2600 years. The town once consisted of more than 800 two-story houses with lanes passing in front of them. The first story of the house was for guests and storage; the second story was for the living area. The attachment of each house to the others provided fortification against enemies. Gates that opened in the morning and closed at night protected the two narrow lanes (less than two meters wide) that penetrated the town’s interior.

Closer to home, Detroit, Michigan has seen a significant outmigration of its inhabitants. “A city of 1.8 million in 1950, it is now home to 700,000 people, as well as to tens of thousands of abandoned buildings, vacant lots and unlit streets .… About 40 percent of the city’s streetlights do not work … More than half of Detroit’s parks have closed since 2008.” The causes for the city’s decline are many and varied and the subject of heated debate. However some see the trend in Detroit as a portent of the future for other cities in America.

There are regions within the developed world that expect to witness a dramatic population decline in the coming decades as a result of low fertility rates. In one of the most striking examples, “the Japanese Health Ministry estimates the nation’s total population will fall by 25% from 127.8 million in 2005, to 95.2 million by 2050.” Complicating the situation, low mortality rates are expected to lead to a significantly greater proportion of older citizens: “Japan’s elderly population, aged 65 or older, comprised 20% of the nation’s population in June 2006, a percentage that is forecast to increase to 38% by 2055.”

Neither the Bible nor the Book of Mormon attributes the scattering of the people to the confusion of tongues. In Genesis, no explicit cause and effect is described — we are told only that “from thence did the Lord scatter them abroad upon the face of all the earth.” Likewise, as Nibley describes:
After the brother of Jared had been assured that he and his people and their language would not be confounded, the question of whether they would be driven out of the land still remained to be answered: That was another issue, and it is obvious that the language they spoke had as little to do with driving them out of the land as it did with determining their destination.

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27 February 2014

Tower of Babel Part 3: “Let Us Make Us a Name”

No one in history has wanted to make a name for himself more than Ferdinand Cheval.

Cheval was a postman who lived in Hauterives, France. He began the building shown above in April 1879, claiming “that he had tripped on a stone and was inspired by its shape. He returned to the same spot the next day and started collecting stones. For the next thirty-three years, Cheval picked up stones during his daily mail round and carried them home to build the Palais Idéal … He often worked at night, by the light of an oil lamp.” Wrote Cheval: “There was no notion of time anymore when the mail delivery was completed. I could have devoted my free time to hunting, fishing, billiards, or cards — there were plenty of pastimes possible. But I preferred above all the achievement of my Dream. It cost me 4,000 bags of lime and cement and my Monument represents 1,000 cubic meters of stonework — that is to say, 6,000 francs. But because of this, people tell me that my name will go down in history — that’s quite flattering!”

The inscription at top left reads: “Work of one lone man.” Similar inscriptions, along with extracts from poetry and literature, surround the palace: “1879-1912: 10,000 days, 93,000 hours, 33 years of trials—may those more stubborn than me get to work,” ‘This marvel of which the author is proud will be unique in the universe,” “Work is my only glory; honor my only happiness,” “In creating this rock, I wanted to prove what will power could do,” “All that you see here is the work of a rustic.”

Through his work on the palace, Cheval made himself a name. By the end of his life, it had been visited by thousands of people, including art-world luminaries like André Breton and Pablo Picasso. After Cheval’s death, a government report declared: “the whole monument is absolutely hideous. It is a pathetic pack of insanities muddled in a boor’s brain.” However in 1969, the French Ministry of Culture declared the palace a cultural landmark. In 1986, Cheval’s image was put on a French postage stamp. The bust of Cheval at top right was commissioned by the people of his town for the fiftieth anniversary of his death. It stands outside the post office — which now, ironically, has been shuttered.

Leon Kass writes the following about the human impulse to make a name for oneself that motivated the project at Babel:


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A Tower Model of the Babel Story

Mario Larrinaga produced a commanding view of ancient Babylon. The subject of the painting is not the ziggurat temple tower of the city (silhouetted in the background) but rather the “Hanging Gardens of Babylon,” listed by classic Greek authors as one of the Seven Wonders of the World.

In the nine verses that make up the account of the Tower of Babel, we have “a short but brilliant example of Hebrew story telling.” To begin with, we marvel with J. P. Fokkelman at how little room the narrator had to do his job, yet he managed to keep “within the square meter. He who has something to say and must, speaking in terms of sound and time, do so in 121 words or two minutes, or, in terms of writing and space, within half a page of thirteen lines, is forced to confine himself.” Yet within this highly constrained setting, the author has created a literary masterpiece. Ingenious word and sound parallels between verses, “ironic linkages between sections and ideas,” and a beautiful economy of style are readily apparent to readers of Hebrew. In its original tongue “the prose turns language itself into a game of mirrors.” Addressing the meaning of this densely packed scripture gem, Everett Fox writes of how its general message of measure-for-measure allotment of divine action in direct response to human hubris “is transmitted by means of form”:
The divine “Come-now!” of v. 7 clearly stands as an answer to humankind’s identical cry in vv. 3 and 4. In addition humans, who congregated in order to establish a “name” and to avoid being “scattered over the face of all the earth” (v. 4), are contravened by the action of God, resulting in the ironic name “Babble” and a subsequent “scattering” of humanity (v. 9). The text is thus another brilliant example of biblical justice, a statement about a worldview in which the laws of justice and morality are as neatly balanced as we like to think the laws of nature are.
Many scholars have noted the obvious chiastic features of the story. For example, Ellen van Wolde explains her tower model of the Tower story that visually demonstrates how city of Babel is incrementally built up by men and taken down by God. A scriptural word-picture of this image is provided by Proverbs 11:11: “A city is built up (literally raised up) by the blessing of the upright, but it is torn down by the speech of the wicked.”


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26 February 2014

Building The Tower of Babel on a Mesopotamian Foundation

With its intriguing imagery of a tower reaching to heaven and the fantastic tale of the confusion of languages, the story of the Tower of Babel in Genesis 11:1-9 has fired the imaginations of readers, authors, and artists for thousands of years. One of the most famous depictions of the Tower of Babel is the one by Pieter Bruegel the Elder shown above. While it is not accurate from what we know of ancient archaeology, it is a beautiful example of how each generation of people has mapped the concerns and issues of its time onto the biblical story:
Bruegel’s depiction of the architecture of the tower, with its numerous arches and other examples of Roman engineering, is deliberately reminiscent of the Roman Colosseum, which Christians of the time saw as both a symbol of hubris and persecution … The parallel of Rome and Babylon had a particular significance for Bruegel’s contemporaries: Rome was the Eternal City, intended by the Caesars to last for ever, and its decay and ruin were taken to symbolize the vanity and transience of earthly efforts. The Tower was also symbolic of the turmoil between the Catholic church (which at the time did services only in Latin) and the polyglot Lutheran Protestant religion of the Netherlands.”
In addition to its universal lesson for humanity, the story mocks the power of the kingdom of Babylon, the modern name for the biblical Babel. “By portraying an unfinished tower, by dispersing the builders, and by in essence making fun of the mighty name of Babylon, the text functions effectively to repudiate the culture from which the people of Israel sprang (Abram’s ‘Ur’ of [Genesis] 11:28 was probably the great Mesopotamian metropolis).”

While the account of Babel is valuable in its own right, we should not forget its important role as the final flourish in a prologue to the rest of Genesis and, indeed, to the primary history of the Old Testament. After the destruction of Babel, “God will abandon efforts to educate all of humankind all at once; instead, He will choose to advance His plan for human beings by working first with only one nation. After Babel, the Bible will turn directly to its main subject, the formation of the nation of Israel.” However, in God’s turning of attention to Israel the other nations will not be abandoned. Through Abraham, Israel will be commissioned to be the instrument through which God will bless all the nations of the earth. Working toward ultimate fulfillment of a glorious vision that dwarfs the self-serving pretensions of Babel, God will continue to carry out His objective to make of the whole earth “a temple-city filled with people who have a holy or priestly status.”


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