Friday, July 07, 2006

Finding fault with God's little joke

Thomas Paine, one of the most widely published Founding Fathers (his pamphlet "Common Sense" was one of the great instigators of the American Revolution), saved some his his most witty repartee for use against the Bible and the "priesthood" (he was virulently - though understandably - anti-Catholic) whom he believed used it to keep people ignorant. Even today, some of his arguments are dredged up as "contradictions" by those looking for the finest in 18th century theology, archaeology, and Biblical exposition.

I ran across his comments on the Tower of Babel episode tonight. And since I've been spending some time lately in early Genesis, I thought I'd use it as a chance to explore Babel just a bit. I won't quote the Genesis passage to which he refers, so if you're unfamiliar with it, it's here, toward the bottom. I've removed the chapter and verse notations because they annoy me, so don't bother looking for them ;)

As to the project of building a tower whose top should reach to heaven, there never could be a people so foolish as to have such a notion; but to represent the Almighty as jealous of the attempt, as the writer of the story has done, is adding profanation to folly... The story is too ridiculous, even as a fable, to account for the diversity of languages in the world, for which it seems to have been intended.."
There's a little error I refer to as the "Everyone Before Me Was A Moron" fallacy, which presumes that the silliness we see so obviously today was never noticed by the ancients because they were too stupid to see it. Examples, of course, are legion (e.g. the Gospel writers didn't know where babies really come from and so were mistaken about the Virgin Birth) and they each share the distinction of being written off by moderns who forget the simple idea that if something seems too ridiculous, it probably is. In other words, if you're reading a story that doesn't make sense, it's more likely that you're reading it wrong than that it never made sense but people preserved it for millennia anyway. Such is the case with Paine.

If it is obviously impossible to build a tower all the way to heaven, then the ancients - who had sufficient engineering knowledge to build enormous ziggurats and pyramids all over the world - realized it too, and we're probably reading the story wrong if we assume they wanted to build a tower that really reached Heaven. The Babel tower was literally built with "a top onto heaven" and as with other similar towers in the ANE it was probably an observatory for astronomy and astrology. Many ancient wonders (e.g. the Giza Sphinx and Pyramid, Stonehenge, the Mayan observatories) were built with those considerations clearly in mind.

The simplistic narrative style, however, is one thing that annoys Paine. I suggest it is sarcastic: man says, "Go to, let's build a tower so we're not scattered as God commanded," and God says, "Go to, let's knock it down and scatter them anyway." The reality of waking up one day with languages confused, the tower knocked down, and - if I'm speculating right - a meteor strike that breaks the crust of the Earth into continents was doubtless far more severe and long-lasting than the abbreviated commentary of Gen 11 might suggest. But given the necessity of brevity (Genesis 10-11 covers hundreds of years) picturing God tapping his toes at the base of the tower asking, "Well, what have we here?" is quite effective at getting his unique contribution to the effort across. Call it God's litotes.

As to the project of confounding their language for the purpose of making them separate, it is altogether inconsistent; because instead of producing this effect, it would, by increasing their difficulties, render them more necessary to each other, and cause them to keep together. Where could they go to better themselves?
I really have a hard time following Paine here. Why would making it harder for people to get together - the purpose of confusing languages - make it more necessary for them to stay together? And even if it were more necessary, does that make it necessarily possible? Even the most necessary project fails when faced with an insurmountable problem. The inability to communicate effectively is probably the most insurmountable as most project managers and military planners know; they also know that just because something needs to be done is no guarantee that it will be.

Another observation upon this story is, the inconsistency of it with respect to the opinion that the Bible is the Word of God given for the information of mankind; for nothing could so effectually prevent such a word from being known by mankind as confounding their language. The people, who after this spoke different languages, could no more understand such a Word generally, than the builders of Babel could understand one another. It would have been necessary, therefore, had such Word ever been given or intended to be given, that the whole earth should be, as they say it was at first, of one language and of one speech, and that it should never have been confounded.
Here Paine falls into the temptation of many who don't like how God does things: "if *I* were God, I'd do it another way." Whether the Bible is the word of God for mankind is irrelevant, because it would not come into its final form for three millennia and the first book would not be completed for 15 centuries. There was no Bible at Babel, so to say that God could not confound the languages because it would keep him from spreading his word presumes too much - that the only way God could communicate was thru the written word. I'm pretty sure God spoke all the post-Babel languages pretty well, and as early Genesis and pagan mythology are filled with inspired dreams and direct, personal revelation, apparently God figured multiple languages did not constitute too high a hurdle to jump later.

In fact, it appears that God did not intend to use the Bible to spread his word at all, at least originally. If one follows dispensationalism (and I do, but from quite a safe distance), it's apparent that God teaches mankind in many ways and that most of the Bible stories are object lessons, on paper for us but in real life for the ancients.

God is nothing if not a science teacher. He first tried innocence to get man to respond to him. Result: the fall. Then conscience. Result: the flood. Then human government. Result: Babel. Then promise. Result: Hebrew slavery in Egypt. Then theocratic law. Result: Destruction of Israel. Finally, He taught through a man who was God who fulfilled the law, re-instituted the promises, and will someday head up a government as King. Only after Jesus - as we're seeing in PQ's Popology series - was the Bible sent outside a tiny tinhorn kingdom in the Ancient Near East, and then by a language universal enough for his purposes (Greek) and using a road system (Roman) that would allow his word to follow the peoples scattered at Babel to the ends of the Earth. In each iteration He demonstrated that man alone is helpless and self-destructive by letting man self-destruct. Think of us as a class experiment with really smart rats in a millennia-long labyrinth. Guess who the rats are.

The case, however, is, that the Bible will not bear examination in any part of it, which it would do if it was the Word of God. Those who most believe it are those who know least about it, and priests always take care to keep the inconsistent and contradictory parts out of sight.
While I'm not a priest, I find that the "inconsistent and contradictory parts" of the Bible are the most valuable. But one has to get beyond his own culture and assumptions make sense of the whole thing. It is precisely the difficult parts that allow, nay force us to do so.

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