Friday, December 14, 2007

Tower of Babel and linguistics

The topic of the tower of Babel came up in comments so I wanted to comment on it further. There are some references in chapter 10 that speak of multiple languages, before the story of the tower of Babel.

Descendants of Japheth
Genesis 10:5 From these the maritime peoples spread out into their territories by their clans within their own nations, each with its own language.

Descendants of Ham
Genesis 10:20 These are the sons of Ham by their clans and languages, in their territories and nations.

Descendants of Shem
Genesis 10:31 These are the sons of Shem by their clans and languages, in their territories and nations.

The Genesis writer took the time to explain that the descendants of Noah's sons all had different languages. It is unclear precisely when the story of the tower of Babel is set. Obviously in the same era. But there is nothing indicating that the table of nations in chapter ten comes after the tower of Babel. Genesis up until this point comes in a roughly chronological order (i.e each major story happens after the previous- Creation, Adam and Eve, Cain and Abel, Noah etc.)

Genesis 11:1 says that the whole world had a common language and speech, however it does not necessarily mean that every individual spoke this tongue- although they may have. We need to escape our monolingual world view, and imagine that the people at the tower of Babel already spoke more than one language. I.e they spoke the common language and they spoke their own clan's language.

My proposed (yet unprovable I know) hypothesis is that the common language was confused at Babel and then people could only use their clan's language after that point. Following this there was far less incentive to have a common capital in the world, and so the clans went their own way.

To me this indicates that multiple languages is a good thing. We often look at the tower of Babel as evidence that many languages is a bad thing. I don't see the result of Babel as a curse. It was discipline but not a curse. In each of the earlier stories involving people in Genesis, God gave out a punishment which was then immediately followed by Grace. So, I see that God was showing grace to the nations by forcing them into a place where they forged their own identity. The tower of Babel was dangerous because it was a clear possibility for outright control by a human being over the human race, which would make it harder for people to reach God. God removed this barrier when he destroyed the tower project.

3 comments:

Lisette said...

what a thoughtful hypothesis. Must admit I had never given it much thought, however it all makes perfect sense. well done.

Nathan said...

You have a single group of nomads, probably not comprising a very large population, all descended from a single family in the space of 102 years, with the founding members still alive, and we are postulating multiple languages?!

The major problem with that hypothesis is that the text says nothin' - please note that very important word - to indicate that this was the case.

The separation that occurred at Babel, separation being the essential nature of death (i.e. The Fall in Eden, the prodigal son parable "your brother was dead but is alive" and the second death in the lake of fire where souls continue to exist in torment), was the logical consequence of disobedience, even in this new post-flood world (some parallels to Eden). God had said to Noah and his sons to fill the earth and at Babel humanity rebelled against His command saying "...let us build ourselves a city...lest we be scattered abroad across the face of the whole earth" (Gen 11:4).

Nowhere does the text, or to my knowledge Christian tradition, say that multiple languages existed prior to this event. To the contrary, the comments given by the text specifically indicate not only a single language but even a single accent "Now all the earth had one language ('tongue') and one speech ('lip')" (Gen 11:1 NKJV). When Israel had colonised Canaan centuries later, and had become sedentary these former nomads give no indication of developing separate languages among the tribes, although they did develop local accents (Judges 12 esp. vs. 5-6).

Suggesting multiple languages among the group in Genesis 11 , especially when the text gives no support and specifically states one language and one accent, gives no support to the preservation of languages today. Imposing a theory onto the scripture is the antithesis of good exegesis. We allow the Bible to determine what we believe, as I know Paul would agree, but as part of so doing we don't try to squash it into a theory that is foreign to the text. The bible becomes entirely enslaved to our subjective opinions and no longer authoritative when we try to fit it into pre-conceived theories.

That said, Genesis does not say that these languages produced at Babel are intrinsically bad in and of themselves. In fact they are God-given and fulfill His purpose for humanity to fill the earth.

In summary: reading a theory into the text that does not naturally spring from it does not aid in language preservation. Instead it adds a layer of myth that will have to be discarded later in order for the scripture to be appreciated in its own right.

Pasha said...

Often when genealogies are listed in scripture we know that not every generation is included, rather only the important ones. So it is very difficult to know when the tower of Babel story occurs in real time.

I have no doubt that there was a common language at the time of the tower of Babel. I just don't think that this precludes other languages from already existing. I can't actually see anything in the text that says other languages were excluded. To me it is significant that other languages were mentioned in the table of nations as a consequence of people spreading out (verse 5) more than a consequence of the tower story.

I guess I am trying to attack a pre-supposition in our English language culture that forces a monolingual interpretation into the text. I see this as incomplete exegesis. I don't lay this at your feet Nathan. I think it is the result of our own world view that is never questioned before we come to the text in the first place.

I see the results of the tower as a good thing, not a curse. I can not see the concept of a curse arise anywhere in the story.

I have no problem that we hold a different position on this Nathan. In many ways the tower of Babel was a foot note to my original post. I included it because I see the story as a good thing, and the fact that many languages exist is in God's desire.

I wonder if we are able to gain more from the text in the original Hebrew? I can't read Hebrew. I guess if I was going to read commentaries on it, then I would want the commentary to be written by someone from a non-monolingual culture. I wonder if such a thing actually exists. Interesting thought.