One of the many common points in the histories and cultures of the world is the shared stories. Tales of great deluges, first cities, and immensely powerful deities tie together a familiar touch to us all. It is possible that such things were brought forward by the inheritors to help connect with masses in the inevitable conversion of the conquered people. The example of such a tale comes in the form of the breaking of a single people into many. Normally, this is told as a myth of the powers above confusing the languages and sending the people to the edges of the map.
A familiar telling of this comes in the Hebrew Bible. It is called the Tower of Babel and it has some significance to the history of the world that followed. I searched for the exact wording in Genesis 11:1-9 via Revised Standard Version in English from the website: http://www.biblegateway.com.
1 Now the whole earth had one language and the same words. 2 And as people migrated from the east, they found a plain in the land of Shinar and settled there. 3 And they said to one another, “Come, let us make bricks, and burn them thoroughly.” And they had brick for stone, and bitumen for mortar. 4 Then they said, “Come, let us build ourselves a city and a tower with its top in the heavens, and let us make a name for ourselves, lest we be dispersed over the face of the whole earth.” 5 And the LORD came down to see the city and the tower, which the children of man had built. 6 And the LORD said, “Behold, they are one people, and they have all one language, and this is only the beginning of what they will do. And nothing that they propose to do will now be impossible for them. 7 Come, let us go down and there confuse their language, so that they may not understand one another’s speech.” 8 So the LORD dispersed them from there over the face of all the earth, and they left off building the city. 9 Therefore its name was called Babel, because there the LORD confused[a] the language of all the earth. And from there the LORD dispersed them over the face of all the earth.
a. Genesis 11:9 Babel sounds like the Hebrew for confused
As a scholar of religious histories, this story intrigued me. First, it seems to be an editing error in Genesis. The chapter before it is about the genealogies from Adam to Noah and two of his sons. Chapter 11 starts with this passage in verses 1-9, and then verse ten begins with continued genealogies from Shem to Abram. However, with a bit of background work, I learned that some of the common problems with the version that we have of the Hebrew Bible are due to fact that scribes would make mistakes or try to fix mistakes from the last rewrite. Over time, the mistakes would not be recognized as such and remain. It is also clear that the Hebrew Bible version in our time survived from the Exile period.
So it seems out of context for the words around it. With that thought, I looked solely at this tale and began to ask myself what the purpose of this tale is. According to most explanations of this and some of the other similar stories where the deities confuse the language and break up the unity of the people, it is described as a moment when the hubris of people attempting to place themselves on the same level as the deities or it is a moment when the deities fear the people remaining united.
In the Greek myths, Zeus is always searching for a way to keep the people dependent on the gods so they don’t become obsolete. His act of breaking up the languages comes as he realizes that he cannot be the ruler of Earth. He passes this to a mortal king and breaks up the languages to confuse them. Josephus, first century CE Jewish historian, describes the tale as a moment of hubris when the people of Shinar under the rule of Nimrod defy God and build a tower. His reading a lot more into the Chapter 10 under the Priestly tradition as verse 6 refers to Nimrod ruling over Babel. As Nimrod is a descendant of Ham also known as the cursed Canaan, Josephus makes the connection to support doctrine of the cursed line defying God.
Now, one theory is that this story is just an example of etiology. It is meant to apply a particular cause to an event which, in this tale, is blamed on the deities. I tend to agree with this tendency of the primitive cultures that did not have much in the way of science to explain the world around them. It is also helps support some of the stories that come with the culture especially for the ones that claim to be the source culture from which all others spring.
So, this leads me to a question still dangling before me like a carrot. If it was the plan of God or the gods to keep man from rising above their place in the universe because we are a threat, is this the reason that the religions that are based on these old stories continue to battle against a common form of communication that speaks with a universal language? This universal language is science and it does not remain confined to the need for shared languages. It is understood no matter the culture or language group.
It is my thought that scientific theories and methods that come to question the very faith-based systems and mythologies are rejected by certain members of those faiths because of this challenge. My thought is based on Chapter 11 verse 6. An example is the conflict between the Theory of Evolution and the tales of the Creation. Is this battle over the conflict of evidence versus faith or is it a conflict of science being a universal language that defies God once again? Let me know what you think.
As a youngster, I liked to ask questions of the teacher in Sunday School class. I would ask questions about one of the many stories that we were told. How tall was Goliath? How long did it take for Noah to build his ark? Did Jericho really fall down after some horns were blown? It was often answered with a chuckle and pat on the head from the teacher. I did not feel that I had my answers from this person, but later the preacher would have a sermon on the very stories that I had questioned. I learned quickly to not question the stories vocally. It was a sin to question God and his Word. It was a sin that led me to an eternal damnation. So, I stopped in order to gain approval from the adults and not be punished with banishment from the comforts.
However, this was the seed that began to grow into a sapling of a tree of knowledge. I needed to water and care for this tree. To find the water and food, I changed my posture on the questioning and began to ask from the point of view that was not from innocence. I asked challenging questions that would force the preacher or teacher to examine their own beliefs to find the answers. Essential, I investigated the Bible by understanding what others interpreted a verse or story to mean. What does this parable mean? What is the break down of the Sermon on the Mount? How does one view the temptations of Jesus in the wilderness? Who Jesus is preaching to? Who was Jesus? Why was he a threat in Jerusalem? What was his message?
It was a wellspring of information of opinions and interpretations of doctrines and dogma. I often suggest that this mountain of knowledge compares to the idea of reading numerous reviews of a movie that you have never seen and forming an opinion. However, I was able to pull together a skeleton of various doctrines and map out how different the minds of the Church can think.
The next step was to actually read the source and examine it in the method of a historian. The historical context was the macrocosm while each book and chapter in the bible was examined as a whole. If you take a single verse out of the bible, you can apply it to an interpretation that may not fit into the entire context of the chapter or book. In the past, I have encountered numerous preachers, faithful members, and verse-spewing fanatics who love to pull out a verse to support their thoughts on a subject. Of course, I remember that during the temptation of Jesus that he was tested by the devil doing the same thing.
By the time I learned enough from this historical method, I was ready to search for the deeper notions of the texts and compare them with the texts of the time. I had studied enough of the contemporary history of the first century BCE and the first century CE that I felt that I could draw on it to answer my questions.
My first question was about the parables and why this form was used to convey the message that Jesus had brought. It was very difficult question as the texts of the region that Jesus was supposed to have lived in were not known for its mass-produced texts. In fact, it is easy to conclude that nearly all were illiterate. The language of the early texts of the New Testament was mostly ancient Greek. Most of the lands had come to know Greek during the Hellenization of the region after Alexander the Great’s conquest.
Parables have a higher rate of understanding due to their length and lack of complexity for the people of the region to understand. These people were not thinking about the world beyond their daily routine. A minister roaming the land that works to connect with his people is best served when he changes his words into short stories that can be easily memorized and told to others. It is an example of early social networking.
On the thought of the language used, the texts of Gospels are accepted to be dated later in the first century CE, so this places them a few decades after the crucifixion. In addition, the Romans destroyed Jerusalem in 70 CE. It is difficult to believe that the Gospels were eye witness accounts written during Jesus’ time. All are dated to the period after the Jewish Revolt, so it makes logical sense that the parables were passed along in an oral tradition until they were recorded and protected from destruction. The Parables of Jesus survived as a simple vehicle in a region of illiterate people.
It is this group of people that became the core of the beginnings. They were simple people on the rural edge of a sea that kept them away from all the politics of the world. It is no surprise that the powers of the Empire did not give them much thought. But this conclusion only answers one of my questions and not with much solid evidence. The puzzle is missing pieces.
I will be working to explore this subject further and would love to hear from others on their ideas of parables and their use in the New Testament. I have plenty questions to further understand.