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Pearce’s Potshots #54: Tower of Babel; Who’s the “Idiot”?

Pearce’s Potshots #54: Tower of Babel; Who’s the “Idiot”? November 24, 2021

Atheist anti-theist Jonathan M. S. Pearce is the main writer on the blog, A Tippling Philosopher. His “About” page states: “Pearce is a philosopher, author, blogger, public speaker and teacher from Hampshire in the UK. He specialises in philosophy of religion, but likes to turn his hand to science, psychology, politics and anything involved in investigating reality.” 

This is a reply to his post, The Tower of Babel Story Is OBVIOUSLY Not Historical (11-23-21). Jonathan’s words will be in blue.

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Genesis 11:1-9 (RSV) Now the whole earth had one language and few words. [2] And as men 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 scattered abroad upon the face of the whole earth.” [5] And the LORD came down to see the city and the tower, which the sons of men 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, that they may not understand one another’s speech.” [8] So the LORD scattered them abroad from there over the face of all the earth, and they left off building the city. [9] Therefore its name was called Ba’bel, because there the LORD confused the language of all the earth; and from there the LORD scattered them abroad over the face of all the earth.

I’ve got to the point where, and I know this will be counter-productive, I have to claim that anyone who believes this story actually happened is an idiot. Such believers are idiots. There, I’ve said it. Deal with it.

I know there will be some Christians who might come across this article who believe in the historical veracity of the story and who will stop reading on account of my forthright position that they are idiots. But sometimes you just gotta tell it like it is.

And, because it’s what I do, I’ll help them along the way to realising it is ahistorical so that they can deal with it.

The problem at the level of presupposition or premise here is that Jonathan almost certainly is unfamiliar with how educated, scholarly Christians typically interpret a very early biblical story like the one about the Tower of Babel. He assumes (very typically of atheist anti-theists) that everything must be taken hyper-literally and that there can be no metaphor or hyperbole or non-literal expression. Basically, his modus operandi is to approach every biblical issue as if the only possible interpretation is that of an anti-intellectual, anti-science, woodenly literalistic fundamentalist.

But (quite obviously) that is a tiny, unbalanced, often misguided portion of all of Christianity. So why do anti-theists keep concentrating on them? Well, because they best fit into the caricature of Christianity and the Bible that anti-theists wish to convey, for the purpose of making Christianity look anti-intellectual and ridiculous. Caricature, fight straw men, and dismiss.

Whatever works . . . Never interact with serious Christian thought on any given biblical / exegetical issue. That’s Jonathan’s MO! He sometimes has serious philosophical discussions with Christians (because he self-identifies as a philosopher), but rarely serious, open-minded discussions about the Bible and its sensible, plausible interpretation.

So, as to our present topic, Jonathan says no one can possibly believe the biblical Tower of Babel story is historical (in any way, shape, or form), without being an “idiot.” He simply assumes it is a complete myth, fable, legend, fairy tale. Again, it is a question of what exactly a Christian thinks happened with regard to this reported incident and what we can know about it, lo some five thousand years later.

In all likelihood, the educated Christian will not interpret it as Jonathan does. So it’s basically “ships passing in the night.” Jonathan needs to first understand that (believe it or not!) there is a plausible interpretation that is not immediately ridiculous, absurd, and idiotic.

His main objection, no doubt, would be the notion of origin of languages. He thinks that anthropology deals a death blow to the Tower of Babel story. But it only does to (here’s a little “dirty secret”) the hyper-literal version that he thinks is the only possible version of the story.

Both stories [the flood and this one] show that God is not omniscient. . . . Yet again, the story reports God getting a realisation, not knowing something from the start. . . . With the Tower of Babel, he wouldn’t have to pop down to Earth to see what humans were up to and then realise that they were getting together, using their teamwork, and building things up to the heavens. This  is what they have started to do, God realises, musing. The narrative makes no sense of his omniscience and foreknowledge. . . . 

If God was truly omnipotent, there really was nothing to worry about.  God’s omnipotence should mean that he doesn’t have to worry one iota about anything like this. It’s utter nonsense.

Etc., etc. ad nauseam.

And so, for the umpteenth time, one has to explain to Jonathan that there are things called anthropomorphism and anthropopathism in the Bible. These are well-developed non-literal / metaphorical literary techniques by which God’s actions are made more comprehensible to human beings, by condescending to our understanding. Jonathan has been informed of this so many times, that one must at this point conclude that he is being willfully ignorant, and stubbornly refusing to acknowledge the existence of these clear features of the Bible.

They don’t fit with his cynical, quixotic determination to always interpret the Bible hyper-literally, so he deliberately ignores them and pretends that they don’t exist. It’s like the fairy tale of the The Emperor’s New Clothes. The monarch was walking around naked and everyone pretended that he wasn’t. Or he acts like the ostrich putting its head in the sand, or the monkey covering his eyes and ears, etc.

Such builders at the time really weren’t equipped with the knowledge or technology to build very high at all.

Everything is relative. I can’t find the exact estimated height, but for its time, the White Temple and ziggurat at Uruk [present-day Iraq; then Mesopotamia] — finished around 3500 BC — was a very impressive structure, as can be startlingly visualized in a photograph of what remains of it. And that was built some 600 years before the Tower of Babel (as I shall argue), with mud-bricks, whereas the Tower of Babel utilized the recently developed technology of kiln-fired bricks.

The Great Pyramid of Egypt was built c. 2600 BC and its height was originally 481 feet, or the equivalent of a 34-storey building (a storey being usually considered to be 14 feet). Its height wasn’t surpassed for 3900 years, until the Lincoln Cathedral in 1311, with its 520-foot high central spire (since collapsed).

Jonathan finally gets to the bottom line at the end of his article:

It’s Not How Languages Evolved.

We know how languages evolved and it wasn’t like that. The story is refuted by linguistics. Go research it, Christian.

Nuff said.

Who is saying that was how all languages evolved? Not educated Christians, familiar with science (particularly anthropology and the history of languages and linguistics). Baptist theologian and apologist Bernard Ramm, in his 1954 classic, The Christian View of Science and Scripture, wrote about this:

With reference to the origin of languages, we must make a decision as to a local or universal flood. If we choose a universal flood we must eventually find all languages stemming from Babel, but if a local flood we need only trace some of the Caucasian languages back to a common point. It is true that the languages of Europe can be traced back (on paper at least) to the primitive Indo-European. We know that French, Italian, and Spanish derive from Latin, and that Latin and Greek derive from a common ancestor with Sanskrit. The convergence of Caucasian languages upon a primitive Indo-European stock may be taken as a suggestive substantiation of the record of the Tower of Babel.

Two things more need to be said about the Tower of Babel, (i) Such structures called ziggurats have been discovered by archaeologists. In the clay tablets expressions are found of their reaching to heaven—a figure of speech like our skyscraper. On top of these ziggurats were temples, so that there could have been an anti-God spirit in building these temples for some other deity or deities, (ii) Anthropologists have stated that the chief barrier among peoples is the language barrier . Differences of food, customs, and clothing do not present the barrier that language does when two cultures mix. No other device known to anthropologists could break the unity of a group like a confusion of tongues. We need not speculate how the confusion was done nor how long it took. (pp. 339-340)

The local Flood (of Noah) — which I have explained and defended several times — has been the mainstream position of both Protestants and Catholics for well over a hundred years, as I have documented in the past from the Catholic Encyclopedia and International Standard Bible Encyclopedia. Jonathan and other atheists want to pretend otherwise or blithely continue to maintain that the Bible can’t possibly sustain such an interpretation, or that we are all playing rationalizing, special pleading games, but they are out to sea and ignorant on this point.

I agree with Dr. Ramm that if one holds to a local Flood position, the Tower of Babel story with regard to languages is only relevant to one particular “line” of language development. But technically, if “all the earth” in the text was not intended to be literally “the entire world” then the story of Babel doesn’t even necessarily address the origin of languages, whether universally or even in a local sense.

All it is saying is that these particular workers on a tower (who, after all, may not be that great in number), had their language “confuse[d]” by God and were “scattered.” The hyperbolic language is what drew the analogy to the Flood — which occurred just two chapters before — in Ramm’s argument.

Chris Gousmett also argues for a “local” interpretation in his article, “The confusion of language in the interpretation of Genesis 11” (Evangelical Quarterly, 89.1 [2018], 34–50):
I argue below that the story of Babylon in Gen. 11 is in the correct place in the narrative. It is not the origin of all the languages of the earth, but instead describes something else entirely.
I. What is meant by the ‘earth’?
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The first requirement is to decide how we should interpret the word translated ‘earth’ namely eretz. This has a direct bearing on whether Gen. 11 describes the origin of all languages throughout the earth, or whether it is referring to a more localised phenomenon. We should not interpret the word eretz as meaning the Earth, the whole planet (as in Gen. 1:1, 15; 2:1, 4) in many of the other places where it appears. Often it makes sense only if we interpret it as ‘land’, the immediate locality where the events spoken of occur. It refers to the ground generally, countries, such as Egypt [eretz mitzrayim], Canaan [eretz kana’an], Moab, Assyria, Edom and Israel itself.
The same word eretz is used multiple times in Genesis 1 where its meaning covers the whole world (Gen. 1:1, 15), the dry land (Gen. 1:10), and the ground from which seeds grow (Gen. 1:12). Thus we cannot simply read ‘the earth’ wherever eretz  appears in the Hebrew text. We must give heed to the context in which it appears which will then guide the interpretation.  I argue that in Gen.11:1–9 we are dealing with the land (country) of Shinar, hence this passage is referring to events of local reference only. We read:
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Now the whole earth [kol-ha’aretz] had one speech and the same words. And as they migrated from the east, they came upon a plain in the land of Shinar [eretz shinar] and settled there […] Let us make a name for our-selves; otherwise we shall be scattered abroad upon the face of the whole earth [kol-ha’aretz] […] So the Lord scattered them abroad from there over the face of the whole earth [kol-ha’aretz] […] Therefore it was called Babel[Babylon], because there the Lord confused the speech of all the earth [kol-ha’aretz]; and from there the Lord scattered them abroad over the face of all the earth [kol-ha’aretz].
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We can see that eretz must be translated ‘land’ in at least one instance in this passage (the land of Shinar – Gen. 11:2). While the expression kol-ha’aretz is translated as ‘the whole earth’ or ‘all the earth’ we could be justified in suggesting that there it refers to ‘the whole land’.  In addition, we can ask whether the population of the whole earth migrated into the plain of Shinar. This would appear not to be the case, as this story follows an account of the dispersal of various groups into other lands. The scattering they feared was not dispersal over the whole earth, but across the plain into which they had migrated to settle. (pp. 35-36)
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The story of the dispersal of the clans of Noah described in Gen. 10 records these as having their own languages [lashon; LXX glossa]. If they have dispersed before the story of the tower, then the different languages spoken by the various nations did not arise from the confusion of tongues at Babylon. The story is not necessarily placed in chronological order, but there does not appear to be anything to indicate that it is not. The migration towards the east in Gen. 11:2 [or: from the east, NRSV] then could be read as one instance of the dispersal of the nations following the flood, as described in Gen. 10. The story of those under the sway of Nimrod, described as establishing Babylon in the land of Shinar(Gen. 10:8–12), ties in with Gen. 11:2, which also speaks of those who migrated to the land of Shinar to establish Babylon.
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That this is only one group of people among many is indicated by their desire to ‘make a name’ (a reputation) for themselves as one people among many. If this were the whole population of the earth prior to their dispersal after the flood then for whom would they make ‘a name’? (pp. 41-42)
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In Gen. 11:1 the term for words is debarîm (which is not used again in this passage) and indicates here not a single vocabulary as distinct from the different vocabularies of the many languages, but rather again a commonality of speech among those who were building the tower: they used ‘the same words’ [debarîmahadîm], a plural form.
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What Gen. 11 speaks about is not the origin of the many different languages spoken across the earth, but the confusion engendered by God among one group of people in the land of Shinar. These people had one language [saphah] and the same words [debar]. This does not indicate that they had the same language (although that may be possible), but that they shared the same intent, the same expression of their plans, the same motivation and aspiration, which was expressed in the same way – using the same words [debar]. . . .
The confusion consisted in breaking up this unity into contending factions which could no longer cooperate. To say that they had the same words [debarim] is to say that they were unanimous in their plan. . . . 
God confused their speech [saphah] so they could not understand one another. As a result they were scattered across the land – not the whole earth, but the land of Shinar. (pp. 44-46)
VI. The origin of languages
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If we were to grant that what happened in Genesis 11 was the origin of different languages, then we must concede that God not only caused them to begin spontaneously using different languages, but so changed their neural pathways and mentality that they began to think and speak in ways quite different from their previous accustomed language, using different vocabulary, different syntax and grammar, intonation, accentuation, and all the other aspects which go into making one language distinct from all others, with members of each group being changed identically so they could understand each other. It may be pro-posed that what happened here was only the beginning of the differentiation of language, and that the sharp differences we see in later times is the result of centuries of change and development in language.
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But even if we accept that languages were spontaneously brought into use through the act of God, and these were more alike than not, the fact remains that the speakers had to experience the change in the way they thought and spoke which went along with a different language. Is this really a credible expectation? Or is it more likely that God acted to confuse and frustrate their plans by changing their hearts and minds with respect to the grand project of building the city?
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This is not simply a desire to rationalise away a miracle of God, but instead to understand the passage in a way which is more coherent and which makes better sense of the different word usage [saphah rather than lashon] and the different way those words are used in the rest of the Old Testament. What I assert is that God did not by a miracle create new languages for the different groups at Babylon. (p. 48)
W. Creighton Marlowe’s article, “The sin of Shinar (Genesis 11:4)” (Evangelical Journal of Theology, Vol. 20:1, 29–39 [2011]), offers a view similar to Ramm’s and Gousmett’s:

Chapter 11 begins with the statement, not that the entire global world had one language only, but that an entire specific region (“the land”) somehow came to have “one tongue and a common vocabulary”. Even the mention of tribes moving out . . . should be viewed as only the expansion of various people groups as delimited by chapter 10 to a large region of the earth, yet not the entire earth. This would suggest that already a number of languages were in use. The author could only speak of his known world and not the global earth of many societies with very ancient roots we know today. Hamilton’s argument, based on Gordon, that the unique wording of 11:1 means a lingua franca is the best explanation. . . .

[M]ultiple languages are already mentioned in chapter 10. . . . various languages are already in existence in 10:5-24. . . .

Chapter 11 focuses on one example in which a particular people (perhaps led by Nimrod in the earliest settlement of Babylon) subjugated a region and enforced linguistic and political unity with wicked and wanton desire for power, prestige and prosperity. This explains how “it came to be” in 11:1 that this land had one language at some point in the multiplying and migrations of chapter 10. (pp. 30-31, 33)

[In Genesis 11:8-9] The verb used does not indicate that at that time God divided these people into different languages, only that they were rendered unable to understand each other enough to continue cooperating and constructing. Only by a presupposition and a jump in logic can these words be extended to mean that numerous languages were supernaturally created. Something happened
that led to miscommunication and chaos and eventually to these people being deported or dispersed. (p. 35)

Here are the references to multiple languages in chapter 10, the “table of nations”:

Genesis 10:5 (RSV) . . . These are the sons of Japheth in their lands, each with his own language, . . .

Genesis 10:20 These are the sons of Ham, by their families, their languages, their lands, and their nations.

Genesis 10:31 These are the sons of Shem, by their families, their languages, their lands, and their nations.

Wikipedia (“Sumerian language”) sheds some interesting light on the possible lingua franca interpretation and the language of Mesopotamia in 3000-2900 BC: the time frame I provisionally adopt for the Tower of Babel story, seemingly (in biblical chronology) not long after the Flood:

Sumerian (Emegir “native tongue“) is the language of ancient Sumer. It is believed to be a language isolate and to have been spoken in ancient Mesopotamia (also known as the Fertile Crescent), in the area that is modern-day Iraq. . . .

Archaic Sumerian is the earliest stage of inscriptions with linguistic content, beginning with the Jemdet Nasr (Uruk III) period from about the 31st to 30th centuries BC. . . .

Gordon Whittaker[31] [holds] that the language of the proto-literary texts from the Late Uruk period (c. 3350–3100 BC) is really an early Indo-European language which he terms “Euphratic”. . . .

The Sumerian language is one of the earliest known written languages. The “proto-literate” period of Sumerian writing spans c. 3300 to 3000 BC.

The notion of Archaic Sumerian a “language isolate” may have something to do with the meaning Genesis 11:1: “Now the whole earth had one language and few words.” The Wikipedia article on this linguistic category states:

Language isolates are languages that cannot be classified into larger language families with any other languages. Korean and Basque are two of the most commonly cited language isolates, but there are many others.

A language isolate is a language that is unrelated to any others, which makes it the only language in its own language family. It is a natural language with no demonstrable genealogical (or “genetic”) relationships—one that has not been demonstrated to descend from an ancestor common with any other language.

One explanation for the existence of language isolates is that they might be the last remaining branch of a larger language family. The language possibly had relatives in the past but they have since disappeared without being documented. Another explanation for language isolates is that they developed in isolation from other languages.

I wrote an article on this topic three months ago: Tower of Babel, Baked Bricks, Bitumen, & Archaeology (8-26-21). I contended that there are several notable verifications of the story in archaeology and history:

1) The location was (according to Genesis) in in the flood plain of southern Mesopotamia, between the Tigris and Euphrates rivers. “Shinar” [Gen 11:2] is an alternate name of Babylon or southern Mesopotamia (present-day Iraq). Genesis 11:2 also refers to a “plain” that fits the area, which is as flat as a pancake. The ancient Babylonian cities of Erech (Uruk) and Akkad: the capital of Sargon the Great and his dynasty in the 24th-22nd centuries BC, are also mentioned in the same verse as Shinar and Babel, in Genesis 10:10. Genesis 11:8-9 states that the “city” being built in Shinar was “called Babel” (i.e., Babylon).

2) Genesis references kiln-fired bricks [Gen 11:3]. We know the history of this. I showed how its origins date to about 3000 BC and (you guessed it!) it was right in this area.

3) I go into the history of ziggurats [towers or high buildings] in ancient Mesopotamia as well.

4) The use of bitumen (= asphalt / tar / pitch) was also well-established in this area at this time, as I detail.

All of this provides fairly significant and far beyond “chance” or coincidence independent verification through science and historiography that there is indeed arguably historical basis for at least the general outlines of the story of the Tower of Babel. Mere fairy tales don’t have such corroboration from science. We can’t verify whether God confused language of the people in one particular area and time (c. 2900 BC, as I calculate it), but we can attempt to verify physical / empirical aspects of the story that can be subjected to such analysis. And when we do that, the convergence of evidences is quite striking and impressive.

So who’s the “idiot” here? Well, I’ll let you decide that. Personally, I think Jonathan is more stubborn and intellectually prideful than stupid. It’s a matter of the will, not the intellect. He knows better. In any event, wrong conclusions derive from wrong premises, and as a Socratic, I always examine underlying premises. That’s my focus: squarely on premises, the plausibility and solidity of arguments, and an open-minded seeking of truth; not whether someone is an “idiot” or not.

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Photo credit: The Tower of Babel, by Alexander Mikhalchyk (b. 1969) [Wikimedia Commons / Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 4.0 International license]

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Summary: Atheist anti-theist polemicist Jonathan MS Pearce mocks the Tower of Babel story and those who accept it as “idiots.” But it’s not nearly that clear-cut and simple.


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