Monday, October 3, 2016

How to Read the Bible, Chapter 5, by James Kugel

The Confusion of Tongues, by Gustave Dore
Chapter 5 of How to Read the Bible discusses the tower of Babel. In the story, the people were building a city with a tower that reached up to heaven. God saw the tower and decided to confuse their speech so that they couldn't understand each other anymore. 

Ancient interpreters added context: They believed that everyone at that time spoke exactly the same language. As such, they could accomplish anything. When God saw that they had such high aspirations as to reach heaven, He confused them so that they would be unable to ever reach that high again. It is a story of human arrogance. 

To ancient interpreters, it is the tower that angered God - because it reached so high. However, modern scholars question this emphasis on the tower. If the tower were the whole point in the story, why mention that they were building a city as well? In fact, after God confused the language and scattered the people, the Bible says "and they left off building the city." (Genesis 11:8)* The Bible doesn't even say a word about the tower's fate. Thus, modern scholars are saying that the point of the story isn't human arrogance at all. The story is actually an indication of how the Biblical Israelites thought about Babylon. Babylon's civilization must have seemed like teeming conglomerations to the sparsely populated Israelites. The story is about how God does not favor such a living situation. God also did not favor the use of metal tools to quarry or shape the stones of an altar, which is something the Babylonians were doing: 

"If you make me an altar of stone, you shall not build it of hewn stones, for if you wield your tool on it you profane it." (Exodus 20:25)

Well into modern times, people believed that all languages were corruptions of the one original language. Ancient interpreters believed that this original language was Hebrew. After all, in the Bible, God always spoke to Himself, and to people, in Hebrew. There was plenty of Aramaic included in the Bible, so why have God speak in Hebrew rather than Aramaic? Because, clearly, Hebrew was the original language. 

Modern linguists mostly agree that all Semitic languages do go back to one root language, but that this language is not Hebrew. This theoretical language is called Proto-Semitic. Biblical Hebrew is several developmental jumps away from Proto-Semitic. In fact, Moses couldn't have written the Bible, modern linguists say, because his Hebrew was much older than that used in the Bible. Nor can the Pentateuch, or the book of Psalms, be the work of one author because the Hebrew used is from at least two different periods or regions. 

*All Bible quotes are from the English Standard Version

This is part of a series of posts for my upcoming Bible as Literature Group Read. To read the rest of my notes, go here


  1. I always liked the Tower of Babel story because of the languages. I didn't know about the modern thought about the history of language -- thanks!

    1. It is quite an interesting story, isn't it Joy? This book I'm reading is good at pointing out things that I wouldn't normally have noticed.

  2. I've always been kinda fascinated by this story. The tower reaching to the clouds- why would the Lord be threatened since they couldn't actually *reach* Heaven right? So there must be more to the story? Fun to think about. I had not thought about the city angle, nor about the common language It's fascinating to think about the tech level too- just how did they build something that high (if we take it literally, which we were clearly meant to at least in some times and places).

    1. I guess the only thing that ever stuck with me about this story before now is that God went down and confused the languages. It seems that he started xenophobia that way.