Reading the Myths Aright, Part III: On the Wrathful Dispersion of People and Tongues
In this essay I will continue to mine a vein that I have exposed over the past couple of installments in this blog: that of “species memory,” which might also be thought of as “cultural memory.” I believe there are echoes of watershed events in the human saga preserved in ancient texts such as the Bible, often reworked so extensively that it takes some “reading between the lines” to tease them out. It seems to me that in the Genesis myths alone we hear several such echoes. I think it might be useful at this point to spill a little metaphorical ink over the question of how the Bible came to be in the first place, before continuing with the story of the wrathful confusion of languages.
Around 1000 BCE, a bunch of quarreling Palestinian tribes were welded into a bona fide, if short-lived, kingdom by a warlord named David, who had clawed his way to power by toppling another chieftain named Saul. In order to accomplish this political coup and guarantee his hegemony, David used the time-honored means of treachery, brute force and propaganda. The propaganda took the form of stories that were crafted by the priests who supported the Davidic monarchy and profited from their loyalty.
Those priests were members of a tribe known as “Levites,” who had invented quite a few elaborate ceremonies guaranteed to strike awe into the hearts of onlookers and cow them into submission. Priests whose stories told of a miraculous deliverance from Egyptian bondage – an exodus led by a Levite who escorted God’s chosen people to the Promised Land, receiving God’s laws along the way. (It’s no accident that those priests were rewarded handsomely for their efforts: witness the lavish “inheritance” they wrote for themselves into God’s law, as outlined in the books of Numbers and Joshua. Even during hard times, the Levites ate well.) Those stories were filled with dire warnings and cautionary tales. They recounted the conquest of uncooperative Palestinian tribes by the victorious “armies of God,” led by such genocidal luminaries as Joshua. They included tales of David’s own rise to power. Those stories – pure fictions, all – were intended to cobble together previously fractious tribes into a band of brothers presided over by a single monarch. Serendipitously, they also came to form the core of what Christians revere as the Bible: all else is later encrustation.
The priests who concocted these accounts drew on a number of extant legends from the region; they also added a lot of tales from their own (mostly invented) experience. The stories of the Fall, the Flood and the Tower of Babel are all borrowed stories, reworked to fit the narrative that the Levites wished for the tribes of Palestine, thereafter to be known as “David’s kingdom,” to adopt as their sacred history.
The clearest single echo of “species memory” in the Bible is the story of the Flood, which has been amply worked over by many commentators. For anyone who has not read it, I recommend Ryan’s and Pitman’s Noah’s Flood: The New Scientific Discoveries about the Event That Changed History. I will not deal with the Flood story here: I will instead skip to the story that follows it in the canon of Sacred Scripture.
(1) Now the whole earth had one language and the same words. (2) And as they migrated from the east, they came upon 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; otherwise we shall be scattered abroad upon the face of the whole earth.” (5) The LORD came down to see the city and the tower, which mortals had built. (6) And the LORD said, “Look, they are one people, and they have all one language; and this is only the beginning of what they will do; nothing that they propose to do will now be impossible for them. (7) Come, let us go down, and confuse their language there, so that they will 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 it was called Babel, 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.”
This story is, as I indicated, a borrowed tale. Unlike the stories of the Fall and the Flood, however, it’s been reworked almost beyond recognition. Instead of reflecting the glory of Hammurabi’s empire as the original version no doubt did, it does service as an explanation for the spread of humanity over the face of the Earth after the Flood and the difficulty that tribes living proximate to each other have in understanding one another’s speech. It also contains a dire warning against hubris. This warning is in the spirit of many other such threats present in the Good Book beginning with the seventeenth verse of its second chapter.
Being set in “the land of Shinar” (Mesopotamia), this story also sets the stage for the call of Abraham in Chapter 12 – the (fictional) event that the first eleven chapters of Genesis have been aiming at all along. The “plain” of verse 2 is no doubt a reference to the floodplains of the Tigris and Euphrates Rivers, whose annually-renewed fertility made the region a good bet for agriculture on a large scale and the seat of a powerful, extensive and long-lived kingdom. The single human language that is postulated in verse 1 follows naturally from the account of the preceding chapter, which lists the sons of Noah and their immediate offspring, but has them still tightly-knit in an extended family living in constant contact with each other. The confusing geographical reference (“from the east” – presumably in the opposite direction from the “mountains of Ararat” where the Ark was said to have settled) need not detain us here: why bother working over fanciful tropes? Unlike certain febrile-minded creationists, we’re not trying to locate Noah’s Ark.
If Genesis 3 recounts the invention of agriculture, Genesis 11 describes the building of the first cities. In both cases the event is couched in metaphorical terms that must be “read beyond” in order to hear the echo of species memory. The tone of the metaphors is not accidental: the invention of agriculture is lamented, but the building of the first cities is celebrated as a towering achievement (my use of that adjective was also intentional). The building methods described are those of Hammurabi’s kingdom, and the tower no doubt refers to the ziggurats that were used as astrological observatories by the priests of Ur: “a tower with its top in the heavens” is almost certainly a misreading of something like “a tower from whose top the heavens will be read.”
Surely humans have been fascinated by the night sky ever since they developed brains large enough to wonder about what they saw. But wonderment at the night sky and astrology are two completely different things, and I can’t imagine that they were born together. Astrology has “scientific” pretensions, and would more likely have arisen during the time of a more “scientific” ordering of life – such as we see in the practice of agriculture – than in a less “scientific” age when people were foragers. In saying this, I’m by no means dismissing Paleolithic people as “primitives.” I’m observing only that many of the features common in the human experience – such as agriculture and astrology – grew up together. Agriculturalists would have had a special need for astrology that hunter-gatherers did not. Paleolithic people would of course have been cognizant of growing seasons and animal migrations, and would have adjusted their lives to those annual rhythms. But Paleolithic people also lived less “settled” lives than agriculturalists, and could move about much more freely to take advantage of those natural rhythms than the Neolithic people who settled in fertile areas long-term and had to know when to plant their crops in order to guarantee a good yield. For this last, reading the “signs in the sky” can be very useful.
The earliest known accounts of named constellations are found in cuneiform texts and artifacts from the Euphrates valley dating from around 3,300 BCE. Constellations associated with the lion, the bull and the scorpion were apparently recognized by that time. Those three constellations are among the Zodiacal constellations, so-called because most of them are named for animals. The Zodiacal constellations are those that lie within a few degrees of the ecliptic, a band of sky that would have been of paramount importance to agriculturalists because the sun, moon and planets are also located there. Their positions in the sky can be used to fix the optimum times for planting and harvesting. Great festivals were devised to celebrate the solstices and equinoxes – features of the Earth’s annual cycle that would not have been nearly so impressive to foragers (would in fact probably have gone unnoticed, except in the most general way). Those festivals were all aimed at guaranteeing the abundance of crops and the fertility of domesticated animals. Some of those festivals have been appropriated (perhaps “co-opted” is the word I want) by Christianity.
The authors of the Bible were of course familiar with astrology and impressed by it. There are many astrological references within the Bible’s gilt-edged pages, beginning with Genesis 1:14: “And God said, ‘Let there be lights in the dome of the sky to separate the day from the night; and let them be for signs and for seasons and for days and for years…’” The entire Book of Genesis is an echo of the Bronze Age and its Neolithic antecedent: in it, we have a fanciful recounting of the events that made us who we are, but certainly not an accurate historical account of the creation of the universe no matter what Ken Ham says.
Bronze-Age people did not understand the variety of language as we beneficiaries of more than two centuries’ worth of systematic linguistics do. We now know that languages evolve at a fairly predictable rate, just as life does. And like the evolution of life, the evolution of language is traced not within generations but between them. (Since some animals have much longer gestation periods than others, generations are calculated differently from organism to organism. This is why bacterial evolution can be observed directly but human evolution cannot – a fine distinction that fundamentalists do not seem to “get.”) Neither language evolution nor biological evolution happens at a rate quite as steady as, say, radioactive decay; but it’s consistent enough for us to be able to make some educated guesses, based on (for instance) the number of cognates found between two related languages, as to how long their speakers’ populations have been separated from each other. Linguistics alone has been sufficient to establish many historical and pre-historical patterns of human migration, and the sequencing of the human genome has confirmed most of those models.
To illustrate the rate at which language changes: look at the differences between the English spoken by William Shakespeare and that spoken by Barack Obama. Estimate the number of generations that lie between them.
The reason I think the placement within the Book of Genesis of the story of the “wrathful confusion of languages” is appropriate, is because it follows hot on the heels of the story of the Flood. That story, as Ryan and Pitman make clear, probably represents the written record of an oral tradition that had been circulated through several hundred generations – an oral tradition that dates back to a catastrophe around the Black Sea Lake some 7,600 years before the present and perhaps four millennia before it was first written down. Because the survivors of that catastrophe fled in all directions from the rising floodwaters, they would have become separated for a long period of time. Even if they possessed the same lingua franca before the flood drove them out, the divergent evolution of that once-common language would have rendered their speech unintelligible to each other within a few tens of generations. An explanation was needed – an explanation that would comport with the overall intention behind these “sacred scriptures”: why not tie it to the hubris of early city-builders, and God’s displeasure at such an uppity display?
We’ve all been amazed and entertained by fundamentalists’ patently absurd claim that the Bible contains no contradictions, yet I’ve come to understand that they’ve actually got it partway right – albeit in a way that not one of them will ever admit. The Blessed Old Leather-Bound Bible is perfectly consistent from cover to cover in its primary message: submit to the monarch and don’t overreach. This message is found both metaphorically and directly on practically every page. We see it in “Moses” and in Paul; we see it in Genesis and in Revelation. Even the allegedly insurrection-minded Jesus of Nazareth said it, in what is possibly its clearest formulation: “Render unto Caesar the things that are Caesar’s and unto God the things that are God’s.” The operative word is “render,” and you and your prerogatives are not so much as mentioned in the formula.
Submit – isn’t that the meaning of “Islam?” Submit – what does that word suggest etymologically-speaking?
The Bible and the religions that claim it as a sacred text were invented as tools of control to be wielded by the ruling class: that’s precisely what King David was aiming at, as hundreds of monarchs had done before him, and thousands continued to do long after his bones had turned to dust. That “sacred text” and those religions constitute the most wildly successful propaganda campaign in history: today’s Madison Avenue wizards are pikers compared to “Moses.”
But here’s the rub: the monarchy and the religions that justify it grew up together like conjoined twins that share a single heart. And in cases where such twins are separated, one of them has to die. That’s precisely the reason that theocratically-minded fundamentalists argue that America was founded as a Christian nation and agitate for its return to those supposed sacred roots: they see Christianity buckling under a steadily-rising tide of secularism, and they’re determined to stem that tide. What they’re really arguing for is not a return to late eighteenth-century America as incorporated by the (mostly irreligious) Founders, but a return to the monarchy from which those Founders had separated themselves. They know in their shriveled little hearts that the separation of Church and State sounds the death knell for their manipulative religion. They cannot tolerate a secular society: Christianity, being a tool of the ruling class, can survive only so long as the ruling class both holds power and does lip service to that religion (as witness virtually every political campaign waged in this country over the past half-century) – and the ruling class can continue to hold power only so long as we let them.
I close this account by once again quoting Madalyn Murray O’Hair: “An atheist is a person who questions every kind of authority. And this is the thing that is important, because if we can, without blinking an eye, question the ultimate authority – God, who must be obeyed – then we can question the authority of the state, we can question the authority of the university structure, we can question the authority of our employer, we can question anything.”
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