THE TOWER OF BABEL

I here use the King James ( or Authorised) version of the story:

And the whole earth was of one language and one speech. And it came to pass, as they journeyed from the east, that they found a plain in the land of Shinar; and they dwelt there. And they said to one another, Go to, let us make brick and burn them throughly. And they had brick for stone, and slime had they for morter. And they said, Go to, let us build us a city and tower whose top may reach unto heaven; and let us make us a name lest we be scattered abroad upon the face of the whole earth. And the Lord came down to see the city and the tower, which the children of men builded. And the Lord said, Behold, the people is one, and they have all one language and this they begin to do; and now nothing will be restrained from them, which they have imagine to do. Go to, let us go down, and there confound their language, that they may not understand one another’s speech. So the Lord scattered them abroad from thence upon the face of all the earth: and they left off to build the city. Therefore is the name of it called Babel; because the Lord did there confound the language of all the earth; and from thence did the Lord scatter them abroad upon the face of all the earth.

(Genesis 11:1-9)

The myth is designed to explain the breakdown of humans into different languages. The original language is clearly seen as uniting all humanity in one language. We have seen from earlier discussion of Genesis stories the significance of language, of speech. By speech, the ordered universe is brought into being; the creation of Man, at the pinnacle of creation, in the image of God, is reflected by his being introduced to the God-given power of speech ( see post ( Why Does God get Adam to Name the Animals?). But this brings a danger to the fore, the danger of Man over-reaching himself, assuming powers for which God alone is responsible.

In the tale we hear two sets of voices: the collective voice of humanity and the voice of God and God’s counsel ( hence “Let us go down” Gen.11.7). The collective voice has assumed self- conscious awareness of power. They speak with one voice, they are gathered together. Their aspiration is to show off their strength by building a tower up into heaven, so as to “make a name” which will vindicate their authority and make them secure.

God sees this as an arrogation of power, that must be confounded. Hence the confusion of their speech so that communication will become broken and divided. The people from being a great collective will become divided, at odds, and scattered.

Hence has arisen the use of the word Babel to mean ” a confused medley of sounds; meaningless noise (E16)” or “a scene of confusion; a noisy assembly” (E17)” (S.O.E.D.).

More powerfully, perhaps, the Tower of Babel can be seen as a symbol of arrogance. We are told Muslims build their cities so that no building shall over-top the minarets that link the mosques to God. Mohammed Atta, a student of architecture, who led the terror attack, against the World Trade Centre (2001), aimed deliberately at a building higher than overtopped any mosque and was therefore seen as arrogating the power of the West and globalised capitalism. (See Roger Scruton The West and the Rest).

Without, obviously, seeking to justify the reasons for that heinous act, it might be said the attack pressed upon us the same question as the Tower of Babel myth: to what extent have those of us in the Judeo-Christian West allowed the values of secular materialism to over-top our accounability to God as Creator?

Note. Roger Scruton The West and the Rest Globalisation and the Terrorist Threat Continuum 2002. Details on Atta found in chapter on “Holy Law” P101.

OLD STORIES THAT TELL US WHERE WE ARE NOW

Myths are not factual but they incorporate profound truths.

The Biblical myth of the Tower of Babel speaks of the usurpation by Man of the place of God, claiming power which he is unable to maintain, leading to disintegration.

Plato, the ancient Greek philosopher, devised what might be called a myth-the myth of the cave-though, more properly, it is an allegory showing the differences between living in the shadows of misunderstanding or in the full light of reality.

We have been following Coleridge’s work as a Romantic poet and thinker. “The Rime of the Ancient Mariner”, his greatest poem, recounts a sea- going tale involving a mariner shooting dead , the albatross that has been following his ship. The tale , involving the hard-won redemption of the mariner, points forward (among other things) to our present ecological cisis.

These three works, are I believe of great significance for our time. I am running a series of posts on them explaining why, starting with the Tower of Babel.

Keep on the look-out!

THE EOLIAN HARP

This is one of Samuel Taylor Coleridge’s early conversation poems, first written in 1795. The address is to his young married wife, Sarah. The Eolian Harp (or Aeolian, from Aeolus the Greek god of wind) was devised as an outdoor wind instrument played into sound by currents of air. The sounds enable the poet to devise a beautiful polytheistic conception of the manifold creation inspired into diverse life by the action on it of the spirit. In doing so he is rebuked by his wife for challenging her Christian understanding but the self -understanding of the poet resolves the issue so the poem ends with the tranquil beauty it has managed to maintain throughout.

My pensive Sara! thy soft cheek reclined
Thus on mine arm, most soothing sweet it is
To sit beside our Cot, our Cot o'ergrown
With white-flower'd Jasmin, and the broad-leav'd Myrtle
(Meet emblems they of Innocence and Love!)
And watch the clouds, that late were rich with light
Slow saddening round, and mark the star of eve
Serenely brilliant (such should Wisdom be)
Shine opposite! How exquisite the scents
Snatch'd from yon bean-field! and the world so hush'd!
The stilly murmur of the distant Sea 
Tells us of silence.

                               And that simplest Lute
Placed length- ways in the clasping casement, hark!
How by the desutory breeze caress'd,
Like some coy maiden yielding to her lover,
It pours such sweet upbraiding, as must needs
Tempt to repeat the wrong! And now its strings
Boldlier swept, the long sequacious notes
Over delicious surges sink and rise,
Such a soft floating witchery of sound 
As twilight Elfins make, when they at eve
Voyage on gentle gales from Faery-Land,
Where Melodies round honey-dropping flowers,
Footless and wild, like birds of Paradise,
Nor pause, nor perch, hovering on untam'd wing!
O! the one Life within us and abroad,
Which meets all Motion and becomes its soul,
A light in sound, a sound-like power in light,
Rhythm in all thought and joyance everywhere-
Methinks it should have been impossible
Not to love all things in a world so fill'd;
Where the breeze warbles, and the mute still air
Is Music slumbering on her instrument.

And thus , my Love! as on the midway slope
Of yonder hill I stretch my limbs at noon,
Whilst through my half-clos'd eye-lids I behold
The sunbeams dance, like diamonds on the main,
And tranquil muse upon tranquillity; 
Full many a thought uncall'd and undetain'd,
And many idle flitting phantasies,
Traverse my indolent and passive brain,
As wild and various as the random gales
That swell and flutter on this subject Lute!

And what if all of animated nature 
Be but organic Harps diversely fram'd
That tremble into thought, as o'er them sweeps
Plastic and vast one intellectual breeze,
At once the soul of each, and God of all?

But thy more serious eye a mild reproof
Darts, O beloved Woman! nor such thoughts
Dim and unhallow'd dost thou not reject,
And biddest me walk humbly with my God.
Meek daughter in the family of Christ!
Well hast thou said and holily disprais'd
These shapings of the unregenerate mind;
Bubbles that glitter as they rise and break
On vain Philosophy's aye-babbling spring.
For never guiltless may I speak of him,
The Incomprehensible! save when with awe
I praise him, and with Faith that inly feels;
Who with his saving mercies healed me,
A sinful and most miserable man,
Wilder'd and dark, and gave me to possess
Peace, and this cot, and thee, heart-honour'd Maid!
[1795;publ.1796]     

 

CORRESPONDENCE : ON ADAM NAMING THE ANIMALS

NOTE: Correspondence is welcome and may be published. Please follow CONTACT details. The letter below is on the post before last. If the last post on the KINDNESS OF STRANGERS suggests any examples-personal or historical-that you would like to communicate please get in touch.

Hello Alan,

Another interesting blog, much of which I have no quarrel with. As I’ve said elsewhere, the last few decades have seen consciousness being taken far more seriously, as opposed to being taken for granted. The rediscovery of panpsychism is particularly noteworthy, with its giving consciousness, or perhaps better “mind”, priority as that out of which “matter” emerges, rather than the other way around. We ourselves have minds, which links us to the primordial “Mind” and out of minds, the matter of painting, poetry, prose, music, drama emerge. So I share your interest in the Coleridge quotation. But enough of boring agreement-let’s get down to where I take issue with sopme of what you’ve written.

In what you write, in keeping with a number of elements in the early chapters of Genesis, I pick up a sense of “exceptionalism” in relation to human beings, and that’s an idea I regard as needing careful definition, lest it “get a bit above itself”, despite the best efforts of Charles Darwin. I notice you appear to say that humans are “living souls” unlike “the other animals”. This is, perhaps where I have an advantage due to my erstwhile training in Hebrew.

In Genesis 1.24, God said, “Let the earth produce living creatures. Transliterated, the Hebrew for “living creatures” is nephesh chayah(Scottish ch sound). Nephesh is rooted in the idea of “that which breathes” and is given the meanings of “living being, perso, self, soul” etc. A nephesh chayah is therefore a living breathin being. So what? Just this-in Genesis 2.7, after God “blew breath of life(sic) into his nostrils, the man became a living bein- a nephesh -exactly the same as all the other living, breathing creatures in Genesis 1.24 creatures. So there’s no exceptionalism there-in my view at any rate. If humans are “living souls ” so are all other living creatures.

To share another bit of agreement, I can go along with what you write about the way in which language facilitates creative imagination, on an individual and shared basis, and you make a valid link with the man’s naming of various creatures. Incidentally, since in mythology, names are sometimes linked to the “essence” of the named, I’m reminded of the Catholic hell fire preacher, whose name was Father Furniss!

But to get back to issue taking- in mythology , naming can be associated with exerting power. Isis tricked the Sun God into revealing his name, so that he could force him to get her son Horus elevated in the divine pantheon. In Genesis 1.26 the intention in proposing to make humans in the image of the gods is immediately, and therefore primarily associated with their “ruling over” all other living creatures, as the gods did. The verb “radah” means “to have dominion, to dominate over”. In 1.28 the act itself is at once followed by a “blessing” is designed to encourage and facilitate reproduction and “subjugation” of the earth. The verb “kabash” is rooted in the idea of “treading underfoot”, and means “to bring into bondage or subdue”, and is used of rape in the book of Esther. And in Genesis 3.16, the woman is told regarding her husband that “he shall rule over you”. Here the verb “mashal” means to have dominion, to reign as a monarch over his subjects.

It might be said I’m nit-picking. But you’re writing, after all, about the importance of words and language. The editors of Genesis did not have to use these verbs. They could have used others, but these are the ones they chose, and must have had their reasons. And whereas you, Alan, rightly counter-balance them with counter-examples, there have been plenty others who have not. The centuries long history of misogyny, and the current ongoing rape of the planet’s fossil fuel resources, despite the the rapidly increasing instances of drought and forest fires, melting ice-caps and thawing permafrosts etc etc bear witness to some of the unhelpful words we find in Genesis, and elsewhere.

As we both know, the Hebrew Bible is not a book, but a library, compiled , edited and re-edited over hundreds of years, by lots of different people, employing different genres, with different agendas, and for different audiences. This means that the Hebrew Bible doesn’t have “a message” for us. It has a multiplicity of “”messages” many of which are inconsistent, contradictory and some even morally repugnant. The reverse is of course true. There are individual verses, whole sections, and even themes, which are fascinating, colourful, dramatically moving, inspirational, thought- provoking or just provoking.. We have to read with critical care and attention, which will have its own personal reward.

Anyway it’s time to stop. please understand that though I’ve “nitpicked”, I do appreciate and enjoy the quality of your blogs, especially when they provoke pen to paper, or fingers to key board. You and I sometimes have “meetings of minds” and sometimes “separations of minds”. This is splendid as far as I am concerned. Through aagreement comes encouragement, and through disagreementcomes challenge, both of which we all have need of. More power to your writing elbow.

Reply :

Hello Ray,

Many thanks for your carefully developed response to my discussion. Perhaps your answer betrays rather too much a personal need to balance your well focused appreciation of the Hebrew Bible with too much of a large scale focus on what you see as its effects in our times. There seems too much of a gap between what you are considering in close detail in the discussion of the overall meaning of the creation narratives of Genesis Ch. 1 and 2 with disastrous effects of climate change centuries later et al. I would say too much else requires to be considered before this idea is entertained. A blog post on another topic can hardly allow for this.

Your points on the negative possibilities and dangerous potentials of various terms used, seems at variance with the more obvious contextual meanings. It is not gods ( though there is one reference to “we” in 1. 26, presumably , a relic from an earlier edition) who are being discussed -either in the first creation story (the priestly version God) or the second (Yahweh). The sun , moon , stars are indeed worshipped by other tribes but the acclaimed God who is shown to create man in his image is creator of these. This God sees his creation as good-and after the culmination of creation-humankind very good. He is not likely then in giving humans dominion over creation, encouraging irresponsibility towards what should be seen as a blessing The creation is clearly cumulative, with mankind created as the climax, rather than in assortment with the other creatures. The second story, while very different in isolating the creation of man confirms this emphasis.

On your interesting discussion of the Hebrew term “nephesh cheya”, you point to meanings of ” a living being, person, self, soul”. This allows, as indicated, for “living being” which is the New International Version translation , but also for ” living soul” as in the King James Version. The exceptionalism is suggested to me by the context in both first and second creation stories. The second version distinguishes the creation of mankind above and beyond the creation of “living creatures, cattle, and creeping thing and beast of the earth after his kind.” (1.24) and only then “let us make man in our image, after our likeness”. The second story as the blog post makes clear, distinguishes in Adam the ability to name (hence reflecting the image of God, the initial namer) thus again putting human kind in a higher category.

So while you are correct in claiming that I see the Biblical argument as emphasising the “exceptionalism ” of humankind over other creatures (despite the qualifications you make) I would still argue I am justified by the context in making this distinction. However one defines ” soul,” the link between mankind, created in the image of God in terms of consciousness and in being speech makers, capable of developing a complex language (beyond any natural language of communication animals use) makes human beings exceptional as bearers of consciousness, beyond other animals.

This brings me to ” dominion” or “rule”which you tend to see in negative terms. In the post I mentioned the example of Noah saving the animals- an early act of conservation Humankind did develop agriculture, beyond the hunter-gatherer phase and this inevitably led to degrees of control or “rule”. The Hebrew law, however, was remakable in making allowance for animals and for crop growth making rest a constituent part of the agricultural process. “Dominion” enables David Attenborough to stand before us urging us to make the fight against climate change a priority. What other species is capable of doing that? “Dominion” means accepting the responsibility of stewardship, not its denial.

Dealing with an implied charge of “nit-picking” you indicate the focus in my blog on the importance of words and language. Yes, but the emphasis is -or seeks to be- on words and language in the context of the first two chapters of Genesis. Perhaps in your very interesting focus on Hebrew words you are nevertheless straining the context of what is surely first and foremost presented as “good”, “very good”, a blessing. This seems to me to be especially the case when you associate Genesis with “centuries long history of misogyny and the ongoing rape of the planet’s fuel resources” etc. The permanent difficulties of male-female relations in all cultures is certainly at odds with the emphasis on the ending of Ch2 with male and female together “naked and unashamed”. And greed, lust for power, misogyny -the evils of a what is to be seen in Biblical terms, as a fallen world are linked rather more widely to the human condition (about which the Bible is never other than realistic) than simply a sacred text, as you would see it being misread.

Or not misread, for you seem to want to dandle two possibilities: the Bible as a force for good and the Bible as a force for evil. In arguing that in the Bible there is a muliplicity of messages, some of which are contradictory, some ” morally repugnant” you are surely denying the coherence of theme, within a long-term historical development which followers of the Torah and later Christians (the latter seeing a continuity between the Old and New Testaments) have long understood. The Biblical writers and editors, whatever their genre, were writing not just as individuals but as writers within a tradition promoting a sense of their peoples’ understanding of their connectedness with a providential God which, in seeking to celebrate, they were also seeking to correct and modify, as well as develop. The important part the prophets were allowed to play by including their work in scripture is worth contemplating. For the prophets represented a critical understanding of what was going wrong with people’s faith and their understanding of God. The recognition of the contradictions you point to are bound up with the developing understanding of a people of the need to find a way, as the prophet Micah puts it “to act justly, to love mercy and to walk humbly” with the God who has created them in his image.

Good once again to discuss such matters with you,

With best wishes,

Alan

THE KINDNESS OF STRANGERS

This is a story of the childhood of great poet S. T. Coleridge.

His father died when he was nine and the young boy was sent to board at the charity school of Christ’s Hopital. A compulsive reader he would read works from the school library: “my whole being was with eyes closed to every object of present sense, to crumple myself up in a sunny corner and read, read, read.” (see Coleridge’s autobiographical letters to Tom Poole: Coleridge’s Letters). One day when he had slipped away from school-where he was not happy- he was roaming the streets of London caught up in imaginative re-living of his reading, imagining himself swimming. One of his arms struck the pocket of a passing pedestrian. The man, not unnaturally, suspected a pocket-lifter and caught hold of him. It sounds rather like Oliver Twist but then the young boy started to explain to the man he was swimming the Hellespont, imagining he was Leander swimming towards his beloved Hero. The gentleman was so amazed and delighted to discover an apparent street child who appeared so great a reader that he presented the boy with a subscription for three years to the King Street Lending Library. ( the story told by Coleridge to his physician and friend, Dr Gilman appears in the latter’s The life of Samuel Taylor Coleridge)

This was a membership the young Coleridge would use fully. He read everything he could lay his hands on -“skulking” out of school to claim the two volumes he was entitled to daily.

Charles Lamb, a fellow pupil and future writer recalled how Coleridge in the dormitory every night would regale his school companions with his reading of the day. Whether it was Homer or neo- platonic philosophy he held his audience spellbound.

Throughout his life he retained everything he read and he read more or less every thing there was to read!

Talk about good seed falling on fruitful soil! What wealth can come from a generous deed!

( I am grateful to Malcolm Guite Mariner: A Voyage with Samuel Taylor Coleridge for this story)

WHY DOES GOD GET ADAM TO NAME THE ANIMALS?

If you are a regular reader of this blog post you will be aware that recently I have become fascinated by a Coleridge quotation linking God’s boundless creative imagination, the great I AM, sustaining creation and therefore sustaining us in consciousness and our own urge to be imaginatively creative (see God Said”Let Newton Be!”). This interest has encouraged me to look again at the creation stories of Genesis for further enlightenment.

At the beginning of Genesis God speaks creation into being: ” Let there be light and there was light”. and there are various stages in the creative process to the culmination, the creation of humanity : “so God created mankind in his own image, in the image of God he created him; male and female created he them.” (Genesis 1.27K.J.V)

God creates us in his own image. It is a striking phrase which would seem to endorse Coleridge’s emphasis on the imagination being central. In creating us, in speaking us into existence, God reflects his image into the bodied form of human kind. God is creative and makes us to reflect his creativity. God looks and sees that the creation of the day is good, so he enables us to look out, to be conscious as no other animal can be, at the surrounding creation, enabling us to see that it is good.

The second story of creation(Genesis 2.4-25) works more at ground level. God is a kind of artist, a sculptor, say, he forms man out of the clay on the ground as a sculptor might form a human figure from chosen materials. But it is not only a material, a physical act, for God breathes into his nostrils the breath of life and he becomes a living soul. I love that phrase “living soul”. In essence the second story is saying the same about human creation, except it is the creation of the one sex, man. By breathing life into him God is giving his spirit, his life into us from the start so that we are not just material bodies, not just embodied creatures like the other animals, we are “living souls”.

What does this mean in terms of the meaning of being human? What power are we given when God makes us living souls? There follows a passge which again seems to me to endorse Coleridge’s stress on connectedness between God’s creative power and our very much more limited creativity.

Here is the relevant passage:

And the Lord God said, It is not good that the man should be alone; I will make an helpmeet for him. And out of the ground the Lord God formed every beast of the field, and every fowl of the air ; and brought them unto Adam to see what he would call them: and whatsoever Adam called every living creature, that was the name thereof. And Adam gave names to all cattle and to the fowl of the air, and to every beast of the field; but for Adam there was not a helpmeet for him.

This is a curious passage interposed between the creation of Adam and the creation of Woman. The parade of the creatures seems ostensibly to be linked to the search for a companion for Adam. But none is found, causing the need for a fresh creation. All this seems a little clumsy compared with the first creation story in Genesis 1. At first too the story of the naming of the animals seems somewhat bizarre and awkward when compared with the tight impressiveness of the first creation story. We have not for instance been informed of Adam’s capacity (presumably God-given) to use language . There seems a rather amateurish almost playful awkardness about the parading of the animals for naming all ostensibly for the sake of finding an appropriate helpmate for Adam to ease him from the burden of living alone.

What the second story enables, however, in the naming of the animals is something I find striking given the connection with the Coleridge quotation on the creative imagination of man. The naming of the animals (we have to accept here this is mythic story telling rather than realistic, hence we are not required to puzzle as to how Adam was versed in language) may at first an almost playful and anachronistic categorisation. But remember how in the first story of creation in Genesis 1 God names things and they emerge as themselves and are then declared good. Adam in naming is looking at and recognising each creature to be different, to be seen as a creature that is distinctive. The naming of the animals therefore enables Adam to recognise and respect the goodness of creation. It is a creative act of recognition linking the creativity of man with the greater creativity of God. The naming of the animals is the first explicit act of man, showing his God-given capacity (as one given speech) to be at his own level, creative.

There is also an underlying significance, I suggest, to the activity in that it involves respect for the distinctive nature of God’s creation and by extension a shared apprehension of its goodness. Critics have quibbled over the use of the word dominance, the giving power by God to man over Nature (see Genesis 1.28). It seems to me however this story places an obligation of man to be responsible in his treatment of Nature. (This emphasis will indeed be furthered by the story of Noah protecting the animals by taking them on the ark in Genesis 8).

What we have then in this story within its context is vitally important. God as consciousness passes on consciousness to Man. God also passes on speech to Man. Indeed it might be argued that it is the ability to make speech, to share language that enables Man to be above the other animals, a living soul. God brings forward creation through speech. Man uses his God-given speech to enable him to be creative. The unfallen world is good; it meets God’s approval. Man, set in a garden, is appointed to look after creation and maintain its goodness. The Genesis stories then endorse the importance of looking after creation and they also point to the primacy of the creative imagination as linking the creativity of God with the creativity of man.

The Bible is a work in which God has the power to connect with humanity and Man with God. Moses and the prophets are encouraged and inspired by God to speak that which is needful to be heard. Coleridge is to suggest this power is continued through the work of the inspired human imagination. That power of connectedness, of inspiration, of imaginative creativity is prepared for by this mythic tale of God passing on the art of speech to Adam enabling him to name the animals.