Saturday, July 18, 2009

The Tower of Babel Building Project and Its Negative Consequences

1 And the whole earth was of one language, and of one speech.
2 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.
3 And they said one to another, Go to, let us make brick, and burn them throughly. And they had brick for stone, and slime had they for morter.
4 And they said, Go to, let us build us a city and a 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. (Genesis 11:1-4)
let us make us a name – It sounds to me like the people wanted to make a reputation for themselves. What kind of reputation? I’m not sure. But evidently they thought it involved an ambitious building program. Why did they want the reputation? I think a clue to that comes from the next phrase “lest we be scattered abroad upon the face of the whole earth”. They wanted a reputation that would keep them from being dispersed (by marauding armies?). They didn’t want anybody to mess with them.

Two possibilities occur to me about what kind of reputation they wanted to make for themselves. I think they either wanted to make a reputation as the best fortified people around, or as the greatest and fanciest housed people around. (Or maybe they were going for both at once.) If they were the best fortified, no incoming armies could get in. If they had the best houses and best public buildings, then the tourists and travelers would want to live there and they could attract the best people.
5 And the Lord came down to see the city and the tower, which the children of men builded.
6 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 imagined to do. (Genesis 11:5-6)
Once a people gets started with the goal of making a reputation of being the best-fortified and/or the grandest, there is nothing to stop them. Even natural limits and environmental factors seem to be ignored.

However, natural limits and environmental factors may have played a larger part in the fate of the Babelites than previously thought.

One natural limit that seems to come to mind is that of transportation. Usually bricks had to be made as close to on-site as possible, since transportation of the heavy load over long distances would be prohibitively expensive.

Another natural limit is the availability of the building materials themselves. For strong bricks of the mud variety, a brickyard needed good sources of mud, clay, sand, and straw. If they were dried in the sun instead of burnt in a kiln, their useful life was about 30 years. If they were burnt in a kiln, then a plentiful source of fuel was needed to feed the kiln fires.

Another natural limit that comes to mind is that of the natural load capacity and load bearing weight of the bricks themselves. The higher the tower was to be, the larger the base would have to be to support the height, and the greater the load would be on the bricks at the bottom. How high could the tower be before the bricks in it began to fail? Modern brick skyscrapers of brick haven’t been made much taller than 17 or 18 stories.

Did the Babelites care about these limits? Evidently not. They won’t be restrained from anything. So here’s God’s reaction:
7 Go to, let us go down, and there confound their language, that they may not understand one another’s speech.
8 So the Lord scattered them abroad from thence upon the face of all the earth: and they left off to build the city. (Genesis 11:1-8)
One thing I have learned from the scriptures is that cursings occur most frequently through natural processes, as the wickedness of a people prepares the way for their own punishment. When I recently was reading through this story, I had an easy time visualizing how the insistent demands of the ruling builder class might disregard the importance of conserving environmental resources and lead to the lack of resources to continue building, but I didn’t realize the seriousness of the situation until I ran across a modern article from Human Rights Solidarity called “INDIA: Farmers and the Environment Suffer Mining in Paddy Fields”, by C. G. Baiju which detailed a situation that could be something similar to what Babelites faced.

It starts with excessive clay mining. Commercialization of clay for brick and tile leads to over-harvesting. When proportions are not restricted, the soil fertility is damaged for several years. Gaping chasms from clay harvesting causes the groundwater levels in surrounding agricultural lands to fall, and farmers find their wells and lakes going dry. Soon many inhabitants do not have access to safe drinking water.

In addition, clay mining requires additional labor which must be imported from other areas, whereas agricultural labor employment is low-paying, so agricultural workers are tempted into the higher-paying industries.

The government has no clear plans for how to address the environmental problems caused by clay mining and altercations occur between the farmers and the clay miners.

Examining the story of Babel in light of India’s clay mining shows us that with no prospects for improvement, it is no surprise that Babelites would have left the area for someplace better. How ironic that the very thing they wished to avoid in the first place ended up happening to them anyway.

Concerning the mechanism through which the Babelite’s language was confounded, I have this inner hunch that it may have been Satan confounding the language rather than Heavenly Father. In other scriptures we have much that tells us the difference between God’s workings and Satan’s workings.

We know that the Spirit of the Lord tends toward unity and community and brings about understanding through the bestowal of spiritual gifts. We know that the Lord speaks with plainness to the understanding of men, that He is a God of order, not confusion.

On the other hand, we also know that Satan is the father of contention, that he tries to harden people’s hearts, and he stirs people up to anger so that they fight with each other. We know that Satan prefers to work in darkness and loves to confuse, blind, and otherwise muddy the waters in any way he can.

Here’s how I imagine it might have occurred, in an ancient/modern sort of way:

The ruling classes (the top people) who are making the decisions to build think there should be plenty of good brick and the tower should go upward indefinitely. (“It’s a new paradigm!”)

The workers know good mud is getting scarce.

The farmers notice that water levels are dropping and they are irate that there isn’t enough water for their fields, animals, and families. The farmers also want to know what good this tower is going to do them.

Top people say the tower is good for attracting business. (“If you build it, they will come.”) It’s good for the economy.

The farmers ask who is going to pay for it.

Top people say it is coming from taxes. The farmers hate this idea and protest. (And they get executed in a variety of cruel and unusual ways for their cheekiness.)

The farmers want to know where the labor is going to come from to work on the tower, since it takes more man-hours to build, the higher it gets.

Top people hire additional unskilled labor (or capture slaves?) from surrounding countryside. This influx puts a strain on the food supply and food prices go up. Everyone feels it except the top people, who seem to have plenty of money.

Top people think it should take the same amount of time to build a ten food stack from 100 feet off the ground as it does to build it at ground level. Top people call workers “lazy” and institute productivity quotas.

Some workers begin cutting corners to make their quotas. Other workers get irate and complain that the brick is not good quality because it isn’t being made with all the needed ingredients and ingredients are getting scarcer.

Top people say, “Don’t worry about it; just daub a little extra mud in the cracks and it will be fine.

[tower begins to crumble because it is structurally unsound]

Workers say, “I told you so!” Farmers say, “We’re paying taxes for a tower that’s structurally unsound?!” Top people are aghast, blame the workers for bad workmanship, and search around for ways to patch up the tower.

Workers also demand accidental death insurance benefits for high falls and ask for lifelines and proper safety nets. Top people scoff and subject workers to a variety of cruel and unusual punishments for their cheekiness to suggest such a thing. Top people also call in scabs to break up strikes.

News of rioting and trouble scares away merchants and tourists. Starving and thirsty farmers can’t pay the taxes. Top people can’t pay workers. Workers can’t find good resources to build good bricks.

Starving, thirsty, and impoverished farmers and workers get frustrated at top people, become alienated and go somewhere else, because top people simply will NOT UNDERSTAND what they are talking about.

[construction stops]

So what have I learned from this story? It seems to be a warning against pride and it seems to call attention to how pride can lead to a person into trying to make a reputation for themselves in something. It seems to point to how putting all one’s energy into one pursuit out of pride can lead to neglect of other important concerns and how it can even bankrupt oneself of the resources to pursue that one activity further.

Personal Example: I really like blogging about the scriptures, but am I doing this so much because I want to share insights to help people, or am I doing it because I want to build a towering reputation? If I’m doing it for the rep, not only will I neglect my other duties but I will also diminish the very spiritual resources required to obtain spiritual insights in the first place. Pride destroys spiritual receptiveness—“I don’t want to listen because I’d rather think I know better”—and not only does it cause me to not understand the Lord’s messages to me, it also causes me to not understand the messages of my family, friends, and associates. My language becomes confounded.

We know from various experiences that when two sides to an issue refuse to understand each other, they might as well be speaking different languages, even if they both use the same mother tongue. Communication becomes confounded, with dialect, terminology, grammar, and writing soon to follow as each group tries to exclude the other from the discourse.

There you have it; the story of the Tower of Babel is about how pride destroys communication.

Image: artist unknown, found at Mark Mallet—Spiritual Food for Thought,


FelixAndAva said...

The picture at the top of the post makes the Tower of Babel look like the great and spacious building of the Tree of Life vision.

Michaela Stephens said...

Certainly does, doesn't it?

And check this article out: India's Dubai tower is raising some of the same issues I wrote about.

Michaela Stephens said...

Ooops! I made a mistake. The Dubai tower is in the United Arab Emirates instead of India..

Note to self: Must fact-check..

FelixAndAva said...

Easy enough mistake to make, so don't beat yourself up about it. There's only ever been one perfect Person on earth, and He's due back any time now. :)

Morgan Deane said...

This was a great post. I enjoyed how you looked for natural causes to explain God's punishment. Some people may feel that is taking God out of the equation, but I think it reinforces his wisdom in his commands.

In short, the thing they feared is what they may have caused through their building projects. So if they relied upon God to make their name, they would not have invited the consequences of trying to do it themselves.

Thanks for the post.

Michaela Stephens said...

"Some people may feel that is taking God out of the equation, but I think it reinforces his wisdom in his commands. "

Morgan, wonderfully put!

Unknown said...

it strange when the articule get to displays biblical fact as if they were just human assumption. 1 the bible said God change their language that a fact not Satan
2 language change was the principal factor for separation other factors may follow
3 God inspected the building and was sure of it stability and that the building had the potential to reach far into the heavens
4 the only reason we could see it has impossible is if we assume that because we cant do it now then they cant do it then or we are wiser than them.
5 even that need to be adresed. in my view let give credit to who credit is due. thanks nice piece so rich love it

Michaela Stephens said...

Daveofall, I have not made unsupported assertions. I have shared my best reasoning and about these factors and have simply extrapolated. You are free to believe as you want.
1) You assert that the Bible said God changed their language, not Satan. I look at what the Bible says about God confounding the language and I ask myself, “Does this fit with what I know of the character of God based upon all other scriptures?” And I remember several things that show me that it does not. God is a God of order, not confusion. “Let all things be done decently and in order.” (2 Cor. 14:40) He gives the gift of tongues so that all can hear the gospel in their own language (see Acts 2). He brings light, not darkness. “God is light, and in him is no darkness at all” (1 John 1:5)
2) Satan, on the other hand, confuses, confounds, causes contention and strife, and does everything he can to destroy relationships, causes people to harden their hearts so that they don’t understand each other. “If any man seem to be contentious, we have no such custom, neither the churches of God.” (1 Cor. 11:16) The devil is the father of contention (3 Nephi 11:29). “that same liar who hath caused man to commit murder from the beginning; who hath hardened the hearts of men” (Ether 8:25).
3) God knows all the evil that we bring on ourselves because of our wickedness, and He will warn us of the consequences of our actions. (I think it is likely that God warned the people through prophets that their language would be confounded if they continued as they had begun.) “Surely the Lord God will do nothing, but he revealeth his secret unto his servants the prophets.” (Amos 3:7)

Language was the principle factor of separation, but I was trying to imagine what factors in what they were doing led to language troubles.

It seems that we disagree on the mechanism by which God punishes man for their wickedness. You believe that God takes direct hand in bringing the punishment and that He does it instantaneously all at once.
I believe that God warns the wicked and when they don’t repent, He withdraws from them and allows them to be experience the natural consequences of the actions, to be punished by other wicked people, and to be afflicted and destroyed by natural calamities. There is no mention in this story that God warned the people they were doing something wrong. Are we to think that God caused a punishment without giving a warning to repent? If so, that is unfair. If He DID warn them, then the Bible is missing some important information. (Why would God not warn the people who were building the tower as He warned the Egyptians to let the Israelites go so many times?) I believe God is more fair than the Bible sometimes portrays Him.

Michaela Stephens said...

Also, you say, “God inspected the building and was sure of it [sic] stability and that the building had the potential to reach far into the heavens” If you don’t like it when I am reading deeper into the text than what is stated, you seem to be doing that same thing here.

You also seem to take exception to me pointing out the physical limits of the materials of brick and of the environment and how they factor in with the building project. You write, “the only reason we could see it has [sic] impossible is if we assume that because we cant [sic] do it now then they cant [sic] do it then or we are wiser than them.” It is possible that you think the people had figured out some special way of building bricks that we don’t know about, some brick technology to make bricks with no material limits of strength or without depleting their environment of materials. It is true that we don’t know how much ancient people’s knew, but it is possible to examine their architecture and experiment based upon the artifacts left behind. And there is a fair amount of brick left behind in various places in the Middle East. We can examine bricks from different ages and compare them. Are they all made the same way? What are they made of? It is possible to do materials testing to identify composition and also to measure how much force might deform those materials and cause them to fail. How would ancients know the limits of materials unless they tried to use them in applications that push them beyond their limits? Further, we can also make assumptions that if large building projects deplete one place of resources and cause major social problems there, then it will also cause the same problems in another place.

Anonymous said...

I have to agree about about the bricks having to carry load. However, I read somewhere that the Tower of Babel was a very massive project. I am currently writing a book about the Ten Lost Tribes of Israel. I have used this bit of history in my writings to emphasize a point about the historical relevance to the Lost Tribes. In the Book of Jasher, this structure was described as having a circumference of about 90 miles or 3 days walk. This is about the size of the Salt Lake Valley. How high this massive project reached isn't known, but it would be noteworthy that the Lord destroyed the great structure until only the middle section was left. The top was destroyed by lightning, then an earthquake swallowed the lower portion. The writer of this particular article and reference estimated hundreds of thousands of people were destroyed while this tower was under construction, and when it was up high enough, it wasn't so grand as Nimrod made it out to be. But the most interesting factor points to "altitude" for which we know that to be at 12,000 to 15000 ft. there is not much air and this does cause people to become very ill.

Paul D Harvey

Michaela Stephens said...

Nice of you to stop by, Paul. Your book topic sounds interesting.

Forgive me, but I am skeptical about sun-dried bricks having the strength to be stacked to 12,000 feet.