Tonight I have for you a tall story about a very tall tower
Some say it happened long long ago in Mesopotamia in a time when myth and magic melded seamlessly with history.
The people of Mesopotamia were excellent mathematicians and astronomers. The thinkers of the lands gathered together to share ideas. They spoke of building a great observatory: the tallest structure in the world, that would tower up into the heavens. Together they aspired to map all of the stars and planets in the firmament and to even meet with the gods face to face
Yahweh, the God of the Israelites was angered at the arrogance of this plan. He saw that if the people succeeded in this then nothing would stop them from discovering all the secrets of the universe. After building their fantastical observatory, it would be a matter of mere moments to Yahweh, just a blink of His eyes, before the descendants of these earnest scientists mastered air and wing, and flew up into His domain. The Sacred Veil between man and God would be torn asunder. No, it must not be.
Thus Yahweh dispatched angels to confuse the language of these men and women: to confound and thwart them. Soon the tower-builders plans, like their wonderful observatory, crumbled as they struggled to communicate:
‘ What? What is it, man? Don’t mumble and babble like a drunkard’ said one.
‘Speak clearly’ said another, ‘I can’t understand a thing you are saying, my friend’
‘Nan degozarimasu ka? Nani nani nani ga okitorun dosu?’ cried another in frustration.
‘Shuhatha, shuhatha?’ Yelled out another in utter confusion.
And this, so the story goes, is how the peoples of the world came to speak a multitude of languages, unintelligible to each other.
Does this terrible tale sound somewhat familiar to you? You probably know it as ‘The Tower of Babel’
‘Now the whole world had one language and a common speech. As men moved eastward, they found a plain in Shinar and settled there.
They said to each other, ‘Come, let’s make bricks and bake them thoroughly” They used the bricks instead of stone, and tar for mortar. Then they said, ‘Come, let us build ourselves a city, with a tower that reaches to the heavens, so that we may make a name for ourselves and not be scattered all over the face of the earth.’
Genesis 11: 1 – 9. The rest is no mystery. It is no doubt etched into the minds of all of us who heard this tale as children.
I remember hearing this story first in Primary School Scripture. ‘How wonderful if we ALL spoke the same language. We’d always be able to understand each other,’ I had thought at the time. I was very different back then to my present self. Now I realise that speaking the same language does not guarantee that we will understand each other, communicate our ideas well, or accept what we hear, despite understanding the words themselves.
Now, having had a range of experiences with a variety of languages, I can honestly say that, if this myth about the origin of different languages were indeed true, our human world be all the poorer for it.
A lack of diversity boxes in the imagination and limits our world view to one. In my own experience languages are like windows in a tall, tall tower. Each window provides a different view, looking out over a different landscape or garden. We might be able to describe these gardens and landscapes to each other, but without seeing through the window for ourselves, we can never truly know the depth of beauty that lies beyond each one.
I like to think that the Story of the Tall Tower has another dimension to it: That it doesn’t simple tell the mythological origin of languages, but is also a metaphor and warning for us all: that sometimes we may THINK we are speaking the same language when we are not.
The Quran doesn’t spell out the tale of the Tower of Babel like the Bible does. But it also has quite a different stance to the Old Testament on different tribes and peoples.
O mankind, indeed We have created you from male and female and made you peoples and tribes that you may know one another.
Surah Al-Hujurat verse 49:13.
According to the late Moroccan feminist writer and Sociologist, Fatema Mernissi, the original Arabic word for ‘know’ here is not ‘know’ in the Biblical sense, or a modern sense. It means something like to learn. Thus according to the Quran: God has made us different so that we may learn from each other.
I wonder if such a lofty ideal is truly achievable in our present atmosphere of fear and tribalism.
If only…if only we could truly learn from, rather than fear and steal from each other. It would be a wondrous achievement: even more so than any tall tower or journey to the stars.