Batman Tower of Babel Cover 2001

Bible in Pop Culture Week 2: Batman and the Tower of Babel

Because September 17, 2016, is Batman Day (seriously), I decided to look for Biblical references relevant to this week’s reading in the Batman series of comics. There is a collected edition of Justice League of America, volumes 43 – 46, called “Tower of Babel” (2001). The title and some story elements are references to the Biblical story found in Genesis 11:1-9, in which man migrates to the land of Shinar and constructs a city called Babel. According to The New Oxford Annotated Bible (NRSV), in the center of the city, the people work together to build a tower “with its top in the heavens” (25). For reasons that are not completely clear, God does not want man to be able to create great accomplishments, so he purposefully confuses the language of the people in Babel, causing them to abandon the construction project and migrate to other areas.

In the Justice League of America story arc, R’as al-Ghul, the leader of the League of Assassins and the Justice Leagues enemy, devises a plan to cripple the members of the justice league long enough to enact a plan that would decimate the population of the planet through nuclear war. The story focuses heavily on Batman’s paranoia, which is the key to the League’s near defeat. R’as al-Ghul’s daughter sneaks into the Bat Cave and steals data records that Batman was keeping on other members of the League. Those records reveal the League members’ key weaknesses. Once the League is incapacitated, R’as activates a device on a tower that he built. The device emits ultrasonic waves that disrupt the language centers of the brains of everyone on earth, causing them to be unable to decipher written language. The ultrasonic waves eventually affect spoken language as well, preventing people from being able to understand each other. The Justice League is ultimately successful in recovering from their injuries and they defeat the League of Assassins. Superman destroys the device that R’as built to confuse human language, which is interesting because, in the Biblical account, it seems as if God confused man’s language into multiple languages in order to prevent man from becoming powerful super men.

Is the Hijab French?

The Other Within: Can Muslims Be French?

Whether or not Muslims can be accepted into European countries as more than just itinerant travelers, whether that is possible or even desirable, is a question that has been addressed by scholars, “talking heads,” politicians, and average citizens the world over. The situation of Muslims in European countries is difficult to generalize, because each country has its own specific set of circumstances that led to the addition of immigrant populations. However, this paper will analyze how Muslims have been presented in Europe generally and then focus more narrowly on the specific context of France, which has Europe’s largest Muslim population. This paper will cover Europeans’ conception of what Europe is, what an authentic European is, and the role that Islam plays in creating that image.

Additionally, I will argue that Muslims in Europe, and specifically in France, have been subjected to a type of criticism that implies that Muslims are a homogenous and mutually responsible group that is inherently violent, with Muslims in France being held to a standard that is unachievable in terms of becoming truly French. I will argue that Muslims in France are already French, addressing their issues from a position of wanting their rights to be observed, rather than requesting rights in the sense of the American Civil Rights movement. Additionally, I will argue that France’s particular system of government and conception of laïcité (a type of secularism) precludes the successful integration of minorities.

In a book section titled “Muslims and European Identity: Can Europe Represent Islam?” written in 2002, Talal Asad analyzes the way that Europeans have traditionally understood Europe and what it means to be European in order to understand whether or not minorities can be successfully integrated. Asad belives that the modern discourse on European identity is concerned with exclusions and anxieties about non-Europeans and contains an implicit demand that the rest of the world recognize Europe based on its self-proclaimed identity.[1] In a sense, Europe is creating propaganda in order to shape world opinion about Europe’s role in world society. Asad begins his analysis by tracing the historical development of the concept of Europe to the Middle Ages, where Europe and Christendom were synonymous terms, often used in contradistinction to the Ottoman Empire, which was Islamic.

The idea of what Europe was, and is, inherently tied to religion and remains that way today, regardless of the new ascribed secular nature of states.[2] Asad develops this idea by noting that Balkan states who have populations that are indistinguishable from other white Europeans, that have secular political institutions and are geographically within Europe are still somehow not European. They can be in Europe, but not of Europe.[3]

Asad also introduces the idea of European civilization, which is based on the idea of a shared history that includes the Roman Empire, Christianity (as noted above), the Enlightenment, and industrialization.[4] The fact that Muslim immigrants have not shared in these experiences are what Asad believes creates a sense of Muslims not belonging in European society. This also disconnects the idea of Europe from a geographic space, explaining how it is possible to be in Europe but not to be of Europe. In other words, there is something essential to being European, but becoming fully European would require one to shed his or her own essential identity and replace it with a European one. If something is essential to one’s self, it is a defining factor in one’s identity. Can it be removed?

Asad builds on this understanding of essential qualities to argue that because assimilation requires the forfeiture of one’s self and the assumption of European identity, there is no place for minorities in Europe. An interesting quote found in Constructing Muslims in France: Discourse, Public Identity, and the Politics of Citizenship greatly illuminates this problem of secularism and personal identity. In her discussion on Muslim identity in France, the author, Jennifer Fredette, argues that “Karl Marx would tell us that pretending it is possible to separate the public from the private so neatly is secularism’s greatest conceit.”[5] Fredette is placing Muslim identity in Europe in perspective by first exploring the underpinnings of the modern conception of citizenship. She argues that it is impossible to separate the personal from the public, which agrees with Asad’s assessment of essential characteristics of people.[6]

What we are meant to understand from this is that one’s private beliefs and private nature influence our public behavior and the way we are perceived by others. In a secular state, there will still be some influence from privately held beliefs. This becomes important when one tries to understand why Muslims are considered unassimilable into European, and specifically French, societies. Secular, modern conceptions of citizenship in France are predicated on possessing a French passport and having some cultural attachment to the country, such as speaking French. The majority of Muslims in France, at this point, have never lived in another country. They were born in France, speak French as a first or only language, and have to search generations back into their ancestry to find a connection to immigration.[7] Some Muslims are converts and have no link to immigration, yet there is something about them nonetheless that causes them to be outside of the scope of French society. The qualifier has shifted from secular understandings of citizenship to personal beliefs, creating the idea of deserving and undeserving citizens.

Fredette situates her argument not in terms of whether Muslims can become French, but instead looks at why this question is being asked, how it affects Muslims in France and how they respond.[8] Fredette finds that most Muslims in France are, in their own understanding of themselves, integrated into French society. They identify as French and are capable of using the French political system, speaking French, and navigating French society. French Muslims’ complaints are not about receiving rights, in the sense of African Americans during the Civil Rights campaign, but rather are about having their rights respected. This is a nuanced but important difference. Muslims are demanding neutrality in law, in the sense of not having Islam be the focusing issue of political debates involving immigrants and descendants of immigrants. Muslims also demand recognition of the social abuses they suffer.[9]

Social abuses can elevate to an accepted discourse that becomes prevalent in society and creates a feeling of second-class citizenship. For example, a Muslim woman’s employer refers to all Muslim women as Fatima. Or, a Muslim woman helps an ethnically French woman lift her pram onto a bus and the bus driver closes the door on her, almost crushing the baby in the process, in order to slight her.[10] Fredette is drawing a distinction between integration and assimilation, as well as between political and social integration. She argues that it is possible to be integrated into a country politically and theoretically have equal protection under the law, but to be socially excluded based on personal beliefs in such a way that it undermines the conception of citizenship, leading to the previously mentioned discourse on deserving and undeserving citizens.[11] Fredette’s understanding of assimilation without integration builds on that presented by Sharif Gemie in French Muslims: New Voices in Contemporary France, where she defines integration as comprehending the manner in which society works, or the acquisition of that competence. She argues that this understanding avoids the ideological fog of ambiguous ideas revolving around values like “fair play,” “toleration,” “motherhood,” and “apple pie.”[12]

Understanding the way that discourse is produced and shaped in France is essential to understanding why Muslims feel socially marginalized. Fredette identifies three major groups as being responsible for producing and maintaining popular discourse in France: politicians, the media, and intellectuals, which she collectively refers to as the French elite. She argues that discourse production in France is unusually unified in that these groups of people are all from the same social strata, attend the same schools and share ideas with one another, creating a unified bloc of information producers.[13] The media are arguably the most important of these discourse producers, given their role in shaping and transmitting the messages of the other two groups to the public.

According to Fredette, today’s modern, elite conception of what it means to be a deserving French citizen involves the possession of five unique traits: complete liberality in sexual relations, refraining from references to religion in public and social affairs, an aversion to cultural pluralism (implying being strictly French in the full sense with no hyphenated identity), adhering to a theory of abstract individualism, and having an ancestral origin that is within the accepted boundaries of Europe.[14] This understanding of Frenchness is antithetical to minorities in general and Muslims in particular. There is no room for difference in this definition of being French. Because Catholicism is so ingrained in French culture, adherence to Islam in any shape or form is seen as cultural pluralism. Religiosity usually involves sexual restraint, which also infringes on the popular elite perception of fraternity, which has become inseparable from a notion of mixing of the sexes.[15]

Understanding the elite discourse on Muslims is important in understanding why they are thought to be unassimilable. In line with Talal Asad’s presentation of Muslims as existing outside of European civilization, the media has traditionally depicted Muslims as others, following a general pattern over time that shifted from a sensual, sexualized depiction of Muslims to one of Muslim fanaticism. In an article titled, “Comparative Analysis of Mainstream Discourses, Media Narratives and Representations of Islam in Britain and France Prior to 9/11,” Malcom Brown shows that while there was an academically accepted paradigm shift centered on the events of September 11, 2001, there has always been a wide variety of media presentations of Muslims.[16] Tellingly, however, these media presentations have always shown Muslims as “others”, outside of French society.

Brown notes that despite France’s close proximity to Muslim societies, which would lead one to expect a degree of familiarity that would prevent Muslims from being portrayed as exotic, media representations tended to follow this stereotype well into the 1970s. This was presented in two ways: a portrayed exoticism of the senses and a need to explain the “strangeness” of Muslim culture.[17] During the 1970s and into the 1980s, the common discourse on Muslims in French media highlighted ethnicity and nationality, rather than religion, though Brown notes that a shift towards depictions of fanaticism was underway as a result of the 1973 Oil Crisis.[18]

Brown notes that there is a tendency towards reactionary reporting in the French media. When crimes occur that involve Muslims (and presumably other minorities), the articles produced by the media not only report the event, but take on airs of superiority that place these minorities on a lower run of the civilizational order, or in other words, outside of French society. An example is when a girl was made to swallow several litres of salt water as a supposed Islamic home remedy for epilepsy, causing her death. The event was reported as “causing death by torture and barbaric acts.”[19] The event might have been interpreted and reported very differently if it had been a death caused by a French home remedy. The perpetrators were also accused of multiculturalism, calling into question their Frenchness.

By 1989, media depictions of Muslims in France had shifted and began to associate Muslims with fanaticism. An example is a Le Nouvel Observateur article that juxtaposed an image of Khomeini’s funeral in Iran with the establishment of “Islamist” groups in France.[20] The formation of Islamic groups in France was questioned because they received support from foreign countries, again calling into question the national loyalties and Frenchness of the Muslims who benefited from these institutions. By the early 1990s, French media was emphasizing problems of “integration” of Muslims, linking these problems with “fanaticism” and “fundamentalism.” Muslims began to complain that they were represented in French media by an “Islamalgame” of “terrorist, Islamist, Muslim, North African, Arab and immigrant.”[21] Brown does not fully explain the reasoning behind why this shift occurred, but according to John Bowen, there was a spillover of violence from the civil war in Algeria during this time period.[22] As a result, Muslims’ Frenchness was again called into question.

Another issue that Muslims had to deal with was their status as residents of the banlieues, neighborhoods constructed in isolation by the French government. These neighborhoods were filled with immigrant, mostly Muslim and Arab residents, who had poor employment opportunities because of unequal access to education. Combined with a universal slump in the French economy after the boom years following World War II, they became centers of poverty, drugs, crime and violence. This situation was used to attribute blanket accusations that associated all Muslims with violence, drug dealing, racism, gender violence, and delinquency (unemployment), despite the fact that similar situations, especially of gender violence, were prevalent in other parts of France.[23] It is interesting to note that these accusations are extremely similar to current media debates about the status of African American neighborhoods in the United States, meaning that the problems presented by these neighborhoods are not inherent qualities of the residents. However, French media began to present these problems as universal. Journalists were sent out to gather sensationalist stories that exacerbated the negative image of Muslims in the media.[24]

The exceptional poverty that exists in these neighborhoods, combined with the social exclusion of Muslims mentioned by Fredette, created barriers to successful integration in French society. Moreover, the situation intensified feelings of isolation and oppression that led to riots in October and November of 2005. Rather than the media and, by extension, the rest of the French insular elite recognizing and acknowledging the real problems faced by Muslims in these neighborhoods, references were made to Muslims’ failure to integrate into society, as if the socioeconomic positions they were born into was wholly their fault. Instead, Nicolas Sarkozy, then Minister of the Interior and later president, commented that he would wipe use a high-pressure hose to wipe the scum off the streets, causing even greater rioting and violence.[25]

Another significant way that Muslims have been depicted in the media which is related to the violence in the banlieues is as a security threat. One example of this viewpoint is that of Robert S. Leiken, which he presents in his article, “Europe’s Angry Muslims.” Using a wider interpretive lens like Talal Asad, Leiken analyzes the presence of Muslims in all European countries from the perspective of international security. Specifically, he is thinking of the border security of the United States and how allowing Muslims to live in Europe creates security risks because of the laxity of travel restrictions both within the European Union and between the European Union and the United States.

A look at Leiken’s analysis in detail is useful, in terms of helping one to understand the way that Muslims are thought of in relation to their status as residents of Europe. Additionally, this places the prevailing French media narrative in a larger context. According to Leiken, the laxity of some member states’ asylum laws allow Islamic radicals to enter the European Union, providing the catalyst for radicalization. Leiken’s argument portrays Muslims in a specific way, as a security threat that must be contained. His writing contains distortions and stretches meant to make the threat seem more plausible and imminent, playing to a discourse on Muslims that has become mainstream and widely accepted. His writing portrays Muslims as an intrinsic security threat who by their very nature cannot be part of the European community or Western “civilization.”

Another problem with Leiken’s analysis is his use of a Mecca vs. Medina analogy which, while illustrative, is historically incorrect and misrepresents the foundational period of Islamic history, which is significant in terms of his topic. In his analogy, he states that Mohammed “pronounced an anathema on [Mecca’s] leaders and took his followers to Medina … [where] he built an army that conquered Mecca in AD 630…”[26] Mohammed fled Mecca in the face of persecution and by all accounts was among the last to leave, having first sent a group of followers to Ethiopia and then having sent the remainder to Medina ahead of himself. In Medina, he did not “[build] and army”, he built a community and engaged in the common raiding practices of the Arabian Peninsula.[27] He also built political alliances which were useful when hostilities did break out.

Leiken’s misrepresentation of the situation and glossing over of the long hostilities, political treaties and eventual surrender of Mecca to Mohammed’s men oversimplifies a complicated process in a way that depicts Muslims as naturally violent from the beginning of their history, leading to the teleological conclusion that they must be dealt with in some way to make Europe and the United States safe from their supposed barbarism. This supposed innate violence is evident in the willingness of media to use blanket accusations against Muslims, as evidenced by the earlier complaint of being represented in the French media by an “Islamalgame”, and by the way that social issues in the banleiues are addressed. Leiken’s inability or unwillingness to approach the situation of Muslim minorities in Europe from a realistic position that sees Muslims as people, rather than as potential threats, is not unusual. It fits into a larger trend of using rhetoric rather complicated narratives to explain the situation of Muslims in France.

This trend is oddly not restricted to ethnic French people. There are cases where Muslims have built their careers around rejecting and denouncing Islam in the French media. One example is that of Chahdortt Djavann, a naturalized French citizen from Iran. She is very vocal about her hatred of Islam and writes extensively on her feelings of alienation, betrayal, and feelings of sexual repression based on veiling. For Djavann, there is no possibility of multiculturalism; one must either be French or Muslim.[28] Sharif Gemie refers to her polemics as simplistic, especially in comparison to the French literary giants that Djavann idolizes, and essentially accuses her of selling out to live the life she dreamed of: one of freedom and wealth. Gemie says that Djavann plays her part well, telling “nationalist-minded neo-republicans exactly what they want to hear. She tells them that France is right, and that it is morally and politically better than other countries.”[29]

One thing that Djavann’s choice should make clear, however, is that acceptance into French society as being truly French is absolutely predicated on a complete rejection of Islam, being Muslim, and being culturally and sexually different from the mainstream. French secularism is not about freedom of choice, at least not for Muslims. It is instead about conformity. Talal Asad, though addressing Europe as a whole in terms of democracies and Muslim minorities, would likely agree, because it fits the same model. Where Asad observed that there is no place for a minority voice in a democracy, there is no place for a minority group to find a voice within French society. To be French one must become an abstract part of the whole, subsuming oneself into another identity. Personally, this emphasis on creating a society full of identical abstract people comes across as incredibly dangerous to the mental health of a population. It subsumes individuality into a collective whole, and attempts to render the “self” meaningless.

The issue of Muslims in France and whether or not they can integrate is, like Fredette stated, the wrong way to approach the situation. Muslims in France are French Muslims. Their situations are not uniquely religious or unique to their social groups. They are issues that affect all Muslims in France, but because of their status as immigrants, they are seen as unique in all things. They are uniquely different, uniquely other, uniquely in need of being “civilized” and assimilated. The issues that are inherent to the Muslim condition in France are exacerbated by the media’s portrayal of them as being inherently violent and foreign. Their assessment as a security threat only serves to further isolate them. The elite discourse that demands that all French people be exactly the same is unproductive and unrealistic, and creates unachievable expectations for Muslims in French society, especially considering that there are many accepted French people who do not meet the five signifiers of being French. As the French republic currently exists, as the current definition of laïcité stands, it is not possible for Muslims to become part of France because there would be no such thing as a French Muslim. One would have to stop being Muslim to be French.

 


Footnotes

[1] Talal Asad, “”Muslims and European Identity: Can Europe Represent Islam?” in Idea of Europe: From Antiquity to the European Union, edited by Anthony Pagden (West Nyack: Cambridge University Press, 2002), 211.

[2] Ibid., 212-213.

[3] Ibid., 213.

[4] Ibid., 214.

[5] Jennifer Fredette, Constructing Muslims in France: Discourse, Public Identity, and the Politics of Citizenship (Philadelphia: Temple University Press, 2014), 53.

[6] Ibid., 52-53.

[7] Ibid., 39-40.

[8] Ibid., 21.

[9] Ibid.

[10] Ibid., 21, 23 & Sharif Gemie, French Muslims: New Voices in Contemporary France (Cardiff: University of Wales Press, 2010), 73.

[11] Jennifer Fredette, Constructing Muslims in France: Discourse, Public Identity, and the Politics of Citizenship (Philadelphia: Temple University Press, 2014), 21.

[12] Sharif Gemie, French Muslims: New Voices in Contemporary France (Cardiff: University of Wales Press, 2010), 44.

[13] Ibid., 32-33.

[14] Ibid., 54.

[15] Ibid.

[16] Malcolm D. Brown, “Comparative Analysis of Mainstream Discourses, Media Narratives and Representations of Islam in Britain and France Prior to 9/11,” Journal of Muslim Minority Affairs 26.3 (December, 2006): 297-298.

[17] Ibid., 299.

[18] Ibid., 300.

[19] Ibid., 301.

[20] Ibid., 303.

[21] Ibid., 304.

[22] John R. Bowen, “Recognizing Islam in France after 9/11,” Journal of Ethnic and Migration Studies 35.3 (March, 2009): 439.

[23] Ibid., & Sharif Gemie, French Muslims: New Voices in Contemporary France (Cardiff: University of Wales Press, 2010),78-79.

[24] Sharif Gemie, French Muslims: New Voices in Contemporary France (Cardiff: University of Wales Press, 2010), 70.

[25] Sharif Gemie, French Muslims: New Voices in Contemporary France (Cardiff: University of Wales Press, 2010), 74.

[26] Robert S. Leiken, “Europe’s Angry Muslims,” Foreign Affairs 84.4 (July-August, 2005): 127.

[27] Ibid.

[28] Sharif Gemie, French Muslims: New Voices in Contemporary France (Cardiff: University of Wales Press, 2010), 49.

[29] Ibid., 62.


 

References

 

Asad, Talal. 2002. “Muslims and European Identity: Can Europe Reprsent Islam?” Chap. 10 in Idea of Europe: From Antiquity to the European Union, edited by Anthony Pagden, 209-227. West Nyack, NY: Cambridge University Press.

Bowen, John R. 2009. “Recognising Islam in France after 9/11.” Journal of Ethnic and Migration Studies, March: 439-452.

Brown, Malcolm D. 2006. “Comparative Analysis of Mainstream Discourses, Media Narratives and Representations of Islam in Britain and France Prior to 9/11.” Journal of Muslim Minority Affairs, December: 297-312.

Fredette, Jennifer. 2014. Constructing Muslims in France: Discourse, Public Identity, and the Politics of Citizenship. Philadelphia: Temple University.

Gemie, Sharif. 2010. French Muslims: New Voices in Contemporary France. Cardiff: University of Wales Press.

Leiken, Robert S. 2005. “Europe’s Angry Muslims.” Foreign Affairs, Jul-Aug: 120-135.

 

 

Happy New Year!

I hope everyone is having a great New Year’s Eve!

My wife and I are staying home. We had a nice meal, we’re watching the live stream Chromecasted to our television and we’re going to enjoy a nice bottle of wine. Most importantly, we’re staying warm. It is extremely cold outside, and I can’t imagine standing in Times Square for hours waiting on a ball to drop in this weather. People usually start showing up to claim spots around noon.

Speaking of the live stream, so much of the show is in Spanish it’s almost not worth watching. I was also disappointed when the old guy that was on stage with his daughter turned the event into a political platform by demanding the legalization of the status of illegal immigrants in the United States.  The United States is the land of freedom and opportunity, but that doesn’t mean you can just sneak across the border, show up at a government office and demand a portion of the American Dream. You have to get it legally. Every country has laws. This one does too. Immigrate legally. If a person can’t respect the most basic law of a country, then why should they be rewarded? I feel like the only reason some politicians are pushing for legalization of illegals is so they can increase the number of taxpayers and further fatten the government’s already over-bloated coffers.

Anyway, the way things are going, I might as well just learn Spanish. This will be a majority Spanish-speaking country before the end of my life. Most jobs in New York City already require a person to be fluent in Spanish. I imagine the same applies for most cities in southern California and the southwest, though that makes more sense since that area is closer to Mexico.

It’s sort of ironic, really. My great-grandmother immigrated to this country (legally) and only spoke only Spanish. My family acculturated and I speak only English. Now I’m going to have to learn Spanish to keep my economic options open.

Anyhow, there is less than an hour to go until midnight. Time to stop ranting about politics and start enjoying the evening.

Happy New Year!

Analysis of the The Tower of Babel – Historical Perspective

The following is a paper I wrote for a Jewish Studies class I’m taking called “History of God.”  The point of the paper was to examine a set of verses from the Old Testament from a historical perspective, discussing what the verses reveal about the people it describes, or that wrote it.  This paper relies heavily on the Documentary Hypothesis theory and the concept of Spiral Dynamics as put forth by Ken Wilber.

For clarity, the paper was graded by George KC Forman and  received an A-, as well as some notations about grammar and style corrections (which haven’t been made here).  The professor’s notes on the last page are:

So close! Ask yourself, what was happening in J’s Day? What’s his point. Yes, free will. But to what end? Kingdom has arisen; we now have cities and power in Levant. So free will is in service of Solomon’s reign. How might story fit with that people’s needs and worries? Why free will? Why portray the many languages? I’d given this story answers the need for cooperation, under aegis and king. Unite, it says, to gain power, etc. But good work. Where is this doc. hypoth. book? Sounds great! A-

Essay:

The Tower of Babel

The Tower of Babel

The story of the Tower of Babel, found in the Book of Genesis in the Bible, is fascinating and complicated and is open to many levels of interpretation, especially since it is a story that was probably not original when it was added to the Bible. What does it mean that the people were attempting to build a tower “that reaches into the sky”?[1] And what does God’s response indicate about the nature of the relationship between man and the divine? What can we learn about the needs and wants of that society by analyzing these verses?

The story of the division of human language isn’t unique to the Bible, but that in itself isn’t remarkable. Something as mystifying as why all men don’t speak the same language is a problem that people from various cultures would have tried to solve the best way they knew how: attributing it to an act of the divine, leaving modern readers with a variety of similar myths. Obvious parallels exist in the stories of the Enuma Elish, the building of Babylon’s ziggurat, and a Sumerian story that tells of a time when all people spoke the same language. The closest parallel is a Sumerian epic titled “Enmerkar and the Lord of Aratta.”[2] It starts out describing a time when man had no rival and everyone spoke the same language, but:

Enki…the leader of the gods
Changed the speech in their mouths
Brought contention into it,
Into the speech of man that (until then) had been one.[3]

Whether J came up with the story of the Tower of Babel or borrowed the tradition, its inclusion in the religious tradition of the Hebrews is still significant. It indicates clearly that people identified with the story and felt that it reflected their own relationship with God.

According to the Documentary Hypothesis, the stories of the Pentateuch were not written by one author, but rather four authors and then collated into a single work by a series of redactors. These sources are J (Jawhist/Yawhist; approx. 950 BCE), E (Elohist; approx. 850 BCE), D (Deutoronomist; approx. 600 BCE), P (Priestly source; approx. 500 BCE) and R (the Redactors / Editors). Developed by Biblical scholars in the 18th and 19th centuries, the Documentary Hypothesis uses linguistic cues and source criticism to try to explain the apparent contradictions and repetitions in the Pentateuch. The story of the Tower of Babel (Genesis 11:1-9) is generally attributed to the Jawhist source, making it one of the earliest written stories of the Bible, despite its placement. According to the Documentary Hypothesis, J’s writing focuses on the interaction between God and man’s free will.[4]

Understanding how J writes can be helpful when examining the Tower of Babel story as presented in the Bible and for determining what it might mean about the people it describes. One interpretation is that it’s an origin story for the existence of different languages and cultures in the world. The beginning of the story says, “At one time all the people of the world spoke the same language and used the same words.”[5] By the end of the story, God has confused their languages and caused them to be scattered all over the world. However, this story conflicts with an earlier account that says (emphasis added):

4The descendants of Javan were Elishah, Tarshish, Kittim, and Rodanim. 5Their descendants became the seafaring peoples that spread out to various lands, each identified by its own language, clan, and national identity.[6]

The earlier account already describes the creation of multiple languages and cultures, directly contradicting the later Tower of Babel account. Also, Genesis 11:1-2 implies that all of the people in the world traveled together in one group, which contradicts the earlier account of Cain and Abel. When Cain was banished, God put a mark on his head so no one else would kill him and he went to the land of Nod.[7] This implies that there were people in Nod already that Cain had to be fearful of and that people weren’t traveling together in one group.

This is where it helps to understand the Documentary Hypothesis, which explains that the account in Genesis 10 was added much later, by P (the Priestly source). However, it doesn’t explain the contradiction in the Cain and Abel story, which is also attributed to J.[8] Because the two stories by J are contradictory, the Tower of Babel story must have been included for a symbolic reason, rather than to record factual events in the sense that a history book records factual events. It wasn’t the content itself that was important. It was the message it carried. Approaching the Tower of Babel story from this perspective lends support to the idea that it was borrowed from another culture’s religious tradition. The tower mentioned in the story is probably borrowed from the ziggurat dedicated to Marduk in Babylon called Etemenanki. The plot of the story is probably borrowed from earlier stories, like the Sumerian epic mentioned earlier.[9] So, how can this story tell us anything about the Hebrews?

For the story to be included in the oral and later written tradition of the religion means that the people identified with it strongly. While it’s not possible to apply the details of the people in the story to the Hebrews exactly, it’s possible to analyze the text and draw conclusions about the relationship between man and God, as they saw it. Understanding that the story is symbolic and knowing that one of J’s common themes is the struggle between man’s free will and God, it’s also reasonable to believe that this story is about man’s exercise of free will and the limits of man’s authority over the world.

The Tower of Babel story is about power. Genesis 11:2 describes a tribal, migratory people passing through the Fertile Crescent into Mesopotamia and arriving at a place suitable for settling. Upon arriving, their first thought is to establish themselves in the region through a show of power. They decide to build up a city and a tower that will reach into the heavens. Because they are united, they are able to make quick progress in reaching their goal. However, God has another plan for mankind and takes an active role in the world to push man onto the path He’s chosen for them.

The dialogue attributed to God in Genesis 11:6 gives Him a very anthropomorphic, active and human personality. God appears to be either afraid of what man might accomplish or jealous that man is able to create something monumental, which is a type of action that should be reserved for Him. To stop man from completing the tower, and thereby demonstrating his power of the world, God goes down and “confuse[s] the people with different languages…[so] they won’t be able to understand each other.”[10] After their languages are confused, the people have no choice but to abandon the project. They migrate away from the Tower of Babel, probably sorted into language groups.

It is hard to look at this story and find a way to paint God in a positive light, other than to say that perhaps this was part of a larger design, such as ensuring the fulfillment of his earlier command to Adam and Eve to go forth and populate the Earth. Adam and Eve’s descendants could not accomplish that task if they all stayed in one city. However, I think the key phrase from this passage is in verse 6: “The people are united…. Nothing they set out to do will be impossible for them!” The author of the story perhaps believed that man could achieve anything he put his mind to through unity with his fellow men, with only an act of God being able to stop him. Communal action to support and increase the power of the group is a very tribal action. The inclusion of this story in the religious tradition of the Hebrews could have greatly reinforced the importance of group solidarity, as well as the concept of not transgressing what is sacred at the same time.

The story of the Tower of Babel in the Bible is one version of a larger body of stories that attempt to explain or describe the division of the human race into language and culture groups. The story is not unique to Genesis, but the unique adaptation of the story helps to reveal how the ancient Hebrews may have thought of God, and what they thought of man in relation to that power. It is clear that when this story was introduced into the religious tradition, God was a much more active and anthropomorphic being than He is today. Most importantly, the story describes man’s potential in the world, his ability to do the unbelievable through group solidarity and effort. Where man’s power ends and God’s begins is a boundary that is constantly being redefined, even in the modern age over issues of cloning, for example, but it’s also an ancient argument that has been expressed in one of the earliest portions of the Bible and will continue to be expressed and redefined by generations to come.


[1] Genesis 11:4.
[2] Jim Rovira, “Babel in Biblia.”
[3] Ibid.
[4] William Lyons, “Teaching the Documentary Hypothesis to Skeptical Students,” p. 134.
[5] Genesis 11:1.
[6] Ibid., 10:4-5.
[7] Ibid., 4:14-16
[8] Timothy R. Carmody, Reading the Bible, p. 40.
[9] Jona Lendering, “Etemenanki (The tower of Babel).”
[10] Genesis 11:7.

Works Cited

Carmody, Timothy R. Reading the Bible: A Study Guide. Mahwah: Paulist Press, 2004. Web.
Lendering, Jona. “Etemenanki (The tower of Babel).” n.d. Livius: Articles on Ancient History. Web. 09 March 2012.
life Application Study Bible: Personal Size Edition. 2nd. Carol Stream: Tyndale House Publishers, Inc., 2004. Print.
Lyons, William L. “Teaching the Documentary Hypothesis to Skeptical Students.” Roncace, Mark and Patrick Gray. Teaching the Bible: Practical Strategies for Classroom Instruction. Atlanta: Society of Biblical Literature, 2005. 133-134. Web.
Rovira, Jim. “Babel in Biblia: The Tower in Ancient Literature.” July 1998. Babel. Web. 09 March 2012. .

Beginning Japanese and Beginning Japanese Workbook

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I picked these books up in Singapore before leaving for the Philippines so I can start my adventure with learning the Japanese language.  I’ve also been using Smart.fm to help build vocabulary and familiarize myself with hiragana, katakana, and some basic kanji, but you can’t learn a language without understanding the grammar, conjugations and particles.  That’s just the tip of the iceberg of course, but you get the point.

I haven’t had time yet to crack them open and get started on studying them.  Things have been pretty hectic around here.  Later on, after I’ve gone through them both a few times, I’ll post a review about how effective they are.  In the meantime, has anyone used these books before?  Thoughts?  Opinions?