Wednesday, January 22, 2014

Babel 1

In my last post I somewhat whimsically suggested that any transcendent source of absolute morality could serve as a independent foundation for communication. If a theistic god wished to communicate detailed morality to all humans the absolute language-transcending identity of the message could be used to then translate any related information from one language to another. A moderately-sized hunk of rock with a decree from Ptolemy V (the Rosetta stone) unlocked our modern understanding of Egyptian hieroglyphs; think of what an absolutely pure communication from a theistic god could do?

Conversely any miscommunication between any two people argues for a god-free more rational world.

Those of you familiar with the Christian tradition, and have suffered through to this paragraph, know that god is not disproved by miscommunication at all; Jehovah is the original source of miscommunication. Nine lines in Genesis chapter 11 tell us all we need to know about where languages come from. In less than 250 words the bible describes the origin of languages which linguists have spent millions of words apparently confusing. To an unbelieving eye like mine the explanation for how languages were created looks like it could be condensed even further; capturing in three words what the bible takes 250 words to say. “God Did It”.

Of course the three-word distillation (“God Did It”) does not provide an explanation as to why. The bible actually quotes Jehovah directly to provide the reason. Though it is not exactly clear who Jehovah is talking to.

The LORD said, “If as one people speaking the same language they have begun to do this, then nothing they plan to do will be impossible for them.” Genesis 11:6 NIV

This sounds to me like a pretty poor reason to confuse the entire world. People are getting along, and peaceably building stuff, and –wham- God comes in to mess things up because things are going to well.

Just to prove I’m not leaving out important bits of the bible’s record of the formation of every language on earth, here is the biblical Tower of Babel story in its entirety.

“And the whole earth was of one language, and of 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 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. 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. 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 imagined 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 KJB

I provided the passage from the King James Version because its unique translation suggests that the tower “may reach unto heaven” where other translations suggest the tower would reach the heavens (Lexham) or sometimes only up to the sky (CEV). The height is sometimes given as a reason for Jehovah’s displeasure despite the fact that Jehovah is not quoted as saying something like “Hey that tower will be too darned tall”.

If we are to believe that the Tower of Babel was going to be “Too darned tall” then just how tall could it have been? Luckily what the bible lacks in detail about its moral lessons it makes up for in detail about construction materials. The Tower of Babel was made from baked bricks and slime.

Slime is the term used in the King James Bible, and it does not sound like a very architecturally optimal building material. Other translations provide slightly different descriptions of this material: Asphalt (Darby), Tar (NIV), or Bitumen (NRSV). In other words  a sticky non-hardening material was used to glue the bricks together in much the same way masonry mortar is used in buildings today.

Because the mortar substitute would never completely harden the bricks would shift if subjected to sheer stresses. On a large scale, and the Tower of Babel was large, the pile of bricks and slime would flow until it reached its angle of repose.

The angle of repose for a substance is the angle a side of a stable pile of the substance makes. Pour some salt on the table and it will form a little cone shaped pile. Continue pouring salt on the pile and the overall shape of the pile will not really change, even as the pile gets quite large. The greatest angles of repose are found in irregular solids, and the largest angles of repose are around 45 degrees. This means that a tower built with bricks and slime would need a base equal to about twice the height in order to be stable.

The effort needed to build such a tower gets out of hand long before one attains heights that are at all difficult to visualize. Increasing a building’s height by any amount (y) requires expanding the base to a size equal to roughly the square of the existing height ((X+y)*(X+y)*y). Moderate increases in height require incredible increases in effort and material.

The date given for the construction of the Tower of Babel is 2242 BC. This is a little over 100 years after Noah’s flood destroyed everything on the planet. Four women survived the flood, and all the folks building the Tower of Babel were the product of a few short generations of incest.

Building huge structures based on angle of repose architecture was popular around the time of the great flood (2348 BC). Some of the most famous structures were built in Egypt. The pyramid of Nyuserra was started just before his death in 2421, and completed 44 years before the flood in 2392. By stacking large blocks of stone the architects of Nyuserra were able to slightly cheat the angle of repose; that angle for the sides of the pyramid of Nyuserra is 52 degrees, but it was only a little under 171 feet tall. I know of no-one who thinks a stack of stones 50-some-odd meters tall will reach heaven.

But it is not really possible to make an un-reinforced pile of bricks that is 50 meters tall. A cubic meter of bricks weighs in at about 2 metric tons. This exerts a force of about 2 kN. Modern kiln-fired bricks begin to exhibit failure behavior when subjected to forces around 50 kN; this corresponds to a pile of bricks about 25 meters tall. Complete failure would not really occur till the pile reached around 100 meters tall. Ancient bricks would be expected to fail under much lighter loads than modern kiln-fired brick.

The great pyramid at Giza is the tallest man-made structure in the world to "survive the great flood". It is over 145 meters tall. It is constructed out of large limestone blocks stacked in such a way as to slightly cheat the angle of repose constraints for great big piles of rubble. It originally had a tightly fitting smooth limestone casing which also helped it stand slightly more upright than the angle of repose would allow.

The great pyramid at Giza was completed in 2560. This is over three hundred years before the Tower of Babel was built. Apparently Jehovah did not find the pyramid that was half again as high as would be possible for the Babel engineers as threatening as the unfinished tower of Babel.

Postnote: It is easy to discount the basal foolishness of the story of the Tower of Babel as only having importance to “answers in Genesis” style cultists. When attached to the accepted dates that the young-earth creationists derive from the biblical lineages (and these dates are not very speculative) it contradicts much of what most folks believe about history. These extreme fringe groups are not the only ones who believe in a literal, historical Tower of Babel, and a divine confusion of tongues. The LDS church is very explicit in what it believes as is clear from the following official communication on the subject:

“For some in the modern world, the historicity of the tower of Babel story, as with the Flood, is often discounted. One modern school of thought considers the account to be nothing more than an “artful parable” and an “old tale.” But Latter-day Saints accept the story as it is presented in Genesis. Further, we have the second witness of the Book of Mormon. The title page of the Book of Mormon explains that the book of Ether “is a record of the people of Jared, who were scattered at the time the Lord confounded the language of the people, when they were building a tower to get to heaven.” The book of Ether itself then tells of when “Jared came forth with his brother and their families, with some others and their families, from the great tower, at the time the Lord confounded the language of the people, and swore in his wrath that they should be scattered upon all the face of the earth” (Ether 1:33).” -- From “The Flood and the Tower of Babel“ by Donald W. Parry on

The modern Babel believers must be counting on the fact that the Babel story’s placement, snuggled into the mind-numbingly tedious begats of the Old Testament, renders it invisible. It is too easy for Atheists to crack the bible and get bogged down in the realization that the bible is untrue from its first words. We are also seduced by the concept of evolution and the fact that it is both accurate and elegant. We lose sight of the fact that the bible goes from being simply wrong to discounting what we have learned about earth science, oceanography, and geology (Noah’s flood). And then, in a couple more pages, discounts all ancient history and all of linguistics.

The reason the Tower of Babel story should be of particular interest is that there is a growing old-earth creationist sentiment amongst Christians. They interpret the creation myth of the bible as occurring literally, but long enough in pre-history to where evidence is muddled. They present an unassailable argument from confusion for the existence of god (they don't understand stuff and you confuse them when presenting evidence, but there is a god despite what you might be saying). The Tower of Babel, by nature of its affect on language, had to occur during historical times. The biblical lineages provide a concrete time for it.

Believing in the literal story of the Tower of Babel –ironically- makes no sense.

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