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.
Creationism and Schools: Youngstown, Ohio Opts for Science Only
News articles published between September 8th and 10th, 2016 noted that Crish Mohip, the Youngstown Schools Chief Executive Officer has stated that schools are obligated to follow the 344-page science standards developed by the Ohio Department of Education, which present the evolutionary view of biological development. Beginning with the 2016-2017 school year, “any reference to intelligent design, creationism, or any like concepts are eliminated from the science curriculum,” Mohip stated. The memo that Mohip sent out was prompted by the use of a video in a science class that claims to present evidence for creationism based on the proliferation of species starting 500 million years ago. Complicating the issue is the fact that the video was produced by a Turkish Islamic televangelist named Adnan Oktar who is reportedly a Holocaust denier and the leader of a sex cult.
The teacher who showed the video in class stated that he was presenting different views and that students should be able to clearly identify and weigh the merits of various arguments. This, however, contradicts Ohio state policy. Creationism is the theory that the universe was intelligently, or purposefully, designed by God as described in the Abrahamic tradition of religions. Genesis, the first book of the Hebrew Scriptures and Christian Bible as well as the Quran describe existence as having been formed by God. Modern science presents the theory that the universe was compressed into a small bit of matter surrounded by nothingness and, for reasons unknown, that pinpoint of matter suddenly exploded and began to expand into all of existence as we know it today.
The fight over the teaching of creationism in schools has been taking place for decades, with the common consensus shifting from creationism to evolutionary and scientific theories. In the American context that fight has revolved primarily around the Christian, literal interpretation of the Genesis creation story. In 1925, John Scopes was convicted of violating a Tennessee law making it illegal to teach evolution in a state-funded school. In 1987, the U.S. Supreme Court overturned a Louisiana law making it illegal to teach evolution in public schools without also teaching creationism. In more recent years, the tide has turned in favor of the teaching of evolution over creationism. The recent decision of the Youngstown Schools Chief Executive Officer is just the most recent event in this ongoing trend and serves to show that a text compiled approximately 2200 to 2900 years ago still has meaning and significance in to modern societies.
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-
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”? 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.” 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.
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.
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.” 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.
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. 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. 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. 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.” 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.
 Genesis 11:4.  Jim Rovira, “Babel in Biblia.”  Ibid.  William Lyons, “Teaching the Documentary Hypothesis to Skeptical Students,” p. 134.  Genesis 11:1.  Ibid., 10:4-5.  Ibid., 4:14-16  Timothy R. Carmody, Reading the Bible, p. 40.  Jona Lendering, “Etemenanki (The tower of Babel).”  Genesis 11:7.
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. .
Note: The following is the second and last paper I wrote for my World Humanities 1 class. It deals with the issue of fate vs. free will in Oedipus the King, Macbeth, and the creation story of Genesis. Please keep in mind that in regards to Genesis, this was written from a literary perspective and only using the information found in the first two chapters. The paper has been edited slightly to look better as a blog post.
Some of the earliest artwork that’s been found, like the cave paintings at Lascaux in France and the Venus of Willendorf, indicates that man has had an interest in the supernatural since before recorded history. Archaeological evidence shows intentional burial of the dead with objects needed in the afterlife as much as sixty-thousand years ago and evidence also exists of the universality of religion in historic and modern times (Ember, Ember and Peregrine 446). This preoccupation with religion has led to the development of complex belief systems throughout history, from the Greek pantheon of gods in ancient Greece to the monotheistic faiths of Judaism, Christianity and Islam, which are based on the Jewish Talmud and Torah.
Starting with Herodotus in the fifth century B.C., scholars, theologians, historians and philosophers have speculated about religion. This speculation has sometimes taken the form of literature, such as the creation story in the book of Genesis, Sophocles’ Oedipus the King and Shakespeare’s Macbeth. These stories present situations that place man at odds with the supernatural. They pose the question of whether or not man has any control over his own life. Does man have free will, or is he driven by fate to success or failure? Each of the three stories gives us a similar, but different possible answer.
Adam and Eve Were Doomed to Fail
The book of Genesis is a Jewish religious text, later recognized by both Christians and Muslims, that tells the story of creation. In Genesis, God creates the world and then places man in that world as the pinnacle of His creation. From man, God creates woman and they live together in a paradise on Earth called the Garden of Eden. God also chooses to place the tree of the knowledge of good and evil in the Garden of Eden. He tells Adam and Eve that they can enjoy the rest of the garden as much as they want, but they may not eat from that specific tree. Despite this warning, Eve does eventually eat the fruit of the tree and Adam joins her, causing them to be cast out of the garden.
Is it Adam and Eve’s fate to commit this sin, or do they have free will to avoid temptation? When God creates Adam and Eve, they are created without any concept of right or wrong. They have no concept of morality, because morality requires knowledge of right and wrong, or good and evil. When God places the tree of the knowledge of good and evil in the Garden of Eden, he is setting Adam and Eve up for failure. Despite his instruction to Adam and Eve to not eat from the tree, they cannot be reasonably expected to follow this instruction, since they do not know that disobeying it is wrong.
God also allows evil to come into the garden, in the form of a talking snake, to tempt Eve into doing what God says shouldn’t be done. Even when Eve decides to eat from the tree, she does not do it out of a conscious act of disobeying. She does it because the tree is pretty and the fruit looks tasty: “And when the woman saw that the tree was good for food, and that it was pleasant to the eyes … she took of the fruit thereof…” (King James Version, Gen. 3:6).
God could have placed the tree of the knowledge of good and evil anywhere in creation, but He chooses to place it in the Garden of Eden, where He also places man. God then tells Adam and Eve that they may not eat from the tree, but does not give them the mental capacity to understand that following His command is the right thing to do. God then allows the snake to tempt Eve. One could reasonably assume that an omniscient, all powerful God did these things for the sole purpose of ensuring that Adam and Eve would sin and fall from grace. Adam and Eve never had a choice in the matter.
In Oedipus the King, Sophocles presents a tale showing that a foretold fate can be prevented, but is sometimes brought about by one’s own hands. The story revolves around two key prophecies from Apollo, one given to Laius and one given to Oedipus. Relating the story to Oedipus, Jocasta tells him that the oracle “declared that doom would strike [Laius] down at the hands of a son, / our son, to be born of our own flesh and blood” (Fagles 201). When Oedipus visits the oracle, he is told: “You are fated to couple with your mother, you will bring / a breed of children into the light no man can bear to see– / you will kill your father, the one who gave you life!” (Fagles 205).
Both of these prophecies set in motion chains of events that lead to their fulfilment, but not because of fate or an inability to change the future. Laius and Oedipus both make conscious choices, of their own free wills, to act, or not act, on these prophecies, influencing the final outcomes. After hearing the prophecy, Laius could have acted in other ways that would have prevented its fulfilment. Laius could have killed Oedipus himself, or he could have raised him. If he had killed Oedipus outright, the prophecy would have had no chance of coming true. If he had raised Oedipus in Thebes, the boy would have either grown up to love him, or at the least he’d know who his son is. Knowing who his son is would have allowed him to keep an eye on him. Instead, Laius sends the baby Oedipus into the mountains with a shepherd, to die from exposure.
Instead of being left to die, Oedipus is given away and becomes the adopted son of the King and Queen of Corinth, where he in turn grows up and receives his own prophecy. When Oedipus hears this prophecy, he makes a conscious choice to leave Corinth, to avoid killing the people he believes are his parents. However, he also makes a choice to not heed the remainder of the prophecy. When trying to escape from an unpleasant fate, shouldn’t one take into consideration the whole prophecy? It’s true that he believes his parents are Polybus and Merope, the King and Queen of Corinth, but considering the stipulations of the prophecy, he could have chosen to avoid killing or marrying anyone in the future.
When Oedipus encounters a rude traveller on the road, instead of choosing to avoid trouble and run away, he attacks and kills the man, who turns out to be his biological father. When presented with an opportunity to marry, he takes it and unwittingly marries his mother, rather than remembering the prophecy and abstaining from marriage altogether. Through their own actions and their own choices, Laius and Oedipus both fulfil the prophecies they are given.
It’s All in the Journey, Because the End Doesn’t Change
In Shakespeare’s Macbeth, we are presented with yet another way to view fate. While returning from battle, Macbeth and Banquo encounter three witches along the road that present Macbeth with two prophecies. The witches hail Macbeth as Thane of Glamis, which he is. They then hail him as Thane of Cawdor, which confuses him since there is already a Thane of Cawdor. Finally, they hail him as “…Macbeth, that shalt be king hereafter!” (Orgel 9). Shortly after the witches disappear, Macbeth finds out that he has been named the Thane of Cawdor. The witches do not tell him when these prophecies will come true and whether or not it is a deception on their part, Macbeth takes his immediate naming of Thane of Cawdor as a cue to act to ensure the fulfilment of the third prophecy.
At this point, Macbeth begins to control how he will bring about his own fate. Macbeth and his wife conspire to kill the current king, Duncan, and after succeeding, Macbeth is placed in power. He attains the kingship and his prophecy is fulfilled. However, because of the way Macbeth chooses to reach his prophesied destiny, his reward is short lived, violent and ends in tragedy. If Macbeth had chosen to wait for the prophecy to fulfil itself, he may have been a much older man when he was named king, but the transition would have likely been more peaceful and he might have even sat on the throne longer. In Macbeth, fate is absolute, but how Macbeth attains his fate is optional.
(Image of Macbeth and Banquo with the witches from Wikipedia)
These three works of literature each present a different view of how man is subject to fate. Is man locked into his fate with no chance to escape, like Adam and Eve in the Genesis creation story? Can man avoid fate altogether by acting on prophecy and making the proper choices, as evidenced by Oedipus the King? Or is our fate absolute, with only the way we get there left to our discretion, as in Macbeth? As long as man continues to believe in the supernatural, questions about man’s relationship with the divine will continue to be debated, because there is no way to definitively prove that any particular view is correct.
Ember, Carol R., Melvin R. Ember and Peter N. Peregrine. Anthropology: Thirteenth Edition. Upper Saddle River: Prentice Hall, 2010.
Fagles, Robert. The Three Theban Plays: Antigone, Oedipus the King, Oedipus at Colonus. London: Penguin Books Ltd, 1984.