January 02, 2008

Linguistic diversity: the postmodern theology

My recent series of posts on Genesis 11 are the result of an unusual amount of email on the topic, much of it too long to add to the tail of earlier posts, but too interesting to ignore. I've been hard pressed to keep up, and offer my apologies to those whose messages are still in the queue. Here's one more post, based on email from Kimberly Belcher.

She wrote:

I thought I'd note that among non-Biblical-inerrantists, there is also considerable interest in interpreting the Babel myth. For example, postmodern interpreters classically want to reinterpret the story such that the diversification of languages is a gift rather than a punishment.

Her first reference is to Walter Brueggemann's Genesis: a Bible Commentary for Teaching and Preaching, 1982, p. 97ff . [A limited preview is available from Google Books here.] I should note that she qualifies her reference by writing "I don't have any generalized experience with Brueggemann, having just found him in a few footnotes, but his interpretation is an interesting one". Here's a short passage suggesting Brueggemann's argument on this point:

The well-being of all peoples is assured (a) by God's resolve never again to destroy (8:21-22; 9:8-17) and (b) by God's unqualified covenant with "all flesh" (9:8-11). Because of the post-flood promises, we expect well-being for all creation. In such a context, this narrative of the tower is a surprise. [...]

At some point, the narrative was no doubt an etiology for the diversity of languages. At some other point, it served as a polemical etiology for the city of Babylon, even though the etymology claimed in verse 9 is false. [...]

The story appears to be a polemic against the growth of urban culture as an expression of pride. But as we shall see, the narrative requires a more dialectical treatment. [,,,]

The common element of the human proposal (v. 4), of Yahweh's action (v. 8), and the conclusion (v. 9), is the use of the verb "scatter" (puṣ). Humankind fears scattering and takes action to prevent it. Then, against their will, Yahweh scatters. Now there is no doubt that in some contexts "scatter" refers to exile and is a negative term (Ezek. 11:17; 20:34; 41; 28:25). But here another denotation must be considered. Especially in chapter 10, we have seen that "spreading abroad" (v. 32) is blessed, sanctioned, and willed by Yahweh. It is part of God's plan for creation and the fulfillment of the mandate of 1:28. [...] It can be argued that in this context (10:18) the intent of creation finally comes to fulfillment (1:28).

This would roughly parallel a sociobiological account of the role of cultural diversification in human history, and the less sceintistic ideas about the value of intellectual and cultural diversity that happen by chance to have been featured a few days ago in the New York Times (Janet Rae-Dupree, "Innovative Minds Don't Think Alike", 12/30/2007).

Kimberly Belcher continues:

A book that uses the story as a paradigm for Biblical interpretation generally is The Bible After Babel: Historical Criticism in a Postmodern Age by John Joseph Collins [Google Books link here]. Unfortunately this book is at home in my library and I am on vacation, but here's the intriguing jacket blurb, which seems to take for granted that Babel (and various historical-critical interpretations) is a divine gift:

Biblical scholars today often sound as if they are caught in the aftermath of Babel — a clamor of voices unable to reach common agreement. But is this necessarily a bad thing? Many postmodern critics hear the confusion of critical languages as a welcome opportunity for diverse new approaches. In The Bible After Babel, noted biblical scholar John J. Collins considers the effect of the postmodern situation on biblical, primarily Old Testament, criticism over the last three decades. Engaging and even-handed, Collins begins by examining the quest of historical criticism to objectively establish a text's basic meaning. He goes on to deftly review the alternative methods of postmodern criticism, the disputed history of ancient Israel, and the ways in which postcolonial and feminist scholarship has called into question the moral authority of the Bible. At the same time, as more diverse practitioners — including Jews, women, and ethnic minorities — have entered the field of biblical studies, many of the accepted conclusions of previous scholarship have crumbled. Accepting that the Bible may no longer provide secure foundations for faith, Collins still highlights its ethical challenge to be concerned for the other — a challenge central both to Old Testament ethics and to the teaching of Jesus.

Based on these two examples, theological explicitation of linguistic diversity, in postmodern circles, would certainly be expected to come out full in favor of linguistic preservation. For such interpreters, as Marc van Oostendorp notes, the Pentecost story would be a nearer and less convoluted text to draw on.

I also discovered an article by a journalist named David Klinghoffer which apparently is using the Babel story to defend the (then impending) Iraq war. His reading is interesting, both for some traditional sources he is apparently drawing on and for a modern example of a reinterpretation of the story:

. . . As a revered 19th-century scholar of Biblical tradition explained, when the Bible records that in Babel they "spoke a single language," this means that the populace, terrified by their leader, all voiced the same party line. Says Rabbi Naftali Zvi Yehudah Berlin (1817-1893), the tower was a technology of social control, allowing the regime to spy on its citizens . . . .

The world's superpower, God, grew alarmed and initiated an inspection process. As the Bible puts it, He "descended to look at the city and tower which the sons of man built." Though the Midrash recounts that Nimrod was given a chance to "repent," the tyrant refused . . . .

So the Tower is destroyed, the "single language" of its builders scrambled into a "Babel" of tongues. While this may appear to be a defeat for the people of Babel, what's really being described here, I think, is the birth of democracy. Suddenly a variety of ideas are allowed to compete for the citizens' allegiance, rather than one ideology, one "language," being forced upon them from above — a victory indeed . . . .

This reading of God's intentions could be used pretty directly to support linguistic preservation, I think. I haven't found any examples online though; most of the Babel allusions in linguistic preservation discussions (for or against) seem to be just cultural allusions rather than theological-type arguments.

The Klinghoffer piece in question seems to be "Saddam's Babel", National Review Online, 3/17/2003, which takes off from the name of a pre-invasion newspaper:

Surfing the Internet recently I came across the website of the Iraqi daily newspaper Babel. Owned by Saddam Hussein's eldest son, Uday, Babel isn't exactly a hard-hitting news source.

This newspaper is now, of course, defunct. The link in the text now takes us to iraq2000.com, which InterNIC says now belongs to Ozymandias Ltd. No, seriously, it belongs to INNERWISE, INC. D/B/A ITSYOURDOMAIN.COM, which seems to located in Toronto. You could certainly preach a sermon on that text.

Posted by Mark Liberman at January 2, 2008 07:27 AM