The Tower of Babel
some of the thoughts presented by Rev. Michaël Merle in the Study of the Old Testament reported by John-Peter Gernaat
This study was given on Zoom and as a result had people present who had not previously attended any of the Old Testament Study sessions. Michaël gave a synopsis that is worth sharing. Genesis chapter 1 pre-dates what Steiner presented as the creation of the great Earth cycle, in that what we find in this account of the creation should be viewed as still an imagination in the minds of the Elohim. Chapter 2 of Genesis leaps forward to what Steiner describes as the Lemurian Period. Rudolf Steiner indicated that human beings were still beings of warmth or fire-beings at this time. Adam and Eve would not have looked as we might imagine. They did not yet have a physical body that would be recognisable in terms of our bodies today. They had a consciousness and a way of being that would be essential for our future development. Adam and Eve as a combined term is a merism (an old Hebraic grammatical form) meaning that it encompassed the totality of humanity. In each one of us there is an Adam and an Eve. In part we can experience this in that Rudolf Steiner indicated that when our physical body has one gender the etheric body has the opposite gender. Today we experience people trying to understand their own experience of the fullness of being human in a great variety of expressions of gender and gender identity. This may be regarded not as a collapse of human society, but rather as an emerging desire to comprehend the true essence of being human more fully. By the story of Noah, the Old Testament has leapt forward again to the end of what we refer to as the Atlantean Period. Genesis 11, where our focus is at now, is the first story in the Old Testament that is clearly in the post-Atlantean time, in fact the Old Testament bypasses the first post-Atlantean epoch, the Ancient Indian Epoch, and places us in the Persian-Sumerian-Babylonian Epoch.
The story of the Tower of Babel suffers from a poor translation from the Hebrew into English because of fixed theological ideas, as well as inherited ideas that were influenced by rabbinical commentaries in the Talmudic expression. When the original Hebrew texts were written they were written with a different intention to what is now understood. We need to come at the original intention through understanding the actual meaning of the language used as this passage is all about language. The Ancient Indian Epoch has passed and left behind thousands of years of wisdom and writing and of language. Sanskrit had already given way to the Akkadian language written in cuneiform. Modern scholars suggest that Sanskrit, Akkadian and Ancient Greek, all have a common root in the theorised Proto-Indo-European language or PIE language. This is thought to be a language that would have been spoken widely from about Eastern Europe across the middle East to India, into the Indus valley – the entire area covered by the Persian Empire and possibly further north to the northern shores of the Black and Caspian Seas. This suggests that there would have been a common understanding between the languages that developed from this root.
In this passage from the Old Testament, we have a settlement of humanity being developed into a city. After the expulsion from Paradise people began to settle and build. Husbandry changes from animal herding to a settled planting. This passage describes a world having one language and common speech and the people moved eastward, suggesting a search for culture and wisdom where the first human civilisation has originated. It is suggested that in this story the choice of words selected to tell the story had a lot to do with the sound quality of the words rather than their explicit meaning. Language is built on sound. As such we have the ancient language of the San people that is based on clicks within the mouth, English and Latin languages that are built around vowel sounds and languages, such as Afrikaans, that are built around grounded consonant sounds. This passage has a lot to do with the sound quality of building language rather than building the city. The language is chosen because of its repetitiousness. This is not captured in the English translation. It might be possible to translate this passage emphasising “b” sounds, such a brick and boulder, bitumen and binding building blocks. In translating it this way it would use the “b” sound for building which is captured in the gesture for “b” in Eurythmy. The Hebrew has a different sound gesture which accomplishes the same end.
This passage describes a desire and an attempt by humanity to build upwards towards heaven and not to populate the whole of the earth. The commandment given before humanity was expelled from Eden was to populate the earth. The Ancient Indian Epoch concerned itself with knowledge of the spiritual world, retaining the memory of our past home, as humanity was reaching upward rather than penetrating what it meant to dwell on the earth. The gesture of this passage is that the people were trying to build themselves back to heaven and not settle properly on the earth. It was their effort to build vertically rather than horizontally, even though humanity had fallen, that presents a problem. At this point in time all our best effort would not enable us to build our own way back to heaven because of our fallen state, we must first be graced from heaven. There has to be the cultic stream where grace is streamed down from heaven before any reverse-cultus activity can happen where we build ourselves, as a consequence, back towards heaven. YHWH (Yahweh) is one of the Elohim responsible for the development of humanity in this part of the world and building the Hebrew nation in particular, and when he says “let us go down” he is speaking to the other Elohim. The mission of humanity was to move horizontally to populate the earth and not vertically and therefore this project by humanity had to be thwarted.
Verse 7, YHWH is speaking to the other Elohim: “Come, let us go down, and there confuse their language, that they may not understand one another's speech”. The words that will be unravelled are ‘confuse’ and ‘understand’. The Hebrew word used that is translated as ‘confuse’ is ḇalal (baw-lal). The word has come to mean confusion, even to a rabbi, but originally it meant ‘to mix’ in the way that substances are mixed. It has a strong similarity with Arabic and Phoenician words of the time where the Arabic word meant to moisten or mix with water and the Phoenician word related to sacrifice through a mixing process. This helps us to return to the original meaning, and we can see how this later meaning derives from what the word originally meant: ‘to anoint’. The passage may now be understood to say that YHWH says, “let us mix to anoint their language”. There is a very different understanding if the original intention was to anoint the language of humanity rather than to create a deliberate confusion. The Hebrew word translated as ‘understand’ is shama (shaw-mah’) which rather means ‘to hear’. So this means that when a language is anointed it can be understood when one attunes one’s ear to hear it. Even when a language is anointed the speaker has an intention when they speak, and the listener has to have an intention in what they hear. Even with good intention it is still possible to not understand one another. The primitive root of the word means to hear intelligently. This can be quite a tall order.
The verse now reads: “Come, let us go down and anoint their language so that they will no longer hear each other (they will no longer attune their hearing to each other, no longer hear each other intelligently, so only understand (hear) certain people)”. Why did YHWH think it important to do this? Our new way to understand one another is to go beyond language to the intention of what is being said. Michaël explained this in that a school curriculum can be followed through the letter of what is written or by understanding the intention of a particular lesson, for example, and teaching the intention. Similarly, legal minds grapple with the intention of legislation rather than the letter of the law. Similarly, we speak through our actions; when we allocate more time to one activity than another, no one will believe us when we say the second activity is more important. The hidden meaning in this story of the Tower of Babel is not to separate people but to provide the insight that when we do understand one another it is because we have gone beyond language, to intention, to spiritual origin.
Michaël gave as an example that the origin of our ritual in The Christian Community is in the spiritual world and that although it was brought to us through the German language, that already is a translation and our aim should be to penetrate to the original source and not to idolise the German text.
Michaël also gave an explanation of how the Apartheid government used the story of the Tower of Babel to develop a theology of Apartheid in saying that the intention of God was that people who spoke different languages should not mix but develop separately.
How can we be certain that the intention of YHWH was not meant to create a barrier between people? The Tower of Babel story concludes in the Acts of the Apostles. In the Whitsun experience, with the outpouring of the Holy Spirit, no matter the language the Apostles spoke, everyone who heard them speak understood the intention of the words of the Apostles in their own language. The language of the Apostles was infused with spiritual intention so that it reached across the barrier of sound and the ear was attuned to hear the spirit and not the letters or sound of the language. When we are infused with the Spirit, we have the potential to understand each other irrespective of language. This was the intention of YHWH. It was inevitable that the ability to understand each other would disappear as a result of the Fall. But as people of the Redemption, we are on a new path, through Christ, to consciousness soul development. We have the capacity, when we exercise it, to hear and understand each other.
It is not surprising that the story took place at Babel, which links it to Babylon. The Babylonians, like the Ancient Indians in the epoch before, had established a great spiritual insight. They could read the cosmic script. This made it difficult for them to fully incarnate into an earthly existence. The story of the Tower of Babel is also a story of humanity fully landing on the earth and having our language anointed, so that, despite the reality that language degrades, it provides the possibility for people to express themselves. Language has always provided the possibility for one person to learn who another person is through the bridge that language provides to spiritual intention.
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