Thomas Paine on Religion
April 26, 2008 4 Comments
The Tower of Babel
The story of the tower of Babel is told in Genesis xi. It begins thus:
“And the whole earth [it was but a very little part of it they knew] 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 thoroughly, and they had brick for stone, and slime had they for mortar.
“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 [that is, by that means] the Lord scattered them abroad from thence upon the face of all the earth; and they left off building the city.”
This is the story, and a very foolish, inconsistent story it is. In the first place, the familiar and irreverent manner in which the Almighty is spoken of in this chapter is offensive to a serious mind.
As to the project of building a tower whose top should reach to heaven, there never could be a people so foolish as to have such a notion; but to represent the Almighty as jealous of the attempt, as the writer of the story has done, is adding profanation to folly. “Go to,” say the builders, “let us build us a tower whose top shall reach to heaven.” “Go to,” says God, “let us go down and confound their language.”
This quaintness is indecent, and the reason given for is worse, for, “now nothing will be restrained from them which they have imagined to do.” This is representing the Almighty as jealous of their getting into heaven. The story is too ridiculous, even as a fable, to account for the diversity of languages in the world, for which it seems to have been intended.
As to the project of confounding their language for the purpose of making them separate, it is altogether inconsistent; because instead of producing this effect, it would, by increasing their difficulties, render them more necessary to each other, and cause them to keep together. Where could they go to better themselves?
Another observation upon this story is, the inconsistency of it with respect to the opinion that the Bible is the Word of God given for the information of mankind; for nothing could so effectually prevent such a word from being known by mankind as confounding their language.
The people, who after this spoke different languages, could no more understand such a Word generally, than the builders of Babel could understand on another. It would have been necessary, therefore, had such Word ever been given or intended to be given, that the whole earth should be, as they say it was at first, of one language and of one speech, and that it should never have been confounded.
The case, however, is, that the Bible will not bear examination in any part of it, which it would do if it was the Word of God. Those who most believe it are those who know least about it, and priests always take care to keep the inconsistent and contradictory parts out of sight.
By Thomas Paine: Essays on Religion, Late 1700’s early 1800’s
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