Last year I read Roger Wagner and Andrew Briggs’ excellent book, The Penultimate Curiosity (OUP). The book is a tour through human history from the perspective of art, science and religious seeking. In this post I will remark on an interesting point that I learned from this book.

Since the time of early humans, people have been wondering about questions such as what are we meant to be doing and where do we come from and how can we do better at living as we ought to? The authors call these ‘ultimate’ questions. The ‘penultimate’ questions are the ones that can be addressed by that combination of reason and experimental observation that we have come to call science. Wagner and Briggs’ book (The Penultimate Curiosity) suggests that our wondering about ultimate questions brings our wondering about penultimate questions along with it, and stimulates it.

The main achievement of the book is, I would say, to increase our level of general knowledge about human history, especially the history of ideas. By treating art and science together it achieves a more rounded perspective than the one often on offer, and the authors have taken trouble to bring in a lot of research into sources and people, and give copious references. This is extremely helpful in achieving some level of objectivity. The book also brings out the contribution of some people not widely known outside academia. This includes, for example, John Philoponus (c. 490-570) whose work greatly exceeded that of his contemporaries, and who was an important influence on Galileo (Galileo referred to him many times).

One of the things the book does well is to make use of archaeology to get an improved understanding of parts of the Bible. By learning about the writing and practices of the ancient Near East in general, one discovers the cultural context in which some parts of the Bible were written, and thus one learns what sorts of questions the texts are addressing. This can be extremely helpful in getting a proper understanding.

Suppose you heard someone make a statement such as “the French people are unimportant.” This sounds as if it must be wrong, but in fact it might be either right or wrong, depending on what question it is addressed to. If someone had asked, “should we worry about the rights of the French people?” then the statement “the French people are unimportant” is both wrong and objectionable. But if someone had asked, “is this Earthquake the fault of the French people?” then now the statement, “the French people are unimportant” is right, in the specific context, since in that context it means their role is not important to what caused the Earthquake (it was caused by plate tectonics etc.) and this is true. Thus, in order to understand any given statement or story, we need to understand the context in which the statement or story is being offered.

An example concerns the story of the Tower of Babel (Genesis 11). This story has always bothered me. It seems, to a modern, unguided reader, to be some sort of attempt to explain the origins of language, a sort of “Just So Story”, like the playful stories written by Rudyard Kipling about the origins of animals. It also seems to be saying something rather unpleasant about God, as if God were a kind of cosmic kill-joy or thwarter of human efforts; God uneasy about human efforts to work together and achieve feats of engineering. All this is the impression the story can give if you read it without any knowledge of the situation it was addressed to.

What Wagner and Briggs have done is shown that the above is a thoroughly incorrect interpretation (even though it is the one you will find widely assumed, such as in Wikipedia for example). To find out what the Tower of Babel story was trying to say, according to the people who wrote it, we can visit their time and place and listen in on the conversation. In other words, we can find out what this story is really about by comparing it to other similar stories that were written just before it in by people living in that part of the world.

These other stories typically went like this.

There were various tribes, each with their own city and each with their own local “god”. A typical story would have a great tower, with “us” (our nation, our tribe) in the city at the base of the tower, and “god” (that is, our tribal god) living at the top of the tower, and (here is the really telling part): other tribes or nations would all look to us and would speak our language. In each story (there are several examples), one people is in charge, with the ruling King etc, and other tribes or nations have to look to them and speak their language.

In other words, these stories are all about one tribe asserting its supremacy, and requiring everyone else to speak the language of the supreme tribe.

When you see this, you see the Biblical story in its true light. “Not so,” say the Biblical authors. “God does not live at the top of your tower; God will throw down your tower; and far from us all being subjugated to your tribe and speaking your precious language, God will make both you and us speak a hundred different languages, so there!”

This is not about thwarting human building projects; it is about thwarting human domination projects. It is about getting a bigger, less parochial, understanding of God, and it is about thwarting the aspirations of one group to lord it over another.



(Postscript: The image at the top of this piece shows a tablet or stele from the Schøyen collection. The image on the tablet is shown here in outline. It shows a ziggurat or pyramid-like structure, with a depiction of King Nebuchadnezzar II, who ruled Babylon from 605-562 BC, standing next to it. This ziggurat was first built around the time of Hammurabi (1792-1750 BC), and Nebuchadnezzar restored it. An inscription on the tablet reads, “NEBUCHADNEZZAR, KING OF BABYLON AM I – IN ORDER TO COMPLETE E-TEMEN-ANKI AND E-UR-ME-IMIN-ANKI I MOBILIZED ALL COUNTRIES EVERYWHERE, EACH AND EVERY RULER WHO HAD BEEN RAISED TO PROMINENCE OVER ALL THE PEOPLE OF THE WORLD – THE BASE I FILLED IN TO MAKE A HIGH TERRACE. I BUILT THEIR STRUCTURES WITH BITUMEN AND BAKED BRICK THROUGHOUT. I COMPLETED IT RAISING ITS TOP TO THE HEAVEN, MAKING IT GLEAM BRIGHT AS THE SUN”)