As a young boy I recall watching a movie that depicted the Tower of Babel story. In one scene, as the tower was being built, the clouds suddenly grew dark, there was a jolt from the heavens, and those people constructing the tower were no longer able to understand the language of the person standing next to him or her.
For some members of the LDS Church, as well as some who are not members of the church, this scenario more-or-less depicts the events that transpired several thousand years ago in Babel. Other faithful members wonder if the event could be explained from a different perspective.
While I believe that with God all things are possible and miracles really do happen, I also believe that God works within a framework of natural laws (and we are far from knowing all natural laws). The topic of how "miracles" may relate to natural laws will wait for another day. For now it's enough to know that shifting one's paradigm about the confusion of tongues does not equate to a rejection of miracles.
According to Ether, Jaredite history began with the great tower when the language of the people was "confounded." The brother of Jared prayed that God would "not confound us that we may not understand our words" (1:33), and God spared the Jaredites. In Genesis we are told that the people were all one and that they all had "one language" until God confounded their language, so they could "not understand one another's speech" (6-7).
There are at least three ways for a believer to interpret this event: 1) Human language changed from a single tongue to multiple tongues in miraculous rapid incident.
2) Hugh Nibley points out that "confound" means to "mix up" or "pour together ... meaning mixed up with other people, culturally, linguistically, or otherwise." The brother of Jared was afraid that "we may not understand our words." "Words we cannot understand," notes Nibley "may be nonsense syllables or may be in some foreign language, but in either case they are not our words. The only way we can fail to understand our own words is to have words that are actually ours change their meaning among us. That is exactly what happens when people, and hence languages, are ...‘confounded'...." Nibley observes:
"If every individual were to speak a tongue all of his own and so go off entirely by himself, the races would have been not merely scattered but quite annihilated. We must not fall into the old vice of reading into the scripture things that are not there."
Nibley, and some modern scholars, believed that all languages initially still sprang from a single center. Others scholars disagree. Either way, the influx of foreign languages into a region could confound the dominant native language to a point that original meanings were lost.
3) Per last week's discussion, it's possible that the confounding of tongues is an aetiological myth or legend that attempts to explain the divergence of languages. Anciently, such traditions were passed from generation to generation and, in a pre-scientific era, were never questioned for historical or scientific accuracy. While Ether's tradition maintained that the Jaredite language was not confounded, traditions from other parts of the world maintain that old Hebrew or Proto-Indo-European were the original Adamic languages and that they were not confounded because some people did not participate in building the tower and therefore kept the language alive.
We don't have the brother of Jared's personal journal. We have Joseph's translation (which was dictated in King James vernacular) of Moroni's abridgment of Mosiah's translation of Ether's long-after-the-fact traditions. Perhaps the tower saga was part of the Jaredite lore which Ether interpreted according to his cultural heritage and recorded on his plates.
Ancient redactors (or abridgers) — which include Moroni and Mormon — were editors who often added to or adjusted elements to fit their view of the story or to square with the conclusions they were attempting to project.
Moroni would have been familiar with the brass plates and the likely inclusion of the story about the great tower as recorded in the Old Testament. Regardless of whether he abridged Mosiah the younger's translation of Ether or if he retranslated and redacted Ether's original record, it's possible that he edited the text to fit his view and understanding of Jaredite origins from an Old Testament perspective.22 comments on this story
While some believers may prefer either a literal or mythological approach to this topic, we should be careful to understand that a mythological approach doesn't mean that the Nephites were fictitious. Ancient histories and scriptures can contain mythical elements as well as actual history. Brigham Young did not believe that Adam was created from dust, calling it a "baby stor(y)," and President Kimball said that the scriptural account of Eve being taken from Adam's rib was figurative. If the Book of Mormon was written by real ancient people it should contain ancient mythological elements.