Editor’s Note: This is the fifth installment of an extended version of a presentation given at the 2013 Interpreter Symposium on Science and Mormonism: Cosmos, Earth, and Man at the Utah Valley Convention Center in Provo, Utah. To see the previous articles in this series, click here.
Jeff and David Larsen have just completed a detailed scriptural commentary on the stories of Enoch, Noah, and the Tower of Babel. See www.templethemes.net for more details.
Lesson Five: There Is More in These Chapters Than Meets the Eye
The more I study the scriptures, the more I have learned to trust them. When I come to a puzzling verse, I do not automatically assume the passage is wrong, because there have been many times that further study has shown me that I was wrong in my initial assumptions or conclusions.
Curiously, the closest biblical parallel to the wording of the opening verses of this passage is not to be found in the call of any Old Testament prophet but rather in the New Testament description of events following Jesus’ baptism. The detailed resemblances between Moses 6:26-27 and the accounts of the baptism of Jesus seemed an obvious case of borrowing from the Gospels by Joseph Smith. However, as I studied and prayed about the issue, as a result what I consider to be a process of inspiration, I came across an obscure article by Samuel Zinner. Zinner compares Hebrews 1:5-6 to passages relating to the father’s declaration of sonship at the baptism of Jesus in the Gospel of the Ebionites and the Gospel of the Hebrews. He also notes that the motifs of “rest” and “reigning” co-occur in these three texts as well as in the Coptic Gospel of Thomas. Finally, he argues for a “striking isomorphism” shared between 1 Enoch and the baptismal allusion in the Gospel of the Ebionites in a promise made by Enoch to the righteous: “and a bright light will shine upon you, and the voice of rest you will hear from heaven.”
In light of these (and additional passages relating these themes to the personage of the “Son of Man”), Zinner argues that the ideas behind all these passages “arose in an Enochic matrix.” In other words, the words from Joseph Smith’s writings on Enoch that I thought had been derived from the New Testament were thought instead by Zinner to have originated in ancient Enoch traditions that eventually made their way into the New Testament. Hence, the unexpected parallel to Jesus’ baptism in the book of Moses account of the calling of Enoch – which in a cursory analysis might have been looked upon as an obvious anachronism – is a passage with plausible Enochic affinities and possible Enochic origins.
More of a puzzle from a scientific perspective is the Tower of Babel story. On the one hand, the details of the Babylonian setting and construction techniques check out quite plausibly, even if the time frame for the story is difficult to pin down. On the other hand, in light of what is known about evolutionary linguistics the story of the confusion of languages at the Tower of Babel seems patently ridiculous.
Building on the leads of Hugh Nibley, Brant Gardner, and other scholars, a credible alternative can be proposed to the idea that the story explains the origin of multiple languages. Instead, we might imagine that the story describes the dissolution of a lingua franca that had enabled cooperative work among the people who came together from throughout the empire to execute the building project. “From such a mixing of people who were attempting to build a [false] temple to the heavens, Yahweh removed some of His believers [e.g., the Jaredites and, at some point, Abram] for His own purposes.”
Studies of historical linguistics provide evidence of the hegemony of the Babylonians, making “confounding” (Hebrew balal = to mix or mingle) of the culture and language of the peoples of its empire an inevitable consequence. Nicholas Ostler  reminds us that “Babylon … was notable throughout its history for the leading role of a single language,” and for “almost two thousand years this language was Akkadian.”
If we take the “one language” of Genesis 11:1 as being Sumerian, Akkadian, or even Aramaic rather than a supposed universal proto-language, some of the puzzling aspects of the biblical account become more intelligible. “In addition to the local languages of each nation, there existed one language’ which made communication possible throughout the world” – or, perhaps more accurately, throughout the land. “Strictly speaking, the biblical text does not refer to a plurality of languages but to the destruction of language as an instrument of communication.'”
In summary, we  that it “is unlikely that Genesis 11:1-9 can contribute much, if anything, to the origin of languages … [T]he diversification of languages is a slow process, not something catastrophic as Genesis 11 might indicate.” The commonly received interpretation of Genesis 11 provides “a most incredible and nave explanation of language diversification. If, however, the narrative refers to the dissolution of a Babylonian lingua franca, or something like that, the need to see Genesis 11:1-9 as a highly imaginative explanation of language diffusion becomes unnecessary.”
In my years of acquaintance with the book of Genesis and the book of Moses, I have been astonished with the extent to which their words reverberate with the echoes of antiquity found elsewhere in scripture – and, no less significantly, with the deepest truths of my personal experience. Indeed, I would not merely assert that these books hold up well under close examination, but rather that, like a fractal whose self-similar patterns become more wondrous upon ever closer inspection, the brilliance of their inspiration shines most impressively under bright light and high magnification: there is glory in the details.
… we should acknowledge that not all questions can be answered definitively. This is the nature of the human quest, whether in the realm of science or religion. The answers we have are merely provisional.
The search for any final truths is an all-consuming, lifelong task. Faith should not shun the historian’s discoveries, but neither will faith expect the historian to solve all questions. Faith can certainly benefit from seeing in the archaeologist’s persistent probing a kindred spirit in the search for elusive truths. Historical truth is a moving target, not a rock upon which to build faith. Faith, likewise, has its own work to do and cannot wait for the arrival of the latest issue of Near Eastern Archaeology before trying to sort things out.
We should avoid the example of the man who, finding the building in which he standing to be on fire says, “I’m not leaving this spot until someone tells me exactly how all this got started.”
The characteristic of awe mentioned by Carl Sagan – so vital to the pursuit of knowledge in both science and religion – has been equated by Elder Maxwell with the scriptural term “meekness.” Illustrating this attitude of meekness with an anecdote about his scientist father, President Henry B. Eyring wrote:
Some of you have heard me tell of being in a meeting in New York as my father presented a paper at the American Chemical Society. A younger chemist popped up from the audience, interrupted, and said: “Professor Eyring, I’ve heard you on the other side of this question.” Dad laughed and said, “Look, I’ve been on every side of it I can find, and I’ll have to keep trying other sides until I finally get it figured out.” And then he went on with his lecture. So much for looking as though you are always right. He was saying what any good little Mormon boy would say. It was not a personality trait of Henry Eyring. He was a practicing believer in the Lord Jesus Christ. He knew that the Savior was the only perfect chemist. That was the way Dad saw the world and his place in it. He saw himself as a child. He worked his heart out, as hard as he could work. He was willing to believe he didn’t know most things. He was willing to change any idea he’s ever had when he found something which seemed closer to the truth. And even when others praised his work, he always knew it was an approximation in the Lord’s eyes, and so he might come at the problem again, from another direction.
Some take the fact that science reverses its positions from time to time as a disturbing thing. On the contrary, I feel that we should take such events as encouraging news. In this regard, I side with those who locate the rationality of science not in the assertion that its theories are erected upon a consistent foundation of undeniable facts, but rather in the idea that it is at heart a self-correcting enterprise. The payload of a mission to Mars precisely hits its landing spot not because we can set its initial course with pinpoint accuracy but rather because we can continue to adjust its trajectory as the rocket advances to its target. The same thing is true with religion – as Paul says, now we see only in part, now we know only in part  – that is why we have continuing revelation, and that is why we won’t understand some things completely until we meet the Lord face-to-face.
Brother Henry Eyring said that it is the people who can tolerate “no contradictions in their minds [that] may have [the most] trouble.” As for himself, he continued: “There are all kinds of contradictions [in religion] I don’t understand, but I find the same kinds of contradictions in science, and I haven’t decided to apostatize from science. In the long run, the truth is its own most powerful advocate.”
This is my experience and my testimony.
Thank you very much.
Assume that the scriptures mean exactly what they say and, more important, assume that we do not already know what they say. If we assume that we already know what the scriptures say, then they cannot continue to teach us. If we assume that they mean something other than what they say, then we run the risk of substituting our own thoughts for what we read rather than learning what they have to teach us …. [A]ssume that each aspect of whatever passage we are looking at is significant and ask about that significance. To assume that some things are significant and others are not is to assume, from the beginning, that we already know what scripture means. Some things may turn out to be irrelevant, but we cannot know that until we are done.
Similarly, Wright comments that if you read in this way (J. L. Kugel, How to Read, p. 666):
… the Bible will not let you down. You will be paying attention to it; you won’t be sitting in judgment over it. But you won’t come with a preconceived notion of what this or that passage has to mean if it is to be true. You will discover that God is speaking new truth through it. I take it as a method in my biblical studies that if I turn a corner and find myself saying, “Well, in that case, that verse is wrong” that I must have turned a wrong corner somewhere. But that does not mean that I impose what I think is right on to that bit of the Bible. It means, instead, that I am forced to live with that text uncomfortably, sometimes literally for years (this is sober autobiography), until suddenly I come round a different corner and that verse makes a lot of sense; sense that I wouldn’t have got if I had insisted on imposing my initial view on it from day one (N. T. Wright, Authoritative. See Berlin’s seven principles of biblical hermeneutics for a detailed description of such an approach to scriptural understanding (A. Berlin, Search)). By way of contrast, Kugel notes the “subtle shift in tone” that has come with “the emphasis on reading the Bible [solely] in human terms and in its historical context” without the counterbalance provided by traditional forms of scripture reading: As modern biblical scholarship gained momentum, studying the Bible itself was joined with, and eventually overshadowed by, studying the historical reality behind the text (including how the text itself came to be). In the process, learning from the Bible gradually turned into learning about it. Such a shift might seem slight at first, but ultimately it changed a great deal. The person who seeks to learn from the Bible is smaller than the text; he crouches at its feet, waiting for its instruction or insights. Learning about the text generates the opposite posture.The text moves from subject to object; it no longer speaks but is spoken about, analyzed, and acted upon.
The insights are now all the reader’s, not the text’s, and anyone can see the results. This difference in tone, as much as any specific insight or theory, is what has created the great gap between the Bible of ancient interpreters and that of modern scholars.
 G. W. E. Nickelsburg, 1 Enoch 1, 96:3, p. 461. Cf. Ibid., 91:1, p. 409, which speaks of “a voice calling me, and a spirit poured out upon me.” Relating to the theme of reigning. Zinner also notes 1 Enoch 96:1, which speaks of the “authority” that the “righteous” will have over the “sinners” (ibid., 96:1, p. 461).
 An objection to this interpretation could be raised due to its lack of congruity with the allusions to the story of the Tower and the confounding of languages found in the book of Ether. However, Brant Gardner reminds us that Moroni never actually translated this account because he assumed it would already be had among those who would later read his words (Ether 1:3-4). Thus, Moroni’s allusions to the story are based on his knowledge of the brass plates, not on his translation. For this reason, whatever textual and interpretive difficulties were present in the brass plates, which are thought to have included an account roughly corresponding to our book of Genesis, could have made their way into Moroni’s summary of the events surrounding the departure of the Jaredites from the Old World. In the words of Gardner, “By the time Moroni adapted Mosiah’s adaptation, we have the story as given in Genesis because of Genesis, not as an independent confirmation” (B. A. Gardner, Second Witness, 6:166).
Some might object to this interpretation of events, thinking that since Moroni and Mosiah were prophets they would have surely known what happened of their own accord, not through the medium of the written record. However, Elder John A. Widtsoe explained (J. A. Widtsoe, Evidences, p. 127): “when inspired writers deal with historical incidents, they relate that which they have seen or that which may have been told them, unless indeed the past is opened to them by revelation.”
 The way in which the glory of God’s work is ultimately revealed in the simple details of sacred texts, divinely influenced events, and the acts of godly persons is brilliantly described by Chesterton (G. K. Chesterton, William Blake, p. 210):
The wise man will follow a star, low and large and fierce in the heavens; but the nearer he comes to it the smaller and smaller it will grow, till he finds it the humble lantern over some little inn or stable. Not till we know the high things shall we know how lowly they are. Meanwhile, the modern superior transcendentalist will find the facts of eternity incredible because they are so solid; he will not recognize heaven because it is so like the earth.