In a period of time between one-hundred and fifty and five-hundred and fifty years before Plato, the Jewish writers of the Hebrew Scriptures; in their mythology, passed on to us some of their insight into the rise of agrarianism and the onset of slavery. The book of Genesis[i] offers a significant and telling narrative about the rise of these social institutions. Genesis 9:20 tells us that Noah was a tiller of soil; “Noah, a man of the soil, was the first to plant a vineyard.” Shortly after this (in the span of five lines of text), Genesis 9:26-27, Noah also gives us the institution of slavery. Cannan, the son of Noah; becomes the slave of his two brothers, Shem and Japheth. The first farmer becomes the first slave holder.
Genesis 11:1-9 gives us the story of the Tower of Babel. It tells of how the descendants of Noah determined to build a tower, and a city, so that they would be unified as a people.
1 The whole world had the same language and the same words…3 They said to one another…4 “Come, let us build ourselves a city and a tower with its top in the sky,* and so make a name for ourselves; otherwise we shall be scattered all over the earth.” 5 The LORD came down to see the city and the tower that the people had built. 6 Then the LORD said: If now, while they are one people and all have the same language, they have started to do this, nothing they presume to do will be out of their reach. 7 Come, let us go down and there confuse their language, so that no one will understand the speech of another. 8 So the LORD scattered them from there over all the earth, and they stopped building the city. 9 That is why it was called Babel,* because there the LORD confused the speech of all the world. From there the LORD scattered them over all the earth.
On the surface this narrative is a simple etiological myth (a myth of origins) explaining the reason why human beings speak different languages. In addition, this narrative is often presented as a cautionary tale; warning the reader, or listener, not to plan too far in advance; because God may have something else in mind for us than we have for ourselves. God may decide to frustrate our purposes and reverse our intentions at any time. In the narrative the people set out to build something that would give them unity, and hold them together, but instead they became unable to communicate with each other, and were scattered over the earth. The narrative is unclear about whether God’s intentions are to punish the people for hubris, whether God is acting out of fear, or whether God’s motive is pure caprice. Nevertheless, this myth reveals something of historical significance.
The Tower of Babel is a type of ziggurat, like the Babylonian temple-tower of Etemenaki.[ii] Ziggurats served many purposes, they were often located in the center of a city. They were among the most heavily fortified structures within the city walls. A large amount of a city’s wealth would be stored there, not only wealth in gold and silver; the treasury, but also including granaries for the storage of the wealth in foodstuffs that a city would have saved up to support itself in times of scarcity,[iii] or siege. Without such granaries there would be no cities. And so, the Tower of Babel myth, following as it does the story of the first farmer, and as a continuation of that theme, is a story about the building of the first granary, the first city (after the flood) and the advent of an agrarian society. It is a prime example of the model that Plato would illustrate a few centuries later.
When God confuses the tongues of men, this appears on the surface to be an act of divine judgment, as if they were being punished for their pride, even though the text does not state that this is being done as punishment, it is nevertheless a fairly common interpretation is; “The narrative…suggests that civilization, which seeks to bring order out of cultural, economic and political chaos, can become an end in itself thus amounting to rebellion against God, and resulting in self defeat.”[iv] The confusion of languages is an onerous development, whether or not it is the result of divine judgment, it amounts self-defeat.
The biblical narrative tells us that the builders of this mythological temple, the first of its kind, and the first city, sought to derive unity from the process, but ended up confused and at odds with each other. I contend that trope is not meant to depict when human language suddenly became confused, but that this is a reference to the changes in the social order which manifested themselves out of the process of building the mythological city. This myth recalls the transition in human culture from one that was basically egalitarian and nomadic, into one that was hierarchical, and governed by class; one in which the institution of slavery became a present reality. Plato synthesized this history in The Republic, his dialog On Justice; the building of the city necessitates the building of a social order. Workers become fixed into hereditary occupations, ranging from slave to king, with priests, warriors, merchants, and craftsmen occupying all of the stations in between. It was agrarianism and the securitization of grain which made this possible.
Further evidence exists for this sequence of developments in Hammurabi’s Code, given in the year 1726 B.C.E., by Hammurabi, a king of the Amorite dynasty of Old Babylon in Mesopotamia. This law code treats grain as a commodity, establishes standard values in gold and silver for it, rates of interests for the lending of it, which are different from the rates of interests attached to the lending of coin. Hammurabi’s Code recognizes a class system with state officials, priests, warriors, middle class people, lower class people, merchants, money lenders, wage earners and slaves. The Hebrew Scriptures reference Hammurabi’s Code thirty-two times, in Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers, Deuteronomy and Ruth.[v] The code became a template for all other legal systems in the ancient world of the Near East.
In or around the year 1500 B.C.E., the Code of Manu[vi] was given to the people of India. Like Hammurabi’s Code, it also establishes a cast system:
- To Brahmanas he assigned teaching and studying (the Veda), sacrificing for their own benefit and for others, giving and accepting (of alms).
- The Kshatriya he commanded to protect the people, to bestow gifts, to offer sacrifices, to study (the Veda), and to abstain from attaching himself to sensual pleasures;
- The Vaisya to tend cattle, to bestow gifts, to offer sacrifices, to study (the Veda), to trade, to lend money, and to cultivate land.
- One occupation only the lord prescribed to the Sudra, to serve meekly even these (other) three castes.
The slave, the farmer, the money lender, the merchant, the warrior, and the priest; they are all present. The religious observance of the Code of Manu would remain the effective law of India; into the twentieth century C.E., at which point most of the unjust aspects of the system it prescribes; such as the virtual slavery of the Sudra caste, were abolished by Mohatma Gandhi, through the ratification of India’s Constitution in 1950 C.E..
Hammurabi’s Code, and the Code of Manu were merely written in this time frame. It is almost certain that when these codes were written they were only codifying what was already the standard way of life for these peoples; a way of life which probably began with the rise of agrarianism, occurring nearly simultaneously in Mesopotamia, India, and Egypt; around the year three-thousand B.C.E.. Human beings had been practicing agriculture long before then, but major agrarian societies emerged at this point, in the third millennium B.C.E., and with it major changes in human culture on a scale that humanity would not see again until the twentieth century.
[ii] The Oxford Dictionary of the Christian Church, edited by F. L. Cross and E.A. Livingstone, p. 141, Oxford University Press, New York, 1997.
[iii] The Encyclopaedia Brittanica, 11th edition, vol. II, edited by High Chisholm, p. 374, 1910.
[iv] The Interpreter’s One Volume Commentary on the Bible, edited by Charles M. Laymon, The Book of Genesis, John H. Marks, Abingdon Press, 1971.
[v] The Ancient Near East, Vol. I, edited by James B. Pritchard, pp. 138-167, Princeton University Press, New Jersey, 1958.
[vi] Indian History Sourcebook, The Laws of Manu, c. 1500 BCE, translated by G. Buhler,