In “Genesis”, right after the story of the Creation, there is the story of Adam and Eve and their family. It is a story often taken as the archetypal account of the human capacity for disobedience and murder. Then, later on, there is the story of Abraham and his descendants told with such density that it contains as much material as a series of novels. That saga carries a set of families into, among other things, encounters with the world civilization of the Egyptians and thereby sets the scene for the epic of liberation provided in “Exodus”. The redactors of “Genesis” fill the time between the richly detailed close ups of Adam and Eve and their family and of Abraham and his family with the more fanciful stories of the Flood and the Tower of Babel, those set amidst genealogies that, like movie fadeouts, show the passage of time.
The connective tissue of the genealogies also suggests that all of those times between the Adam and Eve family and the Abraham families are primitive in the elementary sense that not much can be said or known about ages in which little happened that lasted in human memory. History did not happen in those times in that it does not linger except as it is reconstructed by our imaginations as a period outside the eye of history, peopled by those about whom we feel pathos since they will for the most part not be known to history and are barbaric because they are not aware of their loss. We are not given the names of the families that died in the Flood. Only Noah and his people knew what was coming. And the story of Noah is fanciful in that nothing happens as a result of it. There was a great flood and the world was repopulated but nothing changed in the way people live or in their virtues and vices. It might as well never have happened. God may have given up world wide flooding, but he did not give up the possibility of some other form of world wide disaster.
And yet all that material, supposedly stitched together from disparate elements, all to have taken place before a continuous history can be said to begin with the appearance of Abraham, provides a profound sense of what we would understand as a secular view of life. The legendary stories of Noah and Babel provide the themes of secularism and the connective material of genealogies and strange creatures provides what we might want to call the texture of the secular: what it feels like to live under a secular dispensation.
The story of Noah, like that of Babel, is a legend rather than a Greek myth because it is told as if it could have happened, however exaggerated is the retelling. That is different from a Greek myth which is marvelous because the transformations people undergo are so biological (rather than a matter of engineering, as the details of the plan for Noah’s ark suggests) that only a god could have violated nature rather than, as both God and Noah do, made use of it.
The so-called Dark Ages of European history are also used as a conceit for something that is not at all a golden age but is a primitive age. We imagine people lost in their superstitions, living subsistence lives, centuries of people both common and renowned dying with barely any claim on history, the boundaries of their kingdoms and the lines of royal succession within those kingdoms of no interest to us. That perception of the Dark Ages as without significant event is an illusion, a construction for our own mental purposes. Things of moment did happen in the Dark Ages, such as the false start at a Plato-based physics and the elaboration of the art of rhetoric. And we delude ourselves to think of the people who lived in Europe at the turn of the First Millennium as not having an even more clear sense than we do of where they belonged within the scheme of history: their Christian sense of history, which produced an art that met their needs for the representation of the heavenly order even if it does not meet our own needs for a representation of the material and commercial society in which we live. But that is the way it is with any time that is declared primitive.
Let us dig into the sense “Genesis” creates of primitive times by considering where the legends of Noah and Babel are placed within the overall structure of “Genesis”. The redactors could have decided to distribute their material differently. They could have placed the story of Noah right before the much longer saga of Abraham. That would have made sense to a reader because social life in the age of Noah was not any more technologically limited or undifferentiated than life in the time of Abraham. There are handicrafts and private dwellings; there is a division of society into families and crowds, loyalties and rumors; there are a mass of people proceeding in their conventional lives while those who have heard the voice of God proceed with their own tasks. That rearrangement would have left only the story of Babel to separate all of historical times from the original conditions of mankind, when there was only one family and where nature was bountiful, whether in Eden or even afterwards, when both the hunter and the gatherer were recognized, though for reasons unclear God looks with less favor upon the gatherer than upon the hunter.
Or, on the other hand, the redactors could have placed Noah immediately after the family saga of Adam and Eve. That is because the quarrel between mankind and God, according to the Adam and Eve story, is not played out in nature but in the deprivations of the family, which first suffers the pain of childbirth, and then the betrayal of brothers, thereby laying out archetypal patterns of the relation between man and women, parents and children. These themes are also present in the Noah story. Noah has his own difficulties with his own children and his own issue (of drunkenness) to complicate his own task of carrying out God’s instructions.
Setting the story of Noah just after the story of the first family would have an additional merit. Noah's story is a reversal and so a redemption of the world, at least partially, from the events surrounding the exile of Adam and Eve from Eden. This time, Noah, the protagonist of the story, follows God's bidding and so causes mankind to survive a test of water, while Eve was the protagonist who by her willfulness caused an angel with a sword of fire to categorically bar humanity from Eden. Noah had swung back the pendulum enough so that life on earth was now recognizable, filled with works and days, but also satisfactions of the flesh and of family, and of occasional good deeds. That is the way it would be until what “Genesis” picks up as historical times, when the intricacies of Abraham's family life intersect with the interventions of God to create the history, beliefs, and the special dispensation of the Israelites.
The redactors chose to do neither. Instead, they used genealogies to bridge the various gaps between Adam and Noah and Babel and Abraham. The Noah story is therefore neither a part nor compensation for the original family saga nor is it the first chapter of the Abraham story. Noah remains independent, just a false start by God, before God could get history on its road, as is Babel. The two stories are legends of what might have happened that was without consequence during those primitive times, stories stuffed in there because the redactors could think of nothing else to do with them however intriguing they are each in their own right. What to make of that period of history without history is left to the genealogies.
How do people think of the time between the beginnings of humanity and the beginnings of recognizable and recorded history? There are a number of ways for the imagination to solve this problem, to find a suitable story or account or explanation for this gap, this transition. The modern anthropological imagination sets the parameters of that time as between, let us say, people descending from the trees and the building of the pyramids. People gradually move from hunting and gathering into settled societies and that introduces warfare, the original sin of the secular minded. There are other ways to understand that long transitional time.
Hesiod and the Greeks recognize this period of prehistory as the age of the old gods, those of the age that preceded the Olympians. Those gods were distinguished from the more familiar ones by seeming more like spirits than like people, more responsive to and representative of primordial forces of wind and cold and water, and of harvests and wine and sexuality and the hunt, than they were responsive to justice or love or other more civilized emotions and ideas. So there is a kind of evolution in the gods, if we mean by that only that more primitive stages of social organization and more fundamental emotions are replaced or supplemented by more complex ones.
Evolution is, in this sense, a set of layers of language, each stage of human history defining a new level of comprehension. Tolkien may not have been too off the mark in thinking that earlier layers evaporate as forces as they evaporate from memory, the newer gods sufficient to account for all of nature and society. That view rejects the modernist notion that the older urges are merely more fully repressed. Tolkien insists that the English village does not exist as merely a veneer upon subterranean primordial forces; rather, the older gods, those of the trees, have little power, and new threats to the village are offered by much more modern gods.
Another way to fill the time between the beginning of humanity and the start of history as we know it is provided by Karl Marx, whose version of social evolution benefited from the advances in geology at the beginning of the Nineteenth Century that for the first time stretched the history of the world far back before the time of the Bible. Social classes, according to Marx, are in conflict over long periods of time until the pressures build up along essential fault lines to the point when they create seismic shifts that lead to catastrophic changes. Those who are unfortunate enough to be farsighted and see that the peasantry are victims of their rulers rather than naturally condemned to their apparently different natures are condemned to heroic and useless resistance, forced to it only by circumstance or an iron sense of rectitude, so as to redeem their class in the eyes of future historians who insist on only political virtues and so must define resistance as the heroism of the oppressed.
That is the spirit whereby Eric Hobsbawm makes Robin Hood into a legend of a rebel before his time, as does Howard Fast in his treatment of Spartacus, and so does Herbert Aptheker, who insists that American slaves rebelled as often as they could. That is to treat rebellion as a necessary moral response to oppression, the enslaved shamed by their continued enslavement and so Jewish patriots for the same purpose document concentration camp rebellions, as if the price of slavery did not also include a weakened consciousness of the possibility of freedom. Those three Stalinist intellectuals saw human virtue as unchanging throughout historical evolution, even if it is everywhere repressed until the time when the one true revolution will take place. The redactors of “Exodus”, on the other hand, insisted Moses has to reawaken in his own people the idea of freedom by allowing them to wander for forty years in the desert. The Stalinist strand of Marxism was also unlike Karl Marx, who saw the peasantry as suffering from a rural idiocy, an intellectual slumber from which the Industrial Revolution would awaken them. Most Marxists, when that species of intellectual roamed the earth, shared this view that the human capacity to be virtuous as well as to understand the nature of oppression both unfolded until a time was reached when real political forces engaged with real political forces, which meant that classes clashed with classes rather than superstitions, and so history truly began.
“Genesis”, in just a few pages, provides a very different portrait of the unknown times between human creation and human history. First off, the story told there is also evolutionary in one very modern sense of that term. The human population, the children of Noah, spread out from one land into another, the world populated from a central point, so that all of history, from prehistoric to contemporaneous times, is seen as an expansion of frontiers into one wilderness after another, an emigration of peoples from their original home. Such an image of evolution as widespread emigration is broadened by modern evolutionists to refer to the spread of homo sapiens beyond Africa. In “Genesis”, the spread of the human population results in new and prosperous kingdoms. This image of growth and diffusion is borrowed from the remembered past of the Israelites and other Middle Eastern peoples whose own early writing also suggest a logarithmic path of development that had already taken off but whose end could barely be imagined then or now.
Epochs whose ideas of themselves are evolutionary also see themselves in this way. Burckhardt's Renaissance shares with developmental sociologists of the late Nineteenth Century the idea that the advanced nations have moved only far enough up the hill to see that they have come some distance. Eastern Europe was a place still to be colonized and so no longer left to its ageless peasantry. Just as “Gilgamesh” explores the forests of Lebanon, and the Egyptians grow less used to seeing tigers in their central territory, the area of world civilization grows in “Genesis” to include all of the Middle East, including that fateful meeting between the nomadic Abraham and the fleshpots of Egypt, a reference to the abundance of Egypt rather than to its sinfulness.
The story of Babel shows what happens in prehistory if you approach the question of development as a revolution rather than as an evolution. Babel is yet another corrective or afterthought on the world created by Adam’s original set of encounters with God. It records a descent rather than an ascent into history because it is the story of a single false step that is enough to destroy a civilization. One could say a golden age was lost, though it would be more accurate to say, given the pathos of this particular fabulous story, that a golden age was never accomplished, and so Babel is an answer to stories of better times long gone: it is best to move on and get on with history.
The idea of Babel is very tempting. The rush to the mountaintop by Moses would not have been necessary, nor only gradually accomplished, what with all the slides backward, and so only accomplished, if at all, through the entire history of mankind, if people had built a mountain top of their own: the tower of Babel. The story of Babel suggests, moreover, that the tower came pretty close to being built. The one fatal problem, as there always is in such legendary stories of what was bound not to be, was akin to the grandiosity of Milton’s Satan, who might have built his alternative universe if he had not taken it into his head to get revenge on God, though it was in his essence that he would.
Think of another courtly romance, that of Sir Gawain, thwarted by his desire to bed an apparently available lady, not knowing that this time, a mild bending of the rules will not do, and so he will be nicked for his troubles because he was not totally chivalric. Or, more seriously, think of the courtly romance of the Confederacy, thwarted by Northern industrial might, should the reader be a materialist, or by the original sin of slavery, should the reader be an idealist. Those things aside, wouldn’t the Confederacy have been grand? Not really, because its failings were its essence.
What was the essence of Babel? The tower of Babel would have been built if people continued to use a single language, presumably a true language since it requires few words and so does not engage in circumlocutions and vagaries and other maddening habits of usual language which interrupt or deaden thought. The language that gives them the knowledge of universal truth is taken away by God from mankind.
Now, this is an unnecessary truth to impose on Babel. It was doubtless the case in any cosmopolitan city of the time that there were people who spoke a variety of languages but who also had some common tongue in which they could do their business, as is now the case with English and was once the case with French or Latin. Babel is only a slightly exaggerated statement of what is ordinarily the case. But the moral of Babel comes from regarding Babel as categorically other, embodying in its culture a relation to language that is unlike any other society’s relation to language and so making it an exemplary tale that stands out and up amidst the wasteland of prehistory.
What the story points to is that it had to be that language would become what it is. The limited truthfulness, the inaccuracies and obscurities that language introduce into thought by only imperfectly formulating thought or by formulating contrary thoughts for any thought that might be formed, results in a world grasped only partly and therefore a God who is ever elusive, which is the way it is and ought to be. God is troubled by the thought of a world of exact language. Cities are indeed awesome, for in the buildings they do build can be seen the idea of buildings they would build if they but could be, which would obviate the need for the world as it is known and replace it with the end of history, however elevated that might be.
The placing of the Babel story in the primitive age is a testament to the legitimacy of the idea of the only gradual emergence of mankind. The contemplation of an immediate emergence is too fearsome, reflecting back, as it does, on the creation story, and pointing forward, as it does, to the central events of the Exodus, both of these associations no doubt intended by the redactors. First, the Babel story suggests that Eve's sin was indeed not just disobedience but the quest for knowledge inherent in her contemplation of the possibility of disobedience. Second, the idea that language lies at the heart of both God and human experience, and so is the most sacred privilege of God, to be guarded jealously lest men become gods, also informs “Genesis”, where God names Adam and Eve, but allows them to name the animals, which gives them power over them because the names of the animals are only words Adam has invented, while the human, whose existence is of a different sort, and partakes of the nature of God, has a name before it has an existence, and so has a true name, in the sense that it is given to the human not by himself but by God. He who names is the one who gives existence to a thing. Only God is without a proper name.
If the inhabitants of Babel had retained the secret of naming, which is what a single language would imply, since there would be only one word, the presumably accurate name, for every object they used to build the tower as well as the rest of their lives, then there would have been no stopping their civilization. That would have been the case even if they mastered language not for its philosophical purposes but simply as a kind of craft to pursue their other crafts, which is the way Brueghel envisions it in his painting of Babel.
In either case, whether language is a craft or the underpinning of the universe, the residents of Babel would have come to think of themselves as akin to God, as if existence were in a word rather than a concept, which is what language always fools us into thinking: that words are thoughts and objective ideas at the same time. So those who built and lived in Babel had indulged in a kind of folk superstition about words, thinking that language could make them god-like when, in fact, the variety of languages shows language to provide names and not the things that are named. And so this story is a pretext for showing that God's ordering of the world before Noah was sufficient, and that what people think is often vainglorious. Only then, when language is just the words people use to indicate meaning rather than words constituting meaning, can a true colloquy between man and God and between man and his thoughts, become possible.
It is remarkable that the redactors would contemplate this one way more of how history might have gone had it not been aborted by its own internal limitations. This is also evolutionary: there are starts whose impracticality or inadaptability makes those starts false ones. Babel represented a false conception of language, a superstitious adjustment to the existence of thought, and so a scheme that could never be accomplished, however many towers were built, for God would never be seen directly but only through the muddle-headedness of language.
Mythological theories of creation do not share the vision of pre-history provided by “Genesis”. Mythologies do not suggest the possibility of false starts as other than mistakes of the mind that shed a light on what happened but could never have happened because they did not happen. God may have discarded the over-baked black man and the under-baked white man in preference for the red man who was baked just right but that is a moral tale rather than a presentation of what God had to do to set the world on the way it is now, for in that case it would no longer be a joke. If God had to make the white man and the black man as well as the red man, then He wanted to create conflict. It was not just an accident that He baked the first two. That may be why mythology is evolutionary only in the sense that it has a rich sense of mutation and replacement rather than an historical sense of events which are necessary or sufficient for causing subsequent times to be as they are.
Secularist evolutionary theories do contemplate the possibility of false starts. Secularist theories are sure to include an account of how one theory of social evolution can be misunderstood and so turned into a false start. Marx dismisses Christian socialism and Utopian socialism in this way. They miss the point, in the first instance, by thinking that socialism is a matter of the heart, and in the second instance, by thinking that the future is an isolated, geographically bounded place, when in fact socialism is the place to which world historical forces point. Darwin goes further, according to the historicist interpretation of Stephen Jay Gould, and allows many possible starts, many possible lines of development that not only were or became aborted, but that could have continued and created innumerable parallel histories that did not occur only because of one happenstance or another. Lizards could have come to rule the earth as birds; a different anthropoid could have become intelligent. Or is it that there is a line of development toward intelligence that must win out so that all other lines are either precursors or false starts? Darwinians are not as clear as the redactors are about where the fork took place and why the road that did not succeed failed.