BY FRANK SENGE KOLMA
THE story of the Tower of Babel at the start of the Bible has special significance for PNG, in a way.
God created disunity among humans by giving them different languages at Babel to confuse and dissuade them from building a tower to reach the heavens.
It is a quite different theme from much of what the Bible teaches about oneness, unity, and cooperation.
To have many languages such as in PNG is clearly a disunity factoring if we are to take the Babel narrative literally.
This, of course, is completely opposite to the catch phrase at our Independence which was: “unity in diversity”. The more precise cry ought to have been ‘unity despite diversity’. The experience shows it for what it really is and that is that there would be ‘Unity but for diversity’.
More on that shortly but let us first examine that story of the Tower of Babel as is given in the New Revised Bible version.
Genesis 11:1-9: “Now the whole earth had one language and the same words. And as they migrated from the east, they came upon a plain in the land of Shinar and settled there.
And they said to one another, ‘Come, let us make bricks, and burn them thoroughly.’ And they had brick for stone, and bitumen for mortar.
Then they said, ‘Come, let us build ourselves a city, and a tower with its top in the heavens, and let us make a name for ourselves; otherwise we shall be scattered abroad upon the face of the whole earth.’
The LORD came down to see the city and the tower, which mortals had built. And the LORD said, ‘Look, they are one people, and they have all one language; and this is only the beginning of what they will do; nothing that they propose to do will now be impossible for them.
Come, let us go down, and confuse their language there, so that they will not understand one another’s speech.’
So the LORD scattered them abroad from there over the face of all the earth, and they left off building the city.
Therefore it was called Babel, because there the LORD confused the language of all the earth; and from there the LORD scattered them abroad over the face of all the earth.”
We know what confusion that has caused and persists to this day.
Babel is Babylon and that empire persisted for hundreds of years during a part of which it took the people of God (Israel) into slavery as is related in another part of the Bible.
Babel, therefore, is not a favorite of the nation of Israel and so if the story of the Tower of Babel was written after the captivity and penned by a Jew, we can well understand why Yahweh God might have wanted the Babylon Empire to come crushing down.
But we are here concerned with verses 4-8 as they have a very great bearing upon this nation, our multitude of languages, and what lessons might be there for us.
These verses have humans agreeing to build a very tall building purportedly to reach the heavens. For whatsoever reason is, at this stage, not made clear.
But you wonder: Why not? Every human being has always wanted a high ground, a better vantage point, the better to see the surrounding environs and especially the approach of friend or foe before they turn up at the gate. And now we have the added reason of real estate value – to charge per square meter going up vertically as well as across horizontally.
In wanting to build the tower humans are united. They have a single voice in one language and they have a common purpose.
And curiously they seem here to foretell that if they do not work with one purpose they will be scattered,
They are not even challenging God at this stage.
But God reads their minds. He feels challenged and at this stage, seems even fearful of what humans could do, and so he scatters them to the ends of the world by the quite ingenious method of giving them different languages.
(As an aside and to the Bible scholars, it is interesting that God shows fear of man twice that I have seen in the good book – once in Eden when He forbids man the fruit from the tree of knowledge which could make him like God and have knowledge of good and evil and again at the Tower of Babel where He fears that if the tower reached the Heavens, He would be challenged.)
At the Tower of Babel confusion reigns. Unable to understand each other, conflicts results and divides the once cohesive team. Of course, the tower project is abandoned.
Now let’s come back home and apply the Tower of Babel tale to our own circumstances.
A quite clear but opposite picture emerges.
Confusion of the sort experienced by humankind immediately after the ‘strange tongues’ affliction wrought by God at Babel is the state you find our Papua New Guinea in at about the time of the first exploratory visits here by Europeans in the 1500s.
Throughout the length and breadth of the future Papua New Guinea, the Indonesian West Papua and spread across a vast expanse of the Pacific Ocean through the future Solomon Islands, Vanuatu and Fiji, a race of people emerge whose only claim to commonality is their skin color and the status of their human development.
They are divided into tribal groupings each with their own language and close knit family groups, basic hand to mouth existence, filled with superstition and the most basic rules of conduct and for security. PNG harbors the majority of these group.
Their boundaries expand or shrink depending upon their combined strength on the battlefield.
War is constant. Infanticide is practiced and weak and old people purged for greater mobility and for saving food for the young and healthy. Head hunting and flesh eating is practiced in parts. Women captives of war become wives of the victor.
They are hunters and gatherers in places, fisherman in maritime areas, and subsist on a slash-and-burn type of shifting agriculture and draining swamps for agriculture dating back to the earliest times.
All implements for agricultural production and weapons of war are made out of bone, shell, wood and stone.
Descendants of Babel expulsion
This is the state of Melanesia when the descendants of the Babel expulsion resident in Europe descend upon it.
Using superior technical and mechanical skills and accumulated knowledge, the European quickly and easily subjugates the divided tribes of Melanesia and submits them by force to his will, his King, his ways, his ideas and his God.
By and by, answering to the relentless march of the times the European withdraws to his original boundaries and hastily grants self-government and independence to those he has brought to heel. He forgets, perhaps conveniently, that the systems and ideas he leaves behind are his and not theirs.
Very quickly, as can be expected, the flimsy systems unravel amidst chaos in most places.
In Papua New Guinea, development is slow to get off the ground because by 1975, despite a full century of contact, most parts of the country is not connected via roads. The terrain prevents that and really nobody is pushing or gives two hoots. Education is basic and unavailable to all, especially females. It is tilted towards clerical office work rather than skills development and agricultural based which is practical and most needed. Technical skills training is scarce.
To make matters worse 1,000 different independent tribes, each with well-defined boundaries, languages, chiefs and security apparatus and socio-economic systems watch the proceedings with much interest, wondering what is in there for them.
Government for them represents an opportunity for them to receive something to bring back to the tribe not to contribute towards building a greater tribe. The concept of uniting and building a nation is distant yet.
Babel in reverse
We see here a reverse of the Tower of Babel situation in life action.
Here at Independence we are stricken with a multiplicity of languages before the call is made to build our tower called PNG.
We began nation-building with the curse of God upon us, so to speak.
As we struggle with so many different tongues and cultural differences to build we adopt the language of a foreign land which we do not really master as our national language. Small wonder confusion has been with us from day one.
The drive should be to call upon God Almighty to reverse his Babel curse, to grant us the one language and compulsion or at least unity and common purpose which is prerequisite to cohesive nation building.
But can God reverse His own curse?
Can He now strike us all of a sudden with a single tongue and a common purpose? How do we achieve that?
Questions to ponder while we await.
The Diaspora Principle next.