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The Confusion of Tongues

Analytical Introduction

The text of this treatise is Gen. xi. 1–9, which is given in full in the first section.

Philo begins by stating the objections which the sceptical critics had brought against the story. They had said that the project of building a tower to reach heaven was really the same as the Homeric myth of the Aloeidae (2–4), and had pointed out the absurdity of the idea (5). Secondly they had said that the story of the confusion of tongues was much the same as the fable that all animals originally understood each other’s language and lost the privilege by presumption (6–8), and though the story in Genesis was a little more rational, still the idea that the multiplication of languages would serve to prevent co-operation in sin was absurd (9–13). Philo will leave the literalists to answer these criticisms as they can. His own answer is to give an allegorical interpretation of the whole story (14–15).

By “one lip and one voice” Moses is indicating a “symphony” of evils, which is seen not only in the multitude, but in the individual (16), where it sometimes takes the form of the external calamities of fortune (16–20), but still more in the passions which beset the soul (21–22), of which the deluge story is an allegory (23–25), as also the alliance against Abraham (26), and the attack of the whole people of Sodom upon the angel visitors (27–28). The illustration

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The Confusion of Tongues

which follows leads to a meditation on the word “lip” (χεῖλος)a which also means “edge.” Moses met Pharoah on the “lip” of the river. The Egyptians lay dead on the “lip” of the sea (29–36), and since “lip” means speech, we may see in this death the silencing of convicted falsehood (37–38), though here a caution is needed. There are many unskilled in refuting falsehood and they can only do so with God’s help (39).

The “symphony” of evil suggests the “symphony” of good, and this appears in the words of the patriarchs “we are men of peace, sons of one man.” The one man is the Divine Logos, and only those who acknowledge him are men of peace, while the opposite creed of polytheism breeds discord (40–43). Yet this peace is also a war against the symphony of evil. This thought leads to an exposition of Jeremiah xv. 10, particularly of the description by the prophet of himself as a “man of war” (43–51), and hence to the “symphony” gained by the Captains who fought against Midian (52–57), and the highest of all symphonies, when Israel would “do and hear,” that is would do God’s will even before they heard the commandment (58–59).b

The next verse of the text is “as they march from the east (or “rising”) they found a plain in the land of Shinar (interpreted as shaking off) and dwelt there.” “Rising” and “shaking off” being applicable to good and ill lead to illustrations from other texts where these words occur (60–74). “Finding” suggests that the wicked actually seek evil (75), and

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DOI: 10.4159/DLCL.philo_judaeus-confusion_tongues.1932