Petroglyph National Monument

Petroglyphs along the Piedras Marcadas trail (Brad Lyons photo)
Petroglyphs along the Piedras Marcadas trail (Brad Lyons photo)

Petroglyph National Monument

– 1990 –
New Mexico


Now the whole earth had one language and the same words….  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. — Genesis 11:1, 4-9 (NRSV)

Along the western edge of Albuquerque sprawls a 17-mile-long mesa of gray igneous rock, evidence of the tectonic fracture 200,000 years ago that created the Rio Grande valley and mountains that tower over New Mexico’s largest city. More recently, in the 1300s, the mesa marked a major traveling route, a landmark for the Ancestral Pueblo people as they migrated and traded with their neighbors.

As we humans are apt to do, those traders left signs of their presence along the way. Etched into the dark gray crust of those boulders are drawings — an estimated 25,000 of them. Some dominate a rock face, others share the space and appear to tell a story. Some are clustered together, like pole signs along today’s highways advertising fast food or gasoline, while others stand alone.

It helps to have the imagination of a child to decipher the line-art drawings. Are they people? Warriors? Leaders? Heroes? Ancient selfies? Are they Spirits? Birds? Snakes? Turtles? Insects? The sun and moon? Holy symbols?

Beyond understanding what the image is intended to represent, the petroglyphs are a part of a larger picture. Unlike hieroglyphics, which have specific interpretations, petroglyphs have complex meanings to their inscribers. These aren’t randomly etched, either; the illustrations’ context adds meaning to those who understood the image’s intent, and sometimes those meanings were specific to the tribe or clan that left its mark as it passed, a coded message.

As much as we try to piece together a story or create our own symbolism for the different etchings, the descendants of the petroglyphs’ creators, those most likely to know the true meanings, say we’ll likely guess wrong and that it is inappropriate to reveal the meanings of some images. The true meanings of most of the petroglyphs may be lost to history or protected by those to whom their meanings are sacred.

These lost-to-history stories evoke the Tower of Babel, the tale early in Genesis that imagines why humans speak different languages and have difficulty understanding each other.

The Bible we read is an interpretation of an interpretation, probably several times over. Very few of us are able to read our holy texts in their original languages, so we rely on translations. Dozens of Biblical interpretations are at our fingertips on websites, each with its own linguistic style and preferences. Do you prefer you or thou? A portrayal of God that is beyond human understanding, or female or male or something else? Scripture written to advance the interpreter’s prerogative that aligns with your theological outlook? Each scripture has its own nuance, its own reason for existence.

Our individual understanding of faith may create entirely different understandings of the same religion. Within Christianity, there is Orthodox and Catholic and Protestant, and each of those have their own sects and denominations that disagree on some basic core tenets. Even our own congregations have varying viewpoints that can cause discord and division. Christianity’s divisions often have their roots in differing interpretations of the Bible, the story claimed as the foundation of our faith yet understood in so many other ways. Is there a single right way to read holy texts?

When you read the Bible, do you read it literally, as a story open to interpretation, or with another frame of mind? How does your interpretation affect your thinking when you use the Bible to guide your faith and decisions? How do you explain your understanding of scriptural interpretation to somebody who has a different approach?