The Tower of Babel: Did It Exist, and What Does the Story Mean?

Pieter Bruegel the Elder - The Tower of Babel, circa 1563-1565

The Tower of Babel is another biblical story that will be familiar to anyone with a typical Western religious upbringing. Like many of the narrative snippets found in the first eleven chapters of Genesis (the Primeval History), its brevity and ambiguous wording have led interpreters to fill in the gaps in all sorts of ways in order to squeeze meaning out of it.

As we read the text, there are a number of interesting questions we can ask. Was the Tower of Babel based on a real building? What message is the text trying to convey, both on its own and in context?

I’m also interested in the story’s application to the modern creationist movement. How much attention does the Tower of Babel get in the science-religion debate compared to the Genesis stories of creation and Noah’s flood?

A note on pronunciation and etymology

Before we get going, let me just note that the proper pronunciation of “Babel” in English is BAY-bull. It rhymes with stable and fable. It is not pronounced like the English word “babble”, although that is apparently becoming more common in the US. (Due to religious illiteracy, perhaps?)

And in case you were wondering (as I was), the English word “babble” is not derived from Babel. Its roots can be traced through Old English bæblian and the Germanic languages all the way back to Proto-Indo-European. Their similarity is a happy coincidence.

Gustave Doré, La confusion des langues, circa 1865-1868

Gustave Doré, La confusion des langues, circa 1865-1868

The text of Genesis 11:1–9

Let’s start with the barebones text of the story. The following is taken from the wonderful translation by the recently departed Edwin M. Good in Genesis 1–11: Tales of the Earliest World. Good has endeavoured to capture the meaning of the Hebrew without any theological preconceptions or reliance on previous English translations.

The whole Earth had one language and few words. And it happened, as they were wandering in the east, and they found a valley in the land of Shin‘ar, and they settled there. And they said to one another, “Come on, let’s make bricks and burn them hard.” And they had bricks for stone and pitch served them as mortar. And they said, “Come on, let’s build ourselves a city and a tower with its top in Sky, and let’s make a name for ourselves, lest we be scattered all over Earth.” And Yahweh came down to see the city and the tower which the humans had built. And Yahweh said, “Look, it’s one people and they all have one language, and this is only the beginning of what they will do. And now nothing they intend to do will be impossible for them. Come on, let’s go down and ‘confuse’ their language there, so that no one will be able to understand what another says.” And Yahweh scattered them from there all across Earth, and they stopped building the city. Therefore its name is called Babel, because there Yahweh ‘confused’ the language of the whole Earth. And Yahweh scattered them from there all across Earth.

The story stands very well on its own without dependence on the narrative that comes before or after. The feel that one is reading a work of pure mythology is quite strong. It is a story of the First People and the First City, not set in any specific historical period and not based on any historical reality. It exists in its own mythic world like the story of Cain, who is supposedly one of only three people alive yet finds a wife and founds a city.

Who is it about?

The whole Earth had one language and few words.

The story starts by telling us the whole world had one language, and that “they were wandering in the east” (or “from the east”—the grammar is unclear). Who are they? All the people of the world, it would seem. This is fine until we put the story in its larger context. Just prior to the Babel story is the Table of Nations in chapter 10, which describes how the descendants of Noah branched out to become the seventy nations of the world, all with their own languages! And then chapter 11 suddenly resets everything and we’re dealing with the ancestral tribe of all humankind, who settle in the land of Shinar (Babylon). These stories are quite unreconcilable, and it is striking that the compiler of Genesis had no qualms about putting them side-by-side. They are not connected by narrative or chronology, but by topic.

What many people also fail to notice, it seems to me, is that this story establishes Babylon as the cradle of all humanity, including the Israelites. I’ll come back to this idea later.

Who doesn’t appear in this story? Nimrod, the mighty hero who founds Babel and several other cities in Genesis 10, is not mentioned here — nor any king, for that matter. Later Jewish and Christian interpreters (beginning with Philo and Josephus) made Nimrod out to be the main villain of the Tower of Babel story, but that’s not in the text.

What is their plan?

“Come on, let’s make bricks and burn them hard.”

First, the people decide to make some bricks. Once they have the bricks, they decide to build a city and a tower. This is a rather odd order to do things in! You would expect them to plan the city first, and then to make the bricks. One literary parallel that might explain it is the Babylonian creation epic Enuma Elish, which describes the building of the ziggurat Apsu by the gods in that order.

Their purpose for building the city and the tower is twofold: to become famous, and to avoid being scattered. It’s not clear what fame would entail in a world where no one else exists. The conjunction lest is also a puzzle. How does becoming famous prevent the people from scattering? That aside, we must note that the people haven’t done anything wrong, despite the way the story is often interpreted. There is nothing intrinsically evil about fame or wanting to live in a city – indeed, fame is a positive reward promised by Yahweh to others in the Bible, notably Abraham in a passage not much further along.

The common idea that they are trying to supplant or attack God (which goes at least as far back as Philo) by building a tower all the way to heaven is unwarranted. It is true that the ancients thought of heaven as a physical vault that could be reached if one climbed high enough, but the expression used here (“a tower with its top in the sky”) is apparently a stock phrase that just means “very tall”, and is used that way elsewhere in the Bible (e.g. Deut. 1:28). (See Hiebert, “The Tower of Babel”, JBL 126.1, Spring 2007, pp. 37–38.)

Those who wish to see a nefarious scheme behind the building of the city and its tower must work hard to import new meaning that isn’t obvious from the text itself.

What is Yahweh’s involvement?

And Yahweh came down to see the city and the tower which the humans had built.

Yahweh is depicted in the same charming, “primitive” way he is in the Eden story, as he descends from the sky to see what the earthlings are getting up to. This is not the omniscient god of later Christian theologians and philosophers, for as Philip Sherman (Babel’s Tower Translated, p. 35) puts it:

Yahweh, not unlike many deities in the ancient Near East, appears as a curious god who must be on-scene if he wishes to be informed about human activities. A similar situation occurs in the narrative of the Garden of Eden when Yahweh seems unclear as to the whereabouts of Adam and Eve (Gen 3:9) or in the account of Cain and Able [sic] as Yahweh enquires of Cain as to his brother’s location (Gen 4:9). It is possible to see here an image of a deity who is not in complete control of the human situation.

Yahweh also uses the first-person plural pronoun and discusses his observations with others (fellow gods, one could assume) as in the Eden story.

Yahweh doesn’t like what he sees, but it’s not the people’s hubris that vexes him (as some think), nor is he personally threatened by the city and its tower. His reason is more interesting than that: the people are too competent. Humanity has one language, and this city is just the beginning of the things they will accomplish.

It is strikingly similar to the Eden story, in which Adam’s acquisition of knowledge prompts Yahweh to complain that “he has become like one of us, knowing good and evil” (Gen 3:22), and must be banished from the garden lest he become immortal as well.

Confusion and dispersal

“Come on, let’s go down and ‘confuse’ their language…”

Yahweh’s solution to humankind’s city-building endeavours is also somewhat odd. Speaking to his divine companions, he proposes that they confuse the language of the people so they cannot understand each other. But what Yahweh actually does upon descending is to scatter the people all across the earth by some means. Are the language confusion and dispersal two separate actions? Does Yahweh think that linguistic confusion alone would be unreliable? At any rate, the plan works, and the story becomes an aetiology for how different nations and languages came about.

We also have some wordplay here. The name of the city is given as Babel, because there Yahweh “confused” (Hebrew balel) the language of all the earth. Clever folk etymologies are common throughout the Old Testament and obviously not literally true. Babel (the Hebrew name for Babylon) comes from Akkadian Babilu, meaning “gate of the god” — a reference to the chief Babylonian deity Marduk (Bel).

Marten van Valckenborch, The Tower of Babel, circa 1600

Marten van Valckenborch, The Tower of Babel, circa 1600

Historical allusions in the story

There is widespread agreement among Old Testament scholars that the tower in the story is a reference to the great Babylonian ziggurat Etemenanki, which was devoted to Marduk and whose name means “House of the Foundation Platform of Heaven and Earth”. This was long suspected on the basis of a description given by the Greek historian Herodotus, who described an enormous tower-temple in Babylon in the 5th century BCE:

In the middle of the [sacred precinct of Jupiter Belus] there was a tower of solid masonry, a furlong in length and breadth, upon which was raised a second tower, and on that a third, and so on up to eight. The ascent to the top is on the outside, by a path which winds round all the towers. When one is about half-way up, one finds a resting-place and seats, where persons can sit for some time on their way to the summit. On the topmost tower there is a spacious temple, and inside the temple stands a couch of unusual size, richly adorned, with a golden table by its side. There is no statue of any kind set up in the place, nor is the chamber occupied of nights by any one but a single native woman, who, as the Chaldeans, the priests of this god, affirm, is chosen for himself by the deity out of all the women of the land. (Histories 1.181)

The existence of the tower and its similarities to the biblical story were confirmed by later archaeological finds. No one knows exactly when it was first built, but the earliest reference to it comes from the Erra Epic, dated to 765 BCE. Nabopolassar (658–605 BCE) started restoration work on the tower after founding the Neo-Babylonian empire, and Nebuchadnezzar II (605-562) undertook a major construction project to make Etemenanki the most magnificent structure in the empire.

It’s not known for certain what happened to Etemenanki. Current scholarship suggests that the Persian king Xerxes I (485–465) had the staircase destroyed due to uprisings by Babylonian usurpers. (Without the staircase, the tower could not serve as a defensive fortress.) It gradually fell into ruin until the site was cleared by Alexander the Great, who intended to rebuild it.

A computer-generated model of how Etemenanki may have appeared

A computer-generated model of how Etemenanki may have appeared (source: Babylon 3D. Used with permission.)

Babylonian inscriptions

Several cylinder inscriptions by Nebuchadnezzar II that were originally embedded in the tower’s foundation have been recovered by archaeologists. These describe the marshalling of multiethnic armies of corvée labour, the baking and glazing of bricks, and the import of bitumen (pitch). It is interesting that they focus on some of the same physical details the biblical story does.

Also of interest is the so-called “Tower of Babel Stele”, which includes a diagram of the tower and text that reads:

Nebuchadnezzar, King of Babylon am I. In order to complete E-temen-anki and E-ur-me-imin-anki, I mobilized all countries everywhere, each and every ruler who had been raised to prominence over all the people of the world…The base I filled in to make a high terrace. I built their structures with bitumen and baked brick throughout. I completed it, raising its top to the Heaven, making it gleam bright as the sun.

Again, the use of baked bricks and bitumen and the hyperbole about its top reaching heaven are details repeated in Genesis 11. Many scholars thus date some version of the biblical tale to the 6th or 5th century BCE, when many Jews lived in Babylon and may have even been employed in building the tower.

To give an example of how large the structure was, I whipped up the following diagram:

Etemenanki Size Comparison (Is That in the Bible Blog)

Literary connections

It is frequently stated that the Tower of Babel story lacks clear connections to other ancient texts, unlike the Creation and Flood stories. However, Russell Gmirkin has written a remarkable book on the affinities between Genesis and the early-3rd-century BCE writings of Berossus, a Babylonian priest of Marduk who compiled a history of Babylon in Greek (the Babyloniaca), and whose work would have been available to Jewish scribes in Alexandria around the time Gmirkin proposes that Genesis was written. On the topic of the Babel story, Gmirkin notes that, not only does Berossus extensively describe Babylon itself and the temple of Bel-Marduk, his account has important elements in common with Genesis 11:

…The Berossan account of the city of Babylon is unique among Classical Era authors in one important respect, namely, the great antiquity of the city. …the city of Babylon was said to have only been founded under Semiramis according to all sources other than Berossus. Berossus claimed that Bel-Marduk constructed the city of Babylon (and the temple of Bel) at the time of earth’s creation, following Enuma Elish.

…Berossus recorded that the first king of the pre-flood world ruled out of Babylon. After the flood destroyed Mesopotamia, the deluge survivors were instructed first of all to resettle Babylon and afterwards to restore the cities and temples of Babylonia. While the interest that the author of Gen 11:1-9 displayed in the architectural wonders of Babylon was paralleled by many Classical Era authors, a specific temporal setting in the generation following the flood was only found in Berossus and in the cuneiform sources on which he drew. (Gmirkin 123–124)

Part of the difficulty lies in the fact that Babyloniaca has only been preserved in piecemeal quotations (and quotations of quotations) from later authors; the work does not survive in its entirety, making direct comparisons difficult. However, we might be able to go even further than Gmirkin does. Many decades ago, German scholar P. Schnabel reconstructed an outline of Berossus’s text on the founding of the Marduk temple based on citations and references in Pseudo-Eupolemus and Hyginus. This outline goes as follows:

  1. Bel (Marduk) the creator god together with the first people constructed the wall of Babylon, its temple complex, and its temple-tower (Etemenanki).
  2. Under Bel’s rule, the people were monolingual and united in one city.
  3. The god Nabu, who invented writing, taught the people various languages — apparently out of jealousy toward Bel — and this resulted in conflict.

Genesis 11 obviously has key theological differences (particularly Yahweh’s motivation for introducing language, which is not the result of divine rivalry), yet most of the narrative ingredients are there. Babylon as the first city with a great tower, home of the first people with one language until the meddling of the gods introduces multiplicity of languages. (Schnabel, Berossus und die babylonisch-hellenistische Literatur, 1923, 92–93. See also Daniel I. Bock, “The Role of Language in Ancient Israelite Perceptions of National Identity”, JBL 103.3, Sept. 1984, 336.)

Lucas van Valckenborch, Construction de la Tour de Babel (1595)

Lucas van Valckenborch, Construction de la Tour de Babel (1595)

Babel and Jewish origins

Many scholars draw a dividing line between the Primeval History and the rest of Genesis, but I’m not so sure that is necessary. If we look at the material topically, the Tower of Babel story is followed by Abram’s genealogy and then a collection of folktales about Abram (Abraham). Where is Abram, father of all the Israelites, from in the Genesis tradition? From Babylonia — Ur of the Chaldeans, to be exact, named for the Chaldean dynasty that rose to power in Babylonia around 600 BCE. Surely, it is topically relevant that two stories presented back-to-back both place Israel’s origins in Babylonia.

In the Genesis story, Abram moves from Ur to Haran, and then to Canaan, to claim the Promised Land on behalf of all Israel. These places are not random names drawn from a hat to give Abram a plausible-sounding backstory. Furthermore, Abram’s father is named Terah, which seems to have been a city in Aram (Syria), and both Haran and Nahor (Abram’s brothers) double as place names from that  region. Abram’s family tree is geographical in function.

What is the significance of these names? A common argument (put forward by Good, for example, on p. 112) to explain Abram’s starting-point in Ur is that the text is calling on the post-exilic Jews in Babylon to follow in Abram’s footsteps and return to Palestine.

Garbini (1986), whose ideas are always fascinating, notes that these names place Abram territorially and chronologically in Mesopotamia at the time of Nabonidus — the last Neo-Babylonian king, and a “fervent adherent of the cult of the moon god Sin” whose most important sanctuaries were in Ur and Haran, and whose mixed ethnic background was Aramean and Chaldean (“Nabonidus”, ABD). Garbini argues that placing references to Nabonidus and his politics in the Abram narrative were a way for the Judean exiles to establish a native claim to their new country and create a link with the king under whom they flourished. Nabonidus is portrayed favourably in other Jewish works, notably the Prayer of Nabonidus found at Qumran (and on which the story of Nebuchadnezzar’s madness in Daniel seems to be based). Similarly, many of the oracles of Ezekiel, written a bit earlier during the exile, explicitly support the political efforts of Nebuchadnezzar and condemn his opponents in Tyre and Egypt, while Second Isaiah promotes the ideology of the Persian kings it was written under.

My (admittedly speculative) suggestion, then, is that the Tower of Babel story could function in a similar manner, affirming an ancient Babylonian pedigree for the Jews while gently mocking the great city and its ziggurat — particularly since Nabonidus and the Persian rulers who followed him were opposed to the Marduk cult in Babylon and ultimately destroyed the tower.

James Tissot, Building the Tower of Babel, c. 1896-1902

James Tissot, Building the Tower of Babel, c. 1896-1902

Babel and linguistic “creationism”

One of the theological difficulties with the Primeval History in Genesis is that if the stories are understood literally, then they make testable scientific claims about the past. And boy do they fail those tests.

It is important to emphasize that few theologians interpret Genesis literally these days. The biggest Christian denominations worldwide embrace science — particularly the Catholic church. However, fundamentalist Evangelical Christianity is another matter. Fierce debate is waged in church pews and religious colleges (particularly in the United States) between science and various flavours of creationism. A literal reading of the opening chapters of Genesis is non-negotiable for many Christians; without it, elaborate doctrines of Original Sin and atonement honed by Medieval theologians would collapse. But if the universe, humans, plants and animals were created in their present forms over a six-day period on or about the year 4,000 BC (a date arrived at through biblical genealogies), then everything science has discovered about biology, evolution, astronomy, and geology is wrong despite all appearances to the contrary.

For many, the story of Noah’s Flood is also non-negotiable as a historical event. It has led to a field of pseudo-science called “flood geology” — the invention of Seventh Day Adventist George McCready Price. (And it should be noted that modern young-earth creationism is in large part due to the teachings of Adventist founder Ellen White.) Noah’s flood has become the go-to explanation for dismissing the most obvious geological difficulties with creationism — the geological column, dinosaur fossils, erosion canyons, and so on.

The Babel story, if taken literally, also makes claims about the past: namely, that everyone on earth lived in Babylon around the year 2242 BCE (using Ussher’s chronology), and that the world’s languages are a result of divine intervention at that time. However, linguistics seems to be a much more low-key issue than evolution — likely because the field is much more obscure among non-specialists. In fact, I didn’t know anyone at all was promoting “Babel linguistics” until I dug around a bit. The US’s most outspoken creationist outfit, Answers in Genesis, has just one article on their website attempting to promote Babel linguistics (based on little other than Genesis). Their in-house creationist publication, Answers Research Journal, also has an article about potential locations for Babel, which it insists would be the oldest ruins in the world. (The existence of earlier civilizations elsewhere would contradict the biblical story.) The Institute for Creation Research also has a handful of articles affirming the Babel story but with no arguments of interest. Reasons to Believe has one article on the subject; in keeping with their “old-earth” Creationist position, they think the Babel story happened about 35,000 years ago (which makes no sense within the biblical context). The Discovery Institute has just one page I could find discussing Babel and languages; as is typical of their rhetorical tactics, they pooh-pooh mainstream linguistics but refuse to provide their own ideas of how languages emerged. The editors of Creation Wiki (yeah, that exists) think that Eblaite is the oldest written language and was therefore the original pre-Babel tongue. (In fact, there are far older examples from around the world.)

Babel linguistics, in fact, has quite an old pedigree. The earliest European scholars to theorize about languages during the Middle Ages and the Renaissance assumed that all languages had come from Babylon. Typically, it was held that Hebrew as the “language of God” must have been the pure, uncorrupted Adamic language spoken before Babel. Such views were still commonplace in the 16th century when serious linguistic studies began to be published, but were increasingly abandoned as knowledge grew. After dispensing with Babel, linguists attempted to classify languages in terms of Noah’s descendants — describing them as Semitic from Shem, Hamitic from Ham, or Japhetic from Japheth. By around the 18th century though, even this was abandoned, as linguists developed better tools for comparing languages and tracing their ancestry.

Bibliography

  • Edwin M. Good, Genesis 1–11: Tales of the Earliest World.
  • Theodore Hiebert, “The Tower of Babel”, Journal of Biblical Literature 126.1, Spring 2007.
  • Phillip Michael Sherman, Babel’s Tower Translated: Genesis 11 and Ancient Jewish Interpretation (BI 117).
  • Russell E. Gmirkin, Berossus and Genesis, Manetho and Exodus: Hellenistic Histories and the Date of the Pentateuch (LHB/OTS 433).
  • P. Schnabel, Berossus und die babylonisch-hellenistische Literatur.
  • Daniel I. Bock, “The Role of Language in Ancient Israelite Perceptions of National Identity”, Journal of Biblical Literature 103.3, Sept 1984
  • GIovanni Garbini, History and Ideology in Ancient Israel.

10 thoughts on “The Tower of Babel: Did It Exist, and What Does the Story Mean?

  1. Great post! The story does seem to imply that YHWH was opposed to human progress doesn’t it? But I guess that would comport with the Fundamentalist view of the value of human research and learning.

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    • Thanks for the comment, Lonnie. Yeah, it’s interesting that humans, first with Adam and then with Babel, have to be restrained from obtaining knowledge and abilities that rival God’s. Very Promethean.

      It also reminds me of the SF novel “Lord of Light”, in which elite humans with ultra-advanced life-prolonging technology pose as Hindu gods and wipe out human civilization every few thousand years — whenever the flush-toilet gets invented.

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  2. Speaking of confusion, did you notice the contradiction between vv. 5 and 8? I’ll use Good’s translation, since you use it above, but other reputable translations, like the NRSV and JPS Tanakh, read similarly:

    And Yahweh came down to see the city and the tower which the humans had built. And Yahweh said, “Look, it’s one people and they all have one language, and this is only the beginning of what they will do. And now nothing they intend to do will be impossible for them. Come on, let’s go down and ‘confuse’ their language there, so that no one will be able to understand what another says.” And Yahweh scattered them from there all across Earth, and they stopped building the city.

    How could the people stop building a city which a previous verse says was already built? The Hebrew word used in verse 5 expresses a completed action. You can view the interlinear: http://biblehub.com/interlinear/genesis/11-5.htm.

    11:5 is also a verse you can add to your NIV-mistranslations page, because that “translation” renders the Hebrew “were building,” obviously to avoid conflict with verse 8.

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    • Good observation, John. You’re probably right about the NIV’s choice of verb tenses. I guess you could argue that even when a city is “built”, it’s never finished, but there is some ambiguity in the story as to whether scattering the people interrupted their plans mid-progress or not.

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