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The Bible & History: The Tower of Babel

Genesis 11:1-9Open Link in New Window interrupts the genealogies of the generations of Noah with a short story giving the origins of humanity’s diverse number of languages. After the story concludes, Genesis picks up where it left off at the end of chapter 10 with the generations of Shem, which eventually leads up to the story of Abraham and Sarah. Because the Tower of Babel story oddly interrupts this list of generations and does not relate to what is happening before or after, it seems that a later editor unceremoniously threw it in there.

Nevertheless, the story comes from J, the same source behind the story of Adam and Eve in the Garden of Eden in Genesis 2Open Link in New Window and 3. Humanity is united in language and purpose and came together to build a tower that will reach up to heaven. This of course suggests that the authors thought that heaven was a physical location up in the sky that could be, in principle, reachable by a tower on Earth:

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.’  (Gen.11:4)

Yahweh realizes what is happening and confuses everyone’s language so that they can no longer understand each other and hence, no longer work together to build the tower:

The Lord came down to see the city and the tower, which mortals had built. 6And 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. 7Come, let us go down, and confuse their language there, so that they will not understand one another’s speech.’  (Gen.11:5-7)

The tower is left unfinished and the city named Babel because Yahweh confused their speech. The Hebrew word for “confused” is balel, but that’s not where Babel comes from. The name of the city is Bab-ilu, or “gate of God”, which is also known in Greek as Babylon. Most Babylonian cities had towers of the stepped pyramid variety, and these were called ziggurats. Fittingly, the elevation of these temples was supposed to signify closeness to heaven or the gods. At one time, a large ziggurat was partially constructed by a Sumerian king in Babylon but was left unfinished. This might have served as some inspiration for this story.

Perhaps unsurprisingly, the biblical story of the Tower of Babel has an earlier parallel in ancient Sumerian lore. Here, the god Enki (relating to Earth) becomes jealous because all of mankind is worshipping his rival, Enlil (relating to Air). This is possible because everyone speaks the same language. Enki confuses their speech, which creates divisions and eventually draws some people to begin worshipping Enki.

The jealousy displayed by the god Enki is not a particularly desirable trait. But then again, neither is the “fear” displayed by J’s Yahweh. In the story of Adam and Eve, Yahweh fears that mankind will become “like the gods” after they eat from the Tree of Knowledge. In the story of the Tower of Babel, Yahweh fears that, with a unified language, there will be no stopping what mankind can do. In both stories, Yahweh fears that man will become too powerful and too much like His council of gods. Here again we see a reference to this council when Genesis says, “Go to, let us go down, and there confound their language…” This story, like J’s other story, simply does not depict a god who is all-powerful or all-knowing. Consistent with J, the Tower of Babel shows a more primitive god who is fearful of His own creation and punishes them for it, much like how Enki punishes mankind out of jealousy of Enlil.

Like I mentioned at the beginning of this entry, where the story of The Tower of Babel was placed in Genesis does not make much sense. In the previous chapter, Genesis 10Open Link in New Window, we actually hear that each nation already had their own language three separate times:

The descendants of Javan: Elishah, Tarshish, Kittim, and Rodanim. 5From these the coastland peoples spread. These are the descendants of Japheth in their lands, with their own language, by their families, in their nations.  (Gen.10:4-5)

These are the descendants of Ham, by their families, their languages, their lands, and their nations.  (Gen.10:20)

These are the descendants of Shem, by their families, their languages, their lands, and their nations.  (Gen. 10:31Open Link in New Window)

Then all of a sudden we hear in Genesis 11Open Link in New Window that the whole Earth was of one language! This story is very much out of place. It seems like a much better fit for this story would be right after the description of the race of giants in Genesis 6Open Link in New Window: “The Nephilim were on the earth in those days—and also afterwards—when the sons of God went in to the daughters of humans, who bore children to them. These were the heroes that were of old, warriors of renown.” (Gen. 6:4Open Link in New Window). This would remain consistent with the ancient Mesopotamian stories of the god’s struggle to contain a race of powerful humans called the lullu. In Genesis 6:6Open Link in New Window, Yahweh repents that He had made these men, also known as “Nephilim”. If we insert the Tower of Babel story in here, then we would see that Yahweh first tries to control this race of men by confusing their language. When this doesn’t yield satisfactory results, Yahweh simply washes them away in the flood.

However, after a closer analysis, I believe that the Tower of Babel episode follows directly from J’s version of Noah’s flood. For a detailed explanation, see my companion article to this one: The Tower of Babel & The Multiplicity of Nations.

Historically, the purpose of this myth is to explain the diversity of language and culture that people in the ancient Near East encountered, rather than recount an actual event in history.

This page was last modified on November 13th, 2009 at 7:18 pm

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