Biblical Account of the Tower of Babel
Genesis 11:1-9 (NASB)
1 Now the whole earth used the same language and the same words.
2 It came about as they journeyed east, that they found a plain in the land of Shinar and settled there.
3 They said to one another, “Come, let us make bricks and burn them thoroughly.” And they used brick for stone, and they used tar for mortar.
4 They said, “Come, let us build for ourselves a city, and a tower whose top will reach into heaven, and let us make for ourselves a name, otherwise we will be scattered abroad over the face of the whole earth.”
5 The Lord came down to see the city and the tower which the sons of men had built.
6 The Lord said, “Behold, they are one people, and they all have the same language. And this is what they began to do, and now nothing which they purpose to do will be impossible for them.
7 “Come, let Us go down there and confuse their language, so that they will not understand one another’s speech.”
8 So the Lord scattered them abroad from there over the face of the whole earth; and they stopped building the city.
9 Therefore its name was called Babel, because there the Lord confused the language of the whole earth; and from there the Lord scattered them abroad over the face of the whole earth.
Genesis 11:1-9 (BHS)
1 וַֽיְהִ֥י כָל־הָאָ֖רֶץ שָׂפָ֣ה אֶחָ֑ת וּדְבָרִ֖ים אֲחָדִֽים׃
2 וַֽיְהִ֖י בְּנָסְעָ֣ם מִקֶּ֑דֶם וַֽיִּמְצְא֥וּ בִקְעָ֛ה בְּאֶ֥רֶץ שִׁנְעָ֖ר וַיֵּ֥שְׁבוּ שָֽׁם׃
3 וַיֹּאמְר֞וּ אִ֣ישׁ אֶל־רֵעֵ֗הוּ הָ֚בָה נִלְבְּנָ֣ה לְבֵנִ֔ים וְנִשְׂרְפָ֖ה לִשְׂרֵפָ֑ה וַתְּהִ֨י לָהֶ֤ם הַלְּבֵנָה֙ לְאָ֔בֶן וְהַ֣חֵמָ֔ר הָיָ֥ה לָהֶ֖ם לַחֹֽמֶר׃
4 וַיֹּאמְר֞וּ הָ֣בָה׀ נִבְנֶה־לָּ֣נוּ עִ֗יר וּמִגְדָּל֙ וְרֹאשֹׁ֣ו בַשָּׁמַ֔יִם וְנַֽעֲשֶׂה־לָּ֖נוּ שֵׁ֑ם פֶּן־נָפ֖וּץ עַל־פְּנֵ֥י כָל־הָאָֽרֶץ׃
5 וַיֵּ֣רֶד יְהוָ֔ה לִרְאֹ֥ת אֶת־הָעִ֖יר וְאֶת־הַמִּגְדָּ֑ל אֲשֶׁ֥ר בָּנ֖וּ בְּנֵ֥י הָאָדָֽם׃
6 וַיֹּ֣אמֶר יְהוָ֗ה הֵ֣ן עַ֤ם אֶחָד֙ וְשָׂפָ֤ה אַחַת֙ לְכֻלָּ֔ם וְזֶ֖ה הַחִלָּ֣ם לַעֲשׂ֑וֹת וְעַתָּה֙ לֹֽא־יִבָּצֵ֣ר מֵהֶ֔ם כֹּ֛ל אֲשֶׁ֥ר יָזְמ֖וּ לַֽעֲשֽׂוֹת׃
7 הָ֚בָה נֵֽרְדָ֔ה וְנָבְלָ֥ה שָׁ֖ם שְׂפָתָ֑ם אֲשֶׁר֙ לֹ֣א יִשְׁמְע֔וּ אִ֖ישׁ שְׂפַ֥ת רֵעֵֽהוּ׃
8 וַיָּ֨פֶץ יְהוָ֥ה אֹתָ֛ם מִשָּׁ֖ם עַל־פְּנֵ֣י כָל־הָאָ֑רֶץ וַֽיַּחְדְּל֖וּ לִבְנֹ֥ת הָעִֽיר׃
9 עַל־כֵּ֞ן קָרָ֤א שְׁמָהּ֙ בָּבֶ֔ל כִּי־שָׁ֛ם בָּלַ֥ל יְהוָ֖ה שְׂפַ֣ת כָּל־הָאָ֑רֶץ וּמִשָּׁם֙ הֱפִיצָ֣ם יְהוָ֔ה עַל־פְּנֵ֖י כָּל־הָאָֽרֶץ׃ פ
What’s wrong with building a tower?
The typical evangelical explanation for why God had to stop the building of the tower was because mankind wanted to be like Satan and exalt themselves over the Lord. This reading is not without merit, however, it does not capture the ancient context of the passage. I would also suggest that the “fall of Satan” from Isaiah 14 has nothing to do with Satan. If anything, it’s a Hellenistic interpretation of Isaiah’s oracle. The real reason why the tower must be stopped is rooted in the following phrases:
whose top will reach into heaven (v3)
The Lord came down (v 5)
Come, let Us go down (v 7)
There are two themes that the modern reader will likely miss in these 3 phrases. The first is that the realm of the deities is in the heavens, located directly above the earth. It was their celestial kingdom. This not to say that a belief in gods, on or below the earth, did not also exist. Tiamat was the goddess of the water or the deep, alluded to in the creation narrative with Tehom. Note that Tehom in Hebrew (תְה֑וֹם) has no definite article and is almost definitly being used as a name reference. The title should evoke an image from the Enuma Elish epic from Babylon, Tiamat or Tehom, is destroyed by wind. In Babylonian mythology it’s the breath/wind of Marduk. In the Bible its the breath of God that tames the watery deep.
Nevertheless, the deities that are considered “good” by most ancient accounts reside in the heavens and they control the workings of the natural phenomenon, such as sun light, moon light, star movement, wind, rain, etc. Man and the fallen deities inhabit the earth.
In ancient literature, including the Bible, gods descended to the earth, in order to meet with mankind via a mountain. Inversely, man could become closer to the gods by ascending a mountain. This is seen in action while reading the Sinai accounts with Moses and the Israelites.
The Lord descended to the top of Mount Sinai and called Moses to the top of the mountain. So Moses went up…(Exodus 19:20)
This is, perhaps, one reason why the ancient Samarians built their places of worship in “high places” as the Bible depicts (1 Kings 3:2–3; 12:32; Num 33:52; Deut 12:2–3; Ezekiel 16:16). In other literature the gods don’t descend via the mountains, they actually live on the mountain. Jerusalem, God’s chosen city, was refereed to as Mount Zion. However, it’s elevation was a minuscule 2,500 feet above sea level, whereas Mount Sinai was over 7,000 feet above sea level. Hence why Sinai (or Horeb) was called הַר הָאֱלֹהִים, “the mountain of the gods”. A mountain that could touch the clouds was indeed considered either a home for the gods, or a portal between the two realms.
In 1 Enoch it’s said that the Nephilim came from the heavens to the Earth by descending Mount Hermon.
And they were in all two hundred; who descended in the days of Jaredon the summit of Mount Hermon (1 Enoch 6:6)
In the Exodus narratives, the mountain of God is imagery is heavily drawn upon. In the Song of Moses, Yahweh’s dwelling in on a mountain.
“Who is like You, O Lord, among the gods?
Who is like You, glorious in holiness,
Fearful in praises, doing wonders?
12 You stretched out Your right hand;
The earth swallowed them.
13 You in Your mercy have led forth
The people whom You have redeemed;
You have guided them in Your strength
To Your holy habitation.
17 You will bring them in and plant them
In the mountain of Your inheritance,
In the place, O Lord, which You have made
For Your own dwelling,
The sanctuary, O Lord, which Your hands have established.
(Exodus 15:11-13, 17)
In other places we see Yahweh descending to the mountain.
Mount Sinai was covered with smoke, because the LORD descended on it in fire. The smoke billowed up from it like smoke from a furnace, and the whole mountain trembled violently. (Exodus 19:18)
The Ugaritic texts also spoke of mountain dwelling gods. Both El and Baal dwelt in tents on a mountain. Stories are told about meetings held at the tents.
Then she (‘Elat) set her face,
Toward ‘El at the sources of the two rivers,
In the midst of the fountains of the double-deep.
She opened the domed tent (?)L43 of ‘El and entered,
The tabernacle 144 of King, Father of Years,
Before ‘El she bowed and fell,
She did obeisance and honored him
In another instance messengers are sent to El’s mountain from Yaam, the Canaanite sea deity.
Then the two set their faces
Toward the mountain of El,
Toward the gathered council.
Indeed the gods were sitting at table,
The sons of QudSu(-‘El) at banquet,
Ba’l stands by (enthroned) ‘El.‘
Especially in the Canaanite religions, due to the many hills and mountains, the mythical mountain gods were abundant. Joshua 3:3 reports of five cities that were not conquered by the initial invasion of Canaan. While describing the location of the cities the author references Mount Baal Hermon, which was a mountain in northern Canaan which was said to be the mountain in which Baal lived. Mount Zaphon is referenced by Isaiah as the location of El (compare to the Ugaritic mythology) and even speaks of the divine council meeting there.
You said in your heart,
“I will ascend to the heavens;
I will raise my throne
above the stars of God;
I will sit enthroned on the mount of assembly,
on the utmost heights of Mount Zaphon.
14 I will ascend above the tops of the clouds;
I will make myself like the Most High.”
In Genesis 11 the tower of Babel is a man made mountain. The gods controlled the mountains. However, mankind controlled the tower. This was a problem for the deities. This is why the Lord said, “let us go down“. The notion that the deities would be afraid of mankind is strictly a non-Jewish concept. Yet, every culture of the Levant would have been familiar with the other creation myths, in which the gods were afraid of mankind or regretted making them. Elements of this ancient concept is also found in Genesis 3:22, when God blocks off the tree of life from his creation.
The man has now become like one of us, knowing good and evil. He must not be allowed to reach out his hand and take also from the tree of life and eat, and live forever. (Genesis 3:22)
God was not just upset that His creation disobeyed Him, but that creation is now capable of evil would live forever, as the gods do. Also notice in Genesis 3:22 when God says “the man has now become like one of us“, that God is speaking of the divine council, the heavenly hosts. This also shows up in Genesis 11:7 when God says “come, let us go down“. These are not mistakes in grammar. Only the Divine council were allowed to live forever. This belief, as well as the belief that one could climb to the heavens is found in the Epic of Gilgamesh.
Who can climb to the heavens and become immortal? Only a member of the Divine Assembly live forever. (Gilgamesh Tablet III)
However, Gilgamesh was not just concerned with immortality but with the fact that he could die without having made a name for himself and his progeny. The Gilgamesh Epic closely parallels the concern of the builders of the tower. In the Gilgamesh narrative, Gilgamesh and his friend Enkidu set out to cut down the forbidden trees from the Cedar Forest, in Lebanon. This Cedar Forest was guarded by an ogre named Humbaba. When Gilgamesh and his friend Enkidu discuss the possibility of being killed by Humbaba Gilgamesh becomes concerned that he might die as a nobody and be remembered among his progeny as a fool. But how does a mortal cut down the trees that reside in the forest belonging to the gods? They do it by force! They storm the forest.
Should I fall, I shall have made me a name:
‘Gilgamesh’—they will say—against fierce Huwawa
Has fallen!’ (Long) after
My offspring has been born in my house,”
“[Thus calling] to me, thou hast grieved my heart.
[My hand] I will poise
And [will fe]ll the cedars.
A [name] that endures I will make for me!
(Pritchard, Old Babylonian Gilgamesh version, Tablet IV, ANET)
I will conquer him in the Cedar Forest!
How strong is the offspring of Uruk
I will cause the lands to hear!
My hand I will poise and will fell the cedars,
A name that endures I will make for me!
(Pritchard, Old Babylonian Gilgamesh version, Tablet V, ANET)
Like Gilgamesh storming the Cedar Forest, the biblical narrative of the tower depicts a possible storming of the heavens. The tower was a way that man could strive for immortality, make a great name for themselves, and possibly even storm the heavens and take immortality by force. The tower was seen in the ANE as a link between heaven and earth; between the gods and the creation; between mortality and immortality.
The great Ziggurats of the Sumerian culture were built specifically with the intention that it would be used by the gods as a place to visit, rest, and even decent to the earth. They often had a single room on the top of the tower which would have a bead and dining table set with food. The towers were also named descriptive of their functions. One in Babylon was named “Temple of the stairway to pure heaven”. Another one at Larsa was called “Temple that links heaven and earth”.
Other parts of the Genesis tower narrative are also taken from ANE folklore. Such ideas as the heavenly deities being bothered by or afraid of creation beings. In Babylonian mythology, the gods are bothered by the noise created by humans on the earth. They are also afraid of natural events like the waters of the deluge. In Egyptian mythology, Ra is afraid of mankind’s plotting against him and intends to kill the humans. The gods of the ancient near east were not like the almighty Yahweh, which we see in the later Hebrew writings. They were impulsive, emotive, and sought to keep mankind in check; some gods being charitable towards mankind and some wanting to inhibit them.
In the biblical narrative, we see traces of the “fearful” god(s) motif. In the garden, the gods fear that mankind will be wicked live forever. But what is the fear of the tower about? In Babel, the gods are afraid that a united mankind might ascend to the abode of the deities (as described in Isaiah 14:14). We also see that Yahweh is not yet being ascribed the powers of omniscience or omnipresence. In both, the viewing and scattering of the people, God had to leave the heavens and “go down” to the earth.
The Lord came down to see the city and the tower ….
Come, let Us go down there and confuse their language
Could the Lord not inspect the tower from His heavenly abode? Could He not see all things? Could He not just speak and have the people scattered? It seems clear that this story was likely poached and redacted from Akkadian or Babylonian literature. Even the name of the city “Babel” is an Akkadian name (Bāb-ilim) which means “gate of the gods”. It would seem that the pre-Israelite version of this story was not completely hidden when the Jewish redactors formed it for biblical use.
The last ancient theme in this story is also related to city’s name, Bablel. The meaning of the Hebrew name is to make incoherent noises. Interestingly, in Akkadian and Babylonian mythology, it’s the noises of mankind that lead the deities to send the flood to wipe them out. This is also the very next stage in the Genesis narrative.
Parallel from Akkadian
(The thoughts) of his heart were evil.
…… The father of all the gods he turned from.
(The thoughts) of his heart were evil.
…… Babylon corruptly to sin went and
small and great mingled on the mound.
Babylon corruptly to sin went and
small and great mingled on the mound.
Their work all day they founded,
to their stronghold in the night
entirely an end he made.
In his anger also the secret counsel he poured out,
to scatter abroad his face he set,
he gave command to make strange their speech,
their progress he impeded
(Translation by Chad W. St. Boscawen)
Smith, George. The Chaldean Account of Genesis . London: Elibron Classics, 2005.
Smith, Justin A. “Studies in Archæology and Comparative Religion. VI. Nationality and Empire.” The Old Testament Student 4, no. 3 (1884): 105-13. http://www.jstor.org/stable/3156411.
Richard J. Clifford, “The Temple and the Holy Mountain,” in The Temple in Antiquity: Ancient Records and Modern Perspectives, ed. Truman G. Madsen (Provo, UT: Religious Studies Center, Brigham Young University, 1984), 107–24.
Cyrus H. Gordon, Frank Moore Cross. Canaanite Myth and Hebrew Epic: Essays in the History of the Religion of Israel. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press. 1973.
Pritchard, J. Ancient Near Eastern Texts Relating to the Old Testament with Supplement. Princeton, NJ. Princeton University Press. 1969
Walton, John H., “Genesis”, Zondervan Illustrated Bible Backgrounds Commentary, Grand Rapids, Zondervan, 2009