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. The second theme is that the earth is connected to the heavens via tall structures like mountains and towers. 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. This was true of YHWH in Jerusalem and also Mt Sinai. 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.
The great Ziggurats of the Sumerian culture were built originally 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 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 is 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 scripture we see Yahweh descending onto 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 (though Ba’al eventually got a palace to live in). Stories are told about meetings held at the tent of El (Elohim).
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 Ba’al 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.”
The Quest for Immortality
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.
Another ancient story from Mesopotamia mentions mankind storming the heavens. In the myth of Etana, a snake and an eagle plot to go up the mountains, storm the heavens, and get past the boundaries set by Shamash. The eagle also escorts a human (Etana) to the heavens so that he can inquire about his lack of a son to the goddess Ishtar and the god Anu. A few snippets from the myth are below.
The serpent made its voice heard and spoke to the eagle,
“[You are not fit for] friendship [in the sight of Shamash!]
You are wicked and you have grieved his heart.
You have done unforgivable deeds, an abomination to the gods.
(But) come, let us stand up and [make a pledge (?)]”
In the presence of Shamash the warrior they swore an oath,
“Whoever oversteps the limit set by Shamash,
Shamash shall deliver into the hands of the Smiter for harm.
Whoever oversteps the limit set by Shamash,
(20) May the mountain keep its pass far away from him,
May the prowling weapon make straight for him,
May the snares (on which) the oath to Shamash (is sworn) overturn him and ensnare him!”
When they had sworn the oath on [the net of Shamash (?)],
They stood up (?) and went up the mountain.
The eagle said to Etana,
“My friend, [the significance of the dreams] is quite clear!
Come, let me carry you up to the heaven of Anu.
Put your chest over my breast,
Put your hands over the quills of my wings.
When they came up to the heaven of Anu,
They went through the gate of Anu, Ellil, and Ea.(40) The eagle and Etana bowed down together.
They went through the gate of Sin, Shamash, Adad, and Ishtar.
The eagle and Etana bowed down together.
He pushed it open [and went inside].
(Myth of Etana)
The idea that the people used the tower of Babel as a method for entering or even storming the heavens is also reinforced in the famous Sibylline oracles. The Sibylline oracles are a corpus of prophetic and eschatological texts that are credited to an elderly mystic named Sibyl. She was rumored to have lived hundreds of years and possessed knowledge beyond that of mere mortals. She is first mentioned in the 5th century BCE but utterances are credited to her from many cultures and time periods. Over time the cult of Sibyl was so widely recognized that the Greeks and Romans had temples and priestesses dedicated to her. With such popularity Jewish oracles also popped up and speak on matters dealing with the Jewish scriptures.
But when the threats of the great God are fulfilled with which he once threatened men when they built the tower in the land of Assyria … They were all of one language and they wanted to go into the starry heaven. But immediately the Immortal one imposed a great compulsion on the winds. Then the winds cast down the great tower.
(Sibylline Oracles, Book III, 99-100)
Other Themes from Mesopotamia
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. The gods in Mesopotamia were usually limited in their power and scope.
Another ancient connection in this story is also related to city’s name, Babel. The name of the city “Babel” is an Akkadian name (Bāb-ilim) which means “gate of the gods”. However, the meaning of Babel in Hebrew 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.
The last thing I should mention about ANE culture in the Bible is that often Genesis re-tells a story as an argument against popular mythology. The tower is a prime example of this. Genesis shows a people tied to herdsmen and nomads. This was in start contrast to the farmers and city dwellers of ancient Mesopotamia. In fact, when God goes down to inspect the tower, Genesis says that he came down to see the “city and the tower”. This mention of the city was not by accident. Mesopotamian culture revered the city and their mythology reflected this. The city was a gift by the gods and also a gift for the gods.
An old text usually known as The Eridu Genesis, the gods are seen trying to get people back into the cities and remove them from scattering. The goddess Ninture desires mankind to get from their scattering and build great cities and temples so that she can take shade. From a biblical view, this desire of Nintura is the complete opposite of the desires of YHWH. Nintura and appoints a king which was quite offensive to the early Israelites who were nomads and followed a theocracy.
let me lead the people back from their trails.”
“May they come and build cities and cult places,
that I may cool myself in their shade;
may they lay the bricks for the cult cities in pure spots,
and may they found places for divination
in pure spots!”
William W. Hallo and K. Lawson Younger, The Context of Scripture (Leiden;New York: Brill, 1997–), 513.
Interpretation by Jasher
I don’t usually appeal to apocryphal literature but in this case the book of Jasher provides and explanation for the tower. The book also adds to the tale some information that is missing from Genesis. I take this account with a grain of salt, as I do all of the apocryphal writings. However, this tower account clearly articulates and ancient theme that is lost to modern readers. According to the author of Jasher, the tower was to be used as a means to storm the heavens. Of course, the Lord could not allow such a thing.
25 And the building of the tower was unto them a transgression and a sin, and they began to build it, and whilst they were building against the Lord God of heaven, they imagined in their hearts to war against him and to ascend into heaven.
26 And all these people and all the families divided themselves in three parts; the first said We will ascend into heaven and fight against him; the second said, We will ascend to heaven and place our own gods there and serve them; and the third part said, We will ascend to heaven and smite him with bows and spears; and God knew all their works and all their evil thoughts, and he saw the city and the tower which they were building.
27 And when they were building they built themselves a great city and a very high and strong tower; and on account of its height the mortar and bricks did not reach the builders in their ascent to it, until those who went up had completed a full year, and after that, they reached to the builders and gave them the mortar and the bricks; thus was it done daily.
28 And behold these ascended and others descended the whole day; and if a brick should fall from their hands and get broken, they would all weep over it, and if a man fell and died, none of them would look at him.
29 And the Lord knew their thoughts, and it came to pass when they were building they cast the arrows toward the heavens, and all the arrows fell upon them filled with blood, and when they saw them they said to each other, Surely we have slain all those that are in heaven.
30 For this was from the Lord in order to cause them to err, and in order; to destroy them from off the face of the ground.
31 And they built the tower and the city, and they did this thing daily until many days and years were elapsed.
32 And God said to the seventy angels who stood foremost before him, to those who were near to him, saying, Come let us descend and confuse their tongues, that one man shall not understand the language of his neighbor, and they did so unto them.
33 And from that day following, they forgot each man his neighbor’s tongue, and they could not understand to speak in one tongue, and when the builder took from the hands of his neighbor lime or stone which he did not order, the builder would cast it away and throw it upon his neighbor, that he would die.
34 And they did so many days, and they killed many of them in this manner.
35 And the Lord smote the three divisions that were there, and he punished them according to their works and designs; those who said, We will ascend to heaven and serve our gods, became like apes and elephants; and those who said, We will smite the heaven with arrows, the Lord killed them, one man through the hand of his neighbor; and the third division of those who said, We will ascend to heaven and fight against him, the Lord scattered them throughout the earth.
Parallel from Mesopotamia
There are a number of parallels from the ANE that can help us contextualize the story of the tower. One Akkadian account describes a deity scattering the people and confusing their speech. To date, this is the only story from the ANE that I know of which mentions the deities scattering the people and/or confusing their speech. It’s possibly the cousin of the biblical story.
1 . . . them the father.
2 (The thoughts) of his heart were evil.
3 . . . the father of all the gods he turned from.
4 (The thoughts) of his heart were evil.
5 . . . Babylon corruptly to sin went and
6 small and great mingled on the mound.
7 . . . Babylon corruptly to sin went and
8 small and great mingled on the mound..
1 The King of the holy mound . . .
2 In front and ANU lifted up
3 to the good god his father
4 Then his heart also . . .
5 which carried a command . . .
6 At that time also . . .
7 he lifted it up . . .
9 Their (work) all day they founded
10 to their stronghold in the night
11 entirely an end he made.
12 In his anger also the secret counsel he poured out
13 to scatter (abroad) his face he set
14 he gave a command to make strange their speech
15 . . . their progress he impeded
16 . . . the altar
1 In (that day)
2 he blew and . . .
3 For future time the mountain . . .
4 NU-NAM-NIR went . . .
5 Like heaven and earth he spake . . .
6 His ways they went . . .
7 Violently they fronted against him
8 He saw them and to the earth (descended)
9 When a stop he did not make
10 of the gods . . .
11 Against the gods they revolted
12 . . . violence . . .
13 Violently they wept for Babylon
14 very much they wept.
15 And in the midst . . .
(Column 3 is so broken, only a few words remain, so it is omitted).
Considering the parallels in the ancient near east, and considering how ancient readers interpreted the story within a Jewish framework, I think the most likely conclusion is that this section of Genesis contains some artifacts and theology that is both primitive and also foreign to Christian thinking. In this story, God is limited in his geography, his power to control mankind, and his ability of being able to see and know all thing. God physically “goes down” to inspect the tower and deal with it. One must conclude that this early view of the divine creator is more in line with the henotheism of the Canaanites and Israel’s neighbors. Indeed, it is possible that the concern that mortals could storm the heavens was completely lifted from Israel’s neighbors since the bulk of passages in the Old Testament depict a deity that is all powerful and limitless. Only in Genesis 1-11 do we witness a God that appears to have limits comparable to the deities worshipped in Canaan, Babylon and Sumer. Thus, the idea that mankind could storm the heavens and either obtain eternal life or possibly overtake the heavens, must be considered.
An alternative theory could that of contamination rather than battle. The abode of the deities in ancient thinking was a pure and holy place. It was not thought to be hot and dirty and impure like living on the land. It was the opposite of man’s home which made it perfect for the Gods. This line thinking is obvious in the Old Testament texts. One only has to think of how the temple and the rites of the priests were designed to maintain purity in God’s holy place. Or in the small details such as people being told to remove their shoes on God’s holy ground. Would mankind defile the heavens and make it uninhabitable? One certainly could make such a conclusion here.
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
William W. Hallo and K. Lawson Younger, The Context of Scripture: Myth of Etana (Leiden; New York: Brill, 1997–), 454-457.