By Dr Oliver Tearle (Loughborough University)
The Tower of Babel is one of the best-known structures mentioned in the Bible. But what was the tower’s purpose, and where was Babel? How much do we really know about this story? In many ways, the Tower of Babel is a kind of ‘just so’ story about how the world came to have many languages. Let’s take a closer look at the legend of the Tower of Babel and offer an analysis of both its religious significance and its historical foundation.
Tower of Babel story: summary
We find the story of the Tower of Babel in the Book of Genesis, chapter 11, verses 1-9. Its construction takes place following the Flood, which we have analysed here.
We are told that the whole world spoke one language. Travelling to a plain in the land of Shinar, the descendants of Noah establish a city and build a tower ‘whose top may reach unto heaven’. They decide that this tower will make a name for them: in other words, it will serve as a monument to their fame in case they are subsequently ‘scattered abroad upon the face of the whole earth’.
But God, seeing the city and the tower they had built, was concerned that now, the people would be able to do anything and they were getting too ambitious. So God went and confounded their language, so they couldn’t understand each other’s speech, and scattered them abroad upon the face of the earth.
Tower of Babel story: analysis
The Tower of Babel myth comes not long after the account of Noah and the Great Flood. And, of course, earlier in Genesis we have the story of the Garden of Eden and the Fall of Man. These early stories in the Bible are all concerned with trying to explain how various things came to be: how shame and evil and human toil came into the world (the expulsion from the Garden of Eden), for instance.
The Tower of Babel was a way of explaining why there were so many different languages spoken among different tribes and peoples, leading to much confusion and distrust (and tribalism).
It’s certainly true that many languages are cognate with each other (cognate means literally ‘born together’), in that they share a common ancestor. So many languages belong to the Indo-European family, for instance.
However, other languages – Hungarian is a notable example – cannot be said to derive from the same common proto-language, so it’s not true that there was once one language which spawned all the others.
But like the Garden of Eden story, the tale of the Tower of Babel is also about man overreaching himself. Adam and Eve had disobeyed God’s divine commandment not to eat of the fruit of the tree of knowledge (of good and evil), presuming to become godlike themselves through attaining such precious wisdom.
And the descendants of Noah build their tower in Babel because they want to create something lasting that will immortalise their ‘name’ or reputation, rather then God’s. For such hubris, they must have their hopes (and their tower) dashed to pieces.
Curiously, the name ‘Babel’ is often related to the Hebrew bālal, meaning ‘to confuse’, but it’s actually from the Sumerian meaning ‘gate of God’. Fittingly, even the etymology of the name of Babel is a medley of Babel-like confusion.
Many ancient stories and myths have their origins in real events or things. Scratch the surface of the Greek myth of the Golden Fleece and you find ancient methods for panning for gold using gauze; look closely at the Arthurian legend of drawing the sword from the stone and you find that techniques for forging metal swords, which involved the finished sword being yanked from its stone mould, may lurk behind the well-known tale.
And there was a Tower of Babel. Or rather, there was a Tower of Babel and a ‘Tower of Babel’. To avoid confusing you further (although confusion seems apt, given the topic of this post), let’s take a look at these two real towers and how they relate to the biblical Tower of Babel story.
You see, once there was a town called Babel. It was a real historical place and not just the stuff of Old Testament legend. It was located on the Euphrates river in the Middle East, around forty miles south of the great city of Akkad. For more than a millennium it was a fairly small and unremarkable town.
Then, around 1900 BC, a group called the Amorites made Babel their capital, and it was transformed into a large metropolis. The sixth king of the Amorite dynasty was Hammurabi, who is remembered now for the code that bears his name: a long legal document which, among other things, contains one of the first references to the presumption of innocence until a person is proved guilty.
For the next two thousand years, Babel changed hands but remained an important city. If its name sounds unfamiliar to us now, except in connection with the biblical Tower of Babel story, that’s because we know it better under its Greek name, which was Babylon. Babylonia, the considerable region around the Tigris and Euphrates rivers, was named for Babylon, which was itself the Greek version of Babel.
Babel (or Babylon) did indeed have a real, historical tower, but then that needn’t surprise us, since most Sumerian and Babylonian cities boasted one. As Isaac Asimov notes in Asimov’s Guide to the Bible: The Old Testament by Isaac Asimov, temples to the gods in these cities took the form of stepped pyramids which were ascended by inclined planes around the outside. Such a structure is known as a ziggurat: a pyramidal tower.
A Sumerian king began building a ziggurat in Babel, but this was left unfinished, perhaps because the Sumerians were too busy fending off the Akkadians. It remained half-finished for centuries, so it may well have served as the real-life inspiration for the mythic Tower of Babel. A tower in Babel was eventually completed, by Nebuchadnezzar. Although it was barely 325 feet in height, this still made it the tallest structure in southwestern Asia, and it would retain that record for many centuries afterwards.
And curiously enough, the Tower of Babel story may well have grown out of an earlier Sumerian myth, much as the account of Noah and the Great Flood finds a precursor in the Epic of Gilgamesh. Enmerkar and the Lord of Aratta is a Sumerian text from around four thousand years ago, describing the conflicts between Enmerkar, king of Uruk, and the king of Aratta.
This story features a ‘confusion of tongues’ as well as the construction of temples at Eridu and Uruk, so parallels have been drawn between it and the Tower of Babel from the Book of Genesis.