Donald Andrew Henson II

Tower of Babel

In Blogging the Bible, Blogging the Old Testament, Religion and Society on September 24, 2012 at 1:48 am

English: The Construction of the Tower of Babe...

Read Genesis 11.

I know I’m supposed to be blogging the New Testament, not the Old, but indulge me if you will. As a student of several languages and the acquisition of language in general, this Biblical story is obviously of interest to me.

You don’t have to look at this Tower of Babel too closely to realize that it’s a complete and total myth, an etiology told to explain why the peoples inhabiting different regions spoke languages that were unintelligible to one another. The story was supposedly written by Moses, but context cues place it more probably in the time of the Babylonian captivity, in the 6th century BC, perhaps a thousand years after Moses’ death. It most likely incorporates the image of the Babylonian ziggurat, Etemenanki, which had been rebuilt by Nebuchadnezzar, with a traditional oral story about how the languages were separated. The impressive, foreboding ziggurats – erected in worship to the god Marduk, were meant to inspire awe; the captive Jews would have seen them as a trespass against the one true God.

Placing the imposing towers into a story about rebellion against God wouldn’t have been much of a stretch – to worship any God but Yahweh was rebellion. Babel, or confusion, would have been a nice play on words; Babylon, a place of confusion, not only of language, but of belief. Any city that shakes its fist at God in such an audacious way will certainly face retribution.

But if you don’t buy into this modern, secular explanation of the story – have a look at the scriptures themselves. I think you’ll find a lot of information that doesn’t quite fit together.

A few generations after God had flooded the Earth, some of Noah’s descendants have headed east to the Plains of Shinar, which is usually a reference to Mesopotamia / Tigris and Euphrates region / Babylon in the Old Testament. Once they got there, they decided to bake bricks – in the OT narrative, they decide to bake bricks first, then to build a city with them, but we’ll assume that the intention was to build a city and a tower all along. Why the focus on bricks? Since important Judean structures were made of stone, the Babylonian custom of building with brick would have been novel – if you admit that the narrative as we have it today were composed during the captivity. If not, it seems a rather strange detail.

These descendants, led by Nimrod, according to tradition, get the idea that they should ‘make a name for themselves’ by building a tower that would reach to the heavens. When I was in Sunday school, my teacher seemed to think that they were literally trying to build a stairway to heaven; later, other Bible teachers seemed to think that they were trying to build some kind of astrological tower, to ‘reach heaven’ in a metaphysical sense, not literally. This second rendering does seem to be more consistent with what we now know of Babylonian ziggurats in general, that they were places of divination and worship.

Now, let’s set aside for a moment the fact that the Bible only counts four generations between this event and the catastrophic, worldwide flood that nearly wiped out humanity. It would seem that such an act of defiance so soon would be unthinkable on the part of Noah’s descendants. What’s really astounding is God’s response.

First of all, the scripture says that God ‘came down’ to see the tower that Nimrod had built. Where was he in the first place? Why did he have to move to get a better view? If Earth is God’s ballpark, why was he sitting in the cheap seats? This sentence gives credence to the idea that whoever wrote the original story did not see God as omnipresent; he was instead an anthropomorphic god who shared some of the same limitations of other Semitic gods – including Marduk. If you believe that every single word of the scripture is inspired – you can’t write off the moving of a supposedly omnipresent God from one place to another as some kind of grammatical error.

Secondly, why was God so concerned about what they were doing? Because they had learned how to build a tower, God decides that “nothing they plan to do will be impossible for them.” Is this a bad thing? Humans working together to do what seems to be impossible? And furthermore, confusing their languages didn’t stop them from building other towers – as evidenced by the Babylonians, Egyptians, Persians, Chinese, and other ancient cultures. And building a tower? Where’s the threat? It’s not like they split the atom – which, incidentally, God did not prevent either. So you’re telling me that God miraculously confuses language because people are building a tower, but stands by in silence while they actually do split the atom? It doesn’t make sense.

If they were trying to build a literal stairway to heaven, no intervention would have been required; they’d have all passed out due to lack of oxygen at around a mile. Actually God should have known that they’d have never made it this far with bricks anyway; kiln-baked bricks would have disintegrated under the weight of the structure long before the mile marker. If they were building an astrological tower, a way of ‘reaching heaven’ through divining the stars – why do the Pyramids, Stonehenge, Machu Picchu and myriad other structures still stand?

And why any need for such sudden intervention? Surely God is aware of the fact that as groups of people are separated by time and distance, their languages become unintelligible to each other without divine intervention. The US and the UK have been separate social and political entities for only a couple of hundred years, and we still technically speak the same language, but you try understanding a Glaswegian or a Yorkshireman with a scotch or two in his gullet – impossible.

Even the Apostle Paul casts doubt on the validity of he story, when he writes in 1 Corinthians 14 that “God is not the author of confusion.”

If this story isn’t literally true – which it certainly cannot be, no matter how you approach it – then it must be some kind of analogy or metaphor, a story with a moral. If the OT contains stories that aren’t intended to be taken as objective truths – who gets to decide which ones are allegory and which ones are literal?

Of even greater significance, to me at least, there is absolutely no evidence whatsoever that God does anything to intervene – for good or ill – in our lives today. Thousands of innocents die daily while God looks the other way. But a tower made of tar and brick – a tower that had absolutely no chance of succeeding at whatever purpose it was being built for – required God’s immediate attention?

Quite literally – unbelievable.

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  1. Interesting post, but of course as a Secularist you’ve got your facts wrong, the Tower of Babel is not “a complete and total myth.” Read this article, Was the Dispersion at Babel a Real Event, if you want to know the truth:

    http://www.answersingenesis.org/articles/nab2/was-babel-dispersion-real-event

    Have a great week! 🙂

    • why would “as a secularist” automatically mean “you have your facts wrong”? this is the kind of arrogance that gives religious people a bad name. seems the writer’s questions are based on the scriptures that perpetuated the story in the first place. i for one get a little sickened by the religious condesention of “you’re wrong, but god/s still love/s you” automatically given to people with different ideas from their own….or answering questions starting with “well, as a christian”, as though that inferred a forgone moral high ground. sorry to rant, just struck me as a bit smug.

      • Yes – I started a quotes page last week (https://americansecularist.com/quotes/) where I intend to post awesome one-liners that support secularist thought. One that I posted last week was something Bill Clinton said as a guest on Jon Stewart’s Daily Show: “the problem with any ideology is that it gives the answer before you look at the evidence, so you have to mold the evidence to fit the answer you’ve already decided you’ve got to have.” This is ‘obviously’ – to use the term in it’s true meaning – where Philosophical11 is coming from. He’s a Christian, therefore, his views are obviously true. I’m a secularist (no capitalization required), so my facts are obviously wrong.

        In fact, there’s not a single thing in my post that contradicts the supposedly factual webpage he referred me to. Neither he nor his reference make any attempt to answer any of the questions in my post.

      • You’re right Stephen, it was a “a bit smug” of me, but I was just being playful with him, joking around. I guess it’s harder to tell that when the communication is in writing. No offense intended. 😉

    • Philosophical11 – thanks for commenting on my post. But did you read it first? And did you read the article that you referred me to? I ask this because I don’t see where my fact contradict his – he concludes that Babel was a real event – but his facts don’t lead there.

      Consider – 1)’Renowned’ chronologist James Ussher is quoted as some kind of authority on history and chronology. He was in fact a Catholic Archbishop who lived in the 17th century – not exactly what you’d call a man of science. He did write a chronology – based entirely on the dating of the Bible. Sorry, but using the Bible to prove that the Bible is true is circular logic – not very convincing. He dates the world at around 6000 years old – not even so-called ‘intelligent design’ proponents buy this recent of a dating in the face of tons of scientific data to the contrary.

      2) We both agree that Babel – according to the Bible – took place only four generations after the flood. Let’s assume that Noah had only one wife, but his sons were polygamists – it’s hard to tell by the English wording of the Bible, whether ‘sons’ wives’ means the three wives of Noah’s sons or that there were multiple ones. But let’s be generous. Imagine Shem, Ham, and Japeth each had 50 wives, and each wife had 50 children – and that this prodigious rate of production continued for all 4 generations – each of the 50 children bet 50 more which begat 50 more which begat 50 more. Assuming that nobody died, this would give you a bit less than 20 million people on the Plains of Shinar involved in the story. We have no reason to believe that these people had anything beyond Stone Age technology, but again, let’s be generous, and accredit them with Bronze or Iron Age technology.

      Why would God be so concerned with 20 million people (a very generous number) building structures out of mud brick? Why confound their language? What did he think they would achieve? There are 10 times that number of Pakistanis in the world today, all of whom think that the Koran is the inspired word of God, all of whom understand the language of the Koran, all of whom obviously have access to better technology than Nimrod and his friends. Why hasn’t God confounded their language? There are 30 million people living in Tokyo – all of whom can find out how to build a nuclear bomb with a simple Google search. What was God afraid of at Babel?

      3) We both agree that God’s anti-tower plan didn’t work – peoples of various cultures continued to build these dangerous towers.

      4) We both agree that Genesis 11 is probably referring to the ziggurats built by the Mesopotamian cultures – I say that the scriptures must have been written after these ziggurats were built, and after the Jewish writers would have seen them – during the Babylonian captivity in the 7th century BC. Your ‘authority’ places the events that occurred hundreds of years before there is evidence of any such ziggurats being built – the dating of these structures comes from ‘Biblical archaeologists’, not secular humanists. Although primitive ziggurats were attempted much earlier, it was only from the 9th century BC that they would have been described as ‘reaching to heaven’.

      5) The author says that, since the names of Noah and his sons have been used throughout history, this is proof that the story existed. This is nonsense. Just because we have a city named Paris doesn’t mean the the story of Paris and Hector in the Ilyad is a true story. And millions of people around the world still bear the names of Hindu, Buddhist, and Islamic heroes – does this mean that their stories are true?

      6) The author makes the same point that I made – seeing how much English has changed over the centuries, it isn’t hard to imagine how other languages have diverged over a much larger time span. The only difference is that he somehow feels that divine intervention is evident in the distant past – when the recent past didn’t require it. Hard to follow the logic here.

      7) In another post at http://www.answersingenesis.org/articles/cm/v24/n3/babel, the same author agrees with many of the other points that I posted. He also posts a revealing idea: “The triune, sovereign God of the universe, anthropomorphically viewed as coming down from the third heaven, through the immeasurable distances of “outer space”, views this tower emerging from the tiny speck called Earth with a sadness that only He can know, and pronounces judgment.” I’m not sure who’s side he’s arguing, but such a statement seems to support my idea more than his. Have you seen a picture of Earth from the edge of the solar system? It’s literally a speck. God is so annoyed by a mud tower on a tiny speck of dust at the edge of the universe, that he decides the miserable Stone Age creatures who build it shouldn’t be able to talk to each other any more. If the story is true – what kind of crazy, unreasonable God is this?

      8) The author assumes that God divided them into only 100 linguistic groups – why so few? Has God no imagination? Assuming the that God had commanded humans to ‘be fruitful and multiply’, it certainly wouldn’t take much time to overcome a division of only 100 different languages. And we have thousands today – but still manage to build pretty much whatever we want.

      I could go on – but you’ve really got to let go of circular reasoning if you want to enter into any serious discussion. Saying the Bible is true because a Catholic Priest constructed a timeline based on it 400 years ago – well, sorry – not very persuasive.

      • No I did not read all of your exceedingly long post. I read enough to see that you were calling the Tower a myth, and gave you an article demonstrating that it is not a myth. And no, the author of the article you linked to is not the same author as the one I linked, and no they do not agree with your “points.”

        I am not using “circular reasoning” I presented historical evidence for my position. Also, I posted a comment explaining that I was being playful when I said, “of course you’ve got your facts wrong” but the comment seems to have disappeared.

  2. wow! just read the answering genesis article. no surprise it comes from a book called “new Answers 2”. i’ll go ahead and be the smug one now. this would be more aptly named “new arbitrary b.s. to try to patch up the old arbitrary b.s…too.” AGAIN it is completely written from the forgone conclusion that the bible is true…only sites theologians who also operated on the same forgone conclusion. Then, after a wierd side track about a flower bed, made the ridiculous claim that other cultures that possibly pre-dated the Babylonians(will have to fact check myself with an actual history book there) took architectural cues from the ‘tower’ most likely in hopes of survivng another flood,LOL. i’m not too sure you understand the meaning of the word ‘facts’.

    • Yes, this kind of argument is everywhere in ‘defenses’ of Christian beliefs. Like how Satan knew that God was going to use the Virgin Birth ploy, so hundreds if not thousands of years before Jesus’ birth, Satan inserted the same story into Egyptian, Sumerian, Akkadian, Greek, and Roman religions, just to confuse people. Well, who’s the omniscient one now, Satan or God?

      Before we actually traveled to a the Moon, we couldn’t say with certainty that the Earth revolved around the Sun, because we needed a third point in order to triangulate. However, we already accepted the idea as fact, because the math simply worked better. It’s the same thing here – you can twist the facts around to try to cling to your superstition, but the scientific theories simply work better.

  3. oops! re-read the article. it did cast doubt on the second flood theory, but still completely relied on the bible to back up claims made by….the bible.

  4. Philosophical 11, I’m sorry that my thousand-word essay seemed ‘exceedingly long’ by your standards. I’ll try to use puppets and crayons next time (attempting to use humorous but biting sarcasm, in case that doesn’t come across).

    I stand corrected – the authors are not the same, but my reference is to the exact same website, so I assume some continuity in the thinking. But both posts agree with me more than disagree; however, the conclusion they arrive at – that the entire Genesis story is a real historical event – is not at all supported by the facts they provide.

    And sorry, using James Ussher as proof is circular; he used the Bible to work out a timeline – that doesn’t prove anything, it just reiterates what the Bible has already claimed, but does not confirm it. This would be similar to making a dictionary of the Klingon language based on the Star Trek series (which someone has done, believe it or not), then using that dictionary to ‘prove’ that the stories in Star Trek are real. Ussher’s timeline comes entirely from the Biblical narrative, and therefore cannot be used to authenticate that narrative.

    But more importantly, I still maintain that my questions have not been answered – I’d like to hear some of your thoughtful answers. It seems that believers often refer me to some other website, or some other argument – something that usually does not sufficiently answer the objections I’ve raised. My comments raised other questions that haven’t been addressed either.

    What was God afraid of? Why did a supposedly omnipresent God have to change locations to get a better view? God confused the languages so that people couldn’t build such towers – why didn’t he know that it wouldn’t work, that people would continue to build them? Why doesn’t he just break up groups of rebels today in the same fashion? If you look at the story honestly, not deciding that it must be true before you even begin – there are dozens of legitimate objections to its veracity.

    These are honest questions I’d like you to read and consider. Don’t refer me to some website or let someone else do your thinking for you – really think about the questions and hit me with your best answers – what do YOU think? I thought your blog had some interesting ideas – I didn’t agree with all of them, but I did read them before I posted my comment.

  5. […] in the week, while writing my Tower of Babel post, I stumbled across a number of images that I found quite interesting. It seems the story has […]

  6. […] issues. Just look at the countless times God used confusion as a tool of warfare in battle. And his most famous act of confusion, the tower of Babylon where God purposely confused the language of peop… So they couldn’t reach the heavens. (Which we have done and surpassed […]

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