Tower of Babel

From Academic Kids

"The Tower of Babel" by
"The Tower of Babel" by Pieter Brueghel the Elder

According to the narrative in Genesis Chapter 11 of the Bible, the Tower of Babel was a tower built by a united humanity in order to reach the heavens. To prevent the project from succeeding, God confused their languages so that each spoke a different language, they couldn't communicate with one another and the work could not proceed. After that time, people moved away to different parts of Earth. The story is used to explain the existence of many different languages and races.


From the Hebrew scriptures

Missing image
Construction of the Tower of Babel in the Maciejowski Bible

The Tower of Babel (Gen 11:1-9, KJV)

And the whole earth was of one language, and of one speech. And it came to pass, as they journeyed from the east, that they found a plain in the land of Shinar; and they dwelt there. And they said one to another, Go to, let us make brick, and burn them thoroughly. And they had brick for stone, and lime had they for morter. And they said, Go to, let us build us a city and a tower, whose top may reach unto heaven; and let us make us a name, lest we be scattered abroad upon the face of the whole earth. And the LORD came down to see the city and the tower, which the children of men builded. And the LORD said, Behold, the people is one, and they have all one language; and this they begin to do: and now nothing will be restrained from them, which they have imagined to do. Go to, let us go down, and there confound their language, that they may not understand one another's speech. So the LORD scattered them abroad from thence upon the face of all the earth: and they left off to build the city. Therefore is the name of it called Babel; because the LORD did there confound the language of all the earth: and from thence did the LORD scatter them abroad upon the face of all the earth.

Judeo-Christian analysis

The story is found in Genesis xi. 1-9 as follows: The whole human race spoke the same language, and formed one community. This community settled in the land of Shinar, not far from the Euphrates River. Here they built a city and a tower of such materials as a great river-basin would afford and the genius of man could manufacture. This was done to make a great center about which they might gather, and to obtain for themselves a name. God came down to investigate the purpose of all this unusual enterprise. The self-confidence and unity of the people were everywhere prominent. Mindful that the accomplishment of this project might embolden them to still more independent movements, God said, "Let us go down, and there confound their language." Consequently they were scattered abroad upon the face of all the earth; "and they left off to build the city." The name of it was therefore called "Babel", because there YHWH confounded the one language of Earth.

The name "Babylon" is from Akkadian Bāb-ilu, which means, "Gate of God". Its Hebrew version however, "Babel", sounds similar to a word for "confusion".

The supposed one language is also known as the Adamic language. Along history, several authors have claimed that some language was the original one and the rest were corruptions. This has been the case with Hebrew and with Basque (as proposed by Larramendi).

See also the Mormonic interpretation.

It has become a potent symbol of overambitious projects destined to end in confusion. Images of unfinished buildings reaching towards the sky can be found in religious art (see example above).

Extra-Biblical accounts


In 440 BC Herodotus wrote, Babylon's outer wall is the main defence of the city. There is, however, a second inner wall, of less thickness than the first, but very little inferior to it in strength. The center of each division of the town was occupied by a fortress. In the one stood the palace of the kings, surrounded by a wall of great strength and size: in the other was the sacred precinct of Jupiter Belus, a square enclosure two furlongs [402 m] each way, with gates of solid brass; which was also remaining in my time. In the middle of the precinct there was a tower of solid masonry, a furlong [201 m] in length and breadth, upon which was raised a second tower, and on that a third, and so on up to eight. The ascent to the top is on the outside, by a path which winds round all the towers. When one is about half-way up, one finds a resting-place and seats, where persons are wont to sit some time on their way to the summit. On the topmost tower there is a spacious temple, and inside the temple stands a couch of unusual size, richly adorned, with a golden table by its side. There is no statue of any kind set up in the place, nor is the chamber occupied of nights by any one but a single native woman, who, as the Chaldeans, the priests of this god, affirm, is chosen for himself by the deity out of all the women of the land.

This, "Tower of Jupiter Belus" (the latinized spelling of Akkadian Bel), possibly corresponding to the Etemenanki ziggurat to Marduk is thought to have inspired the story of the Tower of Babel.

In c. 670 BC Nebuchadnezzar wrote, A former king built [the Temple of the Seven Lights of the Earth ], but he did not complete its head. Since a remote time, people had abandoned it, without order expressing their words. Since that time earthquakes and lightning had dispersed its sun-dried clay; the bricks of the casing had split, and the earth of the interior had been scattered in heaps. Merodach, the great lord, excited my mind to repair this building. I did not change the site, nor did I take away the foundation stone ? as it had been in former times. So I founded it, I made it; as it had been in ancient days, I so exalted the summit.

There is a similar story in Chaldean mythology called Enmerkar and the Lord of Aratta where two gods, Enki and Enlil, have a rivalry and end up confusing the tongues of all humankind.

One recent theory gives evidence that the actual remains of the Tower of Babel, built by Enmerkar / Nimrod, are the much older ruins of the Ziggurat of Eridu, the "original Babel", just south of Ur. See Eridu for a discussion of this evidence.

Interestingly, a large construction project in the ancient world might have used pressed labour from a diverse set of conquered or subject populations with different languages, and would have relied heavily on a small number of multi-lingual foremen. In such cases a relatively small loss in the language skill set could precipitate an organizational collapse.

Jewish literature

The Book of Jubilees, known to have been in use between at least 200 BC and 90 AD, contains one of the most detailed accounts found anywhere of the Tower.

And they began to build, and in the fourth week they made brick with fire, and the bricks served them for stone, and the clay with which they cemented them together was asphalt which comes out of the sea, and out of the fountains of water in the land of Shinar. And they built it: forty and three years were they building it; its breadth was 203 bricks, and the height (of a brick) was the third of one; its height amounted to 5433 cubits and 2 palms, and (the extent of one wall was) thirteen stades (and of the other thirty stades). [Jubilees 10:20,21, Charles' 1913 translation]

Rabbinic literature offers many different accounts of other causes for building the Tower of Babel, and of the intentions of its builders. It was regarded in the Mishnah as a rebellion against God.

Some later midrash record that the builders of the Tower, called "the generation of secession" in the Jewish sources, said: "God has no right to choose the upper world for Himself, and to leave the lower world to us; therefore we will build us a tower, with an idol on the top holding a sword, so that it may appear as if it intended to war with God" (Gen. R. xxxviii. 7; Tan., ed. Buber, Noah, xxvii. et seq.).

The building of the Tower was meant to bid defiance not only to God, but also to Abraham, who exhorted the builders to reverence. The passage mentions that the builders spoke sharp words against God, not cited in the Bible, saying that once every 1,656 years, heaven tottered so that the water poured down upon the earth, therefore they would support it by columns that there might not be another deluge (Gen. R. l.c.; Tan. l.c.; similarly Josephus, "Ant." i. 4, ? 2).

Some among that sinful generation even wanted to war against God in heaven (Talmud Sanhedrin 109a.) They were encouraged in this wild undertaking by the fact that arrows which they shot into the sky fell back dripping with blood, so that the people really believed that they could wage war against the inhabitants of the heavens ("Sefer ha-Yashar," Noah, ed. Leghorn, 12b). According to Josephus and Midrash Pirke R. El. xxiv., it was mainly Nimrod who persuaded his contemporaries to build the Tower, while other rabbinical sources assert, on the contrary, that Nimrod separated from the builders.

Some recent commentators (e.g. Rabbi Eliyahu Eliezer Dessler) have pointed out some similarities between the materialistic stance of the "tower builders" and the dialectic materialism of communism.


Though not mentioned by name, the Qur'an has a story with similarities to the Biblical story of the Tower of Babel. In Suras 28:38 and 40:36-37 Pharaoh asks Haman to build him a clay tower so that he can mount up to heaven and confront the God of Moses.

Book of Mormon

The Book of Mormon records some information about the tower in the Book of Ether that agrees with the Bible. According to the book, a group called the Jaredites left without their language being confused and settled in North America. The Jaredites however, cannot be confirmed in any other literature found to date.

Popular culture

It has been suggested in Neal Stephenson's book Snow Crash that the line, "Go to, let us build us a city and a tower, whose top may reach unto heaven", (or "Come, let us build us a city, and a tower with its top in the sky", New JPS Translation) actually refers to the sky charts painted in the top of the ziggurats of ancient Babylon.

Snow Crash speculates much more on the Tower's real meanings. According to the book, the Tower of Babel was a metaphor. Following the spreading of the Asherah virus, which made evolution in the Sumeric society practically non-existent, the god Enki (who is portrayed as a priest which happens to be the first hacker in history), as a counter-measure, produces a nam-shub, a spell which stops everyone from speaking the Sumeric language. This way, the Asherah virus, which used oral and verbal means of transmission was stopped.

In Douglas Adams's Hitchiker's Guide to the Galaxy series, a "babel fish" is a fish that one sticks into ones ear that translates all the languages of the universe. Hence the name of the most popular translating site on the internet.

In the 1927 and 2001 film versions of Metropolis, the newly-rebuilt Tower of Babel (known in the 2001 anime film version as the Ziggurat) is the symbol of the titular grand city-state and the center of human imperial power. In the 2001 anime film version, the superhuman robot clone of Duke Red's daughter, Tima is to sit on her throne to activate the Ziggurat's revolutionary solar superweapon of mass destruction in order to achieve the goal of reaching the stars and domination of the entire Earth. Like the Tower of Babel, the new Tower/Ziggurat was destroyed.

Modern influence

The image of language multiplication as a curse instead of enriching has been used in the promotion of international auxiliary languages.

See also

External links


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