The Biblical Narrative & the Historicity of The Tower of Babel.
According to Genesis the people “moved eastward, they found a plain in Shinar, and settled there” (11:1). This was the place where the Tower of Babel was to be built. According to the text the construction of this great edifice was to be a challenge to God (11:4), and in response God confused their languages (11:9). This of course would cause havoc, and the people as a result scattered (11:8). However, did such a structure really exist, and what can historical and archaeological evidence tell us about it?
Scholars have argued that The Tower of Babel was a large ziggurat devoted to Marduk, a Mesopotamian god, by king Nabopolassar (c. 610 BC) (1). It was a tall structure standing taller than 90 meters.
The Genesis account is seen to be valuable since it is consistent with known facts from the world at that time. For instance, the reference to a tower in Babylon is consistent with the fact that such towers (ziggurats) were common in that ancient locale. In fact, 32 ziggurats are known to have been built in Mesopotamia (2). 28 of those are in Iraq and four in Iran. These large towers would consist of platforms that were built one on top of the other, and became smaller in size until the pinnacle was reached. The pinnacle had a small temple that was devoted to a deity. Professor of Assyriology Donald Wiseman explains that the Genesis 11 account “bears all the marks of a reliable historical account” (8). Another commentator says that “the background that is here sketched proves to be authentic beyond all expectations” (9).
The rather small reference to the usage of “brick” and “bitumen” (11:3) also seems to be authentic since these ziggurats in Mespotamia were made from sun-baked bricks that were set in bitumen. These bricks would sometimes have the names of kings engraved into them (4). This suggests that the Genesis account is describing a real structure in history. Furthermore, Genesis 10:10 says that Babel was in Nimrod’s kingdom, however, the Bible does not specifically say that Nimrod built the tower, but many other historical sources do. For instance, since Nimrod’s kingdom included the cities of Babel, Erech, Accad, and Calneh, it was likely under his direction that the building of Babel and its tower began. This matches other historical accounts found by Josephus Flavius, in the Talmud (Chullin 89a, Pesahim 94b, Erubin 53a, Avodah Zarah 53b), and the later midrash such as Genesis Rabba.
Other Literature on The Tower of Babel.
In other literature there is a Sumerian account conspicuously similar to the Genesis narrative, called Enmerkar and the Lord of Aratta. In this account Enmerkar is said to be building a colossal ziggurat in Eridu, and following this there is a confusion of languages: “the whole universe, the well-guarded people — may they all address Enlil together in a single language” (3). However, this source goes back earlier than 2000 BC, whereas the dating of the Biblical Babel is believed to be around 600 BC.
Further textual sources mention the destruction of the tower, whereas Genesis does not. Its destruction is mentioned in the Book of Jubilees (ch. 10 v.18-27), Cornelius Alexander (fragment 10), Abydenus (frags. 5 and 6), Josephus (Antiquities 1.4.3), and the Sibylline Oracles (iii. 117–129). These sources describe God destroying the tower with a strong wind. According to Abydenus it was “[U]ntil this time all men had used the same speech, but now there was sent upon them a confusion of many and divers tongues.” Plato, in the 5th century B.C., tells of a time when men spoke the same language, but an act of the gods caused them to be confounded in their speech (4). Josephus Flavius, a Jewish historian of the 1st century, draws on an ancient source: “When all men were of one language, some of them built a tower, as if they would thereby ascend up to heaven, but the gods sent storms of wind and overthrew the tower, and gave every one his peculiar language; and for this reason it was that the city was called Babylon.” (5)
Professor Jan Gertz.
The Genesis account does not intend to be exhaustive, as scholar Jan Gertz, a Professor of Old Testament studies, writes, “Gen 11:1-9 reports little about the actual tower. For example, the story only implies that the workers stopped building the tower. The tower’s destruction, though often read into the story, is never stated. Instead of being the central interest of the story, the tower functions as a symbolic motif” (6). On the same note, Professor Strawn explains that “The tower of Babel story is replete with gaps—notable lacks in important information. It does not indicate—at least not clearly—what is wrong with this city and tower that God should be bothered by it in the first place.” (7)
Although Gertz views Gen 11:1-9 as mostly myth set in primeval times, he still insists on a historical side to the narrative. According to Gertz the biblical narrative is “set in the land of Shinar (Gen 11:2)… scholars argue that the text’s author was thinking of the ziggurat Etemenanki, which is located in ancient Babylon. The imagery of a building reaching the heavens supports this suggestion (Gen 11:4). If this is correct, then Gen 11:3 provides further evidence for the time of writing: the oldest ziggurat was originally built with mud bricks. Only at the latest building stage, in the seventh century B.C.E., did it receive a sheathing of fired bricks. It is also possible that the notion of an “unfinished” tower is connected with the extensive damage done by the Persian king Xerxes (518–465 B.C.E.) to religious buildings in Babylon. All things considered, the tower of Babel story is likely a postexilic addition to the primeval history.”
In conclusion Gertz explains that “Some scholars dispute the identification of the tower mentioned in Gen 11:1-9 with the ziggurat Etemenanki because the Hebrew word migdal can describe every form of tower and the expression “city and tower” could also refer to the city and its acropolis. However, as the story is located in Babylon, the identification with Etemenanki is reasonable.”
1. Harris, S. 2002. Understanding the Bible. p. 50–51.
2. Inspium. 2014. Ziggurats: The Giant Pyramid Temples Of Ancient Mesopotamia.
3. Enmerkar and the lord of Aratta: composite text (line 145)
4. Porter, B. 2003. Trees, Kings, and Politics: Studies in Assyrian Iconography. p. 84.
5. Flavius, J. 90’s AD. Antiquities of the Jews. 1.4.3.
6. Gertz, J. 2015. The Tower of Babel (Gen 11:1-9). Available
7. Strawn, B. Focus On Tower of Babel. Available.
8. Wiseman, D. 1980. Babel. The Illustrated Bible Dictionary. p. 157.
9. Speiser, E. A. 1964. The Anchor Bible—Genesis. p. 75.