According to the first book of the Bible, Genesis, the people (those who constituted the generations post the great flood which wiped out humanity as communicated in the flood myth of Genesis 6 through 9) “moved eastward, they found a plain in Shinar, and settled there” (11:1). According to the story this is where the Tower of Babel was to be built:
“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” (11:4)
The construction of this great edifice was a challenge to the biblical God (11:4), and because of it God decided to confuse their languages (11:9). This evidently caused some havoc, and the people scattered (11:8).
The story is interesting to historians who wish to determine whether or not the tower really existed. 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).
The Genesis account, although in large part legendary and mythical, is valuable as a testimony to ancient history since it is consistent with some known facts from the world at that time. First and foremost is that the reference to a tower in Babylon is consistent with the fact that such towers (ziggurats) were common in that ancient locale. 32 ziggurats are known to have been built in Mesopotamia (2). 28 of those are in Iraq and four in Iran. These large towers consisted 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. 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). 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 in Josephus Flavius, in the Talmud (Chullin 89a, Pesahim 94b, Erubin 53a, Avodah Zarah 53b), and the later midrash such as Genesis Rabba.
Taken together, it is reasonable to suggest that the Genesis account is attempting to describe a real structure of ancient history.
The Genesis story is not the only text to mention the Tower of Babel. There is a Sumerian account 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.” However, this source dates to earlier than 2000 BC, whereas the dating of the Biblical Babel is believed to be around 600 BC. Some textual sources refer to the destruction of the tower, whereas Genesis does not. Its destruction is mentioned in the Book of Jubilees (10: 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. 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.”
Old Testament professor Jan Gertzexplains that,
“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. 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” (6)
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.