Tower of Babel

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BABEL, TOWER OF , the edifice whose building is portrayed in Genesis 11:1–9 as the direct cause of the diversity of languages in the world and the dispersion of mankind over all the earth. According to the preceding narrative, mankind after the flood was descended from one common ancestor, *Noah. The story of Babel thus explains how the descendants of this one man came to be so widely scattered and divided into separate nations speaking so many different languages.

The story relates how, at the time when all men still spoke one language, there was a migration from the East to the plain of *Shinar (Babylonia). At this site it was decided to build a "city and a tower with its top in the sky," so that the builders would be able to make a name for themselves and avoid being scattered over the entire world. However, their building project was frustrated by the Lord who confounded their language. As a result, mankind was distributed over the face of the earth. The unfinished tower was called Babel, a name which was explained by its resemblance to the Hebrew verb bll ("to confuse"), since here the Lord "confounded the speech of the whole earth."

Scholars agree that the edifice referred to in Genesis 11 is clearly a ziqqurat, or Mesopotamian temple tower. The ziqqurat (from Akk. zaqāru, "to raise up," "elevate") was the central feature of the great temples which were built in all important Mesopotamian cities. Rising in progressively smaller, steplike levels from a massive base, these towers ranged from three or four stories to as many as seven and were ordinarily constructed of crude sun-dried bricks covered with kiln-fired bricks. Clearly, the writer of the account in Genesis 11 was familiar with the building techniques of Mesopotamia, since he is at pains to point out that bricks and bitumen were used in the construction; that is in contrast to the stone and clay which were the common building materials in Canaan.

The particular ziqqurat described here was formerly identified with the tower of Ezida, the temple of the god Nebo (Nabû) in Borsippa, a city southwest of Babylon. However, the discovery at the end of the 19th century of Esagila, the great temple of *Marduk in *Babylon, has led most scholars to agree that it is the tower of this temple which inspired the writer of Genesis 11. This ziqqurat, which was called E-temen-anki, "house of the foundations of heaven and earth," rose to a height of about 300 feet, and contained two sanctuaries: one at its base, which was 300 feet square, and one at its summit. The tower was probably constructed at the time of *Hammurapi, but was damaged or destroyed several times and repaired by Esarhaddon (seventh century b.c.e.) and Nebuchadnezzar ii (sixth century b.c.e.), among others. It is interesting to note that the Babylonians believed that Esagila was built by the gods, thus making the statement in Genesis 11:5 "… which the sons of men had built," particularly meaningful, since it may be understood as a polemic against this belief. This tower, which was the object of such pride among the Babylonians, was the product of strictly human endeavor which can be quickly and easily destroyed in accordance with the Divine Will. In fact, it is quite likely that it was the sight of the ruins of Esagila (which was destroyed in the mid-16th century b.c.e with the destruction of Babylon by the Hittites) which inspired the creator of the Tower of Babel narrative.

Although it is clear from the story that the work on the city and tower displeased the Lord, the specific sin of the builders is nowhere mentioned. Many scholars believe that it was the presumption of these men in thinking that they could build a tower with "its top in the sky," and their conceit in wanting "to make a name" for themselves, which incurred the wrath of the Lord. Others believe that their goal was to storm the heavens and that it was for this sin that mankind was punished.

Modern scholars (already anticipated by R. *Samuel ben Meir) have pointed out that the desire to remain together in one place was in direct conflict with the divine purpose as is expressed to Noah and his sons after the flood: "Be fertile and increase and fill up the earth" (Gen. 9:7) and was, therefore, an affront to God and so necessarily doomed to failure. It is hardly likely that the expressed wish to "make a name for ourselves" could be construed as sinful, since a similar phrase is used in connection with the divine promises to Abraham (Gen. 12:2). Further, Babylonian temple inscriptions frequently refer to the "making great" of the name of the king under whom the particular temple was built or repaired, thereby demonstrating that this formula was commonly used in such instances and need not be understood as expressing an inordinate desire for fame. As for the phrase "with its top in the sky," it has been noted that there are several examples of Babylonian temple inscriptions which describe buildings as reaching to heaven so that the phrase should be understood not as an expression of the presumption of these people or of their desire to ascend to heaven, but rather as a borrowing by the biblical writer from the technical terminology of Mesopotamian temple inscriptions with which he was evidently familiar. According to this interpretation the sin of these people was, therefore, not presumption or a desire to reach heaven and gain fame, but rather an attempt to change the divinely ordained plan for mankind.

A new link to an ultimate cuneiform background of the Tower of Babel narrative has been provided by a Sumerian literary work, no doubt composed during the third Dynasty of Ur, which states that originally mankind spoke the same language, until Enki, the Sumerian god of wisdom, confounded their speech. Though the reason for the confusion of tongues is not stated, Kramer has suggested that it may have been inspired by Enki's jealousy of another god, Enlil. Hence, in the Sumerian version it was a case of the rivalry between two gods, whereas in the Bible the rivalry was between God and man (see below, "The Meaning of the Story").

The etymology of the name Babel given in this narrative is a contrived one, used ironically. The Babylonians understood it to mean "the gate of the god" (bāb-ilim), thereby endowing the city with additional honor and importance. By a play on words, the Bible has given it a pejorative sense, making the pride in this city seem almost ludicrous.

The Tower of Babel narrative is a turning point in history, as understood by the Bible, in that it signals the end of the era of universal monotheism which had existed since the beginning of time. Since the divine election of Abraham and his descendants immediately follows, it must be tacitly assumed that the incident led to the introduction of idolatry into the world.

[Myra J. Siff]

The Meaning of the Story

The bridge which some modern writers have constructed between the single short clause "and fill the earth" in Genesis 1:28 (or 9:7) and the account of the vain attempt of an early generation of men to avoid dispersal in Genesis 11:1–9, is superior homiletics but (quite apart from the finding of source analysis that the one belongs to document p and the other to document j) unsound exegesis. Genesis 1:28 reads as follows: "God blessed them [namely, the human beings, male and female, whose creation has just been narrated in the preceding verse] and God said to them, 'Be fertile and increase, fill the earth and master it; and rule the fish of the sea, the birds of the sky, and all the living things that move about on earth.'" This purports to be, and is, not a command but a blessing; moreover "and fill the earth" is preceded by "be fertile and increase." It is absurd to read into it a wish of God that the human species shall spread over the earth otherwise than as, with increasing numbers, its own interests may dictate. And in 11:1–9 there is nothing to suggest that the human population has already attained such a figure that there is a need for a migration of colonists to realms beyond the confines of the plain of Shinar; and neither is there a word in 11:1–9 about that being the Deity's motive in bringing about the dispersal. Instead, there is an explicit declaration of an entirely different motive by no less an authority than the Lord himself, who explains to the divine beings, verses 6–7; "If this is what, as one people with one language common to all, they have been able to do as a beginning, nothing they may propose to do will be beyond their reach. Come, let us go down, etc." It takes a willful shutting of the mind to avoid hearing the same anxiety lest man should wrest complete equality with the divine beings (or worse) in these words as in the Lord's earlier explanation to the same audience, in 3:22, of his motive in driving man out of the Garden of Eden: "Now that man has become like one of us in knowing good and bad [i.e., in being intellectually mature, the first evidence of which was his newfound modesty], what if he should stretch out his hand and take also from the tree of life and eat, and live forever!" Once, to obviate the danger of further baleful results from cooperation between man and snake, the Lord set up a barrier of enmity between them (3:15); now, in order to eliminate the threat of disastrous consequences from the cooperation of men with each other, he is erecting among them barriers of language and distance.

[Harold Louis Ginsberg]

In the Aggadah

The biblical account of the Tower of Babel is singularly brief and vague (Gen. R. 38). The prevailing opinion of the rabbis is that it was designed to serve the purposes of idolatry and constituted an act of rebellion against God (Sanh. 109a; Gen. R. 38:6; et al.), for which reason they also associated Nimrod ("the rebel") with its building (Ḥul. 89a). Many additional reasons are also suggested, among them the fear of a recurrence of the flood and the need to guard against such a recurrence by supporting the heavens or by splitting them so that waters would drain away slowly from the earth's surface (Ma'asim al Aseret ha-Dibberot; cf. Sanh. 109a). According to Josephus they were trying to dwell higher than the water level of the flood (Ant., i, iv). In this way the builders thought they would be spared, believing as they did that God had power over water alone (pd re 24). At the same time the rabbis laud the unity and love of peace that prevailed among them (Gen. R. 38), as a result of which they were given an opportunity to repent, but they failed, however, to seize it (ibid.). Various opinions are expressed as to the punishment which the builders incurred (Tanḥ. B., 23). According to the Mishnah (Sanh. 10:3), they were excluded from a share in the world to come. In the view of one amora, their punishment varied with the differing aims that inspired them; those who thought to dwell in heaven being dispersed throughout the world, those who sought to wage war against God being transformed into apes and demons, and those bent on idol worship being caught up in a confusion of tongues (Sanh. 109a). One-third of the tower was destroyed by fire, one-third subsided into the earth, and one-third is still standing. It is so high that to anyone ascending and looking down from the top, palm trees look like locusts (ibid.). This aggadah testifies to the existence of ruins at that time, which were popularly believed as being of the Tower of Babel. Aggadot about the tower are also to be found in Josephus and in the apocrypha (cf. Jub. 10:18–28), while several of its motifs are much discussed in Hellenistic Jewish literature.

[Israel Moses Ta-Shma]

In the Arts

The biblical story of the tower of Babel appears repeatedly in medieval and Renaissance literature, treated as an historical incident with strong moral overtones. Some examples are the Chronicon of Isidore of Seville (c. 560–636 c.e.), the Weltchronik of Rudolf von Ems (1200–1254), and the Speculum humanae salvationis (c. 1324), a Dominican manual of devotion which was frequently copied. Giovanni *Boccaccio wrote on the subject in his De casibus virorum illustrium (1355–60), as did an anonymous poet of Lyons in Le Triumphe de Haulte Folie (c. 1550). Two 17th-century Spanish works were entitled Torre de Babilonia: one was an auto sacramentale by the eminent dramatist Pedro Calderón de la Barca, the other by the Marrano author Antonio Enríquez *Gómez. Modern treatments include Tower of Babel (1874) by the English poet Alfred Austin and Babel (1952), an apocalyptic work by the French poet Pierre Emmanuel (1916–1984).

The subject appealed to medieval artists, appearing in 12th-century mosaics at Palermo and Monreale in Sicily and in the 13th-century Cathedral of St. Mark, Venice. There are representations in illuminated manuscripts from the 12th to the 14th centuries, including the German Hortus Deliciarum (Garden of Delights) and the Sarajevo Haggadah. Two 15th-century painters who used the theme were the Frenchman Jean Fouquet and the Italian Benozzo Gozzoli, who painted the fresco of Campo Santo, Pisa, now destroyed. With its landscape setting and the opportunities it offered for fantasy and close observation of the daily scene, the Tower was of considerable interest to the early Flemish painters. It was generally depicted either as a multistory structure, diminishing in size as it rose or, more often, as a square or circular building surrounded by a ramp. Some artists illustrated contemporary building methods, a fine example occurring in the Book of Hours of the Duke of Bedford (Paris, c. 1423), where the construction of the Tower proceeds at night under the stars. In Pieter Brueghel's Tower of Babel (1563), the building – leaning slightly – is shown in a vast landscape near the banks of a river, with a king arriving to inspect the progress of the work.

Although the Babel story might appear to be a temptation to composers, since the confusion of tongues can be expressed most effectively in music, very few works have in fact been written on the theme. These are mainly oratorios including César Franck's La Tour de Babel (1865) and Anton Rubinstein's markedly unsuccessful Der Turm zu Babel (1858; revised as an opera, 1872). Two 20th-century works are La Tour de Babel (1932) by René Barbier and Igor Stravinsky's Babel, a cantata for narrator, men's chorus, and orchestra (1944, published in 1952).


in the bible:

Abraham Ibn Ezra, Commentary to Gen. 11:1–9; M.D. Cassuto, Mi-No'aḥ ad Avraham (19593), 154–69; S.R. Driver, The Book of Genesis (19042), 132–7; Kaufmann Y., Toledot, 2 (1960), 412–5; N.M. Sarna, Understanding Genesis (1967), 63–80 (incl. bibl.); J. Skinner, The Book of Genesis (icc, 1930), 223–31; S.N. Kramer, in: jaos, 88 (1968), 108–11. in the aggadah: Ginzberg, Legends, index; U. Cassuto, Commentary on the Book of Genesis, 2 (1964), 225–49; J. Gutmann, in: Oz le-David [Ben Gurion] (1964), 584–94. in the arts: H. Minkowski, Aus dem Nebel der Vergangenheit steigt der Turm zu Babel: Bilder aus 1000 Jahren (1960); LL. Réau, Iconographie de l'art chrétien, 2 pt. 1 (1957), 120–3, incl. bibl.; T. Ehrenstein, Das Alte Testament im Bilde (1923), 125–32; H. Gressmann, Tower of Babel (1928), 1–19.

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Babel, Tower of




TOW-ur uv BAY-buhl

Alternate Names


Appears In

The Book of Genesis in the Old Testament

Myth Overview

According to the monotheistic religions (religions in which the people believe in only one god) of the Middle East, arrogant people built the Tower of Babel. In turn, they were made humble by losing their common language. The story of the Tower of Babel is told in the first book of the Old Testament of the Bible. In it, some people decided to build a city on the plains of southern Mesopotamia. The city they envisioned would feature a massive tower that reached up into the heavens. Their plan was to gain recognition for themselves as a people and to be able to stay together. When God saw what they were doing, however, he concluded that they were simply trying to gain power. To make planning difficult for them, he made them speak many different languages. Unable to communicate with each other at the building site, the people gave up the project and scattered to different lands. The remains of the city became known as Babel.

The Tower of Babel in Context

The story of the tower may have developed from the way later visitors interpreted the ruins of the old cities of the region. In Hebrew, the word Babel is a misinterpretation of the name Babylon, which meant “the gate of God.” In fact, archaeologists have found evidence of several tall ziggurats, or step-sided temples, in the ancient city of Babylon.

Key Themes and Symbols

The Tower of Babel is often viewed as a lesson of humility, or being modest before God. The Hebrew word balal, similar to “babel,” means “confusion.” Today the image of the Tower of Babel is used to indicate confusion and failure to communicate.

The Tower of Babel in Art, Literature, and Everyday Life

The Tower of Babel is one of the most popular myths of the Old Testament. It has been depicted in artwork by Pieter Brueghel the Elder, Gustave Doré, and M. C. Escher, among others. Science fiction author Ted Chiang wrote a thought-provoking short story about this myth, “Tower of Babel,” which won the Nebula Award in 1990. Another science fiction writer, Douglas Adams, gave the name “Babel fish” to a creature that appears in his 1979 novel The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy. The fish-like creature can live inside the ear and instantly translate any language into any other language.

It is possible that the term “babble,” meaning to speak nonsense or say things without meaning, is related to the story of the Tower of Babel; however, etymologists, or experts in the history of words, have not been able to establish a clear link between the two.

Read, Write, Think, Discuss

Over half of Europeans speak two languages (or more), but only nine percent of Americans speak two languages. English is so widely spoken throughout the world that, even when traveling abroad, Americans can often get by with little knowledge of the language of the country they are visiting. Do you think the American educational system should put more stress on teaching foreign languages? Why or why not? What are the benefits of knowing more than one language? Is the rapid spread of English as a common language of business around the world desirable or undesirable?

SEE ALSO Semitic Mythology

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Babel, Tower of Tower begun on the plain of Shinar, in Babylonia, by the descendants of Noah as a means of reaching heaven (Genesis 11). God prevented its completion by confusing the speech of the people and scattering them throughout the world. The Genesis story was probably inspired by a ziggurat or staged temple-tower in Babylon, seven storeys high and with a shrine to the god Marduk on its top.

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Babel, Tower of in the Bible, a tower built in an attempt to reach heaven, which God frustrated by confusing the languages of its builders so that they could not understand one another (Genesis 11:1–9). The story was probably inspired by the Babylonian ziggurat, and may be an attempt to explain the existence of different languages.

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Babel, Tower of. The enterprise which, acc. to the Bible, was the cause of the multiplicity of languages in the world: see Genesis 11. 1–9.