Tower of Babel and Mesopotamian Influence? by Christoph Uehlinger

The famous tower of babel story from Gen 11:1-9 has strong Mesopotamian echoes. The passage contains explicit references to aspects of Mesopotamian civilization: the physical environment (the plain of Shinar, Gen 11:1), geography (Babylon, called babel in Gen 11:9), building techniques (using bricks and bitumen instead of stone and mortar, Gen 11:3), urbanism (“let us build ourselves a city, and a tower,” Gen 11:4), and political phraseology (“to make oneself a name,” Gen 11:4, that is, to become famous through monuments). All these are known features of Mesopotamian civilization in the second and first millennium B.C.E.

Given the strong “Mesopotamian touch” that characterizes the tower of babel story, one would assume that there must be plenty of Mesopotamian texts and materials relating to it. On close examination, however, this is not the case.

Since the time of the rabbis in late antiquity, people have searched for the city ruins and the tower of babel. According to Jewish and Islamic lore, it was King Nimrod (mentioned in Gen 10:8-12) who ordered the tower be erected “with its head in heaven” (Gen 11:4). Ruins called Birs Nimrud in Arabic, 17 kilometers south of Babylon, were thus regarded as the most likely location of the tower until early in the 20th century; today they are identified as the remains of a ziggurat that once was part of the main temple of ancient Borsippa and its patron god Nabu.

European Renaissance humanists further identified the tower of Gen 11 with what the Greek historian Herodotus describes in his Histories 2.89 as a huge structure of superimposed towers (plural!) in the center of ancient Babylon. This structure, called E-temen-an-ki (“House: Foundation of heaven and earth”) or “ziggurat of (the god) Marduk” by the ancient Babylonians, was excavated in 1913 and reexamined in 1962 and 1967–68.

The view that the mythical tower of babel was a memory of this historical building has become so compelling that modern scholars hardly question it. However, since the Hebrew word migdal, usually translated “tower,” could point to a fortress or citadel as well, and the story says nothing about a religious function of the tower, the equation is far from obvious.

The Primeval History of Gen 1-11, the Bible’s opening, is heavily indebted to Mesopotamian mythology in many respects. But though there are indeed close parallels to the narratives about the creation of the world and of humanity, early culture heroes, and the flood, no parallel earlier than the Hellenistic period is known for the Babel story.

To be sure, a Sumerian legend quoted in an epic entitled Enmerkar (King of Uruk) and the Lord of Aratta seems to ascribe to the god Enki the multiplication of human languages in antediluvian times. The passage (lines 134–55) has been labeled a “Sumerian version” of the “Babel of Tongues” by eminent Assyriologist Samuel Noah Kramer. However, according to Gen 11:7 and Gen 11:9, Yahweh did not multiply languages but rather “mixed up” humanity’s common speech into gibberish. In any case, as the Enmerkar epic was not transmitted beyond the middle of the second millennium B.C.E., a link between the Sumerian composition and the biblical story can be ruled out.

Because of the conspicuously sociopolitical message of this very short story, which expresses a fear of losing social cohesion, some scholars understand Gen 11:1-9 as a critique of empire building and metropolitanism, which was purposefully inscribed into the earliest history of postdiluvian humanity. Some have also found intriguing connections with similar motifs and phrases in Neo-Assyrian royal inscriptions.

Incidentally, this antiempire, antiurban reading is fully in line with the first creation account’s command (Gen 1:28) to humans not only to multiply but also “to fill the earth.”

 

Christoph Uehlinger, "Tower of Babel and Mesopotamian Influence?", n.p. [cited 27 Jun 2017]. Online: http://bibleodyssey.org/en/passages/related-articles/tower-of-babel-and-mesopotamian-influence

Contributors

Christoph Uehlinger

Christoph Uehlinger
Professor, University of Zurich

Christoph Uehlinger is a Hebrew Bible/Old Testament scholar who taught on Bible, iconography, and ancient religion at the University of Fribourg for many years. Wider interests in eastern Mediterranean and Near Eastern societies and cultures allowed him to move to the University of Zurich, where he has held the chair in comparative history of religions since 2003.  

From the time before the Flood.

The historical period from the beginning of Western civilization to the start of the Middle Ages.

Residents of the ancient Mesopotamian city of Babylon, also used to refer to the population of the larger geographical designation of lower Mesopotamia.

Archaeological site in modern-day Iraq where the remains of a ziggurat lie.

A fortress that protected its surrounding town.

A broad, diverse group of nations ruled by the government of a single nation.

The Mesopotamian god of water and wisdom.

Dug up, often from an archaeological site.

A West Semitic language, in which most of the Hebrew Bible is written except for parts of Daniel and Ezra. Hebrew is regarded as the spoken language of ancient Israel but is largely replaced by Aramaic in the Persian period.

Of or relating to Greek culture, especially ancient Greece after Alexander the Great.

Short written texts, generally inscribed on stone or clay and frequently recording an event or dedicating an object.

Short written texts, generally inscribed on stone or clay and frequently recording an event or dedicating an object.

A Babylonian deity who becomes the chief god of the Babylonian pantheon, as recounted in the Babylonian creation story Enuma Elish.

A recurring element or symbolism in artwork, literature, and other forms of expression.

The scribal god of the Mesopotamian pantheon; the son of Marduk, he came to be associated with wisdom as well as writing.

An Assyrian city located on the upper Tigris River, known as Kalhu in Assyiran and Calah in the Hebrew Bible. Nimrud was the capital of the Neo-Assyiran empire for much of the ninth and eighth centuries B.C.E., and its palaces have yielded stunning archaeological artifacts.

The period after the biblical flood depicted in Gen 1-9.

The first 11 chapters of the book of Genesis, up to the birth of Abraham.

The first major civilization of ancient Mesopotamia, arising in the fifth millennium B.C.E. and lasting through the early second millennium B.C.E.; the Sumerians invented the first writing system, cuneiform.

An ancient Mesopotamian temple, taking the form of a stepped pyriamid.

Gen 11:1-9

The Tower of Babel
1Now the whole earth had one language and the same words.2And as they migrated from the east, they came upon a plain in the land of Shinar an ... View more

Gen 11:1

The Tower of Babel
1Now the whole earth had one language and the same words.

Gen 11:9

9Therefore it was called Babel, because there the Lord confused the language of all the earth; and from there the Lord scattered them abroad over the face of al ... View more

Gen 11:3

3And they said to one another, “Come, let us make bricks, and burn them thoroughly.” And they had brick for stone, and bitumen for mortar.

Gen 11:4

4Then they said, “Come, let us build ourselves a city, and a tower with its top in the heavens, and let us make a name for ourselves; otherwise we shall be scat ... View more

Gen 11:4

4Then they said, “Come, let us build ourselves a city, and a tower with its top in the heavens, and let us make a name for ourselves; otherwise we shall be scat ... View more

Gen 10:8-12

8Cush became the father of Nimrod; he was the first on earth to become a mighty warrior.9He was a mighty hunter before the Lord; therefore it is said, “Like Nim ... View more

Gen 11:4

4Then they said, “Come, let us build ourselves a city, and a tower with its top in the heavens, and let us make a name for ourselves; otherwise we shall be scat ... View more

Gen 11

The Tower of Babel
1Now the whole earth had one language and the same words.2And as they migrated from the east, they came upon a plain in the land of Shinar an ... View more

Gen 1-11

Six Days of Creation and the Sabbath
1In the beginning when God created the heavens and the earth,2the earth was a formless void and darkness covered the face o ... View more

Gen 11:7

7Come, let us go down, and confuse their language there, so that they will not understand one another's speech.”

Gen 11:9

9Therefore it was called Babel, because there the Lord confused the language of all the earth; and from there the Lord scattered them abroad over the face of al ... View more

Gen 11:1-9

The Tower of Babel
1Now the whole earth had one language and the same words.2And as they migrated from the east, they came upon a plain in the land of Shinar an ... View more

Gen 1:28

28God blessed them, and God said to them, “Be fruitful and multiply, and fill the earth and subdue it; and have dominion over the fish of the sea and over the b ... View more

 NEH Logo
Bible Odyssey has been made possible in part by the National Endowment for the Humanities: Exploring the human endeavor
Any views, findings, conclusions, or recommendations expressed in this website, do not necessarily represent those of the National Endowment for the Humanities.