Together with Solomon’s temple, the tower of Babel may be the best-known building in the Hebrew Bible. The notion of a tower reaching toward heaven is deeply inscribed in our cultural memory. As a result, readers often overlook the fact that
The people who built the tower of Babel were driven by fundamental human concerns. They preferred settlement to the uncertainties of dispersion, uniformity to diversity, fame and power to obscurity and weakness. But in the account in
Did you know…?
- The story of the tower of Babel describes the diversity of languages and people.
- The tower of Babel is only mentioned in
- Some scholars dispute the identification of the tower mentioned in
Gen 11:1-9with 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.
- The use of fired bricks and bitumen for mortar was unknown in ancient Israel and introduces local Babylonian building techniques and color into the story.
- The literary and archaeological evidence suggests that the postexilic period is the most plausible setting for an author to write such a story.
What is God’s problem with the tower?
The standard answer is that the project of building a tower reaching the heavens is a symbol of humanity’s arrogant pursuit of fame and power—ideas closely linked in the ancient Near East. It is true that God expresses some concern about safeguarding the line between the human and divine spheres, perhaps even suggesting that the people pose some kind of threat to the divine realm (
The tower itself, however, is a minor motif—something mentioned twice and only in passing (see
How and when was the tower of Babel story written?
Scholars often assume that the story of the tower of Babel was stitched together from different sources or that it underwent stages of literary development. As evidence, they point to subtle tensions, apparent repetitions, and the seemingly large number of motifs. Since none of the individual elements are superfluous, however, such reconstructions are hardly convincing. Literary and historical analysis may suggest that a poem mocking Babel was the core tradition of the story.
The story of the tower of Babel concludes the biblical primeval narrative (
Here, the tower can help us. Because the story mentions Babel and is also set in the land of Shinar (