The Tower of Babel – What’s the Problem?

What’s wrong with a tower? “We” build them all the time. In fact, “we” are even now completing one in New York City to replace the Twin Towers.

Some read the Tower of Babel story as a polemic against conformity where individuality is lost. Others read it as a judgment against the human refusal to scatter throughout the earth and fill it. Some read it as an assault on technology.  I prefer a different emphasis than these though some parts of each might have a point.

Genesis 11 is eminently datable. We know that Mesopotamians began using sun-dried bricks around 8000 BCE and that they began using fire-baked bricks between 3500-3100 BCE. We also know that the ancients began using bitumen (natural asphalt) as mortar in this same time period. This enabled the Mesopotamian culture to begin monumental building projects. They were, however, expensive since fire-baked bricks required fuel that was scarce in that region of the world. These factors date the story of Genesis 11:1-9 no earlier than 3500 BCE.

But this creates a problem. We also know that cultures in the Australia, Asia and the Americas had their own indigenous languages prior to 3500 BCE. So, how can this story–located no earlier than the fourth millennium BCE–function as an etiology for all the languages around the globe? Multiple languages existed before cultures began to erect monumental buildings with fire-baked bricks and bitumen mortar.

Let’s hold that problem to the side for a moment and we’ll come back to it at the end of the post. It is more important–and perhaps will help us with that problem–to focus on the divine-human encounter in this text. It is not a wholly gracious encounter, though grace is present. God does not wipe out humanity in this text (as he did in the flood). Instead, he moves them toward the divine project as he scatters them to fill the earth. God’s judgment here is a gracious corrective. But it is a corrective; it is judgment against the human project or agenda in this text.

What is the human agenda in Genesis 11:1-9?

At one level, it is clear that it is the opposite of the divine agenda. The “let us” of Genesis 11:3-4 stands in stark contrast with the “let us” of Genesis 1:26-28. The human agenda in Genesis 11 is self-aggrandizement, arrogance and pride. They want to make a “name” for themselves. These settlers in Shinar are themselves descendants of “Ham” rather than “Shem” (cf. Genesis 10:6-10). Ham is a cursed name but they want to reverse that–they want to become “Shem” (a name!). “Shem” is Hebrew for “name.” They want to have the “great name” (cf. Genesis 12:2) among all humans. They will manufacture it for themselves.

They will build a great monumental city with a great tower that will make their name great. Their agenda is self-centered and is set against the divine agenda. They refuse the role God gives humanity in the world and they seek to create their own value and dignity instead of receiving what God has given. They promote idolatry in the form of human self-worship.

The tower is no military lookout. Rather, the tower is a Ziggurat.  Many still exist in Mesopotamia (modern Iraq). They begin to appear no earlier than the fourth millennium BCE and are continuously built into the Babylonian era (500s). The great city of Babylon, at the time of Israel’s exile, had a massive Ziggurat dedicated to the god Marduk.

These structures were at least, and perhaps more, religious sanctuaries; they were temples for the gods. They were where earth touched heaven. As such, they are–from Israel’s perspective–idolatrous. The idolatry is present in Genesis 11 when the text says they will build a tower “with its tops (head or pinnacle) in the heavens.”

Isaiah addressed Babylon’s arrogance and idolatry in Isaiah 14 where the prophet addresses the King of Babylon. The Babylonian king, according to Isaiah, describes himself in terms that are suggestive or reminiscent of the attitudes that surround the building of the Tower of Babel:  “I will ascend to heaven [as if to ascend the Ziggurat]; I will raise my throne above the stars of God…I will ascend to the tops of the clouds, I will make myself like the Most High” (Isaiah 14:13-14). The King of Babylon is like a Ziggurat all to himself. This is was the problem with the Tower of Babel. It was an act of self-worship that rejected God’s intent for humanity.

Just as the “descendants of Adam” (5:1-6:8) and “descendants of Noah” (6:9-9:29) began well and end badly (see my previous post on the Flood story), so the “descendants of the sons of Noah” (10:1-11:9) begin well and end badly. They begin well by scattering throughout the earth just as God intended. This created a diversity that God cherishes–different families, different languages, different cultures (10:5, 20, 31).  But these cultures become rooted in their lands, rise in arrogance, and take on arrogant projects that subvert the divine agenda within creation.

This is the problem with the Tower of Babel. It is neither the tower itself nor the unity of its people. Rather, it is the purpose for which they build the city and the tower. They committed an act of human idolatry and God ended their coherent civilization.

This brings us back to the chronological problem. Who is judged here? Is the “whole earth” judged or is Shinar judged?

When we read the “whole earth” in Genesis 11:1 we might imagine, as many have, that the writer has in view the whole globe (including the Americas, Asia and Australia). But the archaeological evidence does not permit such a reading any more than present scientific evidence permits reading Scripture in such a way that the sun revolves around the earth. But another reading is open to us that takes seriously the Babel (Babylon) context and the biblical text itself.

Israel taunts the king of Babylon in Isaiah 14 with universal (global) language. While Babylon once “ruled the nations,” now the “whole earth is at rest and quiet.”  To what does Isaiah refer when he describes the “whole earth“? He seems to mean that whatever Babylon once ruled is now at peace. In other words, Isaiah is referring to the  Babylonian Empire that ruled the ANE–it did not rule the literal “whole earth” but only the known earth as it appeared to Israel and others in that culture. Even then, literally, it was not even the whole earth of which the ancients were aware but the, as we might say, the “civilized world.”

Genesis 10 describes the scattering of the descendants of Noah’s sons throughout the earth from Europe to Africa to Asia. They develop different languages and cultures. However, the descendants of Nimrod, the son of Cush, the son of Ham, settled in Shinar (Babel) while the descendants of Shem and Japeth settled elsewhere. The text (Genesis 10) recognizes that humans were already scattered into different families, cultures and languages.  The descendants of Cush settled in Shinar. There, under Nimrod, they pursued their own agenda. They built a great civilization–coherent in language and united in purpose. They built, in essence, a civilization (Sumerian?), perhaps an empire. Their Ziggurat demonstrated their importance and significance.

Israel lived in a culture that remembered the fall of past great civilizations. Mesopotamian literature lamented the fall of the Sumerian civilization (around 2000 BCE), and there was probably the living memory of the fallen Uruk civilization in the same region (3000 BCE). Civilizations, and empires, come and go. This is the way God deals with human arrogance.

Babylonian civilization, like other ANE cultures, had their own rationales for the fall of previous civilizations and empires. Their literature explained what happened. But Israel has its own explanation.

The Tower of Babel story is Israel’s explanation for the fall of empires, perhaps even an explanation for the fall of the Sumerian civilization (see this article). Civilizations rise as they pursue the divine agenda (scattering throughout the earth, subduing the chaos within creation, and serving the creation–and all this includes the creation of culture, the use of technology, diverse languages, etc.). But they fall when human arrogance becomes mired in self-aggrandizement and self-worship.

The Tower of Babel is a counter-story. It is Israel’s rebuttal.  While Babylonian etiologies attributed the fall of past civilizations to various factors, Israel confesses that God rules the nations. Read within the context of the Babylonian exile, the Tower of Babel story is as a proleptic judgment against the arrogance of Babylon itself (cf. Isaiah 14). It is Israel’s polemic against Babylonian arrogance and against imperial pretensions.

The story still speaks. It does not condemn technology or city-building. The drama of redemption ends with a city, the new Jerusalem! Rather, it subverts the arrogance of any civilization that exalts itself and arrogates to itself the status of the kingdom of God.

[A summary of my presentation at Lipscomb University’s Summer Celebration on July 6, 2012.]

10 Responses to “The Tower of Babel – What’s the Problem?”

  1.   Bob Says:

    In other words, perhaps, Babel represents the failure of the first – or prototypical – civil religion.

  2.   rich constant Says:

    ever sense i was a young man this little verse has said so much.
    even relating to Danial and empires.
    also Sodom and Gomorrah….seems god knows when a nation is fitted for destruction,and judgement

    Gen 15:16 But in the fourth generation they shall come hither again: for the iniquity of the Amorites is not yet full.

  3.   riverwindfire Says:

    Thanks, John Mark. Very helpful stuff.

  4.   Steve Kenney Says:

    Then the call of Abram in Chapter 12 works as corrective. God will make a name out of Abram, contra the move in chapter 11 for humans to make a name for themselves. “Making a name” I suspect is more than just being famous; it has to do with the path to God. Worship will not be centered in land of Shinar or in the common language of the people, but will instead reflect the diversity of language and culture already described in chapter 10. That diversity will find its commonality in Abram and in his seed.

    The story will continue to contrast human striving and ingenuity on the one hand, (e.g. impregnating Hagar instead of waiting on God; all Jacob’s deceptions, the force of kings over ad hoc leaders, etc.) with God’s gracious lead on the other. This grand human plan for ziggarat is denied, but later in chapter 28, Jacob will see such a “stairway” into heaven, not as human accomplishment, but as divine gift.

    I think the theme continues. One more example is David’s resolution to build a house for God. God then tells him that he will establish David’s house permanently. We must learn to allow God to set the pace and to content ourselves with following him.

    Those are thoughts that occur to me…

    Grace & Shalom,
    Steve Kenney
    Indianapolis, IN

    •   John Mark Hicks Says:

      Thanks for extending it to chapter 12. I alluded to it in my piece but did not go there. You are correct, the theme between pride and humility, between choosing ourselves or choosing God, continues unabated throughout the story and into our own.

  5.   Price Futrell Says:

    I always assumed the real lesson was that when we work together we can get things accomplished, but when we stop listening to one another or become unable to listen to one another, things fall apart. Seems like a quick overview of the past century of the church.

    •   John Mark Hicks Says:

      It seems to me that if the point of the story was that a united humanity could accomplish anything…and this was a good thing…then the work on the tower would not have been stopped. The problem with the tower was its idolatrous self-worship.

  6.   Charles McLean Says:

    It is not when we build upon grandiose notions of our own wisdom and fail that the trouble begins… but when we succeed.

  7.   Timothy Archer Says:

    I’d add that “making a name” is a major theme in the opening chapters of Genesis, going back to when Cain first built a city and named it for his son. The Nephilim in Genesis 6 are “men of a name” as well.

    I find it striking that the author goes to great links NOT to name the builders of this rebellious city, then follows the account with a list of names! After that comes God’s promise to make Abraham’s name great, even though Abraham didn’t even own a house, let alone a city. The only thing Abraham ever built was an altar.

    Lots of good things to dig out of this story.


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