Passages

The Tower of Babel (Gen 11:1-9) by Jan Christian Gertz

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 Gen 11:1-9 reports little about the actual tower. For example, the story only implies that the workers stopped building the tower. The tower’s destruction, though often read into the story, is never stated. Instead of being the central interest of the story, the tower functions as a symbolic motif.

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 Gen 11:1-9, God denies their preferences. At the center of the story is humanity’s transition from speaking one language and living in one location to speaking several languages and living in multiple locations across the world.

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 (Gen 11:6, Job 42:2). The tower, then, is a symbol of humanity’s ability and propensity to cross boundaries and of God’s endeavor to check such behavior.

The tower itself, however, is a minor motif—something mentioned twice and only in passing (see Gen 11:4-5). The narrative’s conclusion focuses on the real issue at hand: God’s dissolution of humanity’s linguistic unity, an act that results in dispersion and that reflects the historical experience of the Israelites in the exilic and postexilic periods. The story ends with an etiology (an origin story) connecting the name of the city with the confusion (balal) of languages and identifying the city as the origin point for the dispersion of humanity (Gen 11:9).

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 (Gen 1-11), whose origin is often explained by assuming a combination of two previously independent sources. Here, our story is generally attributed to the earlier source. But as the story meshes well with the genealogies of the second, later source, this argument is questionable. Additionally, the Babel story seems to have in view the stories about Abraham and Sarah, both of whom are from Mesopotamia (see Gen 11:31). All this would seem to suggest that Gen 11:1-9 was composed after the strands of the primeval history and the ancestral narrative were combined, which likely happened fairly late (sixth century B.C.E.). Even so, the age of a story whose author we do not know remains difficult to determine. Gen 11:1-9 is a myth set in primeval times, but this setting indicates neither that the text was written at the same time the “events” occurred nor that it is later.

Here, the tower can help us. Because the story mentions Babel and is also 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.

Jan Christian Gertz, "Tower of Babel (Gen 11:1-9)", n.p. [cited 29 Jun 2017]. Online: http://bibleodyssey.com/en/passages/main-articles/tower-of-babel

Contributors

Jan Christian Gertz

Jan Christian Gertz
Professor, Heidelberg University

Jan Christian Gertz is professor of Old Testament at Heidelberg University, Germany, where he holds the Chair of History of Ancient Israel, Literature and Religion of the Old Testament. He is the coauthor of T&T Clark Handbook of the Old Testament (T&T Clark, 2012).

The tower of Babel, probably a postexilic addition to the primeval history, is a symbol of the human ability and propensity to cross boundaries and of God’s endeavor to halt such behavior.

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 Gen 11:4-5.
  • 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.
  • 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.

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.

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 11:1-9

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

Relating to the period in Judean history following the Babylonian exile (587–539 B.C.E.), also known as the Persian period, during which the exiles were allowed to return to Judea and rebuild the temple in Jerusalem.

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

A region notable for its early ancient civilizations, geographically encompassing the modern Middle East, Egypt, and modern Turkey.

Characteristic of a deity (a god or goddess).

A story that explains the origins or cause of an object, belief, or event.

A written, spoken, or recorded story.

Gen 11:6

6And the Lord said, “Look, they are one people, and they have all one language; and this is only the beginning of what they will do; nothing that they propose t ... View more

Job 42:2

2“I know that you can do all things,
and that no purpose of yours can be thwarted.

Gen 11:4-5

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 11:9

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

Of or related to the written word, especially that which is considered literature; literary criticism is a interpretative method that has been adapted to biblical analysis.

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

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

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 11:31

31Terah took his son Abram and his grandson Lot son of Haran, and his daughter-in-law Sarai, his son Abram's wife, and they went out together from Ur of the Cha ... 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 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 11:2

2And as they migrated from the east, they came upon a plain in the land of Shinar and settled there.

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 11:3

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.

Of or relating to ancient lower Mesopotamia and its empire centered in Babylon.

The period in Judean history following the Babylonian exile (587–539 B.C.E.), also known as the Persian period, during which the exiles were allowed to return to Judea and rebuild the temple in Jerusalem.

Gen 11:4-5

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 11:1-9

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

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