Published: 28 June 2021

A Tower With Its Top In The Heavens, Part 1

Tower of Babel.

The story of the Tower of Babel in Gen 11 is an account of the origin of the nations. These are the nations whom the Jewish people would encounter in the unfolding of their history. It is such a straightforward story, Bible students have difficulty accepting its simple and direct message at face value. People layer a great deal of interpretive baggage on top of this story; baggage which the text does not support.

Unsupported claims

Before looking at what this story does say, let’s take note of what it does not say. I will describe a few of the more popular interpretations below. Notice what they all have in common: this story is about God punishing the people for their arrogance.

Unsupported Claim: Cultural Imperialism

A very old idea is that the story describes tyranny and oppression. The 1st century AD Jewish historian Josephus documented such an interpretation. Commenting about Nimrod, who began a kingdom which included the city of Babel (Gen 10:8-12), Josephus says:

“He [Nimrod] also gradually changed the government into tyranny, – seeing no other way of turning men from the fear of God, but to bring them into a constant dependence upon his power. He also said that he would be revenged on God, if he should have a mind to drown the world again; for that he would build a tower too high for the waters to be able to reach! and that he would avenge himself on God for destroying their forefathers!”[1]Antiquities 1.114, Josephus, Flavius, and William Whiston. The Works of Josephus: Complete and Unabridged. New updated ed, Hendrickson Publishers, 1987, 35. 

This idea of one culture imposing itself over other cultures has become fashionable again among people with woke-leaning ideological proclivities. In an audacious display of eisegesis[2]Eisegesis is the act of reading presuppositions or biases into the text. they claim this narrative tells about God’s punishment for imperialism. They claim it is a tale of ruthless empire building where a dominant culture imposed their will over the poor and oppressed of other cultures. For example, one blogger concludes this:

“The one language and same words of Babel was not an ideal instituted by God, but actually the result of ruthless empire-building. It was a symbol of oppression and dominance. The three-hundred-foot tower of Babel was an icon of imperialism, of empire building, not by the people themselves but by their oppressors. The story of Babel is therefore a critique of imperialism, the imposition of a single culture on a diverse and varied world.”[3]http://www.asht.org.uk/blog/pentecost-when-god-crushed-imperialism-and-set-his-people-free  

If you will notice, the text of Gen 11:1-9 says nothing about empire building, oppression, dominance, or imperialism. We don’t see a diverse and varied culture in this narrative until after God dispersed the singular culture at Babel. Babel was not a multicultural city because only one culture existed! The whole idea of building the city with its tower was to preserve their culture and society.

Josephus’s conjecture about Nimrod has been adopted and expanded by those whose ideology is sympathetic to the tenants of Liberation Theology.[4]Hiebert, Theodore. “The Tower of Babel and the Origin of the World’s Cultures.” Journal of Biblical Literature 126, no. 1 (2007): 30. It is an attempt to find biblical support for current non-biblical theories of social justice. The aim of some such movements is the replacement of traditional Christian doctrines.

To be sure, the Bible teaches that God is greatly concerned about how we treat the poor and marginalized. It is evident that God’s desire for us is to treat them with fairness and respect. However, those who insert “empire” into this story are imposing extra-biblical social and economic philosophies upon the text. These philosophies are more closely aligned with Marxist theory than biblical theology.

Unsupported Claim: A tower to reach God 

Ancient cosmology held that heaven was directly above the dome of the sky. Based on this, many people have assumed the tower was a staircase. In this view, the people believed that if they could build a tower high enough, they’d be able to reach Heaven. Does the text say this was the reason the people built the tower? An ascent into heaven was not the true motivation for this construction project. The text clearly states the city and tower was a means to an end. The goal was to make a great name for themselves and to remain in one location (Gen 11:4).

Some jump to the conclusion that the tower was built so that people could ascend to Heaven because the text describes the wish to make a tower of great height. Describing a building or fortification with its top reaching the heavens is an ancient Near Eastern idiom describing structures of great or impressive heights.[5]Ibid., 37. We see similar language in Dt 1:28, 9:1 describing Canaanite cities with walls reaching the skies.

This phrasing is an exaggeration serving to emphasize how strongly fortified these cities were. Abraham Ibn Ezra, a 12th century AD Jewish commentator and philosopher, said, ‘”a tower with its top in the sky” should be taken as an idiom for height, not a literal description, asserting, “The builders of the tower were not fools to believe that they could actually ascend the heavens.”‘[6]Ibid., 38.

Unsupported Claim: The tower allowed God to come down

Mesopotamian literature tells us the purpose of their towers (ziggurats) were to provide the gods a stairway that led from the heavens down to the deity’s temple which was next to the base of the ziggurat.[7]Walton, John H., editor. Zondervan Illustrated Bible Backgrounds Commentary. Zondervan, 2009: 61-63. 

Could the tower of Babel have been a ziggurat? Paul H. Seely makes these observations in favor of a ziggurat:

“Gen 11:4 tells us that the settlers in Sumer decided to build “a city and a tower.” The word used for tower is מִגְדָּל (migdal). Since this word is often used in the OT for a watchtower or a defensive tower (e.g., Judg 9:45, 51; 2 Kgs 9:17; 17:9; Isa 5:2) and nowhere else refers to a ziggurat, what reason is there to believe that in Gen 11:4 it refers to a ziggurat? The first reason is that the setting is in Babylonia where the ziggurat was the most prominent structure in a city – both visually and ideologically. Secondly, the tower in our text was designed to bring fame and glory to the builders (“so that we may make a name for ourselves”). Mesopotamian kings often took pride in building ziggurats, but no such pride was taken in defensive towers which were simply parts of the city wall. The use of baked brick and bitumen also tells us that the migdal in our text was a ziggurat rather than a defensive tower, for baked brick and bitumen were very expensive in Mesopotamia and hence were saved for luxurious architecture like palaces, temples, and ziggurats.”[8]Seely, Paul H. “The Date of the Tower of Babel and Some Theological Implications.” The Westminster Theological Journal 63, no. 1 (2001): 18.

Both Seely and Walton point out that there is no archaeological evidence of the existence of baked bricks prior to 3500 BC.[9]Seely, Paul H. “The Date of the Tower of Babel and Some Theological Implications.” The Westminster Theological Journal 63, no. 1 (2001): 18-19.[10]Walton, John H., editor. Zondervan Illustrated Bible Backgrounds Commentary. Zondervan, 2009: 61. They conclude that the tower in Gen 11 must have been a ziggurat for two reasons. First, there is no evidence of the tower’s principle construction material (baked bricks) before 3500 BC. Second, ziggurats were in fashion in Mesopotamia at the end of the fourth millennium BC.

Babel predates the ziggurat builders

When the construction took place determines whether the tower was a ziggurat. We will probably never know exactly when the people built Babel. However, we know it took place before the multiplication of human languages. The evidence of multiple languages and civilizations predating the fourth millennium BC is conclusive. Noah’s flood wiped out all human life except for those on the ark. Consequently, Noah’s earliest descendants spoke the same language. Therefore, the flood and the events surrounding the tower of Babel, must have occurred much earlier than 3500 BC. 

How can this be true if baked bricks, of which the tower was made, first appeared around 3500 BC? The important thing to remember is that there are no known baked bricks prior to 3500 BC. Just because we have not discovered older baked bricks does not mean earlier civilizations didn’t manufacture them. Absence of evidence is not evidence of absence. 

Baked bricks in short supply

As Seely points out, baked bricks would have been very costly in Mesopotamia and would have been used sparingly. The principle reason baked bricks were costly to produce was lack of fuel for fires. Wood and other combustible material was not abundant in this region. It would have been necessary to transport wood from distant places. If baked bricks were only for the most special projects, it stands to reason archaeologists would find fewer of them. In addition, the deterioration that comes with great age may mean there is little left to discover.

Since the tower and city of Babel originated in the remote past, the Mesopotamian culture which built the ziggurats didn’t exist yet. Therefore, the pagan belief that a ziggurat allowed the gods to descend from the skies into their temples at the ziggurat’s base was an idea which had not yet come into existence when Babel was first built. 

All mankind lived in the Mesopotamian plain speaking one language at this point in time. Therefore the Tower of Babel incident predates the ziggurats of later Mesopotamian society.

The message isn’t…

This is not a story about pride and punishment. It is not a message about the condemnation of imperialism. The story is not about a tower which bridged heaven and earth for ascent or descent by men or gods. In the next blog post we’ll examine what the text does say. 

References

References
1 Antiquities 1.114, Josephus, Flavius, and William Whiston. The Works of Josephus: Complete and Unabridged. New updated ed, Hendrickson Publishers, 1987, 35.
2 Eisegesis is the act of reading presuppositions or biases into the text.
3 http://www.asht.org.uk/blog/pentecost-when-god-crushed-imperialism-and-set-his-people-free
4 Hiebert, Theodore. “The Tower of Babel and the Origin of the World’s Cultures.” Journal of Biblical Literature 126, no. 1 (2007): 30.
5 Ibid., 37.
6 Ibid., 38.
7 Walton, John H., editor. Zondervan Illustrated Bible Backgrounds Commentary. Zondervan, 2009: 61-63.
8 Seely, Paul H. “The Date of the Tower of Babel and Some Theological Implications.” The Westminster Theological Journal 63, no. 1 (2001): 18.
9 Seely, Paul H. “The Date of the Tower of Babel and Some Theological Implications.” The Westminster Theological Journal 63, no. 1 (2001): 18-19.
10 Walton, John H., editor. Zondervan Illustrated Bible Backgrounds Commentary. Zondervan, 2009: 61.