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What Happened At Babel

As a result, he confused their language, causing them to speak many different languages so they would not understand each other. By doing this, God thwarted their plans. He also forced the people of the city to scatter all across the face of the earth.

What was so wrong with building this tower? The people were coming together to accomplish a notable work of architectural wonder and beauty. Why was that so bad? The tower was about convenience, not obedience. The people were doing what seemed best for themselves and not what God had commanded. Their building project symbolized the arrogance of humans who try to be equal with God. In seeking to be free from reliance on God, the people thought they could reach heaven on their own terms.

The tower is a grandiose project -- the ultimate manmade achievement. It resembles the modern masterstrokes humans continue to build and boast about today, such as the International Space Station. To build the tower, the people used brick instead of stone and tar instead of mortar. They used manmade materials, instead of more durable God-made materials. The people were building a monument to themselves, to call attention to their abilities and achievements, instead of giving glory to God. God pointed out that when people are unified in purpose, they can accomplish impossible feats, both noble and ignoble.

This is why unity in the body of Christ is so important in our efforts to accomplish God's purposes on earth. By contrast, having unity of purpose in worldly matters, ultimately, can be destructive.


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In God's viewpoint, division in worldly matters is sometimes preferred over great feats of idolatry and apostasy. For this reason, God at times intervenes with a divisive hand in human affairs. To prevent further arrogance, God confuses and divides people's plans, so they don't overstep God's limits on them. Share Flipboard Email. Mary Fairchild is a full-time Christian minister, writer, and editor of two Christian anthologies, including "Stories of Cavalry. Updated January 22, Questions for Reflection Are there any manmade "stairways to heaven" you are building in your life?

The Bible story of the tower of Babel unfolds in Genesis Then 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, lest we be dispersed over the face of the whole earth. It was the public sector of the city that was fortified and contained the stores of grain. Thus Hilprecht notes…. The temple complex of Nippur, with the dwellings of numerous officials, embraced the whole eastern half of the city, an area of almost 80 acres. The so-called inner and outer walls of Nippur cannot refer to the whole city, as one would have supposed from the inscriptions, but in accordance with the topographical evidence must be limited to the Temple of Bel even to the exclusion of the temple library Although it is possible that the author wants to make the point that this endeavor was attempting to build an entire city of the most expensive materials, I find it more plausible that the public sector of the city is intended.

Thus, when the people in Genesis 11 speak of building a city , they are most likely not referring to building of a residential settlement, but would have in mind the building of public buildings, which in ancient Mesopotamia would be largely represented by the temple complex. The focus of any major temple complex would have been the ziggurat, which leads us into the next section.

We cannot say that the building project described in Genesis 11 was exclusively a temple complex, but a temple complex certainly was included and is the focus of the story. This is confirmed by the nature of the building materials, the nature of the ancient city, and the role of the ziggurat in the narrative. This ziggurat was the dominant building of the complex, so we are not surprised that that draws the attention of the narrator.

Although we have already examined the function of the ziggurat, the role of the temple complex as a whole in Mesopotamian society may now be of some significance to our study. Reference has been frequently made in the past to the administration of the so-called temple economy, which was deduced by Deimel and Falkenstein mainly from the Early Dynastic texts from Lagash and Shuruppak. Falkenstein added that the temple had at its disposal not only the labor resources of the temple personnel, but the labor force of the entire city-state for tasks concerning the temple Although this theory has been largely overturned in more recent analyses Foster , the temple complex was likely the center of the earliest efforts of urbanization, a process that is characterized by public buildings, specialized labor, and some publicly owned land.

Jacobsen comments:. The centralization of authority which this new political pattern made possible may have been responsible, along with other factors, for the emergence of a truly monumental architecture in Mesopotamia. Imposing temples now began to rise in the plain, often built on gigantic artificial mountains of sun-dried bricks, the famous ziggurats. Works of such proportions clearly presuppose a high degree of organization and direction in the community which achieved them So we find that the development of ziggurats and the urbanization process go hand in hand. The interrelationship of architecture, city planning, and religion has been observed in the interpretation of the finds in ancient Uruk.

Hans Nissen says,. We can deduce from the completely different layout of the two shrines in the Late Uruk period that there must have been greater differences here than can be expressed merely by the assumption that we are dealing with different divinities. While in the western area, a terrace that was a good ten meters high, on which stood a high building visible from afar, the precinct of Eanna was completely differently organized. All the buildings were erected upon flat ground without the slightest elevation. Whereas in the western area it was already impossible, from the point of view of the building , for there to be more than one cult building, the layout of Eanna does not exclude the possibility that several such cult buildings were in use simultaneously.

This difference in external organization can definitely be traced back to differences in the organization of the cult and can thus also clearly be traced back to different basic religious concepts ; cf. The connections between Genesis 11 and the early stages of urbanization in Mesopotamia are further confirmed by the statement of the builders in Genesis that they desired not to be scattered abroad.

Although this statement has often been interpreted as an indication of disobedience on the part of the builders, such a view cannot be warranted. But a correlation here cannot be sustained. The passages that speak of being fruitful and multiplying are better read as blessings granting permission, rather than commands; privileges, rather than obligations. Scattering is not to be equated with filling. The second point against the disobedience interpretation is the existence of a much more plausible alternative for understanding the statement.

If the builders desired to prevent scattering, then we must assume that something was forcing them to scatter. The Old Testament does witness to a pressure to scatter that arises from internal conditions. Genesis records a situation that arose between Abraham and Lot in which they would no longer remain together because of conflict between their men.

This would have involved competition for prime grazing land and for campsites nearer to water sources. The constant need for the patriarchs to travel to Egypt in time of famine i. Cooperation among residents as initially practiced by Abraham and Lot can increase the ratio, but eventually the growth in numbers will necessitate dispersion. Perhaps more frequently, the cooperative effort will fail. Both reasons are mentioned in Genesis 13 —their possessions became too great, and their men fought. Scattering, then, is not being avoided by disobedience.

It is rather a fact of life in nomadic and seminomadic societies that is counterproductive to cultural continuity. It is natural that the builders would want to counteract the need to scatter. The solution to this is the development of a cooperative society, which by pooling their efforts and working together can greatly increase production.

In a word—the solution is urbanization. Living together in such close quarters meant that conflicts had, rather, to be actively controlled, leading to the setting up of rules for resolving conflicts. As we have already seen, situations where people lived together in close proximity could only arise in the intensively cultivated irrigation areas. Thus it was also the inhabitants of these areas—that is, especially of Babylonia—who found themselves confronted by these challenges and had to find answers to them. The need to establish rules enabling people or communities to live together is far more important in encouraging the higher development of civilizations than the need to create purely administrative structures Nissen From every angle, then, the narrative, taken against its historical and cultural background, continually points us to the early period of urbanization in southern Mesopotamia.

But how does this relate to YHWH's response to the builders' efforts? Are we to conclude that urbanization is somehow contrary to YHWH's plan? While some have taken this route, it seems a difficult one to maintain given YHWH's choice of a city, Jerusalem , for the dwelling place of his presence. It is more likely that there would be something that was characteristic of the urbanization process within Mesopotamia that would be identifiable as the problem.

Again, our knowledge of Mesopotamian backgrounds can provide some possible explanations. The administration of the early cities was in the hands of a general assembly. Although its period of operation was relatively brief, the general assembly format of government left a permanent impression on Mesopotamian society in that this was the form of government that mythology depicted as used by the gods. As the urbanized state began to function, the universe came to be considered a state ruled by the gods Jacobsen Details concerning the pantheon and its operation prior to this shift are few and often obscure.

Jacobsen has presented the view that the earlier picture of the gods was one in which each god, or numinous power, was seen as bound up by a particular natural phenomenon through which he was made manifest. The god was seen to be the power behind the phenomenon, and the phenomenon circumscribed the power of the god and was the god's only form Moran 2. As the situation developed, however, a change took place. Rather than continuing to emphasize the powerful uncontrolled manifestation of deity in natural phenomena, the view of the cosmos as a state emerged, with the now humanized gods as citizens and rulers.

Mesopotamian theology that is reflected in most of the mythology of Babylon and Assyria has an urbanized society as its foundation. This theological perspective arose sometime early in the urbanization process, for even the Early Dynastic literature reflects that point of view. One indicator of this shift is the sudden popularity of the practice of setting up statues in temples that were intended to pray for the life of the benefactor.

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Nissen observes,. We can assume that it is highly probable that the custom of setting up statues in temples with this intention began in the Early Dynastic Period.

This observation is of interest insofar as it certainly reflects a change in religious ideas. A notion of a god that makes it conceivable that the god can be influenced in this way differs fundamentally from the one that sees in the god only what is spiritually elevated. It is a humanization of the divine image such as we have already seen as a precondition for the theological speculations about a pantheon in which the ranking order of the gods among themselves was expressed in the form of family relationships The ziggurat and the temple complex provide the link between urbanization, of which they are the central organ, and Mesopotamian religion which they typify.

The ziggurat and the temple complex were representative of the very nature of Mesopotamian religion as it developed its characteristic forms. The essence of this new perspective, represented by the ziggurat and temple complex, is highlighted by Lambert. The theology of the Sumerians as reflected in what seem to be the older myths presents an accurate reflection of the world from which they spring.

The forces of nature can be brutal and indiscriminate; so were the gods. Nature knows no modesty; nor did the gods. No longer using the analogy of natural forces, they imagined the gods in their own image 7. Particularly powerful and concrete in the new anthropomorphic view was the symbol of the temple, the god's house. Towering over the flat roofs of the surrounding town, it gave the townsmen visible assurance that the god was present among them in Moran The development in Mesopotamian religion that took place with the development of urbanization, was that men began to envision their gods in conformity with the image of man.

Man was no longer attempting to be like God, but more insidiously, was trying to bring deity down to the level of man. The gods of the Babylonians were not only understood to interact with each other and operate their affairs as humans do, but they also behaved like humans, or worse.

Finkelstein observes,. The Babylonian gods …although not themselves BOUND by moral or ethical principles, nevertheless appreciated them and expected man to live by them. The Babylonians, it would seem, fashioned their gods in their own image more faithfully than the Israelites did theirs This is what is represented by the ziggurat. The function of the ziggurat that was suggested earlier as a result of our study of the names further supports this.

The needs and nature of the deities who would make use of such a stairway reflect the weakness of deity brought about by the Babylonian anthropomorphization of the gods. It is this system of religion that was an outgrowth of the urbanization process as it unfolded in Mesopotamia, and it was this system that had as its chief symbol the towering ziggurat.

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The danger of the action of the builders then has nothing to do with architecture or with urbanization. Nothing was wrong with towers or with cities. The danger is found in what this building project stood for in the minds of the builders.

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To the Israelites, this would be considered the ultimate act of religious hubris, making God in the image of man. This goes beyond mere idolatry ; it degrades the nature of god.

The Tower of Babel

In fact, it is no more silent a symbol than the courtyard of Saint Peter's Basilica in Vatican Square. The editor's own presentation of the material demonstrates their understanding of the symbol. What is the end result? It was the Babylonians who eventually committed the offense. In the eyes of the editor the intentions of the builders were innocent enough, but now, behold what their ziggurat had come to represent!

The hubris was committed by those who carried on from that innocent yet auspicious beginning and brought to fruition the very evil that YHWH had foreseen—the degradation of deity. As the modern poet has voiced it:. The more the gods become like men, the easier it is for men to believe the gods. When both have only human appetites, then rogues may worship rogues Miller Unlike the modern interpretations, which suggest that there was no offense and that YHWH, acting in grace, prevented offense from occurring, we would suggest that the offense was not prevented, but rather delayed and isolated by YHWH's action.

By confusing the languages, God made cooperation impossible; therefore, scattering could no longer be prevented. Thus the urbanization process was delayed. We cannot deny the possibility that this account was understood by the Israelites as being pregnant with political implications. Its main intent, though, we would argue, would seem to be not political polemic, nor even the account of yet another offense. Rather, the account demonstrates the need for God to reveal himself to the world. The concept of God had been corrupted and distorted; this would require an extensive program of reeducation to correct.

So it was that God chose Abraham and his family and made a covenant with them. The covenant would serve as the mechanism by which God would reveal himself to the world through Israel. As is evident from the above, I believe that the account of Genesis 11 has a solid historical foundation in early Mesopotamia. The details are authentic and realistic. The identification of the urbanization process and the accompanying development of the ziggurat with fundamental changes in the religious perspectives of the people demonstrates the keen analytical insight of the Biblical author.

At times God intervenes with a divisive hand in human affairs

Is it possible to suggest a particular historical period as the background of the event recounted in this narrative? First, a review of the pertinent information:. Development of Ziggurat: Early Dynastic Period, ca. First, in the Biblical account the tower of Babel is presented as a failed prototype. The result of God's action against the builders was to delay the development of urbanization in Mesopotamia. Consequently, it would be logical to infer that the event recorded in Genesis 11 occurred perhaps centuries prior to the actual development of urbanization as attested by archaeological records.

Second, development of institutions may have taken place prior to the Early Dynastic period, but written records are not available to inform us of those developments. Writing developed in the Late Uruk period, but is limited to basic economical use for some time.

Besides the archaeological information that has been discussed, we must also consider that the account must have support from our understanding of the history of linguistic development and from settlement patterns in Mesopotamia. Taking all of this information into account, the Ubaid period is most intriguing. Ubaid is a site in southern Mesopotamia just northwest of Ur.

The Ubaid period witnesses the first settlements in southern Mesopotamia, with many of the sites being built on virgin soil Finegan 8. The sites in the northern section of Mesopotamia that attest the earlier settlements e. This pattern suggests that the Ubaid period witnessed the initial migration from the north into southern Mesopotamia, in notable agreement with Genesis Nissen has described the developments of this period in southern Mesopotamia and suggested a cause for the events:.

A prolonged period in which only very scattered individual settlements existed was suddenly followed by a phase in which the land was clearly so densely settled that nothing like it had been seen even in the Susiana of the previous period. With the help of information from the Meteor research project, an explanation for this development in Babylonia is now possible. The land, which had been unsuitable for settlement owing to the high sea level in the Gulf or the large amount of water in the rivers, had at first supported only a few island sites, but from the moment the waters began to recede it was open to much more extensive habitation The results of studies of the ancient climate and of the changes in the amount of water in the Mesopotamian river system and in the Gulf… now present us with a clearer picture of the developments in southern Babylonia.

The climatic changes documented for the middle of the fourth millennium seem, within a space of two to three hundred years, to have stemmed the floods that regularly covered large tracts of land and to have drained such large areas that in a relatively short period of time large parts of Babylonia, particularly throughout the south, became attractive for new permanent settlements Both architecture and pottery of the period show similarity to that found at earlier northern sites CAH3 I, 1: , , Archaeologists have observed that the most striking characteristic of the Ubaid period is its uniformity.

Mellaart comments:. Never before had a single culture been able to influence such a vast area, if only superficially. The pottery distribution, in spite of minor variations, is fairly uniform The principal site of the Ubaid period is Eridu. It appears to have had a town wall even in its earliest periods CAH3 I, 1: Levels feature temples, though none approach very closely the ziggurat architectural development.

The patron deity of Eridu in the Sumerian periods was Enki, the crafty god, known for his association with the arts of civilization and for his many sexual encounters cf. Kramer and Maier The mention of baked brick technology directs our primary attention to the periods coming after the Ubaid period, but Genesis 11 may span these periods. In Genesis a group of people is identified as having traveled to the plain of Shinar to settle. In this scenario, a large group of Semites migrated southeast and settled in Sumer.

The text would not demand that even all the Semites were there. The span of time that the text covers is not mentioned. It is possible that the migration should be understood as having taken place in the Ubaid period, during which southern Mesopotamia began to be settled. Then the decision to undertake the project may have come toward the end of the fourth millennium, perhaps during the Late Uruk period, or perhaps as late as the Jamdet Nasr period, when we actually have the beginning of baked brick technology.

The project would then result in different Semitic? Whatever the case may be, it resulted in the people being scattered throughout the fertile crescent. This scenario would not require that all language groups were formed at this time or that all the languages were represented there. But from that beginning, urbanization in southern Mesopotamia was initiated, including the development of ziggurat architecture and the full development of the Mesopotamian religious system that it represented.

It is interesting to note that archaeological evidence shows a clear dissemination of Babylonian culture throughout the ancient Near East at the end of the Late Uruk period and into the Jamdet Nasr period. This is particularly evident in the Zagros area and in Syria. Nissen says,. In a completely independent local development, individual settlements were founded that are absolutely identical with what we know from Babylonia and Susiana, down to the last pottery sherd in the inventory.

If, in addition, we consider that these alien types of settlement were all either directly on the Euphrates or on its tributaries, there seems to be a relatively simple explanation for the whole situation. We are most probably dealing here with settlements of people who came there directly from the southern lowland plains ; cf. Furthermore, it is evident that this influence did not last for long but quickly was subsumed by the local cultures.

The Habuba settlement in Syria, for instance, hardly survived more than 50 years Nissen , It is difficult to bring archaeological or historical information to bear on the question of whether the city Babylon was actually the site of this occurrence or whether it was the outstanding example of that system. Excavation at Babylon cannot inform us of its history prior to the second millennium, because the shifting water table of the Euphrates has obliterated the strata Saggs Historical records do not mention Babylon prior to meager references in the Ur III period, and a year date formula of Sarkalisarri during the dynasty of Akkad Gelb If it was the site of the event recorded in Genesis 11 , it seems to have been abandoned for over a millennium before it was again occupied.

Author: John H. Walton, reprinted by permission from Bulletin for Biblical Research 5 []: Supplied by Associates for Biblical Research. Net users generous rights for putting this page to work in their homes, personal witnessing, churches and schools. Is there archaeological evidence of the Tower of Babel? The base of the Tower of Babel.

Artist reconstruction of a ziggurat pyramid in Babylon. Illustration by Paul S. Copyright, Films for Christ. All rights reserved. Read the story of the Tower of Babel. Ziggurats Nearly 30 ziggurats in the area of Mesopotamia have been discovered by archaeologists. Origin The structure at Eridu, the earliest structure that some designate a ziggurat, is dated in its earliest level to the Ubaid period Oates comments, Convention clearly demanded that the ruins of one shrine should be preserved beneath the foundations of its successor, a practice that probably explains the appearance of the high terraces on which some of the latest prehistoric temples stood, and which may be forerunners of later times Mallowan remarks, The so-called ziggurat or temple tower on which it [the white temple] was set had risen gradually in the course of more than a millennium, for in fact beneath the white Temple the tower incorporated within it a series of much earlier sanctuaries which after serving their time had been filled solid with brickwork and became terraces for later constructions Crawford concedes that… …there can now be little doubt that some sort of staged tower does go back to the Early Dynastic period, although there is no evidence for an earlier occurrence The clearest evidence of this is at Ur.

There… …the Early Dynastic ziggurat is completely engulfed by that of Ur-Nammu, but its existence can be safely deduced from the remains of the period in the surrounding courtyard area Crawford Function There have been many different suggestions concerning the function of a ziggurat, and the issue is far from settled.

Childs presents a brief summary of some of the major opinions: The older view that the ziggurat was a representation of a mountain, brought from the mountainous homeland of the Sumerians to Babylon , has been shown as only a secondary motif by recent investigation. Dumuzi -? Enegi We may now attempt to categorize the names with the hope of finding some clues about the function of ziggurats.

Two of the ziggurats are named for the god 8, 14; probably also 2. Two names feature mountain terminology 4, Six names seem to address the role or function of the ziggurat 1, 7, 10, 11, 15, Pallis remarks… Anyone who has perused the whole of the material is struck by the remarkable fact that Etemenanki [the fabulous ziggurat of Babylon] is nowhere mentioned in the description of the course of the [ akitu ] festival though numerous other sacred localities in Babylon are referred to.

Although the function of the ziggurat cannot be identified with certainty, our study of the names, the use of the simmiltu in mythology, the use of mountain terminology, and the lack of reference to a function in the cultic practice of the people, leads us to put forth tentatively, as a working hypothesis, the following suggested function: The ziggurat was a structure that was built to support the stairway simmiltu , which was believed to be used by the gods to travel from one realm to the other.

Building Materials Discussion of the building materials occupies the whole of Genesis Bitumen of any grade was an expensive item Forbes , as Singer notes: Being expensive, it was seldom used for walls of sun-dried bricks …except to make the walls and floors of such buildings impervious to water.

Thus Hilprecht notes… The temple complex of Nippur, with the dwellings of numerous officials, embraced the whole eastern half of the city, an area of almost 80 acres. The Importance of the City and the Tower We cannot say that the building project described in Genesis 11 was exclusively a temple complex, but a temple complex certainly was included and is the focus of the story. Jacobsen comments: The centralization of authority which this new political pattern made possible may have been responsible, along with other factors, for the emergence of a truly monumental architecture in Mesopotamia.

Hans Nissen says, We can deduce from the completely different layout of the two shrines in the Late Uruk period that there must have been greater differences here than can be expressed merely by the assumption that we are dealing with different divinities. Nissen observes, We can assume that it is highly probable that the custom of setting up statues in temples with this intention began in the Early Dynastic Period. Jacobsen further comments: Particularly powerful and concrete in the new anthropomorphic view was the symbol of the temple, the god's house.

Finkelstein observes, The Babylonian gods …although not themselves BOUND by moral or ethical principles, nevertheless appreciated them and expected man to live by them. As the modern poet has voiced it: The more the gods become like men, the easier it is for men to believe the gods. The Historical Setting of the Tower of Babel As is evident from the above, I believe that the account of Genesis 11 has a solid historical foundation in early Mesopotamia.

First, a review of the pertinent information: Development of baked brick technology: Jamdet Nasr, ca. Nissen has described the developments of this period in southern Mesopotamia and suggested a cause for the events: A prolonged period in which only very scattered individual settlements existed was suddenly followed by a phase in which the land was clearly so densely settled that nothing like it had been seen even in the Susiana of the previous period.

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And again: The results of studies of the ancient climate and of the changes in the amount of water in the Mesopotamian river system and in the Gulf… now present us with a clearer picture of the developments in southern Babylonia. Mellaart comments: Never before had a single culture been able to influence such a vast area, if only superficially. Nissen says, …in the Syrian area, we now encounter yet another variant. Further Reading Is there any reference to the confusion of languages at Babel in early Mesopotamian literature?

What Happened at Babel? How did different skin colors come about? For the best analysis of these, see Parrot It may also be overstatement to say that the previous shrine was preserved. While not totally demolished, it was filled with brick or rubble so as to serve as a suitable foundation for its successor. The assertion that Busink demonstrated that the ziggurat had nothing to do with a mountain is perhaps overzealous. While Busink's evidence suggested other formative elements as more likely, the mountain motif cannot be entirely discarded.

This name is reconstructed, although there is little doubt of the reading. The transliteration is presented as [E. The name of the ziggurat of Nabu in Borsippa is well-known.