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Tower of Babel (Genesis 11)

Categories Old Testament

Bible-BackgroundsThe account of the Tower of Babel in Genesis 11 offers numerous points for comparison with the ancient world. The narrative is set in the Land of Shinar, recognized as the region known as Sumer in southern Mesopotamia. The excerpt below looks at the materials and at the nature of the project. Our expectation would be that in order to understand how the project offended deity, we need to have a clearer idea of what the people were actually doing.

Let’s make bricks and bake them (11:3). Stone is not readily available in the alluvial plain of southern Mesopotamia, so a logical economical choice is to use brick—there is plenty of mud. Mudbrick, however, is not durable, so it was a great technological development to discover that baking the brick made it as durable as stone.1 This was still an expensive process, since the kilns had to be fueled. As a result, mudbrick was used as much as possible, with baked brick used only for outer shells of important buildings or where water-proofing was desirable.2

No baked bricks have been found earlier than the Uruk period (latter part of the fourth millennium).3 In the same general time period, bitumen came to be used as mastic and for additional water-proofing, but it was also expensive because it had to be heated. Consequently, it was used primarily in public projects.4 The bitumen was absorbed into the bricks (baked or not), creating a product as durable as stone.5

City and a tower (11:4). One single architectural feature dominated the landscape of early Mesopotamian cities: towers known as ziggurats. In the earliest stages of urbanization, the city was not designed for the private sector. People did not live in the city. Instead, it was comprised of the public buildings, such as administrative buildings, and granaries, which were mostly connected with the temple. Consequently, the city was, in effect, a temple complex.

1_074 ur ziggurat 4676#272C What do we know about ziggurats? (1) Though they may resemble pyramids in appearance, they are nothing like them in function. Ziggurats have no inside. The structure was framed in mudbrick, and then the core was packed with fill dirt. The façade was then completed with kiln-fired brick. (2) Ziggurats were dedicated to particular deities. Any given deity may have several ziggurats dedicated to him or her in different cities. Furthermore, a given city may have several ziggurats, though the main one was associated with the patron deity of the city. (3) Archaeologists have discovered nearly thirty ziggurats in the general region, and texts mention several others. The main architectural feature is the stairway or ramp that leads to the top. There was a small room at the top where a bed was made and a table set for the deity.6 Ziggurats range in size from sixty feet per side to almost two hundred feet per side.

Most important is the function of the ziggurat. The ziggurat did not play a role in any of the rituals known to us from Mesopotamia. If known literature were our only guide, we would conclude that common people did not use the ziggurat for anything. It was sacred space and was strictly off-limits to profane use. Though the structure at the top was designed to accommodate the god, it was not a temple where people would go to worship. In fact, the ziggurat was typically accompanied by an adjoining temple near its base, where the worship did take place.

The best indication of the function of the ziggurats comes from the names that are given to them. For instance, the name of the ziggurat at Babylon, Etemenanki, means "temple of the foundation of heaven and earth." One at Larsa means "temple that links heaven and earth." Most significant is the name of the ziggurat at Sippar, "temple of the stairway to pure heaven." The word translated "stairway" in this last example is used in the mythology as the means by which the messenger of the gods moved between heaven, earth, and the netherworld.7 As a result of these data, we can conclude that the ziggurat was a structure built to support the stairway. This stairway was a visual representation of that which was believed to be used by the gods to travel from one realm to another. It was solely for the convenience of the gods and was maintained in order to provide the deity with amenities and to make possible his descent into his temple.

At the top of the ziggurat was the gate of the gods, the entrance into their heavenly abode. At the bottom was the temple, where hopefully the god would descend to receive the gifts and worship of his people. A similar mentality can be seen among the people of the American West, who picked up their towns and moved them into proximity with the newly laid railroad tracks, then erected a train station so that the train would stop there and bring economic benefits.

In summary, the project is a temple complex featuring a ziggurat, which was designed to make it convenient for the god to come down to his temple, receive their worship, and bless his people. The key for this passage is to realize that the tower was not built so that people could ascend to heaven, but so that deity could descend to earth.

Reaches to the heavens (11:4). Throughout Mesopotamian literature, almost every occurrence of the expression describing a building "with its head in the heavens" refers to a temple with a ziggurat.8 As a sample, here is the description by Warad-Sin, king of Larsa, who built the temple É-eš-ki-te:

He made it as high as a mountain and made its head touch heaven. On account of this deed the gods Nanna and Ningal rejoiced. May they grant to him a destiny of life, a long reign, and a firm foundation.9

It is this language, along with the indication that God "came down," that gives textual confirmation that the tower is a ziggurat. This would have been transparent to the ancient reader. (Excerpt from ZIBBCOT, Genesis, by John H.Walton, Forthcoming)

Such background information may help give us alternatives for understanding the offense of the tower, for the building of it assumes certain concepts of God—that he wants to be provided a means for coming down into a temple to be worshiped. Likely the worship would also have had certain pagan elements to it (e.g., worship by providing for the deity’s needs—a common ancient concept). More than anything else, it is an attempt by the people to procure God’s presence in their midst—a benefit that had been lost when Adam and Eve were cast out of Eden.

1 As the text indicates, this is different from Palestine, where stone is plentiful and where no baked brick is yet attested.

2 P. R. S. Moorey, Ancient Mesopotamian Materials and Industries (Winona Lake, Ind.: Eisenbrauns, 1994), 302, 306.

3 Ibid., 307.

4 Ibid., 332–33.

5 Ibid., 335.

6 For more details of ziggurat architecture and use see T. Jacobsen, "Notes on Ekur," EI 21 (1990): 40–47.

7 See the Myth of Nergal and Ereshkigal. The Hebrew cognate of this word is also used in the story of Jacob’s "ladder," which serves the same purpose as the stairways of the ziggurat.

8 The NIV’s "tower that reaches to the heavens" can be misleading. The Hebrew expression "with its head in the heavens" is idiomatic, just like our English "skyscraper." This is not a siege tower as the early rabbis suggested.

9 D. Frayne, Royal Inscriptions of Mesopotamia: Old Babylonian Period (Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 1990), 208.

Photo credit: Josh McFall

Bible Backgrounds is a series of weekly blog posts leading up to the fall 2009 release of the Zondervan Illustrated Bible Backgrounds Commentary: Old Testament. Each post is written by John H. Walton, the general editor for the five volumes. ZIBBCOT is the product of thirty international specialists; their work and expertise will also be represented throughout this series.

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