The Tower of Babel
Posted by foryourfaith on February 18, 2011
The greatness of man and the insignificance of man both have their place in the Bible. The famous story of the Tower of Babel vividly illustrates this dualism. This is also a story of man’s defiance. Contrary to God’s command that mankind disperse and fill the earth, vain-glorious men strove to unite, building a city in celebration of their own greatness.
The Book of Genesis places the story during an indefinite periods when “the nations spread abroad on the earth after the flood” and “the whole earth had one language and few words” (Genesis 11:1). However, the region where the events occurred is more certain: “And as men migrated from the east, they found a plain in the land of Shinar and settled there.”
The land of Shinar, according to Genesis 10, was the location of the Mesopotamian cities of Babel, Erech, and Accad. Some scholars think that the opening of the Babel narrative constitutes a record of prehistoric tribal migrations that brought the Hebrews into the Fertile Crescent.
Erech, called Uruk in the Akkadian language, was a great temple city of ancient Mesopotamia, located southeast of Babylon. Its ruins have revealed the earliest known examples of writing, a kind of pictograph dating back to the fourth millennium BC. Its legendary hero was the great Gilgamesh, whose epic adventures were celebrated in stirring poetry.
Akkad, (spelled Accad in Genesis), is truly a lost city. Archaeologists believe it lay near modern-day Baghdad, but have never discovered its remains. Still, it gave its name to an empire during the third millennium BC, a whole region of ancient Mesopotamia, and to the Akkadian tongue, a Semitic language related to Hebrew.
Genesis recounts that these two cities of Shinar, along with the city of Babel, formed the original kingdom of Nimrod. This king was “the first on earth to be a mighty man” and “a mighty hunter before the Lord” (Genesis 10:8-9). The search for the historical identity of Nimrod has proved fruitless, although some scholars think the name may be connected with the Babylonian god Ninurta. Genesis linked the region around Babel (Babylon) to the origin of powerful rulers – later Mesopotamian kings who would play a destructive role in the history of the Israelites.
Thus the story of the Tower of Babel is firmly rooted in history. At the same time, it is symbolic of the larger story of humanity, originally united by one common language. Though it is a story of man’s pride, no individual is ever mentioned.
The deep fertile soil of the land between the rivers provided no stone for building, but the people “had brick for stone, and bitumen for mortar.” They made mud bricks, baked them, and held them together with bitumen, a natural asphalt found near the surface of the earth.
“Come,” they said, “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 scattered abroad upon the face of the whole earth” (Genesis 11:4). This summons is the heart of the story. It focuses on human ambition, expressed by the great artifacts of human culture. Here Genesis emphasizes the longing for renown symbolized by the city and its tower.
The image of the city of Babel stood in sharp contrast to the nomadic life of Israel’s patriarchs. Moreover, the episode at Babel foreshadowed the dangers Israel faced as it settled among the Canaanite cities, with their long-established cultures, rich temples, and inviting deities.
As the story of Babel was retold throughout the generations, the image of a tower “with its top in the heavens” was emphasized. It was said that the tower-builders attempted to reach well beyond earth to the realm of God – an extreme expression of man’s pride. The Hebrew word for “heavens” (shamayim), however, also simply means “sky.” Many scholars believe that the description of the tower in the book of Genesis simply evoked a structure that was very tall in comparison to others.
Yahweh “came down to see the city and the tower which the sons of man had built.” Displeased by mankind’s arrogance, the Lord said, “Behold, they are one people, and they have all one language; and this is only the beginning of what they will do; and nothing that they propose to do will now be impossible for them.” Genesis does not imply that God was threatened by the tower itself, but rather that he saw some future extravagance of human action that needed to be prevented. God decided to restrain the ambition of humanity by introducing confusion and division.
“Come, let us go down,” Yahweh said, “and there confuse their language” (Genesis 11:7). By making people “not understand one another’s speech,” God not only thwarted man’s plans to build “a tower with its top in the heavens,” but he caused the scattering of mankind throughout the world. “And they left off building the city.”
Genesis states that the tower was built in Babel, which ahs been identified with Babylon – one of the most magnificent cities the ancient world. The city’s name in Akkadian evidently meant “Gate of God,” but Genesis transformed its meaning by a word-play on the Hebrew word balal, “confuse.” “Its name was called Babel, because there the Lord confused the language of all the earth” (Genesis 11:9).
Was there really such a magnificent tower? Archaeologists point to the existence of one particular ziggurat, or “pinnacle,” dedicated to the god Marduk. This ziggurat, which stood in the city of Babylon, was a massive stepped structure with a square base, nearly 300 feet tall. According to some estimates, there were some 30 lesser towers in Babylon. So marvelous was the ziggurat of Marduk that Babylonian legend attributed its construction to the gods.
The Babylonians indeed intended it to reach the skies, but not as a symbol of rebellion. Rather, it was an exalted altar by which the Babylonians served their deity.
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