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Tower of Babel: Less Confusing

After the dispersing, settling, and, probably, conquering by the tribal descendants of Noah's three sons, a landmark incident took place in the plain of Shinar that caused and still causes confusion - at the tower of Babel. 

Genesis 11:1: "The whole earth was of one language, and of one speech." 

It is not difficult to see how Bible interpreters have been as baffled as the tower builders.  The true confusion of tongues, surpassing the incident at Babel, is the translation of Hebrew into English.  Yet again, ‘erets is translated "earth," although in the next verse the same word is rendered correctly as the "land" of Shinar.  

Any other duly authorized word such as land, district, region, or territory would have suited the occasion adequately.  It's the word "earth" in this and verses discussed previously that has become the launching pad propelling Bible exegesis into outer space.  It is long past time to abandon this circular, non-productive orbit of misinterpretation, and get back down to - not "earth" - but land.  

Burnt Brick Set in Bitumen  

Genesis 11:2-3: "And it came to pass, as they journeyed from the east, that they found a plain in the land of Shinar; and they dwelt there.  

And they said one to another, Go to, let us make brick, and burn them thoroughly.  And they had brick for stone, and slime [asphalt, bitumen] had they for mortar."  

The children of Arphaxad, descendants of Shem, named in the same chapter of Genesis, are the likely builders of the tower at a time in history when tower building was all the rage.  

In Mesopotamia, the temples of the predynastic period developed into grandiose monuments which dominated not only the cities they were meant to serve, but the whole of the valley floor.  It has even been suggested that the ziggurats, the stepped mounds which supported the sacred shrines, were intended simply as artificial mountains.  Though their design showed high skill, technically they were of the simplest: a mudbrick core encased in a weatherproof skin of burnt brick set in bitumen. [i]  

Although the Egyptian pyramids were constructed of cut stone, the Mesopotamian ziggurats were, in fact, constructed with mudbricks and burnt mudbricks as stated in Genesis 11:3.  The bitumen used as a weathertight casing comes to us as "slime" in the King James version though the New American Standard uses "tar."  

The evolution of the temple complex is well illustrated by the Anu Temple in Uruk.  Six temples were constructed, one above the other.  ... after five hundred years of rebuilding, a monumental brick platform rose 16 meters above the community. [ii]  

Not only the Semites, but the Sumerians too, were adept at building ziggurats.  In addition to the site at Uruk, the Sumerians built temple monuments at Nippur, Lagash, Kish, and Ur.  Even smaller population centers to the north were building their own.  Many of the true ziggurats were built upon old temple complexes about the time of the Third Dynasty at Ur (2112-2000 BC); some, perhaps, were constructed a little earlier.  

A Ziggurat Building Contest  

A picture emerges of the region as a land of city-state kingdoms laced with an intricate canal network for farming and facilitating trade.  Although trading between cities was an integral part of the culture, fierce competition was quite evident, and sacking neighboring cities was all too common.  

Growing populations required more water, and as northern cities extended their network of canals to irrigate additional fields, they deprived their southern neighbors of life-giving water.  In anger, the southern cities would wage war on their northern neighbors and wreak havoc on their irrigation systems.  Cities would recover in time and exact their revenge, starting another cycle.  

In their literature, these continual battles with ensuing changes of kingship are interspersed with the names of the kings and the years they reigned.  Leaving out those details, following is a brief sequence:  

The weapons of Kish were overthrown; its kingdom passed to Opis.  (Kings omitted) The arms of Opis were overthrown; its kingdom passed to Kish. (Kings omitted) The arms of Kish were overthrown; its kingdom passed to Erech.  (Kings omitted) The arms of Erech were overthrown; its kingdom passed to Agade, etc. [iii]  

Individual cities, united for waging war, were also sufficiently organized for civic building projects.  At each cult center, a simple temple mound was erected dedicated to a particular god.  Although these mounds can be traced to as early as 3000 BC, by the end of the third millennium they were reaching immense proportions.  

The Ashmolean Prism contains a liturgy to the temple at Kes, presumed to have been in the proximity of Erech and Shuruppak.  Numerous lines end with "attaining unto heaven":  

Oh temple whose design in heaven and earth has been planned, thou are possessed of pure decrees.  Temple erected in the Land where stand the chapels of the gods.  Mountain house, radiant with abundance and festivity. [iv]


A kind of ziggurat contest ensued as cities added mudbrick platforms on top of older temple complexes topped with granite, sandstone, and marble temple enclosures.  It became a point of honor and pride to outdo neighboring cities, and of course, this demonstrated love and devotion to their deity.  

Genesis 11:4: "And they said, Go to, let us build us a city and a tower, whose top may reach unto heaven; and let us make us a name, lest we be scattered abroad upon the face of the whole earth."  

Gudea, king of Lagash, sings the praises of the temple he built to worship Eninnu constructed from burnt bricks, stone, and "bitumen from wells," and "bitumen from bitumen lake." [v]  In addition to the similarity in building materials, note also the similarity in attitude and aspirations with the builders at Babel.  In Gudea's words, the temple was "an object of admiration to the eyes of the gods."

A sense of this pride and competitive spirit that was emblematic of virtually every city in Mesopotamia can be seen in the following liturgy from king Gudea:  

The bright crown of the temple rested upon it and as the lapis-lazuli mountain of heaven and earth rose from the earth.  The pavement of the terrace of the great temple he laid; as a pure vessel on which honey and wine are poured it was open to heaven.  The shrine with a couch which he built like a perfect mountain, as the holy stone vessel of the deep it rose.  On account of the great name which he had made for himself he was received among the gods into their assembly. [vi]  

Notice the commonality between "the great name which he had made for himself" in the liturgy with "let us make us a name" in Genesis 11:4.  The Semite builders at Babel were not about to be outdone.  After all, they had the one true God, and the other cities were honoring impostors.  They would build a tower of such proportions that it would show up the others and prove to them whose God reigned supreme.  You can imagine how happy God would be to have a mound of mudbricks 10 feet higher than one dedicated to the Accadian sun god, Shamash, or the Sumerian moon god, Nanna.  This misguided endeavor was not edifying to say the least.    

Genesis 11:8: "So the Lord scattered them abroad from thence upon the face of all the earth: and they left off to build the city."  

Many Towers  

The traditional interpretation of the flood and the dispersion at Babel has been that the total population of the entire world was confined to the land of Shinar in the post-flood era.  They were all related, according to tradition, all spoke a common language, and they became engrossed in building the tower at Babel.  The Lord confounded them, and off they went in all directions muttering Aztec, Mandarin, Swahili, and the like.  They crossed oceans and reached far distant continents.  They made changes in skin color too, presumably, and developed morphological adaptations, as they went along.  

This interpretation has perpetuated in spite of the extra-biblical evidence available all along that nullifies this interpretation.  All those Bible apologists had to do was count the mudbrick ziggurats in Mesopotamia.  Any number that exceeds one kills that explanation.  Five or more ziggurats should seal the lid on the coffin.  In fact, The Atlas of Mesopotamia locates over thirty ziggurats and temple mounds in the region including Persia. [vii]  Parrot identified thirty-three towers in twenty-seven different cities, adding "it was sometimes possible for one city to have several ziggurats." [viii]  

Had the entire earth been devoid of humanity except for Noah's tribes clustered together in the land of Shinar where the tower of Babel was built, what would explain the additional towers?  The other ziggurats at various sites had to be constructed either before, at the same time, or after the tower of Babel.  If the other monuments were constructed before Babel, it would mean that Noah's descendants had already begun to spread out and settle in widely separated communities, precluding them from all being at one place, which was the case according to Genesis 10.  

If constructed all at the same time, however, that would infer multiple Babels and simultaneous dispersions at all locations.  Who would like to argue for that?  But if the other ziggurats were built after Babel, it would mean that after the Lord taught them a lesson and sent them packing, they gathered together and built more ziggurats all over the place like nothing had happened!  

What we find is that building ziggurats was simply in vogue in those days.  The tower of Babel was one among a number of Mesopotamian worship centers.  Though we may never know with complete certainty which one it was, the mound at Babylon is a prime candidate.  The following is part of Enuma Elish:  

"Now O lord, thou who hast caused our deliverance,

What shall be our homage to thee?

Let us build a shrine whose name shall be called

`Lo, a chamber for our nightly rest': let us repose in it!

Let us build a throne, a recess for his abode!

On the day that we arrive we shall repose in it."

When Marduk heard this,

Brightly glowed his features, like the day:

Like that of lofty Babylon, whose building you have requested,

Let its brickwork be fashioned.  You shall name it

`The Sanctuary.'"

The Anunnaki applied the implement;

For one whole year they molded bricks.

When the second year arrived,

They raise high the head of Esagila equaling Apsu. [ix]

Having built a stage-tower as high as Apsu,

They set up in it an abode for Marduk, Enlil, (and) Ea

In their presence he adorned (it) in grandeur.

To the base of Esharra its horns look down.

After they had achieved the building of Esagila,

The Anunnaki themselves erected their shrines.

[...] all of them gathered

[...] they had built as his dwelling.

The gods, his fathers, at his banquet he seated:

"This is Babylon, the place that is your home!" [x]

Clearly the building of the tower and the confusion of tongues at Babel loomed large to the participants, but the tower itself was one among many.  It was not the biggest, and cannot be identified as the first or the last.  

The Tower Restored and Rebuilt  

The rebuilding of destroyed temples was carried out long after the heyday of Sumer and Accad.  The ziggurat at Babylon was restored by Nabopolassar, the founder of the Neo-Babylonian dynasty, about 625 to 605 BC.  These are his words:  

The lord Marduk commanded me concerning Etemenanki, the staged tower of Babylon, which before my time had become dilapidated and ruinous, that I should make its foundations secure in the bosom of the nether world, and make its summit like the heavens. [xi]  

His firstborn son, Nebuchadnezzar, continued in the efforts started by his father, carrying out building the tower at Babylon until 562 BC.  When finished, a seven stage structure and its temple complex reached nearly 300 feet in height. [xii]  

Herodotus visited Babylon about 460 BC and gave this report:

In the midst of the temple a solid tower was constructed, one stadium in length and one stadium in width.  Upon this tower stood another, and again upon this another, and so on, making eight towers in all, one upon another.  All eight towers can be climbed by means of a spiral staircase which runs round the outside.  About halfway up there are seats where those who make the ascent can sit and rest.  In the topmost tower there is a great temple, and in the temple is a golden table.  No idol stands there. No one spends the night there save a woman of that country, designated by the god himself, so I was told by the Chaldeans, who are the priests of that divinity. [xiii]  

Sons of Arphaxad  

Genesis 11:10: "These are the generations of Shem: Shem was an hundred years old, and begat Arphaxad ..."  

Descendants of Shem and Arphaxad must have experienced those places of worship, constructed by their Sumerian neighbors, devoted to pagan gods, and decided to follow suit, building a monument of their own.  Polytheistic worshippers erecting temples to pagan gods was tolerated due to their ignorance, but God's chosen were expected to exercise better judgment.  

The Lord was not pleased with this enterprise, and put an end to their foolishness by confusing their speech.  This was described by Oracles:  

And now all intercourse,

By some occult and overruling power,

Ceased among men: by utterance they strove

Perplexed and anxious to disclose their mind;

But their lip failed them; and in lieu of words

Produced a painful babbling sound ... [xiv]  

Then this particular band of Semites, maybe mixed with Sumerians too, dispersed.  And judging from their writings, some of which pre-date the time of Babel, there was no permanent alteration in their basic languages.  

Ziggurat Design

Although a tripartite design was common to many ziggurats, distinctive designs and shapes reflected regional differences. Unger identified three different types which he labeled as a rectangular type, a square type, and a combined type. Parrot added a fourth, which he called "a temple on a high terrace." [xv]

Typically, the Sumerians used a rectangular base with ramps for access.  Examples of these were found in the south at Ur, Uruk, and Nippur, although triple staircases were added at Uruk and Nippur. [xvi]  The Assyrians in the north preferred a square foundation with staircases, such as were found at Asshur and Nimrud.  At Eridu, the style was the same as the Assyrian.  The square foundation, emblematic of Semite construction, could signify a Semitic influence on the ancient city of Eridu.  

The temple at Nineveh, built by the Assyrians, is over 260 miles from Babylon, farther than New York City is from Washington, D.C.  Just as New Yorkers took no part in building the Washington monument, so too it is unlikely that Ninevites offered any assistance to build a tower in the plain of Shinar where Babylon is located, especially when they had a tower of their own to build.  

There was considerable distance between many of the cities that contained Semite populations, cities that were founded before the building of the tower of Babel came to a halt.  Even Shem's descendants could not all have been at Babel when the confusion of tongues occurred; not to mention the neighboring Sumerians, Elamites, Gutians, or Egyptians; or, for that matter, distant, primitive cultures concentrated in areas of the world known today as Mexico, Denmark, Thailand, and Japan. [xvii]  

Purpose for the Ziggurats  

The impetus for building the first temple mounds is unknown.  Were they platforms for saving lives in the event of floods?  Could they have been a means of defense?  When attacked, they could scamper up high platforms where they might hold the enemy at bay, much as medieval forts were utilized from where defenders could throw things down upon the attacking enemy.  

The temples were also places of worship, where townspeople could honor their particular deity and offer sacrifices.  Yet, none of these purposes explain why the temple structures began to become skyscrapers.  From 3000 BC to about 2100 BC, more modest temple complexes in cities all over the region blossomed into imposing ziggurats.  

The objective in constructing massive mudbrick structures is hinted at in the names chosen. "House of the mountain of the universe" stood at Asshur.  "House of the seven guides of heaven and earth" was located at Borsippa.  The "House of the king counsellor of equity" was at Ur, and the "Lofty house of Zababa and Innina whose head is as high as the heavens" was built at Nippur.  Larsa had the "House of the link between heaven and earth," and at Babylon was the "House of the foundation of heaven and earth." [xviii]  

The Hebrew balal means to confound or mix, and from Babel our English word "babble" is derived, defined as, "to utter meaningless or unintelligible sounds." [xix]  These definitions followed the event; however, the name "Babel" was not chosen in anticipation of confusion.  The origin of "Babel" appears to be rooted in the Accadian word, bab-ilu, or "Bab-El," meaning, "gate of God."  Considering Babylon as the likely location for the tower of Babel, then the name literally was "Gate of God" at the "House of the foundation of heaven and earth."  

Between Beersheba and Haran, Jacob dreamed of a ladder, "set up on the earth, and the top of it reached to heaven: and behold the angels of God ascending and descending on it" (Gen. 28:12).  He proclaimed that place "Beth-El," "the house of God, and this is the gate of heaven" (Gen. 28:17).  

Did Jacob's grandfather Abraham describe to his son and grandson the tower at Babylon, or the one at Ur, in such vivid detail that it became a shadow-in-the-mist in Jacob's dream?  

Come Down, Lord  

Unlike our modern churches and tabernacles, these temples had a greater significance than just being a place to come and worship.  They were intended as the "house" or dwelling place of their deity.  The closer to heaven the towers could reach, the nearer the worshippers could approach, and it was a two way street; the deity could descend to the people more easily.  By means of the tower itself, perhaps, they could invoke their god to come down.  Parrot touches on the ziggurat as a "link."  

Thus the ziggurat appears to me to be a bond of union, whose purpose was to assure communication between earth and heaven.  Even when this idea is not actually clearly expressed, it is nevertheless implicitly suggested; for what is the `mountain' but a giant step-ladder by means of which a man may ascend as near as possible to the sky?  Not only in order to touch it, but also, and especially, to approach nearer to the deity whom he seeks, and whose descent towards mankind he wishes at the same time to facilitate. [xx]

Was this in the minds of God's chosen people, His faithful remnant, those in the line of Shem and Arphaxad?  Perhaps, if the sanctuary was high enough, and if the sacrifices were appealing or in sufficient abundance, God Himself might be enticed to come down and dwell among His people. Isaiah voiced that appeal, "Oh that thou wouldest rend the heavens, that thou wouldest come down, that the mountains might flow down at thy presence ..." (Isa. 64:1).  

Ultimately they were successful.  God did come down, but not then, not striding down the steps of a Mesopotamian ziggurat.  God came down over two thousand years later, in Bethlehem, in the land of Judea.

Historical Footnotes  

Semites from the north migrated gradually into Sumer adapting to the local life style as they went along.  From Hawkes:  

Semites, who had adopted Sumerian culture and adapted cuneiform to the writing of their own language, are known as Akkadians.  The mingling of the two peoples and their traditions produced a vigorous civilization, but it was not long before the Semites were to become the dominant partners. [xxi]  

The Sargonid period, also called the Accadian period of Mesopotamian history, lasted about 150 years and saw five kings come to power.  The great Sargon ruled from 2371 to 2316 BC.  His grandson, Naram-Sin, was the fourth in line of succession, and reigned from 2291 to 2255 BC.  All of the city-states of Mesopotamia came under his rule; even the Elamite dynasty in Persia was subdued. [xxii]  

The Semitic Accadians found out what subsequent empires throughout history have learned to their chagrin.  Power is easier to grasp than maintain.  Continual raids from without and revolts from within weakened the Accadian hegemony until the nomadic Gutians toppled the Sargonid dynasty around 2200 BC.  

A period of turmoil followed the Gutian victory.  

The arrival of the Guti and their conquest of the Akkadians around 2200 B.C. ushered in a period of anarchy.  The Sumerian King List asks "Who was king?  Who was not king?", recording twenty-one kings in a period of ninety-one years. [xxiii]  

Utu-Legal became king of Uruk in about 2120 BC.  His empire lasted seven years, and he suffered defeat at the hands of Ur-Nammu, governor of Ur.  Subsequently, Ur-Nammu was crowned "King of Ur," and further took on the title of "King of Sumer and Agade."  He began the Third Dynasty of Ur lasting from 2112 to nearly 2000 BC. [xxiv]  

It was during the reign of Ur-Nammu that the ziggurat at Ur was erected for the moon-god Nanna. [xxv]  This massive temple monument dominated the landscape in the ancient city.  Minority Semites may have been conscripts for this undertaking, necessitating a departure for any unwilling to endure another ziggurat project, honoring a pagan god to boot.  

The Destruction of Ur  

During the bloody reign of Naram-Sin, independence-minded cities were forced under submission to Accad.  To guard against future uprisings, Naram-Sin ordered the fortress walls of Ur brought down.  By complying, Ur became dependant on the military strength of the Semite king, and vulnerable to attack.  Gutians and Elamites attacked the city and destroyed it about 2000 BC, slaughtering and enslaving nearly half a million Sumerians.  

A Sumerian scribe set down what is now called "Lamentations Over the Destruction of Ur."  These are a few lines:  

On its walls they lay prostrate.  The people groan.

In its lofty gates where they were wont to promenade

dead bodies were lying about;

In its boulevards where the feasts were celebrated

they were viciously attacked.

In all its streets where they were wont to promenade

dead bodies were lying about;

In its places where the festivities of the land took

place the people were ruthlessly laid low. [xxvi]  

The scribe further lamented over the temple:  

The lofty unapproachable mountain, Ekissirgal-

Its righteous house by large axes is devoured ... [xxvii]  

Naming the Gutians and Elamites as defilers of the temple, the scribe spat out his hatred against the "destroyers" who "made of it thirty shekels." [xxviii]  

To the Sumerians, "thirty shekels" signified degraded value, something of great value treated as if it had little value.  What tragic irony that a Sumerian scribe would use a term of description also found in the Bible.  The life of a slave was set at "thirty shekels" in Exodus 21:32; and in Matthew 26:15, a traitor named Judas was paid in similar measure for the life of a King.  

The End of Sumer  

Sumerian political authority over the region ended with the capture of Ibi-Sin, the last of the third dynasty of Ur.  For two hundred years thereafter, Mesopotamia struggled with small, protective, city-state kingdoms, such as Assur and Eshnunna in the north, and Isin and Larsa in Sumer. [xxix]  As for the Sumerian people:  

In matters of culture and religion, however, they  continued to play a leading role for many centuries, while as an ethnic group they were slowly absorbed into their Semitic environment.  We do not know when this process of absorption was completed. [xxx]  

Sometime after the scattering at Babel, Abram's father, Terah, traveled to Ur.  

Genesis 11:26-28.  Terah was 70 years old, and had three sons.  Terah's third son, Haran, died where he was born, "in Ur of the Chaldees."  

Genesis 11:31,32.  Abram (later called Abraham) and his wife, Sarai (later named Sarah), journeyed with Terah from the city of Ur, either before, or possibly at the time of its destruction, toward a land of potential peace and quiet.  Their travel plans were to go by way of Haran to the land of Canaan, though Terah stayed in Haran and died there.

It could have been rampant polytheism, part of the Sumerian-Semite culture at the time, that prompted Terah to send his family to a land settled by distant kin.  Perhaps it was political turmoil or famine that prompted his journey, or it could have been something a few of us can relate to - war. Terah and his entourage, including Abraham, may have been refugees.  

The last king of Larsa, Rim-Sin, was defeated by the great Babylonian king Hammurabi, bringing an end to the domination of the region by the Semitic Amorite kings.  The date was shortly after 1800 BC, the new kingdom was now Babylonia, the peoples emerging from the region would come to be known only as Semites, and Sumer was undone.  




[i]. Jacquetta Hawkes, The Atlas Of Early Man (New York: St. Martin's Press, 1976), 102.

[ii]. C. C. Lamberg-Karlovsky and Jeremy A. Sabloff, Ancient Civilizations: The Near East And Mesoamerica (Menlo Park: The Benjamin/Cummings Publishing Company, Inc., 1979), 147.

[iii]. George A. Barton, The Royal Inscriptions of Sumer and Akkad (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1929), 351.

[iv]. Stephen Langdon, Sumerian Liturgical Texts (Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 1917), 317-318.

[v]. Barton, The Royal Inscriptions of Sumer and Akkad, 221.

[vi]. Ibid., 231.

[vii]. Martin A. Beek, Atlas of Mesopotamia (London: Thomas Nelson & Sons Ltd., 1962), 21.

[viii]. Andre Parrot, The Tower of Babel (New York: Philosophical Library, 1954), 26-27.

[ix]. Apparently the tower would be as high as the netherworld was low.

[x]. James B. Pritchard, Ancient Near Eastern Texts Relating to the Old Testament (Columbia: University of South Carolina Press, 1955), 68-69.

[xi]. Parrot, The Tower of Babel, 18.

[xii]. Ibid., 19-22.

[xiii]. Ibid., 22-23.

[xiv]. Isaac Preston Cory, Ancient Fragments of the Phoenician, Chaldean, Egyptian, Tyrian, Carthaginian, Indian, Persian, and Other Writers (London: William Pickering, 1832), 52.

[xv]. Parrot, The Tower of Babel, 40-41.

[xvi]. Ibid., 48.

[xvii]. Hawkes, The Atlas of Early Man, 46-48.

[xviii]. Parrot, The Tower of Babel, 64.

[xix]Webster's New Collegiate Dictionary, 1979.

[xx]. Parrot, The Tower of Babel, 64.

[xxi]. Hawkes, The Atlas of Early Man, 92.

[xxii]. Lamberg-Karlovsky and Sabloff, Ancient Civilizations: The Near East and Mesoamerica, 163.

[xxiii]. Ibid., 165.

[xxiv]. Edmond Sollberger, The Babylonian Legend of the Flood (London: The Trustees of the British Museum, 1962), 12.

[xxv]. Lamberg-Karlovsky and Sabloff, Ancient Civilizations: The Near East And Mesoamerica, 165.

[xxvi]. Samuel Noah Kramer, Lamentations Over the Destruction of Ur (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1940), 39-41.

[xxvii]. Ibid., 45.

[xxviii]. Ibid., 45.

[xxix]. Lamberg-Karlovsky and Sabloff, Ancient Civilizations: The Near East and Mesoamerica, 167.

[xxx]. H. H. Rowley, Atlas of Mesopotamia (New York: Thomas Nelson, 1962), 45.