Stairway to Heaven? A Fresh Look at the Tower of Babel Narrative
Pride is the root of human sin. It first sprouted in the Garden of Eden. From there its vines spread throughout the antediluvian world. Nor was it uprooted by a worldwide flood-judgment. It persisted in the line of Noah until it found monumental expression in the empire-building exploits on the plains of Shinar. The infamous “Tower of Babel” episode (Gen 11:1-9) provides a concise yet poignant display of human pride on a societal scale. As such it serves as a timeless reminder that mankind can never be “the measure of all things.” Only God can give meaning and restore access to heaven.
Most (perhaps all) of Noah’s descendants1 had initially migrated from Ararat to the land of Shinar “where they settled” (11:2). Not only is the fact of their “settling down” unsettling (in light of the mandate to “fill the earth,” 9:1),2 but the eastward (מקדם) location of their colony is troubling also. Settling in the east signals a Cain-like movement away from God (see 4:16). These people are up to no good. To be more precise, they are up to “No! God.” Like Cain of old they fear impermanence and choose to defy Yahweh’s mandate by building a city that will not only provide security but also secure for them a lasting “name” (compare 4:17 with 11:3–4).3 What is more, these postdiluvian city-builders will outdo Cain. They will construct their own Holy Mountain,4 their own Eden,5 and thereby autonomously attempt to “reenter” the sphere from which man had been earlier banished (3:22–24) through their own Gate of God.6 With a common language7 that facilitates their monumental efforts (11:1), these rebels actually begin to storm the stratosphere with their “stairway to heaven.”
But as Jan Fokkelman wryly remarks, “Those who want to ride on clouds must reckon with cloud-bursts; God stands no nonsense.”8 So, even as “the sons of Adam” toil away in their attempt to scale heaven, Heaven comes down to investigate their tower-building efforts (11:5).9 Yahweh is not amused. What he “discovers” is the same alarming grasp for divinity that motivated the primordial couple to take the forbidden fruit—only this time on an international scale (11:6)!10 Therefore, divine resolve counters human resolve.11 In a stroke of judgment that is both ironic and talionic, God punishes them with “a name for a name.” They lusted for meaning apart from God, but such godless schemes can only end in nonsense.12 So by divine decree, the coveted “Babel” becomes “Babble”!13 Thus, Yahweh obstructs what they seek to construct by disrupting their ability to communicate (11:7). As a result, the ecumenical effort comes to a screeching halt, and the vertical movement turns horizontal. Formerly linguistically united, the builders now become dialectally fragmented. Dropping trowel and spade, the people scatter “over all the face of the earth,” just as Yahweh willed it to be (11:8–9).
Where Sin Abounds …
Now the reader sees the Table of Nations not as a memorial to human fidelity but as a memorial to a divine overruling of human infidelity. Understanding “the division” of Peleg’s day (10:25b),14 he trembles as he recalls the exploits of Nimrod! For “the beginning of his kingdom was Babel … in the land of Shinar” (10:10). Whether or not Nimrod was the mastermind behind the original Babel venture, the list of city-building projects originating from Babel, spreading through Shinar and extending into northern Mesopotamia,15 leaves the reader with an ominous impression: Nimrod did not take God’s “no” seriously. Defying Yahweh’s vision for human decentralization and divine exaltation, Nimrod decided with relentless persistence to revive and rebuild fortified cities and skyscraping towers.16 In an effort to advance Man’s kingdom in place of God’s kingdom, he became a postdiluvian version (rBoGI, 10:8) of the tyrannical antediluvian “warriors” (6:4) well earning the ignominious epithet that became a proverbial saying in Israel, “like Nimrod a mighty hunter before Yahweh” (10:9).17 So the spirit of Cain lives on. The “seed of the Serpent” strikes again, and thus continues the spread of sin.
Grace Much More Abounds!
But “He who sits in the heavens” will have the last laugh (Ps 2:4). Even as Nimrod and his successors weary themselves building cities and gaining renown, God quietly bides his time until a descendant of Shem18 should arise through the line of none other than Peleg (11:10–26)! One who was born in the days when God divided the families of the earth would father an offspring (Abram) through whom a people from “every nation and tribe and language” would someday unite with divine blessing in a City whose Architect is God and under a Name above all other names (Gen 12:1–3; Phil 2:9–10). Where sin abounds, grace shall much more abound! But not all at once. Not quite yet. Genesis is, after all, the beginning, not the end of the story.
The entry above is excerpted and adapted from my recently published monograph Where Sin Abounds (a theological commentary on Genesis). Used by permission of Wipf and Stock Publishers. www.wipfandstock.com
- The Tower of Babel narrative does not identify the Shinar “settlers.” Indefinite terms and expressions are used throughout, such as “they,” “them,” “people.” The most specific reference is found in verse 5: “children of man” [בני האדם]. “Babelites” may represent one rebellious cross-section of postdiluvian humanity, particularly, the descendants of Ham. On the other hand, expressions such as “the whole earth [כל ארץ] had one language” (11:1) and “the Lord confused the language of all the earth” (11:9) seem to carry universal overtones. Even “the children of man” may not be an indefinite expression but all-inclusive of postdiluvian humanity. The fact that Abram’s family is called out of Ur of the Chaldeans, a city located in Shinar, may indicate that his ancestors were in some way involved in the Babel enterprise. Whether or not every human being alive at the time participated in the event, the Babel-event certainly affected the entire human race. [↩]
- Following God’s reestablishment of the primeval covenant with Noah (6:18) and its mandate to “be fruitful and multiply and fill the earth” (9:1ff.), the narrator describes what at first appears to be mankind’s obedient response to that mandate. What is known as the Table of Nations recounts the dispersal of Noah’s descendants across the face of the earth after the Flood (9:18–19; 10:1–32). Two individuals from the list of descendants as well as activities associated with each are singled out for special attention—Nimrod, a descendant of Ham through Cush (10:6–8a), and Peleg, a descendant of Shem through Eber (10:21–25a). Nimrod, whose name possibly derives from the Hebrew verb “to rebel” (מרד) is associated with an empire-building enterprise that began in the land of Shinar and eventually engulfed much of Mesopotamia (10:10–12). Peleg, whose name derives from the Hebrew verb “to divide” (פלג), is associated with the dividing of the earth (10:25b). The somewhat enigmatic references to these two individuals and the activities associated with them are more fully explained in the infamous “Tower of Babel” story (11:1–9). Here the reader discovers that humanity’s apparently obedient response to the divinely commissioned dispersal (9:1) was in fact, by and large, reluctant acquiescence to divine judgment. [↩]
- Cain fears the destiny of an “aimless wanderer” (4:14), so he settles and builds a city, naming it after his son (4:17). Likewise, the Babel-builders are motivated to “make a name for [themselves], lest [they] be dispersed over the whole earth” (11:4). [↩]
- The מגדל (migdol) normally refers to a fortified tower or acropolis (Judg 8:9, 17; 9:46–52; Ps 48:12 [Heb 13); 61:3 [Heb 4]; Ezek 26:9). In Isaiah the מגדל is a symbol of human power and pride (Isa 2:15; 30:25; 33:18). In a Mesopotamian context, the מגדל is the ancient ziggurat (derived from the Akkadian, zaqäru, ‘to build high’). Archaeologists have uncovered the remains of several ziggurats in Mesopotamia and discovered them to consist of several narrowing levels or steps with each successive level accessible by a flight of stairs. At the very top of this “man-made mountain” was a shrine where humans communicated with the deity. See Wiseman, “Ziggurat,” ZPEB, 5:1059–61. For an aerial view of an ancient ziggurat at the city of Ur, see ANEP, 233, no. 747. [↩]
- In the center of Eden, the reader will recall, was a huge mountain from which emerged a subterranean stream that flowed into the Garden (which was located on the slopes of Eden), where it forked into the four major rivers of the then-known world (Gen 2:6, 8–9, 10–14; Ezek 28:14, 16). For the significance of the Holy Mountain motif in biblical theology, see Meredith Kline, God, Heaven, and Har Magedon. [↩]
- The Hebrew presumably derives from the Akkadian BäB-ilu or Babylonian BäB-iläni, meaning, “gate of god(s).” HALOT, 107–08. Most commentators miss the connection between the man-made mountain-temples of Mesopotamia and the primordial Sacred Mountain of Eden. Meredith Kline, however, sees the link and remarks, “In their proud unbelief [the Babel builders] spurned God’s promised restoration of the true focus and fullness as an act of saving mercy and grace, purposing in an incipient spirit of antichrist to become themselves the creators of a cosmic focus. . . . So they conspired to erect the mythic sacred mountain of the divine assembly and thus re-create the central axis between earth and heaven.” Kingdom Prologue, 273. [↩]
- Following the lead of Cyrus Gordon, Hamilton interprets the שפה אחת (“one language”) as referring to a lingua franca, that is, an international language shared by the builders who, in fact, already spoke their own local dialect (10:5, 20, 31). Genesis 1–17, 350. In this view, God did not miraculously create new languages, so to speak, but miraculously disrupted the builders’ ability to communicate using the common diplomatic tongue. However, part of the rationale driving this interpretation is the denial by some modern linguists of an Ursprache from which all other languages developed. But if the reader interprets the primeval narrative as an accurate reflection of historical events, then certainly Noah and family brought with them on the ark a “mother tongue,” and it does not seem unreasonable to suppose that it was this preserved antediluvian tongue that was shared among the initial descendants of Noah and confounded at Babel. Whether dialectal variations of this existed prior to Babel or whether the dialectal variations occurred as a result of Babel and later developed into distinct language groups is uncertain. What is certain is that divine intervention supernaturally affected a linguistic fragmentation among the peoples engaged in this enterprise. [↩]
- Narrative Art in Genesis, 41. [↩]
- Nearly every commentator catches the irony: man is building “a tower with its top in the heavens,” yet Yahweh must actually descend (!) in order to see what man is up to. In the words of Mathews, “The necessary descent of God and the humanness of the enterprise, ‘that the men were building,’ shows the escapade for what it was—a tiny tower, conceived by a puny plan and attempted by pint-sized people.” Genesis 1–11:26, 483. [↩]
- Some interpreters find no hubris at all in the narrative. Laurin, for example, suggests that “the story . . . is an artful parable about the failure of pagan idolatry to provide the necessary foundation for a continuing culture.” “The Tower of Babel Revisited,” 143. While this proposal contains an element of truth, the narrator has already shown ungodly culture quite capable of making cultural advancements that are beneficial for all humanity with the help of common grace (4:21–22). Gowan agrees with most commentators who compare the hubris of Babel with that of the Fall but assesses Babel’s pride as “a subdued form” of hubris. When Man Becomes God, 29. On the contrary, Babel is “the Fall” writ large! As Blocher notes, “The difference between Eden and Babel is that which distinguishes the individual deed and the collective act. . . . Having become a collective enterprise, the sinful project [Babel] takes on the face of totalitarianism, with technology and ideology as its means of realization. If Genesis 3 reveals the religious root of human evil, Genesis 11 shows it in its most logical and perhaps most terrible political expression.” In the Beginning, 204. Fretheim also notes the pride when he observes, “The towers of Babylonia were an attempt not only to facilitate the descent of the gods to men, but also to force the deity’s approach to man into a set mold.” Creation, Fall, and Flood, 125. [↩]
- Man’s double cohortative, “Come, let us make bricks. . . . Come, let us build ourselves a city and a tower” (11:3–4), is matched by God’s double cohortative, “Come, let us go down and there [let us] confuse their language” (11:7). [↩]
- As Jacques Ellul observes, “Man certainly did not expect his project to take such a turn. He did not anticipate that the name he wanted to make for himself would refer to a place of noncommunication.” The Meaning of the City, 482. Following up on Ellul’s observations, Mathews offers an appropriate modern application: “Babel would also be a fitting name for our ‘postmodern’ world of pluralism, deconstructionism, and therefore ‘noncommunication,’ which declares the autonomy of text and reader and sets meaning afloat in a sea of uncertainty. Revolt against divine and absolute truth has fated lost humanity to wander aimlessly and alone in a silent, chaotic world.” Genesis 1–11:26, 482, n. 189. [↩]
- As noted above, Babel (בבל) meant “Gate of God” to the builders. However, Moses employs a wordplay, linking the phonetic sounds of “ba-bel” with “ba-lal” the verb translated confused (בלל). Fokkelman notes the stinging irony: “People want a name? Well, they can have it, but how different it will be from the name they had dreamt of. ‘… therefore its name was called Babel, ‘Muddle!’ This unexpected turn is like a judgment, so biting is its sarcasm.” Narrative Art in Genesis, 14. [↩]
- The psalmist strengthens the connection by using the same verb from which Peleg’s name derives and which depicts the “division.” Invoking God’s judgment on his enemies, he cries, “Destroy, O Lord, divide [פלג] their tongues” (Ps 55:9a). [↩]
- Shinar may refer to the region of Mesopotamia in general (Gen 14:1, 9; Josh 7:21) or just to Babylonia (Dan 1:2). Here, it refers to the southern region of Mesopotamia (10:10), which Moses distinguishes from the northern region of Mesopotamia, later called Assyria (10:11–12; see also Isa 11:11). [↩]
- Modern archaeological endeavors have unearthed numerous ancient fortified cities and ziggurat towers in Mesopotamia. For a helpful survey of the archaeological evidence, see Andre Parrot, The Tower of Babel. [↩]
- As Bruce Waltke remarks, “Ancient Near Eastern kings prided themselves on their hunting prowess. They were not shepherd kings.” Genesis, 169. Hence, the expression “mighty hunter ” (10:9) should be understood in connection with the narrator’s earlier characterization of Nimrod as a “mighty warrior” (10:8). [↩]
- It should not be missed that Shem (שם) actually means “name.” So it would be to “Name’s” offspring that Yahweh would promise, “And I will make your name great” (Gen 12:2). [↩]