Did God really come down from heaven to earth, as the Bible says, to interfere with a building project by sowing linguistic confusion?
With scholars across different disciplines concluding that the Tower of Babel is a historical structure built by Nebuchadnezzar using workers from across the known world, Dr. Martin Schøyen presents his views on the origins of the Biblical narrative.
I always thought it strange that God should come down from heaven to earth to interfere in a building enterprise by creating language confusion. But it is in the ancient traditions that the gods interfered in human wars and other activities. The Sumerian and Babylonian gods did it, as did the Greek gods as recounted in the Iliad and the Odyssey. There have been many attempts to explain this divine interference, but none of them are convincing.
Could the Biblical account in Genesis 11 have an entirely different and practical background and explanation?
The answer appeared evident to me from the text on the Tower of Babel stele (MS 2063) published by Professor Andrew George in 2011, and from his republication of various similar inscriptions of Nebuchadnezzar published by assyriologists over a period of over 100 years which have apparently - and surprisingly - escaped the attention of theologians throughout that span of time. As the inscription from MS 2063 states:
“In order to complete E-Temen-anki [ziggurat of Babylon] and E-Ur-me-imin-anki [ziggurat of Borsippa] to the top – I mobilized all countries everywhere, each and every ruler who had been raised to prominence over all people of the world loved by Marduk, from the Upper Sea to the Lower Sea, the distant nations, the teeming people of the world, kings of remote mountains and far-flung islands -”
There are a number of historical implications underpinning this statement that bear consideration. The restoration and reconstruction of two mighty ziggurats simultaneously was a huge enterprise that took some 43 years and the baking of over 17 million bricks for the Babylon tower alone, requiring tens of thousands of workmen, as well as the best architects, engineers, carpenters, masonry specialists and a host of other skilled and unskilled workers to accomplish. Coming from all the world then known, they spoke the different languages of the ancient world, and could not all communicate with each other as there were no extensive Lingua Franca at the time (apart from the geographically limited Akkadian and Aramaic). It has to be noted that Greek would not be adopted for another several hundreds years later.
In short, there was confusion right at the outset - without the divine intervention of the Babylonian gods nor Yahweh. The confusion was total, and afterwards the builders were dispersed back to their homelands. These were the events that the Jews, during their Babylonian exile, observed. After Nebuchadnezzar’s conquest of Jerusalem the Jews were taken into captivity in Babylonia in 597 and 586 BC, and were not released until 539 BC by King Cyrus. Nebuchadnezzar’s E-Temen-anki building works continued possibly right to the end of his reign in 562 BC, so the Jews could observe the works and the confusion for a period of over 24 years in the course of their captivity in exile. Subsequently, King Cyrus removed the grand staircases of the Tower, and it fell gradually into disrepair until it was entirely pulled down by Alexander the Great.
So, when the Genesis text was composed by the Jews during the exile and after return to their homeland, they interpreted this down to earth story of construction chaos in a theological context. As dictated by the traditions of the time, Yahweh had to be invoked. Thus the present text in Genesis 11:1-9 came to be written:
Now the whole world had one language and a common speech. As people moved eastward, they found a plain in Shinar (Babylonia) and settled there. They said to each other, "Come, let us make bricks and bake them thoroughly." They used brick instead of stone, and tar for mortar. Then they said, “Come, let us build ourselves a city, with a tower that reaches to the heavens, so that we may make a name for ourselves; otherwise we will be scattered over the face of the whole earth.” But Yahweh came down to see the city and the tower the people were building. Yahweh said, “So they are all a single people with a single language! This is but the start of their undertakings! Then nothing they plan to do will be impossible for them. Come let us go down and confuse their language so they will not understand each other.” So Yahweh scattered them from there all over the earth, and they stopped building the city. That is why it was called Babel – because there the Lord confused the language of the whole world. From there Yahweh scattered them over the face of the whole earth.
It is also notable that this Old Testament story is followed some 500-600 years later in the New Testament. In Acts 2 the Holy Spirit reverses the language confusion and makes everyone, wherever they come from and what language they speak, understand each other. At that time the Lingua Franca in the Roman Empire was Greek in the East and Latin in the West.
MS 2063 is posted on the website in Collection 2.2 Babylonian history. See also MS 1815/1 Tower of Babel brick stamped with Nebuchadnezzar’s name and with the back still filled with the black bitumen or tar specifically mentioned in the Bible text quoted above. The brick is posted in collection 21.1 Pre-Gutenberg blockprinting on clay and gold.