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Affirmations and Confessions of a Progressive Christian Layman – The Tower of Confusion

Genesis 10:5 claims the land was divided according to tongues, but Genesis 11:1 insists that everyone on earth spoke the same language. If we believe the biblical account of the flood, then everyone was dead except Noah, his wife, their sons and their sons’ wives. Therefore, everyone was a descendant of this one family. If that is true, of course, everyone spoke the same language. If you do not accept the flood story as literal, then there were more likely multiple languages prior to the building of the Tower of Babel.

Genesis 11:2 tells us the people migrated from the east, settled on a plain in the land of Shinar. The land of Shinar is the land between the Tigris and the Euphrates that lies south of modern Baghdad. Archeological evidence shows that Shinar was basically uninhabited before about 6000 BCE. The northern part of the land of Shinar was Babylon, which is the area in which the tower was built.

Genesis 11:3-4 claims that these people or their elders agreed to “make bricks, and burn them thoroughly.” Once they had enough bricks and bitumen (asphalt) for mortar, they agreed to build a city and a tower that reached “the heavens.” They thought such an accomplishment would make a name for themselves. They were afraid if they did not assert their greatness and power, they would be scattered. The baked bricks suggest that the Tower of Babel was built between 3500 and 2400 BCE. Authorities claim that unbaked bricks were used in architecture prior to c. 3100 BCE. Bituminous mortar, which is nearly as indestructible as baked brick, was not used as a mortar until baked bricks appeared. Otherwise, gypsum or mud was used was mortar.

Authorities claim that the tower was most likely a ziggurat, an ancient Mesopotamian temple tower consisting of a lofty pyramidal structure that was built in successive stages with outside staircases. It was usually crowned with a shrine at the top. In Babylonia, the setting for the tower, the ziggurat was the most prominent structure in a city. The Genesis text indicates that the tower was designed to bring fame and glory to the city (“so that we may make a name for ourselves”). Baked bricks and bitumen were very expensive, so that material would have been reserved for luxurious architecture like palaces, temples, and ziggurats.

In Enuma Elish, the Epic of Creation, which dates from the 7th century BCE, Nabopolassar was told to make the foundation of Babylon’s ziggurat “secure in the bosom of the nether world, and make its summit like the heavens” which is similar to the Genesis text that describes the tower as having “its top in the heavens.”

According to Genesis 11:5-7, once the LORD saw the city and tower, he said (to someone): they are one people and have one language; this is only the beginning of what they will do; nothing will be impossible for them. Once again the author of Genesis has God use the plural when the LORD says, “Let us go down and confuse their language, so they will not understand one another’s speech.” God supposedly destroyed the tower, but Genesis does not mention the tower’s destruction.

Genesis 10:5 tells us that the descendants of Japheth spread to the coast and had “their own language.” Similarly, Genesis 10:20 claims Ham’s descendants had “their languages, their lands, and their nations.” Genesis 10:31 claims the same thing about the descendants of Shem.

If the Tower of Babel was, at the earliest, built in 3500 BCE, evidence refutes the claim that all people spoke the same language. The writer(s) of Genesis did not know that the Far East, Australia or the Americas even existed. Even if they knew, which is extremely unlikely, the people who lived there were not speaking any ancient Near Eastern language. Several civilizations thrived in other areas of the globe as early as 9,000-10,000 BCE. So we can conclude that long before the Tower of Babel was built humans inhabited much of the earth and they spoke a multitude of languages.

We are told that the builders of the tower were no longer able to understand one another, so they had to abandon the idea of building the city and tower. Paul H. Seely in “The Date of the Tower of Babel and Some Theological Implications” (Westminster Theological Journal 63, 2001) assures us that “the Sumerian language went right on being spoken and understood until at least… a thousand years later.”

Genesis 11:8 tells us that these people got exactly what they were afraid of; the LORD scattered them over the face of the earth (which supposedly means that God divided humankind into separate nations) and they stopped building cities. Genesis 10:32 told us that Noah’s sons and their descendants were dispersed “abroad on the earth after the flood.”

When the writer(s) of Genesis said that “all the earth” spoke one language, it was due to extremely limited knowledge of geography. As far as he knew, the earth was flat and extended from Sardinia to Afghanistan and from the southern tip of the Arabian Peninsula to the northern boundaries of the Black and Caspian Seas. And by the time of the Babel tower, Noah’s descendants had most likely not spread out into this limited concept of earth. Kings in both Egypt and Mesopotamia often spoke of ruling the entire earth.

Genesis 11:9 informs us that the tower was called Babel, because it was there that the LORD confused the languages and from there the LORD scattered them.

Is this story simply trying to explain why the world contains different ethnic and linguistic groups? If so, that does not qualify the story for inclusion in sacred scripture.

Is this story in the Bible as an illustration of people not obeying God’s will? They ignored God’s directive that they should populate the earth by settling in the fertile land of the Shinar plain. And they built a city that would prevent further scattering.

Instead of glorifying God, these descendants of Shem wanted to make a name for themselves by building a great city and a magnificent, tall tower. Did they expect the tower to be large enough for the entire population so that they could be protected from any future flood? Or did they build the tower to be in God’s presence (they thought heaven was not very far above the earth). Did they build the tower to worship the heavens – i.e. astrology – rather than to worship Yahweh? Or did they build the tower to impress potential enemies of their greatness?

I think the people who built the tower, like Adam and Eve, wanted to be God or at least, like God. They thought they could build a tower that reached God’s dwelling place. According to Genesis, God was afraid that nothing was impossible for these people, including taking his place.

Topics: Bibles and Bible Study. 8 Points: Point 5: Non-Dogmatic Searchers. Ages: Adult. Texts: Genesis. Resource Types: Articles and Read.

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