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Let’s Read Literally: The Tower of Babel

July 7, 2011

Last month I wrote a post titled Ascension Day and Astronaut Jesus as part of some conversation around the biblioblogosphere on reading biblical texts literally. Today I would like to look at another narrative: the Tower of Babel. The story is famous enough that I’m sure you know the gist of it, but it’s also short enough that you can read it really quick.

Now the whole earth had one language and the same words. 2 And as they migrated from the east,a they came upon a plain in the land of Shinar and settled there. 3 And they said to one another, “Come, let us make bricks, and burn them thoroughly.” And they had brick for stone, and bitumen for mortar. 4 Then they said, “Come, let us build ourselves a city, and a tower with its top in the heavens, and let us make a name for ourselves; otherwise we shall be scattered abroad upon the face of the whole earth.” 5 The LORD came down to see the city and the tower, which mortals had built. 6 And the LORD said, “Look, they are one people, and they have all one language; and this is only the beginning of what they will do; nothing that they propose to do will now be impossible for them. 7 Come, let us go down, and confuse their language there, so that they will not understand one another’s speech.” 8 So the LORD scattered them abroad from there over the face of all the earth, and they left off building the city. 9 Therefore it was called Babel, because there the LORD confused the language of all the earth; and from there the LORD scattered them abroad over the face of all the earth.

Please, be aware that I have a theology degree, so I understand the arguments for accommodation and anthropomorphic language… this is more aimed at the mindset that demands that we need to read Genesis more literally! I’ll give you one guess who lays that false fundamental at their followers’ feet.

But still: does this account portray the abstract ideal God of systematic theology? Is this a story that coheres in any real physical way with what we know about our atmosphere, solar system, and galaxy?

Over the centuries theologians have come up with a lot of fancy words to describe God. One of these words is omnipresent: God is everywhere. But where is God in this story? He’s in heaven and he has to ‘come down’ to see what’s going on at Babel. Why is that? The answer is simple: the people who wrote the Bible thought they lived in a giant snow-globe:

God’s way up in heaven, and the waters above and the firmament are in his way, so he has to come down to see the city and tower. Now, of course, we all know (or darn well should) that the earth is not flat and it most definitely is not a snow-globe. However, some people’s conception of God is often still of him as ‘up there’:



When Ancient Cosmologies Inform Modern Sensibilities

Whose hands are raised towards heaven?


Another thing you’ll hear about God a lot if you hang out with enough Christians is that he is omniscient. Right away, the first obvious question: then why did he have to come down to see the city; he should know! But there’s more. Upon seeing the city and the tower God supposedly says, “Look, they are one people, and they have all one language; and this is only the beginning of what they will do; nothing that they propose to do will now be impossible for them. Come, let us go down, and confuse their language there, so that they will not understand one another’s speech.”

Some small nagging concerns:

One, there have been large groups of people throughout history that have spoken the same language and many things have been quite impossible for them!

Two, exactly what was God worried they would accomplish in the Bronze age that hasn’t been accomplished in the last hundred years? Airplanes? Space flight? Computers? Maybe he was worried that if everyone spoke the same language people would have learned to wash their hands and avoid vermin before the black plague?

I mean really, from the first chapters in Genesis we supposed to believe that God created the world. Shouldn’t he know about the stratosphere and the lack of oxygen if they get too high with the tower. Did he really have to confuse language? Couldn’t he have just waited until they all passed out and then floated a scroll down from heaven with Ecclesiastes 5:2 on it?

Instead he scattered language… and what did that accomplish? Different people groups who didn’t understand each other and fighting wars and killing each other.


Well, at least it keeps the population down so they don’t unite and build a tower to heaven!

8 Comments leave one →
  1. Chris E permalink
    July 7, 2011 10:58 am

    I assumed that much of the framing of the story was to introduce the following story in ch12 as a contrast (“I will make your name great” etc).

    • July 7, 2011 4:56 pm


      In the next post I say that I believe that the themes or polemics of the stories in Genesis should be viewed as much more interconnected, and I would agree with you that this is important.

      The purpose of building the migdal is so that the people might “נעשה־לנו שם” (make for ourselves a name). In Hebrew the word for ‘name’ is shem. So, the purpose of building a tower into the heavens is so that the בני האדם can make a shem for themselves. In the next section in the text we get the lineage of the patriarch Shem, which ends in the paradigmatic patriarch in the lineage of Shem, Abram.

      In the ideological context of Gen 11-36 it is Yahweh who makes a shem great (וַאֲגַדְּלָ֖ה שְׁמֶ֑ךָ [Gen 12:2c]) for the patriarch in the line of Shem.

      I’m guessing there is some word play going on in the Hebrew that is lost in translation.

      • Chris E permalink
        July 8, 2011 5:27 am

        The first part of 11 and 12 are usually thought of as the same source aren’t they? So it’s interesting that the word play gets – apparently – re-used by whoever interpolated 11:10-36 in between those two sections.

  2. Jon H permalink
    July 7, 2011 1:37 pm

    Likewise, the Creator ought to know about gravity, which would cause a tower of clay brick to crumble under its own weight before it got anywhere near asphyxiation height.

  3. August 11, 2011 9:40 pm

    SPEAKING OF THE TOWER OF BABEL, A young-earth creationist biology prof (at Bryan College) wrotes at the Answers in Genesis website that after humans dispersed from the “Tower of Babel” some became shorter and small brained, By this explanation he hopes to explain the existence of fossils such as Homo habilis and Homo rudolfensis: He “measures” the differences between such hominids and interprets them via a “creationi science” technique known as “Baraminology”:

    I think the most telling line in the creationist research paper was: “..the genetic similarity between humans and nonhumans is astonishingly high (Wood 2006) and the australopiths are surprisingly human in their appearance.”

    YECs also fail to grasp that debating whether “humans” are descended from “apes” is largely moot in view of the fact that biologically and taxonomically we _are_ apes. Humans are members of the family hominidae (great apes) which includes gorillas, chimpanzees, orangutans, and several extinct genera. Then there is the contradiction between YECs denying evolution (at least macro-evolution), and their suggestion that major genetic changes (including the creation of new allelles–essentially “new information” ) took place since the Ark landed a few thousand years ago. That would require more rapid and dramatic evolution than even mainstream scientists allow, but they pretend to not notice these glaring inconsistencies,

    See also. . .

  4. August 11, 2011 9:47 pm

    The tale of the tower of Babel is an explanatory myth, an early attempt to account for the diversity of language and the diffusion of humanity after the legendary flood of Noah:

    And the whole earth was of one language, and of one speech. 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, let us make brick, and burn them thoroughly. And they had brick for stone, and slime had they for mortar. And they said, let us build us a city and a tower.
    – Genesis 11

    Next thing you know, “God” “comes down” to “see the city and the tower,” but He complains that “nothing will be restrained from them which they have imagined to do,” or, “nothing they plan to do will be impossible for them.” So God decides to “confuse their tongues.”

    But doesn’t God’s complaint make more sense today than it did back then? Today we have accomplished things deemed “impossible” by the ancients. We have “measured the heights of the stars,” “searched out the foundations of the earth,” laid claim to the moon, sent space probes beyond Pluto, diminished or halted plagues (via modern plumbing, sanitation, vaccines and antibiotics), avoided deadly lightning strikes (via the invention of the lightning rod), greatly increased the odds of infant survival, etc. In short, we have reduced the destructive potentials of acts of nature that were previously considered “acts of God.” Mankind is also unlocking the secrets of DNA, and probably will unlock secrets of artificial intelligence too. All this despite the language barriers that “God” allegedly set up at Babel. Surely it is absurd to think that the same God who allowed man to develop all of the above marvels once pulled a hissy fit over a bunch of brick layers? (“And they said one to another, let us make brick, and burn them thoroughly. And they had brick for stone, and slime had they for mortar. And they said, let us build us a city and a tower.”)

    Furthermore, compare the way “God” reacts in Genesis chapter 11 (the story of the tower of Babel) with how “God” reacts in Genesis chapter 3 (the story of Adam and Eve being tossed out of paradise). God complained about the city of Babel, worried that “Nothing will be restrained from them which they have imagined to do,” so God reacted by “confusing their tongues.” While after Adam and Eve ate the forbidden fruit “God said, ‘The man has now become like one of us, knowing good and evil. He must not be allowed to reach out his hand and take also from the tree of life and eat, and live forever.’ So God banished him from the Garden of Eden.” Such stories merely resemble the way all ancient gods were depicted, jealously guarding their “knowledge,” their secret of “eternal life,” or other divine things.

    Let me add that all known languages were not imposed upon mankind once and for all at “Babel.” Linguists and etymologists have found that languages are a product of evolution and keep evolving. Just compare Old English, Middle English and Modern English. Or compare the various European languages that evolved from the Latin tongue spoken by people of the Roman Empire.

    Today however, the number of languages spoken on earth is diminishing; thousands of languages have become extinct. I guess it’s Babel in reverse. The “curse” has been reversed?

  5. August 11, 2011 9:49 pm


    The heaven, even the heavens, are the Lord’s: but the earth hath he given to the children of men.
    – Psalm 115:16

    So man was only “given the earth,” and not heaven. For “the heavens are the Lord’s.” So should we not be afraid to have left footprints and garbage on the moon in the Lord’s heavens? Should we not tremble after having launched spacecraft named after pagan gods (Mercury, Gemini and Apollo) into the Lord’s heavens? Speaking of “Mercury, Gemini and Apollo,” the Bible even forbids mentioning the “names” of “other gods!” (Exodus 23:13) Seems to me that the same followers of the Bible who picket abortion clinics need to start picketing NASA. We need to stop mucking round in the Lord’s heavens before something bad happens like it did at the “city and tower of Babel.” Space exploration must stop! Man was only given the earth! Just to be safe we also ought to point our telescopes away from the heavens. It’s an invasion of God’s privacy.
    – E.T.B.

    I was watching TV when the Challenger shuttle exploded. That was a sad thing. Was there anything that you could have done? Were you mad because they came too close to your territory? We’re sorry.
    – Jose, in Children’s Letters to God, compiled by Stuart Hample and Eric Marshall

  6. August 11, 2011 9:50 pm


    The ancient Hebrews pictured the Lord and His “holy heavens” lying somewhat nearer to the earth than we imagine today:

    He bowed the heavens and came down.
    – 2nd Samuel 22:10

    The Lord came down [from heaven].
    – Genesis 11:5

    Elijah was lifted up by a whirlwind to heaven.
    – 2 Kings 2:11

    Who hath ascended up into heaven, or descended?
    – Proverbs 30:4

    Angels “ascended and descended” on a “ladder” reaching to “heaven.”
    – Gen. 28:12

    Ye shall see heaven open, and the angels of God ascending and descending upon the Son of man.
    – John 1:51

    The ancient Babylonians, Assyrians and Hebrews, pictured angels (seraphim, etc.) with bird-like wings flying through the earth’s atmosphere to a “heaven” lying directly above the earth rather than through light-years of space lacking an atmosphere and where bird-like appendages would prove useless.

    “Manna,” the food supplied to the Hebrews in the wilderness, falls from heaven.
    – Exodus 16, Numbers 11 & Deuteronomy 8

    Angels who told of Jesus’s birth “went away from [the shepherds] into heaven.”
    – Luke 2:15

    A “star [of heaven]…went on before the [wise men], until it came and stood over where the child [Jesus] was”
    – Mat. 2:9

    Such a “star” would have to be incredibly small to lead the wise men and then stand directly above the house where Jesus was born. Such a tale also helped reinforce belief in the holiness of the heavens, since those heavens were depicted as being able to direct people in a miraculous fashion.

    The heavens were opened unto him [Jesus at his baptism], and he saw the Spirit of God descending like a dove, and lighting upon him: And lo a voice from heaven…
    – Mathew 3:16-17

    At “the Ascension,” “[the resurrected Jesus] was lifted up…and a cloud received him out of their sight” (Acts 1:9), whereupon Jesus took his seat “in the heavens…in the true tabernacle [tent], which the Lord pitched.”
    – Heb. 8:1,2

    And Jesus will return in the sky “seated at the right hand of Power” with the “clouds of heaven.”
    – Mat. 26:64

    The Lord will descend from heaven…and we shall be caught up…in the clouds to meet the Lord in the air.
    – 1 Thessalonians 4:16, 17

    Heaven opened, and a certain vessel descending upon him [Peter], as it had been a great sheet knit at the four corners, and let down to the earth.
    – Acts 10:11

    …a door standing open in heaven, and the…voice…said, Come up here.
    – Revelation 4:1

    And there was a great earthquake…and the stars of the sky fell to the earth, as a fig tree casts its unripe figs when shaken by a great wind. And the sky was split apart…and [men] hid themselves in caves…and said to the mountains…hide us from the presence of Him who sits on the throne.
    – Revelation 6:12-16

    I see the heavens opened, and the Son of man standing on the right hand of God.
    – Acts 7:56

    The “heavenly city,” the “New Jerusalem” “comes down out of heaven” to earth.
    – Revelation 3:12, 21:2

    God is in heaven, and you are on the earth.
    – Ecclesiastes 5:2

    The heavens are the heavens of the Lord; But the earth He has given to the sons of men.
    – Psalm 115:16

    Further corroboration of the ancient view of the near proximity of God and heaven overhead, is not hard to find. The Babylonians built towers, called ziggurats, reaching toward heaven to attract the sky gods’ attention. (Compare the Bible’s tale of the “tower of Babel”–Gen. 11:5) Mountains were like nature’s ziggurats. Abraham ascended a mountain to sacrifice his son to the Lord. Moses spoke to the Lord after having ascended a mountain. (Ex. 19:20) Jerusalem was built on a holy hill nicknamed “Mt. Zion.” Jesus was transfigured on a mountaintop.And the resurrected Jesus was seen on a “mountain which Jesus had designated” in Galilee (Mat. 28:16), or is said to have ascended into heaven from a mountain near Jerusalem (Acts 1).

    Based on the authority of many such Bible verses, the heavenly/spiritual realm was believed to lie “above” the earth and so near that climbing a mountain brought you relatively “nearer” to God. Of course, we know today that climbing a mountain only brings you infinitesimally “nearer” to the nearest star that still lays millions to billions of (conventional) miles away.

    Moreover, the Hebrews had to be warned, many times, not to worship what lay “above” them, i.e., “the sun, moon, and stars, all the host of heaven.” (Deut. 4:19; 17:3; 2 Kings 17:16; 21:5; 23:5; Jer. 7:18; 19:13; 44:17,19,25) They never suspected that the earth was just as much a “heavenly object” as all the stars they “looked up to.” They never suspected that the earth was an integral part of them, sailing among the other “heavenly bodies.” If they had, then they would never have been tempted to “worship” objects that lay “above” their heads–because the earth lay equally “above” all those other heavenly objects depending on one’s perspective. Or as Nietzsche once put it, “So long as thou feelest the stars as an ‘above thee,’ thou lackest the eye of the discerning one.” (Friedrich Nietzsche, “The Sage as Astronomer,” Beyond Good and Evil)

    For thousands of years (until the Protestant Reformation), pagans, Jews and Christians agreed that the stars lay “above” man and “nearer” to God, while Christians added that the earth was a “sink of impurity” with hell lying at the earth’s center. Such a view was inspired by Biblical passages that spoke of the heavens above the earth as the holy abode of God and angels (Ps. 115:16; Eccles. 5:2; Gen. 11:5,7; 28:12; Isa. 40:22; Heb. 8:1,2; 2 Kings 2:11; 2 Sam. 22:10; Luke 2:15; Mat. 23:22; 26:64; Acts 1:9), with sheol, hades, the land of the dead, hell, lying beneath the earth (Job 11:8; Ps. 71:20; 88:3,6; 1 Sam. 28:8,13,15; Amos 9:2,3; Philip.2:10; Rev. 5:13).

    Today, of course, we know that the sun, planets and stars lying “above the earth” are not “nearer to God” nor “nearer to a heavenly/spiritual realm” than we are on the earth’s surface. And some people even dare to believe that perhaps God has given man not just the “earth” but also the “heavens” too, to explore.


    Ancient Hebrew psalmists drew a parallel between the height of the “clouds” and the wondrous height of their Lord’s “truth”:

    For Thy lovingkindness is great to the heavens, And Thy truth to the clouds.
    – Psalm. 57:10

    Comparing the heights of God’s truth to the heights of the clouds no longer impresses modern man. Today we look down upon the clouds from aircraft and measure “heights” in light-years.


    As far as the east is from the west, So far has He removed our transgressions from us.
    – Psalm 103:12

    The distance “from the east to the west” hardly seems like an impressive analogy to use to illustrate the separation of sins from a sinner, not today. Since we now know we live on a globe where traveling “east” eventually brings you back to where you began, unless of course, the author of this Psalm assumed the flatness of the earth.


    [Can] the heavens above be measured?
    – Jeremiah 31:37

    The phrase, “cannot be measured,” refers in Hebrew to any great height, or number of finite things that no one would dream of measuring or counting one by one: “As the host of heaven cannot be counted, and the sand of the sea cannot be measured, so I will multiply the descendants of David.” (Jer. 33:22) Actually, the “descendants of David” total an incredibly smaller number than the number of known stars in the cosmos, but to the Hebrews both sets of numbers appeared equally “immeasurable.” Compare, Genesis 41:49, “Joseph stored up grain in great abundance like the sand of the sea, until he stopped measuring it, for it was beyond measure.” Such things appeared “immeasurable” to the ancient Hebrews because they could not conceive of ways of measuring them. Two thousand years later we have developed ways of measuring the “height” of clouds, the moon, the sun, and other galaxies. So, today, “measuring the heavens” is somebody’s job.


    When I consider thy heavens, the work of thy fingers, the moon and the stars, which thou hast ordained; what is man, that thou are mindful of him?
    – Psalm 8:3-4

    Does this verse demonstrate that the Psalmist was inspired by God to describe how small man appears when compared with the size of the modern cosmos? Hardly. No “inspiration” was necessary. The “heavens” referred to the clouds, and to the sun, moon and stars that the psalmist believed did not lie far above the clouds, along with the angelic heavenly realm lying not far above the sun, moon and stars. Any similarities between this ancient verse and modern day cosmic angst is merely relative. No doubt the cosmos must have felt intangibly huge to the ancients, regardless of their belief that the earth beneath their feet was the flat firm foundation of creation. In fact it may be that their cosmos felt more intangibly huge to them than our cosmos does to us because we can fly round the world, above the clouds, gaze at photos of outer space, and open a book on astronomy and read the distances to stars and galaxies set down for us in tangible numerical form.

    Of course, knowing what he know today about the heights of the heavens, we are not likely to make the same poetic analogies as the ancients, like comparing the Lord’s “truth” to the “height of the clouds,” which sounds less grand than it did to the ancients. Neither do we believe, along with the ancients (including the ancient Hebrews), that climbing a mountain or a tower brings us literally nearer to God.


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