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The Reception History of the Tower of Babel

Pieter Brueghel the Elder

If you look closely in the bottom left-hand corner of the Dutch artist Pieter Brueghel’s famous painting of the tower of Babel, you will spy a trespasser. A bearded man towers above the gathered workers. He is supervising the building project. Close readers of Gen 11, however, will notice that no such figure is mentioned in the biblical account. This mysterious trespasser points to one of the main ways in which later readers constructed meaning from the words of the biblical narrative of Babel.

The story of Babel has most often been read as a caution against hubris of various sorts. Babel and its tower point to humanity’s ever-present desire to reach beyond its grasp. Such a reading was encouraged by the image of the tower with its “top in the heavens” (Gen 11:4). This lone detail was read as indicating that the builders were trying to encroach upon the realm of the divine. One early Jewish commentary even suggested that the builders hoped to use the tower as a platform to wage war against God. The rabbis (circa fifth century C.E.) imagine the builders claiming, “It is not up to Him to select the heavens for himself and to give us the lower realm. But let us go and make a tower for ourselves and we will put an idol on its summit and we will place a sword in the idol’s hand so as to give the impression that it is waging war against God” (Genesis Rabbah 38.6.5). Humanity was not content with staying in its proper place.

But what of that mysterious trespasser? He is Nimrod, and adding him to the story was a way for Breughel to highlight the supposed arrogance and impiety of the builders. Gen 10:8-10 mentions Nimrod in connection with Shinar, the location of the building of the tower (Gen 11:2). His name, in Hebrew, can also mean “Let us rebel.” But why would he wish to build a tower? The Jewish historian Josephus claims that Nimrod was a tyrant who exploited the fear of the Babelites following the flood, convincing them that he “would build a tower higher than the waters could reach and he would execute vengeance also for the destruction of his forefathers” (Jewish Antiquities 1.114). Babel is about payback! 

The hubris of globalization is an important element in many modern readings of Babel. Colonializing systems have historically insisted on the forceful imposition of the language of the conqueror on the conquered. Thus, the reference to “one language” is frequently seen as pointing to political repression and totalitarian systems. Such political hubris has no place for and does not value the particularities of human cultures and languages.

Most recently, the tower of Babel has even been connected to fears of a coming one-world government. The most visible example of this imagined connection between Babel and the new world order is the claim by a prominent conspiracy theorist that the European Parliament building is actually modeled on the tower of Babel. No word yet on who is to play the role of Nimrod.

  • Phillip Michael Sherman

    Phillip Michael Sherman is assistant professor of religion at Maryville College (Maryville, Tennessee). He is the author of Babel’s Tower Translated: Genesis 11 and Ancient Jewish Interpretation and is currently at work on a book exploring how the authors of the Bible thought about animals.