Tower of Babel and Mesopotamian Influence?

The famous tower of babel story from Gen 11:1-9 has strong Mesopotamian echoes. The passage contains explicit references to aspects of Mesopotamian civilization: the physical environment (the plain of Shinar, Gen 11:1), geography (Babylon, called babel in Gen 11:9), building techniques (using bricks and bitumen instead of stone and mortar, Gen 11:3), urbanism (“let us build ourselves a city, and a tower,” Gen 11:4), and political phraseology (“to make oneself a name,” Gen 11:4, that is, to become famous through monuments). All these are known features of Mesopotamian civilization in the second and first millennium B.C.E.

Given the strong “Mesopotamian touch” that characterizes the tower of babel story, one would assume that there must be plenty of Mesopotamian texts and materials relating to it. On close examination, however, this is not the case.

Since the time of the rabbis in late antiquity, people have searched for the city ruins and the tower of babel. According to Jewish and Islamic lore, it was King Nimrod (mentioned in Gen 10:8-12) who ordered the tower be erected “with its head in heaven” (Gen 11:4). Ruins called Birs Nimrud in Arabic, 17 kilometers south of Babylon, were thus regarded as the most likely location of the tower until early in the 20th century; today they are identified as the remains of a ziggurat that once was part of the main temple of ancient Borsippa and its patron god Nabu.

European Renaissance humanists further identified the tower of Gen 11 with what the Greek historian Herodotus describes in his Histories 2.89 as a huge structure of superimposed towers (plural!) in the center of ancient Babylon. This structure, called E-temen-an-ki (“House: Foundation of heaven and earth”) or “ziggurat of (the god) Marduk” by the ancient Babylonians, was excavated in 1913 and reexamined in 1962 and 1967–68.

The view that the mythical tower of babel was a memory of this historical building has become so compelling that modern scholars hardly question it. However, since the Hebrew word migdal, usually translated “tower,” could point to a fortress or citadel as well, and the story says nothing about a religious function of the tower, the equation is far from obvious.

The Primeval History of Gen 1-11, the Bible’s opening, is heavily indebted to Mesopotamian mythology in many respects. But though there are indeed close parallels to the narratives about the creation of the world and of humanity, early culture heroes, and the flood, no parallel earlier than the Hellenistic period is known for the Babel story.

To be sure, a Sumerian legend quoted in an epic entitled Enmerkar (King of Uruk) and the Lord of Aratta seems to ascribe to the god Enki the multiplication of human languages in antediluvian times. The passage (lines 134–55) has been labeled a “Sumerian version” of the “Babel of Tongues” by eminent Assyriologist Samuel Noah Kramer. However, according to Gen 11:7 and Gen 11:9, Yahweh did not multiply languages but rather “mixed up” humanity’s common speech into gibberish. In any case, as the Enmerkar epic was not transmitted beyond the middle of the second millennium B.C.E., a link between the Sumerian composition and the biblical story can be ruled out.

Because of the conspicuously sociopolitical message of this very short story, which expresses a fear of losing social cohesion, some scholars understand Gen 11:1-9 as a critique of empire building and metropolitanism, which was purposefully inscribed into the earliest history of postdiluvian humanity. Some have also found intriguing connections with similar motifs and phrases in Neo-Assyrian royal inscriptions.

Incidentally, this antiempire, antiurban reading is fully in line with the first creation account’s command (Gen 1:28) to humans not only to multiply but also “to fill the earth.”

 

Contributors

  • Christoph Uehlinger

    Professor, University of Zurich

    Christoph Uehlinger is a Hebrew Bible/Old Testament scholar who taught on Bible, iconography, and ancient religion at the University of Fribourg for many years. Wider interests in eastern Mediterranean and Near Eastern societies and cultures allowed him to move to the University of Zurich, where he has held the chair in comparative history of religions since 2003.