Is the Tower of Babel a polemic?

Some observations I’ve made:

  • Genesis 11:1-10 is set in Mesopotamia (Shinar)
  • In Mesopotamia there were indeed giant towers (Ziggurats)
  • Ziggurats were seen as a bridge between heaven and earth, and a place were the gods would descend to dwell in their temple.
  • The Tower of Babel likewise serves these functions. However, when God descends from heaven to the city he destroys the tower.

With all these facts together, the story of the Tower of Babel seems like a polemic against Pagan religious practices. It’s certainly more coherent than the idea that there was only 1 language a few thousand years ago.


Here is how I understand the narrative.

As you noted, the function of ziggurats in the ancient world was to facilitate a deity coming down from heaven and dwelling with people. This was a good deal for the deity because they were believed to have needs like clothing, food, and a place to sleep, which the people were offering to attend to. This was a good deal for the people because if the deity lived among them they could expect blessings and protection.

So when the people of Babel decided to approach Yahweh the way they approached pagan deities by building a ziggurat, they were showing that they thought God could be manipulated to serve their goals to make a name for themselves in the world. They were assuming God had needs that they could meet. So, God decided to correct their misunderstandings by thwarting their attempts to approach him in an unsanctioned way and attempting to control his blessings.

The narrative of the Tower of Babel immediately precedes the narrative of God’s covenant with Abraham and there are some interesting parallels. Instead of the people deciding to make a name for themselves by using God, God promises to make a name for Abraham. Instead of hunkering down in once place, Abraham is sent out from his home and promised that not just he and his land will be blessed, but all the people of the earth will be blessed through him. The Abrahamic covenant is a crucial key to understanding the entire story of redemption presented in Scripture, and the Tower of Babel forms a foil and a contrast for the covenant story.


A slight problem for the 1 language story is in Genesis 10:31 it is mentioned that multiple languages already existed.

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There’s actually no indication that the languages existed before Babel.

In the Bible you mean, or in archaeology?

There is this:
Genesis 10:31
These are the sons of Shem by their clans and languages, in their territories and nations.

This sure seems to indicate that the clans each had their own language. And this is pre-Bable.


J. Richard Middleton has an interesting take on the Babel story in his book, The Liberating Image.
A few bits:

What stands out about the tower of Babel story is (paradoxically) its lack of critique of (indeed, lack of any reference to) Babylonian religion.
The suggestion that the imperial imposition of a single language is part of the background of Genesis 11 has the further merit of taking seriously the fact that the Babel story follows the table of the nations in Genesis 10, which had already recounted (as natural) the development of multiple cultural, political, and linguistic groups (10: 5, 20, 31).
The implication is therefore not, as is often suggested, that Genesis 11 protests a human incursion into the divine realm (heaven). God is not the one threatened by this Promethean act of human assertion. Rather, a careful reading of Genesis 11 in the context of the primeval history suggests that Babel represents imperial civilization par excellence and that its imposed, artificial unity is a danger to the human race. God’s remedy, therefore, not only enables humanity to obey the commission of 1: 28 to fill the earth, but contributes to the diffusion of human power for the sake of humanity.
Genesis 11 thus strips off the religious veneer of imperial Babylon (as the paradigm of Mesopotamian cultural achievement) to expose the underlying human impulse to exercise power over others— that is, the impulse to violence.

Middleton, J. Richard (2005-03-01). The Liberating Image: The Imago Dei in Genesis 1 (p. 222-226). Baker Publishing Group. Kindle Edition.


Couple of points.

  • “What stands out about the tower of Babel story is (paradoxically) its lack of critique of (indeed, lack of any reference to) Babylonian religion”

Yeah it does.

  • “The implication is therefore not, as is often suggested, that Genesis 11 protests a human incursion into the divine realm (heaven)”

True, the tower isn’t a human incursion into the divine realm. But it is linked to Babylonian religion. The purpose of the ziggurats was not to permit humans to enter the divine realm, but to invite the gods to descend from the divine realm to the human realm. That’s why we have a couple of very pointed and humorous references to God “coming down” to earth.

This site explains it better, and it’s pretty non-biased (coming from an atheist source)

But it’s a clumsy retrofit, it’s an ad hoc argument which only arises in response to a problem which the proposed solution actually caused. That shows the real issue is that the proposed solution is not a good solution.

The tower of Babel narrative never talks about multiple new comprehensible languages emerging as the result of this incident. Quite the opposite.


I should have flagged @JRM above when quoting from his book.

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Really? How so?

Well for a start it never talks about new original comprehensible languages being created. The emphasis all the way through the narrative is confusion, not comprehensibility. The entire etiological case is based on incomprehensible speech. This is what I would expect it to say if it was a “how the world’s languages came into being” narrative.

  • “Therefore the name of that place was called “Many Languages”, because it was there that God created all the different languages of the world”

But this is what it actually says.

  • “Therefore the name of that place was called “Confusion”, because it was there that God confused the language of the entire world”

My current view is that there were several languages and also quite possibly a trade language that they all used to communicate - and that the ones with power were using that language to inflict orders on the rest (maybe slaves). So if God were to take away the trade language, everything would crumble. But he was not against the variety of languages already there.

Then in Acts 2, the opposite happened - people heard God’s message in their own language. God could have made everyone understand Greek - but he didn’t. He honoured their heart language!

I think this is a possible reading of Gen 10, 11 and Acts 2, and that it fits with God’s view of language and also with historical linguistics.

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My understanding is that the two chapters are flipped chronologically, although I do not know what the theological basis for this perspective is.

Changing the order of chapters based on your theology is a bad idea. Theology is man made and is subject to error.

Reading Genesis 9 to 11 you will notice that the Babel story is tucked in between two different "This is the account of " sections which indicates a family genealogy is being given. Chapter 9 is God’s covenant with Noah. Chapter 10 is the listing of Noah’s sons, and Chapter 11 after Babel is Shem’s family line. If you want to move it to a different time how can you justify it? I noticed one apologetic web site that said you can place it in chapter 10 but that really doesn’t make sense. What makes better sense is to realize the point of the story is not the origin of all of the world’s languages.

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Not suggesting that I agree with it, just that I have seen it posited as an explanation for the contradictions inherent in the text.

Setting aside @Christy 's and @Jonathan_Burke 's special interpretations:

  1. Even if there a thousand other languages already, the story of the Tower has been interpreted as a dividing of a particular nation of workers into incomprehensible tongues. It doesn’t require there to be only one language in the whole world, nor does it require that all the languages of the world came out of this particular labor party.

  2. The story could be a co-opting of a pagan story as an effort to assist in diverting future generations from a Yahweh-version of the story, rather than some other pagan tradition.

  3. Is the Easter Bunny a polemic? Or is it just a story to co-opt pagan imagery by the Church?

Based on how some children react to a full-sized Easter Bunny in Malls, I might indeed wonder if the Easter Bunny is a polemic!

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Just ran across an interesting essay about the subject by John Walton. The Mesopotamian Background of the Tower of Babel Account and Its Implications. Thought it would be of interest to @Reggie_O_Donoghue, at least.


Pretty fascinating stuff. He gets to the Tower of Babel at the End.