The "Non-Sensibility" of the Tower of Babble

(George Brooks) #1

It is rare when so few lines of text from Genesis can sound so ridiculous:

Gen 11:4-8:
And they said, Go to, let us build us a city and a tower, whose top may reach unto heaven…And the LORD came down to see the city and the tower, which the children of men builded.

And the LORD said, Behold, the people is one, and they have all one language; and this they begin to do: and now nothing will be restrained from them, which they have imagined to do. Go to, let us go down, and there confound their language, that they may not understand one another’s speech.

So the LORD scattered them abroad from thence upon the face of all the earth…

The context of this story only makes sense if one’s world view includes a dome that is reachable by a tall enough tower… not if you understand that NO TOWER can even pierce the atmosphere, let alone attain “the heavens”.

From start to finish there’s just not much sense to this story for those who have reliable information about the planet earth:
a) a reasonable motivation for building a tower is not to “reach heaven”.
b) a reasonable objection to the tower cannot include the fear that they might “reach heaven”…
c) nor does it make any sense to confuse the language of the builders… because all that does is MULTIPLY the number of nations that will build towers.

Like the story of the tree of life …
Like the story of the ark and the flood…
The story of the confusion of languages is a story first formulated by Sumerians… and then co-opted by Jewish scribes to fill out the traditions and back-story of the Hebrew nation.

(Mervin Bitikofer) #2

This observation might be more accurate: It is now not so rare (unfortunately) that modern exegesis of a snippet of Genesis can be so ridiculous.

(George Brooks) #3


Looking forward to your analysis making sense out of it … I’m ALL EYES AND EARS…

(Jon) #4

No, it only makes sense if you understand the purpose of these towers. It was not to physically reach the dome of heaven.

It says their language was confused. It doesn’t say lots of new languages were produced. People couldn’t understand each other.

Nope, there’s no comparable tree of life story in the ANE (and no the Epic of Gilgamesh doesn’t count).

Nope, the Genesis flood narrative is distinctive. Close enough that it’s describing the same event, different enough to demonstrate literary independence.

(Mervin Bitikofer) #5

Well, with the bar so low it would be embarrassing for any thinking Bible reader to fail to do better. So even though I’m not a theologian, here is one better approach.

The tower represents humankind’s self-glorification through our own works, and some of those works do indeed get pretty impressive (if we do say so ourselves! --and we like to claim that often even with things the way they are). But imagine how much we would have accomplished if we were actually unified in our efforts, instead of, say, surviving wars with each other or figuring out new ways to kill and steal from each other, or defend ourselves from others doing the same. Maybe our failures and divisions are the very things that remind us of our humble estate that we cannot in the end save ourselves. Science itself could be our modern “tower of Babel” and things like WW1 and 2, … long list here … could be all the reminders from God that: No – we aren’t going to be ‘saving ourselves with only our own efforts’. So the tower of Babel event could be a form of parable that remains just as true today to our human nature as it was in its original setting --True not only then, but also now.

I don’t claim that is all completely right, but it would be closer to where theologians up and down the last twenty centuries might go with it; certainly better than worrying over its literal historicity and whether domes are solid or not. I say this not having recently or formally researched what theologians are saying; but my exposure to their thoughts either through their own writings, or more likely others writing about them leaves me with the impression that this interpretation might not be far from the mark. Others (actual theologians), please feel free to weigh in as necessary.

(George Brooks) #6


I don’t think you’ve made much progress here. The story is about EXPLAINING the origin of different languages and different people… but dressed up in a tunic of moralizing about humans assuming greater humility.

The reason we know the story is about explaining the source of different languages is because there are any number of better “stories” that could be drafted to teach the listeners humility.

Is there the slightest hint in human history that any group was AFRAID of building something because God would confuse their languages YET AGAIN? No. God humbles the arrogant in many ways … many IMPORTANT ways… but the “babbling” story was probably the leasing convincing and least influential in the human archive of stories.


As for your comment about “literary independence” of the Biblical flood story … yes. I get that. So are you saying that the Biblical version of the confusing of the workers languages does NOT show “literary independence”? I don’t believe anything I’ve said should be characterized as denying any small measure of independence by the Jewish scribes.

Below is the Wiki discussion of the Sumerian predecessor to the Biblical version:

Sumerian parallel
"There is a Sumerian myth similar to that of the Tower of Babel, called Enmerkar and the Lord of Aratta, where Enmerkar of Uruk is building a massive ziggurat in Eridu and demands a tribute of precious materials from Aratta for its construction, at one point reciting an incantation imploring the god Enki to restore (or in Kramer’s translation, to disrupt) the linguistic unity of the inhabited regions…"

NOTE TO SELF: Enki’s Akkadian name is “Ea” … phonetically indistinguishable from “Yah” or “Yaa”.

(George Brooks) #7

Well, I suppose it depends on what you mean by comparable…and, as you point out, the ANE is not the place to look!

“In pre-Islamic Persian mythology, the Gaokerena world tree is a large, sacred Haoma tree which bears all seeds. Ahriman (Ahreman, Angremainyu) created a frog to invade the tree and destroy it, aiming to prevent all trees from growing on the earth. As a reaction, God (Ahura Mazda) created two . . . fish staring at the frog to guard the tree. . . . the concept of world tree in Persian Mythology is very closely related to the concept of Tree of Life.”

"To the Ancient Egyptians, the Tree of Life represented the hierarchical chain of events that brought every thing into existence. The spheres of the Tree of Life demonstrate the order, process, and method of creation.
In Egyptian mythology, in the Ennead system of Heliopolis, the first couple, apart from Shu and Tefnut (moisture and dryness) and Geb and Nuit (earth and sky), are Isis and Osiris. They were said to have emerged from the acacia tree of Iusaaset, which the Egyptians considered the tree of life, referring to it as the “tree in which life and death are enclosed.”

(Mervin Bitikofer) #8

“From there the Lord scattered them over the whole face of the earth.”

One sentence repeated twice. And from that you think the author was at pains to lay out the origins stories (21st century style no less) of different cultures and languages? Are you in the habit of criticizing cookbooks because they don’t have any convincing explanation of the Pythagorean Theorem? I’m sorry, George, but as weak as my little commentary may be (and I don’t doubt real theologians could lay out more convincing things to say about it), I think I’ll stay put for the moment.

I’m sorry the ancient text didn’t meet your approval.

(Jon) #9

Yes I’m familiar with the confusion of language in Enmerker and the Lord of Aratta. It’s further evidence that the original audience of Genesis 11 would not have read this passage as referring to the origin of different languages. It is very obviously not about the creation of comprehensible languages, it is about the reduction of one language to incomprehensible gibberish.

The Persian and Egyptian material you cited has virtually nothing in common with the tree of life narrative in Genesis 2-3. The article you cite from Wikipedia contains obvious original research and incredibly poor equivocation. For example, it claims the Egyptians considered the acacia tree to be “the tree of life”, whilst only citing a text saying the tree was considered “the tree in which life and death are enclosed”. Nothing to do with a tree of life.

(George Brooks) #10


You are going to QUIBBLE over this? You don’t think a “Tree which encloses Life and Death” has any parallels to the Biblical “Tree of Life” ? Seriously, I think you’d argue just about anything…

oh… but of course… case in point… You are going to fixate that the story “… is very obviously not about the creation of comprehensible languages, it is about the reduction of one language to incomprehensible gibberish…”

Right, Jonathan… and we are all speaking incomprehensible gibberish to this day!

Gen 11:9 “Therefore is the name of it called Babel; because the LORD did there confound the language of all the earth: and from thence did the LORD scatter them abroad upon the face of all the earth.”

Yes, Jon, and THIS is how the many nations were established … each with its own language…

(Jon) #11

It is not a quibble. When you have a culture with a tree which gives eternal life if the fruit is eaten, and is called “the tree of life”, and you have another culture with a tree from which two gods emerged, which is called “the tree in which life and death are enclosed”, it’s patently obvious these two trees are not the same and do not serve the same function at all.

No we aren’t, we’re speaking comprehensible languages.

But the text doesn’t say that. It says the opposite; their language was confused. Not “their language was magically divided into many different comprehensible dialects, and this is how the many nations were established, each with its own language”. On the contrary, nations with different languages were already referred to back in chapter 10, and it wasn’t identified as having anything to do with Babel.

(George Brooks) #12


Yes, here are the Chapter 10 references:

By these were the isles of the Gentiles divided in their lands, every one after his tongue. Genesis 10:5
These are the sons of Ham, after their families, after their tongues. Genesis 10:20
These are the sons of Shem, after their families, after their tongues. Genesis 10:31

But Jon, if chapter 10 is not a garbled reference (how ironic!?) about the same disbursement of human languages … then this text in Genesis 11 cannot be true, right?

And the whole earth was of one language, and of one speech. Genesis 11:1

(Jon) #13

Of course it can be true. The “whole earth” in Genesis 11 isn’t referring to the entire planet. The Hebrews had no concept of the entire planet anyway. The “whole earth” in Genesis 11 is referring to a specific region. You’ll find the same language used in Enmerker and the Lord of Aratta to describe a specific region speaking with one language. Here i t is.

Harmony-tongued Sumer (South), the great land of the "decrees of princeship,"
Uri (North), the land having all that is needful,
The land Martu (West), resting in security,
The whole universe, the people in unison,
To Enlil in one tongue gave praise.

(George Brooks) #14


The “Evangelical” set to your mind is pretty evident.

What is not evident to me is why you think denying that the theme of “multiplication of languages” has anything to do with the Tower story changes the meaning or significance of the story.

You are essentially arguing that Yahweh turned the work crew into gibbering idiots … and they wandered away … and had absolutely NO AFFECT on the rest of God’s creation.

Leaving the Bible with no explanation for the existence of other languages …

I just don’t get your drift …

(Jon) #15

Ironically you always say this when you’re the one insisting on a fundamentalist interpretation of the text.

Would you like some scholarly literature to read? It may help clarify this point.


Correct. The Bible never shows any interest in how other languages came about. This is not a revelation, it has been recognized for a very long time. Look at chapter 10 for example.

(George Brooks) #16


Please… I would love to read the scholarly literature on the topic…

(Jon) #17

Ok. Before we do that (since I’m away from my home and don’t have ready access to my research library), read these passages from Enmerker and the Lord of Aratta.

"Harmony-tongued Sumer (South), the great land of the "decrees of princeship,“
Uri (North), the land having all that is needful,
The land Martu (West), resting in security,
The whole universe, the people in unison,
To Enlil in one tongue gave praise.”

"(Then) Enki, the lord of abundance, (whose) commands are trustworthy,
The lord of wisdom, who understands the land,
The leader of the gods,
Endowed with wisdom, the lord of Eridu
Changed the speech in their mouths, [brought (?)] contention into it,
Into the speech of man that (until then) had been one. "

Is that intended to be an etiology of the origin of different languages? Is it saying that this is how different languages originated?

(George Brooks) #18


Look at the final sentence:

Enki “… changed the speech in their mouths … [brought] contention into it … the speech of [Men] that … had been one.”

The implication is pretty clear … whether NEW LANGUAGES or formed directly … or indirectly because of the spark of confusion … Men no longer had ONE language…

(Jon) #19

Well that’s not what the original text means. It has nothing to do with new languages, it has to do with people speaking gibberish. In fact if you had read Enmerker and the Lord of Aratta you would have known that the text itself mentions other languages already in existence. This story is not an etiology of languages.

(George Brooks) #20


So you way … but your quotes do not agree with you.

Some versions have ENKI unifying language in the future … other versions have ENKI dividing it …

But at no point do I see any implication that ENKI just wants people to BABBLE. How would that be supported? Where is the example? Where is the legend of hundreds of people who could no longer speak intelligibly ? Frankly, it’s the most bizarre interpretation one could conjure up …