The "Non-Sensibility" of the Tower of Babble

I see that Jonathan_Burke already dealt with a similar misunderstanding of EARTH in the Bible. ERETZ in the OT and KOSMOS in the NT did not carry any notion of “planet earth”, an idea which is even rather recent in the English language. (Today we tend to assume “earth=planet earth” but that wasn’t even true as the primary definition of the English word earth in 1611 when the KJV was published. Even though the idea of planets was well understood by astronomers at that time, “planet earth” was far from the typical understanding of the word earth in those days.)

[I’m no longer active on this website but I was looking for one of my old posts and happened to see this thread. So if you have questions about what I’ve posted today, you can reach me at Bible.and.Science.Forum through Gmail, but be sure to put “forward to OldTimer” in the subject field.]


But as I said, the story of the Tower of Babel has a symbolic message that was meant for a future generation—so it doesn’t matter what those towers meant to the original audience, unless the point here is strictly to discuss the reason why ancient people erected ziggurats. Perhaps then, we should clarify whether we are discussing the meaning of the symbolic interpretation of the Tower of Babel story, or whether we are discussion the building of ziggurats—this must be why you are using the expression these towers instead of Tower of Babel?

I believe @gbrooks9 's intention was to get to the heart of the symbolic meaning of the story (since the literal meaning doesn’t make any sense), not to talk about ziggurats—although, it does make for interesting conversation nonetheless! :smile:

P.S. Since factually there is no God or heavenly host to say “Let us go down,” and, if I am right, that the story of the Tower of Babel is symbolic for mankind’s ambition to reach God intellectually, this polemical controversy would actually involve those at the top of academia who desire to protect what they have as opposed to those who strive to attain what they have—knowledge, understanding, wisdom, and insight—all of which provide comfortable living conditions, health, wealth, and happiness. I agree, it’s bitingly polemic! :imp: We just have to remember the different periods in history where the burning of books and the destruction of people was fashionable.


Only a handful of Sumerian deities might have their “homes” characterized as the sky. Mountains, caves, the underworld and the empty wildernesses were the more common abodes of the Gods. Even the great Sun God himself only spent 12 hours in the sky … and spent his evenings in the great underworld.

It’s the arrival of Zoroastrianism that more or less permanently binds “the heavens” with all things divine in Western culture…


Robert Gnuse’s book, “Misunderstood Stories: Theological Commentary on Genesis 1-11” (2014), treats BOTH sides of the language issue… but both sides of language being UNITED or DISUNITED… not language just
being turned into gibberish!

Starting on page 248 we read:

"There are few ancient Near Eastern literary parallels to this account A fragmentary myth tells of how Enki will restore unity of language to all people in the future and the tale concludes, “. . . endowed with wisdom, the Lord of Eridu, will change all existing languages in their mouth, and then the language of
mankind will be one” (Beyerlin 87).

It may not be a good parallel, since the story describes the reverse of what happens in the biblical text. Some commentators read this myth differently and suggest the story line reads that once all people used the same language to worship Enlil, but Enki’s rivalry with Enlil led Enki to confuse the tongues of people.

Enlil wished to destroy humanity, but Enki saved people by the proposal to confuse their language instead. It is worth noting there is no reference to a building (Kramer 1968:108-11; Vawter 152; Watermann 539; Uehlinger 409-26; Van Seters, 183).

This reminds us of the plot line in the Babylonian flood narrative, Atrahasis Epic, wherein Enlil proposes ways to limit human population, but Enki saves people. If their reading is correct, then the story more closely corresponds to the biblical flood narrative. However, it is probably the first reading that is more accurate.

The Sumerian tale, Enmerkar and the Lord of Aratta, makes allusions to the one language that all of humanity someday might be able to speak, which originally was created by Enlil (lines 145-46, 154-55), "Yea, the whole world of well ruled people, Will be able to speak to Enlil in one language! . . . Change the tongues in their mouth,
as many as he once placed there, And the speech of mankind of the Enki myth previously discussed, for the hope is expressed in both for a future unity of all languages.

In Mesopotamia the diversity of languages is seen as a problem that must be overcome. The myth about Enlil envisions everyone speaking Sumerian someday so that all people may worship Enlil. In the biblical text, diversity of language was necessary as an antidote to human pride and the necessary corollary to spreading people across the world to reproduce (Wenham 1987:231, 237).

The Mesopotamians envisioned the ideas as one unified language spoken by all people after they were amalgamated into one great empire. The little country of Israel and the later Judeans did not desire to be absorbed into one empire, so they envisioned everyone having their own language, and by implication, their own independent state…"


Agreed George… I especially like the way this piece from a Zoroaster article on Wikipedia specifically describes this point:

In 2005, the Oxford Dictionary of Philosophy ranked Zarathustra as first in the chronology of philosophers. Zarathustra’s impact lingers today due in part to the system of rational ethics he founded called Mazda-Yasna. The word Mazda-Yasna is avestan and is translated as “Worship of Wisdom” in English. Zoroastrians later educated the Greeks, who used a similar term, philosophy, or “love of wisdom,” to describe the search for ultimate truth. Zoroaster - Wikipedia

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Yeah, see this is where the warning lights start to go off as far as I am concerned. I don’t believe we can derive a “spiritual lesson for us” before we identify the original meaning for the original audience. Otherwise we descend into the worst of the medieval spiritualizing exposition, which is nothing more than sheer speculation and guesswork. We decide arbitrarily that anything can mean anything, and just make it all up as we go along.

And this is precisely the kind of problem which arises when we don’t read the text as it read to the original audience. We come along and say “Oh this doesn’t make any literal sense”, because we’re applying our own category of “literal” and we don’t try to understand what it was originally intended to mean. We then think that gives us the right to make something up which is more accessible to us. But that’s not exegesis.

Irrelevant, it doesn’t change the fact that the ziggurats were built specifically to bring the gods down to earth (typically by offering them food to entice them). That is the key issue in this narrative.

Note there that he says the same thing I already said, that other commentators understand the story to be saying " once all people used the same language to worship Enlil, but Enki’s rivalry with Enlil led Enki to confuse the tongues of people".

The idea that “. In the biblical text, diversity of language was necessary as an antidote to human pride” isn’t found anywhere in Genesis 9. Look up that word used for “confused” in Genesis 9 and see how many times you can find it referring to comprehensible languages.


Wow, @Jonathan_Burke… I’ve read this quote from you 3 or 4 times… and I still do not understand what you mean.

Let me re-word my position: the point of the Sumerian story AND the Hebrew version is about UNIFIED language and/or DIVERSE language (either the origin of Diverse Language, or a hope for a UNIFIED language).

Neither of these stories are just telling a story about utterly confused tongues.

Which words does Genesis 9 use to describe “diverse languages”? Where does either text speak of the “origin of Diverse Language”?

The SUMERIAN story introduces the dynamic. Depending on the translation or interpretation of the translation, the Sumerian story establishes the issue of a SINGLE language vs diverse languages. The usual interpretation is that Enki saves humanity from the wrath of the Gods by humbling them.

If Enki merely GARBLED the language of a group of humans into GIBBERISH… this is hardly saving humanity. In fact, there’s no sense to it … where ARE these gibberish-speakers? Where did they go? Better not to have been saved in such a way?

Your proposal that the Bible scribes ALTERED the Sumerian story into a version where humans are now GIBBERISH speakers makes no theological or historical sense. God might as well have KILLED them. That will humble arrogance, yes?

But where does it introduce the idea of the origin of languages? In the Sumerian story, different languages already exist. This is agreed on regardless of whether translations opt for a unification of language or confusion of language.

Of course it isn’t. But there’s no need to interpret Enki as saving humanity.

Or punishes them, thus executing the wrath of the gods in a mitigated form, as in the Atrahasis Epic.

No. I am not proposing that.

"Enki, like Ea, was presented to the readers as an ALLY to humanity. When Enki is portrayed as garbling human language, it was to save humanity. But the logical result is that there are now multiple languages. The details are offered below:

“Tablet II deals with overpopulation, as Enlil uses alternating periods of drought and famine to reduce
the population and keep it under control. Enlil eventually decides to destroy humanity with a flood.”

"Tablet III features an account of the flood, which was likely adapted for the Epic of Gilgamesh. In it, Enki,
the god of water, warns Atrahasis of the coming flood. He does this in exactly the same manner that Ea
warns Utnapishtim, by speaking to him through the reed walls of his house. He instructs Atrahasis to
tear down his home and build a boat. "

And your source is an anonymous writer on the GradeSaver website. Right. Of course this proposal does not explain the fact that the text identifies multiple languages as already existing, as I have pointed out several times. The text does not present itself as an etiology of the diversity of human languages. Ironically the section cited from the Atrahasis Epic is exactly what I was referring to; a mitigation of the wrath of the gods.


There are MULTIPLE texts… some invoking ENKI. Some invoking EA. This one was chosen for clarity. It seems ALL of them make Enki/Ea a friend to humanity … at least compared to the other deities.

It is now YOUR turn… provide a scholarly source that says the story of Enki or Ea’s garbling language was to literally GARBLE their tongue into GIBBERISH.

I don’t see how you can do it … but I’m INCREDIBLY interested to see… (you may recall promising me an academic source…).


But you see, that’s the point—there is no original meaning for the original audience concerning the Tower of Babel story. The “spiritual lesson” is for us today.

This has already occurred during the Dark Ages of the church where men and women were forced to believe “sheer speculation and guesswork” at the edge of the sword, torture, and death.

My conclusions are derived from philosophical, scientific, and historical evidence brought together through the centuries by countless individuals upon the shoulders which we stand on today. This isn’t a philosophy that anything can mean anything and that has been made up as we go along. It is based on philosophical reasoning, critical thinking, and scientific evidence.

As I said Jon, I believe the message is for us today. We say the literal story doesn’t make sense because it simply doesn’t make sense—for us today or for any rational person who lived back then. Yes, the ANE people believed that the gods came down from heaven to visit their ziggurats and thus they built their ziggurats. But does this have any spiritual meaning for us today. No. Because there are no gods who come down from heaven to visit our modern day sky scrapers. However, the symbolic meaning of the story which was always meant for us today has deep spiritual significance—uniting mankind as one.

The word confound referring to comprehensible languages is found twice in the book of Genesis. Once in Genesis 11:7, and once in Genesis 11:9.

The word language is found in both verse 7 and verse 9. The word speech is found only in verse 7.

Go to, let us go down, and there confound their language, that they may not understand one another’s speech [Genesis 11:7].

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 [Genesis 11:9].

The original Hebrew word for confound is Balal - Strong’s Number: 01101 — the definitions used in this context are: to mix, mingle, confuse, confound.

The original Hebrew word for language is Saphah - Strong’s Number: 08193 — the definitions used in this context are: lip, language, speech.

The original Hebrew word for speech is Dabar - Strong’s Number: 01697 — the definitions used in this context are: speech, word, speaking, thing; a. speech, b. saying, utterance, c. word, words.

The word tongue referring to language is found three times in the book of Genesis.

By these were the isles of the Gentiles divided in their lands; every one after his tongue, after their families, in their nations [Genesis 10:5].

These are the sons of Ham, after their families after their tongues in their countries, and in their nations [Genesis 10:20].

These are the sons of Shem, after their families, after their tongues in their lands, after their nations [Genesis 10:31].

The original Hebrew word for tongue is Lawshon - Strong’s Number: 03956 — the definitions used in this context are: 1. tongue, a. tongue (of men), 1. tongue (literal), 2. tongue (organ of speech), b. language.

Whether we use the terms language, speech, or tongue we are referring to the same thing (1) a body of words or the systems for their use common to a people who are of the same community or nation, the same geographical area, or the same cultural tradition, or, (2) to the usually movable organ in the floor of the mouth in humans and most vertebrates, functioning in eating, in tasting, and, in humans, in speaking.

It seems the issue is being complicated without warrant. Jon, you said that to the people of the ancient near east reference to the earth suggested the immediate vicinity of the people.

1Now these are the generations of the sons of Noah, Shem, Ham, and Japheth: and unto them were sons born after the flood.

2 The sons of Japheth; Gomer, and Magog, and Madai, and Javan, and Tubal, and Meshech, and Tiras.

3 And the sons of Gomer; Ashkenaz, and Riphath, and Togarmah.

4 And the sons of Javan; Elishah, and Tarshish, Kittim, and Dodanim.

5 By these were the isles of the Gentiles divided in their lands; every one after his tongue, after their families, in their nations [Genesis 10:5].

I won’t quote the whole chapter 10 of Genesis however, all these members of Noah’s offspring eventually form all the nations of the world today. Some of these nations were even mentioned in Ezekiel 38 which are in reference to Russia in the north, England and the Isles in Western Europe, and Africa to the south. Clearly we’re talking about the whole planet earth here, even though from their perspective America wasn’t as yet discovered but was already inhabited by the first American Indians nonetheless. If were speaking of God, the Bible, and universal things we’re talking about the whole planet earth. The Tower of Babel story must be looked at in that context.

And it makes sense that an original ancient people spoke one language until they spread into different lands and developed different tongues because of their separation from one another. With today’s modern technology to be able to travel within hours, and communicate within minutes or seconds, I don’t see it preposterous or unreasonable to think that one day the whole earth will speak one language.

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

2 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.

3 And they said one to another, Go to, let us make brick, and burn them thoroughly. And they had brick for stone, and slime had they for morter.

4 And they said, Go to, let us build us a city and a tower, whose top may reach unto heaven; and let us make us a name, lest we be scattered abroad upon the face of the whole earth [Genesis 11:1-4].

@gbrooks9 @Jonathan_Burke

Following is a quote taken from an interview with Professor K.D. Irani who discusses the Zarathustrian philosophy and quotes Max Weber in his Sociology of Religion. This interesting discussion touches on the fundamental underpinnings of what many Christians believe today—anyone who hasn’t been acquainted with Professor Irani shouldn’t pass this by.

“With most prophets the religious vision is given and offered by a charismatic character who makes this believable and then gradually this person disappears and the priesthood then, and I’m now using the words of Max Weber, “the priesthood develops the ritualization of charisma,” and the chapter ends with this phrase, “it may well be that in the end the priest becomes the enemy of the prophet.” Now that’s not always the case, but often. But the priest transforms the religious vision into techniques and practices, and mythology. Satan is the mythologization of that force in opposition to asha [truth]. And then he became a person and then there were all sorts of stories about him and so on.”

Do you mean it was originally written with no meaning at all?

What “spiritual lesson”?

If that were the case I would expect to see your argument based on evidence. Instead I just see “This story doesn’t make sense to me, so I’m going to invent a spiritual lesson from it”.

I see no evidence for this. This is exactly the argument made by the medieval theologians; “If it doesn’t make sense to me, I’ll just turn it into an allegory and make up a spiritual lesson about it”. So everything gets turned into whatever we like. There are no controls at all.

Ezekiel 38 contains no references to Russia or Africa.

As has been demonstrated several times, the Hebrews had no word for “the whole planet earth”. They had no concept of “the whole planet earth”.

But neither Genesis 11 nor the Sumerian text we’re considering actually say this. Both narratives are written in the context of different languages already existing. The Sumerian text refers explicitly to the fact that other languages already existed.

I didn’t see the need after you yourself quoted a scholar who cited other scholars with this view. I strongly suggest you read Walton’s article on the topic. Here again are a couple of questions for you.

  1. Both the Genesis 11 and Sumerian narrative are written in the context of different languages already existing. The Sumerian text refers explicitly to the fact that other languages already existed. How does this fact agree with your claim that the text is an etiology of the diversity of language?

  2. How many cases can you find of the Hebrew word translated “confused” being used to describe comprehensible human languages?

  3. Which words in the Sumerian text are used to describe the multiplicity of new human languages?


Before I tackle your questions, I thought it would be a worthy exercise to itemize exactly what the Walton article actually says!

  1. On page 14: “Unlike the modern interpretations, which suggest that there was no offense and that YHWH,
    acting in grace, prevented offense from occurring, we would suggest that the offense was not
    prevented, but rather delayed and isolated by YHWH’s action. By confusing the languages,
    God made cooperation impossible; therefore, scattering could no longer be prevented. Thus
    the urbanization process was delayed.”

ANALYSIS: As you can see, we do not find any proposal that the workers on the tower have been reduced to GIBBERISH. In fact, the implication is that these workers have produced a disaspora … where populations have scattered ACCORDING TO THEIR NEW LANGUAGE…

  1. On page 16 we read: “We would
    expect here a narrowing of focus to Shem’s line. In this scenario, a large group of Semites
    migrated southeast and settled in Sumer. The text would not demand that even all the Semites
    were there. The span of time that the text covers is not mentioned. It is possible that the
    migration should be understood as having taken place in the Ubaid period, during which
    southern Mesopotamia began to be settled.”

"Then the decision to undertake the project may have come toward the end of the fourth
millennium, perhaps during the Late Uruk period, or perhaps as late as the Jamdet Nasr
period, when we actually have the beginning of baked brick technology.

The project would then result in different (Semitic?) languages being
created, or perhaps would represent the differentiation of the Semitic languages from
Sumerian. Whatever the case may be, it resulted in the people being scattered throughout
the fertile crescent. This scenario would not require that all language groups were formed
at this time or that all the languages were represented there. "

ANALYSIS: Again, the implication is clear… the author does not see the story of the
Tower as producing linguistic dead-ends… with pockets of workers speaking utter gibberish.
He sees it as an historical event … explaining a certain measure of linguistic diversity.

  1. On pages 17-18: "Some have suggested that such a reference does exist in the Sumerian epic entitled “Enmerkar and the Lord of Aratta.” There, in a speech of Enmerkar, an incantation is pronounced . . .

‘(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.’

It is of interest that Enki, the god of Eridu, is related to this myth, which may well represent
the memory of an actual event from the late fourth millennium BC."

ANALYSIS: Again, … no gibberish… but the historical origin of diverse languages!

Jon, weren’t you intending to produce an academic treatment for how the Hebrew and
Sumerian versions of the “confusion of tongues” were intended to describe workers coming
to speak nothing but GIBBERISH?

As for your quibbling regarding the term “confusion” … or your interpretations of the limitations of the Sumerian, Babylonian and Hebrew legends…

Just take a step back, @Jonathan_Burke… in your fixation on the term confusion you seem to be investing quite too much on the word play the Bible scribe was hoping to accomplish between “babble” and the name of the

I can see how one could gather up a frenzy on such an idea with the Biblical text … but you seem wildly off-base when attempting to apply such a notion to the Sumerian and post-Sumerian versions.

I still AWAIT what academic treatment seems to have inspired you in this direction …

Or, is this an idea you have developed pretty much on your own?

I know. I wasn’t representing Walton as saying anything of the kind. He takes the traditional Christian view that confusing language actually means “creating lots of new intelligible languages”.

No, because as I have explained you yourself quoted a scholar who cited other scholars with this view. He even made the point that this view is preserved in the commonly cited translation of the Sumerian text, which identifies Enki as confusing language, not creating new languages.


No. As you helpfully demonstrated, it’s a view which is already in scholarship. Victor Hamilton argues specifically against this view in his commentary.

“It is unlikely that Gen. 11:1–9 can contribute much, if anything, to the origin of languages. I have already suggested that the diversification of languages is a slow process, not something catastrophic as Gen. 11 might indicate. I have stated above my reasons for not interpreting the movement from v. 1 to v. 9 as that from a monoglot world to a polyglot world. Such an interpretation, common among commentators, leads to the conclusion that Gen. 11 provides a most incredible and naive explanation of language diversification. If, however, the narrative refers to the dissolution of a Babylonian lingua franca, or something like that, the need to see Gen. 11:1–9 as a highly imaginative explanation of language diffusion becomes unnecessary.”

Victor P. Hamilton, The Book of Genesis, Chapters 1–17 (The New International Commentary on the Old Testament; Grand Rapids, MI: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co., 1990), 358.

AHHHH!… .@Jonathan_Burke, can you provide a link to Sarna’s paper? That would be exceedingly helpful to establish an academic foundation to your position…