The Tower Of Babel


After the flood, God made a covenant with Noah and within it, we find the command, ‘Be fruitful and increase in number and fill the earth,’ Genesis 9:1 / Genesis 9:7.

‘Now the whole world had one language and a common speech. As people moved eastward, they found a plain in Shinar and settled there.’ Genesis 11:1-2

Apparently, the descendants of Noah had no desire to be separated, they didn’t remain in the same place, but they moved together. The phrase, ‘people moved’ is an expression which literally means, ‘pulling up tent pegs’, which reveals the nature of the culture of those days.

They were nomadic herdsmen and shepherds, very much in the style of Abraham himself years later and in the style of their people for centuries later. They were wandering tribesmen in search of pasture for their flocks and herds. This is why they migrated, pulling up tent pegs, the first cities came later.

Genesis 11 records their decision to end the migration and settle down together, in disobedience to the command of God. Genesis 10 explains the growth of the nations and how the nations came to be established, it also explains the spread of mankind and its division into distinctive peoples and languages, because it traces the dispersal of the human race to Babel.

In the course of their migration, they came to the plain of Shinar which had many names in the course of history, Chaldea, Mesopotamia, and Babylon. Today this is called Iraq, which is one of the Arab states. The reason why they stopped here from their wanderings is clear, they ‘found a plain’, a level area rich and fertile, well suited for herdsmen. It is in fact, a land of mudflats which gets its richness from the fact that both the Tigris and Euphrates Rivers flow through it, all the way down to the Persian Gulf.

You may know that these rivers are constantly washing down a rich silt, a rich deposit, so that land is still being formed at the head of the Persian Gulf at a rate of about one mile every 70 years or so. It is a fact that at one time, Ur of the Chaldees, was a seaport, in the days of Abraham, but today it is about 130 miles inland and almost any map of Mesopotamia will show you where the ancient coastline was.

Just imagine a strip of land, 130 miles wide being added at the head of the Persian Gulf. Today, this region which the Bible calls Shinar is studied with the ruins of ancient cities and reveals a culture which is thought to go back as far as 5000 B.C. or even further. So, they plan to build on the plain of Shinar and in all probability, it was the fertility of the land itself which helped them to make this decision to stay.

The name of the city is given as Babel, Genesis 11:9 and that name, if you take it from the ancient Akkadian language, comes from ‘Babilu’, which means ‘gate of God’. Later on, of course, the word Babel takes on a very different meaning, confusion, and then the Hebrew origin of the word is what one has in mind, Babel, which means confusion.

The leader of this venture appears to have been Nimrod, whose name you will find in Genesis 10:10. Notice that he was a descendant of Ham, the Hamites may have been woefully lacking in the religious sense but appear to have been extremely ingenious and inventive in other ways, particularly in the setting up of the first kingdoms.

These ancient cities, or at least what remains of them have virtually all been discovered and there is one remarkable thing they all have in common, something unique to that part of the world. They all have the kind of building that is mentioned in Genesis 11:4, which is described here as a ‘tower’. And I might add that this is true not only of the cities we have named but others as well.

The Ziggurats

The proper name for these towers is ‘Ziggurats’ because a Ziggurat is really an artificial name mountain, a mound built so high as to represent a mountain. The word ‘Ziggurat’ literally means, ‘Mountain Top’.

Of course, the original Ziggurats were nothing as complex or as grand as the later ones but having said that, it has been calculated that this particular Ziggurat was about 660 feet high, which would make it 260 or more feet higher than St Paul’s Cathedral.

I say this because according to the Encyclopaedia Britannica, this tower has been identified as the forerunner of the Temple of Esagila, in the ancient city of Babylon, which is in ruins today. According to Babylonian tradition, the original Ziggurat was destroyed by Sargon the first, when he established his own capital at Agade, and it was rebuilt about 100 years later by another king of Agade, there are inscriptions and more correctly, there are clay tablets which testify to this.

Then the Babylonian historians tell us, that it was later rebuilt and improved by Nebuchadnezzar and known as the Temple of Bel in Babylon, to which the sacred vessels of Jerusalem were brought, you may remember when Nebuchadnezzar destroyed the city.

At least this is one story and as you may well guess, there are other claimants to this unique distinction. For example, a team of German archaeologists claimed to have uncovered the site of the Tower of Babel and the leader, Professor Koldewey gives details of its construction and its surroundings.

We are even told that 58 million bricks went into its construction and that work was done by slaves. We are told that it was built on seven layers with an inclined road up to each level or step. We’re told that it had a temple on the summit, made of glazed blue brickwork and so on.

Frankly, I think that most of these historians let themselves get carried away by their enthusiasm because what was later discovered by the archaeologists was not the original tower, but reconstructions and improvements and extensions, because the building of the tower was ended dramatically and suddenly by God Himself. Their work was unfinished, and it was later that these additions were made.

Certainly, later occupants of the land took hold of this idea and developed it, because later in the Sumerian cities, the Ziggurats had become stepped pyramids, with temples on top. And these towers were much more than places of worship. They were the centres of the city’s administration where priests kept records of taxes which were paid to the local god, because the city was supposed to be owned by the deity of that locality, although he has what was called an ‘Ensi’, or ruler, who governed on his behalf.

Again, the Ziggurat had a great number of workshops in it or connected with it, for carpenters, brewers, metal workers and whoever was employed in the service of the temple. And so, really, I suppose you could call the later Ziggurats a combination of Cathedral and Town Hall, where the priests were the civil servants.

‘They said to each other, ‘Come, let’s make bricks and bake them thoroughly.’ They used brick instead of stone, and tar for mortar.’ Genesis 11:3

But could they even think of building anything as ambitious as a Ziggurat? Did they have the knowledge? Apparently, they did. Remember that the first city was built by Cain, according to Genesis 4:17, and it’s remarkable that these descendants of Ham have somewhere obtained the secret of brick making, Genesis 11:3.

That one verse makes the entire story completely credible, we can believe it because being a ‘plain’ meant there was no stone available for building, so they had to make bricks.

The Bricks

Notice how they made bricks, they ‘baked them thoroughly’, in other words, they must have known how to bake bricks in some kind of brick kiln. Now you might say, ‘well of course that is how you have to make bricks’! But let me ask you to remember how the Israelites made bricks for the Egyptians. They made them of sun-dried mud, into which chopped straw was mixed in order to give them strength, Exodus 5:7.

Exodus 5 tells how to make it harder for the Israelites in Egypt, Pharaoh refused to give them straw and made them find their own, thus making it harder for them to produce their daily quota. Then, when there was no longer any straw to be found, they had to make bricks without straw and still produce their set quota, even when the dried mud crumbled away it had no binding substance. Exodus 5:10-18. And this was centuries after the period we are dealing with here in Genesis 11.

Indeed, it must have been about 200 years before the time of Israel in Egypt. Yet these descendants of Ham know about baking bricks so that they are so much stronger.

The Tar

And that’s not all, they used ‘tar’ for mortar. Now tar or bitumen is an oily substance, and therefore waterproof. It was used by the Egyptians in the process of mummification because it preserved the dead body.

When they examined the foundations of the tower, they discovered that the bricks were cemented together with tar, which not only bound them so firmly together that Professor Layard, an archaeologist said it was impossible to break them apart, but also provided protection, waterproofing, in a region where the foundations of the building were constantly threatened by dampness caused by rivers.

‘Then they said, ‘Come, let us build ourselves a city, with a tower that reaches to the heavens. Then they said, ‘Come, let us build ourselves a city, with a tower that reaches to the heavens, so that we may make a name for ourselves; otherwise we will be scattered over the face of the whole earth.’ Genesis 11:4

What was it they wanted to build?

The reason I ask this question is because there are many misconceptions which people have formed from a misunderstanding of Genesis 11:4. They were not so foolish to think that they could actually erect a tower whose top would reach to heaven. That is simply another way of saying, ‘let us build a tower of very great height.’

In Deuteronomy 1:28, Moses reminds the people of how afraid they had been when they heard the inhabitants of the land and of their cities which had walls which reached up to heaven. So, what these builders on the plain of Shinar are planning is to build a very high mound or tower.

But why?

Not because they thought they could reach heaven with it and certainly not as a protection against another flood which is what someone has suggested. Obviously, if that had been their purpose for building, they would not have built on a plain, but they would have built on a mountain.

Two reasons

There are two reasons given for their plan.

1. Let us make a name,

2. Otherwise we will be scattered over the face of the Earth.

And behind both these ideas, is the desire to unite themselves together and create perhaps a world empire. They wanted to make a lasting impression on history, and I suppose they were typical of people down the ages. History tells of evidence of man’s desire to glorify himself in one way or another. Look at how excitedly they appear to have talked about their project, ‘they said to one another, come let US build OURSELVES a city, come let US make bricks.’

The A.V. conveys this bustling, busyness of these people, ‘go to, go to’, as if the building of that city and that tower would be the ultimate in human achievement, I suppose very much as man talks about ‘space projects’ even today.

I suppose that there have been some spin-offs from the millions of pounds or more properly dollars and roubles, spend on space projects but I can’t help feeling that the basic reason is pretty much as it was in the days of the tower of Babel, namely, to make a name. there is so much national pride and glory involved in the things that men attempt today.

In Genesis 11 we see the beginnings of that world empire which became reality under Nebuchadnezzar a long time later. They were ignoring the plan and command of God and forming an ambitious plan for human confederacy which left God outside. They hadn’t learned to trust and serve God, even after the lesson from the flood itself. And yet, we catch also a hint of insecurity in their voices as they say, ‘Otherwise we will be scattered over the face of the Earth.’

Probably the idea of the tower was it should serve as a landmark for them, pretty much as a lighthouse serves the sailor. They wanted, needed something to guide them as they returned to base so to speak, after searching for pasture for their flocks and herds.

So here are two reasons, the simpler one was protection and guidance, and the second was political, the far more serious and far more sinful one, as God saw it. I use the words ‘serious and sinful’ because this had been the nature of almost all human organisations of this kind.

Think for example, of the old League of Nations, which was formed after the First World War, a very ambitious scheme to bind the nations of the earth together. But it was a Godless confederacy because the name of God wasn’t mentioned in its transactions, how could it, when it was a union of so-called Christian and non-Christian nations, along with nations which didn’t believe in God at all.

This is the problem with the United Nations organisation today. It’s another Godless organisation and as Christians, we know that no system of human government which excluded God, can never succeed, nor can it have the blessing of God.

God Intervened

‘But the LORD came down to see the city and the tower the people were building.’ Genesis 11:5

We can see that God interned but we haven’t to take that expression ‘the Lord came down’ literally. It is just another anthropomorphic expression we have come to expect in the Book of Genesis, where God is described as acting in human fashion.

It’s used here to make us understand that God was interested and concerned about what they were doing. The same kind of expression is used in Genesis 18 when God is concerned about what was happening in the city of Sodom.

Obviously, we aren’t to think that God needs to ‘come down’ to find out what is happening, or what men are doing, because nothing escapes God’s attention.

And perhaps it is as well to stress the fact because although we claim to believe that God is all-knowing, I suppose we often forget it because we sometimes do things which we shouldn’t do if we really remembered that nothing escapes His eyes.

‘The LORD said, ‘If as one people speaking the same language, they have begun to do this, then nothing they plan to do will be impossible for them.’ Genesis 11:6

This reminds us at that time, these people all spoke the same language, this has already been affirmed in Genesis 11:4-5. The literal rendering of the Hebrew text in those verses is ‘of one lip and of words one’, which really means that both the language and vocabulary and the pronunciation were the same.

And so here at Babel, they used the same words and spoke the language the same way and God commented that left to themselves if they succeed in this venture, it would lead to even more ambitious schemes. I think that this certainly implies the establishment of a world empire.

‘Come, let us go down and confuse their language so they will not understand each other.’ Genesis 11:7

Notice the course of action on which God decided, He didn’t destroy them, or their city, or their tower, He confused the language. He made it impossible for them to communicate with each other and although this was undoubtedly a merciful course of action, it was without a doubt, also a very effective one, because it effectively put an end to all their scheming.

And at the same time, it would effectively fulfil His original command to the descendants of Noah, because the people would have no reason to remain together since they could no longer understand each other, and they would disperse.

‘So, the LORD scattered them from there over all the earth, and they stopped building the city. That is why it was called Babel—because there the LORD confused the language of the whole world. From there the LORD scattered them over the face of the whole earth.’ Genesis 11:8-9

This doesn’t mean that they immediately scattered all over the face of the Earth, but it does mean that groups of those who found they could understand each other would go off together and establish their own community. And perhaps it was in this way that there in the cradle of civilisation the first independent states were set up.


I question whether we can understand what confusion this caused, because today thanks to modern means of communication and travel and the study of languages, people can understand each other a lot easier.

But in ancient times and for that matter long after the events of Babel, men had difficulty in understanding each other. Often each city has its own dialect which wasn’t understood by neighbouring cities. It has been said, that even the prophet Isaiah, would probably not have been understood 30 miles outside of Jerusalem, or the great Greek orators, a few miles from Athens.

Without books such as we have and without the systematic study of language, the groups of people of the time of Babel would soon develop and modify their own pronunciation and develop their own dialects to where they couldn’t be understood at all outside of their own group.

All this happened about 100 years, certainly not much more, after the flood. Indeed, Genesis 10:25 hints at this, when it says that ‘in his days was the Earth divided’.

And the event itself is yet another proof of the fact that we don’t always learn from the past. Adam and Eve sinned and were punished, Cain sinned and was punished, the flood destroyed the ancient world, also as a punishment for sin and yet here we find the descendants of Noah, leaving God out of their plans and incurring punishment again.

The remaining verses in Genesis 11 are interesting because they form the link between Noah and Abraham whose story is shortly to begin.