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The Tower Of Babel (2/3)

The Tower of Babel: Outside The Bible

Archaeological evidence proves that the Bible’s description of the tower of Babel is historically accurate on the following points:

* The description of the building
* The time at which it was built
* The specific materials from which it was constructed
* The order of the construction process
* The motives involved in its construction

The Bible describes the tower of Babel using a term which is historically appropriate:

‘Gen 11:4 tells us that the settlers in Sumer decided to build “a city and a tower.” The word used for tower is ldgm (migdal). Since this word is often used in the OT for a watchtower or a defensive tower (e.g., Judg 9:45, 51; 2 Kgs 9:17; 17:9; Isa 5:2) and nowhere else refers to a ziggurat, what reason is there to believe that in Gen 11:4 it refers to a ziggurat?

The first reason is that the setting is in Babylonia where the ziggurat was the most prominent structure in a city – both visually and ideologically. [18]

Secondly, the tower in our text was designed to bring fame and glory to the builders (“so that we may make a name for ourselves”). Mesopotamian kings often took pride in building ziggurats, but no such pride was taken in defensive towers which were simply parts of the city wall. [19]’

‘As for the use of the word migdal, one wonders what other choice the Hebrews had for a word to refer to a ziggurat? Since they had no ziggurats in their culture, they would either have to borrow a word or use the closest word they could find in their own language. As Walton has pointed out, the word migdal is not inaccurate and has a similar etymology to ziggurat, being derived from gedal (to be large), while ziggurat is derived from the Akkadian word zaqaru (to be high). [22]’

‘There is very good reason then to believe that the tower in our text refers to a ziggurat and not just to a defensive tower. The vast majority of scholars agree that a ziggurat is intended.

[18] Elizabeth C. Stone, “The Development of Cities in Ancient Mesopotamia,” CANE 1:236, 238.

[19] Singer, A History of Technology, 1:254-55; Forbes, Studies, 1:68.

[22] John Walton, “The Mesopotamian Background of the Tower of Babel Account and Its Implications,” BBR 5 (1995), 156’

Paul H Seely, ‘The Date Of The Tower Of Babel And Some Theological Implications’, pages 18-19, originally published in Westminster Theological Journal 63 (2001) 15-38

The Biblical account of the tower of Babel comes just after the record of the flood, and since it has been demonstrated that the flood occurred around 3,000 BC, we know that the events surrounding the tower of Babel must have taken place not long after this date.

The available archaeological evidence proves that the Bible is accurate in describing a building such as the tower of Babel as having been constructed at this time. In fact, this was precisely the era during which constructions made of baked bricks, with bitumen mortar, were being built in the Mesopotamian region:

‘Indeed, Jacquetta Hawkes indicates in her archaeological survey that baked brick was not used for architecture anywhere in the entire world until c. 3000B.C. [15]

The use of baked brick in the tower of Babel indicates very clearly, therefore, that it was not built before c. 3500 to 3000 B.C. The use of bitumen (asphalt) for mortar also gives clear evidence of the earliest date to which we can ascribe the events of Gen 11:1-9. Since there are extensive remains of brick buildings in the sites of the ancient Near East and bituminous mortar is nearly as indestructible as baked brick, [16] it is easy to ascertain when bitumen began to be used as mortar for bricks.

The evidence from thousands of bricks shows that bitumen was not used as a mortar for brick until baked brick appeared. Until c. 3500 to 3000 B.C., if mortar was used, it was gypsum or just mud.

[15] Jacquetta Hawkes, The Atlas of Early Man (New York: St. Martin’s, 1976), 50, 76.

[16] Forbes, Studies, 1:69.

Paul H Seely, ‘The Date Of The Tower Of Babel And Some Theological Implications’, pages 17-18, originally published in Westminster Theological Journal 63 (2001) 15-38

This tower could not have been built prior to 3,000 BC. The Biblical record is therefore correct in describing the building of this tower as being shortly after the Mesopotamian flood of 2,900 BC.

The specific materials which the Bible describes as having been used to build the tower are also historically accurate, indicating that it was indeed a ziggurat, as the Hebrew word suggests:

‘The use of baked brick and bitumen also tells us that the migdal in our text was a ziggurat rather than a defensive tower, for baked brick and bitumen were very expensive in Mesopotamia and hence were saved for luxurious architecture like palaces, temples, and ziggurats.’

Paul H Seely, ‘The Date Of The Tower Of Babel And Some Theological Implications’, page 18, originally published in Westminster Theological Journal 63 (2001) 15-38

Likewise, the order of construction described in the Biblical record is also accurate:

‘It is also telling that in our text the making of the baked bricks is specifically mentioned first (v. 3) and after that the building of the city and tower (v. 4). This is exactly the way the building of the temple and ziggurat of Babylon are described in Enuma Elish (6.50-70) as well as in the account of Nabopolassar in Neo-Babylonian times. [20]

[20] So strong is the parallel with Enuma Elish that E. A. Speiser thought Gen 11:1-9 was a response to Enuma Elish. Andre Parrot, The Tower of Babel (London: SCM, 1955), 19.’

Paul H Seely, ‘The Date Of The Tower Of Babel And Some Theological Implications’, pages 18-19, originally published in Westminster Theological Journal 63 (2001) 15-38

One of the motives the Bible ascribes to the builders of the tower, is the desire to reach heaven. This aim is commonly found in the records of the ziggurats of this era:

‘In addition, Nabopolassar is told to make the foundation of Babylon’s ziggurat “secure in the bosom of the nether world, and make its summit like the heavens” just as our text describes the tower as having “its head in the heavens.” Indeed it is typical of the descriptions of Mesopotamian ziggurats that they have their heads in the heavens. Thus King Samsuiluna is said to have made “the head of his ziggurat … as high as the heavens.” The top of Hammurabi’s ziggurat was said to be “lofty in the heavens.” And Esarhaddon, speaking of the ziggurat he built, says, “to the heavens I raised its head.”

[21] John H. Walton, The Tower of Babel (Ph.D, diss., Hebrew Union College, 1981), 44-45.’

Paul H Seely, ‘The Date Of The Tower Of Babel And Some Theological Implications’, page 18, originally published in Westminster Theological Journal 63 (2001) 15-38

Archaeological also evidence shows that the theological attitude on Mesopotamia changed significantly at this time, with the development of the urban state. The gods were no longer seen as simply the impersonal manifestations of natural forces, but were redefined in more human terms:

‘From every angle, then, the narrative, taken against its historical and cultural background, continually points us to the early period of urbanization in southern Mesopotamia.

As the urbanized state began to function, the universe came to be considered a state ruled by the gods. [45]’

‘Jacobsen has presented the view that the earlier picture of the gods was one in which each god, or numinous power, was seen as bound up by a particular natural phenomenon through which he was made manifest. The god was seen to be the power behind the phenomenon, and the phenomenon circumscribed the power of the god and was the god’s only form. [46]

As the situation developed, however, a change took place. Rather than continuing to emphasize the powerful uncontrolled manifestation of deity in natural phenomena, the view of the cosmos as a state emerged, with the now humanized gods as citizens and rulers.

[45] Jacobsen, Before Philosophy, 142.

[46] Jacobsen, “Formative Tendencies In Sumerian Religion,” Toward the Image of Tammuz, 2.’

John H. Walton, ‘The Mesopotamian Background of the Tower of Babel Account and Its Implications’, Bulletin for Biblical Research 5, pages 167-168, 1995

This new religious attitude was a direct product of the new urbanization process which took place after the flood:

‘Mesopotamian theology that is reflected in most of the mythology of Babylon and Assyria has an urbanized society as its foundation. This theological perspective arose sometime early in the urbanization process, for even the Early Dynastic literature reflects that point of view. One indicator of this shift is the sudden popularity of the practice of setting up statues in temples that were intended to pray for the life of the benefactor. Nissen observes,

We can assume that it is highly probable that the custom of setting up statues in temples with this intention began in the Early Dynastic Period.’

The ziggurat and the temple complex provide the link between urbanization, of which they are the central organ, and Mesopotamian religion which they typify.’

‘Jacobsen further comments:

Particularly powerful and concrete in the new anthropomorphic view was the symbol of the temple, the god’s house. Towering over the flat roofs of the surrounding town, it gave the townsmen visible assurance that the god was present among them. [49]

The development in Mesopotamian religion that took place with the development of urbanization, was that men began to envision their gods in conformity with the image of man.

[50] J. J. Finkelstein, “Bible and Babel,” Commentary 26 (1958) 440.’

John H. Walton, ‘The Mesopotamian Background of the Tower of Babel Account and Its Implications’, Bulletin for Biblical Research 5, pages 167-168, 1995

It must be noted that the entire purpose of the ziggurat was to provide a physical connection between the human and the Divine, But although the ziggurat builders often speak of reaching the heavens with their towers, their aim was not to personally ascend to the gods, but to cause the gods to descend to earth. The ziggurat was not so much a stairway to heaven, as a stairway to earth. The gods would come down to earth at the request of men:

‘Man was no longer attempting to be like God, but more insidiously, was trying to bring deity down to the level of man. The gods of the Babylonians were not only understood to interact with each other and operate their affairs as humans do, but they also behaved like humans, or worse. Finkelstein observes,

The Babylonian gods … although not themselves BOUND by moral or ethical principles, nevertheless appreciated them and expected man to live by them. The Babylonians, it would seem, fashioned their gods in their own image more faithfully than the Israelites did theirs. [50]

This is what is represented by the ziggurat. The function of the ziggurat that was suggested earlier as a result of our study of the names further supports this. The needs and nature of the deities who would make use of such a stairway reflect the weakness of deity brought about by the Babylonian anthropomorphization of the gods. It is this system of religion that was an outgrowth of the urbanization process as it unfolded in Mesopotamia, and it was this system that had as its chief symbol the towering ziggurat.

[50]  J. J. Finkelstein, “Bible and Babel,” Commentary 26 (1958) 440.’

John H. Walton, ‘The Mesopotamian Background of the Tower of Babel Account and Its Implications’, Bulletin for Biblical Research 5, pages 167-168, 1995

The Biblical description thus displays evidence of being an excellent historical account, demonstrating a considerable knowledge of many details of these ziggurats, including:

* The era during which they were built
* The specific materials from which they were made
* The specific order of their construction
* The motivation behind them

Part three.

3 comments

  1. […] here.  […]


  2. Hi!

    Fantastic article!

    I would like to use this information in a Bible curriculum that is being written for our school. We will also make the curriculum available to other schools for purchase. We will not quote the material exactly, but will explain your observations. You would receive full credit in the form of a footnote that will reference your blog.

    Do I have your permission to do so?

    Blessings,
    Kim


    • Yes please feel free to do that, and thank you so much for asking. See this copyright statement on my blog.

      “Material from this site may be quoted, paraphrased, or cited on the basis of the ‘Attribution’ and ‘Non-Commercial’ Creative Commons licenses. This means that material can be used as described on the basis that the author is credited for the material (by a link to the article or by crediting ‘J Burke’ and the article name), for non-commercial purposes.”



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