The familiar story of the building of the Tower and City of Babel is found in Genesis 11:1-9. From the initial setting given for the account, on the plain of Shinar, to the final lines where the city is identified with Babel, it is clear that the events recorded took place in southern Mesopotamia.<1>
It is this southern Mesopotamian backdrop that provides the basis for studying the account in light of what is known of the culture and history of Mesopotamia. One of the immediate results of that perspective is firm conviction that the tower that figures predominantly in the narrative is to be identified as a ziggurat. This is easily concluded from the importance that the ziggurat had in the civilizations of southern Mesopotamia from the earliest development of urbanized life to the high political reaches of the Neo-Babylonian Empire. It is common for the ziggurat to be of central importance in city planning.
The frequent objection that the Hebrew term migdal is used primarily in military contexts or as a watch tower, but never used of a ziggurat, is easily addressed on three fronts.
Nearly 30 ziggurats in the area of Mesopotamia have been discovered by archaeologists.<2> In location, they stretch from Mari and Tell-Brak in the northwest and Dur-Sharrukin in the north, to Ur and Eridu in the south, and to Susa and Choga Zambil in the east. In time, the span begins perhaps as early as the Ubaid temples at Eridu (end of the 5th millennium BC) and extends through the restorations and additions made even in Seleucid times (third century BC). Architectural styles feature stairs in some, ramps in others, and combinations of the two in still others. Ziggurats are of varying sizes with bases ranging from 20 meters on a side to over 90 meters on a side. Frequently the ziggurat is dedicated to the city's patron god or goddess, but cities were not limited to one ziggurat (Kish had three).
The issues most likely to be of importance in the study of Genesis 11 are the origin and function of ziggurats. We may expect that by the study of these we may be able, to some degree, to delineate the role and significance of the ziggurat in Genesis 11.
The structure at Eridu, the earliest structure that some designate a ziggurat, is dated in its earliest level to the Ubaid period (4300-3500). There are 16 levels of temples beneath the Ur III period ziggurat constructed by Amar-Sin (2046-2038) that crowns the mound. At which of these levels the structure may be first designated a ziggurat is a matter of uncertainty. Oates comments,
This same phenomenon occurs with the so-called White Temple of Uruk dated to the Jamdet Nasr period (3100-2900). M. Mallowan remarks,
It is difficult to determine what should be called a ziggurat and what should not. The criteria used by the ancients is unknown to us. For our purposes, we will define a ziggurat as a staged tower for which the stages were consciously constructed. That seems to be what is taking place in Genesis 11. Therefore, even though the temples on accumulated ruins were probably the forerunners of the staged towers, the “stages” (made up of accumulated ruins) were not constructed for the tower. It is only when builders construct stages (possibly modeled after the piled up ruins) that we will acknowledge the designation ziggurat. This also rules out the oval terraces.
The Early Dynastic period (2900-2350) is the most likely candidate for the origin of the ziggurat so defined. H. Crawford concedes that…
The clearest evidence of this is at Ur. There…
Mari also has a firmly established Early Dynastic ziggurat. At Nippur, superimposed ziggurats built by Ur-Nammu (2112-2095) and Naram-Sin (2254-2218) have been confirmed, and it seems likely that a pre-Sargonic ziggurat serves as a foundation (Perrot 1955: 154).
There have been many different suggestions concerning the function of a ziggurat, and the issue is far from settled. Brevard S. Childs presents a brief summary of some of the major opinions:
One of the earliest interpretations understood the ziggurat as the tomb of a king or a god (Hilprecht 1903: 469), although this was not necessarily considered the sole function. There were two major supporting arguments for this view. The first was the obvious similarity in shape to the early Egyptian pyramids. The second is connection in the inscriptional literature between the term ziggurat and gigunu, which was rendered “tomb” by Hilprecht (1903:462).
In regard to the former, the earliest pyramid, the so-called step-pyramid of Djoser at Saqqara, bears the closest resemblance to the ziggurat form. It has been demonstrated that the architectural form of the Egyptian pyramids began as a simple mastaba and was built up in several stages (Edwards 1946: 46ff). The step-pyramid was a product of the third dynasty in Egypt (mid-third millennium BC), which was contemporaneous with the Early Dynastic period in Mesopotamia. Although the extant evidence seems to indicate that the architectural form of the ziggurat became fully developed by that period, the development had begun perhaps a millennium earlier. Thus the ziggurat form can in no way be seen as dependent on the pyramids. Furthermore, no literary or artifactual evidence has produced any indication that the ziggurat functioned as a tomb.
With regard to the latter argument, the gigunu is no longer understood as a tomb, but rather as a sanctuary at the top of the ziggurat (CAD G: 67-70), though the precise meaning of the word remains uncertain.
One approach to examining the function of a ziggurat—and in my opinion, the only approach that can give objective data, given our present state of knowledge—is to analyze the names given to the ziggurats in the various cities where they were built. Rather than attempting to use our own standard to judge what is a ziggurat and what is not, we will use a list of designated ziggurats from a Neo-Babylonian bilingual geographical list of 23 entries (Rawlinson 1861: 50: 1-23 a, b). Following is my translation of the list:
We may now attempt to categorize the names with the hope of finding some clues about the function of ziggurats.
Of the six names that seem to address the function of the ziggurat, two indicate a cultic function, that is, that the ziggurat in some way housed the deity (10, 11; this, of course may also be conveyed by the names in category 1).
The other four may indicate a cosmological function, that is, they may indicate that the ziggurat symbolized the connecting link between heaven and earth, or between heaven and the netherworld. The ziggurat at Sippar, temple of the stairway (simmiltu) to pure heaven, is particularly indicative of such a function because of the occurrence of the simmiltu in the myth of Nergal and Ereshkigal (Gurney 1960: 123:13-14; 125:42-43).
In this tale, the stairway is used by Namtar, the messenger of Ereshkigal, to journey from the netherworld to the gate of the gods Anu, Enlil, and Ea.<9> It serves as the link between the netherworld and heaven.<10> That the simmiltu occurs in the name of one ziggurat and that another means the “Temple which links heaven and earth” (18) may indicate that the ziggurat was intended to supply a connection between heaven and earth—not for mortal use, but for divine use. This is supported to some degree by the total absence of the ziggurats in the cultic rituals. S. Pallis remarks…
It cannot, of course, be concluded that the ziggurat was not used in the rituals. We can only say that whatever its use may have been, if it had one, it is unknown to us. While Pallis is addressing the situation with regard to the ziggurat of Babylon, we would add that the same is true of all of the ziggurats known from the ancient Near East. If the known literature were our only guide, we would have to conclude that people did not use the ziggurat for any purpose.<12>
The mountain terminology used in some of the names is also of interest. In ancient mythologies certain mountains were often considered to be the place where deity descended or dwelt. The Bible likewise implies such a connection. YHWH comes down on a mountain (Sinai, Ex. 19) and sacrifice is made on a mountain (Moriah, Gen 22; Carmel, 1 Kings 18). Moses, Aaron, and Elijah, three of the most central figures in Israelite religion, all go up into a mountain for the meeting with YHWH at the end of their lives. In the Ugaritic Baal-Anat cycle, the temple of Baal is built on the summit of Mount Zaphon. The motif is likewise present in Greek mythology, Mount Olympus being the home of the gods.
Although the function of the ziggurat cannot be identified with certainty, our study of the names, the use of the simmiltu in mythology, the use of mountain terminology, and the lack of reference to a function in the cultic practice of the people, leads us to put forth tentatively, as a working hypothesis, the following suggested function:
Before we move on to consider the implications of this function of the ziggurat for the narrative of Genesis 11, we need to look at a few more elements that can be further explained in light of the narrative's Mesopotamian background.
Discussion of the building materials occupies the whole of Genesis 11:3. The first half of the verse indicates that burnt bricks are being used and the second half the verse contains an explanation by the author to those who might be unaware of the details of this “foreign” practice.
Our current knowledge of ancient architecture and industry confirms the statement made by the author. In Palestine, mud bricks (sun-dried) are first found in levels designated pre-pottery Neolithic A (8th-9th millennium BC) (Kenyon 1979: 26). This is the only type of brick found in Palestine. Kiln-fired brick is unattested. The practice was rather to use stone for the foundations and sun-dried brick for the superstructure (Kenyon 1979: 46, 87, 91, 164, etc.).
Sun-dried bricks first appear in Mesopotamia at Samarran sites Sawwan and Choga Mami (mid-6th millennium BC) (D. and J. Oates 1976: 104). Kiln-fired bricks are first noted during the late Uruk period and become more common in the Jamdet Nasr period toward the end of the fourth millennium (Finegan 1979: 8; Singer 1954: 462; cf. Salonen 1972: 72ff). Bitumen is the usual mortar used with kiln-fired bricks (cf. Woolley 1939: 99). The building technology of Palestine used a mud mortar (as indicated in our narrative). Bitumen of any grade was an expensive item (Forbes 1955: 4-22), as Singer notes:
Not only is the description of the building materials an accurate reflection of a true distinction between Israelite and Mesopotamian building methods, but it also gives us some important information. Whole cities were not generally built of these materials. Even ziggurats themselves only used burnt brick and bitumen for the outer layers while using regular sun-dried mud brick for the inner layers. The core was then filled with dirt.<13> The mention of the expensive building materials would thus suggest that the discussion is focusing on public buildings.
Public buildings were frequently of either religious or administrative importance and were often grouped together in one section of the settlement. They became the focal point for the centralization of wealth and for the preservation of many aspects of the individual culture. It was the public sector of the city that was fortified and contained the stores of grain. Thus Hilprecht notes…
Although it is possible that the author wants to make the point that this endeavor was attempting to build an entire city of the most expensive materials, I find it more plausible that the public sector of the city is intended. In the end, this is probably a difference without a distinction, for the earliest “cities” were simply the administrative buildings.
Thus, when the people in Genesis 11 speak of building a city, they are most likely not referring to building of a residential settlement, but would have in mind the building of public buildings, which in ancient Mesopotamia would be largely represented by the temple complex. C.J. Gadd, writing of Early Dynastic times, observes that “the distinction of city and temple becomes dim, for one was only an agglomeration of the other” (CAH3 I, 2: 128). The focus of any major temple complex would have been the ziggurat, which leads us into the next section.
The Importance of the City and the Tower
We cannot say that the building project described in Genesis 11 was exclusively a temple complex, but a temple complex certainly was included and is the focus of the story. This is confirmed by the nature of the building materials, the nature of the ancient city, and the role of the ziggurat in the narrative. This ziggurat was the dominant building of the complex, so we are not surprised that that draws the attention of the narrator. Although we have already examined the function of the ziggurat, the role of the temple complex as a whole in Mesopotamian society may now be of some significance to our study.
Reference has been frequently made in the past to the administration of the so-called temple economy, which was deduced by Deimel and Falkenstein mainly from the Early Dynastic texts from Lagash and Shuruppak.<14> The main feature of the temple economy was purported to be the exclusive or almost exclusive temple ownership of land. Falkenstein added that the temple had at its disposal not only the labor resources of the temple personnel, but the labor force of the entire city-state for tasks concerning the temple (1974: 19-20). Although this theory has been largely overturned in more recent analyses (Foster 1981), the temple complex was likely the center of the earliest efforts of urbanization, a process that is characterized by public buildings, specialized labor, and some publicly owned land. Jacobsen comments:
So we find that the development of ziggurats and the urbanization process go hand in hand.<15> The ziggurat was the architectural focus of the temple complex, which in turn functioned as the central organ in the economic, political, and cultural spheres of early communities in Mesopotamia. The interrelationship of architecture, city planning, and religion has been observed in the interpretation of the finds in ancient Uruk. Hans Nissen says,
The connections between Genesis 11 and the early stages of urbanization in Mesopotamia are further confirmed by the statement of the builders in Genesis 11:4 that they desired not to be scattered abroad. Although this statement has often been interpreted as an indication of disobedience on the part of the builders, such a view cannot be warranted.<16> First, the disobedience that is attributed to the builders is generally explained by reference to the blessings of Genesis 1:28 and Genesis 9:1, 7 where God says to be fruitful and multiply and fill the Earth. But a correlation here cannot be sustained. The passages that speak of being fruitful and multiplying are better read as blessings granting permission, rather than commands; privileges, rather than obligations.<17> Further, it is clear that even if filling was seen as an obligation, it would be carried out by reproducing, not by putting geographical distance between oneself and one's family. Scattering is not to be equated with filling.
The second point against the disobedience interpretation is the existence of a much more plausible alternative for understanding the statement. If the builders desired to prevent scattering, then we must assume that something was forcing them to scatter. The Old Testament does witness to a pressure to scatter that arises from internal conditions. Genesis 13:6-9 records a situation that arose between Abraham and Lot in which they would no longer remain together because of conflict between their men.
This would have involved competition for prime grazing land and for campsites nearer to water sources. The constant need for the patriarchs to travel to Egypt in time of famine (i.e., when there is not enough food to meet subsistence level requirements) likewise demonstrates what to them was a fact of life: the number of people that can reside in any given area is directly related to the climatic conditions and land fertility. Cooperation among residents (as initially practiced by Abraham and Lot) can increase the ratio, but eventually the growth in numbers will necessitate dispersion.
Perhaps more frequently, the cooperative effort will fail. Both reasons are mentioned in Genesis 13—their possessions became too great, and their men fought.<18>
Scattering, then, is not being avoided by disobedience. It is rather a fact of life in nomadic and seminomadic societies that is counterproductive to cultural continuity. It is natural that the builders would want to counteract the need to scatter. The solution to this is the development of a cooperative society, which by pooling their efforts and working together can greatly increase production. In a word—the solution is urbanization.
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. But how does this relate to YHWH's response to the builders' efforts? Are we to conclude that urbanization is somehow contrary to YHWH's plan? While some have taken this route, it seems a difficult one to maintain given YHWH's choice of a city, Jerusalem, for the dwelling place of his presence. It is more likely that there would be something that was characteristic of the urbanization process within Mesopotamia that would be identifiable as the problem. Again, our knowledge of Mesopotamian backgrounds can provide some possible explanations.
The administration of the early cities was in the hands of a general assembly.<19> This form of government lasted only briefly as the need for decisive action led to the evolution of the institution of kingship. Although its period of operation was relatively brief, the general assembly format of government left a permanent impression on Mesopotamian society in that this was the form of government that mythology depicted as used by the gods. As the urbanized state began to function, the universe came to be considered a state ruled by the gods (Jacobsen 1946: 142). Details concerning the pantheon and its operation prior to this shift are few and often obscure. 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 (Moran 1970: 2).
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. 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,
The ziggurat and the temple complex provide the link between urbanization, of which they are the central organ, and Mesopotamian religion which they typify. The ziggurat and the temple complex were representative of the very nature of Mesopotamian religion as it developed its characteristic forms. The essence of this new perspective, represented by the ziggurat and temple complex, is highlighted by Lambert.
Jacobsen further comments:
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. 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,
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.
The danger of the action of the builders then has nothing to do with architecture or with urbanization. Nothing was wrong with towers or with cities. The danger is found in what this building project stood for in the minds of the builders. To the Israelites, this would be considered the ultimate act of religious hubris, making God in the image of man. This goes beyond mere idolatry; it degrades the nature of god.
One could perhaps object to this interpretation on the grounds that it requires the ziggurat or the temple complex in Genesis 11 to be a “silent” symbol of the Mesopotamian religious system. In fact, it is no more silent a symbol than the courtyard of Saint Peter's Basilica in Vatican Square. The editor's own presentation of the material demonstrates their understanding of the symbol. In Genesis 11:6, YHWH says this is only the beginning of what men will do. What is the end result? The editor's answer to that question is given by means of a rhetorical device: “Therefore its name was called Babel” (Gn 11:9). It was the Babylonians who eventually committed the offense.<20> This offense lay not in the building of buildings, nor in the architectural structure itself, nor in the effort that achieved it. In the eyes of the editor the intentions of the builders were innocent enough, but now, behold what their ziggurat had come to represent! The hubris was committed by those who carried on from that innocent yet auspicious beginning and brought to fruition the very evil that YHWH had foreseen—the degradation of deity. As the modern poet has voiced it:
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.
We cannot deny the possibility that this account was understood by the Israelites as being pregnant with political implications. Its main intent, though, we would argue, would seem to be not political polemic, nor even the account of yet another offense. Rather, the account demonstrates the need for God to reveal himself to the world. The concept of God had been corrupted and distorted; this would require an extensive program of reeducation to correct. So it was that God chose Abraham and his family and made a covenant with them. The covenant would serve as the mechanism by which God would reveal himself to the world through Israel.
The Historical Setting of the Tower of Babel
As is evident from the above, I believe that the account of Genesis 11 has a solid historical foundation in early Mesopotamia. The details are authentic and realistic. The identification of the urbanization process and the accompanying development of the ziggurat with fundamental changes in the religious perspectives of the people demonstrates the keen analytical insight of the Biblical author. Is it possible to suggest a particular historical period as the background of the event recounted in this narrative? First, a review of the pertinent information:
When considering the impact of this information, two caveats must be identified.
First, in the Biblical account the tower of Babel is presented as a failed prototype. The result of God's action against the builders was to delay the development of urbanization in Mesopotamia. Consequently, it would be logical to infer that the event recorded in Genesis 11 occurred perhaps centuries prior to the actual development of urbanization as attested by archaeological records.
Second, development of institutions may have taken place prior to the Early Dynastic period, but written records are not available to inform us of those developments. Writing developed in the Late Uruk period, but is limited to basic economical use for some time.
Besides the archaeological information that has been discussed, we must also consider that the account must have support from our understanding of the history of linguistic development and from settlement patterns in Mesopotamia. Taking all of this information into account, the Ubaid period (5000-3500) is most intriguing. Ubaid is a site in southern Mesopotamia just northwest of Ur. The Ubaid period witnesses the first settlements in southern Mesopotamia, with many of the sites being built on virgin soil (Finegan 1979: 8). The sites in the northern section of Mesopotamia that attest the earlier settlements (e.g., Jarmo, Hassuna, Samarra, Halaf) appear not to continue into this period, though Ubaid cultures are attested in the north as well as the south. This pattern suggests that the Ubaid period witnessed the initial migration from the north into southern Mesopotamia, in notable agreement with Genesis 11:2. Nissen has described the developments of this period in southern Mesopotamia and suggested a cause for the events:
Both architecture and pottery of the period show similarity to that found at earlier northern sites (CAH3 I, 1: 337, 340, 365). Archaeologists have observed that the most striking characteristic of the Ubaid period is its uniformity. Mellaart comments:
The principal site of the Ubaid period is Eridu. One of the Babylonian creation accounts says: “All lands were sea, then Eridu was made” (Heidel 1951: 62, 10-12). It appears to have had a town wall even in its earliest periods (CAH3 I, 1: 332). Levels 18-6 feature temples, though none approach very closely the ziggurat architectural development. The patron deity of Eridu in the Sumerian periods was Enki, the crafty god, known for his association with the arts of civilization and for his many sexual encounters (cf. Kramer and Maier 1989).
The mention of baked brick technology directs our primary attention to the periods coming after the Ubaid period, but Genesis 11 may span these periods. In Genesis 11:2 a group of people is identified as having traveled to the plain of Shinar to settle. The traveling group is not necessarily “all the Earth” from v. 1, but perhaps just the descendants of Shem, since the genealogy of all of the sons of Noah has already been treated in chapter 10.<22> 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. But from that beginning, urbanization in southern Mesopotamia was initiated, including the development of ziggurat architecture and the full development of the Mesopotamian religious system that it represented.
It is interesting to note that archaeological evidence shows a clear dissemination of Babylonian culture throughout the ancient Near East at the end of the Late Uruk period and into the Jamdet Nasr period. This is particularly evident in the Zagros area and in Syria. Nissen says,
Furthermore, it is evident that this influence did not last for long but quickly was subsumed by the local cultures. The Habuba settlement in Syria, for instance, hardly survived more than 50 years (Nissen 1988: 115, 122).
It is difficult to bring archaeological or historical information to bear on the question of whether the city Babylon was actually the site of this occurrence or whether it was the outstanding example of that system. Excavation at Babylon cannot inform us of its history prior to the second millennium, because the shifting water table of the Euphrates has obliterated the strata (Saggs 1967: 41-42). Historical records do not mention Babylon prior to meager references in the Ur III period, and a year date formula of Sarkalisarri during the dynasty of Akkad (Gelb 1955). If it was the site of the event recorded in Genesis 11, it seems to have been abandoned for over a millennium before it was again occupied.
Explanation of the origin of races, beginning at Babel:
Author: John H. Walton, reprinted by permission from Bulletin for Biblical Research 5 : 155-75. Supplied by Associates for Biblical Research
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