The Tower of Babel narrative in Genesis 11:1–9 is an origin myth meant to explain why the world’s peoples speak different languages.
According to the story, a united human race in the generations following the Great Flood, speaking a single language and migrating westward, comes to the land of Shinar. There they agree to build a city and a tower tall enough to reach heaven.
God, observing their city and tower, confounds their speech so that they can no longer understand each other, and scatters them around the world.
Some modern scholars have associated the Tower of Babel with known structures, notably the Etemenanki, a ziggurat dedicated to the Mesopotamian god Marduk in Babylon. A Sumerian story with some similar elements is told in Enmerkar and the Lord of Aratta.
The phrase “Tower of Babel” does not appear in the Bible; it is always “the city and the tower” or just “the city”. The original derivation of the name Babel (also the Hebrew name for Babylon) is uncertain.
The native, Akkadian name of the city was Bāb-ilim, meaning “gate of God“. However, that form and interpretation itself are now usually thought to be the result of an Akkadian folk etymology applied to an earlier form of the name, Babilla, of unknown meaning and probably non-Semitic origin.
According to the Bible, the city received the name “Babel” from the Hebrew verb bālal, meaning to jumble or to confuse.
The narrative of the tower of Babel Genesis 11:1-9 is an etiology or explanation of a phenomenon. Etiologies are narratives that explain the origin of a custom, ritual, geographical feature, name, or another phenomenon.
The story of the Tower of Babel explains the origins of the multiplicity of languages. God was concerned that humans had blasphemed by building the tower to avoid a second flood so God brought into existence multiple languages. Thus, humans were divided into linguistic groups, unable to understand one another.
The story’s theme of competition between God and humans appears elsewhere in Genesis, in the story of Adam and Eve in the Garden of Eden.
The 1st-century Jewish interpretation found in Flavius Josephus explains the construction of the tower as a hubristic act of defiance against God ordered by the arrogant tyrant Nimrod.
There have, however, been some contemporary challenges to this classical interpretation, with emphasis placed on the explicit motive of cultural and linguistic homogeneity mentioned in the narrative. This reading of the text sees God’s actions not as a punishment for pride, but as an etiology of cultural differences, presenting Babel as the cradle of civilization.
Sumerian and Assyrian 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—named as Shubur, Hamazi, Sumer, Uri-ki (Akkad), and the Martu land, “the whole universe, the well-guarded people—may they all address Enlil together in a single language.”
In addition, a further Assyrian myth, dating from the 8th century BC during the Neo-Assyrian Empire (911–605 BC) bears a number of similarities to the later written Biblical story.
Various traditions similar to that of the tower of Babel are found in Central America. Some writers connected the Great Pyramid of Cholula to the Tower of Babel.
The Dominican friar Diego Durán (1537–1588) reported hearing an account about the pyramid from a hundred-year-old priest at Cholula, shortly after the conquest of Mexico.
He wrote that he was told when the light of the sun first appeared upon the land, giants appeared and set off in search of the sun. Not finding it, they built a tower to reach the sky. An angered God of the Heavens called upon the inhabitants of the sky, who destroyed the tower and scattered its inhabitants.
The story was not related to either a flood or the confusion of languages, although Frazer connects its construction and the scattering of the giants with the Tower of Babel.
Another story, attributed by the native historian Fernando de Alva Cortés Ixtlilxóchitl (c. 1565–1648) to the ancient Toltecs, states that after men had multiplied following a great deluge, they erected a tall zacuali or tower, to preserve themselves in the event of a second deluge. However, their languages were confounded and they went to separate parts of the earth.
Still another story, attributed to the Tohono O’odham people, holds that Montezuma escaped a great flood, then became wicked and attempted to build a house reaching to heaven, but the Great Spirit destroyed it with thunderbolts.
According to David Livingstone, the people he met living near Lake Ngami in 1849 had such a tradition, but with the builders’ heads getting “cracked by the fall of the scaffolding“.
In his 1918 book, Folklore in the Old Testament, Scottish social anthropologist Sir James George Frazer documented similarities between Old Testament stories, such as the Flood, and indigenous legends around the world.
He identified Livingston’s account with a tale found in Lozi mythology, wherein the wicked men build a tower of masts to pursue the Creator-God, Nyambe, who has fled to Heaven on a spider-web, but the men perish when the masts collapse.
He further relates similar tales of the Ashanti that substitute a pile of porridge pestles for the masts. Frazer moreover cites such legends found among the Kongo people, as well as in Tanzania, where the men stack poles or trees in a failed attempt to reach the moon.
He further cited the Karbi and Kuki people of Assam as having a similar story. The traditions of the Karen people of Myanmar, which Frazer considered to show clear ‘Abrahamic‘ influence, also relate that their ancestors migrated there following the abandonment of a great pagoda in the land of the Karenni 30 generations from Adam when the languages were confused and the Karen separated from the Karenni.
He notes yet another version current in the Admiralty Islands, where mankind’s languages are confused following a failed attempt to build houses reaching to heaven.
Etemenanki, the ziggurat at Babylon
Etemenanki (Sumerian: “temple of the foundation of heaven and earth”) was the name of a ziggurat dedicated to Marduk in the city of Babylon. It was famously rebuilt by the 6th-century BCE Neo-Babylonian dynasty rulers Nabopolassar and Nebuchadnezzar II.
According to modern scholars, such as Stephen L. Harris, the biblical story of the Tower of Babel was likely influenced by Etemenanki during the Babylonian captivity of the Hebrews.
Nebuchadnezzar wrote that the original tower had been built in antiquity:
“A former king built the Temple of the Seven Lights of the Earth, but he did not complete its head. Since a remote time, people had abandoned it, without order expressing their words. Since that time earthquakes and lightning had dispersed its sun-dried clay; the bricks of the casing had split, and the earth of the interior had been scattered in heaps.”
The seven lights were the planets the Moon and Sun thought to orbit Earth in beliefs.
In 2011 scholars discovered, in the Schoyen Collection, the oldest known representation of the Etemenanki. Carved on a black stone, The Tower of Babel Stele (as it is known) dates from 604 to 562 BCE, the time of Nebuchadnezzar II.
The Greek historian Herodotus (440 BCE) later wrote of this ziggurat, which he called the “Temple of Zeus Belus“, giving an account of its vast dimensions.
The already decayed Great Ziggurat of Babylon was finally destroyed by Alexander the Great in an attempt to rebuild it. He managed to move the tiles of the tower to another location, but his death stopped the reconstruction.
Isaac Asimov speculated that the authors of Genesis 11:1-9 were inspired by the existence of an apparently incomplete ziggurat at Babylon, and by the phonological similarity between Babylonian Bab-ilu, meaning “gate of God”, and the Hebrew word balal, meaning “mixed“, “confused“, or “confounded“.
Confusion of tongues
The confusion of tongues is the origin myth for the fragmentation of human languages described in Genesis 11:1-9, as a result of the construction of the Tower of Babel.
Prior to this event, humanity was stated to speak a single language. The preceding Genesis 10:5 states that the decedents of Japheth, Gomer, and Javan dispersed “with their own tongues,” creating an apparent contradiction. Scholars have been debating or explaining this apparent contradiction for centuries.
During the Middle Ages, the Hebrew language was widely considered the language used by God to address Adam in Paradise, and by Adam as lawgiver (the Adamic language) by various Jewish, Christian, and Muslim scholastics.
Dante Alighieri addresses the topic in his De vulgari eloquentia (1302-1305). He argues that the Adamic language is of divine origin and therefore unchangeable. He also notes that according to Genesis, the first speech act is due to Eve, addressing the serpent, and not to Adam.
In his Divine Comedy (c. 1308-1320), however, Dante changes his view to another that treats the Adamic language as the product of Adam. This had the consequence that it could no longer be regarded as immutable, and hence Hebrew could not be regarded as identical with the language of Paradise.
Dante concludes (Paradiso XXVI) that Hebrew is a derivative of the language of Adam. In particular, the chief Hebrew name for God in the scholastic tradition, El, must be derived from a different Adamic name for God, which Dante gives as I.
Before the acceptance of the Indo-European language family, these languages were considered to be “Japhetite” by some authors (e.g., Rasmus Rask in 1815; see Indo-European studies). Beginning in Renaissance Europe, priority over Hebrew was claimed for the alleged Japhetic languages, which were supposedly never corrupted because their speakers had not participated in the construction of the Tower of Babel.
Multiplication of languages
The literal belief that the world’s linguistic variety originated with the tower of Babel is pseudolinguistics and is contrary to the known facts about the origin and history of languages.
In the Biblical introduction of the Tower of Babel account, in Genesis 11:1, it is said that everyone on Earth spoke the same language, but this is inconsistent with the Biblical description of the post-Noahic world described in Genesis 10:5, where it is said that the descendants of Shem, Ham, and Japheth gave rise to different nations, each with their own language.
There have also been a number of traditions around the world that describe a divine confusion of the one original language into several, albeit without any tower.
Aside from the Ancient Greek myth that Hermes confused the languages, causing Zeus to give his throne to Phoroneus, Frazer specifically mentions such accounts among the Wasania of Kenya, the Kacha Naga people of Assam, the inhabitants of Encounter Bay in Australia, the Maidu of California, the Tlingit of Alaska, and the K’iche’ Maya of Guatemala.
The Estonian myth of “the Cooking of Languages” has also been compared.
Enumeration of scattered languages
There are several medieval historiographic accounts that attempt to make an enumeration of the languages scattered at the Tower of Babel.
Because a count of all the descendants of Noah listed by name in chapter 10 of Genesis (LXX) provides 15 names for Japheth’s descendants, 30 for Ham’s, and 27 for Shem’s, these figures became established as the 72 languages resulting from the confusion at Babel—although the exact listing of these languages changed over time. (The LXX Bible has two additional names, Elisa and Cainan, not found in the Masoretic text of this chapter, so early rabbinic traditions, such as the Mishna, speak instead of “70 languages”.)
Some of the earliest sources for 72 (sometimes 73) languages are the 2nd-century Christian writers Clement of Alexandria (Stromata I, 21) and Hippolytus of Rome (On the Psalms 9); it is repeated in the Syriac book Cave of Treasures (c. 350 CE), Epiphanius of Salamis’ Panarion (c. 375) and St. Augustine’s The City of God 16.6 (c. 410). The chronicles attributed to Hippolytus (c. 234) contain one of the first attempts to list each of the 72 peoples who were believed to have spoken these languages.
Isidore of Seville in his Etymologiae (c. 600) mentions the number of 72; however, his list of names from the Bible drops the sons of Joktan and substitutes the sons of Abraham and Lot, resulting in only about 56 names total; he then appends a list of some of the nations known in his own days, such as the Longobards and the Franks.
This listing was to prove quite influential on later accounts that made the Lombards and Franks themselves into descendants of eponymous grandsons of Japheth, e.g. the Historia Brittonum (c. 833), The Meadows of Gold by al Masudi (c. 947) and Book of Roads and Kingdoms by al-Bakri (1068), the 11th-century Lebor Gabála Érenn, and the Midrashic compilations Yosippon (c. 950), Chronicles of Jerahmeel, and Sefer ha Yashar.
The tradition of 72 languages persisted into later times. Both José de Acosta in his 1576 treatise De procuranda indorum salute, and António Vieira a century later in his Sermão da Epifania, expressed amazement at how much this ‘number of tongues‘ could be surpassed, there being hundreds of mutually unintelligible languages indigenous only to Peru and Brazil.