Historical Genesis

From Adam To Abraham

Bookmark and Share

Chapter 19 - The Tower of Babel: Less Confusing

After the dispersing, settling, and (probably) conquering by the tribal descendants of Noah's three sons, a landmark incident took place in the plain of Shinar that caused and still causes confusion - at the Tower of Babel.

Genesis 11:1: "And the whole earth was of one language, and of one speech."

The King James translators arrived at Genesis 11 with the same preconceptions they had throughout the early chapters of Genesis. Just as translators and interpreters who have followed, they labored under the popular misconception that all mankind descended from Adam, and all but Noah and his immediate family drowned in a worldwide flood. When they reached this verse, they thought the population of the entire world was concentrated at Shinar and spoke one common language.

Had they known the corresponding history of the ancient Near East, they could have selected words more accommodating to the facts as we know them today. The true confusion of tongues is the translation of Hebrew into English. Yet again,‘erets is translated "earth," although in the next verse the same word is rendered as the "land" of Shinar. If the Hebrew ‘erets is "land" and saphah is translated literally as "lip" rather than the broader word "language," we would read the text as follows: "And the whole land was of one lip and one speech."

Since we know the Sumerians and Akkadians spoke unrelated languages, and the Akkadian language is the root of Semitic languages including Hebrew, and if we assume the writer of Genesis was at least as knowledgeable as we are, then we may conclude that at least two languages were spoken in the region at the time that tower building was all the rage in Mesopotamian cities. So it is unlikely the writer of Genesis, probably Moses, sought to convey that everyone spoke a common language.

After the flood, platforms constructed in the Mesopotamian cities began to grow and take on religious connotations. Mud brick mounds that had originally been constructed to survive floods became ziggurats adorned with temples of worship, the dwelling places of the gods, and temples were constructed dedicated to whatever god was protecting each individual city.

Hebrew chroniclers point to Nimrod, king of Babylon (Gen. 10:9-10), as the instigator in building the tower honoring Marduk, with additional sanctuaries for Enlil and Ea. City counselors with their eyes on neighboring cities proposed the plan of erecting a tower, and Nimrod, the reigning monarch, agreed to it. Motivations among the tower builders themselves may have been mixed; a desire to reach the gods, an uprising against God, devotion of the gods, a desire to wage war against the gods, or a means of surviving future floods. It’s hard to know what was foremost in the minds of these men caught up in this monumental enterprise.

Whatever the initial motivations, the builders at Babylon became caught up in a ziggurat building competition with their neighbors. In a unified and prideful effort, they tried to outdo the other cities. God caused confusion in their speech, however, and the builders terminated construction and scattered, but their basic language was unaltered. We know this because inscriptions recovered written in Canaanite, Amorite, Aramaic, and Assyrian were all in Semitic dialects.

The confusion of tongues at Babel was not about scrambling one common language into various different languages. Instead, it related to the predominant topic of conversation of the day, which was about building mud-brick platforms and adorning them with temples of worship.

These were huge, demanding work projects involving the entire community. Thus everyone in the land, Shinar (or Sumer), at that time was talking about it. They were of "one lip."