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Tower of Babel

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Bruegel — The Tower of Babel, c. 1563
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The story of the construction of the Tower of Babel (found in Genesis 11:1 and following) allows some biblical literalists[note 1] to give a pre-scientific explanation for the existence of multiple human languages.


Dur-Untash, or Choqa Zanbil, in present day Iran built in the 13th century BCE

The first book of the Bible, Genesis, contains an account of the myth.

GE 11:3 They said to each other, "Come, let's make bricks and bake them thoroughly." They used brick instead of stone, and tar for mortar. 4 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 and not be scattered over the face of the whole earth."

GE 11:5 But the LORD came down to see the city and the tower that the men were building. 6 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. 7 Come, let us go down and confuse their language so they will not understand each other."

GE 11:8 So the LORD scattered them from there over all the earth, and they stopped building the city. 9 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.

The Tower of Babel as an explanation for the origins of languages is considered absurd by everyone except biblical literalists. Some biblical scholars believe that the tower myth was based on the zigguratsWikipedia's W.svg found in Mesopotamia, as seen in artistic impressions of the tower. This is a plausible basis for the physical description of the tower, but modern linguistics has rendered supernatural explanations of linguistic diversity unnecessary, much as modern biology has eliminated the need for a supernatural explanation for the origin of species. Indeed, we now have evidence of at least six languages existing prior to the date posited by those who regard Genesis as a historical account.[citation needed]

Aronra in his topic presentation "The Evolution of Genesis" at North Texas University made a point that the fable does contain a kernel of truth. According to him, the real Tower of Babel was the Marduk Ziggurat, the remains of which still stand at the site of ancient Babylon. Construction was begun by Hammurabi in approximately 1750 BCE, in honour of Babylon's patron God Marduk. At this point Hammurabi's empire was at its zenith: at the same time, schools in Babylon were teaching the first syllabic written language, using cuneiform script. However, Hammurabi's successors could not keep the empire together. As the empire collapsed, resources stopped flowing into Babylon, and work on the tower stalled: not only that, but the schools had to close, and within a couple of generations, nobody knew what the old writings said. Construction of the Marduk Ziggurat later resumed under King Nebuchadnezzar II (reigned c. 605 BCE – c. 562 BCE); however, it was never completed as the kingdom fell to Cyrus the Great[1] in 539 BCE. The partially completed Marduk Ziggurat was demolished in 323 BCE by order of Alexander the Great in preparation for a project to rebuild it, but this was abandoned following his death in the same year.

Some Christians attempt to justify it on the basis that a few fringe linguists have posited that all human languages are related.[2] However there is no evidence for a common origin of language, because writing originated much later than speech and individual languages change at too high a rate for common features to be preserved (there are attempts to find a common language via comparative linguistics but such procedures often veer into pseudolinguistics). While some linguists and anthropologists theorize a common original language, others suggest many independently-created languages.[3][4] So linguistics provides no evidence for the Tower of Babel.

Despite the absence of any evidence in the text, traditional sources often identify the minor Old Testament figure Nimrod as the architect of the Tower of Babel.

The story appears to have parallels with the ancient Sumerian text Enmerkar and the Lord of Aratta, composed around the 21st century BCE; hence the Biblical account may be derived from the Sumerian myth, or they may both have a common source.[5]

Arguments for it being unrealistic[edit]

First, the tower-tale assumes that Babylonians — living, remember, ages ago – could build a tower higher than any that we can build in modern times.[note 2] It would have had to reach even further than rockets and probes that we have sent out. Since 'God' has not attempted to destroy NASA, and many rockets and probes still survive, it would appear as though these rockets and probes have not yet reached 'Heaven'.

Second, how would the builders cope when the tower reached the thinner layers of the Earth's atmosphere? If they went out there they would die, as they were ancient Babylonians. If "Heaven" was within the breathable layers of Earth's atmosphere, it would have been reached quite easily by now.

Theists may respond by saying that Heaven is "outside of space and time", or that perhaps God moved further away. The first response involves ancient civilizations possessing universe-transfer technology, which is highly unlikely if not impossible. The second is hard to maintain while saying that God is benevolent. If he could just move away, why scatter humans as a 'punishment' as well? For that matter, the city they were building seems almost Utopian, in that they could all understand each other and, according to God, could do anything they put their minds to. Why wouldn't God just tell them to stop instead of scattering them and rendering them unable to communicate with one another? They probably would have stopped, and would also have lived quite happily. A more sensible answer might be that God was punishing them for their hubris in trying, even though they could never succeed. This still leaves the problem of God's supposed benevolence. It isn't as if he warned them in advance that that sort of thing wasn't cool.

So to sum it up, the two main arguments against the Tower are that it seems to show that ancient Babylonians were technologically superior to us, could breathe outside Earth's atmosphere, and could build towers thousands of miles tall,[note 3] all while contradicting the 'benevolence' of God.

The Bible speaks in metaphor and parable[edit]

A more reasonable approach to the Biblical account of the Tower of Babel, as with many Biblical stories, is that it is not a literal recount of an actual historical event. It is rather:

Kierkegaard on the Tower of Babel (sort of)[edit]

Surely no one will prove himself so great a bore as to contradict me in this. The gods were bored, and so they created man. Adam was bored because he was alone, and so Eve was created. Thus boredom entered the world, and increased in proportion to the increase of population. Adam was bored alone; then Adam and Eve were bored together; then Adam and Eve and Cain and Abel were bored en famille; then the population of the world increased, and the peoples were bored en masse. To divert themselves they conceived the idea of constructing a tower high enough to reach the heavens. This idea is itself as boring as the tower was high, and constitutes a terrible proof of how boredom gained the upper hand.
Søren Kierkegaard: Either/Or. (1843)[6]

The Tower of Babel in the modern world[edit]

Imagine a world in which every single person on the planet is given free access to the sum of all human knowledge. That's what we're doing.
—Jimbo Wales[7]

Wikipedia's method of building their modern Tower of Babel is, naturally, the monkey typewriter theory. Of course, in this case, we're the monkeys.

External links[edit]


  1. Notable biblical-literalist creationists who've explicitly endorsed the historicity of the Babel narrative include Carl Wieland (see here) and Henry M. Morris (see here).
  2. And we've built some pretty fucking big stuff, even in the general area of Babylon.Wikipedia's W.svg
  3. Geosynchronous orbitWikipedia's W.svg is over 20,000 miles (35,000km) above the Earth's surface