Why did they Build the Tower of Babel?

Tower of BabelPerhaps surprisingly, the Bible is silent regarding the purpose of the Tower of Babel. But the historian Josephus tells us.

The text of Genesis 11 starts with everyone speaking the same language. Monolingual humankind decides to build a city and a tower. God sees them, descends to earth, “confounds” (balel) human speech, and scatters people across the earth so that they stop building the city.

The name “Babel” is an obvious word play on balel (“confound”), a connection reinforced in the text itself: “Therefore the city was called Babel, because there the Lord confused [balel] the language of all the earth.”

And the city seems more important than the tower. It is the city that people stop building in verse 8, and the city that in verse 9 gets the name “Babel.” So what’s the purpose of the tower?

Unhelpfully, the text only quotes the people as building it because otherwise they will be scattered across the earth. Contrary to popular understanding, dispersing the people is not the punishment for building the tower. God apparently planned to do that anyway (and, in fact, seems to have already done it at the end of the previous chapter). Rather, the tower was a failed attempt to forestall God’s plan. But how?

The tower and its city appear immediately after a line (Genesis 10:32) about how the nations spread out over the earth following the Flood. Then after the nine short verses about Babel, Genesis resumes with the descendents of Shem, one of Noah’s sons. The story of Babel seems to be part of the Flood narrative. And it is.

According to Josephus, the point of the tower was to be higher than any potential repeat flood, so the people would be impervious to future drowning at the hands of God.

And the text even alludes to this purpose for the tower, but in a way that escapes most modern readers who are not experts in ancient materials science. The key is Genesis 11:3: “They had brick for stone and bitumen for mortar.”

Bitumen is a kind of asphalt, called in Greek asfaltos, and used in the ancient world for waterproofing. This is why Noah used bitumen for his ark and Moses’s mother used the substance to fortify the basket in which she placed her son before sending him off on the waters of the Nile.

So the Tower of Babel is the closing bookend on the Flood narrative, matching the mysterious Watchers at the beginning, a topic I’ll address next.

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9 thoughts on “Why did they Build the Tower of Babel?

    • Yes, God promised Noah not to destroy the entire earth again.

      Maybe Noah didn’t get the word out. Or maybe the promise left open the possibility of a more limited, but still punishing, flood. Or maybe the people didn’t trust God, who, after all, apparently needed the rainbow as a reminder.

  1. Babel is often missed as the first nationalistic kingdom. (First time the word is used). It marks the rise of the nation-state. It was led by Nimrod. His character was marked by cruelty. The nation makes its mission to be in the face of God. Tis also a super-power! Much later Israel pressured Samuel for a king like the nation’s around them. God told Samuel that Israel was not rejecting Samuel (a judge leader) but we’re instead rejecting God, himself. Nationalism has a track record of seeking to be separate from or opposed to God. Consider the anti-God view of North Korea, and the creeping godless secularism that Christians love/hate within our own “nation.”

  2. Pingback: Translating The Purpose of the Words? « God Didn't Say That

  3. I Was taught in Bible school that the Bible was the word of God given thru Moses. And God as such guaranteed the “Truth” of the word as written. Now we constantly are given a multitude of different interpretations of the meaning of these words blamed as translation errors etc. Why if God guaranteed the original writings, why couldn’t he guide the translations to also have the integrity of the original.

    Every time I try to research a biblical meaning I get about as many different interpretations as the number of different people explaining it to me.

    The last time I read about the Tower of Babel, the explanation was that the builders were trying to cheat a way to heaven and God confused their language so they could not plan a new tower.

    I just went through the confusion try to get a straight answer on what the word “covet” means in the Biblical commandment: “Thou shall not covet thy neighbors…..“, etc. How can anybody feel confident that he is doing the right thing when literally, everybody has a different answer and there is no authority
    specifically dedicated by God?

    I am disappointed. The Bible sucks!

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