Perhaps 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.