Babel and the Bible: Did People Just Make This Up?

Museum of Biblical History Staff • 07.08.2015

On July 14 2015, Dr. David Musgrave will be visiting the Museum in order to translate a small clay tablet in our collection which dates to ca. 2,200 B.C. – about a hundred years before Abraham lived (dating that at ca. 2,100 B.C.).  Later in the evening, he will be giving a presentation entitled “The Bible and Babylonian Culture: Connections or Coincidences?”  In anticipation of what is sure to be a fantastic event, we have made it a point in the past two months to emphasize the importance of the peoples of the first eleven books of Genesis – The ancient Mesopotamians.  Unfortunately, this subject seems to have had much less attention than other periods of Biblical history – and arguably for an understandable reason.  So far as archaeologists have yet found, there are no historical records in the traditional sense from this area which predate Abraham – thus we cannot compare the Biblical record of Genesis with history as we can with other parts.  Because of this – and because of the unpopular nature of the topic, which leaves such claims relatively unchallenged – many scholars have drawn the conclusion that the first eleven chapters of Genesis are mythological in nature.  Here at the Museum of Biblical History, we respectfully disagree; taking the position of the plenary inspiration of the Bible (that is, that every passage of the Bible was inspired of God, and thus inerrant).  When this challenge is considered, it is easy to see why this area of the Bible needs to be popularized and investigated more!

The Tower of Babel is another example of a passage in the Bible which is consistently questioned, challenged, and even mocked as being entirely fictitious.  But what if there’s more to the report than meets the eye?

Image Credit:

Is it possible that the Genesis account could be speaking of an actual, historical event?  In this concise treatise, we will briefly discuss the cities, the towers, and the records of a linguistic change in prehistory.  Although we do not claim that we can yet prove the case for the authenticity of the Biblical account concerning the Tower of Babel; if it can be demonstrated that the event could be independently reconstructed through Sumerian mytho-historical literature and sufficient archaeological evidence can be produced to support it, then it is also the case that the Biblical record of the Tower of Babel is worthy of further investigation as a true historical record.

In Genesis 11:2-4, the Bible tells us that after the flood, a group of people migrated from the east into what it calls “the land of Shinar.”  The Akkadians called the land “Sumer,” and so today we call them the Sumerians.  The Bible goes on to tell us what the Sumerians began to do once they settled there – they began to build a city and a tower.  First, we will focus on the cities built.  Is there any evidence to support this claim?  Certainly!  First, we have the stories from Sumer which tell of the same thing.  In the tale which is today referred to as The Eridu Genesis, we are told that a Sumerian goddess named Nintur saw that the people were wandering around, forgotten by the gods.  Feeling sorry for them, she said “. . . let me bring them back, let me lead the people back from their trails.  May they come and build cities and cult places, that I may cool myself in their shade . . .” (Jacobsen, Eridu Genesis, 513).  In addition, the text claims that she taught them purification rituals, prayer to the gods, divination, and various other religious acts, and that instituted peace there; and finally, she instituted kingship (the State), and dedicated each city to a patron god (513-14).  Notice the similarities between the Biblical record and this Sumerian myth: the wandering people coming together at Sumer, the building of cities, etc.  Archaeologically speaking, it is the case that the Sumerian language is not Semitic (meaning they were linguistically different from people descended from Shem, one of Noah’s sons, like the Akkadians and the Hebrews).  It is generally suspected by scholars that the original settlers (even a different people still from the Sumerians of Abrahams day) came from the eastern region somewhere around the Caspian Sea (Kramer, 42): interestingly, an area near the location of Mt. Ararat.

The Genesis account goes on to tell us of something else the people who settled in Sumer built: a tower (v.3-4).  We’ve already seen how in the Sumerian myth called The Eridu Genesis, the goddess Nintur had the people build cities – but it also says they built “cult centers” (Jacobsen, Eridu Genesis, 513). These cult centers are today known as ziggurats.  A ziggurat is a large tower made of mud bricks on top of which stood a small temple structure.  The temple structure was the home of the city’s patron god, and was built as a central point to the rest of the city (Leick, 126-28).

A reproduction of a mud brick used to build the Great Ziggurat at Ur (non plano-convex), now on display in the Museum’s main gallery.

It is interesting to note that the Bible makes specific mention that “they had brick for stone, and bitumen for mortar” (v. 3). In Egypt, the pyramids were made of stone and mortar, whereas their houses were made of mud brick.  It is fascinating that Moses, an Egyptian-raised Hebrew, specifically mentioned using materials different from what the Hebrews would have seen being used to build sacred, monumental structures – especially since none of them had likely ever seen a mud-brick ziggurat!  Furthermore, it is also interesting to note that the Hebrew language used in Genesis 11:4 only reads “let us build a tower with its top in the heavens . . .,” which is not necessarily meaning a tower that literally reaches beyond skyscrapers into heaven – but only that the Sumerians perceived the temple to have been raised into the heavens by the tower: which is exactly how the Sumerians speak of the ziggurats.  The question left, then, is why.  Why build these cities and the tower with its top in the heavens?  According to the Eridu Genesis, Nintur forced the people to do it – “that [she] may cool [herself] in their shade” (Jacobsen, Eridu Genesis, 513).  Other myths claim that some were built on the axis of the world, and other sacred areas.  They were built according to the compass points, and astrologically aligned, as the pyramids of Egypt were.  The peoples of each city were constantly in competition, trying to outdo the others in size – and this corresponds best with a simpler, and most archetypal explanation which just so happens to be the very explanation given in the Bible: “. . . let us make a name for ourselves, lest we be dispersed over the face of the whole earth.” (Genesis 11:4)

A graphic reconstruction of the Great Ziggurat at Ur (called “Ekishnugal,” which served as the temple of the Sumerian god of the moon, Nanna. Today, only the base and a portion of the second stage remain. Image Credit:

We then come to the response of God in the Genesis account. In verses 5-8, God is reported to have visited the city and was disappointed, saying “Indeed the people are one and they all have one language, and this is what they begin to do; now nothing that they propose to do will be withheld from them.” He then “confused their language,” and dispersed them.  Although this is not found in the Eridu Genesis, it is found in another myth of the Sumerians: Enmerkar and the Lord of Aratta.  This tale begins with a description of how the earth was once very different.  Among the other differences mentioned, it says that “in the whole compass of heaven and earth the people entrusted to him could address Enlil (another Sumerian god), verily, in but a single tongue” (Jacobsen, Enmerkar, 547).  Then, one day (for no apparent reason), the god Enki decided to “estrange the tongues in their mouths as many as were put there: the tongues of men which were one” (548).  This, then caused contention to break out between the king of Uruk (Enmerkar) and the king of Aratta.  This falls right in line with what the Bible says happened, to the extent of the unified languages being confused by God, and contention being the result (Kitchen, 426).

When considering the historicity of the Bible, it is easy to point to a historical text from the same time period which can confirm the Biblical record. For Genesis 1-11, this is not the case.  As a result, many claims are made – and often accepted without question – that the Bible is here mythological in nature, or at least deriving much of its records from mythology.  Since this is the case, challenging such claims can be difficult: but not impossible.  More data from further investigation is needed: which means it must become a popular question once again, and the youth of our society encouraged to keep digging for answers.  Here, we have very briefly examined the Biblical account of the Tower of Babel.  We have demonstrated that the event can be independently reconstructed through Sumerian mytho-historical literature, and sufficient archaeological evidence can be produced to support its claims.  It is therefore also the case that the Biblical record of the Tower of Babel is worthy of further investigation as a true historical record.

We hope you will come and see much more about this magnificent time period as Dr. Musgrave presents his material on the subject; and we hope to inspire you and the next generation of explorers to join the inquiry into the mysteries of Biblical history.

Works Cited

English Standard Version Study Bible. Wheaton, IL: Crossway, 2008. Print.

Holy Bible (New King James Version). Nashville, TN: Holman, 2013. Print.

Jacobsen, Thorkild. “Enmerkar and the Lord of Aratta.” Hallo, William W. The Context of Scripture. Leiden: Brill, 2003. 547-550.

Jacobsen, Thorkild. “The Eridu Genesis.” Hallo, William W. The Context of Scripture. Vol. I. Leiden: Brill, 2003. 513-515. Print.

Kitchen, Kenneth A. On the Reliability of the Old Testament. Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 2003. Print.

Kramer, Samuel Noah. The Sumerians: Their History, Culture, and Character. Chicago: University of Chicago, 1964. Print.

Leick, Gwendolyn. Mesopotamia: The Invention of the City. New York: Penguin, 2002. Print.