Analysis of the The Tower of Babel – Historical Perspective

The following is a paper I wrote for a Jewish Studies class I’m taking called “History of God.”  The point of the paper was to examine a set of verses from the Old Testament from a historical perspective, discussing what the verses reveal about the people it describes, or that wrote it.  This paper relies heavily on the Documentary Hypothesis theory and the concept of Spiral Dynamics as put forth by Ken Wilber.

For clarity, the paper was graded by George KC Forman and  received an A-, as well as some notations about grammar and style corrections (which haven’t been made here).  The professor’s notes on the last page are:

So close! Ask yourself, what was happening in J’s Day? What’s his point. Yes, free will. But to what end? Kingdom has arisen; we now have cities and power in Levant. So free will is in service of Solomon’s reign. How might story fit with that people’s needs and worries? Why free will? Why portray the many languages? I’d given this story answers the need for cooperation, under aegis and king. Unite, it says, to gain power, etc. But good work. Where is this doc. hypoth. book? Sounds great! A-

Essay:

The Tower of Babel

The Tower of Babel

The story of the Tower of Babel, found in the Book of Genesis in the Bible, is fascinating and complicated and is open to many levels of interpretation, especially since it is a story that was probably not original when it was added to the Bible. What does it mean that the people were attempting to build a tower “that reaches into the sky”?[1] And what does God’s response indicate about the nature of the relationship between man and the divine? What can we learn about the needs and wants of that society by analyzing these verses?

The story of the division of human language isn’t unique to the Bible, but that in itself isn’t remarkable. Something as mystifying as why all men don’t speak the same language is a problem that people from various cultures would have tried to solve the best way they knew how: attributing it to an act of the divine, leaving modern readers with a variety of similar myths. Obvious parallels exist in the stories of the Enuma Elish, the building of Babylon’s ziggurat, and a Sumerian story that tells of a time when all people spoke the same language. The closest parallel is a Sumerian epic titled “Enmerkar and the Lord of Aratta.”[2] It starts out describing a time when man had no rival and everyone spoke the same language, but:

Enki…the leader of the gods
Changed the speech in their mouths
Brought contention into it,
Into the speech of man that (until then) had been one.[3]

Whether J came up with the story of the Tower of Babel or borrowed the tradition, its inclusion in the religious tradition of the Hebrews is still significant. It indicates clearly that people identified with the story and felt that it reflected their own relationship with God.

According to the Documentary Hypothesis, the stories of the Pentateuch were not written by one author, but rather four authors and then collated into a single work by a series of redactors. These sources are J (Jawhist/Yawhist; approx. 950 BCE), E (Elohist; approx. 850 BCE), D (Deutoronomist; approx. 600 BCE), P (Priestly source; approx. 500 BCE) and R (the Redactors / Editors). Developed by Biblical scholars in the 18th and 19th centuries, the Documentary Hypothesis uses linguistic cues and source criticism to try to explain the apparent contradictions and repetitions in the Pentateuch. The story of the Tower of Babel (Genesis 11:1-9) is generally attributed to the Jawhist source, making it one of the earliest written stories of the Bible, despite its placement. According to the Documentary Hypothesis, J’s writing focuses on the interaction between God and man’s free will.[4]

Understanding how J writes can be helpful when examining the Tower of Babel story as presented in the Bible and for determining what it might mean about the people it describes. One interpretation is that it’s an origin story for the existence of different languages and cultures in the world. The beginning of the story says, “At one time all the people of the world spoke the same language and used the same words.”[5] By the end of the story, God has confused their languages and caused them to be scattered all over the world. However, this story conflicts with an earlier account that says (emphasis added):

4The descendants of Javan were Elishah, Tarshish, Kittim, and Rodanim. 5Their descendants became the seafaring peoples that spread out to various lands, each identified by its own language, clan, and national identity.[6]

The earlier account already describes the creation of multiple languages and cultures, directly contradicting the later Tower of Babel account. Also, Genesis 11:1-2 implies that all of the people in the world traveled together in one group, which contradicts the earlier account of Cain and Abel. When Cain was banished, God put a mark on his head so no one else would kill him and he went to the land of Nod.[7] This implies that there were people in Nod already that Cain had to be fearful of and that people weren’t traveling together in one group.

This is where it helps to understand the Documentary Hypothesis, which explains that the account in Genesis 10 was added much later, by P (the Priestly source). However, it doesn’t explain the contradiction in the Cain and Abel story, which is also attributed to J.[8] Because the two stories by J are contradictory, the Tower of Babel story must have been included for a symbolic reason, rather than to record factual events in the sense that a history book records factual events. It wasn’t the content itself that was important. It was the message it carried. Approaching the Tower of Babel story from this perspective lends support to the idea that it was borrowed from another culture’s religious tradition. The tower mentioned in the story is probably borrowed from the ziggurat dedicated to Marduk in Babylon called Etemenanki. The plot of the story is probably borrowed from earlier stories, like the Sumerian epic mentioned earlier.[9] So, how can this story tell us anything about the Hebrews?

For the story to be included in the oral and later written tradition of the religion means that the people identified with it strongly. While it’s not possible to apply the details of the people in the story to the Hebrews exactly, it’s possible to analyze the text and draw conclusions about the relationship between man and God, as they saw it. Understanding that the story is symbolic and knowing that one of J’s common themes is the struggle between man’s free will and God, it’s also reasonable to believe that this story is about man’s exercise of free will and the limits of man’s authority over the world.

The Tower of Babel story is about power. Genesis 11:2 describes a tribal, migratory people passing through the Fertile Crescent into Mesopotamia and arriving at a place suitable for settling. Upon arriving, their first thought is to establish themselves in the region through a show of power. They decide to build up a city and a tower that will reach into the heavens. Because they are united, they are able to make quick progress in reaching their goal. However, God has another plan for mankind and takes an active role in the world to push man onto the path He’s chosen for them.

The dialogue attributed to God in Genesis 11:6 gives Him a very anthropomorphic, active and human personality. God appears to be either afraid of what man might accomplish or jealous that man is able to create something monumental, which is a type of action that should be reserved for Him. To stop man from completing the tower, and thereby demonstrating his power of the world, God goes down and “confuse[s] the people with different languages…[so] they won’t be able to understand each other.”[10] After their languages are confused, the people have no choice but to abandon the project. They migrate away from the Tower of Babel, probably sorted into language groups.

It is hard to look at this story and find a way to paint God in a positive light, other than to say that perhaps this was part of a larger design, such as ensuring the fulfillment of his earlier command to Adam and Eve to go forth and populate the Earth. Adam and Eve’s descendants could not accomplish that task if they all stayed in one city. However, I think the key phrase from this passage is in verse 6: “The people are united…. Nothing they set out to do will be impossible for them!” The author of the story perhaps believed that man could achieve anything he put his mind to through unity with his fellow men, with only an act of God being able to stop him. Communal action to support and increase the power of the group is a very tribal action. The inclusion of this story in the religious tradition of the Hebrews could have greatly reinforced the importance of group solidarity, as well as the concept of not transgressing what is sacred at the same time.

The story of the Tower of Babel in the Bible is one version of a larger body of stories that attempt to explain or describe the division of the human race into language and culture groups. The story is not unique to Genesis, but the unique adaptation of the story helps to reveal how the ancient Hebrews may have thought of God, and what they thought of man in relation to that power. It is clear that when this story was introduced into the religious tradition, God was a much more active and anthropomorphic being than He is today. Most importantly, the story describes man’s potential in the world, his ability to do the unbelievable through group solidarity and effort. Where man’s power ends and God’s begins is a boundary that is constantly being redefined, even in the modern age over issues of cloning, for example, but it’s also an ancient argument that has been expressed in one of the earliest portions of the Bible and will continue to be expressed and redefined by generations to come.


[1] Genesis 11:4.
[2] Jim Rovira, “Babel in Biblia.”
[3] Ibid.
[4] William Lyons, “Teaching the Documentary Hypothesis to Skeptical Students,” p. 134.
[5] Genesis 11:1.
[6] Ibid., 10:4-5.
[7] Ibid., 4:14-16
[8] Timothy R. Carmody, Reading the Bible, p. 40.
[9] Jona Lendering, “Etemenanki (The tower of Babel).”
[10] Genesis 11:7.

Works Cited

Carmody, Timothy R. Reading the Bible: A Study Guide. Mahwah: Paulist Press, 2004. Web.
Lendering, Jona. “Etemenanki (The tower of Babel).” n.d. Livius: Articles on Ancient History. Web. 09 March 2012.
life Application Study Bible: Personal Size Edition. 2nd. Carol Stream: Tyndale House Publishers, Inc., 2004. Print.
Lyons, William L. “Teaching the Documentary Hypothesis to Skeptical Students.” Roncace, Mark and Patrick Gray. Teaching the Bible: Practical Strategies for Classroom Instruction. Atlanta: Society of Biblical Literature, 2005. 133-134. Web.
Rovira, Jim. “Babel in Biblia: The Tower in Ancient Literature.” July 1998. Babel. Web. 09 March 2012. .