In between the stories of Noah’s Ark and Abram is the somewhat seemingly out-of-place tale regarding the City/Tower of Babel. I say the story is somewhat out of place, in that—unlike creation, Noah, Abraham and Job—it doesn’t involve a singular, famous individual/individuals, but rather an entire anonymous group of people attempting to build a city.
The story is more famously known as the “Tower of Babel,” but this is a misnomer: the emphasis on the tower component of the story is one by later ancient readers/writers. Rather, in the actual text of Gen. 11, the importance seems to be that a city was being built. In fact, for our purposes here it’s probably useful to excerpt the entire story:
1 Now the whole world had one language and a common speech. 2 As people moved eastward, they found a plain in Shinar and settled there. 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; otherwise we will be scattered over the face of the whole earth.” 5 But the LORD came down to see the city and the tower the people 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.” 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. (translation used: NIV, from BibleGateway.com)
Notice, on reading through this, the emphasis on “city”: the people involved move in the Shinar plain not to erect a tower, but to found a city. God then comes down to check out “the city and the tower” and then, not liking it, scattered them so that they “stopped building the city.” Notice the story does not specifically state whether those in Babel stopped building the tower as well—the emphasis is on the city.
So why, then, the later emphasis on the tower?
As scholar James Kugel points out, many ancient readers and interpreters read this story and wondered: What is the problem here? Why is God acting to obliterate this city? What’s the big deal? Similar to the way many ancient readers solved another problem in Genesis by arguing that a day equaled one thousand years, readers argued that in fact God took issue not the city of Babel, but the tower. And then they focused on a single—but otherwise throwaway—line: “with a tower that reaches to the heavens” (Gen. 11:4). “Aha!” they said. “The problem was that those in Babel tried to build a tower that reached into Heaven!” Consequently, many ancient readers/interpreters referred to this story not as “The City of Babel,” but “The Tower of Babel.”
As Ryan demonstrated in a recent post, however, the ancient viewpoint doesn’t really make any sense—probably to ancient interpreters, but especially to us modern readers. So what were the original writers getting at? And what’s the purpose of the story?
The actual purpose of the story is debatable, of course. If towers/Babel/Shinar seem to ring a bell with you, perhaps you’re thinking about what most scholars think the “tower” and city portion of the Babel story was referring to: Babylon and its ziggurats. Ziggurats, if you’re not familiar, were the ancient Babylonian equivalent of pyramids (although with a different purpose). At the time of composition of this portion of Genesis, too, the Babylonians and their ziggurats dominated what is now Iraq, as well as the surrounding lands—they dominated, in fact, the ancient Hebrews. This story, then, was actually referring to not a simple tower’s ascendance to Heaven, but what, from the Israelite perspective, was actually more societal overreaching: population dominance, sophisticated religious rituals and practices, and a domineering civilization. By comparison, the Hebrews at this time* had, vis-a-vis, little power and little cultural sophistication.
So, in reality, this story was about overreaching, but not the kind that many take it for. And neither should we forget that it also tells us less about God and more about the ancient Hebrews’ neighbors.
*Obviously the date of composition is unknown, but scholars can postulate it based on the content and the probable reference to the ziggurats.