top of page

     Bible-lovers will love my latest book!

 "The Struggle for Utopia - A History of Jewish, Christian and Islamic Messianism."  Great reviews. Available on Amazon and at US bookstores. Check it out!

Satire in the Bible - the Ziggurat of Babylon

 

It is suggested that the Tower of Babel story is a satire on Mesopotamian paganism.  It is also a lot more besides, being an integral part of the Biblical historical narrative..

 

Many people take the Bible very seriously, and would have trouble accepting that the Bible would waste valuable scroll time telling a joke. To an extent, however, the Tower ofBabel story does just this. This story is satire.1,2 Nevertheless, it is a lot more besides, being an integral part of the Biblical historical narrative.

Only nine sentences long, the Tower of Babel story takes the form of "mann tracht und Gott lachtman plans and God laughs." In the first four sentences the people plan a city with a tower, and in the last five sentences God frustrates their plans and engineers an outcome the very opposite of what they intended. Why four verses for the first section and five for the last? Perhaps because God always has one up on mankind when their actions run counter to His will.

 

And the whole earth had one speech and a single language. And it came to pass when they migrated from the east they found a plain in the land ofShinar and settled there. And they said to one another: Come, let us make bricks and burn them in fire. And they had brick as stone, and asphalt as mortar. And they said: Come, let us build ourselves a city and a tower with its top in the heavens, and let us make a name for ourselves, lest we be scattered over the face of the whole earth.

And YKVK descended to look at the city and tower which the sons of man were building. And YKVK said: Behold, they are one people and they have all one language; and this is only the beginning of what they will do! And now nothing will prove too hard for them of all that they purpose to do. Come, let us go down and there confuse their language, that they may not understand one anothers speech. And YKVK dispersed them from there over the face of the whole earth; and they ceased to build the city. Therefore its name was called Babel(Babylon), because there YKVK confused the languages of the whole earth, and from there YKVK scattered them over the face of the whole earth.

 

Note how the literary structure of the story builds the satire:

Man said: "Come, let us make bricks .."

YKVK said: "Come, let us go down .."

 

In actuality, the words "come let us go down .." constitute somewhat of a theological problem since it is by no means clear whom God is addressing. Any notion that He is talking to other deities has to be rejected out of hand. Most exegetes assume He is addressing heavenly hosts, such as angels, although there is no mention in the Bible prior to this verse that God keeps such company.

 

This is, of course, not the first time that God has expressed his intentions in the plural. In Genesis I, God said "Let us make man in Our image."(Genesis 1:26)Cassuto suggests the Bible uses the royal we as a plural form of exhortation. As "When a person exhorts himself to do a given task he uses the plural: Let us go! Let us rise up!"3

 

But what does it mean that YKVK "came down,"and why specifically YKVK and not Elokim? God coming down appears to be Biblical idiom. Hence, when YKVK speaks to Moses at the burning bush, He says: I shall descend to rescue it (i.e. My people) from the hand of Egypt and to bring it up from that land to a good and spacious land.(Exodus 3:8). To come down means to get intimately involved, and intimate involvement both here and in Exodus is represented by the immanent aspect of God YKVK and not Elokim.4

That generation said:"...... let us build ourselves a city and a tower with its top in the heavens."

Gods response was "And YKVK came down to look at the city and tower which the sons of man were building."

 

The people were building the tallest and most impressive tower in Mesopotamia, a tower that reached up into the heavens. However, from Gods perspective they had accomplished nothing of any consequence, and God had tocome down to view their puny attempts.

 

They said "let us make a name for ourselves".

 

They did indeed make a name for themselves, but the name was far from the one they intended. "Therefore its name was called Bavel (Babylon), because there YKVK confused the languages of the whole earth."

The word "bavel" in Hebrew has two meanings the city ofBabylon, which was then the capital of southern Mesopotamia, and the word confusion or babble. The generation of the dispersion imagined that their city and its tower would establish their fame throughout the world, but in reality all they created was a place of babble.

 

Their purpose in building the city and its tower was "lest we be scattered over the face of the whole earth."

But they could not prevent this - "and from there YKVK scattered them over the face of the whole earth."

 

A very relevant question is what was this generations error that warranted its dispersion? The text is not at all clear on the matter, and this ambiguity has spawned numerous Rabbinic and modern interpretations. I would like to discuss four explanations, and try to come to some conclusion as to which of these seems most true to the literal meaning of the text.

The following midrash is from Pirkei DRabbi Eliezer:

"The tower had seven steps from the east and seven steps from the west. The bricks were hauled up from one side, the descent was on the other. If a man fell down and died, no attention was paid to him, but if one brick fell down, they would sit and weep and say: Woe betide us, when will another one be hauled up in its place?"5

 

This midrash is a paradigm for all the -isms of history Hellenism, communism, Nazism, and all global movements such as radical Islam for which progress is more important than the value of any one individual. Judaism, however, could never agree with such a value judgment. There can be no doubt that this is a beautiful midrash. Nevertheless, it is exegesis, and whether it reflects the true intent of the Bible is open to question.

 

The next quotation is from the authoritative Biblical commentator Rashi, who comments on the expression "and single speech/ words or things (Hb:udvarim achadim):

"They came up with one plan of action, and they said: God does not have the right to select for Himself alone the higher realms. We will go up to the firmament and wage war with Him."6

 

The notion that these people united in order to challenge God can be found in a number of midrashim. God inhabits the heavens, and there perhaps is a certain logic that a tower would be needed to reach up and confront Him.

 

Rashi lived in the medieval period and could not have known that his explanation fits poorly into the way of thinking of ancient Babylon. In building their tower, the Babylonians had no intention of fighting the gods. To the contrary, their sole aim was to unite with them.

 

A third explanation comes from the modern scholar Rabbi Jonathan Sacks who suggests that the error of that generation was their attempt to eliminate the boundary between heaven and earth:

 

"The most fundamental boundary is the one created first: the differentiation between heaven and earth. Never before or since, except among religions or cultures influenced by Judaism, has God been conceived in so radically transcendent a way. God is not to be identified with anything on earth. The heavens are the heavens of the Lord says the Psalmist, but the earth He has given to man (Psalm 115;16). This ontological divide is fundamental. God is God; humanity is humanity. There can be no blurring of the boundaries."2

 

One can argue with Sacks explanation. The Tower ofBabel is not a story about Elokim, who represents the transcendent aspect of God, but about YKVK, the name which describes the immanent nature of G-d. YKVK recognizes no boundaries in his interactions with man. Later in the Torah, YKVK will speak to Moses from the burning bush. YKVK will also reside among the Jewish people in the Holy of Holies in His Sanctuary. The peoples attempt to reach towards divinity by building into the heavens is a theological error, and a farcical one at that, but whether it is an error deserving of dispersion is arguable.

 

Our fourth explanation comes from the Talmud:

"It was taught in a Baraisa: R Nassan says: All of [the members of the generation of the Dispersion] intended to build the tower for the purposes of idolatry. It is written here Come let us build ourselves a city and let us make a name (shem) for ourselves (Genesis 11:4) and there it is written: The name (shem) of strange gods you shall not mention. (Exodus 23:13) Just as over there the word shem refers to idolatry, so here in the story of the Generation of Dispersion the word shem also refers to idolatry."7

 

The Tower of Babel story is a satire about Babylonian paganism and its ziggurats.

 

Some history and geography of ancient Mesopotamia is helpful to understand what the Bible is poking fun at.

 

Southern Mesopotamia is an extremely large plain bounded to the east by the ZagrebMountains and to the west by desert, and this is the land in which advanced urban civilization first began between about 3,000 to 3,500 BCE. It is a semi-arid country suitable for grazing. There are no forests that can be used for timber and it contains no stones that can be mined. Water for agriculture was obtained from the greatEuphratesRiver and was led by channels into the extremely fertile alluvial soil of the desert. By this time, agriculture had became sufficiently advanced to sustain large centers of population - in cities such as Uruch, which is named Erech in the Bible, and which was the first major city in southern Mesopotamia, and Ur, which was the birthplace of Abraham. The first people to live in this area were the Sumerians, although no one knows where this civilization originated from. The area was known as Sumar (hence the name Sumerians) and this may well be the same "plane in the land of Shinar" (Genesis 11:2) of the Tower of Babel story.

 

One of the major discoveries of the Mesopotamian world, together with the wheel and writing, was how to manufacture clay bricks. The bricks were dried in the sun during the non-rainy season or baked in kilns, and these were the basic building material for Mesopotamia.

The focal point of a Mesopotamian city was its temple or temples. The name Babylon is thought to mean gateway to the god. The spirit of a god was infused into an idol and from its temple the god worked, rested and protected the city. In return, the inhabitants of the city would venerate the idol, cloth it, and feed it with sacrifices.

The ziggurat was a common feature of Mesopotamian cities, and about 30 are known to have existed. They were large impressive tower-like structures that would have been visible from miles away, and on their top story was the temple to a god. Babylon was the capital of southern Mesopotamiafrom the time of Sargon of Akkad, who lived between about 2270 to 2215 BCE, and the first ziggurat in Babylon may well have been built during his reign, although this is quite speculative. During the reign of Nebuchadnezzar (about 605 to 562 BCE) the ziggurat of Babylon was the tallest structure inMesopotamia. It had a base of about 300 feet and was seven stories tall or about 300 feet in height. It was made of brick, the exterior bricks being baked in furnaces, while those in the interior were baked by the sun. On the top story was the temple of the god Marduk.

 

The gods lived in the heavens, and the multistoried ziggurat was an attempt to bring the gods into the confines of the city. The temple complex of the ziggurat in Babylon was called Etemenanki, or "the house of the foundation of heaven and earth", and the temple at the top of the ziggurat was the Esagila, literally "the house whose head is lifted up". Note that the Biblical description of the construction of the Tower of Babel is very similar:". let us build ourselves a city and a tower with its top () (literally its head) in the heavens."(Genesis 11:4)

 

Much of what we know about the ziggurat of Babyloncomes from the time of Nebuchadnezzar. Before he rebuilt it, this ziggurat had probably been in ruins for hundreds of years. This is the same Nebuchadnezzar, incidentally, who destroyed the FirstTemple and exiled the population of Judah toMesopotamia. Much of Nebuchadnezzars description of his ziggurat seems almost Biblical, but the script he was following could well have come from much earlier in Mesopotamian history.

"Come, let us build a city, and a tower with its top (literally head) in the heavens, and let us make a name for ourselves." (Genesis 11:4)

 

This is a description of the city of Babylon, its Etemenanki and the Esagila. The latter was on the seventh story of the ziggurat and had its "head in the heavens".

 

The previous sentence is also part of the satire: "And the brick served them as stone, and the bitumen served them as mortar".

 

This sentence is written from the perspective of the landof Israel where stone is the basic building material and is poking fun at the impermanence of ziggurats. Stones and mortar have permanence. Bricks fall down. It is very likely that at the time the Bible was written, the Etemenanki was in ruins. The city of Babylon was sacked by the Hittites in 1954 BCE, and the city was not restored to its former glory until the reign of Nebuchadnezzar in 612 BCE. The date of the Exodus and the Giving of the Torah on Mount Sinai is controversial, but was probably in 1446 BCE (see article: The Historicity of the Israelite Exile in Egypt: A Defense of a 15th Century BCEExodus on this website), although many consider that they took place in the 14th century during the reign of Ramses II. In either case the tower was probably a heap of broken bricks.

"And YKVK descended to look at the city and tower which the sons of man built." (Genesis 11:5)

The "sons of man" is a strange expression for the Bible. It may well be a dig at Mesopotamian tradition.

 

According to their mythology, the Etemenanki was built by the gods at the beginning of time, and mortal rulers were doing no more than continuing the project. The following is how the construction ofBabylon and its Esagila are described in the Epic of Creation myth. Marduk has defeated a coalition of older gods and it is now time for the younger gods he has rescued to demonstrate their appreciation:

The Anunnaki made their voices heard

And addressed Marduk their lord,

Now, o lord, that you have set us free,

What are our favors from you?

We would like to make a shrine with its own name

We would like our nights resting place to be in your private quarters, and to rest there.

Let us found a shrine, a sanctuary there.

When we arrive, let us rest within it.

When Marduk heard this,

His face lit up greatly, like daylight.

Create Babylon, whose construction you requested!

Let its mud bricks be molded, and build high the shrine!

The Anunnaki began shoveling.

For a whole year they made bricks for it.

When the second year arrived,

They had raised the top of Esagila in front of (?) the Apsu

They had built a high ziggurrat for the Apsu.8

 

There is also irony in the city name Babylonwhich is thought to mean "the gate of the god" (Hbw: Bavel). To the Israelites, however, this city was hardly a gate to God but a multi-lingual babbling city of confusion. Note another subtle world play in the story. The word (bricks) (Hbw: levanim) reversed becomes "we shall confuse" (Hbw: navla). This was a building that was destined from its beginnings to create confusion.

 

Although a satirical account, the Tower of Babel story, like many of the stories in Genesis is multi-layered and is a critical link in the Biblical historical narrative.

 

Shortly before his death, Moses wrote a song that included the following verse:

 

"When the Supreme One gave the nations their inheritance, when He separated the children of man, He set the borders of the peoples according to the number of the Children of Israel."(Deuteronomy 32:8)

 

We are told elsewhere in the Bible that the number of Jacobs offspring who went down with him to Egypt was 70.9 Hence, the conclusion must be that global mankind was also comprised of 70 nations.

 

Number 70 has a specific meaning in the Torah. Moses appointed 70 elders to represent the twelve tribes, and the number of judges appointed to the Sanhedrin or Supreme Court would also be 70. In the Bible, number 70 represents completeness by virtue of differences. The 70 elders were a perfect representative body for the twelve tribes. The 70 nations of the world (which included the descendents of Shem) had all the characteristics that would be needed to make up the diversity of global mankind. Similarly, the 70 individuals from Jacobs household possessed all the attributes necessary to form a nation. Each elder, each of Jacobs offspring, and each nation was unique, but the sum total of these differences was completeness.

The meaning of Moses words now becomes clear. The dispersion of the nations of the world and their borders were set by God in anticipation of the Jewish nation. The household of Jacob possessed all the attributes necessary to become a nation, and as for all the other nations of the world, would require territory with defined borders.

However, if one examines chapter X of Genesis one finds there are not 70 names listed but 74! Included in these names, though, are Shem, Ham and Yaphet, the three sons of Noah, who survived the Flood and who are the progenitors of these 70 nations. Also included in the 74 is Nimrod, who is presumed to be a person and not a nation. Subtract these 4 names and there are indeed 70 nations listed in this chapter.

 

Cassutto explains:

"The planned pattern of the dispersal of humanity serves here as proof that the settlement of mankind in the world did not occur haphazardly, according to the chance circumstances of greater or less fecundity in one or another family, but took place according to a preconceived Divine plan, the implementation of which proceeded without humanitys being aware of it."1

 

This is, in fact, not the first time we learn that the dispersion of mankind is part of Gods plan. It was previously mentioned in the first chapter of Genesis:

".. In the image of Elokim He created him, male and female He created them. And Elokim blessed them and said to them: be fruitful and multiply, fill the earth and subdue it; and rule over the fish of the sea." (Genesis 1:27-28)

 

Adam is being told in this verse to procreate, with the implied promise that God would ensure that his offspring would survive. To us in the 21st century it would seem obvious that mankind is going to procreate and spread out over the globe. However, this was not necessarily the way that the Mesopotamian world thought. There was a widely prevalent fear that humanity would eventually be wiped by the gods. This is the theme of the Atrahasis myth and one of the themes of the Gilgamesh myth. This is why the Noah story with its message that God would always ensure the survival of the human race is so important in the Biblical narrative.

 

The following passage occurs at the beginning of the Noah story:

"And Elokim said to Noah, the end of all flesh has come before me, for the earth is filled with unrighteousness make for yourself an ark of gopher wood And I am about to bring the flood waters upon the earth And I will establish my covenant with you, and you shall enter the ark you, your sons, your wife and your sons wives with you."(Genesis 6:13-18)

 

What covenant is God talking about? Until this time, there is no mention in the Bible of any covenant being established. The influential medieval commentator Rashi suggests that God made a new covenant with Noah at this point that He would keep the food fresh that Noah had brought into the ark. More plausible, however, is that the Bible is not talking about a new covenant at all, but the original implied promise made to Adam. It is not at all coincidental, therefore, that as soon as Noah disembarks from the ark, the covenant is renewed by Elokim using the very same language as in Genesis 1:

"And Elokim blessed Noah and his sons, and He said: Be fruitful and multiply and fill the land. (Genesis 9:1). And I, behold, I establish my covenant with you and with your offspring after you, and with every living being that is with you." (Genesis 9:8)

 

Finally, it is worth considering the question what other reasons are there that YKVK found it necessary to negate the plans of that generation?

".. and this is only the beginning of what they will do! And now nothing will prove too hard for them of all that they purpose to do." (Genesis 11:6)

 

What else were they likely to do that God needed to frustrate their plans? Or put in another way, what did God find so objectionable about the pagan practices of that generation that He needed to disperse them across the globe rather than leaving them concentrated in one place? The answer to this question is found throughout the Torah, since much of the Torah is a polemic against the pagan practices of the surrounding cultures, whether Mesopotamian, Egyptian or Canaanite. It is not just the worship of false gods that YKVK found so objectionable, but the entire pagan way of thickening.

 

Nevertheless, there is one aspect of Mesopotamian paganism worth focusing on - and that is its encouragement of force and violence.

 

At first glance, there is no suggestion of violence in this story. To the contrary, all of the people in the city were working peacefully together. As Leon Kass puts it so nicely:

 

"On first encountering the story, prior to careful reflection, any reader . is likely to find the tale troubling. For the building of the city and tower appear at first glance to be an innocent project, even a worthy one. It expresses powerful human impulses, to establish security, permanence, independence, even self-sufficiency. And it is accomplished entirely by rational and peaceful means; forethought and planning .. and cooperative social arrangements made possible by common speech and uniform thoughts. Babel, the universal city, is the fulfillment of a recurrent human dream, a dream of humankind united, living together in peace and freedom."10

 

Nevertheless, there is a hint in the text that this project was not so innocent. The Torah describes that generations plans in the following words:

"Come, let us build ourselves a city and a tower with its top in the heavens, and let us make a name for ourselves." (Genesis 11:4)

 

There is biting sarcasm in this verse. Allegedly, the ziggurat was built for the glory of the god Marduk, but the reality was something else. This ziggurat was built as much for the glory of the rulers as for their god. Later on in history, Nebuchadnezzar was to admit as such: "The fortifications of Esagila and Babylon I strengthened, and made an everlasting name for my reign."The religion of the Mesopotamians promoted a hierarchical status quo that favored the aims of the ruling class. And the aims of this class of society were not always peaceful.

From the Sumerian period onwards, neighboring city states were often in conflict, and from the time of Sargon these power conflicts extended to neighboring states. The Bible could well be describing the beginning of these military conflicts when discussing Nimrod in chapter 10. In fact, it may even be referring to Sargon of Akkad who lived between about 2270 to 2215 BCE and who was a violent usurper to the throne of southern Mesopotamia, although admittedly this is highly speculative:

"And Cush begot Nimrod. He was the first to be a mighty man on earth. He was a mighty hunter before YKVK; therefore it is said Like Nimrod a mighty hunter before YKVK. The beginning of his kingdom was Bavel, and Erech, andAkkad, and Calneh in the land of Shinar. From that land he went forth to Ashur (-) and built Nineveh, Rehovoth-ir, Calah and Resen, between Nineveh and Calah, that is the great city." (Genesis 10:9-11)

 

There is discussion among the commentators as to the meaning of from that land he went out Ashur. Does this mean that Ashur went out from the land of southern Mesopotamia or that Nimrod went to Ashur? Both translations can be found. It is unlikely, however, that Ashur would have gone northwards from southern Mesopotamia and Babylon, since the land ofAshur was already in northern Mesopotamia. More likely is that Nimrod went out from southern to northern Mesopotamia while engaged in empire building. Nimrods hunting was also more than game trapping. This was a vicious king from the genealogy of Ham who created a mighty empire built on conquest.

 

The era of Sargon of Akkad initiated a new phase in Mesopotamian history. Sargon unified the city states of southern Mesopotamia by force and then went to conquer much of the Near East. From this time onwards, Mesopotamian history becomes one of periodic power politics, violence and empire building.

 

Conflict was built into the very structure of the Mesopotamian cosmos, and the mythology they created was one of conflict between the gods as they battled for power. Violence was not part of the mythology of the Sumerian civilization, but by the time of the Akkadian period it had definitely become so.

 

Marduk was the patron god of the city of Babylon and by the time of Hummarabi he had become the chief god of much of southern Mesopotamia. In the Enuma Elish myth, he achieved his dominion by battling and overcoming Tiamat, the god of the deep sea waters and one of the two primordial divinities:

 

Meanwhile the gods of battle were sharpening their weapons.

Face to face they came, Tiamat and Marduk, sage of the gods.

They engaged in combat, they closed for battle..

He shot an arrow which pierced her belly;

Split her down the middle and slit her heart,

Vanquished her and extinguished her life.

He threw down her corpse and stood on top of her

When he had slain Tiamat, the leader,

He broke up her regiments; her assembly was scattered11

B

y placing conflict into the structure of the cosmos, mythology ensured that might had bcome right. This very much favored the ruling class, since they were the ones who had the power and the might. This is not to say that the Mesopotamian people were continually engaged in warfare and struggle. There would certainly have been long intervals of peace between rival city states. Nevertheless, Darwinian survival of the fittest had become the ethos for this part of the world.

By contrast, the Biblical view is that the cosmos was created in harmony:

"And Elokim saw all that He had made, and behold it was extremely good (). And there was evening and there was morning the sixth day." (Genesis 1:31)

 

Each aspect of creation was good, and the entire universe was extremely good. It functioned as an integrated whole from its inception. And in a universe created in harmony, it is peace, and not warfare and exploitation, that becomes the model for civilization.

Are there jokes in the Torah? There certainly are, and theTower of Babel story illustrates this. But the Tower of Babelstory is more than just satire. It is a key part of a conceptual history that leads from the creation of Adam and Eve to the election of Abraham.

 

References

1.The Story of the Generation of Division (xi 1-9). Introduction. By U Cassuto in A Commentary on the Book of Genesis, Part Two. From Noah to Abraham, A Commentary on Genesis, C. The Story of the Generation of Division (xi 1-9). Introduction. p225, First English Edition, The Magnes Press, P.O.Box 7695, Jerusalem91076, Israel

 

2. Babel. A Story of Heaven and Earth by Rabbi Jonathan Sacks n Covenant and Conversation. A Weekly Reading of the Jewish Bible, Genesis: the Book of Beginnings, p49, Maggid Books and The Orthodox Union, First Edition 2009.

 

3. Sixth Paragraph. The Story of the Sixth Day by U Cassuto in A Commentary on the Book of Genesis, Part Two. From Noah to Abraham, A Commentary on Genesis, p52, First English Edition, The Magnes Press, P.O. Box 7695, Jerusalem91076, Israel

 

4. First Paragraph. The Theophany on Mount Horeb by Umberto Cassuto in A Commentary on the Book of Exodus, p30, Varda Books, Skokie, Il, USA 2005

 

5. Pirkei DRabbi Eliezer, 24

 

6. Rashis Commentary to the Torah on Genesis 11:1

 

7. TB Sanhedrin 109a

8. The Epic of Creation VI by Stephanie Dalley in Myths fromMesopotamia. Creation, The Flood, Gilgamesh and Others, p260, Oxford University Press, Revised edition 2000

9. Genesis 45:27 and Deut 10:22

10. Babel: The Failures of Civilization by Leon Kass in The Beginning of Wisdom. Reading Genesis, p197, The University of Chicago Press, Chicago and London

bottom of page