According to a story in Genesis Chapter 11 of the Bible, the Tower of Babel was a tower built by a united humanity in order to reach the heavens. To prevent the project from succeeding, God confused their languages so that each spoke a different language and the work could not proceed. After that time, people moved away to different parts of Earth. The story is used to explain the existence of many different languages and races.

From the Hebrew Scriptures

The Tower of Babel (Gen 11:1-9, KJV)

And the whole earth was of one language, and of one speech. And it came to pass, as they journeyed from the east, that they found a plain in the land of Shinar; and they dwelt there. And they said one to another, Go to, let us make brick, and burn them thoroughly. And they had brick for stone, and slime had they for morter. And they said, Go to, let us build us a city and a tower, whose top may reach unto heaven; and let us make us a name, lest we be scattered abroad upon the face of the whole earth. And the LORD came down to see the city and the tower, which the children of men builded. And the LORD said, Behold, the people is one, and they have all one language; and this they begin to do: and now nothing will be restrained from them, which they have imagined to do. Go to, let us go down, and there confound their language, that they may not understand one another's speech. So the LORD scattered them abroad from thence upon the face of all the earth: and they left off to build the city. Therefore is the name of it called Babel; because the LORD did there confound the language of all the earth: and from thence did the LORD scatter them abroad upon the face of all the earth.

Judeo-Christian Analysis

The story is found in Genesis xi. 1-9 as follows: The whole human race spoke the same language, and formed one community. This community settled in the land of Shinar, not far from the Euphrates river. Here they built a city and a tower of such materials as a great river-basin would afford and the genius of man could manufacture. This was done to make a great center about which they might gather, and to obtain for themselves a name. God came down to investigate the purpose of all this unusual enterprise. The self-confidence and unity of the people were everywhere prominent. Fearful that the accomplishment of this project might embolden them to still more independent movements, God said, "Let us go down, and there confound their language." Consequently they were scattered abroad upon the face of all the earth; "and they left off to build the city." The name of it was therefore called "Babel," because there YHWH confounded the one language of Earth.

It has become a potent symbol of overambitious projects destined to end in confusion. Images of unfinished buildings reaching towards the sky can be found in religious art (see example above).

Historical Tower of Babel


Although the Hebrew Scriptures equate the towers of ancient Mesopotamia with ambition and human arrogance, the real purpose of the towers were, in fact, the very opposite: the ziggurats in Mesopotamia were to pay better worship to their god or gods by being as close as possible to the heavens.

In general, it is believed that Mesopotamian ziggurats were no more than 5 stories high.

The narative of Genesis 9 is clearly a criticism of the ziggurats, as the towers were constructed to worship pagan gods.


The word Babel has several meaning. It is the name of a city, which translates to "the gate to god". In Hebrew there is a similar sounding word, which means confusion.

There is a similar myth in Mesopotamian religion called Enmerkar and the Lord of Aratta where two gods, Enki and Enlil, have a rivalry and end up confusing the tongues of all humankind.

Jewish literature

Rabbinic literature offers many different accounts of the real cause for building the Tower of Babel, and of the intentions of its builders. It was regarded in the Mishnah as a rebellion against God;

Some later midrash record that the builders of the Tower, called "the generation of secession" in the Jewish sources, said: "God has no right to choose the upper world for Himself, and to leave the lower world to us; therefore we will build us a tower, with an idol on the top holding a sword, so that it may appear as if it intended to war with God" (Gen. R. xxxviii. 7; Tan., ed. Buber, Noah, xxvii. et seq.).

The building of the Tower was meant to bid defiance not only to God, but also to Abraham, who exhorted the builders to reverence. The passage mentions that the builders spoke sharp words against God, not cited in the Bible, saying that once every 1,656 years, heaven tottered so that the water poured down upon the earth, therefore they would support it by columns that there might not be another deluge (Gen. R. l.c.; Tan. l.c.; similarly Josephus, "Ant." i. 4, 2).

Some among that sinful generation even wanted to war against God in heaven (Talmud Sanhedrin 109a.) They were encouraged in this wild undertaking by the fact that arrows which they shot into the sky fell back dripping with blood, so that the people really believed that they could wage war against the inhabitants of the heavens ("Sefer ha-Yashar," Noaḥ, ed. Leghorn, 12b). According to Josephus and Midrash Pirke R. El. xxiv., it was mainly Nimrod who persuaded his contemporaries to build the Tower, while other rabbinical sources assert, on the contrary, that Nimrod separated from the builders.

\'See also:' Babel, Babel fish, Ziggurat, Babylon

External links