Babel is the Hebrew word for Babylon, which the Babylonians themselves explained as meaning “gate of God.” This etymology is probably not original, but the meaning is significant for a famous city whose central temple tower was said to reach the heavens (Gen. 11.4). In Genesis 11.9 the meaning of Babel is explained by the Hebrew verb bālal, “to confuse, mix,” and the confusion of speech.

The brief narrative in Genesis 11.1–9 also explains how there could exist such a variety of languages among the earth's people. The understanding that the earliest humans shared a common language is found in the Sumerian Enmerkar Epic (141–46). Genesis 11.1–9 tells how Noah's descendants wandered to the plain of Shinar (Babylonia), where they perfected the techniques for monumental brick architecture and built the renowned tower of Babel. Building the tower is interpreted as an act of arrogance, and human history is here understood to take a decisive turn from a common thread to many strands as God descends to confuse human speech and scatter the people all over the earth.

The enormous ziggurats of Mesopotamia could easily have symbolized the presumptuousness of the urban elite, and their ruin the judgment of God. Even as ruins their massive dimensions would have been striking. The Sumerian temple tower of the moon god Nanna at Ur could have been the model for the tower of Babel. This huge terraced mountain of brick, with the god's temple on top, at least 21 m (70 ft) above ground level, was built ca. 2100 BCE. Of similar construction, the great temple of Marduk in Babylon, the E‐sagila, is possibly the referent of the Genesis narrative; according to the Babylonian epic Enuma Elish (6.60–62), it took a year just to make the bricks for this colossally high structure.

David G. Burke