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Babel, Tower of

Oxford Encyclopedias of the Bible What is This? Provides accessible, authoritative coverage for all major topics pertaining to the Bible and the study of the Bible.

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Babel, Tower of

This biblical myth in Genesis 11:1–9, regarding an aspect of humanity's origins, was composed as the Yahwist's (J's) last primeval tale, before the choosing of Abraham (Gen 12). The literary setting of the myth is indicative of its importance as a culmination of humanity's series of transgressions, and as a marker of its dating. Its most likely “setting in life” is the period of the exile in Babylon, when Judeans there observed with amazement—and despair—the metropolis of Babylon and its ziggurat-temple (an artificial sacred mountain) called Etemenanki (“Tower of the Foundation of Heaven and Earth”) dedicated to the god Marduk. But, whatever the date of the biblical myth's composition, it is clearly a critique of the Babylonian empire. The tower at the center of their capital city is a ziggurat, but it is also the redoubt of a fortified city, thus creating a kind of “fortress mentality.” Such an introverted withdrawal implies one people, one metropolis, and one state religion.

The Etemenanki had seven stair-like terraces, was 299 feet (91 meters) high and its square ground floor was 299 by 299 feet wide. It was first constructed by the Sumerians, but fell into disrepair. It was rebuilt by King Nabopolassar in 610 B.C.E., but perhaps was never completed in spite of King Nebuchadnezzar's mobilization of workers from all the corners of the empire. Genesis 11 calls the ziggurat a “tower” because of the declared aim of the builders to reach heaven (v. 4).

The balanced structure of Genesis 11:1–9 forms a chiasmus (ABCCBA structure) with an ascending “slope” (vv. 1–5) and a descending one (vv. 6–9), the summit being the LORD's deliberation (v. 6). This contributes to the general impression of integrity of the text. The Yahwist, on the basis of the exiles' experience in Babylon, offers a highly condensed (nine verses), sarcastic (Babylon means the “Gate of the Divine”), and paradigmatic story about universal hubris (vv. 1 and 4) that leads to the “deconstruction” of Babel (vv. 8–9).

Interpretation and Reception History.

In the twentieth century, after the discovery and decipherment of ancient Babylonian texts, Hermann Gunkel and other German scholars stressed the connections between Mesopotamian and biblical writings, but Mesopotamian parallels with Genesis 11:1–9 are few and scanty. Some modern exegetes are returning to this approach and consider the tale as originally celebrating Babylon as the center of civilization; in this view, the Babel myth does not belong to the series of indictments of human sin that precedes it in Genesis. However, such a reading of the text ignores both the myth's symbolism and its ancient interpretation. In postbiblical literature (see Jubilees 10:20–21; Josephus, Jewish Antiquities I.4.3; Sibylline Oracles III.117–129; 3 Baruch 3:5–8), the story is interpreted as a human assault on heaven, as it is in subsequent Jewish tradition (see b. Sanhedrin 109a; Targ. Neoph. Gen 11:4; Philo, Questions and Answers in Genesis 2:82). This interpretation is adopted by Jerome (Hebrew Questions in Genesis 10:8), and by Augustine (The City of God 16:4). In the New Testament book of Revelation, “Babylon” is a cipher for Rome. She is the great whore (17:1–5; cf. 14:8; 16:19). The builders were the descendants of the giants mentioned in Genesis 6:4; see Septuagint (LXX) Gen 10:8–9; Eusebius, Praeparatio Evangelica 9:17:2–3 and 9:18:2 (citing [Pseudo-] Eupolemus and “anonymous writings”).

Derrida suggests a two-level interpretation of the myth. Indeed, Babel/Babylon will be ruined—even annihilated according to sixth-century B.C.E. prophetic texts such as Isaiah 13–14 and Jeremiah 51. But, on a deeper, paradigmatic level, Babel indicates the persistence of evil, which calls for the divine redemption that begins with Abraham.

In part two of the tale, J focuses on the proliferation of tongues as punishment of both Babel—called now “Confusion,” verse 9—and humanity for perpetuating the hubristic denial of its finitude (verse 4). It is also the divine means to filling the earth (see Gen 1:28 and Gen 10). Previously, J had associated human arrogance with an imperialistic imposition of language (note “one language and a few concepts” [lit.] 11:1, not necessarily positive). Here again, the interpretive level is dual. The confusion of language (v. 7) prevents the humans from succeeding in fulfilling all their desires (v. 6); and it provides an (ironic) etiological explanation of the multiplicity of languages in the world (v. 9).

Much of the Yahwist's success is due to his psychological insight. After meeting his “actors” and reading their “adventures,” no one can forget Adam and Eve, Cain and Abel, Noah and family, and the builders of the tower of Babel. They are so strikingly human and soulful as to leave an enduring impression on all readers.

The Babel myth's rich and profound symbolism is not echoed in the Hebrew Bible, probably because of its late date. Since then, however, it has had an enormous impact on all forms of art. Artistic depiction of the tower of Babel is extremely rich, especially among the Flemish painters of the sixteenth century. Besides the famous painting by Bruegel the Elder (1563), see also those by Hendrick van Cleve (ca. 1525–1589), Tobias van Haecht (1561–1631), Marten van Valckenborch, and his son Lucas van Valckenborch (1568). Among the moderns, examples include Stanislaw Kubicki (1917) and M. C. Escher (died 1972). The European Parliament building in Strasbourg (France) is modeled on Bruegel's painting (motto: “Europe: Many Tongues One Voice”).


  • Derrida, Jacques. “Des Tours de Babel.” in Poststructuralism as Exegesis. Edited by David Jobling and Stephen Moore. Semeia 54 (1992): 3–34.
  • Ginzberg, Louis. Legends of the Jews. Philadelphia: Jewish Publication Society, 1968.
  • Hiebert, Theodore. “The Tower of Babel and the Origin of the World's Cultures.” Journal of Biblical Literature 126, no. 1 (2007): 39–58.
  • Kugel, James L. The Bible as it Was. Cambridge, Mass. & London: Harvard University Press, 1997.
  • LaCocque, André. Babel. The Captivity of Innocence. Eugene, Ore.: Wipf and Stock Publishers, 2010.
  • LaCocque, André. “Whatever Happened in the Valley of Shinar?” Journal of Biblical Literature 128, no. 1 (2009): 29–41.

See major commentaries on Genesis (1–11), such as those by Hermann Gunkel, E. A. Speiser, Umberto Cassuto, and Claus Westermann.


  • See especially Peter Bruegel the Elder's “The Tower of Babel.” See also The Interpreter’s Dictionary of the Bible I, pp. 334–335; ANEP, 232 ff. (pictures # 746, 747, 748, 763); ADB I, pp. 411–413; Werner Keller, The Bible As History in Pictures. New York: Morrow, 1964, 18, 19, 21; Othmar Keel, The Symbolism, pp. 113–120: esp. # 150


  • Iñárritu, Alyandro González. Babel (U.S. movie; 2006 with Cate Blanchett and Brad Pitt, on the impossibility of human communication). Also important is Metropolis, a 2001 Japanese film by Director Taro Rin, based on Fritz Lang's cinema classic with the same title).

André LaCocque

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