Agnosticism, Atheism, Bible Geography, Bible Study, Faith, God, Religion

Skeptical Bible Study: Tower of Babel

I was listening to a recent speech that Matt Dillahunty gave in Australia (listen here if you’re interested), and in part of it he brought up the story of the Tower of Babel, found in Genesis 11. It’s a story I’ve thought about several times since leaving Christianity. I don’t recall everything Matt said about it, though I know I’ll be making some of the same points he did. I haven’t been a Christian for about 5 years now, and it’s sometimes hard to imagine that I ever believed stories like this one, though I definitely did. And a number of other conservative Christians do as well.

A few days ago, I asked my wife if she remembered what God was angry about in this story, and she gave the same reason that I thought: God was angry because people were being prideful. In case you’ve forgotten, the crux of the story is that several generations after the flood, mankind was growing numerous, and they all had one common language. They decided to build a tower that would reach Heaven (see how prideful?), so God put a stop to it by confusing their language. This caused the various groups to split up, each person going along with whomever could understand him or her.

However, after looking at the details a bit more, it turns out that my recollection was a bit off. First, the people weren’t actually being prideful at all. Instead of trying to build a tower to Heaven — God’s abode — they were just trying to build a tall one to make it easier to stay in one geographic area:

Now the whole earth had one language and the same words. 2 And as people migrated from the east, they found a plain in the land of Shinar and settled there. 3 And they said to one another, “Come, let us make bricks, and burn them thoroughly.” And they had brick for stone, and bitumen for mortar. 4 Then 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 dispersed over the face of the whole earth.”
— Genesis 11:1-4

The phrase “in the heavens” is just talking about the sky, not the realm of God. For just a moment though, let’s pretend that they really had been trying to reach God with their tower. Why would that be such a bad thing? Doesn’t the Bible repeatedly tell us to seek after God? Furthermore, would they have succeeded? On September 12, 2013, Voyager 1 actually left our solar system. In all those miles, it didn’t bump into Heaven. No earth-based tower would ever run the risk of reaching God’s home. So not only were the people not attempting that, even if they had been it wouldn’t have succeeded, and it actually would have been flattering toward God.

So if God wasn’t angry at them for being prideful, why did he confuse their language and force them apart? The next few verses give us the answer:

And the Lord came down to see the city and the tower, which the children of man had built. 6 And the Lord said, “Behold, they are one people, and they have all one language, and this is only the beginning of what they will do. And nothing that they propose to do will now be impossible for them. 7 Come, let us go down and there confuse their language, so that they may not understand one another’s speech.” 8 So the Lord dispersed them from there over the face of all the earth, and they left off building the city. 9 Therefore its name was called Babel, because there the Lord confused the language of all the earth. And from there the Lord dispersed them over the face of all the earth.
— Genesis 11:5-9

Essentially, God was just being a jerk. He was like a kid stirring up an anthill. I mean, God forbid (literally) that people advance technologically, right? Wouldn’t want them discovering things like the germ theory of disease, after all. And why prevent wars by keeping people within the same culture? Much better, I guess, to create different cultures so mistrust and bigotry can form. Furthermore, if this was such a problem at the time, why hasn’t he stopped us again? We’ve figured out ways to overcome language and culture barriers now. We’ve done so much more than just “build a tall tower.” God’s motivation in this story simply makes no sense at all.

However, if you step back for a moment and stop trying to view this as literal history with an actual god, things become clearer. Imagine living thousands of years ago and trying to make sense of the world around you. You think the world is flat and that the sun revolves around it. You don’t understand the cause of thunder storms, earthquakes, or volcanoes. You can’t imagine how animals and humans got here without some kind of creator. And if there’s a creator, why didn’t he make life easier? Why does he allow disease and starvation? There are so many difficult questions that just have no answer. And so people began to formulate answers as best they could. It’s easy to see that one of those questions may have been “why didn’t God (the gods) give us all the same language?” And so they came up with an answer.

Looking at it from that perspective, it’s much easier to understand how a story like this came to be. These people were dealing with the world as they saw it — and to them, the only reason they could think of for God not wanting everyone to have the same language, is that they would accomplish too much. They had no idea that humanity would one day find a way around that problem, rendering their explanation invalid.

Speaking as someone who grew up believing that stories like this were actual history, I know how easy it is to just go along under that assumption without question, especially if those around us believe as we do. It’s not stupidity; it’s either isolation and ignorance, or it’s stubbornness. We can help the isolated and ignorant by just being available to discuss these things when they come up. And with the Bible, there are plenty of examples to be found.

682 thoughts on “Skeptical Bible Study: Tower of Babel”

  1. I never believed that the Tower of Babel was anything but a story (a kind of fable or “just so” story to give a pseudo-explanation for the existence of multiple languages). So it never caused me problems.

    What did cause problems and raised questions were:

    the resurrection – mostly because the reports were so vague that they could not be considered evidence;

    the casting out of demons. In at least one case, it seemed to describe the symptoms of schizophrenia, but attributed this to demons and claimed that the demons had invaded pigs. To me, this seemed to be a clear case of a misunderstanding based on lack of knowledge at the time the gospels were written. But it was enough to cast doubt on the idea of miracles.

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  2. I had a thought recently along similar lines. If I had a question about biology, I’d go find someone with a degree in it. Why would I ask my mechanic about how cells divide or what sort of evidence there is that supports the theory of evolution?

    Somehow, that common urge to seek a respected professional gets thrown out the window when I went to church. I’d hear pastors talk about all sorts of things they weren’t really qualified to opine on. Not once did I think, “You know, maybe I should double-check pastor’s statements on astronomy with an astronomer.” It’s like there’s a filter that gets taken out at the door, left out during the service, and then replaced in a defective condition afterwards.

    At any rate, I’m happy to see you posting again! Great post!

    Liked by 4 people

  3. Nate, try to read this differently.

    First, let’s read it as history, as you have.

    Now remember the first commandment God gave to mankind when he made us: “Reproduce! Increase! Fill the land and subdue her!”

    This is usually translated as “Be fruitful and multiply, fill the earth and subdue it”, but it’s not so poetic. The Hebrew is more directive.

    Oh, and in Hebrew, there’s never, ever any “earth”. There is only land. Land is a far more ambiguous term.

    So, the first commandment was to reproduce and fill the land.

    Then after the Flood, what was the commandment given, again, to Noah and his sons and daughters-in-law: “Reproduce! Increase! Fill the land and subdue her.”

    So, there were two fundamental commandments given to mankind: reproduce, and fill the land.

    The animals, too, were commanded to reproduce. Mankind was specifically commanded to FILL THE LAND. Twice.

    The land is wide, it’s a whole world, Man was given dominion over all of the land, and what’s more, he was ordered to take dominion over ALL of the land.

    So, what were they doing at Babel? Clumping. Twice God commanded to fill the land, before and after the Flood. Now, there was a whole world for man to expand into laterally, filling it in with babies and families. And instead, man wanted to clump together and built upwards, not laterally.

    That was not what God wanted them to do. It broke his commandment. So he made it impossible for them to stay together by confusing their language, causing them to scatter and fill up all the land.

    That is why God destroyed the Tower of Babel and confused the languages: to fulfill the purpose of his directive: fill the land.

    One can question his motives if one wishes, but the sin here was disobedience: ‘I said spread out and fill up the land. And you’re choosing instead to build a city and clump.’

    Now look back in Genesis. Who built the first city, clumping people? Cain did. He named it after his son, Enoch.

    And what did Nimrod do? Built cities and conquered an empire, killing people.

    The problem with people clumping in cities (before their time) is that men don’t tend their garden in cities. They don’t exercise dominion over the animals. They don’t fulfill their appointed role. And when men live on top of each other like that, they dominate each other, and resort to force to do it. And God never authorized that. When men spread out, under those conditions in those times, there is little or no disease. Disease comes with crowding. Crowding is bad for chickens and for men. It was not what God intended for men.

    So, when men started to go “off plan”, he shifted their languages and caused them to scatter, returning them to the rails he set out for them (and preserving them for a few thousand years from the epidemics and problems of cities). That’s all.

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  4. Hi Nate, thanks for another interesting post.

    You highlight the key change that I have noticed in reading the Bible, post faith. That is, these stories suddenly make sense if we see them as a primitive people trying to explain the world as they found it. They, however, don’t make sense if we see them as a supreme creator explaining to humanity what really happened.

    But I must acknowledge that humanity is creative and given enough time people able to come up with plausible ‘theological’ truths in these ‘divine’ stories in an effort to rescue their ‘inspiration’.

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  5. @Nate

    Actually I agree with Crown, and to the best of my knowledge his interpretation seems to be the mainstream thinking with regards to this passage even in Protestant circles (Crown is Catholic if i’m not wrong?)

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  6. Crown,

    I see what you’re saying, i just dont think it makes sense either.

    I mean, look at cities and suburbs today. When a city grows to its max, people naturally move outside it’s boarders, and that’s true even if they want to continue their business in said city.

    people reproduce. we’re not captive pandas. multiplying is not one of our problems. Scattering and moving would be a natural eventuality from population growth.

    and neither should we forget all the people who are natural adventurers and explorers. Louis and Clark didnt need to have their language stripped away so that they would venture out, nor did columbus.

    I am wondering if there are any similar stories of language origin from any other cultures. Believers will often point to flood stories among different cultures as evidence of noah’s flood. It would be interesting if a lot of cultures had a flood story (as floods happen all over) but none have a tower/language story – as that’s not as common as a flood…

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  7. Duet 9:1 talks about cities that the israelites were to take whose walls “went up to heaven…”

    I agree with nate, i dont think that genesis intended to imply that those in babel were actually trying to reach “heaven.” I think it was simply a phrase used to describe “tall.”

    and like nate, even if they were trying to reach heaven, how high could they have built their tower with handmade bricks and mortar? we’re not talking anywhere near the height of modern skyscrapers.

    it’s nonsense.

    and for every explanation that tries to make this story sensible in light of god, only presents more questions that arise from new nonsense that arises.

    To me, the only explanation that makes complete sense, is that who ever came up with this story, came up with it as a way to explain how the only 8 people left on earth became so many different people with differing looks, cultures and languages.

    they were lacking in knowledge in so many ways, that it’s only reasonable they would include nonsense… a perfect god doesnt seem to have that excuse.

    Liked by 2 people

  8. Thanks @Nate for a great post.

    @Crown, you did a nice job trying to logically explain what happened and why, but it still doesn’t make sense. If God was trying to keep people on the right path that he laid out for them, why didn’t he try the language confusion to end the wickedness that angered him during the time of Noah instead of drowning everybody and everything in the flood? Could have kept a lot of blood off his hands if he’d thought of it before. Also, your premise that God wanted them to farm doesn’t hold water. Even if these people lived in the city they were building, they still would have had gardens – even people in the city have a sense of self-preservation and know they need to eat! As far as multiplying and subduing the land, there were obviously already other people on the earth, as they say they want to distinguish themselves from them.

    There have been many, many huge cities built over the past few thousand years, empires that dominated the known world – why didn’t God pull the same trick and create even more languages to keep this from happening? And there have always been people who were multi-lingual and could help translate material from one culture to another – why doesn’t God strike them down. My family hosts foreign exchanges students to assist them with perfecting their English and having a bigger world view, but not once have any of my religious friends suggested that is an ungodly thing to do because God confused language on purpose and we shouldn’t mess with that! I know from studying linguistics that, while the breadth of languages can be baffling, the development of languages is very organic and naturally evolves just like biology. The story of Babel and all of the stories from the Pentateuch are obviously derived from stone age man’s attempt to explain the world around him. They are poetic myths, part of our human heritage, but certainly not anything modern people should base their faith or their lives upon.

    Liked by 4 people

  9. Great post as usual Nate. Clearly legend using the same standards we would judge the legends of other religions. Or perhaps we should re-vamp all of the linguistic departments at the universities across the world since practically everything they do is based on language development?

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  10. Ya know, I think it is because we really only use stories to support our desires for community, celebrations, identity and more — most of us (at a deep level) don’t really care about the “truth”. And stories really aren’t meant to be the truth.

    This goes for patriot stories and more — not just religion.

    Now, when sects start tell you it is the truth, some believers buy into that of course, but even them most don’t believe — they just use it as a symbol of belonging and participation.

    Liked by 2 people

  11. This was great!! That’s been one of my problems with the Christian God…. What did these people do wrong? If they were building a tower to get close to God, isn’t that a good thing?

    I think you’re right, this is a story that was created to explain why we have so many races and languages. Great piece!! 🙂

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  12. … maybe with stories like these, but when we’re telling a story, as in relaying history, truth is typically desired.

    The tower of babel is presented as history as it’s written. Sure there are those who wont buy it, and may only view it as metaphor or what have you, but we all know of those who do indeed buy it just as it’s presented – as history.

    many of us also view this as one piece of evidence that speaks on the bible’s credibility.

    so i guess it depends on the context of the story, how it’s presented, who the intended audience is, as well as the story’s implications and so on.

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  13. For starters, Nate is right. The word “heaven” doesn’t exist in ancient Hebrew. Neither does the word “earth”. These are two 17th Century English words used to translate ancient Hebrew, and doing it tendentiously.

    The word in Hebrew – ha’shamayim – is properly translated only as “the skies”; and “ha’aretz” is “the land”. No “heaven”, with that double meaning that it has in English – there is no dual concept in the Hebrew. And no “earth” meaning a planet, only the dry land, as opposed to the seas.

    That’s it.

    So the ENTIRETY of the speculation about man trying to reach God “in heaven” is a fabrication of modern language speakers with modern concepts and traditions. It isn’t actually IN the Scripture itself at all.

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  14. i think the whole thing is a complete fabrication.

    but i agree, i don’t think genesis was trying to say that they were trying to reach god’s abode or that god was angry over it.

    however, I can see why people think it does mean that. the majority of people in the world aren’t scholars or masters of their own language, much less different languages. As a believer, I would be prompted to ask, “why would a perfect and all knowing god, purposely write something in a way and/or allow it to be translated in such a way as to confuse people, when their understanding of this book is so paramount and of such importance as to save their eternal souls?”

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  15. There are so many difficult questions that just have no answer. And so people began to formulate answers as best they could.” – In other words, a case of reverse engineering – this is how things are, how could they have gotten that way?

    It’s important, when discussing this subject (or any others), to know the history behind the Bible passage. Genesis tells us that Abraham came from Ur, a large metropolitan city in the south of Mesopotamia, near the Persian Gulf – even if we accept that, as opposed to my own theory that the Ur in question was in fact Ur-fa, a small village in northern Mesopotamia, near the Syrian-Turkey border, we still must accept that Mesopotamia was, if not the birthplace of an actual, historical Abraham, at least the origin of the genetic stock that would become the Hebrews.

    The entire Tower of Babel fable, Genesis 11, was written by the Yahwist (J) Source, a group of priests writing in Jerusalem, in the Southern Kingdom of Judah around 950 BCE. Gen 10:6-10, written by the Priestly (P) Source in captivity in Babylon about 550 BCE, could well be viewed as a prequel to the Tower story, in that it takes us from Noah to Babylon – it tells us that Cush was the son of Ham and the father of Nimrod, of whom it was said: (Gen 10:10) “And the beginning of his kingdom was Babel, and Erech, and Accad (Akkadia), and Calneh, in the land of Shinar.” It may be recalled by some that I have often outlined the history of Mesopotamia, occupied for four thousand years by the Sumarians, then overrun by the Akkadians and occupied by them for 500 years, then taken over by the Amurrites for another 500, so placing the Tower in the time of Accad – the Akkadians – is at least time-appropriate.

    While we’re on the subject of the P Source writing much, if not all of Gen 10, note this often-repeated sentence in that chapter: “These are the sons of (insert name of son here), after their families, after their tongues, in their lands, after their nations.” – would not, “after their tongues” imply that other languages were already spoken? That said, it should come as no surprise that Chapter 11 begins with, “And the whole earth was of one language, and of one speech.

    Several paintings have since been done, mostly during the European Renaissance, as to what the Tower must have looked like:

    However the actual object, the subject of the Tower of Babel fable, could only have been a Mesopotamian ziggurat, pictured below. Every major city in Mesopotamia had one, dedicated to a particular god of the rather extensive Mesopotamian pantheon. The very term itself, “babel” is the Hebrew word for the Mesopotamian word, “Bab-i-li,” which means, Gate of the Gods. Interestingly, the Hebrew word, “balil” – “he confused” – has a similar sound, and the authors of the J Source, much like Shakespeare, seemed, throughout their writings, to enjoy a good play on words.

    As can be seen, there is a small chamber on the tower’s apex. It was well known to the Mesopotamians, whether Sumarian, Akkadian or Amurrite, that various gods, from time to time, liked to pop down to earth to see how things were going – the chamber was designed to be their abode on earth, a place for them to take their sandals off and kick back for however long they liked.

    It is mentioned that pride was the builders’ downfall, in wanting to build a tower to heaven. If my son, as a little boy, had ever come down the sidewalk with his little red wagon filled with scrap auto parts and headed for the back yard after informing me he was going to build his own car, I would have smiled sadly, knowing he was headed for disillusionment, but at the same time, I would have been bursting with pride that despite the odds, he was willing to TRY such a project. The god of the Bible doesn’t seem to care as much about his children as I do mine, but then I never felt the need to drown my children, except that once.

    Given the circumstances above – a real god would be totally confident in his omnipotence, and would feel no threat from the building of any such tower to heaven. “Boys will be boys,” he would chuckle. He’d sit there with his Lazy-boy cocked back and a steaming plate of nachos in his lap, in front of his big-screen – and I mean BIG-screen! We’re talking CineMax on steroids! – he’d reach for the little cloud where he’d parked his cold can of Bud, and cackle his holy head off as he watched the idiots below try to build the tower, passing out from oxygen deprivation as the tower rose ever higher, until they finally came to the realization that you simply can’t get there from here.

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  16. ah, indeed. As a father, i enjoy watching my children try and learn. I want them to have the courage to be adventurous and to dream and strive. they will make mistakes, and at times i will need to correct them, but I cant fathom a time I would punish them for ingenuity and work ethic… but then, I cant fathom a situation in which I’d feel like i had to torture them forever and always in fire and what have you…

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  17. William, I want to answer this comment: “As a believer, I would be prompted to ask, ‘why would a perfect and all knowing god, purposely write something in a way and/or allow it to be translated in such a way as to confuse people, when their understanding of this book is so paramount and of such importance as to save their eternal souls?'”

    You would have to ask a Protestant that question. The supermajority of Christians in the world are Catholics and Orthodox, and they don’t believe that God wrote or translated the book,

    The supernatural authority your question gives to a book is idolatry to most Christians, a very Protestant form of idolatry, and it is what separates Protestants from the bulk of Christianity.

    So it is with the Bible. Jesus didn’t write anything. He left a Church, not a Bible dispensary.

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  18. i grew up protestant (of a sort) so i dont have any first hand knowledge of catholicism, but i do wonder if it’s any different here.

    Protestants have their bibles, which is what we have for jesus, and the catholics have their clergy (who get what they know about jesus from the bible).

    I dont want to talk past anyone, or even be rude, but whether we’re getting spiritual guidance from a book with issues in it, or from a group of men with their own issues (of various things), confusion will result – at least for some.

    and with both, what is there to validate their claim as being a divine conduit? whether it be the tower of babel or father whomever, there are issues and problems that come up. I hear talk of miracles, just I hear talk of lots of things, but unlike grass and animals, i haven’t seen any. What is there?

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  19. William,

    I’ve seen and experienced miracles, which is why I am stubborn in insisting on the real existence of God and the Devil. I know these things are so. I also know that won’t help you much.

    It matters how one goes about these inquiries. One must be seeking truth. For example, what you said above about the Catholic clergy having their problems is certainly, undoubtedly, without question true. Look at all of the pedophilia. Joan of Arc was a messenger from God and look what the Bishop of Rouen did to her. But that merely speaks to human frailty.

    By the same token, one could become a Tea Partying forest-trailer dweller. After all, government is based on systems of laws and hierarchy of authority, and there is corruption in all government, and government put 12 million people in gas chambers, and 20 million in the Gulags. And government left piles of bones in the killing fields of Cambodia. Government cuts off hands in Saudi, and the US government enforced slavery and segregation and committed genocide against Indians. Governments commit terrible crimes, and there are corrupt people in government, therefore, government is a complete moral failure, and all people should resist the very idea of government with every fiber of their existence. For all governments have been corrupt, and all government is oppressive, and the very IDEA of government leads to the oppression of the human spirit through petty law. Therefore, people should be atheists to avoid oppression by false gods, and anarchists to avoid oppression by real men. Government is always rather corrupt, and all government tends towards evil. Therefore, we should seek to free ourselves from it just as we free ourselves from all religion, for exactly the same reasons.

    Right?

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  20. Crown,

    I wasnt even meaning the clergy problems of sexual misconduct, but rather the same problems as the bible has, internal consistency issues, etc. If all the clergy agreed on all points of doctrine perfectly, that may be one thing, but they dont, so it seems more like people… people without divine guidance.

    I’m not a non-believer because the religious can do bad things. your point is taken quite well. I am a non-believer because i no longer find religion or the god’s I have been presented with as believable.

    There seems to be problems and holes in the stories and explanations. the gods i have been told about resemble imaginary and mythological creatures far too closely.

    I do not know what catholics thing of Elijah’s test against the prophets of ba’al, but I cannot help but think that if such a trial were presented today, that no god would pass it. Does that mean that such gods are sleeping, or that they’re not real?

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