The Tower of Babel
Tomorrow's World Magazine
July 1971
Volume: Vol III, No. 07
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The Tower of Babel
Lester L Grabbe  

Emerging from the swirling mists of antiquity are many traditions and legends of a prodigious tower—a tower so high that its summit reached the sky. Can these accounts be corroborated and verified? What is this tower called? Does the Bible say anything about it?

THE "Tower of Babel", is not the exclusive property of ancient Hebrew tradition. The tradition and mythology of many nations of antiquity is replete with accounts of such a tower. Though these accounts invariably disagree in details and points, it is easy to see a relationship between them.
   Most accounts associate the tower with the division of speech into diverse tongues. A careful study of these traditions will demonstrate the fact that they all came from a common experience.
   Let's examine some of these tower traditions.

The Sumerian Saga

   The consensus of scholars is that the Sumerians of ancient Mesopotamia had one of the earliest civilizations. Only recently the Sumerian version of Babel was made available in an English translation. We have left out some of the superfluous material in the following excerpt. Those interested can find the entire account and a discussion of it in the article "The 'Babel of Tongues': A Sumerian Version," Journal of American Oriental Society 88 (1968, pages 108-11):

   In those days, the lands Subur (and) Hamazi, Harmony-tongues (?) Sumer, ...Uri,... The land Martu,... The whole universe, the people in unison spoke, To Enlil in one tongue...Then...Enki, the lord of abundance, (whose) commands are trustworthy, The lord of wisdom, who understands the land, The leader of the gods, Endowed with wisdom, the I {ord} of Eridu, Changed the speech in their mouths, set up contention into it, Into the speech of man that (until then) had been one.

   Clearly we have a picture of the world speaking one universal language and then the confounding of that language into many different tongues by "the lord of abundance."

On to Assyria

   George Smith, well-known Assyriologist and explorer for the British Museum in the last century, translated an Assyrian inscription in 1875. This document had some fragments missing but gave an unmistakable account:

   ...His heart was evil...against the father of all the gods was wicked ...of him his heart was evil... Babylon brought to subjection, (small) and great he confounded their speech. Their strong place (tower) all the day they founded; to their strong place in the night entirely he made an end... Bitterly they wept at Babi-...very much they grieved"... [The Chaldean Account of Genesis, pp. 160-162].

   Notice the partial word Babi-, due to a fragmented text. Professor Smith felt there was only one word it could be: Babi or Babel! So the Assyrians talked of a "confusion of tongues" as the Sumerians did. But now we see a "strong place" or tower introduced into the story!
   There is yet another account in the Middle East, but we will come to that later. For the moment, let's go farther west to the classical writers in Greek. Do they have something to tell us as well?

Classical Records

   Plato mentions that at one time all men had one speech but were confused and scattered when they sought immortality. The Titans of Greek mythology tried to ascend to heaven and fight against the gods but were overthrown.
   Garbled accounts? Yes! But the Babel tradition is definitely there. There are more solid records preserved by the sober classical historians.
   Josephus mentions the record of the Sibyl:

   When all men were of one language, some of them built a high tower, as if they would thereby ascend up to heaven, but the gods sent storms of wind and overthrew the tower, and gave everyone his peculiar language; and for this reason it was called Babylon. (Antiquities I iv, 3. He further cites Hestiaeus' mention of certain priests' going to Shinar after the flood.)

   Eusebius in the Praeparatio Euangelica quotes ancient authorities extant in his time. He gives Abydenus' account contained in the work Of Assyrian History:

   But there are some who say that the men who first arose out of the earth, being puffed up by their strength and great stature, and proudly thinking that they were better than the gods raised a hugh tower, where Babylon now stands: and when they were already nearer to heaven, the winds came to the help of the gods, and overthrew their structure upon them, the ruins of which were called Babylon. And being up to that time of one tongue; and afterwards war arose between Cronos and the Titan (416b-c).

   Eusebius goes on to quote from Alexander Polyhistor's Of the Jews:

   Eupolemus in his book concerning the Jews of Assyria says that the city Babylon was first founded by those who escaped from the Deluge; and that they were giants, and built the tower renowned in history. But when this had been overthrown by the act of God, the giants were dispersed over the whole earth (418c.)

   The Tower of Babel, regardless of your opinion of Genesis 11, was not just an imagined event preserved by one small insignificant race "searching for a concept of God." On the contrary, it is preserved in the early history of practically all races and peoples. Let's now look at records far from the Mediterranean world, from Mexico!

Proof From Mexico

   The Indians of Mexico were half a world away from the traditional site of man's dispersion. So it must come as quite a surprise to those who would ridicule the Biblical record to learn that these people have preserved very clear accounts of the building of a tower, the confusion of language, and the scattering of peoples. A native Cholula gave the following account which first appeared in Duran's Historia Antigua de la Nueva Espana (1585 A.D.).

   In the beginning...all was a plain, and immediately after the light and the sun arose in the east there appeared gigantic men of deformed stature and possessed the land...they determined to build a tower so high that its summit should reach the sky. Having collected materials for the purpose, they found a very adhesive clay and bitumen, with which they speedily commenced to build the tower; and having reared it to the greatest possible altitude, so that they say it reached to the sky. Have you observed how they of the earth have built a high and haughty tower? Come and confound them. Immediately the inhabitants of the sky sallied forth like flashes of lightning; they destroyed the edifice and divided and scattered its builders to all parts of the earth.

   A further account is given by the native Mexican historian Ixtlilxochitl, from the legend of the Toltecs:

   ...after men had multiplied {after the flood}, they erected a very high "zaculai,"which is today a tower of great height, in order to take refuge in it should the second world (age) be destroyed. Presently their languages were confused, and not being able to understand each other, they went to different parts of the earth. The Toltecs, consisting of seven friends, with their wives, who understood the same language, came to these parts, having lived in caves, and having endured great hard-ships in order to reach this land; they wandered 104 years through different parts of the world before they reached Hue Tlapalan, which was in Ce Tecpatl, 520 years after the Flood.

   Significantly, the Toltec account squares clearly and precisely with the Biblical one, even though given from an entirely different perspective and obviously independent. The reason for the agreement lies in the fact that the Toltecs came almost immediately to Mexico and thereby maintained an accurate record of the original eyewitness account.
   Similar traditions are found among the Chinese, the Hindus, the Persians, the Romans, the Irish, and even the Estonians. Space limits further elaboration. But the examples given assuredly illustrate the point.
   The reason for the similarity of the stories is obvious - they all stem from one event - the Tower of Babel. The differences are due to several causes. The closer to the site of the actual event the nation or people were, or the more civilized the nation which kept the account, the more like the Genesis account it is!
   Each nation has preserved details particularly relevant to its own national interests. Other nations may not have regarded it important to preserve certain details.
   In any case, there are at least three major points on which all accounts are remarkably similar:
   1) All human beings originally spoke only one language which was mutually intelligible to all. (This does not, of course, preclude minor dialectical differences.)
   2) Some edifice was begun which was contrary to God's will. The bulk of mankind alive at that time (though not necessarily all) participated in that building.
   3) God generated many different languages at one time, each group having its own distinctive system so that the various major language groups were not, on the whole, related to one another. Interestingly enough, the most up-to-date linguistic theories agree with this.
   The Biblical account in Genesis has the whole story. Notice verses 1-9 of Genesis 11:

   Now the whole earth had one language and few words...Then they said, Come, let us build ourselves a city and tower with its top in the heavens, and let us make a name for ourselves, 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 sons of men had built. And the Lord said, Come, let us go down, and there confuse their language that they may not understand one another's speech. There the Lord confused the language of all the earth and from there the Lord scattered them abroad over the face of all the earth [RSV].

   God's provable, inspired Word, the Bible, is the final authority that confirms that there was indeed such a tower built in ancient Babylon. It was constructed in defiance of the Great God of Heaven and construction was stopped by Him. In order to prevent the people from pooling their efforts and reaching the brink of cosmocide prematurely, God confounded and divided the people by linguistic, and racial and geographical means.
   The evidence of the Tower of Babel is found in national historical records the world around. But only God's inspired Word brings it all together and make the truth plain!

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Tomorrow's World MagazineJuly 1971Vol III, No. 07