VSC Article_Header_Scot_0001_2013Editor’s Note: This is the first installment of a series of five articles on the Tower of Babel.

Jeff and David Larsen have just completed a highly acclaimed scriptural commentary on the stories of Enoch, Noah, and the Tower of Babel. It is available for order on Amazon, the FAIRMormon Bookstore (15% discount), BYU Bookstore, Eborn Books, Benchmark Books, and other select bookstores. See www.templethemes.net for more details.


Pieter Bruegel the Elder, 1526/1530-1569: The Tower of Babel, Kunsthistorisches Museum, Vienna, Austria, 1563



With its intriguing imagery of a tower reaching to heaven and the fantastic tale of the confusion of languages, the story of the Tower of Babel in Genesis 11:1-9 has fired the imaginations of readers, authors, and artists for thousands of years. One of the most famous depictions of the Tower of Babel is the one by Pieter Bruegel the Elder shown above. While it is not accurate from what we know of ancient archaeology, it is a beautiful example of how each generation of people has mapped the concerns and issues of its time onto the biblical story:[1]


Bruegel’s depiction of the architecture of the tower, with its numerous arches and other examples of Roman engineering, is deliberately reminiscent of the Roman Colosseum, which Christians of the time saw as both a symbol of hubris and persecution … The parallel of Rome and Babylon had a particular significance for Bruegel’s contemporaries: Rome was the Eternal City, intended by the Caesars to last for ever, and its decay and ruin were taken to symbolize the vanity and transience of earthly efforts. The Tower was also symbolic of the turmoil between the Catholic church (which at the time did services only in Latin) and the polyglot Lutheran Protestant religion of the Netherlands.”


In addition to its universal lesson for humanity, the story mocks the power of the kingdom of Babylon,[2]the modern name for the biblical Babel. “By portraying an unfinished tower, by dispersing the builders, and by in essence making fun of the mighty name of Babylon, the text functions effectively to repudiate the culture from which the people of Israel sprang (Abram’s Ur’ of [Genesis] 11:28 was probably the great Mesopotamian metropolis).”[3]


While the account of Babel is valuable in its own right, we should not forget its important role as the final flourish in a prologue to the rest of Genesis and, indeed, to the primary history of the Old Testament. After the destruction of Babel, “God will abandon efforts to educate all of humankind all at once; instead, He will choose to advance His plan for human beings by working first with only one nation. After Babel, the Bible will turn directly to its main subject, the formation of the nation of Israel.”[4]However, in God’s turning of attention to Israel the other nations will not be abandoned. Through Abraham, Israel will be commissioned to be the instrument through which God will bless all the nations of the earth.[5]Working toward ultimate fulfillment of a glorious vision that dwarfs the self-serving pretensions of Babel, God will continue to carry out His objective to make of the whole earth “a temple-city filled with people who have a holy or priestly status.”[6]


Apart from his translations of the Book of Mormon and the Bible, we have only one substantive mention by Joseph Smith of the story of Babel. This is given in a retrospective third-party journal entry that will be discussed in more detail in a later article.[7]The story was mentioned two other times in passing in documents attributed to Joseph Smith; however, the original versions of these texts were written by others.[8] The relatively few Church leaders who have discussed the story at any length since that time have simply interpreted the incident at face value, drawing on the Book of Mormon account of the Jaredites for additional clarification and support.


The book of Ether relates that the brother of Jared pleaded with the Lord that he would not confound the language spoken by his family and friends.[9] Later, when the Lord commanded the brother of Jared to record his sacred experiences upon “the mount Shelem,”[10] he was told that “the language which ye shall write I have confounded.”[11]As a consequence, his words “cannot be read”[12]without the use of “two stones”[13] that were specially prepared as translation aids.[14]That the language of the Jaredite group was apparently confounded for anyone but themselves has led some to teach that they originally spoke the “Adamic language.”[15]However, in light of scriptural and scientific problems with this view, the alternative interpretations have been offered by LDS authors such as Hugh W. Nibley and Brant Gardner. These and related views will be explored in greater detail in a later article.


Before exploring the biblical account in detail, it will be helpful to outline certain details of the Mesopotamian context of the story.[16]


Ziggurat Model of the Marduk Temple Tower at Babylon. Vorderasiatisches Museum, Staatliche Museen, Berlin, Germany, 1999


What Is a Ziggurat?


The Tower of Babel described in the Bible was almost certainly a Mesopotamian ziggurat. John Walton gives the following description of what we know about the structure and function of ziggurats:[17]


  1. Though they may resemble pyramids in appearance, they are nothing like them in function. Ziggurats have no “inside.” The structure was framed in mudbrick, and then the core was packed with fill dirt. The faade was then completed with kiln-fired brick.
  1. Ziggurats were dedicated to particular deities. Any given deity could have several ziggurats dedicated to him or her in different cities. Furthermore, a given city could have several ziggurats, though the main one was associated with the patron deity of the city.
  1. Archaeologists have discovered nearly thirty ziggurats in the general region, and texts mention several others.

      The main architectural feature is the stairway or ramp that leads to the top. There was a small room at the top where a bed was made and a table set for the deity. Ziggurats ranged in size from sixty feet per side to almost two hundred feet per side.


Most important is the function of the ziggurat. The ziggurat did not play a role in any of the rituals known to us from Mesopotamia. If known literature were our only guide, we would conclude that common people did not use the ziggurat for anything.[18]It was sacred space and was strictly off-limits to profane use. Though the structure at the top was designed to accommodate the god, it was not a temple where people would go to worship. In fact, the ziggurat was typically accompanied by an adjoining temple near its base, where the worship did take place.


The best indication of the function of the ziggurats comes from the names that are given to them. For instance, the name of the ziggurat at Babylon, E-temen-anki, means “temple of the foundation of heaven and earth.” One at Larsa means “temple that links heaven and earth.” Most significant is the name of the ziggurat at Sippar, “temple of the stairway to pure heaven.” The word translated “stairway” in this last example is used in the mythology as the means by which the messenger of the gods moved between heaven, earth, and the netherworld. As a result of these data, we can conclude that the ziggurat was a structure built to support the stairway. This stairway was a visual representation of that which was believed to be used by the gods to travel from one realm to another. It was solely for the convenience of the gods and was maintained in order to provide the deity with amenities and to make possible his descent into his temple.


At the top of the ziggurat was the gate of the gods, the entrance into their heavenly abode. At the bottom was the temple, where hopefully the god would descend to receive the gifts and worship of his people …


In summary, the project the Bible describes is a temple complex featuring a ziggurat, which was designed to make it convenient for the god to come down to his temple, receive worship, and bless his people. The key … is to realize that the tower was not built so that people could ascend to heaven, but so that deity could descend to earth.


The History of Babylon and Its Ziggurat


In this series of articles, I do not argue for a specific timeframe for any historical events associated with the story of the Tower of Babel. John Walton attempts to date various developments that were necessary precursors to the building of Babel (baked brick technology, the ziggurat, urbanization, government by ruling assembly) to the late fourth and early third millenniums BCE.[19] He also describes changes in climate and water levels that favored migration into southern Mesopotamia toward the end of the fourth millennium. In light of these findings, he argues for the site of Eridu as a possible site for the occurrences described in Genesis 11. In his essay on chronology in the book of Ether,[20] Brant Gardner surveys arguments for the dating of the Jaredite migration that range from around 3000 BCE (John Sorenson) to around 1100 BCE (Gardner’s own conclusion). My current view is that the reign of Nebuchadnezzar II (ca. 604-562 BCE) is too late for the story of Babel. It is always possible, however, that a redaction describing an earlier event may anachronistically include details from a later time. An important perspective is that of Hugh Nibley, who taught that the “great tower” referred to in the book of Ether was associated with Nimrod, and that the “Tower of Babel” was a later structure.[21]


Although some have proposed alternate locations for the story of Babel,[22] most scholars have focused their attention on the city of Babylon, the namesake of the biblical Babel. Sargon of Agade (ca. 2350 BCE) claims to have removed rubble from a clay pit near Agade and heaped it up, naming it Babylon, though the name and the city are thought to have been in use earlier.[23]


Though Babylon seems to have had only a limited role under a local governor in the Ur III period (21st to 20th century BCE), it flourished as the capital of a powerful Amorite clan among whom Hammurabi had an international reputation. This dominant position, despite a raid by the Hittites (ca. 1595 BCE) and destruction by Sennacherib in 689 BCE, was never lost. All who controlled it accorded it respect as the ancient foundation – “the eternal city” – what had early become the traditional capital.


Enuma Elish, or the Creation Epic, gives the following account of the building of Babylon’s temple tower (a ziggurat or ziqqurat) and its enclosing temple complex (named “Esagil” or “Esagila”) as a tribute to the god Marduk. Answering the grateful group who he had freed from their enemies, Marduk is made to say:[24]


“Then make Babylon the task that you requested,

Let its brickwork be formed, build high the shrine.”

The Anunna-gods set to with hoes,

One (full) year they made its bricks.

When the second year came,

They raised the head of Esagila

They built the upper ziggurat of Apsu,

For Anu-Enlil-Ea they founded his … and dwelling.

He took his seat in sublimity before them,

Its pinnacles were facing toward the base of Esharra.

After they had done the work of Esagila,

All the Anunna-gods devised their own shrines.


The ziggurat of Esagil is associated with the name E-temen-anki, the “House of the Foundation of Heaven and Earth.”  Though the name E-temen-anki is known only from first millennium mentions of later ziggurats presumably built on the same spot, Andrew George takes the reference in Enuma Elish as evidence for “the long-held theory that [the original ziggurat] existed already in the second millennium BCE. There is no reason to doubt that this ziggurat was -temen-anki.”[25]


Nebuchadnezzar II before -temen-anki, Ziggurat of Babylon, “Tower of Babel” Stele (detail), ca. 604-562 BCE


Records are scarce for the earliest ziggurats, but inscriptions describe later reconstructions, such as the rebuilding of temple complexes at Babylon (E-temen-anki) and Borsippa (Eur-me-imin-anki) by Nebuchadnezzar II. We are fortunate to have a representation of Nebuchadnezzar II’s rebuilding project preserved on the so-called “Tower of Babel” stele in the Shyen Collection, shown above:[26]


The figure depicted on the right side of the relief is a bearded male dressed in a long robe and shod in sandals. The fine details of his beard, hair, and robe have largely disappeared but enough traces remain to give an impression of delicate rendering of very elaborate decoration. His right wrist is embellished with a bracelet or bangle. He wears the late form of the Babylonian royal crown, conical with a long tassel hanging from the back, and holds in his left hand a long staff that matches him in height. In his right hand he holds a curved conical object directed at his face …. As the bearer of … three regalia – crown, staff, and curved object-the standing figure depicted on the present monument is unquestionably also a king. Given the certain attribution of the stele’s inscription to Nebuchadnezzar II, there can be no doubt that he is none other than this great Babylonian monarch (reigned 604-562 BCE) ….


The stepped tower depicted on the left side of the relief, opposite Nebuchadnezzar, is accompanied by the following epigraph: “E-temen-anki, the ziggurat of Babylon” … [Nebucadnezzar II’s rebuilt tower had a short life. It] was destroyed by Sennacherib of Assyria when he laid Babylon waste in 689 BCE, and partially rebuilt by Sennacherib’s successors, Esarhaddon and Ashurbanipal. The project was restarted by Nabopolassar after Babylon won its independence from Assyria, and completed by his son, Nebuchadnezzar II, in about 590 BCE. Archaeological evidence reveals that the building was damaged beyond repair in the Persian period. It was leveled in the late fourth century BCE by Alexander of Macedon [i.e., Alexander the Great] and his successors in preparation for a rebuilding that was never started.[27]



J. James Tissot, 1836-1902: Building the Tower of Babel, ca. 1896-1902


The inscription on this stele attests the use of “bitumen and baked brick throughout” the structures[28] as described in the biblical account.[29]More intriguingly, we read an elaborate description of how workers were gathered from throughout the empire to execute the project, recalling the biblical imagery of “confounded” (Hebrew b?lal = to mix or mingle) languages and peoples:[30]


In order to complete E-temen-anki and Eur-me-imin-anki to the top … I mobilized [all] countries everywhere, [each and] every ruler [who] had been raised to prominence over all the people of the world [as one] loved by Marduk, from the upper sea [to the] lower [sea,] the [distant nations, the teeming people of] the world, kings of remote mountains and far-flung islands in the midst of the] upper and lower [seas,] whose lead-ropes [my] lord Marduk placed in [my] hand so [that they should] draw [his] chariot …


An inscription from Borsippa tells us that the ziggurat had been left unfinished and that, prior to the reconstruction by Nebuchadnezzar II, it had fallen into ruins – a reminder of the uncompleted structures of the biblical Babel:[31]


I built -temen-anki, the ziggurat of Babylon (and) brought it to completion, and raised high its top with pure tiles (glazed with) lapis lazuli. At that time E-ur-(me)-imin-anki, the ziqqurrat of Borsippa, which a former king had built and raised by a height of forty-two cubits but had not finished (to) the top, had long since become derelict and its water drains were in disorder. Rains and downpours had eroded its brickwork. The baked brick of its mantle had come loose and the brickwork of its sanctum had turned into a heap of ruins.[32] My great lord Marduk stirred my heart to rebuild it.




On the one hand, the biblical details of the Babylonian setting and construction techniques for the “Tower of Babel” check out quite plausibly, even if the time frame for the story is difficult to pin down. On the other hand, many of the additional details in the story are difficult to understand. What does it mean when the people say that they want to make a name for themselves? How do we make sense of the confusion of languages in terms of its blatant contradictions to what is known about evolutionary linguistics? In the next article in this series, we will lay a foundation for understanding the answer to these questions by looking at the structure of the story itself.

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[1] The Tower (Bruegel), The Tower (Bruegel).

[2] Ronald Hendel in H. W. Attridge et al., Harper Collins Study Bible, p. 19 n. 11:1-9.

[3] E. Fox, Books of Moses, p. 46.

[4] L. R. Kass, Wisdom, p. 217.

[5] See Genesis 22:18.

[6] T.

D. Alexander, From Eden, p. 30.

[7] See E. England, Laub, p. 175.

[8] In the March 1842 history of the Church written for John Wentworth, the settlement of the Jaredites, “a colony that came from the Tower of Babel” (J.Smith, Jr.et al., Histories, 1832-1844, p. 495; J. Smith, Jr., Documentary History, 1 March 1842, 4:537) is mentioned, however the wording of this passage is taken directly from a previous history written by Orson Pratt (J. Smith, Jr. et al., Histories, 1832-1844, p. 531). In a November 1843 appeal to the Green Mountain Boys of Vermont, the readers are admonished to remember selected incidents when God overthrew the wicked in the Bible, including “the dispersion and confusion at the Tower of Babel” (J. Smith, Jr., Documentary History, 29 November 1843, 6:91), but this letter was drafted by William W. Phelps (R. L. Bushman, Rough Stone, p. 512).

[9] Ether 1:34-37.

[10] Ether 3:1.

[11] Ether 3:24.

[12] Ether 3:22.

[13] Ether 3:23, 28.

[14] Ether 3:24.

[15] Wisely, the Joseph Smith Papers editors avoid mentioning the idea of an Adamic language and instead refer merely to the Jaredites keeping “their original language” (J. Smith, Jr. et al., Documents, July 1831-January 1833, p. 214).

[16] For a brief survey of worldwide parallels to the Tower story, see C. Westermann, Genesis 1-11, pp. 537-539.

[17] J. H. Walton, Genesis, pp. 61-63.

[18] On the use of the structure by priests, see, e.g., S. Bourke, Middle East, pp. 96-97.

[19] J. H. Walton, Mesopotamian Background. See also J. H. Walton, Ancient, pp. 120-121; J. H. Walton, Genesis, pp. 60-65.

[20] B. A. Gardner, Second Witness, 6:146-154.

[21] H. W. Nibley, Teachings of the Book of Mormon, 1:345. Cf. H. W. Nibley, Lehi 1988, pp. 165-167; H. W. Nibley, Approach, p. 329.

[22] Two popular alternative sites to Babylon for early modern adventurers in the Middle East were Borsippa (Birs Nimrud, i.e., “tower of Nimrod”) and Dur-Kurigalzu (Aqar Qur), but these sites were eclipsed by the discovery of Babylon’s ruins (See A. George, Truth; J. E. Reade, Search).

[23] D. J. Wiseman, Nebuchadrezzar and Babylon: The Schweich Lectures of the British Academy 1983, pp. 43-44.

[24] B. R. Foster, Before, 6:57-68, p. 471. Though it is unlikely that Genesis 11 draws directly on Enuma Elish, the account seems to be informed by some knowledge of Babylonian tradition.

[25] A. George, Tower of Babel. For a brief history of the modern discovery of the ruined temple complex and ziggurat of Babylon, see A. George, Truth.

[26] A. George, Stele of Nebuchadnezzar II, pp. 154-155.

[27] The destruction of the E-temen-anki is echoed in late Israelite documents (J. C. VanderKam, Book of Jubilees (2001), 10:26, p. 63; F. Josephus, Antiquities, 1:4:3, p. 30; J. J. Collins, Sibylline Oracles, 3:101-103, p. 364; H. E. Gaylord, Jr., 3 Baruch, 3:8, p. 665).

[28] A. George, Stele of Nebuchadnezzar II, p. 160.

[29] Genesis 11:3.

[30] A. George, Stele of Nebuchadnezzar II, p. 160.

[31] Ibid., p. 160, p. 169.

[32] A French translation of this inscription by Jules Oppert that was based on the limited scholarship of a century and a half ago is still sometimes quoted. The italicized phrase in Oppert’s obsolete translation misleads in its implication that the text refers to a flood and to some kind of difficulty with speaking (J. Oppert, Textes, p. 192, translated from the French original):


The Temple of the Seven Lights of the earth … was built by an ancient king (reckoned to have lived 42 generations before) but he did not complete its head. People had abandoned it at the time of the Flood, without order uttering their words (French: Les hommes l’avaient abandonn depuis les jours du dluge, en dsordre profrant leurs paroles). Earthquakes and lightning had shaken its sun- dried bricks; had split the baked bricks of the encasements, and the retaining walls had collapsed in heaps.

One sometimes sees a similar English translation mistakenly attributed to William Loftus (Inscription on Borsippa, Inscription on Borsippa). However the book by Loftus that contains this inscription actually relies on a better translation by Henry Rawlinson that neither contains a reference to the Flood nor to any phrase similar to “without order uttering their words” (W. K. Loftus, Travels, p. 29).