Editor’s Note: This is the second installment of a series of five articles on the Tower of Babel. To see the previous articles in this series, click here.

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.

B Larrinaga

Mario Larrinaga, 1895-1972: The Hanging Gardens of Babylon (Tower of Babel in the Distance), 1959-1962 

Mario Larrinaga produced the commanding view of ancient Babylon pictured above.[1] The subject of the painting is not the ziggurat temple tower of the city (silhouetted in the background) but rather the “Hanging Gardens of Babylon,” listed by classic Greek authors as one of the Seven Wonders of the World.[2]

In the nine verses that make up the account of the Tower of Babel, we have “a short but brilliant example of Hebrew story telling.”[3] To begin with, we marvel with J. P. Fokkelman[4] at how little room the narrator had to do his job, yet he managed to keep “within the square meter. He who has something to say and must, speaking in terms of sound and time, do so in 121 words or two minutes, or, in terms of writing and space, within half a page of thirteen lines, is forced to confine himself.” Yet within this highly constrained setting, the author has created a literary masterpiece. Ingenious word and sound parallels between verses, “ironic linkages between sections and ideas,”[5] and a beautiful economy of style are readily apparent to readers of Hebrew. In its original tongue “the prose turns language itself into a game of mirrors.”[6] Addressing the meaning of this densely packed scripture gem, Everett Fox writes of how its general message of measure-for-measure allotment of divine action in direct response to human hubris “is transmitted by means of form”:[7]

 The divine “Come-now!” of v. 7 clearly stands as an answer to humankind’s identical cry in vv. 3 and 4. In addition humans, who congregated in order to establish a “name” and to avoid being “scattered over the face of all the earth” (v. 4), are contravened by the action of God, resulting in the ironic name “Babble” and a subsequent “scattering” of humanity (v. 9). The text is thus another brilliant example of biblical justice, a statement about a worldview in which the laws of justice and morality are as neatly balanced as we like to think the laws of nature are.

B TowerModel

 Ellen van Wolde, 1954-: A Tower Model of the Tower Story (adapted), 1994

Many scholars have noted the obvious chiastic features of the story.[8] For example, Ellen van Wolde explains her tower model of the Tower story that visually demonstrates how city of Babel is incrementally built up by men and taken down by God.[9] A scriptural word-picture of this image is provided by Proverbs 11:11: “A city is built up (literally raised up) by the blessing of the upright, but it is torn down by the speech of the wicked.”[10]

Ellen van Wolde observes three interesting things about the construction of the story. First, there is an obvious parallel movement in the construction of the Tower in verses 1-4 and in its destruction in verses 5 and 7-9. The first half is about human actions as the story moves upward, and the second half is about the response of the Lord as the storyline descends. Note how each verse in the first half of the story finds its parallel in the second half. Verse 1 parallels verse 9; verse 2, verse 8; verse 3, verse 7; and verse 4, verse 5. Verse six is the turning point of the chiasm, where the Lord states his observation and his concern. The model also shows how, remarkably, the chiastic structure within each verse in relation to its counterpart in the other half of the story. In other words, the parallel wording in each verse is laid out in reverse order from the verse with which it is paired (A, B, C vs. C, B, A).

Let’s look at the story in more detail.

1 And the whole earth was of one language, and of one speech.

A first question about the story arises in verse 1: Does the phrase “one language” necessarily imply that the same language was being spoken by every person on the globe? In response to this question, Hugh Nibley points out that the Hebrew word eretz in the phrase “whole earth” can mean either “earth” or “land,” and it is impossible to know which except from context:[11]

[An] important biblical expression receives welcome elucidation from our text: though Ether says nothing about “the whole earth” being of “one language and one speech,” he does give us an interesting hint as to how those words may be taken. Just as “son” and “descendant” are the same word in Hebrew and so may easily be confused by translators (who have no way of knowing, save from context, in which sense the word is to be understood), so “earth” and “land” are the same word, the well-known eretz. In view of the fact that the book of ether, speaking only of the Jaredites, notes that “there were none of the fair sons and daughters upon the face of the whole earth who repented of their sins,”[12] it would seem that the common “whole earth” (kol ha-aretz) of the Old Testament need not always be taken to mean the entire globe.

It is possible that Book of Mormon is taking a more limited view of the events than Genesis when it refers to the protagonists of the story simply as “the people.”[13] Moreover, in the Joseph Smith Translation (JST), we read: “And it came to pass that many journeyed from the east.”[14] The reference to “many” as the subject of the verse can be taken as implying a specific group, not every person on the earth.

A second question then arises: Why does the verse narrator find it necessary to add the words “one speech” to the idea of “one language.” The phrase “one speech” means literally “one [set of ] words” (Hebrew devarim achadim[15]). Zlotowitz reads this as “of common purpose.”[16]

Consistent with this meaning, LaCocque translates the phrase “of one speech” as “with a few subjects/utterances” and takes it “as an indication of the severe limitation of interest on the part of the crowd. The subject of their discourse was narrow; they all were talking of identical things.  Rashi understands, one plan, a common counsel” … Andr Wnin goes in the same direction. He writes that humanity uttered le mme discourse … des paroles identiques … une pense unique’ [the same discourse … identical words … a single thought].

  He stresses the repetitiveness of their sayings, to brick bricks, to flame in the flame’ [in v. 3]. They speak to no one else but themselves. Their we’ is autistic. (When God duplicates the human we’ in v. 7, whatever is conveyed here by the plural form indicates a communication with someone else … ).” The situation can be compared to the Newspeak language described in George Orwell’s novel Nineteen Eighty-Four: “[T]he Newspeak vocabulary was tiny … each reduction was a gain, since the smaller the area of choice, the smaller the temptation to take thought.”[17]

In conclusion, the phrase “one speech” can be taken as meaning that the people are wholly consumed in their project with no thought of its consequences nor, it seems, of the God who made them.

2 And it came to pass, as they journeyed from the east, that they found a plain in the land of Shinar; and they dwelt there.

What can we learn from the phrase “as they journeyed from the east”? Andr LaCocque observes that “the people arrive there’ more or less accidentally’ as indicated by the verb nasa (to journey’) typical of nomadic mobility.'”[18] The phrase “from the east” (Hebrew miqqedem) should be read in a larger context as “eastward,” that is toward Mesopotamia from an orientation point in the west.[19] Throughout the first half of Genesis, “eastward movement is repeatedly associated with increasing distance from God.”[20] The message of the narrator is that they are deliberately choosing the curse that will later come upon them. By way of contrast a few chapters later, “Abraham’s “return from the east is [a] return to the Promised Land and … the city of Salem'”[21] being “directed toward blessing.”[22]

Why is a “plain in the land of Shinar” specifically mentioned? Shinar[23] is the land of Babylonia, modern southern Iraq. It is an evil portent that Shinar and Babel were already associated with the name of Nimrod in Genesis 10. The action of the story will take place in a valley – hardly a place for good things to happen according to the thought in ancient Israel.[24] God reveals Himself to Israel on mountains: Sinai, Horeb, Nebo, and Zion. “Nothing good is expected to happen in a valley.”[25]

In short, everything about the introduction to the story in verse 2 would have led an ancient reader to expect a bad outcome for the wandering group described.

3 And they said one to another, Go to, let us make brick, and burn them throughly. And they had brick for stone, and slime had they for mortar.

In an effort to reproduce the Hebrew more literally in English, LaCocque gives the first part of this verse as as:[26] “Come! Let us brick bricks (Hebrew nilbena leveniym) that we’ll flame in the flame” (Hebrew venisrfah lisrefah).[27] The repetition of a small number of words reinforces the previously stated argument that there is a “severe limitation of interest on the part of the crowd.”[28] The implication of the phrase is that each brick is to “become wholly transformed into a burnt object,”[29] just as each participant in the project is already wholly transformed into a cog in the great wheel of the overall project. Further anticipating the disastrous results of the effort, Gordon Wenham notes that “the Hebrew words for make bricks,’ for stone,’ and build for ourselves’ contain the consonants n, b, l, which spell “mix up” (v. 7) or Babel’ (v. 9) and evoke the word folly’ (Hebrew nebalah).”[30]

The way in which the project is introduced with the words “Go to” reinforces the singlemindedness with which the building task was to be undertaken. Kass explains:[31] “[S]peech is here used by human beings to exhort to action and to enunciate a project of making, for the first time in Genesis. Come’ (or go to’; Hebrew havah) means prepare yourself,’ get ready to join in our mutual plan.’ each man thus roused his neighbor to the joint venture: Let us make.’ Hortatory speech is the herald of craft. And craft enables man to play creator: God, too had said, Let us make.'”[32] Also using the term “Go to” in a mocking tone, James 4:13-16 reminds us that our personal plans for secular success are not wholly our own. They are the business of God – and subject to His sovereign will:

13 Go to now, ye that say, To day or to morrow we will go into such a city, and continue there a year, and buy and sell, and get gain:

14 Whereas ye know not what shall be on the morrow. For what is your life? It is even a vapour, that appeareth for a little time, and then vanisheth away.

15 For that ye ought to say, If the Lord will, we shall live, and do this, or that.

16 But now ye rejoice in your boastings: all such rejoicing is evil.

Rabbinic commentary remarks on the deplorable inversion of values that accompanied the work of building. Bricks were valued more than life itself:[33]

Many years were spent building the Tower. The ascending steps were on the east, and the descending steps were on the west. It reached so great a height that it took a year to mount to the top. A brick was, therefore, more precious in the sight of the builders than a human being. If a man fell and died they paid no attention to him; but if a brick fell down they wept because it would take a year to replace it. They were so intent in their project that they would not permit a pregnant woman to interrupt her work when her hour of travail came upon her.

The point of the little digression about brick as stone and slime as mortar is to explain Babylonian construction techniques in contrast to Israelite practice. The Babylonians were driven to use bricks because of the rarity of stone in their land. Cassuto hears mockery in the expression, namely: “the poor creatures did not even have hard stone for building such as we have in the land of Israel, and which we bind together with mortar!”[34] It is also easy to hear echoes of the contrast between Mesopotamian structures built upon the river flood plains and Israelite structures built on rocky elevations within Jesus’ parable of the foolish man and the wise man.[35] Finally, consider how the execution of this project “parallels the Hebrew slavery in Egypt, according to Exodus 1:14 (where incidentally the words bricks’ and “mortar’ are found).  So even the term brick’ in Genesis 11 is loaded with bad memories in Israel.”[36]

4 And they said, Go to, let us build us a city and a tower, whose top may reach unto heaven; and let us make us a name, lest we be scattered abroad upon the face of the whole earth.

The witless repetition of “Go to” in this verse continues the mockery of Babylonian pretensions. So does the statement of their ambition to make a tower “whose top may reach unto heaven.

“[37] The idea that the top of the Tower reaches to the heavens, along with the idea that “the Lord came down” in verse 5 “gives textual confirmation that the tower is a ziggurat. This would have been transparent to the ancient reader.”[38]

To “make a name” for oneself means to achieve fame and renown. The phrase “men of renown” in Genesis 6:4 (and, no doubt also in Moses 8:21) literally means “people of name.” These verses link to Nimrod[39] by their common reference to “mighty man/men” (Hebrew gibbor/gibborim).

“The desire for a name anticipates God’s promise of a great name to Abraham,[40] who serves as a counterpoint to the men of Babel.”[41] Abraham, to whom the Babylonians are being implicitly compared, “does not make a name for himself.”[42] Rather it is God who makes his name great.[43] John T. Strong argues that the effort of the Babylonians to make a name for themselves amounts to “defacing the image of God … scratching off the name of God and replacing it with their own name.”[44]

5 And the Lord came down to see the city and the tower, which the children of men builded.

The aspirations of the builders that the top of the tower “may reach unto heaven” in verse 4 are contradicted by the statement that the Lord had to come down to see it. Gordon Wenham observes:[45] “With heavy irony we now see the tower through God’s eyes. This tower which man thought reached to heaven, God can hardly see!”

God “sees” but the people are blind. They are blind to the consequences of their ambition, and blind to God’s intentions. As in the story of Sodom and Gomorrah,[46] God does not reveal His presence to the wicked. He is made known to them only later, through His destructive actions.

The phrase “the children of men” can be rendered “the children of Adam.” Sarna sees here a “satirical note” in the use of “a phrase heavily charged with the consciousness of man’s earthly origin, his mortality and frailty.”[47] Unlike the temple building project at Babylon depicted in the Mesopotamian creation epic Enuma Elish, the construction crew is staffed by ordinary men – not gods.

Kass further observes:[48] “The term children of Adam’ assimilates the meaning of the project of Babel to the first activities of the first man: not only his naming of the animals, but his project of appropriating autonomous knowledge of good and bad … [I]n Adam’s individual case, autonomy – choosing for yourself – is the opposite of obedience; in the builders’ case, independent self-re-creation – making yourself – is the opposite of obedient dependence, in relation to God or anything else.”

6 And the Lord said, Behold, the people is one, and they have all one language; and this they begin to do: and now nothing will be restrained from them, which they have imagined to do.

The Hebrew word hen (“Behold”) often is used in the Bible[49] to introduce “a rhetorical reflection occasioned by regret or sorrow.”[50] As in the reference in Genesis 10:8 to the doings of Nimrod (“he began to be a mighty one in the earth), the Hebrew verb chalal (“to begin”) in this verse “has become decidedly negative.”[51] LaCocque sees a negative meaning of the verb “started” as used here, translating the phrase as “this is what they have profaned to make.”[52] The sense is that they have started a work of evil, not a work of good.

In the phrase “now nothing will be restrained from them, which they have imagined to do,” LaCocque sees here, correctly, an echo of God’s assessment of the consequences of Adam and Eve’s transgression in Moses 4:28.[53] Just as Adam and Eve’s having become godlike in taking the fruit of the Tree of Knowledge required them to be restrained from also partaking of the Tree of Life, so the people’s having succeeded thus far in commencing a Tower means that they must be stopped before the project reaches its conclusion.[54] The verb for “restrained” (= to be inaccessible) in Genesis 11:6 “is then taken [as] alluding to defensive fortifications: Now nothing that they propose to do can be defended against.’ That is, with such a fortified city as a base for empire, no other power will be able to withstand their imperial aggression.'”[55] Of course, God Himself is not threatened by this “aggression.” He is, however, concerned about those who will be in harm’s way if their strength is unchecked.

7 Go to, let us go down, and there confound their language, that they may not understand one another’s speech.

LaCocque observes that in other passages that can be easily compared to Genesis 11:7, the sense of “confound” (i.e., mix) is definitely negative. In Hosea 7:8, the Lord condemns the people of the tribe of Ephraim for mixing themselves with the gentile nations rather than separating themselves out from among them.[56] “Isaiah 64:6 presents a confession in the first-person plural in which the term [“confounded”] means to be rotten’ or, at least, to be withered.'”[57] There should be no mistake that the confounding is a curse, not a blessing.

The phrase “that they may not understand one another’s speech” might be translated as “‘that they will not listen to one another’s speech.” This translation suggests that “God will make them break all relationships.”[58] This insight is crucial. God has no need to “confound” the people – they are already thoroughly mixed-up, and that is the problem. What He needs is a way to end their work, and this can be accomplished when their “one language and one speech” is no longer directed single-mindedly toward their one project, and their will to cooperate evaporates.[59]

8 So the Lord scattered them abroad from thence upon the face of all the earth: and they left off to build the city.

The Hebrew verb for “scatter” is the same as in v. 4. The very thing the builders feared has come upon them. Note that the story does not connect explicitly the confounding of language with the scattering.  We will return to this idea in a later article.

9 Therefore is the name of it called Babel; because the Lord did there confound the language of all the earth: and from thence did the Lord scatter them abroad upon the face of all the earth.

The story ends with an additional ironic twist. “The desire of the men of Babel to make a name’ for themselves … comes to naught with anonymous infamy, but the ruined city gets a name.”[60]

Michael Fishbane[61] observes a clever Hebrew pun in the idea that “the very bricks (li-be-na) out of which the tower of human pretension is constructed are themselves symbolically deconstructed and reversed when God babbles (nu-bi-la) the language of all the earth’ and scatters the builders over all the earth.'” In an effort to capture the sound play of the Hebrew passage in English, Robert Alter gives the following translation: “Come, let us go down and baffle their language .

… Therefore it is called Babel, for there the Lord made the language of all the earth babble.”[62]

So, in nine verses, we are given the story of the Tower of Babel, an anti-temple dedicated to the Babylonian god. However, there is much of the story still to tell. In the next article, we will explore the significance of the idea of “making a name” in the context of ancient temples.

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[1] Larrinaga was born in Los Flores, Mexico in 1895 and moved to the United States at the age of ten. He became “one of Hollywood’s most successful scenic artists and art director at three of the major movie studios: Universal, RKO and Warner Brothers … He created the original set designs and backgrounds for dozens of Hollywood films including such classics as King Kong in 1933 and Citizen Kane in 1941. He also gained recognition in New York as an illustrator for The Saturday Evening Post, Vanity Fair, and Harper’s Bazaar magazines” (Mario Larrinaga, Mario Larrinaga). He said: “God has given me a talent which has made it possible for me to enjoy a wonderful life, to provide for my family and to live among the beauties of my adopted country” (Biography for Mario Larrinaga, Biography for Mario Larrinaga).

[2] A similar painting was done earlier as part of a series done by Larrinaga for Lowell Thomas’ documentary Cinerama film Seven Wonders of the World in 1956 (I. L. Finkel et al., Babylon, p. 104). The version of the painting shown here was commissioned later by a Detroit industrialist. For the fascinating story of the commissioning, loss, and recovery of this painting, see D. Lademann, Seven Wonders.

[3] G. J. Wenham, Genesis 1-15, p. 234.

[4] Cited in E. van Wolde, Words, p. 84.

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

[6] R. Alter, Five Books, p. 59.

[7] E. Fox, Books of Moses, p. 46. Robert Alter also comments: “As many commentators have noted, the story exhibits an intricate antithetical symmetry that embodies the idea of man proposes, God disposes.’ The builders say, Come, let us bake bricks,” God says, Come, let us go down’; they are concerned lest we be scattered,’ and God responds by scattering them” (R. Alter, Five Books, pp. 58-59).

[8] See, e.g., G. J. Wenham, Genesis 1-15, pp. 235-236.

[9] E. van Wolde, Words, p. 89.

[10] Translation in P. M. Sherman, Babel’s Tower, p. 76.

[11] H. W. Nibley, Lehi 1988, pp. 173-174.

[12] Ether 13:17.

[13] Ether 1:33.

[14] S. H. Faulring et al., Original Manuscripts, pp. 120, 634.

[15] G. J. Wenham, Genesis 1-15, p. 238.

[16] M. Zlotowitz et al., Bereishis, 1:333-334.

[17] Cited in A. LaCocque, Captivity of Innocence, p. 43.

[18] Ibid., p. 28, following Fokkelman.

[19] U. Cassuto, Noah to Abraham, p. 240; A. LaCocque, Captivity of Innocence, p. 27.

[20] J. M. Bradshaw, God’s Image 1, Commentary 3:8-b, p. 161. Cf. A. LaCocque, Captivity of Innocence, p. 44: “[H]umanity is going eastward, prolonging the initial migration since the exit from Eden … Their settlement in the east is already in and of itself a token of their rebellion against God.”

[21] J. H. Sailhamer, Genesis, p. 59. See Genesis 14:17-20.

[22] T. L. Brodie, Dialogue, p. 117.

[23] See Genesis 10:10; 14:1, 9; Joshua 7:21; Isaiah 11:11; Daniel 1:2; Zechariah 5:11.

[24] See, for example, the plains of Moab in Numbers 22; Sheol evidently is underground and is foreshadowed by the Hinnom valley in Jerusalem.

[25] A. LaCocque, Captivity of Innocence, p. 27.

[26] Ibid., p. 25.

[27] Similarly, others (e.g., U. Cassuto, Noah to Abraham, p. 241; L. R. Kass, Wisdom, p. 218) give this as “burn them to a burning.”

[28] A. LaCocque, Captivity of Innocence, p. 43.

[29] U. Cassuto, Noah to Abraham, p. 241.

[30] G. J. Wenham, Genesis 1-15, p. 239.

[31] L. R. Kass, Wisdom, p. 225.

[32] See Genesis 1:26.

[33] M. Zlotowitz et al., Bereishis, 1:337, as culled from rabbinic sources.

[34] U. Cassuto, Noah to Abraham, p. 241.

[35] Matthew 7:24-27; Luke 6:47-49.

[36] A. LaCocque, Captivity of Innocence, p. 29. See also P. M. Sherman, Babel’s Tower, pp. 58-60.

[37] The JST softens this expression: “whose top will be high, nigh unto heaven” (S. H. Faulring et al., Original Manuscripts, pp. 120, 634).

[38] J. H. Walton, Genesis, p. 63.

[39] Genesis 10:8.

[40] Genesis 12:2.

[41] H. W. Attridge et al., HarperCollins Study Bible, p. 19 n. 11:4.

[42] A. LaCocque, Captivity of Innocence, p. 31, emphasis added.

[43] See Genesis. 12:2.

[44] A. LaCocque, Captivity of Innocence, p. 45.

[45] G. J. Wenham, Genesis 1-15, p. 240.

[46] See Genesis 18:21.

[47] N. M. Sarna, Genesis, p. 83.

[48] L. R. Kass, Wisdom, pp. 231-232.

[49] E.g., Genesis 3:22; 4:14; 15:3; Exodus 4:1; 5:5; 8:22.

[50] A. LaCocque, Captivity of Innocence, p. 34.

[51] Ibid., p. 35.

[52] Ibid., p. 34. See also p. 58.

[53] Ibid., pp. 35, 139.

[54] Ibid., p. 35. The expression is found again only in Job 42:2, referring to God’s omnipotence.

[55] Ibid., p. 56.

[56] Cf.Hosea 9:1.

[57] A.

LaCocque, Captivity of Innocence, p. 37. Exceptions in which the sense is positive include, e.g., mixing of ingredients for the daily sacrifice: exodus 29:40; Leviticus 14:10; Numbers 6:15, etc.; to anoint with oil: Psalm 92:10.

[58] A. LaCocque, Captivity of Innocence, p. 37.

[59] A. LaCocque, Captivity of Innocence, p. 37, following the analysis of W. Brueggemann, Genesis, p. 103.

[60] H. W. Attridge et al., HarperCollins Study Bible, p. 19 n. 11:4.

[61] M. A. Fishbane, Biblical Text, p. 38.

[62] R. Alter, Five Books, Genesis 11:7, 9, p. 59, emphasis added. “The Hebrew b?lal, to mix’ or confuse,’ represented in this translation by baffle’ and babble,’ is a polemic pun on the Akkadian Babel’ … As for the phonetic kinship of babble and b?lal, Webster’s New World Dictionary of the American Language (1966) notes that a word like babble’ occurs in a wide spectrum of languages from Greek, Latin, and Sanskrit to Norwegian, and prudently concludes, of echoic origin; probably not of continuous derivation but recoined from common experience'” (ibid., p. 59).