Science Ch.12 - Babel Rediscovered

Were languages “created” or “confused” at Babel? The actual tower was rediscovered a few decades ago, thanks to a deciphered Babylonian tablet. Its Sumerian name suggests why it was so dangerous.

The story of the Tower of Babel (Gen 11) sounds like an ancient folktale to explain the origin of languages. At first glance, it seems to say that everyone in the world lived in one country until God gave them different languages in order to scatter them. We now know that this is not what happened, because historical comparisons of languages show they have gradually grown from each other – a growth that we can still see occurring.1 Does this mean that we have to dismiss the story in Genesis as a simplistic myth? A close look at the Bible text tells us a different story – one that doesn’t contradict philology and comparative linguistics.

       It is joked that the last word spoken at Babel was “sack” because this sound means the same thing – a type of bag – in a very wide variety of languages (e.g., French sac, Greek sakoon, Latin saccus, Spanish saco, Filipino sako, Hebrew saq, Afrikaans sak, and Russian meshok). Of course, there are many other such examples of word similarities across languages, and they exist because languages are related to one another. Many European languages developed from Latin, while also imbibing words from other languages such as Norse. In the same way, ancient Hebrew is related to Akkadian and Ugarit, with loanwords inherited from places such as Egypt. These Semitic languages later developed into Syriac, Arabic, and Swahili.

       Complex family trees have been drawn to trace the history of all languages, and these successfully explain the origins of language diversity. Every time a population splits by moving apart, its accents and vocabulary diverge until they form separate dialects; and when their languages become sufficiently different, the people become “foreigners” to each other. So why does this Bible story say that the first ancient languages split by means of a miracle? Did the people at Babel really walk away speaking ancient versions of Egyptian, Hebrew, Ugaritic, Akkadian, Hittite, and Greek? Since then, other languages such as Swahili and Lingala have grown up as new languages relatively recently. The most widely spoken language in the world is English, which now has a vocabulary of about a million words, but this did not start developing until the Middle Ages. If new languages are still developing, why should the ancient languages need a miraculous origin? In fact, the Bible doesn’t say this at all.

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Languages before Babel

The chapter before the Babel incident says that “maritime peoples spread out into their territories by their clans within their nations, each with its own language” (Gen 10:5, with examples in vv. 20, 31). This tells us what we already know – that when people move a long distance or overseas, they develop their own individual language. Every generation of teenagers invents new words or new meanings of old words, and if there is no wider society to communicate with, this becomes the new way of speaking. Therefore, Genesis 10 tells us that the nations were united initially by family ties, but each nation formed its own language when it traveled to its own land. This is the same process that philologists have shown happening in the world today.

       The next chapter in Genesis tells the story of Babel. This is a completely different type of event – a nation that was united around a common goal and forcibly split up so that it wouldn’t succeed. The text doesn’t say that any new languages were created at Babel. It says that the Lord confused the language (11:7, 9). This means the people there shared one language, but suddenly they couldn’t understand each other anymore – as if they had lost their ability to speak properly or to understand properly.

       There is no indication that they spoke a single worldwide language, or that this confusion was a worldwide phenomenon, because the phrase translated “the whole world” (in Gen 11:1) can also mean “the whole land.” The Hebrew word erets can mean “land,” as in “land (erets) of Israel.”2 The phrase translated “the whole earth” in Genesis 11:1 (khol ha’arets) occurs also in Genesis 13:9, where Abraham showed Lot “the whole land” of Canaan and invited him to choose where he wanted to live.

       In any case, Genesis 10 has already recorded that various family clans had moved to a different “land” (erets), and this chapter says some people went to the “land [erets] of Shinar” (Gen 11:2). So, when the adjacent verse says “the whole erets had one language,” we can assume this erets means “land,” just as it does in the previous and following verses.

       This happened in Shinar, the name for what later became Babylon (Gen 11:2; Dan 1:2). This is the site of the earliest city civilization, where society was first organized into specialties: farming, building, accounting, religion, and fighting. As in many other population centers, the rulers consolidated their hold over the people by uniting them in a huge building project, for example Stonehenge and Mayan temples. This tower was a visible sign that held the people together and reminded them that their strength came from working together for a common purpose. We don’t know what the purpose was in this case, but Genesis suggests that if they had continued, they would have become unstoppable. God said: “If as one people speaking the same language they have begun to do this, then nothing they plan to do will be impossible for them” (Gen 11:6). He stopped them by making everyone unintelligible to their neighbors.


This story of this tower wasn’t regarded as a myth in the ancient world because the tower wasn’t lost until about 300 BC. It had not been finished, because it was abandoned when the people couldn’t understand each other, but everyone in the ancient world knew of it and could travel to see it. Modern scholars have often thought it was the great ziggurat at Babylon, and new evidence has shown this was essentially correct. Recent scholarship has confirmed that this wasn’t the actual tower of Babel, but it was built on top of a very ancient structure that can be traced back to at least 1700 BC and is likely to be much older. Although pyramid-shaped towers called ziggurats were found throughout Mesopotamia, this one was different: it was larger than normal, and it is now known that the original builders didn’t finish it.

       An inscription found several decades ago that has recently been studied has given us the forgotten history of this monument. It is a record left by Nebuchadnezzar II, who eventually did finish building the tower, in the sixth century BC, at least a thousand years (and probably much longer) after it had been abandoned. His inscription records: “A former king built it … but he did not complete its head. Since a remote time, people had abandoned it.”3 The unfinished original had no top layer, so rain had entered and disintegrated the mud bricks from the inside. This meant Nebuchadnezzar had to virtually rebuild it before he could add his own temple at the top. When finished, it was ninety meters high with more than thirty million handmade bricks, making it the greatest wonder of the ancient world. Imagine something as tall as a thirty-story building in a flat land that has no hills for hundreds of miles. It must have been more awesome than the NASA rocket hangars in the flatlands of Cape Canaveral.

       Unfortunately, Alexander the Great ordered the tower to be demolished so that he could rebuild a better one, but he died before he could start the project. All that remains is the foundation, which excavations have found to extend a long way underground. It is clear from what is left that the size was not exaggerated. The inscription that was discovered included an engraving that reveals the shape of Nebuchadnezzar’s rebuilt version: a stepped ziggurat with a very tall first stage and an extraordinary large temple at the top.

An Indiana Jones story

The inscription was originally found at Babylon in 1917 by three archaeologists. They recognized that this was Nebuchadnezzar’s message of dedication for the tower and realized how important it was. It was carved on a stele (a large stone tablet) that had been broken into three pieces. Events then unfolded like an Indiana Jones story. Realizing that the worsening world war was bringing armies to the area, the archaeologists decided to ensure the safety of the stele by removing it from the country. They each took a piece to their homes – to Germany, London, and the US. The first two pieces are now on view in the Schoyen Collection.4 But the third one – which includes a floor plan of the temple built on the top – has disappeared somewhere in the US.5 I imagine that someone will one day turn these events into a movie, where they’ll find the missing piece and discover the floor plan includes a treasure map!

       Ancient people like Nebuchadnezzar must have wondered why this tower had never been completed, and the Bible gave them the answer: God interrupted the building project. But what was so wrong about building a tower whose top would reach to the heavens (Gen 11:4)? Was God the first NIMBY? Or did he perhaps want to stop the people’s study of astrology, their idolatry, or their self-satisfied pride? Maybe, like the Aztec pyramids, the structure was being built to perform human sacrifices at the summit. We really have no idea because no records have survived from so long ago to tell us.

       One clue lies in its Sumerian name: E-temen-anki, which in ancient Sumerian meant “House of the Foundation of Heaven and Earth,” as if this formed a physical gateway to the gods.6 This can’t be a name that the Babylonians invented, because their language was Akkadian, and this name is in the much more ancient language of Sumerian, which was spoken in the third millennium BC. The last native speaker of Sumerian died more than a thousand years before Nebuchadnezzar decided to rebuild this strangely named monument. The name sounds very similar to how Genesis describes it: “a tower that reaches to the heavens.” This Bible phrase sounds innocent – as if it merely describes something very tall – but the full version in Sumerian implies that they wanted to communicate with both heaven above and the underworld beneath. Perhaps this physical object represented some dangerous spiritual experimentation.

       The Bible itself says that the danger lay in the people’s unity, because God warned that if humans all worked together there was nothing they couldn’t do (Gen 11:4-6). After all, when humans get organized, they can become very dangerous. They do things like building enough bombs to destroy the planet, wiping out large numbers of species, or burning enough fossil fuel to change the climate.7

       One modern equivalent of the Tower of Babel is the way that humanity is now interconnected via the internet. This is a fantastic achievement, but it does give us a glimpse of the danger that God predicted. A few angry extremists in disparate countries can now get together to organize terrorist attacks that kill thousands and disrupt the lives millions of people. Sexual predators, bullies, and identity thieves can find victims anywhere in the world. The internet can spread hatred, misinformation, and also all kinds of dangerous information. As an experiment I researched how to make a radioactive bomb from easily sourced components. The search didn’t take long – but I hope the secret services didn’t follow my research trail.

       This “reverse Babel effect” is also producing wonderfully good and helpful benefits. Every area of research, from medicine to biblical studies, progresses much faster by sharing information. Specialists who previously met only at conferences can now be in constant communication. We feared that computers would isolate people, but translation tools and social networking are bringing people together in ways previously impossible. Many of us now have more “friends” than we have time for. Governments are finding it harder to secretly oppress their populations because they can’t block phone videos from telling the truth about what is happening in the world. One consequence is that governments find it increasingly difficult to convince their people that another country deserves to be attacked. Another consequence is that everyone – even foolish or evil people – can just as easily spread lies and hatred.

       Will the internet ultimately bring good or evil? We have survived many potential world-breaking crises: two world wars, a Cold War with missiles on a hair trigger, a population explosion saved by an agricultural revolution, and a rescued ozone layer. We have survived these by working together, and the internet is helping us to cooperate more and more. But Revelation may have a disturbing comment about a danger that will come from the internet: translate “666” into Hebrew numbers and you get “www”! Perhaps this is laughably pessimistic, but could it be ultimately realistic? Will online banking, trading, and working eventually produce a society where each life can be controlled by the state?

       The world will need to be rescued from the brink at least one more time by Jesus’ return, but in the meantime, the church is here to restrain evil and delay the coming of that day (2 Thess 2:6). In the world of the internet, every user counts, and everyone can contribute. Each individual user can powerfully affect many others, for both good and evil. Fake news that stirs up hatred can be combated with facts, and conflicts based on religious or ethnic tribalism can be dissipated by talking to each other.

       We can all ensure that this new ease of communication doesn’t unite us into disparate communities that each want to take over the world. Instead of building a tower to highlight the importance of our own group, we should be integrating and befriending people in groups where we don’t naturally belong. We can work to bring everyone into a unity under God – not a unity against everyone else who doesn’t live in our land. That plan didn’t work out so well last time.


• New languages develop when populations become isolated.
• This had already happened before Babel (Gen 10:5, 20, 31).
• The language of the “world”/”land” of Shinar was “confused” to make the people scatter (Gen 11:1-2, 7-9).
• Nebuchadnezzar built the great ziggurat on the foundation of an ancient tower that was unfinished and abandoned at least a millennium before.
• Proposal: The tower united the people around a purpose that God needed to frustrate, so he made them scatter.

1^ For an overview, see Wikipedia, “Indo-European Languages” (
2^ As we saw in chap. 11, “How Big Was the Flood?”
3^ See Wikipedia, “Tower of Babel” (
4^ See Schoyen Collection, “Tower of Babel Stele” (
5^ See a scholarly article by A. R. George, “The Tower of Babel: Archaeology, History and Cuneiform Texts,” Archiv für Orientfoschung 51 (2005-2006): 75-95 (
6^ See Wikipedia, “Etemenanki” (, and Jona Lendering, “Etemenanki (the ‘Tower of Babel’),” Livius (
7^ See chap. 14, “Ecology and the New Earth.”

This was previously published in a similar form in Christianity magazine

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