The tower of Babel episode is among the most widely known Bible stories: the people of Shinar resolve to build a city with a tower that reaches to the heights of heaven and God foils their plan by confusing their speech. But what was their motivation for building the tower of Babel in the first place? The biblical text doesn’t tell us explicitly; instead, Scripture assumes familiarity with the historical practice of building such structures and the theological rationale behind their construction. Whereas some have imagined that the builders of Babel erected a tower that would bring them up to God’s level—perhaps to attack the Almighty—the edifice would have served the opposite purpose. The point of tower was not to elevate humans to heaven, but to bring God down to earth.

That the impetus for Babel’s tower was an attempted war with God is an idea that goes back to ancient times. The rabbis of the 5th century CE preserved this interpretation in their commentary on Genesis. According to the midrash, the people at Shinar said to themselves, “God has no right to choose the upper world [i.e., heaven] for himself and to leave the lower world [i.e., earth] to us. Therefore, we will build a tower, with an idol on the top holding a sword, so that it appears to wage war with [God]” (Genesis Rabbah 38:6). Of course, the Bible doesn’t mention any idol at the top of the tower—that’s a rabbinic addition to the story—and the original goal of Babel would not have been to gain access to God’s realm. On the contrary, the people wanted the Lord to leave the heavenly abode and meet them on earth.

The tower of Babel is what’s known as a ziggurat—an ancient building with a staircase that priests ascended to commune with the gods of heaven. Once people reached the top of the staircase, the belief was that heavenly beings would descend to meet them at the apex of the ziggurat. A reference to a ziggurat appears in the pre-biblical Ninsun Temple Inscription (c. 1700s BCE), which says that Warad-Sin, king of Larsa, “made it as a mountain and made its head touch the heavens.” This description mirrors what the people of Shinar declare: “Let us build ourselves a city and a tower with its head in the heavens (ראשׁו בשׁמים; rosho bashamayim)” (Genesis 11:4). The reason for the top of the tower to touch the sky was to give God a place to rest in the earthly realm after coming down from heaven. And the tower of Babel does the trick! Once the building went up, “the Lord came down (ירד; yarad) to see the city and the tower, which the children of humanity had built” (11:5). The people build their ziggurat to coax God earthward, not to storm the gates of Heaven.

But if the reason for the tower was to bring God down to it, and God obliges, then why did the Lord feel the need to confuse the people’s speech and scatter them from Shinar? To be sure, there’s nothing inherently wrong with ziggurats. In fact, God appears to a dreaming Jacob at the top of a ziggurat staircase (not a “ladder”). Jacob “dreamed, and behold, there was a staircase (סלם; sulam) set up on the earth, and its head touched to the heavens (ראשׁו מגיע השׁמימה; rosho magia hashamaymah)” (Gen 28:12). The problem with Babel wasn’t the ziggurat itself, but rather the motivation for the people’s machinations. They say, “Come, let us build ourselves a city and a tower with its head in the heavens, and let us make a name (שׁם; shem) for ourselves (11:4). The people want to exalt their own name, but the purpose of their building project should have been to promote the name of God. That’s what Solomon does when he builds the first Temple, saying, “I have succeeded my father David and have ascended the throne of Israel, as the Lord promised. I have built the house for the name (לשׁם; le’shem) of the Lord, the God of Israel” (1 Kings 8:20). God confuses the builders’ language so that they can’t continue to broadcast their own names through their city’s construction. The tower of Babel brings God down from heaven, but the episode ends with a stark reminder of the God whose name reigns over the earth.

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41 COMMENTS

  1. Incredible. Thanks Dr. Schaser for sharing. It brings so much insight and clarity to the narrative. It's always about the Name of God and exalting His name. So much meat you brought to the table. Thank you again.
  2. There's a LOT more to the story of the Tower of Babel, and with only a few words available per comment, I'm instead linking an article I wrote on the subject last year.
  3. Thanks again for your insights Dr. Nick. Does the ancient peoples' desire to make a name for themselves, coincide with their refusal to spread out and populate the face of the earth as instructed by God to Adam and Noah? It seems, for whatever reason, that they preferred not to "split-up", thus disobeying God.
  4. Thank you so much for always bringing us closer to understanding our roots. Having explanation and understanding to a lifelong mystery brings me closer to understanding my Lord and Savior.
  5. Thank you very much Dr.Nicholas for the insightful revelations. I am blessed with this message. God continue to increase your understanding sir.
  6. Thanks so much Dr. Nicholas for sharing this great insight. It helps me understand how man's heart is wicked, selfish and full of idols. God our creator is sovereign and He is the only one to lead men how they should live. The narrative is straight to the point.
  7. Thanks so much Dr. Nicholas for sharing this great insight. It helps me understand how man's heart is wicked, selfish and full of idols. God our creator is sovereign and He is the only one to lead men how they should live.
  8. God wanted humans to fill the earth (Gen. 1:27-28) but they wanted to stay in one place and give themself a name to be different. Same thing is happening today. Everybody wants to separate from others. That's where war comes from.
  9. The interpretation is probably correct- let God come down to the people. But He was landing on the top of the ziggurat with His flying machine.This is why all the zigguraths all over the world have a flat top,and not a peaked roof,just as skyscrappers have a flat top.
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