Wednesday, January 1, 2014

Extra-Biblical evidence for the Tower of Babel

One of the oldest stories in the Bible concerns the Tower of Babel. Some people today question whether it is simply a myth, with no other evidence outside of the Bible. But, like numerous other events recorded in the Bible, there are historical and archaeological records – from non-Jewish sources – which corroborate the Biblical record.

It is written in Genesis 11:1, 7-8: “Now the whole earth used the same language and the same words … let Us go down and there confuse their language, so that they will not understand one another’s speech. So the Lord scattered them abroad from there over the face of the whole earth; and they stopped building the city. Therefore its name was called Babel, because there the Lord confused the language of the whole earth; and from there the LORD scattered them abroad over the face of the whole earth.” (Genesis 11:1, 7-9) The word babel in ancient Hebrew means “confusion”.

Location of Babel is described in Genesis 10 as in the land of Shinar. Other Biblical passages also reference Shinar, such as Joshua 7:21, Isaiah 11:11, Daniel 1:2, and Zechariah 5:11. The ancient Sumerian name for the Tower of Babel – as is known today – is Etemenanki, which means “House of the foundation of heaven on earth.” [1]

Tower of Babel stele
A black stone dated to 604-562 B.C., 45x27x11 cm, is inscribed in cuneiform script and depicts the Tower of Babel, showing it to have been built in seven stages. Also depicted on the stone is a figure of King Nebuchadnezzar II, with what is believed to be a scroll with plans for rebuilding of the tower. The stone does not provide information to date the original tower construction prior to Nebuchadnezzar’s reconstruction. The tower is named Etemenanki, “The house, the foundation of heaven and earth, ziggurat in Babylon” and the actual artifact is currently housed in the Schoyen Collection. The middle part of the inscription has been erased, though the conquering ruler’s inscription was never inserted. A ziggurat is essentially a stepped rectangular pyramidal tower, often built in stages and with an outside staircase. Schoyen Collection commentators note that the ziggurat was originally built in Babylon around the time of Hammurabi, about 1792-1750 B.C. Restoration began under Nabopolassar and was completed by Nebuchadnezzar II. [2]

Esagila Tablet
A Seleucid stone tablet from Uruk, written in cuneiform, dated to 229 B.C., is currently on display in the Louvre (AO 6555). It is known as the “Esagila” tablet because it records courtyards built in Esagila, a temple of the god Marduk in Babylon. The text was copied from an earlier document which describes reconstruction of the Marduk temple during the reigns of Nabopolassar (625-605 B.C.) and Nebuchadnezzar II (605-562 B.C.). Large stairs were discovered at the south side of the building, where a triple gate connected the Etemenanki with the Esagila. The more interesting portion of the tablet contains writing mentions the ziggurat Etemananki, “House of the Foundation of Heaven and Earth”. The tablet describes Etemananki as a multi-tiered tower and provides precise measurements of seven stories, design of the base, and stairways. This tablet is also valuable because it illustrates a complex mathematical system used by the Babylonians, which was “sacred” and only intended to be used by the “wise men”. [3]

Greek historical records
At least two Greek historians mention this tower. One was Herodotus (ca 484-425 B.C.) in his work Histories. He describes a massive tower in Babylon consisting of eight stages and is surrounded by a ramp. Herodotus stated the length of the base tower is a furlong (about 200 meters or 600 feet). [4] A second Greek source, Diodorus Siculus, also mentions the tower (Book II, 7-10).

Dating construction of the tower
Construction of the Tower of Babel, based on historical and archaeological records, has generally been dated to roughly 3500-2400 B.C. Sargon I is known to have ruled around 2350 B.C. in the capital city of Akkad, in the Mesopotamian valley. History indicates that Sargon I destroyed the temple in Babylon at that time and it was later rebuilt by Sarkalisarri around 2250 B.C. Halley’s Bible Handbook indicates the events occurred the 4th generation after Noah’s flood, around the time of Peleg (Genesis 10:25), about 101 years after the flood and 326 years before the calling of Abraham (Genesis 10:26). [5] Many scholars place the birth of
Abraham roughly prior to 2000 B.C., so this fits with dating of the tower as prior to about 2350 B.C. How much prior is difficult to determine since Biblical genealogies are known to contain gaps, making the time periods longer – maybe much longer - than they might initially appear.

John H. Walton, Professor of Old Testament at Wheaton College, describes a historical setting for the culture at that time which was conducive to building of such a structure. For example, baked brick technology was used around 3100 B.C. And, development of the ziggurat was used in the early Dynastic Period, ca. 2500 B.C., with early prototypes dating back to the late Uruk period, ca. 3500 B.C. [6] So, the Biblical narrative describing building of this tower is well corroborated by extra-Biblical lines of evidence.

The whole earth?
One issue that some raise involves dating of people groups in other parts of the world prior to the usual dating for the Tower of Babel. For instance, carbon 14 dating and artifacts found in the Americas have been dated much earlier than 3500-2400 B.C., possibly more than 14,000 years ago. There are three possible explanations for this. Either the tower was actually constructed earlier than the records seem to indicate, the migrations out of Mesopotamia were later than thought, or a combination of the two. A third possible explanation involves Biblical use of the phrase “the whole earth”. This phrase was used by Moses, author of Genesis, in chapter 11, verses 1, 4, 8, and 9, and is derived from the ancient Hebrew words koi ‘erets. These words are also used by Moses in Genesis 41:57 to describe from where people came to purchase grain. This was during the time Joseph was in Egypt. Hugh Ross makes the point, in discussing the famine of Joseph’s time, that it is important to use the writer’s frame of reference:
“We understand these words to signify that the famine devastated all the lands of the ancient Near East in and around Egypt. We do not interpret them globally, as implying that Australian Aborigines and American Indians came to Egypt to buy grain from Joseph.” [7]

Likewise, is it possible God only needed to confuse the languages of those people living in the Mesopotamian valley region to accomplish His purpose? Perhaps the events recorded in Genesis 11 concern only the people living in the Mesopotamian region during that time and not people groups living in very disparate regions of the globe. In the third millennium B.C., there was no method of communication between people of the Middle East and people of the Americas other than a very long camel ride. The “whole earth” or “whole land” during the time of Moses and Abraham may have encompassed what the people knew of, not very distant lands of which they had no knowledge and no communication.

[1] Jona Lendering, “Etemenanki (Tower of Babel)”, Livius: Articles on Ancient History, accessed 1 Jan 2014.
[2] The Schoyen Collection, “History: Babylonian”, MS 2063, website accessed 1 Jan 2014.
[3] Iselin Claire, “The ‘Esagila’ Tablet”, Louvre Museum, website accessed 1 Jan 2014.
[4] Herodotus, The History of Herodotus, (London: J. M. Dent & Sons Ltd., 1936), p. 181
[5] Henry H. Halley, Halley’s Bible Handbook, (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 1965), p. 83.
[6] John H. Walton, “Is there archaeological evidence for the tower of Babel?”, Associates for Biblical Research, written 10 May 2008., accessed 1 Jan 2014.
[7] Hugh Ross, The Genesis Question, (Colorado Springs, CO: NavPress, 1998), 142-143.