John Walton must know a lot more about the Tower of Babel story in Genesis 11:1-9 than I do—it was the subject of his doctoral dissertation, and, of course, he is an eminent Old Testament scholar. Still, I am not persuaded by his argument in a recent Christianity Today article, “Beware Our Tower of Babel,” that the builders were “exploiting a relationship with God”—with the practical application that our own approach to God sometimes “reeks of transactionalism.”
The common interpretation of the passage, in Walton’s view, is that the builders of the tower were guilty on two counts: first, 0f disobeying the creation command to fill the earth; secondly, of launching an assault on heaven. “The inevitable lesson warns against the dangers of overweening pride, the hubris of ambition, and the folly of disobedience.” A better informed understanding of ancient Mesopotamian culture suggests that the traditional interpretation misses the real point of the passage.
The “codependent transactionalism” of the Babel-builders
In the first place, Walton says, making a name for someone is always viewed positively in the Old Testament: typically, God makes a name for himself or for someone else, such as Abram or David. The Babel story is the only place where people make a name for themselves (he seems to overlook 2 Sam. 8:13-14), but Walton thinks that this “does not mean it is inherently an offensive act.” We learn from other ancient Near Eastern texts that to make a name for oneself is regarded as an honourable undertaking, “characterized by good deeds and great accomplishments.” So we should not think that the Babel-builders were at fault in wanting to make a name for themselves.
There is also little reason to suppose that their desire not to be dispersed across the earth was objectionable. The words about filling the earth are grammatically an imperative (Gen. 1:28; 9:7), but they are also part of a blessing, and a blessing “cannot be disobeyed because it carries no obligation.” In fact, it is natural for groups of people to want to resist scattering and instead to build communities and cities.
So if the problem is not pride and disobedience, what is it? Walton’s research has led him to two key conclusions.
First, the tower of Babel was a ziggurat, and ziggurats were built not so that people might ascend into heaven but so that the gods might descend from heaven into the temple complex to be worshipped.
Secondly, worship of the gods consisted in meeting their needs, which is why they created humanity in the first place.
The result of this mentality was a codependence in a symbiotic relationship between gods and humans that was entirely transactional: People would take care of the gods, and the gods would protect the people and bring them prosperity.
This explains how they would make a name for themselves: they would look after their god, the god would give them prosperity, and their fame would spread. And this is where the problem lay: in order to make a name for themselves they were “exploiting a relationship with God.” So when God does descend, it is not to engage in the customary you-scratch-my-back-I’ll-scratch-yours transaction (Walton calls it “codependent transactionalism”). It is to put an end to a misguided attempt to restore the social-religious order that was forfeited in the garden by enticing the god back down to earth.
The traditional view has something to be said for it
1. It seems to me that Walton too easily dismisses the negative connotations of “let us make a name for ourselves” (Gen. 11:4). True, the expression is nowhere else used negatively in the Old Testament, but it is also nowhere else used with someone other than God or an Israelite as its subject. Even in the case where David makes a name for himself, it is explicitly because “the LORD gave David the victory wherever he went” (2 Sam. 8:13-14). It seems much more natural to read “let us make a name for ourselves” in contrast to YHWH’s words to Abram: “I will bless you and make your name great” (Gen. 12:2). It is precisely the problem that Mesopotamian societies thought it honourable to compete in making a name for themselves through self-aggrandisement.
2. It is difficult to shrug off the impression that the Babel-builders were wrong to settle as a concentrated population in one place. The flood had blotted out all life, humans and animals, “from the face of the ground… from the earth” (Gen. 7:23). The renewal of the creation mandate to be fruitful and multiply and fill the earth after the flood (9:1), therefore, is for the purpose of replacing the life lost from the face of the whole earth. People arrive in the land of Shinar and decide to build a city and a tower “lest we be dispersed over the face of the whole earth,” and God breaks up the population centre and disperses them “over the face of all the earth” (11:4, 8-9).
3. The builders of Babel are criticised not for trying to do a deal with God but for building: they develop a new technology, they make bricks, they cement them together with bitumen, they build a city and a high tower; God comes down to see what they have built and is concerned that as one people, with one language (this was where the story started), they will build even greater things; there will be no stopping them. So God confuses their language in order to disrupt collaboration on such a massive scale; they are dispersed over the face of the earth; and most importantly, they stop building the city. The tower isn’t really the problem; it’s the city as the product of collective and concentrated human endeavour.
Was the tower a ziggurat?
The plan was to build a tower (miḡdāl) with its “head in the heavens.” The description of the founding of Babylon in Enūma Eliš is often invoked to explain this. The great God Marduk has created humanity to do the work of the lesser gods, and in gratitude the gods offer to build a shrine for Marduk so that when they come to visit him in his chamber, they will have somewhere to rest and feast. Marduk is pleased with the proposal and instructs them to make bricks and “build high the shrine”; and the gods get to work:
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, the counterpart to Apsu,
They built the lofty ziggurat of Apsu,
For Anu, Enlil, Ea and him they founded the dwelling.
He took his seat in splendor before them,
Its pinnacles were facing toward the base of Esharra.
So doesn’t that settle it? A ziggurat made of bricks with a raised head in the heavens for the benefit of a god? I’m not sure.
1. Translations vary, and I have no knowledge of Akkadian, but I think that Esagila, with the raised head, is not the Etemenanki ziggurat but a temple at its foot. Don’t quote me.
2. A miḡdāl in the Old Testament is usually a defensive structure—a fortress or watchtower. For example: Gideon broke down the “tower (miḡdāl) of Penuel and killed the men of the city” (Judg. 8:17); Abimelech captured Thebez, but “there was a strong tower (miḡdāl) within the city, and all the men and women and all the leaders of the city fled to it and shut themselves in, and they went up to the roof of the tower” (Judg. 9:51); the psalmist says of God, “you have been my refuge, a strong tower (miḡdāl) against the enemy” (Ps. 61:3); and Solomon says sweetly of his bride, “Your neck is like the tower (miḡdāl) of David, built in rows of stone; on it hang a thousand shields, all of them shields of warriors” (Song 4:4). A miḡdāl is never a religious structure.
3. Elsewhere in the Old Testament great cities are said to be “fortified up to heaven” (Deut. 1:28; 9:1); and in Jeremiah 51:53 we read: “Though Babylon should mount up to heaven, and though she should fortify her strong height, yet destroyers would come from me against her.”
4. In the statement “now they will be thwarted in nothing that they propose to do” (Gen. 11:6) the verb batzar, which I have translated “thwarted,” has military connotations: “cut off, make inaccessible (esp. by fortifying)” (BDB). This reinforces the idea that the tower with its head in the heavens had a military purpose.
5. In the Babylonian creation myth, it is not humanity but the gods who enter into a transaction with Marduk, for his convenience and their own comfort; humans merely provide slave labour. Nothing in the Babel story, however, suggests that the construction of the city and tower had anything to do with the gods. So the story seems not to want to be interpreted as being about a “codependent transactionalism” between the people and God.
A fortified city rather than a religious site?
The impression is given, therefore, that Babel is depicted not as a city built around a ziggurat reaching to heaven, for people to ascend or gods to descend, but a city built around a fortress—in anticipation not of the religious ambitions of the Babylonians but of their military strength and the impregnability of the city. In the end, it seems important to note that it is the work of construction that proves unacceptable to God and the city that is left incomplete and desolate. Nothing is said about the religious intentions of the architects and builders of the city.
Why is this of interest? Because it may make a difference to how we tell the story of the summons of Abraham, whose family came from Ur of Chaldeans, from the shadow of the abandoned city of Babel, to be the progenitor of the priestly-prophetic people of the giving creator God (Gen. 11:31-12:3). It tells us something about what we are not. It tells us something about what we have to contend with.