The Mesopotamian Background Of The Tower Of Babel Account And Its Implications -- By: John H. Walton

Journal: Bible and Spade (Second Run)
Volume: BSPADE 09:3 (Summer 1996)
Article: The Mesopotamian Background Of The Tower Of Babel Account And Its Implications
Author: John H. Walton


The Mesopotamian Background Of The Tower Of Babel Account And Its Implications

John H. Walton

John H. Walton is Professor of Old Testament at Moody Bible Institute, Chicago. He is author of Ancient Israelite Literature in Its Cultural Context (Zondervan, 1989, as well as numerous articles, and co-author of Obadiah-Jonah: A Bible Study Commentary (Zondervan, 1982) and A Survey of the Old Testament (Zondervan, 1991).

The familiar story of the building of the Tower and City of Babel is found in Genesis 11:1–9. From the initial setting given for the account, on the plain of Shinar, to the final lines where the city is identified with Babel, it is clear that the events recorded took place in southern Mesopotamia.1 It is this southern Mesopotamian backdrop that provides the basis for studying the account in light of what is known of the culture and history of Mesopotamia. One of the immediate results of that perspective is firm conviction that the tower that figures predominantly in the narrative is to be identified as a ziggurat. This is easily concluded from the importance that the ziggurat had in the civilizations of southern Mesopotamia from the earliest development of urbanized life to the high political reaches of the Neo-Babylonian Empire. It is common for the ziggurat to be of central importance in city planning. The frequent objection that the Hebrew term migdāl is used primarily in military contexts or as a watch tower, but never used of a ziggurat, is easily addressed on three fronts.

1. We do not expect to see the term migdāl used of ziggurats in Hebrew because the Israelites did not have ziggurats.

2. We do not expect the Israelites to have a ready term for ziggurats because ziggurats were not a part of the Israelite culture.

3. Given the absence of a term in Hebrew, we would expect them to either borrow the word if they had to talk about them, use a suitable existing term, or devise a word. To call the ziggurat a tower is not inaccurate, and as a matter of fact, the term they used is derived from the Hebrew term gdl (to be large), which is somewhat parallel to the etymological root of the Akkadian word, ziqqurat (zaqaru, to be high). Despite the fact then that the

Hebrew term is used primarily in military senses or as watch towers, the context here and the known background of the narrative prevent us from being limited to that semantic range. A possible nonmilitary function of a mgdl may occur in Ugaritic as a place of sacrifice (Keret I...

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