The Tower of Babel sits among the classic origin stories in the Bible that explain how our world came to be. From creation to the Fall, to the Flood, to the Tower of Babel, we see how humanity was created, how it fell, and how we dispersed.
The story of Babel tells us about the origin of many languages. But what really happened at the Tower of Babel? Did God just get mad about people building a tall structure, or was there more to it?
Where in the Bible Is the Story of Babel?
The story of the Tower of Babel is found in Genesis 11:1-9. Prior to Genesis 11, Genesis 9 finishes up the account of the Flood, and Genesis 10 recounts Noah’s offspring, describing which of his sons’ lines would eventually lead to which people groups.
Right after this long account of lineages and offspring, Genesis 11:1 states, “Now the whole world had one language and a common speech.” From context clues, we gather that this is only a few generations after Noah and the Flood.
This story takes place after the Flood, but before the events of Abraham’s life.
What Was the Tower of Babel?
In the biblical text, the phrase “tower of Babel” never appears. Instead, that heading was added later to help readers. The tower’s name was not Babel; rather, Babel was the name of the city in which the tower was built.
The Bible doesn’t spend a lot of time describing the tower, but it describes the building process in this way in Genesis 11:3-4:
They said to each other, “Come, let’s make bricks and bake them thoroughly.” They used brick instead of stone, and tar for mortar. Then they said, “Come, let us build ourselves a city, with a tower that reaches to the heavens, so that we may make a name for ourselves; otherwise we will be scattered over the face of the whole earth.”
The main focus seemed to be the city of Babel itself, but the tower, presumably, was to be a symbol of the city’s power.
Some scholars believe this tower was a step pyramid or ziggurat. This is a structure often found in the ancient world and was used for worship, with the idea that the steps ascending into the sky would allow the worshippers to get closer to the gods. Of course, with so little information on the specifics (unlike the detailed instructions for Noah’s Ark), we can’t be sure.
Who Built the Tower of Babel?
Genesis 11:2 records that as people moved eastward after the Flood, they settled in the land of Shinar, which many believe is an old name for the land of Babylon.
Genesis 10:10 states that Nimrod, Noah’s great-grandson, founded Babylon in Shinar (among other cities). Some translations list this city as Babel rather than Babylon, and it is widely believed that Babel and Babylon refer to the same city.
This explanation is accepted in many Jewish writings, such as Josephus’s Antiquities, which states, “[Nimrod] also said he would be revenged on God if he should have a mind to drown the world again; for that he would build a tower too high for the waters to be able to reach! and that he would avenge himself on God for destroying their forefathers!” (Antiquities of the Jews, Book 1, Chapter 4)
We don’t know exactly who the “people” of Genesis 11:2 are, but a good guess for at least some of them would be Nimrod’s followers, and/or the descendants of Noah’s grandson Cush.
Why Did God Destroy the Tower of Babel?
God didn’t actually destroy Babel—but we’ll get to that later.
Building a city in and of itself wasn’t an offense to God. However, we must look at two specific ways in which the builders of Babel disobeyed the Lord.
Genesis 11:4 records, “Then they said, ‘Come, let us build ourselves a city, with a tower that reaches to the heavens, so that we may make a name for ourselves; otherwise we will be scattered over the face of the whole earth.’”
Let’s first focus on the phrase “so that we may make a name for ourselves.” They wanted everyone to know how great they were. Their pride and arrogance had gotten out of hand.
This is where many explanations of the sin of Babel stop, but this misses a deeper and more fundamental arrogance in the face of God.
God specifically told Noah and his descendants to spread out and “fill the earth” (Genesis 9:1). Beyond trying to be better than everyone else, the people of Babel were disobeying God’s command. God told them to disperse, and they built the city for the express purpose of not being “scattered over the face of the earth” (Genesis 11:4).
It is possible that the tower also had something to do with polytheistic worship, or setting themselves up as gods, considering that ziggurats were associated with pagan worship. We don’t have specific concrete evidence for this, though.
What Happened to the Tower of Babel?
God saw what the people were doing in Babel. He saw how they disobeyed Him. At the time, Genesis 11:1 tells us, all the people spoke one language. So, God stopped the building project in a creative way.
The idea of God “destroying” the Tower of Babel isn’t exactly accurate. No fire rained from the sky, and the Bible doesn’t say that God destroyed it. However, He halted all building progress.
Genesis 11:5-9 says, “But the LORD came down to see the city and the tower the people were building. The LORD 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. Come, let us go down and confuse their language so they will not understand each other.’ So the LORD scattered them from there over all the earth, and they stopped building the city. That is why it was called Babel —because there the LORD confused the language of the whole world. From there the LORD scattered them over the face of the whole earth.”
Is the Tower of Babel Still Standing Today?
Archeologists haven’t identified with certainty a particular structure as the Tower of Babel. Since we don’t know how far the builders got in the project before God stopped them, there also might not have been many remains to begin with. Many ancient structures have been lost to time.
A few potential structures have been put forth, including one that a tablet states was built by Nebuchadnezzar II, which wouldn’t fit with the biblical timeline indicated by Nimrod. Others have suggested it to be the Babylonian temple of Marduk. Yet other theories postulate it might have been torn down by Alexander the Great.
Though we don’t have the physical ruins of the Tower of Babel we can go visit (or at least, not yet), the echoes of Babel’s sins still resonate in our human consciousness. Today, do we build monuments and legacies, hoping to make a name for ourselves? Do we focus on what others will think of us, rather than what God desires?
Photo credit: ©iStock/Getty Images Plus/hsiangwent
Alyssa Roat studied writing, theology, and the Bible at Taylor University. She is a literary agent at C.Y.L.E., the publicity manager at Mountain Brook Ink, and a freelance editor with Sherpa Editing Services. She is the co-author of Dear Hero and has 200+ bylines in publications ranging from The Christian Communicator to Keys for Kids. Find out more about her here and on social media @alyssawrote.