International Standard Bible Encyclopedia
BABEL, TOWER OF
This expression does not occur in the Old Testament, but is used popularly for the tower mighdol built by the inhabitants of the world who, traveling in the East, built a city on the Plain of Shinar, with a tower "whose top may reach unto heaven"--an expression which is regarded as meaning "a very high tower."
1. General Form of Babylonian Temple-Towers:
There was a great difference, however, between a Canaanite mighdol or watchtower, and the great Tower at Babylon. The watchtower was simply a high structure, probably without any special shape or form, which depended upon the will of the architect and the nature of the ground upon which it was erected. The Tower of Babel or Babylon, however, was a structure peculiar to Babylonia and Assyria. According to all accounts, and judging from the ruins of the various erections extant in those countries, Babylonian towers were always rectangular, built in stages, and provided with an inclined ascent continued along each side to the top. As religious ceremonies were performed thereon, they were generally surmounted by a chapel in which sacred objects or images were kept.
2. Their Babylonian Name:
These erections had, with the Babylonians, a special name: ziqquratu, meaning, apparently, "peak," or the highest point of a mountain, this word being applied to the mountain-height upon which Ut-napishtim, the Babylonian Noah, offered sacrifices on coming forth from the ark (or ship) when the waters of the great Flood had sufficiently subsided. It has also been thought that they were used as observatories when the Babylonians studied the starry heavens. This is probable, but as these structures were of no great height, it is possible that, in the clear atmosphere of the Babylonian plains, there was no real necessity to go above the surface of the earth when making their observations.
3. Whereabouts of the Tower of Babel:
There has been much difference of opinion as to the geographical position of the Tower of Babel. Most writers upon the subject, following the tradition handed down by the Jews and Arabs, have identified it with the great Temple of Nebo in the city of Borsippa, now called the Birs-Nimroud (explained as a corruption of Birj Nimroud, "Tower of Nimrod"). This building, however, notwithstanding its importance, was to all appearance never regarded by the Babylonians as the Tower of Babel, for the very good reason that it was not situated in Babylon, but in Borsippa, which, though called, in later times, "the second Babylon," was naturally not the original city of that name. The erection regarded by the Babylonians as the great Tower of their ancient city was E-temen-ana-ki, "the Temple of the foundation of heaven and earth," called by Nabopolassar and Nebuchadrezzar ziqqurat Babili, "the Tower of Babylon"--the world-renowned temple dedicated to Merodach and his consort Zer-panitum, Babylon's chief deities.
4. Its Position at Babylon:
This structure was situated in the southern portion of the city, not far from the right bank of the Euphrates, and according to Weissbach, is now represented by a depression within which is the original rectangular core of unbaked brick. From its shape, the Arabs have made this site Sahan, "the dish." These remains of the great temple-tower of Babylon, within the memory of men not so very old, towered, even in its ruined state, high above the surrounding plain. The burnt bricks of the ancient Babylonians, however, who "had brick for stone, and slime (bitumen) for mortar" (Gen 11:3), are still good and have a commercial value, so they were all cleared out, with whatever precious material in the way of antiquities they may have contained, to repair, it is said, the banks of the Hindiyeh Canal. Certain records in the shape of conical "cylinders," however, came into the market, and were acquired by the museums of Europe and America. As these refer to the restoration of the building by Nabopolassar, and the part taken by his sons Nebuchadrezzar and Nabu-sum-lisir in the ceremonies attending the rebuilding, it is very probable that they formed part of the spoils acquired.
5. A Babylonian Description of the Tower:
E-temen-ana-ki, to give the Babylonian (Sumerian) name, consisted of six stages built upon a platform, and provided with a sanctuary at the top. A tablet seemingly giving a detailed description of this building was for a time in the hands of the late George Smith in the year 1876. Unfortunately he had not time to give a translation of the document, or to publish the text, but his detailed account of it (Athenaeum, February 12, 1876) is exceedingly interesting.
First there was the outer court called the "grand court," measuring, according to G. Smith's estimate, 1,156 ft. by 900 ft., and a smaller one, called "the court of Ishtar and Zagaga," 1,056 ft. by 450 ft. Round the court were six gates admitting to the temples: (1) the grand gate; (2) the gate of the rising sun (east); (3) the great gate; (4) the gate of the colossi; (5) the gate of the canal; and (6) the gate of the tower-view.
6. The Platform:
After this came a space or platform apparently walled--a ki-gallu square in form, and measuring 3 ku each way. Its size is doubtful, as the value of the ku is unknown. The sides of this enclosure faced the cardinal points. In its walls were four gates, one on each side, and named from the points toward which they looked. Within this enclosure stood a large building measuring 10 gar (Smith: 200 ft.) each way. Unfortunately, the name of this erection was damaged, so that its nature and use are uncertain.
7. The Chapels and Shrines:
Round the base of the Tower were small temples or chapels dedicated to the various gods of the Babylonians. On the East were 16 shrines, the principal of them being dedicated to Nebo and Tasmetu, his spouse; on thee North were two temples dedicated to Ea. (Ae) and Nusku respectively; on the South was a single temple to the two great gods, Anu and Bel (Enlil?). It was on the West, however, that the principal buildings lay--a double house with a court between the wings 35 cubits (Smith: 58 ft.) wide. These two wings were not alike in dimensions, the erection on one side being 100 cubits by 20 (166 ft. by 34 ft.) and on the other 100 cubits by 65 (166 ft. by 108 ft.). In these western chambers stood the couch of the god, and the golden throne mentioned by Herodotus, with other objects of great value. The couch was stated to have measured 9 cubits by 4 (15 ft. by 6 feet 8 inches).
8. The Tower in Its First Stage:
In the center of these groups of buildings stood the great Tower in stages, called by the Babylonians "the Tower of Babel" (ziqqurat Babili). The stages decreased from the lowest upward, but each was square in plan. The first or foundation-stage was 15 gar each way by 5 1/2 gar high (300 ft. by 110 ft. high), and seems to have been decorated with the usual double recesses which are a characteristic of Assyr-Bab architecture.
9. The Remaining Stages:
The second stage was 13 gar square and 3 gar high (260 ft. by 60 ft.). A term was applied to it which G. Smith did not understand, but he notes that it probably had sloping sides. The stages from the 3rd to the 5th were all of equal height, namely, 1 gar (20 ft.), and were respectively 10 gar (200 ft.), 8 1/3 gar (170 ft.) and 7 gar (140 ft.) square. The dimensions of the 6th stage were omitted, but may be restored in accordance with the others, namely, 5 1/2 gar square (110 ft.) by 1 gar (20 ft.) high.
10. The Chapel at the Top:
On this was raised what Smith calls the 7th stage, namely, the upper temple or sanctuary of the god Bel-Merodach, 4 gar long, 3 1/2 gar broad and 2 1/2 gar high (80 ft., 60 ft., and 50 ft., respectively). He does not mention the statue of the god, but it may be supposed that it was set up in this topmost erection. The total height of the tower above its foundation was therefore 15 gar (300 ft.), the same as the breadth of its base. It cannot be said that it was by any means a beautiful erection, but there was probably some symbolism in its measurements, and in appearance it probably resembled (except the decoration) the temple tower of Calah as restored in the frontispiece to Layard's Monuments of Nineveh, 1st series, in which a step-pyramid with a similarly highbasement stage is shown.
11. Herodotus' Description:
With this detailed description, which is quite what would be expected in a Babylonian account of such a celebrated temple, the description in Herodotus (i.181 ff) agrees. He states that it was a temple square in form, two furlongs (1,213 ft.) each way, in the midst of which was built a solid tower a furlong square (nearly 607 ft.). This, however, must have been the platform, which, with the six stages and the chapel on the top, would make up the total of eight stages of which Herodotus speaks. The ascent by which the top was reached he describes as running "outside round about all the towers"--wording which suggests, though not necessarily, that it was spiral--i.e. one had to walk round the structure 7 times to reach the top. Representations on Babylonian boundary-stones suggest that this view would be correct, though a symmetrical arrangement of inclined paths might have been constructed which would have greatly improved the design. At the middle of the ascent, Herodotus says, there was a stopping-place with seats to rest upon, which rather favors this idea. At the top of the last tower there was a large cell, and in the cell a large couch was laid, well covered; and by it a golden table. There was no image there, nor did any human being spend the night there, except only a woman of the natives of the place chosen by the god, "as say the Chaldeans who are the priests of this god." These men told Herodotus that the god often came to the cell, and rested upon the couch, "but," he adds, "I do not believe them." After mentioning parallels to this at Egyptian Thebes and Patam in Lycia, he goes on to speak of another cell below (that referred to in G. Smith's tablet) wherein was a great image of Zeus (Bel-Merodach) sitting, with a footstool and a large table, all of gold, and weighing no less than 800 talents. Outside of this cell was an altar to the god, made of gold; and also another altar, whereon full-grown animals were sacrificed, the golden altar being for sucklings only. The Chaldeans also told him that there was, in the precincts of the building, a statue 12 cubits high, and of solid gold. Darius Hystaspis desired to take possession of this valuable object, but did not venture. His son Xerxes, however, was not so considerate of the feelings of the people and the priesthood, for he also killed the priest when he forbade him to meddle with it.
12. The Builders of the Tower:
The Bible record does not state who the people were who journeyed in the East and built the city and the Tower. The indefinite "they" might be taken to mean whatever people were there at the time the record was written, and probably presupposes that the reader would certainly know. As the Tower of Babel bears, in the native inscriptions, a Sumero-Akkadian name, it may be supposed that the builders referred to belonged to that race.
13. Traditions Concerning Its Destruction:
It is noteworthy that nothing is said in Gen concerning the stoppage of the erection, though they ceased to build the city. Bochart records a Jewish tradition which makes the tower to have been split through to its foundation by fire which fell from heaven--suggested probably by the condition of the tower at "the second Babylon," i.e. the Birs Nimroud. Another tradition, recorded by Eusebius (Prep. Evang., ix; Chronicon, 13; Syncel. Chron., 44) makes it to have been blown down by the winds; "but when it approached the heavens, the winds assisted the gods, and overturned the work upon its contrivers: and the gods introduced a diversity of tongues among men, who, until that time, had all spoken the same language."
14. The Meaning of "Babel":
The place where they built the Tower was called Babylon, on account of the confusion of languages. Here we have again the statement as in Gen that the meaning of Babel is "confusion." This, as is well known, is based upon the purely Hebrew etymological law, which makes balal, "to confuse," or "mingle," assume a reduplicate form; but as far as the cuneiform inscriptions, which are now very numerous, give us information, Babel, from baldlu, "to mingle" (the root in question), was an impossibility. But on the Babylonian side, that the rendering of the name as Bab-ili (-ilani), "gate of god" ("of the gods") was a folk-etymology, is undoubted, notwithstanding that the Sumero-Akkadian form Ka-dingira, with the same meaning, is far from rare. It is noteworthy, however, that one of the forms used by Nebuchadrezzar is Babilam, with the mimmation or "emming," which is a characteristic of the Babylonian language; moreover, a place-name Babalam also occurs, which may be a still earlier, and perhaps the original, form. Notwithstanding that one would like to see in Babalam, "the place of bringing together," and in Babilam, "the bringer together," the termination -am would seem to be an insurmountable difficulty.
15. The Ultimate Destruction of the Tower:
That the building of the city would have been stopped when the confusion of tongues took place is natural--the departure of the greater part of the inhabitants made this inevitable. When the population increased again, the building of the city was continued, with the result that Babylon ultimately became the greatest city of then known world. The Tower, notwithstanding what had been said as to its destruction, remained, and when, as happened from time to time, its condition became ruinous, some energetic Babylonian king would restore it. Alexander and Philip of Macedon began clearing away the rubbish to rebuild the great temple of Bclus (Bel-Merodach) connected with it and there is hardly any doubt that the Tower would have been restored likewise, but the untimely death of the former, and the deficient mental caliber of the latter for the ruling of a great empire, put an end to the work. The Tower therefore remained unrepaired--"The tower was exceedingly tall. The third part of it sank down into the ground, a second third was burned down, and the remaining third was standing until the time of the destruction of Babylon" (Rabbi Yehanan, Sanhedhrin, 109, 1).
16. No Idea of Reaching Heaven:
Concerning the reputed intention of the builders of the Tower, to carry it as high as the heavens, that, notwithstanding the Talmud and other writings, may be dismissed at once. The intention was to build a very high tower, and that is all that is implied by the words employed. That the Babylonians would have liked their tower to reach heaven may be conceded, and the idea may be taken as symbolical of Babylon's pride, the more especially as they regarded it as "the house of the foundation of heaven and earth." Though at present brought lower than the other temple-towers of Babylonia, its renown remains as one of the great glories of that renowned capital. Dedicated as it was to the gods whom they worshipped, and chiefly to the glory of Merodach, the representative of Babylonian monotheism, the Babylonians' descendants, the native Christians, have no reason to remember this erection of their forefathers with shame, but rather with pride. The rallyingpoint of nations, Babylon, while it existed, was always a great commercial center, and many are the languages which have resounded in the Tower's vicinity. The confusion of tongues led to the Jewish fiction that the air of Babylon and Borsippa caused forgetfulness, and was therefore injurious to students of the Law, causing them to forget it as the builders of the Tower had of old forgotten their speech (Rashi, Sanhedhrin, 109, 1). This, however, did not prevent the rabbis of Babylon from being more celebrated than those of the Holy Land, and even of Jerusalem itself.
See also ASTRONOMY.
T. G. Pinches
Orr, James, M.A., D.D. General Editor. "Definition for 'babel, tower of'". "International Standard Bible Encyclopedia". bible-history.com - ISBE
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