Click here to get started today!
Cyclopedia of Biblical, Theological and Ecclesiastical Literature
(Heb. Babel', בָּבֶל, confusion; and so the Sept. Σύγχυσις, Genesis 11:9), originally the name applied to the Tower of Babel (Genesis 11:9), but afterward extended (in the Heb.) to the city of Babylon (Genesis 10:10), which appears to have grown up around it, and finally to the whole province of Babylonia (Ezekiel 23:17, margin), of which this was the capital. For these latter, (See BABYLON); (See BABYLONIA).
1. Origin of the Tower. — From the account in Genesis 11:1-9, it appears that the primitive fathers of mankind having, from the time of the Deluge, wandered without fixed abode, settled at length in the land of Shinar, where they took up a permanent residence. As yet they had remained together without experiencing those vicissitudes and changes in their outward lot which encourage the formation of different modes of speech, and were therefore of one language. Arrived, however, in the land of Shinar, and finding materials suitable for the construction of edifices, they proceeded to make and burn bricks, and using the bitumen, in which parts of the country abound, for cement, they built a city and a tower of great elevation. A divine interference, however, is related to have taken place. In consequence, the language of the builders was confounded, so that they were no longer able to understand each other. They therefore "left off to build the city," and were scattered "abroad upon the face of all the earth." The narrative adds that the place took its name of Babel (confusion) from this confusion of dialect. (See CONFUSION OF TONGUES).
2. Its Design. — The sacred narrative (Genesis 11:4) assigns as the reason which prompted men to the undertaking simply a desire to possess a building so large and high as might be a mark and rallying-point in the vast plains where they had settled, in order to prevent their being scattered abroad, and thus the ties of kindred be rudely sundered, individuals be involved in peril, and their numbers be prematurely thinned at a time when population was weak and insufficient. The idea of preventing their being scattered abroad by building a lofty tower is applicable in the most remarkable manner to the wide and level plains of Babylonia, where scarcely one object exists different from another to guide the traveler in his journeying, and which, in those early days, as at present, were a sea of land, the compass being then unknown. Such an attempt agrees with the circumstances in which the sons of Noah were placed, and is in itself of a ‘ commendable nature. But that some ambitious and unworthy motives were blended with these feelings is clearly implied in the sacred record, which, however, is evidently conceived and set forth in a dramatic manner (Genesis 11:6-7), and may wear around a historical substance somewhat of a poetical dress (Bauer, Mythol. 1, 223). The apostate Julian has attempted to turn the narrative into ridicule; but even if viewed only as an attempt to account for the origin of diversity of languages, and of the dispersion of the human family, it challenges consideration and respect. The opinion of Heeren (Asiatic Nations, 2, 146) is far different and more correct: "There is," says he, "perhaps nowhere else to be found a narrative so venerable for its antiquity, or so important in the history of civilization, in which we have at once preserved the traces of primaeval international commerce, the first political associations, and the first erection of secure and permanent dwellings." A comparison of this narrative with the absurd or visionary pictures which the Greeks and Romans give of the primitive condition of mankind, will gratify the student of the Bible and confirm the faith of the Christian by showing the marked difference there is between the history contained in Genesis and the fictions of the poet, or the traditions of the mythologist. (See Eichhorn, Diversitatis linguaram ex traditione Semitica origines, Goett. 1788; also in the Biblioth. d. bibl. Lit. 3, 981 sq.)
3. Traditions concerning it. — Versions more or less substantially correct of this account are found among other nations. The Chaldaeans themselves relate (Abydenus, quoted by Eusebius, Prepar. Evang. 1, 14 comp. Chron. Armen. 1, 38 and 59) that "the first men, relying on their size and strength, raised a tower reaching toward heaven in the place where Babylon afterward stood, but that the winds, assisting the gods, brought the building down on the heads of the builders, out of the ruins of which Babylon itself was built. Before this event men had spoken the same tongue, but afterward, by the act of the gods, they were made to differ in their speech." Plato also reports (Polit. p. 272) a tradition that in the Golden Age men and animals made use of one common language, but, too ambitiously aspiring to immortality, were, as a punishment, confounded in their speech by Jupiter. In the details of the story of the war of the Titans against the gods may also be traced some traditionary resemblance to the narrative of the Bible (see Pliny, 7:1, 11 and 112; Hygin. Fab. 143). "The sibyl," says Josephus (Ant. 1, 4, 3), "also makes mention of this town, and of the confusion of language, when she says thus: ‘ When all men were of one language, some of them built a high tower, as if they would thereby ascend up to heaven; but the gods sent storms of wind and overthrew the tower, and gave every one his peculiar language; and for this reason it was that the city was called Babylon'" (comp. Philo, Cpp. 1, 406). The. same writer (ib. 2) assigns as the reason of this overthrow and confusion the displeasure of God at seeing them act so madly under the influence of Nimrod, "a bold bad man," who, in order to alienate the minds of the people from God, and to take revenge for the Deluge which had destroyed their forefathers, induced them to build a tower too high for the waters to be able to reach. Aben Ezra (in loc. Gen.) has given a more probable explanation. "Those," he says; "who built the Tower of Babel were not so insensate as to imagine they could by any such means reach to heaven; nor did they fear another Deluge, since they had the promise of God to the contrary; but they wished for a city which should be a common residence and a general rendezvous, serving in the wide and open plains of Babylonia to prevent the traveler from losing his way; in order that while they took measures for their own convenience and advantage, they might also gain a name with future ages." (See NIMROD).
4. Its subsequent History. — The "Tower of Babel" is only mentioned once in Scripture (Genesis 11:4-5), and then as incomplete. No reference to it appears in the prophetic denunciations of the punishments which were to fall on Babylon for her pride. It is therefore quite uncertain whether the building ever advanced beyond its foundations. As, however, the classical writers universally, in their descriptions of Babylon, gave a prominent place to a certain tower-like building, which they called the temple (Herod. ut inf.; Diod. Sic. 2:9; Arrian, Exped. Alex. 7, 17, etc.), or the tomb (Strabo, 16, p. 738) of Belus, it has generally been supposed that the tower was in course of time finished, and became the principal temple of the Chaldaean metropolis. (See BEL).
Certainly this may have been the case; but, while there is presumption in favor of it, there is some evidence against it. A Jewish tradition, recorded by Bochart (Phaleg, 1, 9), declared that fire fell from heaven, and split the tower through to its foundation; while Alexander Polyhistor (Frag. 10), and the other profane writers who noticed the tower (as Abydenus, Frs. 5 ‘ and 6), said that it had been blown down by the winds. Such authorities, therefore, as we possess, represent the building as destroyed soon after its erection. When the Jews, however, were carried captive into Babylonia, struck with the vast magnitude and peculiar character of certain of the Babylonian temples, they imagined that they saw in them not merely buildings similar in type and mode of construction to the "tower" (מִכְדָּל ) of their scriptures, but in this or that temple they thought to recognize the very tower itself. (See BABYLON).
5. The "Tower of Belus," presumed to occupy its site. — Herodotus describes the temple in his own simple but graphic manner (i. 181). "In the other division of the city is the temple of the god Belus, with brazen gates, remaining till my own time, quadrangular, and in all of two stadia. In the middle of the sacred enclosure there stands a solid tower of a stadium both in depth and width; upon this tower another is raised, and another upon that, to the number of eight towers. An ascent to them has been made on the outside, in a circle extending round all the towers. When you reach about half way you find resting-places. In the last tower is a large temple, and in the temple lies a large bed well furnished, and near it stands a golden' table; but there is no image within; nor does any one remain there by night, only a native female, one whom the god has chosen in preference to all others, as say the Chaldseans who are priests of that god. And these persons also say, asserting what I do not believe, that the god himself frequents the temple and reposes on the couch. And there belongs to the temple in Babylon another shrine lower down, where there stands a large golden image of the god, and near it is placed a large golden table, and the pedestal and throne are gold, and, as the Chaldaeans say, these things were made for eight hundred talents of gold. And out of the shrine is a golden altar; and there is another great altar where sheep-offerings are sacrificed, for it is not permitted to sacrifice upon the golden altar, except sucklings only; but upon the greater altar the Chaldaeans offer every year a thousand talents' worth of frankincense at the time when they celebrate the festival of the god. And there was at that time in the temple a statue of twelve cubits of solid gold; but I did not see it, and relate merely what was told me by the Chaldaeans. Darius Hystaspis wished to have this statue, but did not dare to take it; but Xerxes, his son, took it, and slew the priest who forbade him to move the statue. Thus is this sacred place adorned; and there are also in it many private offerings." These offerings, made by individuals, consisting of statues, censers, cups, and sacred vessels of massive gold, constituted a property of immense value. On the top Semiramis placed three golden statues of Jupiter, Juno, and Rhea. The first was 40 feet high, and weighed 1000 Babylonish talents. The statue of Rhea was of the same weight: the goddess was seated on a golden throne with lions at each knee, and two serpents of silver. The statue of Juno was erect like that: of Jupiter, weighing 800 talents; she grasped a serpent by the head with her right hand, and held in her left a scepter enriched with gems. A table of beaten gold was common to these three divinities, weighing 500 talents. On the table were two goblets of 10 talents, and two censers of 500 talents each, and three vases of prodigious magnitude. The total value of the precious articles and treasures contained in this proud achievement of idolatry has been computed to exceed six hundred millions of dollars.
From the Holy Scriptures it appears that when Nebuchadnezzar conquered Jerusalem and levelled most of the city with the ground, "he brought away the treasures of the temple, and the treasures of the king's house, and put them all into the temple of Bel at Babylon" (2 Chronicles 37:7). The brazen and other vessels which Solomon had caused to be made for the service of Jehovah are said to have been broken up by order of the Assyrian monarch, and formed into the famous gates of brass which so long adorned the superb entrances into the great area of the temple of Belus (comp. Hecataeus ap. Joseph. Ant. 1, 4, 3).
The purposes to which this splendid edifice was appropriated may be partly gathered from the preceding statements. These purposes varied in some degree with the changes in opinions and manners which successive ages brought. The signal disappointment inflicted on its original founders show that even in its origin there was connected with it something greatly displeasing to God. It seems, indeed, always to have existed in derogation of the divine glory. Consecrated at the first, as it probably was, to the immoderate ambition of the monotheistic children of the Deluge, it passed to the Sabian religion, and thus, falling one degree from purity of worship, became a temple of the sun and the rest of the host of heaven, till, in the natural progress of corruption, it sank into gross idolatry, and, as the passage from Herodotus shows, was polluted by the vices which generally accompanied the observances of heathen superstition. In one purpose it undoubtedly proved of service to mankind. The Babylonians were given to the study of astronomy. This ennobling pursuit was one of the peculiar functions of the learned men denominated by Herodotus Chaldaeans, the priests of Belus; and the temple was crowned by an astronomical observatory, from the elevation of which the starry heavens could be most advantageously studied over plains so open and wide, and in an atmosphere so clear and bright as those of Babylonia.
To Nimrod the first foundations of the tower are ascribed; Semiramis enlarged and beautified it (Ctesias ap. Diod. Sic. 2:7); but it appears that the temple of Bel, in its most renowned state, was not completed till the time of Nebuchadnezzar, who, after the accomplishment of his many conquests, consecrated this superb edifice to the idolatrous object to whom he ascribed his victories. That the observatory on the tower was erected in remote times there is good reason to believe. Prideaux mentions (Connection, 1, 123) the circumstance that when Alexander made himself master of Babylon, Callisthenes, the philosopher, who attended him thither, found astronomical observations ascending upward 1900 years. (See ASTRONOMY).
Map of Location
These files are public domain.
McClintock, John. Strong, James. Entry for 'Babel'. Cyclopedia of Biblical, Theological and Ecclesiastical Literature. https://www.studylight.org/encyclopedias/eng/tce/b/babel.html. Harper & Brothers. New York. 1870.