Then they said, “Come, let us build ourselves a city and a tower with its top in the heavens, and let us make a name for ourselves, lest we be dispersed over the face of the whole earth.” – Genesis 11:4 (ESV)
An ancient tablet from Babylon depicting a massive tower has recently been deciphered, and some are now saying it shows powerful evidence that the Bible’s tower of Babel was real. However, a closer look at the facts reveals that things are not always as they are portrayed. What’s at stake for jumping to this conclusion is nothing less than undermining the historical credibility of the Bible.
At the heart of the issue is knowing how the history of the Bible relates to the history of the ancient world. As always, chronology (the dates of events) is the backbone of history and a key to understanding these matters.
The tablet commemorating the building of a nearly 300-foot tower is certainly a remarkable find. Dating from the time of Babylonian King Nebuchadnezzar II (reigned 605 – 562 BC), it contains an image of the king and the huge, seven-tiered ziggurat that he had constructed. It also contains an account of the building of the tower. Ziggurats were square-shaped towers with tiers of decreasing size as they went upward.
The engraving on tablet enhanced showing the tower and Nebuchadnezzar II (Screenshot from the Smithsonian Channel)
The 18 x 10” tablet was discovered more than 100 years ago in the remains of the ancient city of Babylon, located about 80 miles south of Baghdad in modern Iraq. Since that time, it has been part of the private collection of Norwegian businessman Martin Schøyen that was only recently studied. The story of the tablet is set to be told in a segment of a TV series on the Smithsonian Channel called Secrets. The show’s preview trailer trumpets the claims that, “This tablet provides the first ever image of the real Tower of Babel” and that it, “sensationally reveals exactly what the Tower of Babel looked like.” Many news sites have picked up on these claims and repeated them across the internet.
The claims expressed in the preview, flow from the views of Dr. Andrew George, a professor of Babylonian at the University of London who was the one to decipher the inscription. However, a review of the historical context of this find, along with careful assessment of Dr. George’s own statements, show that it does not actually fit the Bible’s account of the Tower of Babel. In fact, Dr. George clearly does not really think it provides evidence that the Bible’s account is real history, as one might conclude from a cursory viewing of the show’s trailer.
The preview trailer announces the following about the tablet: “Significantly, it also clearly reveals the man behind it – Mesopotamia’s most famous ruler, King Nebuchadnezzar II.” Then, its closing lines say that, “For scholars, the tablet offers further proof that the Tower of Babel wasn’t just a work of fiction. It was an actual building from antiquity.” However, this makes no sense.
The Bible portrays the Tower of Babel incident happening after the great flood and before the time of Abraham. There are different views regarding what dates should be assigned to the biblical timeline, but about the latest time proposed for the birth of Abraham is somewhere around 2000 BC. Traditions and many biblical scholars point to the time of Nimrod as the setting for the Tower of Babel. Nimrod was Noah’s great grandson, while Abraham was ten generations after Noah. So, the Bible puts the Tower of Babel well back into the Third Millennium BC, more than 1500 years before Nebuchadnezzar II, who was responsible for the ending of the southern kingdom of Judah and sending much of its population into captivity in Babylon.
Therefore, if the history in the Bible is factual, Nebuchadnezzar could have nothing to do with constructing the biblical Tower of Babel. In short, far from being proof for the reliability of the Bible, if the tower on this inscription built by Nebuchadnezzar really was the Bible’s Tower of Babel, the only thing it would establish is that the biblical account (in this case) is, in fact, a work of fiction and not real history.
The raised relief carving of the 7-tiered tower on the tablet (Screenshot from the Smithsonian Channel)
And they said to one another, “Come, let us make bricks, and burn them thoroughly.” And they had brick for stone, and bitumen for mortar. – Genesis 11:3 (ESV)
Nebuchadnezzar’s tower had a base measuring 300 feet on each side, with a 49-foot -thick wall of oven-baked brick. Apparently, this was built around the remains of an older structure at the site, but this earlier building was made of sun dried mud bricks, not fired bricks as described in the biblical text. Additionally, the website for the Schøyen collection dates this older building as originating from the early 1700s BC, when the city of Babylon first became an important center. If this is true, it would still put the older building (whatever it looked like) many centuries after the biblical tower, and even long after Abraham. Ironically, Saddam Hussein also rebuilt portions of ancient Babylon in 1985, stamping into its bricks the message, “This was built by Saddam Hussein, son of Nebuchadnezzar, to glorify Iraq.”
Now the whole earth had one language and the same words. And as people migrated from the east, they found a plain in the land of Shinar and settled there. – Genesis 11:1-2 (ESV)
Another question to ask is whether the biblical Tower of Babel was really built in the city of Babylon. It may have been located elsewhere in the kingdom of Babylon and not in the city by that name. In fact, it might not have been located in southern Mesopotamia at all. The text of Genesis says that Noah’s ark came to rest in the mountains of Ararat. Then chapter 11 of Genesis says that the people moved east and settled on a plain in the land of Shinar, and this is where the tower was built. The city of Babylon is about 500 miles due south of the region around Mount Ararat, not to its east. Northwestern Mesopotamia fits the Bible’s description of where the tower was built far better than the city of Babylon.
Dr. George interpreted the inscription on the tablet as saying, “From the Upper Sea (Mediterranean) to the Lower Sea (Persian Gulf), the far-flung lands and teeming people of the habitations I mobilized in order to construct this building of the Ziggurat of Babylon.” According to an article in Breaking Israel News, the inscription was one of the keys to Dr. George identifying the ziggurat described on the tablet as the Tower of Babel from the Bible.
So the LORD dispersed them from there over the face of all the earth, and they left off building the city. Therefore its name was called Babel, because there the LORD confused the language of all the earth. – Genesis 11:8-9 (ESV)
Dr. George believes that its builders, hailing from all over the region, could represent the Biblical ‘multitudes’ of languages which led to the tower’s destruction. “The myth about the multitude of tongues comes from the context described in the stele about the multitude of peoples enlisted in the construction of the tower,” Professor George told Breaking Israel News, “There were many languages spoken on the construction site. From that it may be that the Bible got the idea of the confusion of tongues.” The narrator in the TV trailer boldly states, “Incredibly, this ancient account is identical to the biblical story of how the Tower of Babel was constructed.”
But is the account on the tablet really identical to the Bible? The Bible maintains that there was only one language at the time of the Tower of Babel. In the time of Nebuchadnezzar there were many languages. Nebuchadnezzar brought various groups of people together to finish the tower. The biblical account has one group of people who become splintered and then never finish the tower. The only similarity is that they are both towers and many people worked on them – which would have been the case for any large tower.
What about the views of Professor George? A closer look at his comments is revealing. He said the builders described in the inscription, “could represent the Biblical ‘multitudes’ of languages… The myth about the multitude of tongues comes from the context described in the stele… From that it may be that the Bible got the idea of the confusion of tongues.” Dr. George adds, “This is a very strong piece of evidence that the Tower of Babel story in the Bible was inspired by this real building.”
This is a very common way of thinking among today’s academics. The predominant theory holds that the Hebrew Bible (Old Testament) was not written until after the Babylonian captivity took place – more than a thousand years after Moses. Variations of this view propose that the events written of in the Bible are either complete fiction or else loosely based on old legends, myths and events from other nations that inspired the biblical writers who then adapted these accounts and wove them into the biblical narrative to make them their own. Looking at this tablet through that lens, it is easy to see why Dr. George believes it is evidence for (or the inspiration for) the biblical story of the Tower of Babel. However, that view is completely different than thinking that this shows that the biblical account is real history.
Those who accept that the Bible presents accurate history are often accused of (and are often guilty of) being overly biased. However, it should be noted that bias works both ways, with proponents of any view becoming increasingly set in their thinking until it colors the way they view all the evidence. For those seeking to validate the Bible as real history, their efforts have sometimes caused problems when they have grasped at any seeming evidence to connect it with one Bible event or another without regard for a balanced assessment of the facts.
Outlets such as the Christian Post and CBN News are repeating the claims of Professor George and the TV trailer without commentary or a solid grasp of historical context. They seem unaware that doing so actually promotes views that discredit biblical history and contradict the biblical account (such as saying that God did not need to confuse the languages because they were already in a confused state from the various groups working on Nebuchadnezzar’s tower).
The Step Pyramid of Djoser was Egypt’s first pyramid. (Thinking Man Films)
Rather than assuming the view that biblical history is largely fiction, a more objective approach would be to ask whether there is a pattern of evidence supporting the validity of the Bible’s account of the Tower of Babel. Two thoughts come to mind here. First, many linguists do see evidence for an early common language that then branched off into the myriad of variations that we see today, just as would be expected if the biblical account of Babel occurred. Second, is the worldwide distribution of stepped structures similar to that seen in the many ziggurats of the Middle East.
The step construction of ziggurats in the Babylon region was exported to Egypt. Egypt’s first pyramid was the Step Pyramid of Djoser built in the Old Kingdom’s 3rd Dynasty. What is remarkable though, is that the step-type of construction is found in towers and pyramids all over the world from East Asia, to India, to the Middle East and Europe, Africa; even the Americas. The similarity of this architectural style in such far-flung corners of the globe seems hard to explain. However, this matches the biblical account of the builders of the Tower of Babel being dispersed across the Earth taking their distinct languages, yet common memory of the building style at Babel with them. If this is the case, then all of these various towers were patterned after the original, and Nebuchadnezzar may well have been inspired by the actual Tower of Babel rather than the writers of the Bible being inspired by him.
As thinkers, it is our desire that we grow in the understanding of these issues and see more clearly the patterns of evidence that do match the events recorded in the Bible. Find out more at our website.