(Gen. 11:1-9) Did ancient humans really build the Tower of Babel?

CLAIM: Critics often argue that Genesis 1-11 is simply a myth, and stories like the Tower of Babel are fictitious. Is this the case?

RESPONSE: When we read about the Tower of Babel, we are dealing with very ancient primeval history. Genesis doesn’t give a date for this event, but no doubt, it is a very ancient event. Therefore, we shouldn’t expect to find historical records for this event. At the same time, we do have some allusions to this event from ancient sources and cultures.

The construction of ancient ziggurats (like the Tower of Babel) was very common during this epoch of history. Archer records a story of a specific example of such a building project:

Robert T. Boyd reports the discovery of a ten by five foot stela erected by King Ur-Nammu which says concerning a certain ziggurat: “The erection of this tower highly offended all the gods. In a night they threw down what man had built and impeded their progress. They were scattered abroad and their speech was strange” (Tells, Tombs and Treasures [Grand Rapids: Baker, 1969], p. 78).[1]

Charles Martin writes,

In Burma, for example, the Gherko Karens tell of a story in which the people decided to build a pagoda that would reach to heaven. Their god, in his wrath, came down, confused their language, and scattered the people about the earth. In Congo, they balanced on poles, and in Mexico, they built a tower out of clay. Each of these versions tells of a god who becomes angry at their endeavors and scatters them abroad. In India, a Hindu legend tells of a group of demons that attempted to build an altar that would reach the sky, but whose completion was thwarted by Indra, the sky-god.[2]

Gordon Wenham doesn’t believe that a good ancient Near Eastern parallel exists for the Genesis account. Yet he writes,

The great ziggurats of Mesopotamia were a well-known feature of its landscape. In particular Enuma Elish celebrates the building of Babylon and its temple tower, and Sumerian tradition tells of a time when all men spoke or will speak the same language.[3]

He also notes that the ancient Sumerian epic (“Enmerkar and the Lord of Aratta”) contained an account where ancient humans were unrivaled in their authority:

In that period “the whole universe, the people in unison, to Enlil in one tongue spoke” (ll. 14546). But it continues: “Enki … the leader of the gods changed the speech in their mouths brought contention into it, Into the speech of man that (until then) had been one (ll. 150–56).[4]

The problem with this account is that some scholars believe that it is about the future of mankind—not the past.

[1] Archer, Gleason L. A Survey of Old Testament Introduction. Third Edition. Chicago, IL: Moody, 1998. 227.

[2] Martin, Charles. Flood Legends: Global Clues of a Common Event. Green Forest, AR: Master, 2009. 29-30.

[3] Wenham, G. J. (1998). Genesis 1–15 (Vol. 1, p. 236). Dallas: Word, Incorporated.

[4] Wenham, G. J. (1998). Genesis 1–15 (Vol. 1, p. 236). Dallas: Word, Incorporated.