Now—all the earth one language and one speech—and as they set off eastward they found a plain in the land of Shinar and became citizens in that place.
They said each to his neighbour
Come! Let us make bricks and burn them with fire.
And bricks were for them stone,
and asphalt was for them mortar
And they said Come! Let us build for ourselves
And its head in the heavens,
And let us make a name for ourselves
Lest we be scattered on the face of the earth.
… And the LORD came down to see the city and the tower which the sons of man built …
And the Lord said, “See, one people one language, all of this, and this their start of work
And nothing will be impossible for them,
all they plan they will do
Come, let us go down to that place
and mix up their language
That they will not hear,
each the speech of his neighbour
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 and from there the Lord scattered them over the face of the whole earth.” – Genesis 11.
The so-called “chiastic” or crossover structure—in which the second half of a story or section (or even a single sentence) mirrors & reverses the first half, is a common structure in the bible’s literature.
The structure exposes the themes. The opening and closing sentences tell us the theme of the story and when you contrast the opening with the close you see how the turning point — often the exact middle sentence — has changed things.
The rest is detail. Comparing the detail of the first half with the detail of the last half shows what has changed in the light of the central turning point.
Reversals abound. The united language is disunited. The settling together is reversed by scattering. They want to build up to heaven, but instead God comes down from heaven. They want to make a name for themselves but instead are confused.
Less obvious is the importance of the place name. Babel is not named at the beginning because it serves as a pun for “Balel”—to confuse—at the end, which is appropriate after the turning point, not before it. Before then it is referred to as ‘that place’ in Shinar.
As well as this main structure, there is a second parallel structure between the two halves. The parallels rest as much on the words and sounds as the meaning, and again v5 is the mid-point:
One language One Speech
In That Place
They speak, each to his neighbour
Build a City and a Name
Lest We are Scattered over the face of the whole earth
And the LORD came down to see the city and the tower which the sons of man built.
One People One Language
In That Place
They cannot hear, each the speech of his neighbour
Stop Building the City, 'great' Babel
Scattered Over the face of the whole earth
In this structure we can see that the second half of story repeats, in the same order, the vocabulary of the first half.
The parallel structure can be folded one more time into a third, ‘anti-parallel’ structure:
v1 One language One Speech In That Place They speak, each to his neighbour Build a City and a Name Lest We are Scattered over the face of the whole earth v5 And the LORD came down to see the city and the tower which the sons of man built. v6 One People One Language In That Place They cannot hear, each the speech of his neighbour Stop Building the City, 'great' Babel Scattered Over the face of the whole earth
This time, each half is a mini-chiasm on the theme of unity vs scattering. The turning point inside each half is successful speech (first half) and unsuccessful speech (second half). In this structure, the place and the city are a detail, examples perhaps of what might have been when people are united in speech.
We mentioned that Babel is punned in Hebrew as Balel, to mix or confuse. Invisible in English is the more extended alliteration in the short speech v3-4 of the consonants n, b and l in the words for, come let us build, brick, stone, which we can somewhat see by tranliterating like this:
“… hb nlbn lbnm
th lhm hlbn lbn
hhmr hj lhm lhmr.
hb nlbn ln …”
This alliteration is then picked up again in the pun in verse 7 & 9 on let us confuse (nbl), Babel (bbl) and he confused (bbl).
[Hebrew was first written with just consonants not vowels; the letters h & m in this section are mostly parts of grammar not vocabulary]
You can see pictures of Babylonian & nearby towers on Wikipedia:
The oldest surviving one is dated to about 3000BC but similar earlier structures have been suggested as early as 6000 BC.
The genesis text seems easy enough to interpet: The towers were intended to reach, figuratively at least, to the heavens. The “name” in “Make a name for ourselves” should be understood as fame or reputation.
The genesis text suggests the idea of men reaching heaven and makes no mention of the polytheist religion of Babylon. On the other hand:
• Babylonian texts probably consider the name Babel to derive from “Gate of god”.
• Herodotus says the top of the ziggurat was a shrine for the dwelling of gods.
• The Enmerkar epic has the confusion of languages being due to Enki (a senior god) making mischief and suggests that in the future (possibly the past; interpretation is uncertain) the languages will be united again.
• The main 1st millenium temple to Marduk in Babylon was Esagil–”house with the uplifted head”—and was next to the (probably 2nd millenium) Etemnaki–“Temple of the Foundation of Heaven and Earth”.
• The Enuma Elish considers the Babylonian template to be the “a likeness on earth of what he has wrought in heaven”. Indeed it says it was built by the minor gods the Annunaki:
The Annunaki wielded the hoe
For one whole year they moulded its bricks.
When the second year arrived
they raised the head of Esagil, a replica of the Apsû.
They built the lofty ziggurat of the Apsû
and established its … as a dwelling for Anu, Enlil and Ea [3 of the main gods].
Politically, the Babylonian empire was a major power for much of the period from the time of Genesis 12 in the 2nd millenium BC through to Babylon’s defeat by Persia in 539BC.
All of which raises the question whether early readers understood the story as a polemic against the power and religion of Babylon. Like all empires, Babylon thought itself the centre of the world and the divinely blessed pinnacle of humanity.
But the Genesis story mocks. The tower to the heavens is so small that God has to come down to see it. All-conqueroring empire-building Babylon was once defeated by a little trick of speech; the resurgent Babylonian empires of the readers’ times should be taken no more seriously.
Readers with their eyes open will be well aware that the impressive structures of Babylon—look again at those pictures on Wikipedia—were, like the monumental architecture of every other empire in history, built on the back of slaves,paid for by conquest, murder and theft. What is alleged to be the impressive demonstration of united humanity is in reality a testament to oppression & forced labour.
This is not the point made in the text however. Rather, the point made by God’s interference is more, perhaps, the foolishness of human boasting? They who think themselves great achievers do not notice how contingent their achievements are. They who aspire to fame and monumental achievement should realise how futile those things are
• Enmerkar https://www.britannica.com/biography/Enmerkar
• Esagila https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Esagila
• Etemnaki https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Etemenanki
• Enuma Elish 6:59-64 : Full text at https://www.ancient.eu/article/225/enuma-elish—the-babylonian-epic-of-creation—fu/
• Babel as Gate of God: Wenham’s Genesis commentary quoting Gelb, I. J. “The Name of Babylon.” Journal of the Institute of Asian Studies 1 (1955) 1-4