Tower of Babel

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The confusion of languages , Bible illustration by Gustave Doré (1865)

The Tower of Babel ( Gen 11: 1-9  EU ), together with the Babylonian confusion of languages, is one of the best-known biblical narratives of the Old Testament despite its small size of only nine verses .

Theologians see the tower-building project as an attempt by mankind to come equal to God . Because of this self-arrogance, God brings the building of the tower to a bloodless standstill by causing a linguistic confusion which, due to insurmountable communication difficulties, forces the project to be abandoned and those who build it are scattered all over the earth for the same reason ( Gen 11,7,8  EU ).

The biblical story

Master of the World Chronicle
Wittenberg Bible 1586

The Bible tells of a people from the East who speak the one (holy) language and settle on the plain in a land called Shinar . There it wants to build a city and a tower with a top that reaches the sky. So the Lord came down to look at the city and the tower that the children of men were building. Now he fears that they no longer be unreachable [is] what they also do , that is, that the people could get carried away and will stop at nothing to him comes to mind. God confuses their language and drives them all over the world . Any further work on the tower is forced to come to an end, because the language confusion caused by a miracle of God makes the necessary communication between the people building the tower as good as impossible.

With the city name "Babel" in the Hebrew text, a play on words is organized in two places, which is based on the similar sound of the roots bbl (in the name "Babel") and bll (in the verb "confuse"):

  • Gen 11: 7: הָבָה נֵרְדָה וְנָבְלָה שָׁם שְׂפָתָם אֲשֶׁר לֹא יִשְׁמְעוּ איִשׁ שְׂפַת רֵעֵהוּ׃
  • Gen 11: 7: hāvāh nērdāh wənāvlāh šām śəfātām ʔăšer loʔ yišməʕū ʔīš śəfat rēʔēhū
  • Gen 11: 7: Come on, let us go down, and there confuse ( wə-nāvlāh ) their language, so that they cannot understand one another's language. (Verbal form: cohortative pl. < Bll )
  • Gen 11: 9: עַל־כֵּן קָרָא שְׁמָהּ בָּבֶל כּיִ־שָׁם בָּלַל יְהֹוָה שְׂפַת כָּל־הָאָרֶץ
  • Gen 11.9: ʕal-kēn qārāʔ šmāhh bāvel kī-šām bālal YHWH śəfat kāl-hāʔāreṣ [...]
  • Gen 11: 9: That is why their name was called Babel (bāvel), because there the Eternal confused (bālal) the language of all earth- dwellers , [...] (verbal form: perfect 3.Sg.masc. < Bll )

(German after Leopold Zunz )

However, by today's criteria, this is a wrong etymology . The meaning of the name of the city of Babylon is derived from the Akkadian bāb-ilim , which means "gate of the gods". However, the original etymology of the Akkadian name is also not undisputed, as the Akkadian designation could go back to an older non-Semitic name. (See the Etymology section of the Babylon article for details).

Another parallel arises from the fact that the root bll is also the etymological basis of the Hebrew word for deluge (mabūl) , although it is not referred to as explicitly in the Bible text as in the example of the word Babel . Such playful references within the Bible, however, must not be misunderstood or degraded as an attempt to establish an etymology in the modern sense. Rather, they are playful parallels, the point of which is to evoke associative references between passages in the Bible. This literary technique was evidently already widespread by the time the written Bible text was being produced, and it has achieved continuity in rabbinical Bible exegesis that has continued to the present day. It was formalized in the middot rules. In German, too, such references are known mainly in humorous use (for example: "Anyone who compares lawyers with eagles in the air is doing right. Because: ubi fuerit corpus, illic congregabuntur et aquilae (Mt 24). Understand corpus juris etc. "[ Abraham a Sancta Clara ] or" Soldier comes from Sollen, otherwise it would be Willdat "). In any case, it should be noted that even the literal text does not claim to explain the factual etymological development, but can also be interpreted as a finding of a profound sense in retrospect (since the actual etymological development also, according to the belief of the Bible authors, was under the rule of providence ).

In the New Testament , the topic of linguistic confusion is taken up again in the Pentecostal story ( Acts 2,6  EU ), according to which the Holy Spirit, through a bond with God made possible by Jesus Christ , brings about new speaking and understanding across all language barriers.

Theological interpretation

The Tower of Babel after Lucas van Valckenborch

The story of the Tower of Babel is written in the Old Testament after the Flood and before Abram's (later Abraham ) journey to Haran . It closes a series of stories of failure ( Gen 3–11  EU ).

Using pre- and non-Israelite material, the editor presents the history of mankind since the fall of man as a sequence of negative events: loss of the original paradisiacal state, fratricide, deluge, division and dispersion. The cause of this calamity appears to be the violation of God's prescription ( Gen 3.5  EU ).

Nimrod was the founder and king of the first great empire after the flood. He was known as a powerful hunter “before” the Lord (in an unfavorable sense; Hebrew: liphnḗ, “against” or “in opposition to”), ( Gen 10.9  EU ; cf. Num 16.2  EU ; 1 Chr 14 , 8  EU ; 2 Chr 14.10  EU ). Some scholars take the Hebrew preposition, which means "before," in this case in a favorable sense, but it is clear from the Jewish targumes as well as from the writings of the historian Josephus and from the context of Genesis chapter 10 that that Nimrod was a mighty hunter in spite of the Lord.

Nimrod's kingdom initially extended to the cities of Babel, Erech, Akkad and Kalne, all of which were in the land of Shinar ( Gen 10.10  EU ). It can therefore be assumed that the construction of Babel and its tower began under his leadership. This assumption is also consistent with the traditional view of the Jews. Josephus wrote: “Gradually he [Nimrod] turned his behavior into tyranny because he thought of turning people away from God all the more when they stubbornly trusted their own strength. He wanted, he said, to take revenge on God if he pressed the earth with another flood, and he wanted to build a tower so high that the flood could not rise above it. So he will retaliate for the downfall of his ancestors. The crowd willingly endorsed Nebrod's [Nimrod] s intentions, considering it cowardice to obey God. And so they set about building the tower, the. . . quickly grew in height ”.

Indeed, the tales of pre-flood malice have structural similarities to the tower builder tale:

  • After the murder of Abel pulls Cain , along with his son Enoch , in the land of Nod , where he founded an eponymous city ( Gen 4.16  EU ). The giants and heroes of the past go back to the ungodly union of the daughters of man with the sons of God ( angels ) ( Gen 6: 1-8  EU ).
  • After the flood, people move to the land of Shinar, where they settle. In order not to spread further over the earth, they decide to build a tower that can be seen from afar ( Gen 11.4  EU ). However, this is a renewed violation of God's ordinances, namely to colonize the whole earth ( Gen 9,1  EU and Gen 9,7  EU ).

This time, too, there is a consequence, but it does not take the form of renewed extermination, but as a confusion of language. In doing so, God keeps his loyalty to the covenant he made with Noah : I do not want to curse the earth again because of man; for man's striving is evil from youth. In the future I don't want to destroy everything living like I did. ( Gen 8,21  EU ) As a result, people lose their common basis of communication and all advantages that arise from it; The only feasible way now is for groups with the same language to unite and build independent communities.

Historical references

Reconstruction of the ziggurat of Ur

Some researchers link the Tower of Babel with the Etemenanki in Babylon , which has been archaeologically proven since 1913. It was a ziggurat whose foundations were exposed by the German architect and archaeologist Robert Koldewey .

Sargon of Akkad left Babylon around 2300 BC. About 600 years later , Hammurabi made it the capital of the Babylonian Empire . He raised the city god Marduk (Old Testament: Merodach ) to the highest deity of the Babylonian Empire.

The ziggurat is first mentioned under the name Etemenanki (Sumerian: House of the Heavenly Foundation on Earth) in the temple complex Esaĝila (Sumerian: Temple of the Raised Head ) in the annals of the Assyrian King Sennacherib , who dated 689 BC Destroyed the city and the temple.

His successors Assarhaddon (680–669 BC) and Assurbanipal (668–631 BC) began the reconstruction, as shown by inscriptions in the foundation. After the liberation from Assyrian rule, the neo-Babylonian ruler Nabopolassar continued the expansion of the complex, his son Nebuchadnezzar II (604-562 BC) completed it.

In the period that followed, the building fell into disrepair, possibly due to destruction by the Persian king Xerxes I (486–465 BC). The Greeks regarded the Etemenanki as the grave of Belus . When he entered Babylon in the spring of 323 BC. Chr. Was Alexander the Great erode down to the foundation to rebuild the tower the remains. This employed 10,000 men for two months. It stayed that way because Alexander died a few months later. His successors moved the residence to Ctesiphon , and Babylon fell into decline.

The tower had a base area of ​​91.48 m × 91.66 m and a height of about 91 m, probably graduated into seven, according to the historian Herodotus, into eight plateaus. The conclusion was formed by a temple, the rooms of which were only allowed to be entered by priestesses. Priests probably used the roof of the building to conduct astronomical observations there. The Babylonians used bricks as building material, the exterior bricks were decorated with colored glaze. Strabon describes the construction as a four-sided pyramid with a stadium side length and a height of a stadium.

Herodotus reports after a visit to the area around 460 BC. That the Babylonian temple towers should allow the deities to descend at night to spend some time there in the company of a priestess. This ritual could be hidden behind the intention, which the Israelites did not understand, that the tower should reach up to heaven: for them the idea of ​​ascending to deities was unthinkable and outrageous; Rather, God descended kindly to people.

In general, the tower can also serve as a symbol of a cultural achievement of the Mesopotamian peoples: Mankind learns to burn bricks and uses the natural asphalt as mortar. She frees herself from the dependence on stone and lime, which have to be extracted from quarries, and puts herself in a position to build on the plain where there is neither stone nor lime.

Tower building legends in other cultures

Fred Hartmann has collected and analyzed 60 tower construction sayings from different cultures. Some of the legends come from Near Eastern cultures, but have also come from India, China, Africa, America and the Pacific region. But these legends, like probably the original version of the biblical story, are not connected with the confusion of language and the distraction of the people.


As early as the Old Testament, attempts were made to reconstruct the (later so-called) " Adamic language ", which is said to have been spoken before the confusion of languages. In today's linguistic research, however, it is highly controversial whether there was ever a common original language, the so-called proto-world language , or not.

In the first century AD, Flavius ​​Josephus ( Jewish Antiquities I, 4) added a few details to the tower builder narrative that are not explicitly mentioned in the biblical account: Here it is Nimrod himself who gives the order to build the tower and is portrayed as the first tyrant in history . According to Josephus, the motive for the building was not only general arrogance, but also an attempt to create a safe place of refuge in the event that God should send another flood. Most recently he quotes from the 3rd book of the Sibylline Oracle , according to which the tower did not simply fall apart because it was abandoned by its builders, but that it was destroyed by a great storm wind. This representation of Josephus was particularly influential in the European Middle Ages.

In 1679 the Jesuit Athanasius Kircher put forward a theory that spoke against the existence of the tower. In his opinion, the distance between earth and sky was 265,380 kilometers. To do this, around 4,500,000 workers would have had to work continuously for around 3400 years. The weight of the tower would have exceeded the weight of the earth and thus pushed the earth out of the center of the universe.

Evolutionary biologists such as Jared Diamond or Carel van Schaik see the story as an expression of the Bible's general skepticism towards the city. Urban growth in the late Neolithic and early Metal Ages led to a deterioration in hygienic conditions and made them permanent breeding grounds for various pathogens. More people died here than were born and growth only worked through the immigration of workers from many regions; But it was precisely the immigrants on the large multitribal construction sites of antiquity who were most at risk because they had not yet acquired any immunity. The motives of the confusion of language and the distraction of people could have been added to the story of the divine punishment of the builders of the major project.

The Tower of Babel in the Fine Arts

The Tower of Babel is a symbol of human hubris in the visual arts . He has been portrayed several times in the course of art history. The Tower of Babel was often depicted as a spiral tower, like the minaret of Samarra , or as a step tower. Most of the time, the depictions emphasize the dimensions of the building. In addition, they often show the people working on it and the contemporary advances in construction technology.

Well-known representations come from:

"Babylonian Confusion" as "Winged Word"

The "Babylonian language confusion" has found its way into common usage as a phrase - as a symbol for the clash of several languages ​​- Georg Büchmann , for example, has included it in his collection of quotations, Winged Words .

For example, when reporting on the administration of the European Union in Brussels, reference is made to the “Babylonian language confusion”, where the linguistic diversity results in additional work and costs.

The idiom is also used in a positive sense, for example there is a science fiction series in which the space station Babylon 5 ( which gives the title) is a meeting place for different peoples, a literary figure called Babelfish and translation programs with the name reference, such as “ Babel Fish "Or" Babylon Translator ".

The English writer Antonia S. Byatt also uses the Tower of Babel as a metaphor in her novel Babel Tower (1996): It is “about the question of the possibility of a common language or, if such a language would be illusory, the degeneration of speech into mutual Incomprehensibility ”.

See also


Secondary literature

  • Wilhelm Andrae: What did the Tower of Babel look like? In: Reclam's universe. 43.1 (1927), issue 12, December 16, 1926, pp. 326-327 and title page.
  • Fritz Krischen : World wonder of architecture in Babylonia and Jonia. E. Wasmuth, Tübingen 1956.
  • The Babylonian Tower in historical lore, archeology and art. Milano 2003 ( The Tower of Babel,  1).
  • Joachim Ganzert (Ed.), Stephan Albrecht: The Tower of Babel. Standard or presumption? Biberacher Verlagsdruckerei, Biberach 1997, ISBN 3-924489-86-6 (exhibition catalog).
  • Roger Liebi : Origin and Development of Languages. Hänssler, Holzgerlingen 2003, ISBN 3-7751-4030-1 .
  • Helmut Minkowski: Conjectures about the Tower of Babel. Luca, Freren 1991, ISBN 3-923641-36-2 .
  • Christoph Uehlinger: Empire and “a speech”. A new interpretation of the so-called tower builder narrative (Gen 11, 1-9). Vandenhoeck & Ruprecht, Göttingen 1990, ISBN 3-525-53733-6 (partly also dissertation, Freiburg (Switzerland) 1989).
  • Ulrike B. Wegener: The fascination of the excessive. The Tower of Babel from Pieter Bruegel to Athanasius Kircher. Olms, Hildesheim u. a. 1995, ISBN 3-487-09965-9 ( Studies on Art History, Volume 93; also dissertation, Hamburg 1990/91).
  • Kyle Dugdale: Babel's Present. Edited by Reto Geiser et al. Tilo Richter, Standpunkte, Basel 2016, ISBN 978-3-9523540-8-7 ( Standpunkte documents No. 5).

Babylonian confusion of languages

  • Friedrich Braun : The indigenous population of Europe and the origin of the Teutons. W. Kohlhammer, Berlin, Stuttgart, Leipzig 1922; Japhetitic Studies, Volume 1.
  • Nikolaj Jakovlevic Marrn: The Japhetitic Caucasus and the third ethnic element in the formation process of the Mediterranean culture. W. Kohlhammer, Berlin, Stuttgart, Leipzig 1923; Japhetite Studies on the Language and Culture of Eurasia, Volume 2.
  • Tasso Borbé (Ed.): Critique of Marxist Language Theory N. Yes. Marr's. Scriptor-Verlag, Kronberg (Ts.) 1974, ISBN 3-589-20021-9 ; (Contains among others: Nikolaj Ja. Marr. The Japhetitic Theory ).
  • Arno Borst : The Tower of Babel. History of opinions on the origin and diversity of languages ​​and peoples. 4 volumes; Hiersemann, Stuttgart 1957–1963; dtv, Munich 1995, ISBN 3-423-59028-9 .

Web links

Wiktionary: confusion of languages  - explanations of meanings, word origins, synonyms, translations
Commons : Tower of Babel  - Collection of images, videos and audio files

Individual evidence

  1. Miklós Köszeghy: The dispute over Babel in the books Isaiah and Jeremiah. Kohlhammer, Stuttgart 2007, ISBN 978-3-17-019823-4 , p. 116.
  2. A comprehensive list of Middot's rules, which also includes the method of etymology, can be found in the article Elieser ben Jose ha-Gelili .
  3. ^ Jewish antiquities, translated by H. Clementz, 1st book, chap. 4, para. 2, 3, pp. 31, 32.
  4. a b Strabo: Geographica 16,1,5.
  5. See Hans Heinrich Schmid , Die Steine ​​und das Wort , Zurich 1975, p. 97.
  6. ^ J. Alberto Soggin: The Book of Genesis. Comment. Darmstadt 1997, p. 181 ff.
  7. Fred Hartmann: The Tower of Babel - Myth or Reality? SCM Hänssler, 1999, ISBN 3-7751-3432-8 .
  8. Carel van Scheik, Kai Michel: The diary of humanity. Reinbek 2016, p. 129.
  9. Carel van Schaik, Kai Michel 2016, p. 129 ff.
  10. Dieter E. Zimmer: Why German is dying out as a scientific language , DIE ZEIT No. 30, June 19, 1996.
  11. Andreas Dorschel , Oh, you weren't in Oxford ?; Antonia S. Byatt's novel The Tower of Babel ,. In: Süddeutsche Zeitung No. 274, p. 16; November 25, 2004.

Coordinates: 32 ° 32 ′ 11 ″  N , 44 ° 25 ′ 15 ″  E