Is there additional background information on the tower of Babel?
February 1994

“Is there additional background information on the tower of Babel?” Ensign, Feb. 1994, 60–61

According to the account in Genesis, the events surrounding the building of the tower of Babel represent a very crucial point in history. Is there additional background information and perspective available to help us better understand the meaning of these events?

Genesis 10 gives the account of the dispersion of the sons of Noah and their descendants after the Flood. Verses 9 and 10 tell us that Nimrod founded the kingdom of Babel, or as it was later called, Babylon, in the land of Shinar. Genesis 11 begins: “And the whole earth was of one language, and of one speech. …

“And they said, Go to, let us build us a city and a tower, whose top may reach unto heaven; and let us make us a name, lest we be scattered abroad upon the face of the whole earth.” (Gen. 11:1, 4.)

The Lord came down to see the city. The decision the Lord made was to confound the language and scatter the people. (See Gen. 11:5–9.)

Early Jewish and Christian traditions reported that Nimrod built the tower of Babel, referred to as a pagan temple, in an attempt to contact heaven. Among the Jews, Nimrod’s name has always been a symbol of rebellion against God and of usurped authority: he “established false priesthood and false kingship in the earth in imitation of God’s rule and ‘made all men to sin.’” (Hugh Nibley, Lehi in the Desert and The World of the Jaredites, vol. 5 of The Collected Works of Hugh Nibley, Salt Lake City: Bookcraft, 1980, p. 156.)

Josephus, an ancient Jewish historian, provided additional helpful information. He noted that Nimrod had done a number of things to gain power over the people. Therefore, by proposing that the people build a tower or temple to reach heaven, Nimrod no doubt felt this counterfeit temple would add to his control.

The building of the tower was undertaken when the people discovered an important new “technology”—the oven-baked brick. Ordinary mud brick, baked in the sun, could only be used to build so high, and then it crumbled under the stress. But the “brick … burned thoroughly” (i.e., in an oven) could be stacked quite high; the ziggurats at Babylon are three hundred feet high. In the Bible, bricks are mentioned only in connection with this tower, pharaoh’s buildings, and idolatrous altars. This detail suggests the impudence in the people’s feelings for the Lord in this society which had developed since the Flood.

The account in Genesis provides further clues regarding the significance of the building of the tower. First, the impetus in building this temple was to make themselves a name. In other words, Nimrod was proposing that they build a temple to receive the name of God without making eternal covenants. Second, they wanted to build this tower-temple so they would not be “scattered.” (Gen. 11:4.) Latter-day revelation ties the temple’s sealing power to preventing the earth from being wasted at the second coming. (See D&C 2:3.) One meaning of the word wasted in Joseph Smith’s day was “destroyed by scattering.” (Webster’s Dictionary, 1828.) Finally, the word Babel in Hebrew meant “confusion,” but in Babylonian or Akkadian, the meaning was “gate of God.” Nimrod and his people were building their own temple, their gate to heaven, without divine approval or priesthood keys.

It is easy to see why an apostate people, having some understanding of temple ordinances and temple purpose, would construct an edifice symbolizing to them that connecting point and, with whatever ceremony they contrived in imitation of true temple worship, would attempt to duplicate the process of preparation for the hereafter.

Another dimension of understanding occurs when we realize that the word Babel in Hebrew is the same word translated everywhere else in the Old Testament as “Babylon.” Thus, in biblical typology, what the people are building in this story is Babylon.

The story of the tower of Babel must be read in the context of the whole book of Genesis. Following the Fall, the gospel was taught to the seed of Adam. Some accepted it, and many rejected it. Secret combinations, starting with that of Cain, brought apostasy into the world. At the same time, Enoch gathered the righteous to Zion, and they were translated. Then the Lord sent a flood that destroyed the unrepentant. In the aftermath, a covenant was made with Noah and his seed to reestablish the teaching of the plan of salvation on the earth. (See Gen. 9:11; JST, Gen. 9:17.)

The city of Enoch had been translated (see Gen. 5:23–24; Moses 7:21–23) before the Flood, but at the time of Abraham (the general time of the tower of Babel), Melchizedek also created a society that produced a Zion people who “sought for the city of Enoch” and “obtained heaven” (JST, Gen. 14:33–34). Considering the trauma of the Flood (Gen. 6–8), the aspiration to build a tower to heaven, with water-impervious materials, may also have been an attempt to survive a flood should God attempt to destroy men again. Thus, their temple-tower was likely designed for a multitude of purposes, making it that much more meaningful in their eyes. Also, note that their attempt to dodge the judgment of God was based on their human ingenuity rather than on repentance. The Lord’s response was to humble these people.

The tower of Babel was the transitional event between the dispensations of Noah and Abraham. It is instructive to note that immediately following mankind’s scattering, the Lord intervened by establishing his covenant with Abraham and took him from the “other side of the Euphrates” to the Promised Land. (See Gen. 12.) The Lord established the Abrahamic covenant as the basis for building Zion, and that covenant was based on man’s acknowledgment of and dependence on the cleansing blood of the Atonement. The narrative begun by Genesis ends in 2 Kings 25, in which the children of Israel found themselves—because they broke the covenant—back in Babylon where the story began. Their breaking of the covenant resulted in their exile from Jerusalem (Zion) to Babylon. Yet the mercy of the Lord had the power to bring them back, through repentance and renewal of the covenant. Subsequently, Israel was released from Babylon by Cyrus and later by Darius. Zerubbabel, and later Ezra and Nehemiah, led the people and some did return and renew the covenant.

In the latter days, the Lord once again has called us out of the world: we have been instructed to “go … out from Babylon” (D&C 133:5) to build Zion.

Left to right: Lee Donaldson, Church Educational System coordinator, Chicago North Area; V. Dan Rogers, Curriculum Services, Church Educational System; and David Rolph Seely, assistant professor of ancient scripture, Brigham Young University.