The Tower of Babel
March 1998

“The Tower of Babel,” Liahona, Mar. 1998, 46–48

The Tower of Babel

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

Genesis 10 describes the scattering of the sons of Noah and their descendants after the Flood. Verses 9 and 10 [Gen. 10:9–10] tell us that Nimrod founded the kingdom of Babel, or Babylon as it was later called, 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. He decided 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, volume 5 of The Collected Works of Hugh Nibley [1980], 156).

Josephus, an ancient Jewish historian, provided additional insight. He noted that Nimrod had tried to gain power over the people. Nimrod probably felt this counterfeit temple would add to his control (see Antiquities of the Jews, book 1, chapter 4, paragraph 2).

The building of the tower was undertaken when the people discovered an important new technology—oven-baked bricks. Ordinary mud bricks, baked in the sun, could be used to build only to a limited height or they would crumble under the stress. But bricks baked in an oven could be stacked quite high; the temple towers at Babylon were 91 meters high. In the Bible, bricks are mentioned only in connection with this tower, pharaoh’s buildings, and idolatrous altars (see Gen. 11:3; Ex. 1:14; Ex. 5:7, 14, 16; Isa. 65:3). This usage suggests the people’s feelings of rebellion against the Lord in the society that had developed since the Flood.

The account in Genesis provides further insight regarding the significance of the building of the tower. First, the impetus in building this temple was to make themselves a name (see Gen. 11:4). 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 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, 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.

The Babylonians, an apostate people, had some understanding of temple ordinances and temple purpose, so they constructed an edifice symbolizing to them their connection to God. And using their own contrived ceremonies to imitate true temple worship, they attempted to duplicate the process of preparation for the hereafter.

Further, the word Babel in Hebrew is the same word translated elsewhere in the Old Testament as “Babylon.” Thus, in biblical terms, the people in this story were building Babylon—a city that has come to represent the world or worldliness (seeD&C 1:16).

The story of the Tower of Babel must be read in the context of the whole book of Genesis. After the Fall, the gospel was taught to Adam’s descendants. Some accepted gospel teachings, but many rejected them. Secret combinations, starting with Cain’s, 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; Joseph Smith Translation, Gen. 9:17).

The city of Enoch had been translated (see Gen. 5:23–24; Moses 7:21, 69) 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 to join the city of Enoch and obtain heaven (see Joseph Smith Translation, Gen. 14:33–34). Considering the trauma of the Flood (see 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 earth’s inhabitants again. Thus, their temple-tower was likely designed for many purposes, making the tower more meaningful in their eyes. However, 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 building of the Tower of Babel was the transitional event between the dispensations of Noah and Abraham. Immediately following the scattering, the Lord intervened by establishing his covenant with Abraham and taking him to the promised land (see Gen. 12). The Lord established the Abrahamic covenant as the basis for building Zion, and that covenant is based on our acknowledgment of and dependence on the cleansing blood of the Atonement.

The narrative begun in Genesis ends in 2 Kings 25 [2 Kgs. 25]. Abraham’s descendants, the children of Israel, find 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 Lord had the power and the mercy to bring them back, through their repentance and his 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, from the midst of wickedness, which is spiritual Babylon” (D&C 133:14) to build Zion.

The Death of Abel, by Gustave Doré

The Tower of Babel, by Pieter Bruegel the Elder, courtesy of Kunsthistorisches Museum, Vienna; far right: Abraham Journeying into the Land of Canaan, by Gustave Doré