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The Tower of Babel Story: What Really Happened?

The Tower of Babel—What Really Happened? Collage

Most children who’ve attended Sunday school classes can tell you what happened at the Tower of Babel. King Nimrod wanted to be famous, so he convinced the people of Babylon to build a great tower that would reach heaven.

God could see that the people were becoming prideful and decided that he should go down and mix up their language so they couldn’t understand each other. This teaches us that pride is bad and helps us understand where all the world’s languages came from.

Most adults don’t really have an understanding of this story that’s any more sophisticated. But Dr. Michael S. Heiser, author of The Unseen Realm: Recovering the Supernatural Worldview of the Bible, would like to remedy that. In this article, adapted from his popular book, Heiser explains what really happened at the Tower of Babel and unpacks its implications. Then he goes on to show how the New Testament corrects what happened in the Tower of Babel story.


Interpreting the Tower of Babel story

The famous Tower of Babel story and how it was built s about much more than an ill-fated construction project and language confusion. It’s at the heart of the Old Testament worldview.

Babylon was where people sought to “make a name (shem) for themselves” by building a tower that reached to the heavens, the realm of the gods. The city is cast as the source of sinister activity and knowledge.

Genesis 11:1–9 reads:

“Now the whole earth had one language and the same words. And as people migrated from the east they found a plain in the land of Shinar and settled there. And they said to each other, ‘Come, let us make bricks and burn them thoroughly.’ And they had brick for stone and they had tar for mortar. And they said, ‘Come, let us build ourselves a city and a tower whose top reaches to the heavens. And let us make a name for ourselves, lest we be scattered over the face of the whole earth.’

Then Yahweh came down to see the city and the tower that humankind was building. And Yahweh said, ‘Behold, they are one people with one language, and this is only the beginning of what they will do. So now nothing that they intend to do will be impossible for them. Come, let us go down and confuse their language there, so that they will not understand each other’s language.’ So Yahweh scattered them from there over the face of the whole earth, and they stopped building the city. Therefore its name was called Babel, for there Yahweh confused the language of the whole earth, and there Yahweh scattered them over the face of the whole earth.”

Did God act alone?

You’ll notice right away that there’s the same sort of “plural exhortation” going on in verse 7 as you find in Genesis 1:26:

“Then God said, ‘Let us make mankind in our image, in our likeness, so that they may rule over the fish in the sea and the birds in the sky, over the livestock and all the wild animals, and over all the creatures that move along the ground.’ (italics added)

The verse has Yahweh proclaiming, “Let us go down and confuse their language.” As was the case in Genesis 1:26, the plural announcement is followed by the actions of only one being, Yahweh: “So Yahweh scattered them” (11:8).

The extrapolation of the Tower of Babel story

It’s at this point that most Bible readers presume there’s nothing more to think about. That’s because other Old Testament passages that speak of this event tend to be omitted from the discussion. The most important of these is Deuteronomy 32:8–9 (ESV):

When the Most High gave to the nations their inheritance,
when he divided mankind,
he fixed the borders of the peoples
according to the number of the sons of God.
But the LORD’s portion is his people,
Jacob his allotted heritage.

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God dispossess the nations

Deuteronomy 32:8–9 describes how Yahweh’s dispersal of the nations at Babel resulted in his disinheriting those nations as his people.

This is the Old Testament equivalent of Romans 1:18–25, a familiar passage wherein God “gave [humankind] over” to their persistent rebellion. The statement in Deuteronomy 32:9 that “the LORD’s portion is his people, Jacob his allotted heritage” tips us off that a contrast in affection and ownership is intended.

Yahweh in effect decided that the people of the world’s nations were no longer going to be in relationship with him. He would begin anew. He would enter into covenant relationship with a new people that did not yet exist: Israel.

The implications of this decision and this passage are crucial to understanding much of what’s in the Old Testament.

Most English Bibles do not read “according to the number of the sons of God” in Deuteronomy 32:8. Rather, they read “according to the number of the sons of Israel.” The difference derives from disagreements between manuscripts of the Old Testament. “Sons of God” is the correct reading, as is now known from the Dead Sea Scrolls.

Frankly, you don’t need to know all the technical reasons for why the “sons of God” reading in Deuteronomy 32:8–9 is what the verse originally said. You just need to think a bit about the wrong reading, the “sons of Israel.”

Deuteronomy 32:8–9 harks back to events in the Tower of Babel story  an event that occurred before the call of Abraham, the father of the nation of Israel. This means that the nations of the earth were divided at Babel before Israel even existed as a people.

It would make no sense for God to divide up the nations of the earth “according to the number of the sons of Israel” if there was no Israel.

painting of the tower in the tower of babel story

What happened to the other nations?

What does it mean that they were apportioned as an inheritance according to the number of the sons of God?

As odd as it sounds, the rest of the nations were placed under the authority of members of Yahweh’s divine council. Whereas in Deuteronomy 32:8–9 God apportioned or handed out the nations to the sons of God, here we are told God “allotted” the gods to those nations. God decreed, in the wake of Babel, that the other nations he had forsaken would have other gods besides himself to worship. The other nations were assigned these lesser gods as a judgment from the Most High, Yahweh.

That this interpretation is sound is made clear by an explicit parallel passage, Deuteronomy 4:19–20. There Moses says to the Israelites:

“And do this so that you do not lift your eyes toward heaven and observe the sun and the moon and the stars, all the host of the heaven, and be led astray and bow down to them and serve them, things that Yahweh your God has allotted to all of the peoples under all of the heaven. But Yahweh has taken you and brought you out from the furnace of iron, from Egypt, to be a people of inheritance to him, as it is this day.”

Deuteronomy 4:19–20 is the other side of God’s punitive coin. It is as though God was saying, “If you don’t want to obey me, I’m not interested in being your god—I’ll match you up with some other god.”

Psalm 82, where we started our divine council discussion, echoes this decision. That psalm has Yahweh judging other elohim, sons of the Most High, for their corruption in administering the nations. The psalm ends with the psalmist pleading, “Rise up, O God, judge the earth, because you shall inherit all the nations.”

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Linking Babel to Genesis 6

It might seem that God’s response at the Tower of Babel incident was overly severe. But consider the context. The point is not that Yahweh was a glorified building inspector. Gods were perceived to live on mountains. The Tower of Babel story is regarded by all scholars as one of Mesopotamia’s famous man-made sacred mountains—a ziggurat.

Ziggurats were divine abodes, places where Mesopotamians believed heaven and earth intersected. The nature of this structure makes evident the purpose in building it—to bring the divine down to earth.

The biblical writer wastes no time in linking this act to the earlier divine transgression of Genesis 6:1–4:

“When human beings began to increase in number on the earth and daughters were born to them, the sons of God saw that the daughters of humans were beautiful, and they married any of them they chose. Then the Lord said, ‘My Spirit will not contend with[ humans forever, for they are mortal; their days will be a hundred and twenty years.’

The Nephilim were on the earth in those days—and also afterward—when the sons of God went to the daughters of humans and had children by them. They were the heroes of old, men of renown.”

That passage sought to portray the giant quasi-divine Babylonian culture heroes (the apkallus) who survived the flood as “men of renown” or, more literally, “men of the name [shem].” Those who built the Tower of Babel wanted to do so to “make a name [shem]” for themselves. The building of the Tower of Babel meant perpetuating Babylonian religious knowledge and substituting the rule of Babel’s gods for rule by Yahweh.

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Yahweh’s intention to start over

Yahweh would have none of it. After the flood God had commanded humanity once again to “be fruitful and multiply, and fill the earth” (Gen 9:1). These words reiterated the original Edenic intention.

But instead of obeying and having Yahweh be their god, the people gathered to build the tower. The theological messaging of the story is clear. Humanity had shunned Yahweh and his plan to restore Eden through them, so he would shun them and start again.

While the decision was harsh, the other nations are not completely forsaken. Yahweh disinherited the nations, and in the very next chapter of Genesis, he calls Abram out of—you guessed it—Mesopotamia. Again, this is not accidental. Yahweh would take a man from the heart of the rebellion and make a new nation, Israel. But in his covenant with Abram, God said that all the nations of the earth would be blessed through Abram, through his descendants (Gen. 12:1–3).

The covenant language reveals that it was God’s intention, right on the heels of his decision to punish the nations, that the Israelites would serve as a conduit for their return to the true God. This is one of the reasons Israel is later called “a kingdom of priests” (Exod. 19:6). Israel would be in covenant with “the God of gods” and the “Lord of lords” (Deut. 10:17). Those disinherited would be in spiritual bondage to the corrupt sons of God. But Israel would be a conduit, a mediator. Yahweh would leave a spiritual bread-crumb trail back to himself. That path would wind through Israel and, ultimately, Israel’s messiah.

From the fateful decision at Babel onward, the story of the Old Testament is about Israel versus the disinherited nations, and Yahweh versus the corrupt, rebel gods of those nations. The division of the nations and their allotment under other elohim is behind the scenes in all sorts of places in biblical history.

image pentecost that connects to the tower of babel story

Pentecost: Babel revisited?

The day of Pentecost is an event remembered by millions of Christians each year. Although Acts 2 is one of the more familiar passages in the New Testament outside the Gospels, what the passage describes as happening that day definitely sounds strange.

“And when the day of Pentecost had come, they were all together in the same place. And suddenly a sound like a violent rushing wind came from heaven and filled the whole house where they were sitting. And divided tongues like fire appeared to them and rested on each one of them. And they were all filled with the Holy Spirit and began to speak in other languages as the Spirit gave them ability to speak out.

Now there were Jews residing in Jerusalem, devout men from every nation under heaven. And when this sound occurred, the crowd gathered and was in confusion, because each one was hearing them speaking in his own language. And they were astounded and astonished, saying, ‘Behold, are not all these who are speaking Galileans? And how do we hear, each one of us, in our own native language? Parthians and Medes and Elamites and those residing in Mesopotamia, Judea and Cappadocia, Pontus and Asia, Phrygia and Pamphylia, Egypt and the parts of Libya toward Cyrene, and the Romans who were in town, both Jews and proselytes, Cretans and Arabs—we hear them speaking in our own languages the great deeds of God!’ And all were amazed and greatly perplexed, saying to one another, ‘What can this mean?’” (Acts 2:1–12).

Unlocking the wind and fire imagery

The wind and fire that accompanied the Spirit in the second chapter of Acts are similar to images in the Old Testament associated with God’s presence—the disciples are being commissioned by God in his council like the prophets of old.

The whirlwind is familiar from divine encounters of Elijah (2 Kings 2:1, 11) and Job (Job 38:1; 40:6). This motif is often accompanied by storm imagery, which can also include fire (Isa. 30:30). Having “wind” as an element in describing God’s presence makes sense given that the Hebrew word translated “wind” can also be rendered “spirit/Spirit” (ruach).

Ezekiel’s commissioning is particularly instructive since not only does Yahweh come to him with a wind, but with the wind there is “fire flashing” (Ezek. 1:4). Burning fire is a familiar element of divine-council throne-room scenes (e.g., Isa. 6:4, 6; Dan. 7:9). It is especially prominent in the appearances at Sinai (Exod. 3:2; 19:18; 20:18; Isa. 4:5).

Fire in the Old Testament was an identifier of the presence of God, a visible manifestation of Yahweh’s glory and essence. It was also a way of describing divine beings in God’s service (Judg 13:20; Psa 104:4).

They were being chosen to preach the good news of Jesus’ work. The fire connects them to the throne room. The tongues are emblematic of their speaking ministry.

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How Pentecost connects to the Tower of Babel story

At first glance there doesn’t seem to be much in the Pentecost description relating back to the incident at Babel which had such cosmic-geographical and theological importance in the Old Testament. That first glance would be mistaken.

There are two key terms in the passage that connect it back to Babel in an unmistakable way. The flaming tongues are described as “divided” (Greek: diamerizo), and the crowd, composed of Jews from all the nations, is said to have been “confused” (Greek: suncheo).

The second term, suncheo (v. 6), is the same word used in the Septuagint version of the Babel story in Genesis 11:7: “Come, let us go down and confuse [Septuagint: suncheo] their language there.”

The multiplicity of nations represented at Pentecost is another link to Babel. Each nation had a national language. More importantly, all those nations referred to in Acts 2:9–11 had been disinherited by Yahweh when they were divided.

The other word of importance (diamerizo; v. 3) is also used in the Septuagint, but not in Genesis 11. It is found exactly where one would expect it if one were thinking in cosmic-geographical terms—Deuteronomy 32:8 (Septuagint: “When the Most High divided [diamerizo] the nations, when he scattered humankind, he fixed the boundaries of the nations”). This is a strong indication that Luke is drawing on the Septuagint, and specifically the Tower of Babel story in Genesis 11 and Deuteronomy 32:8–9, to describe the events on Pentecost. What happened there has some relationship to what happened at Babel—but what is it?

Bringing the nations home

At Pentecost the tongues are “divided” (diamerizo) or, perhaps more coherently, “distributed” among the disciples as they are commissioned to preach the good news to the throngs at Pentecost.

As Jews gathered in Jerusalem for the celebration heard and embraced the news of Jesus and his resurrection, Jews who embraced Jesus as messiah would carry that message back to their home countries—the nations. Babel’s disinheritance was going to be rectified by the message of Jesus, the second Yahweh incarnate, and his Spirit. The nations would again be his.

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Written by
Michael S. Heiser

Michael S. Heiser (1963–2023) was a graduate of the University of Pennsylvania (M.A., Ancient History) and the University of Wisconsin- Madison (M.A., Ph.D., Hebrew Bible and Semitic Studies). He had a dozen years of classroom teaching experience on the college level and another ten in distance education. He was a former scholar-in-residence at Logos Bible Software.

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Written by Michael S. Heiser