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THE TOWEE OP BABEL
E. G. H. Kraeling
Union Theological Seminary
Ever since it became definitely known that the great and
imposing ruins of Birs Nimrud were remnants of the ziqqnrrat of
Borsippa, the view that they represented the Tower of Babel has
been abandoned by most scholars. This view, according to Kol-
dewey, the excavator of ancient Babylon, was tenable only so
long as Oppert's fantastic ideas as to the extent of the city found
credence. It is now held as almost certain that Marduk's famous
Temple Esagila, with its ziqqurrat E-temen-an-ki, is the structure
referred to in Gen. II. 1 It seems to me however that the ancient
and traditional identification of the 'tower of Babel' with the
site of Birs Nimrud must be revived.
It is plainly the intention of Gen. 11. 1-9 to tell that Yahweh
hindered the builders of the tower, so that they could not com-
plete their work. For only to the temple with its tower and
not to the residential sections can the statement in v. 8, 'They
had to stop building the city' apply. Since the temple of an
ancient city was its real heart and centre this synecdoche is not
surprising. Furthermore a cessation of 'building the city'
would not become very easily the part of a story if referring to
the residential part, but a great temple tower that had remained
a torso or had fallen into decay would stimulate the imagination
profoundly. To this Birs Nimrud bears ample testimony, for
the travellers of all times have been deeply stirred by the sight
of its vast ruins. The story of Gen. 11, then, clearly arose and
circulated at a time when the tower referred to had been a torso
for a considerable period.
1 Cf. Koldewey, Das wiedererstehende Babylon, 1913, and Die Tempel von
Babylon und Borsippa, 1911. The long lost tablet describing Esagila in its
final grandeur has been rediscovered and published by Scheil in Memovres
de I'Academie des Inscriptions et Belles Lettres, vol. 39 (1913), p. 293 f.
But the famous Bel-Temple described by Herodotus does not seem to have
been the one at Babylon, which was no longer standing in the days of
the Greek author, but rather the temple of Borsippa. Cf. Delitzsch in
Festschrift fiir Eduard Bachau, 1915, p. 97 f.
The Tower of Babel 277
Now the J source from which Gen. 11. 1-9 is taken seems to
have originated at the time of Solomon, 970-932 B. C. 2 If this
dating may be regarded as fairly secure we must suppose that
the story of the tower of Babel is an 11th century story and that
the tower at this time had the incomplete or dilapidated appear-
ance therein described.
Unfortunately our knowledge of the history of the temples of
Babylon and Borsippa is very meagre. We may here well omit
the references to them in very early times. Suffice it to say they
had their ups and downs, as the so-called Kedorlaomer texts
show, which speak of the pillage of Ezida and Bsagila by the
hostile Elamite. 3 During the period of the Cassite rule, lasting
over 500 years, Babylonia seems to have enjoyed prosperity and
no doubt the temples were well taken care of. King 4 has recently
called attention to a boundary stone of Merodach Baladan I
(1201-1181), one of the last rulers of the Cassite dynasty, on
which appears the symbol of the god Nabii (the stylus) supported
by a horned dragon set off against a four-stage tower, which can
be none other than the ziqqurrat of Borsippa, B-ur-imin-an-ki.
At this period, then, 'the house of the seven stages of heaven and
earth' was only a four story structure, but we may assume that
it was in good condition and had been well cared for by the king.
The fall of the Cassite Dynasty, 1150 B. C, brought a repetition
of the conditions that had existed before Hammurapi — invasion
by the Blamites. "We learn that the statue of Marduk was even
carried off by them from Esagila, but there is no record of how
they dealt with the temples. Under Nebuchadrezzar I, however,
a few years later, Babylon recovered the Marduk statue and
regained its independence. Among the following kings many
bear names compounded with Marduk, and were no doubt zealous
in providing for this god's shrine. But the unsettled conditions
of the period, the disturbance caused by the Aramaean migration
and by the rise of the Assyrian power in the north do not argue
for an age of prosperity in Babylon, and only in prosperous days
" Procksch, Die Genesis, 1912, p. 17.
8 Re-edited by Jeremias in Festschrift fur Hommel. Cf. also Das Alte
Testament', 1916, p. 280 f . Esarhaddon began to rebuild Esagila and the
operations were continued by Ashurbanipal and Shamash-shum-ukin; cf.
Streck, Ashurbanipai II, 1916, p. 146, p. 246 f., etc.
* History of Babylon, p. 79.
278 E. G. E. Eroding
are building operations carried on extensively by kings. But
the ziqqurrat of Babylon seems to nave been standing, for when
Sennacherib (705-681), the conqueror of Babylon, entered the
city he devastated the temple, tore down the ziqqurrat, and threw
it into the Arahtu canal. 5
The ziqqurrat of Borsippa however seems also to have experi-
enced a destruction, and perhaps at an earlier time. Of especial
importance in this connection is the inscription of Nebuchadrez-
zar's cylinder. 6 'At that time E-ur-imin-an-ki, the ziqqurrat of
Barsip which a previous king had made — 42 cubits he had ele-
vated it, not had he raised its head, from a distant day it had col-
lapsed, not were in order the outlets of its water, rain and storm
had removed its bricks, the bricks of its covering were split open,
the bricks of its body were heaped up like a ruin mound — Mar-
duk, my lord, aroused my heart to construct it.' Now it must
be emphasized that the activity of the previous king referred to
was also one of restoration, since the temple tower was only ele-
vated 42 cubits. 7 The four-stage tower of the days of Merodach
Baladan I was much higher! The necessary conclusion there-
fore is that this older temple had been destroyed or had fallen
into ruin, and that later on a king, who ruled a long time
before Nebuchadrezzar, had begun its restoration. The par-
tially restored ziqqurrat had also in the course of time fallen
into ruins. This obviously compels us to seek a much earlier
date for the destruction of the temple than that of Sennacherib.
In fact the attempt at restoration may antedate this king and is
perhaps to be accredited to Merodach Baladan II (721-710) who
calls himself 'the worshipper of Nebo and Marduk, the gods of
Esagila and Ezida, who provided abundantly for their gates and
made shining all their temples, renewed all their sanctuaries.' 8
* Bavian Inscription, III E 14, 1. 51.
* Langdon, Neubabylonische Konigsinschriften, 1912, p. 98 f. ; cf. also p.
'Cf. with this the statement in Langdon, p. 60 (Col I. 44 f.) that
Nabopolassar raised the ziqqurrat of Babylon 30 cubits. In both cases it
does not seem clear whether this means from the base up. Thirty cubits
is not even the height of the lowest stage of Nebuchadrezzar's Tower.
Furthermore Rawlinson claims to have found the three copies of the
cylinder above quoted on the eorners of the third stage of E-ur-imin-an-ki,
indicating that here the work of Nebuchadrezzar began. — He figured
about 8 metres to every stage; cf. JSAS 18, pp. 1-34, on the excavations.
* Cf . the Black Stone Inscription.
The Tower of Babel 279
It seems most likely that immediately after the fall of the Cassite
dynasty Ezida and E-ur-imin-an-ki, whether by violence or by
neglect, fell into ruins. It seems to have a peculiar significance
that the Assyrians in the 9th century founded another temple by
the name of Ezida at Nineveh and adopted to a very great extent
the worship of the god Nabu. 9 If the shrine at Borsippa had
been flourishing in those days such action would not have been
very likely. Thus while the continuity of the temple of Babylon
seems to be assured to the time of Sennacherib, there is ground
for supposing that that of Borsippa fell into ruin right after the
Cassite era, in other words at the time of the rise of the Hebrew
kingdom in Palestine when the Jahvist lived.
But an additional argument from the mythological point of
view speaks most emphatically for the tower of Borsippa. In
the 137th Fable of Hyginus we are told that ages ago mankind
spoke only one language. But after Mercury had multiplied
the languages and divided the nations, strife began to arise
among them. Zeus was angered at Mercury's act but could not
change it. The tradition presupposed in this fable seems to have
no other analogy in Graeco-Eoman legend. And if we recall that
Mercury is the equivalent of the Oriental Nabu. we must imme-
diately ask ourselves whether this is not an eastern myth that
was imported with so much other Asiatic lore in the Hellenistic
era. The god Nabu is the author of written language — the cryp-
tic signs that seem so wonderful to the uninitiated; the art of
writing is once called 'the mother of language and the father of
wisdom. ' 10 Equally mysterious, however, must have seemed the
sound of foreign tongues. "Who else could be their originator in
a Babylonian speculative system than the god Nabu.? True,
we have no direct testimonial to this in the inscriptions. But if
Gen. 11 originated in Babylonia — and of this there can be no
doubt — then Yahweh has assumed in the present version the role
of some Babylonian deity, and this deity by every argument of
analogy and probability can only have been Nabu. We should
expect the story of the dispersion of tongues to be centered at
Nabu's shrine in Borsippa, rather than at Marduk's sanctuary in
• Cf. Streck, op. tit. 2, 272 f. Shamash-shum-ukln, Stele Inscr. S 1 1. 13 f.,
says that he renewed the walls of Ezida which had grown old and weak
under a former king.
10 Cf. Jeremias in Roseher's Lexicon 3. 56.
280 E. Q. H. Kraeling
The motif of the deity's prevention of the completion of the
tower can however be no integral part of the official cult story of
Ezida. This element was added at a time when Bzida and its
ziqqurrat were greatly neglected. One might be inclined to
assign this motif entirely to the imagination of that early Hebrew
story-teller who saw in the scene of ruin Yahweh's verdict upon
the self-aggrandizement of the people of Babylonia. Yet it also
seems possible that the idea of the jealous deity, that is afraid of
men's prowess and intervenes in order to defeat their attempt to
overthrow him by destroying the ladder on which they seek to
climb into heaven, shimmers through the story. The descent of
the deity for punitive purposes (v. 7) finds an analogy also in a
passage of the so-called Kedorlaomer texts : 'If the king does not
speak righteousness, inclines toward wickedness, then his sh§du
will descend from Esharra, the temple of all the gods. m It may
well be therefore that this element goes back to a pre-Hebraic
stage. Gunkel's view that the story was heard from Aramaean
Beduin on the Babylonian border 12 may not be very far from the
truth. The point of view certainly cannot be that of the native
Babylonian citizen. Perhaps an ancient Hebrew forerunner of
Herodotus who visited Babylonia as tradesman and came into
contact with the roving Chaldaean Aramaeans brought back the
story to Palestine as he heard it from the lips of these nomads
somewhere near the great ruins of Birs Nimrud.
A third stage, however, in the development of the story is
assuredly Palestinean — that is its attraction away from Borsippa
to Babel. Naturally a traveller would relate it in connection
with his visit to the metropolis since the name of Borsippa was
too obscure and unimportant for his hearers. And since 'Babel'
lent itself so excellently to a pun with baled 'to confuse', the
original reference to Nabu's temple was lost. Gunkel has seen
that the emphasis on the root pug, 'to scatter,' thrice repeated,
prepared the way for another etymology which has been obliter-
ated — that of the temple or ziqqurrat. 13 His own suggestion of
an appellation like 'pigu' (the 'white' tower) is of no value, for
a Of. Jeremias, Das Alte Testament, p. 180.
"Gunkel, Die Genesis 1 , ad loe.
"Gunkel divides the story into two sources — a city version and a tower
version; so also Procksch, who however maintains that the story is a
unity in its present form beeause of the excellent metre.
The Tower of Babel 281
the towers were many-colored. In seeking the original name we
must remember that the key form for the etymology is always the
last one used — here heftyam (v. 9). There is no other Baby-
lonian temple name so nearly like this as B-zi-da, especially if we
recall that Sumerian B (house) appears as he in Hebrew (cp.
hekal = ekallu). The form Hezida is the most likely representa-
tion of the name in Hebrew. An identity of all consonants is
not necessary; cp. 'Bsaw = se'ar, Gen. 25. 25, etc., where a mere
vocalic correspondence was found sufficient. 1 * In view of all the
other material we have presented it seems certain that this name
once stood in the text. That the pun is made with the name of
the temple Ezida, rather than with the tower E-ur-imin-an-ki,
presents no difficulty since even in the Babylonian texts the lat-
ter is only rarely mentioned. The shorter and more familiar
name of the greater complex of the temple was more likely to be
Originally a cult story of Ezida, then a popular Aramaean
legend, then a Babylonian reminiscence of a Hebrew traveller,
and eventually a vehicle of deep religious and philosophical
thought— such is the evolution of Gen. 11. 1-9. Surely a fas-
cinating bit of history down whose vistas we here can glance.
"A much worse pun on the name of Ezida with Uza occurs in a
Babylonian text, cf. King's The Seven Tablets of Creation, 1. 209 ff. Eev.
7, and Jeremias, Altorientalische Geisteshvltw, 1913, p. 30 note. It seems
likely however that the Hebrews heard a corrupt form of the name, else a
pun with e%d 'arrogance' would have been more attractive.