Babel comes from two words: “gate” (bab) and “god” (el), which means “gate to heaven” or “gate of god.” It came to mean confusion or “babble” because of what Genesis 11:1–9 says happened there.
1And the whole earth was of one language, and of one speech. 2And it came to pass, as they journeyed from the east, that they found a plain in the land of Shinar; and they dwelt there. 3And they said one to another, Go to, let us make brick, and burn them thoroughly. And they had brick for stone, and slime had they for morter. 4And 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. 5And the LORD came down to see the city and the tower, which the children of men builded. 6And the LORD said, Behold, the people is one, and they have all one language; and this they begin to do: and now nothing will be restrained from them, which they have imagined to do. 7Go to, let us go down, and there confound their language, that they may not understand one another's speech. 8So the LORD scattered them abroad from thence upon the face of all the earth: and they left off to build the city. 9Therefore is the name of it called Babel; because the LORD did there confound the language of all the earth: and from thence did the LORD scatter them abroad upon the face of all the earth.
What was the significance and purpose of Noah’s descendents building the tower?
In our view, the tower of Babel was almost certainly an early ziggurat or temple tower. It is difficult to imagine ziggurats being anything other than what is described as the Tower of Babel. Almost every city in the region had one in it. Temples owned the land around the city, theoretically at least. Sumerian society built up around temples, economically and geographically. What was true of the first society after the Flood was true of all to follow—except Israel, whose God was Jehovah.
The religio-political systems that developed in early cities would later expand into empires. Babel was just the first. Fifty-four miles south of Baghdad, it was a huge city in its heyday, with walls 14 miles (23 km) long and 135 feet (41 m) thick. The famous Hanging Gardens were a part of the temple tower. Among many archaeological treasures discovered in the city were the clay tablets with the Enuma Elish Creation Epic, which some scholars mistakenly say inspired the biblical creation story. However, even a cursory reading of the Enuma Elish shows that it is a later corruption of the true account in Scripture.
The tower had a small temple on top for the patron god. It would not be Jehovah, the Creator, but a god of their own choosing. At Babylon the god was, no doubt, Marduk. The tower on top was to reach up to heaven. Why? In defiance of Jehovah and to establish their own power and might. As they said, “Let us make us a name lest we be scattered.” Then they devised a religio-political system that bound men in slavery.
Each city had its own gods, and the king of the city had to be accepted by its gods. In it the ruler was like a “divine” king. (For a complete exposé of the system, see Fustel de Coulange’s The Ancient City, and Henri Frankfort’s Kingship and the Gods.)
Abraham rejected these city systems. If he was to serve God, he had to leave the city because of what took place there. All citizens were expected to take part in special calendar days, including the first day of the new year when the king supposedly cohabited with a goddess in the temple on top of the ziggurat to assure a good harvest. In light of this, God’s warning in Revelation 18:4 gains new meaning: “Come out of her [Babylon, a symbolic term for Rome] my people, that ye be not partakers of her sins, and that ye receive not her plagues.” Thus we can see the dilemma Abraham would have been in if he had stayed there.
The biblical account of “Jacob’s ladder” in Genesis 28:17 is yet another hint that the tower at Bab-el was built as a gate to heaven, similar to ziggurats. Jacob fell asleep and dreamed that angels were going up and down a “ladder,” while the Lord was above in heaven, promising to give Jacob the land He had promised Abraham. Jacob was afraid that he had stumbled into a sacred place and said, “How dreadful is this place. This is none other but the house of God, and this is the gate of heaven.”
What does this place, this “ladder,” actually look like? When we used the Bible to find the location of Bethel north of Jerusalem, where this incident took place, we discovered a mountain between Bethel and Ai. The west side of this mountain had huge natural terraces, which from a distance looked like the wide steps (Hebrew: sulam used only here in the Bible) of monumental buildings.1 Comparing this passage with the passage in Genesis 11:1–9, we can see the contrast between God in heaven and mankind’s puny efforts to rebel at Babel.
Even today, the mountains are a reminder of our insignificance in the face of God’s judgment.