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Breughel's medieval painting of the Tower of Babel

Breughel’s medieval painting of the Tower of Babel

From the Bible story:

According to the Book of Genesis in the Bible, after the Flood people again began to get wicked.

Noah’s Flood story
More Bible stories
The Jews and the Levant
All our West Asia articles

Why is it the Tower of Babel?

Then they had an awful idea. They wanted to build a tower that would go all the way up to Heaven. They wanted to be famous. These people called their tower Bab-el, the Gate to God. (This is a different version of the word Babylon, which means the same thing.)

Babel and Sumerian ziggurats

The Jews hated Sumerian ziggurats, and probably those ziggurats inspired this story. The ziggurats were built with very much this idea in mind. People wanted to reach for the sky. They wanted to get as close to the gods as they could, so the gods would hear their prayers better. And they wanted to show off how good they were at building. Sumerian gods apparently appreciated the effort.

What is a ziggurat?
The Sumerian gods

Another Tower of Babel scene, from St. Marks Basilica in Venice (1000s AD)

Another Tower of Babel scene, from St. Mark’s Basilica in Venice (1000s AD)

Babel and foreign languages

But in the Jewish Bible story, God hates this idea. So he wrecks the tower with a bolt of lightning. God also makes everybody speak different languages, so they will not be able to cooperate on big projects like this anymore. In Hebrew, just as in English, God makes the people babble.

History of languages
What is lightning?

Babel and the Epic of Gilgamesh

The story of Babel is related to an Akkadian story in the Epic of Gilgamesh where Enlil, the chief of the gods, is annoyed by all the noise people make.

Who is Enlil?
The Epic of Gilgamesh
More about the Akkadians
A similar Egyptian story

He can’t sleep. So he sends a flood to kill all the people, as in the Bible story of Noah.

Learn by doing: work with a team to build a big sand castle or block tower and knock it down.

Epic of Gilgamesh
Go on to Abraham

Bibliography and further reading about the history of Judaism:


Go on to Abraham
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