The Great Cultural Divide



The Greek form of the name, Babylon, is from the native Akkadian Bāb-ilu, which means "Gate of the god". This correctly summarizes the religious purpose of the great temple towers (the ziggurats) of ancient Sumer (Biblical Shinar in modern southern Iraq). These huge, squared-off stepped temples were intended as gateways for the gods to come to earth, literal stairways to heaven. ("Reaching heaven" is a common description in temple tower inscriptions.) This is the type of structure referred to in the Biblical narrative. The common conical depictions of the tower (as shown here) resemble much later Muslim towers observed by 19th century explorers in the area.

Ziggurats are among the largest religious structures ever built, and their use dates back to the dawn of history. The Biblical narrative is a reaction to the ancient Mesopotamian system of beliefs reflected in these impressive structures, beliefs that ruled the hearts and minds of some of the greatest civilizations of ancient times.

The Hebrew version of the name of the city and the tower, Babel, is attributed in Gen. 11:9 to the verb balal, which means to confuse or confound in Hebrew.

According to the documentary hypothesis, the passage derives from the Jahwist source, a writer whose work is full of puns, and like many of the other puns in the Jahwist text, the element of the story concerning the scattering of languages is thought by many to be a folk etymology for the name Babel, attached to a more historic story of a collapsing tower.

Historical linguistics has long wrestled with the idea of a single original language. Attempts to identify this language with a currently existing language have been rejected by the academic community. This was the case with Hebrew, and with Basque (as proposed by Manuel de Larramendi). Yet the well-documented branching of languages from common ancestors (such as modern European languages from ancient Indo-European) points in the direction of a single ancestral language. The main issue of dispute is the date, which most modern scholars would put several thousand years before the Bible's own date for the demise of the Tower of Babel.

Traditionally, the peoples listed in Chapter 10 of Genesis (the Table of Nations) are understood to have been scattered over the face of the earth from Shinar only after the abandonment of The Tower, which follows as an explanation of this cultural diversity. Some, however, see a contradiction between the mention already in Genesis 10:5 that "From these the maritime peoples spread out into their territories by their clans within their nations, each with his own language" and the subsequent Babel story, which begins "Now the entire earth was of one language and uniform words" (Genesis 11:1).

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