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Fall 1996 · Vol. 25 No. 2 · pp. 64–72 

The Tower of Babel: An Archaeologically Informed Reinterpretation

Steve Reimer

Throughout the history of the church Jesus’ followers have struggled to correctly (or, at least, more adequately) understand and internalize the written texts given by God as Scripture. While interpretive methods vary, each generation is responsible to understand and interpret the text for its world. Our goal is to gain new insight or understanding of the text and the Text Giver.

. . . the Tower of Babel . . . an extremely contemporary and timely reminder to a culture and a Church that is rapidly embracing the sins of an urban environment.

In this essay we wrestle again with the story of the Tower of Babel. Using insights gleaned through the science of archaeology, I attempt to set the text in its ancient Near Eastern context. A somewhat different interpretation results.

To focus this discussion, we ask, in which respects is the current popular interpretation of the Tower of Babel deficient? According to the traditional reading of the text, the Bible seems to report that at one point in history humans constructed a monumental tower in defiance of God. Judgment followed in the form of the creation or development of languages, destroying the unity of the human race.

The traditional interpretation has problems. {65} Many who hold to this view identify the tower in Genesis 11 as ziggurat of Mesopotamia. These temple towers are well known from archaeological excavations, but appear chronologically rather late in the historical record. Through archaeological research it is clear that by the time the ziggurats were being constructed, distinct ethnic groups had used different languages for at least a thousand years. Even the biblical record may reflect this early diversity in presenting the Table of Nations as a chart of ethnic diversity prior to the Tower of Babel account. To integrate the Tower of Babel with the Table of Nations is particularly problematic. Moreover, if God stopped the tower builders, why are there so many ziggurats? Furthermore, the word used for tower in Genesis 11:4 is used most often to describe a defensive structure or a military installation. That hardly fits the religious function of the tower in the traditional interpretation.

Another problem lies in the location of the event. Babylon, archaeologists observe, was established as a city a considerable time after written sources appear in numerous ancient Near Eastern languages. For the separation of languages, even basic language groups, to have occurred at the city of Babylon, major changes would need to occur in the archaeological record.

So, if the Tower of Babel account is not a description of the development of languages, and if it is not a condemnation of building towers or military installations, then what does it tell us?

I propose that the biblical account of the Tower of Babel recorded in Genesis 11:1-9, accurately reflects a series of prehistorical events which culminated in the fall of the Uruk “empire.” The biblical passage will be understood as follows: after the flood, civilization developed with small villages in Northern Mesopotamia during the Halaf period (5th millennium B.C.). Gradually, villages grew and civilization moved southward as reflected by the Ubaid period (early 4th millennium B.C.). During the Uruk period (late 4th millennium B.C.), significant demographic shifts occurred (as people moved eastward) which resulted in major population growth occurring in the Sumerian plain, with the principal city being Uruk. (They found a plain in Shinar and settled there.) Co-occurring with this demographic transition was the development of urbanization. In addition to producing urban attributes such as social stratification, political regimes, and trade systems, the Uruk civilization forged the largest pre-classical city, in terms of space and population. (Let us build ourselves a city.) This city, Uruk, contained architectural structures of monumental proportion (with a tower that reaches to heaven) along with a massive city defense system. Within a short time of its origins, this Uruk urban culture collapsed and disintegrated without explanation. This period of cultural uniformity was followed by the early Dynastic period (early 3rd millennium B.C.) which is characterized by smaller and ethically {66} dissimilar cultural/political systems known as city states. (So the Lord scattered them from there over all the earth and they stopped building the city.)


Historical interpretation presupposes a (re) construction of the culture’s chronology. Therefore modern archaeological researchers have developed a (still vigorously debated) chronological framework for charting the course of ancient civilization. This framework can be divided into two broad categories; prehistoric and historic. The prehistoric period refers to the age before the origin of writing. It can be further defined by the ceramic and preceramic periods. The prehistoric ceramic period is the time during which ceramic pottery technology was utilized for the production of vessels. Prior to this period, most vessels were carved from stone. Stone age or pre-ceramic cultures are very difficult to date because of the scarcity of remains that reflect cultural and chronological transitions. With the development of ceramic technology, societies produced vessels/pottery which represented cultural and temporal distinctiveness. The changes or transitions in ceramic forms and composition serve as the foundation for determining a relative chronology of cultural periods.

The Halaf Period. One of the earliest prehistoric ceramic periods is designated as the Halaf Period. This period gets its name from the modern name for the tell in which a unique and distinct style of pottery was found. As subsequent sites are found with identical pottery styles, these sites are included as representative locations of the “Halaf culture.” Halaf pottery is perhaps the finest ancient Near Eastern pottery. Hand made and well fired, it is superbly decorated with distinct geometric designs. All Halaf sites are small villages. They are found only in southern Turkey and northern Syria in the fertile rolling hills. The inhabitants would have utilized rain as a source of moisture for agriculture. Water from small seasonal streams and a few annual rivers would have supplemented the rain. Although these villages were not isolated from other distant cultures which existed during this period, they appear to have been rather indigenous and traded little with societies outside of their own.

The Ubaid Period. The period immediately following the Halaf period is called the Ubaid period. Once again, the period is named after the name of a principal site where a distinct style of pottery is found. Ubaid pottery differs from Halaf pottery and when both occur on the same site, Halaf pottery always precedes the Ubaid material. The pottery is also finely made, but not as much attention is given to decoration. Ubaid sites are also villages but they occur further south, even as far as southern Mesopotamia. Cultural finds suggest that like the Halaf culture, the inhabitants of the Ubaid culture {67} depended on subsistence dry land farming and lived in small villages with only occasional outside influence.

The Uruk Period. The Uruk period gets its name from the principal city of this period, Uruk, and is most likely the city referred to in Genesis as Erech. The Uruk period is thought to have lasted approximately 150 years and marked rapid changes in civilization, comparable only to what has been experienced by modern western culture. In summary, during this period, civilization shifted rapidly from a primitive agrarian society to a thoroughly urban culture. The following describes some of the distinctives of the Uruk period.

The Site of Uruk. Ancient Uruk (modern Tell Warka) is located in southern Mesopotamia, now Iraq. It lies some 150 miles southeast of Baghdad, only a few miles from the Euphrates River. A branch of the river flowed adjacent to the ancient city. It is an immense site, covering approximately 3.5 square miles. The ancient city was surrounded by a massive city wall and defense system almost 6 miles long. A sequence of temple complexes was constructed one on top of the other during the Uruk period. The final complex, called the “White Temple,” was built on a terrace more than 40 feet high. It is sometimes referred to as a ziggurat, a staged tower, common in Babylonia about a thousand years later. Though it is not a true ziggurat, its enormous size and height anticipate the later temple towers.

Uruk Pottery. The quality of ceramics continued to deteriorate during the Uruk period. This regression in quality resulted from two forces. First, metal became the preferred substitute for cooking vessels. Second, the invention of the potter’s wheel resulted in the mass production of vessels. The proliferation of pottery makes extensive decoration less feasible. Certain vessels continue to be decorated and new techniques of vessel finishes are utilized. During this period of prehistory a unique type of vessel appears. Called the Beveled Rim bowl, this vessel is about the size of a large cereal bowl. Made by hand in a simple mold, it consists of very coarse clay with large inclusions of straw and grit. Its rim is beveled, giving it the name. It appears crude and heavy, yet occurs more frequently than any other vessel. It is unique to the Uruk period, being absent both before and after this era. The function of the beveled rim bowl is unclear and has been the subject of numerous theses throughout the past several decades. Were they used as offering bowls, vessels used to produce salt, ration containers, or vessels used to bake bread? No theory has received general consent. At first glance the function of the beveled rim bowl may not seem that important. But since the Uruk period represents a preliterate society, the only evidence for reconstructing what the Uruk social system looked like is the material evidence found in archaeological excavations: pottery, architecture, and nonperishable {68} instruments. Therefore, whether it served as a ration container for a bureaucratic system of forced labor, or a domestic utensil of convenience (a sort of ancient day paper ware), becomes a pivotal issue. The function of the beveled rim bowl then becomes quite significant as part of the document used in proposing answers to the larger question of what type of social system was operative during the Uruk period. The debate of the vessel’s function is outside the scope of this paper and significant divergence exists on the issue. Nevertheless, the following interpretation rests on the theory that the beveled rim bowl was in fact part of an administrative system of vassal labor.

Uruk Irrigation. Another important development during the Uruk period was irrigation agriculture. An extensive system of canals was developed to utilize water from the Euphrates River for the irrigation of the fertile plains around the river. This region was far too arid to provide crops without irrigation but with the harnessing of the Great River, what was once a desert, flourished into a fertile region of great productivity. This development in particular precipitated both the rapid demographic shifts into this agricultural region and the growth of the site of Uruk. Irrigation agriculture impacted civilization. For the first time in history a group of people had the ability to produce significantly more than they could consume. This provided the impetus for at least two portentous transitions: a great increase in the region’s population density and the rapid and massive increase in commodity trading.

Uruk Trade and Commerce. As the population in southern Mesopotamia increased, the need grew for a variety of goods which were not indigenous to this desert region. And as the southern population was able to produce a reliable and surplus supply of food staples, its ability to procure needed and desired commodities and luxuries through trade also increased. In this fertile environment, it is no surprise that a highly sophisticated system of trade developed. Inventory and accounting techniques followed. Trade routes developed between strategically placed support centers. And, in some scholars’ opinion, the accounting system utilized in the trade industry became the catalyst for the development of writing. However it occurred, it is clear that during this explosion of urbanization, writing became formalized through the cuneiform script.

Uruk Politics. Scholars disagree about the nature of the Uruk political system. Some believe that a slightly more advanced system of tribal chiefs existed. These chiefs would have operated as chief executive officers over various aspects of society, for the benefit of the participants. Other scholars perceive the Uruk political system to have been more dictatorial and imperialist in character. The arguments and counter-arguments regarding this issue are far-reaching and lengthy. We proceed in our analysis on the understanding that the political system in force during the Uruk period was in fact quite {69} imperialistic. This imperialism is evident in the artistic impressions found on clay objects which portray military conflicts and prisoners being taken. It can also be detected in the vast geographical area in which Uruk pottery styles dominate, sometimes eliminating, the local ceramic material. The apparent use of forced labor is another indication of the imperialism of the Uruk political system.

Uruk Cultural Influence. One indication of the political “strength” of a society is its ability to influence the culture of other groups. The Uruk culture did more than influence other cultures; at times it dominated and suppressed them. Southern Mesopotamia was most likely the source of Uruk culture. This well populated region represented the cultural elite of society. Its inhabitants were most likely recent immigrants who were looking for the “good life.” They participated in and provided for the rapid advance of urbanization. For several hundred miles in all directions Uruk culture dominated the local culture. The predominance of Uruk architecture and artifacts alongside scarce examples of local material provides evidence that these cities/villages are truly Uruk colonies. Further away from its southern core, Uruk villages and local villages co-existed. Perhaps the Uruk village was an administrative center used to support, procure, and administer the trade system. On the periphery of the Uruk culture, only small outposts existed. These outposts, recognizable by the presence of Uruk cultural material and pottery, are found deep in central Turkey, nearly a thousand miles from the city of Uruk. It is difficult, therefore, to overstate the cultural and political impact of the Uruk “experiment.” In no other period of the ancient Near East, was such a large geographical region united. And in no other period was there such rapid cultural change.

The Post-Uruk Period. In spite of the advancements made in cultural and political systems during the Uruk period, this phase of history ended shortly and without apparent reason. The pottery styles, in particular the beveled rim bowl, end abruptly. Although the cause of this collapse is unknown, it is very clear that the Uruk culture ceased to dominate Mesopotamia.

Jemdet Nasr Period. After the Uruk period, population increased briefly in southern Mesopotamia during what is known as the Jemdet Nasr Period. Pottery styles differed slightly from Uruk styles but were similar, and probably related. The increase in population may have been due to the return of “Uruk” people living in outposts and colonies. Within a short time, this period ends and is followed by the Early Dynastic Period.

Early Dynastic Period. The Early Dynastic Period was the origin of the various “empires” of the ancient Near East. These empires consist of city states with one city becoming dominant and ruling over a region and ethnic group. Historians and archaeologists are becoming aware of more and more {70} cultures centered in city states which date back to this period: Sumerians, Akkadians, Eblaites, Hurrians. These city states have political and cultural systems similar to the Uruk system but are much smaller than the Uruk model. All of these city states exhibit cultural and ethnic distinctiveness as evidenced through the written materials they produced.

Summary. What has been reviewed, from a distance, is the early history of the ancient Near East. In the early sixth millennium B.C. people sparsely populated northern Mesopotamia. An ethnic group emerged and moved southward into southern Mesopotamia. This group rapidly increased numerically and advanced culturally, and also began to exploit and dominate the peoples of the surrounding regions. Suddenly and without explanation, this group lost power and cohesiveness. In this vacuum, various ethnic groups adopted the political and cultural techniques created in the previous period and used them to establish numerous small political/ethnic units.


Genesis 1:1-9. Could this sequence of historical development be what Genesis 11:1-9 is reflecting? When compared to the cultural periods defined by modern archaeological excavations, the Uruk period was certainly the period of greatest uniformity, influence, and cooperation in the history of the ancient Near East. It is a period of great urban development and expansion. The city of Uruk is much larger than any other ancient Near Eastern city. It also contains monumental architecture, in particular an immense temple platform and precinct.

Language. The reference to the confusion of languages is a potential problem. If language is understood to mean specific spoken languages or dialects then the Uruk paradigm doesn’t fit. If on the other hand, the confusion of languages is understood as the development of ethnic communities, then the transition from Uruk to Early Dynastic fits very well.

The Tower. If building a tower is the focus of the sin of mankind then there might be better examples than the Uruk White Temple. But if the focus is on building a city, (interpretation can be supported by the biblical text) than there is perhaps no better example than the city of Uruk.

Babylon. The name of the city is also a problem, if Genesis 11:9 (that is why it is called Babel) refers to the city of Babylon. But if this verse refers to the region of Babel then Uruk could in fact be the city within the region of Babel.

Space does not allow for a detailed textual analysis of all the potential implications and understandings which would result in the proposed thesis. Assuming for the time being that the thesis would stand close scrutiny, the larger question becomes the matter of meaning. Specifically, what does {71} Moses/God intend to communicate to the Israelites just prior to their entrance into Canaan?

The Message. The traditional interpretation is that human pride lies at the root of the sin committed at Babel. This same interpretation could also be made for the Uruk empire. A somewhat different understanding is possible though. Perhaps what God condemns in this portion of scripture is the adverse effects of an urban culture.

If we review the social consequences of the Uruk experiment several results may be noted: the development of a class system with, minimally, a ruling class, a consumer class, and a working/slave class; exploitation of regional resources for the benefit of the core society; political suppression of regional ethnic minorities as a corollary of resource procurement; the development of military capabilities to defend resources and possibly to access by force resources not belonging to the core; and finally, the construction of monumental facilities at the expense of the “citizens.” Exploitation, oppression, materialism, militarization, self-indulgence, are all attitudes and practices that are condemned by Yahweh. Whether or not these concerns are actually caused by urbanization, they certainly flourish in an urban environment.

As the people of Israel looked across the Jordan, with the occupation of that region as their goal, would it not seem logical for Yahweh to remind them of His opposition to the sins of urbanization? Just as the preSumerians migrated to and occupied lower Mesopotamia, Israel was preparing to enter and occupy a new region. Would not the story of the tower/city of Babel, as understood by the Uruk experiment, serve as an appropriate example of what Yahweh opposed? Didn’t Yahweh instruct Israel not to depend on fortifications and military strength? Doesn’t the Old Testament include numerous condemnations of oppression? And if we understand Baalism and the worship of Asherah as including belief systems that accommodate and encourage the exploitive nature of urbanism, then an interpretation of the Tower of Babel as a condemnation of urbanism would be consistent with the rest of Scripture. Centuries after the conquest of Canaan, the prophets found it necessary to continue to condemn Israel for their “urban sins” and foretold of an imminent diaspora, reminiscent of what occurred at the fall of Babel/Uruk.

The Twenty-First Century. With the foregoing interpretation, the story of the Tower of Babel becomes an extremely contemporary and timely reminder to a culture and a Church that is rapidly embracing the sins of an urban environment. It is not difficult to find contemporary Christian authors and speakers who remind us of the dangers of modern urbanism. Even non-believers are aware of the price that our culture has paid for its marriage to modernity. In addition to the consequences evident in the Uruk experiment: exploitation, {72} oppression, materialism, and self-indulgence, we can add modern effects like pluralism, relativism, and syncretism. History, and pre-history in the case of Uruk, repeatedly tells the story of cultures that have been conquered by the enemy within. And in most cases, this enemy includes an element which could be generalized as urbanism.

In simple terms, humankind finds the temptations of urbanism irresistible. Whenever God’s people have found themselves in the driver’s seat of an urban culture, subsequent spiritual decay occurs; from ancient Israel to modern (post modern) North America this scenario repeats itself. Can the scenario be avoided, and if so, how?

Certainly I believe that, with God, we can live holy lives in a post modern culture. Although I feel more comfortable analyzing the problem than providing solutions, I shall at least share my thoughts. If I am correct that urbanism presents a temptation that even God’s people do not entirely resist, then we must either become stronger in our ability to resist or we must take a voluntary exile from our environment. History suggests that the most effective course for resisting urbanism is the latter option: (voluntary) exile. By this I do not suggest building walls around ourselves in gated communities, or retreating to some isolated location. Rather, I envision a group of believers, insulating themselves from society by using the model employed by the early Church; closely knit groups or communities, supporting each other and holding each other accountable. S. D. Gaede (When Tolerance Is No Virtue), says it well: “We will not cultivate truth-seeking citizens in a society bereft of communities with durable relationships. And yet we see that modernity works against us on this score, promoting individualism, mobility, abstraction, and achievement among other things, all of which tend to weaken communal bonds and make relationships purely voluntaristic.”

The challenge we have before us, as individual churches and as a denomination, is to find ways of being the church which builds durable relationships and cohesiveness. We must develop communities which provide their members with the impetus and intellect to identify and arm themselves against the insidious effects of a post modern culture. And in the midst of this community, we must replace the belief system of our culture with the belief system of our Lord. If we do not choose to voluntarily exile ourselves from the influences of our culture, then I fear that we will experience an involuntary exile or diaspora similar to what occurred at Uruk/Babel, ancient Israel, Judah . . . .

Steve Reimer is an archaeologist completing his doctoral dissertation at UCLA. He is a co-adjunct instructor with Elmer Martens at MBBS, Fresno, and also shares Elmer’s deep interest and active engagement in the mission of the church.

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