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9/13/12 at 02:39 AM 0 Comments

The Tale of the Tower - Part 1

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Lucas van Valckenborch 1568

The Tale of the Tower – Part 1

The Truth about What Really Happened at the Tower of Babel

In his book excerpt from The Comets of God, archeologist and author, Dr. Jeffrey Goodman forces readers to look at the Tower of Babel Bible story with new analytical eyes and a heavy dose of skepticism.   

Its central theme [“The Curse of Agade”] concerns national catastrophe as a direct consequence of divine wrath kindled by a defiant act on the part of man.

                                                Samuel Noah Kramer, who

                                                Translated the Sumerian work

                                                “The Curse of Agade” (Akkad)

Why should we care about the story of the Tower of Babel? This strange little nine verse story packs a powerful punch! First, it illustrates beautifully that when translators have no clue what happened, it is possible to come up with a fairy tale that is far from reality. Yet this brief story contains enough information that undeniably validates its place in the historical record.

As traditionally told in the Bible, the story of “The Destruction of the Tower of Babel” (Genesis 10:8-10 and 11:1-9) is about a time when the whole world spoke the same language, and people came together to make a “name” or “authority” for themselves by building a new city and a new temple tower at Babel in the “land of Shinar.” However, because the people became one and had one language, nothing they imagined they could do would be restrained from them. The God of the Bible then went down and confused or mixed their language so that they could not understand one another’s speech. People’s speech now sounded like babble to one another. This traditional translation and interpretation says that, as a result of the destruction of this universal language, an event popularly called “the confusion of tongues,” people stopped building the new city and the new temple tower, and the Lord scattered the people over the face of the whole world.

There are several problems with this version of the story. First, this traditional translation and interpretation of the Tower story derived hundreds of years ago does not fit with what we know from other scriptures in the Bible (Genesis 10:10 and Zechariah 5:11) that also talk about the “land of Shinar.” The second problem is that the traditional interpretation of a universal language at the time of the Tower does not fit archeological and historical records. Most importantly, we get a very different account about what happened from the writings of the people from the land of Shinar, who were building the new tower.

The historical record clearly shows that the people referred to in the Tower story were Sumerian and Akkadian, people who joined together from two different nations to form the Akkadian Empire. Fortunately for us, these people left written records behind. These cuneiform records are helpful in determining an accurate translation of the Tower story. In addition, physical evidence has been found that confirms their account of what caused them to stop building the new city and tower and abandon the area. Taken together these events resulted in the sudden collapse of their new empire, and gives us a different explanation of the story recorded in the Bible.

For many in the archeological, historic and linguistic world this Bible story has kept them from taking the Bible too seriously. The story does not fit with what archeologists know about the ancient cultures of the Near East and about the origins of the languages of the world. There could have been no universal language at the time of the story because different populations of people speaking different languages in Europe, Asia, Africa, the Pacific, and the Americas had existed long before the first temple towers (ziggurat from zigura “to raise up”) were built in Mesopotamia. (It was the Sumerians who first built these temple towers to worship their gods.)

Specifically, it is now well known that two totally different languages, Sumerian and Akkadian (Babylonian and Assyrian are later dialects of Akkadian) were spoken in the “land of Shinar” (Genesis 10:10, 11:2 and Zechariah 5:11) long before the Tower of Babel (Babylon) was built there. Archeological sites have yielded tens of thousands of cuneiform tablets written in both Sumerian and Akkadian, some dating to over 1,000 years before the new tower and the new city referred to in the Bible story were built. Further, the phrase “land of Shinar” is actually a direct reference to these two cultures when two very different languages were spoken. The word “Shinar” is merely the spelling out in English (transliteration), of a Sumerian word that means “Sumer-Akkad” just as ancient literature repeatedly makes reference to “the land of Sumer and Akkad.” [1]  In fact, in the land of Shinar, that is, in the land of Sumer and Akkad (Akkad was to the north of Sumer), different languages were not a point of confusion, since the Akkadians, the Semitic conquerors of the Sumerians, for the most part adopted the Sumerian culture and made Sumerian their literary and religious language. The schools for scribes at the new city of Akkad (Genesis 10:10 and 11:4) made the study of Sumerian their basic discipline, and there were bilingual dictionaries and even manuscripts where each line in a Sumerian composition was followed by the Akkadian translation.

How could the Bible be so wrong about the origins of the different languages of the world? The answer is the Bible isn’t wrong; the problems lie with the translation and interpretation of certain lines from the original text. Reevaluating the translation and interpretation of the original Hebrew text should be the first step when the scriptures appear to be incorrect when compared to the known historical or scientific record.  Mistakes made in earlier translations and interpretations must not be upheld and defended as Biblical truth simply because the erroneous interpretation has been accepted as fact for centuries by respected theologians.           

            These errors in translation and interpretation in the story of the Tower of Babel become apparent once the literal meaning of the original Hebrew words used in this Biblical story are researched. Careful examination reveals this is not a story about the destruction of a universal “language” to stop the building of a city and a temple tower, but rather a story about the destruction of the Middle East’s first empire, the empire of Sumer and Akkad, which was called the “Akkadian Empire,” to keep this empire from becoming too powerful.  As stated, the corrected translation of these events is supported by cuneiform writings, the historical record, and by physical evidence. (The destruction of this first empire has a direct correlation to end times Bible prophecy which tells of a coming antichrist and his empire.)

So, how did the mistranslation and misinterpretation of the Tower story come about? Since the ancient Hebrew language did not use vowels, the traditional translation of the Tower story has taken the Hebrew consonants b-b-l to denote the word “babel” and then assumed this word meant “confusion caused by language differences.” This is nothing but a play on words that is solely based on the word “babel” being similar to the actual Hebrew word (balal) for “confusion” or “mixing.”[2]  But, despite the popularity of this contrived etymology, “babel” is not a Hebrew word, nor should it even appear in the story of the Tower in the first place.

The Hebrew consonants b-b-l actually constitutes the spelling out in Hebrew, the transliteration of the Akkadian word “babylon” or “babilum.”    The Hebrew consonants b-b-l appears in the Old Testament 282 times and only twice are they rendered as “Babel,” with both instances appearing in the Tower story. The other 280 times these consonants are rendered as “Babylon.” More recent translations than the King James Version of the Bible, such as the New American Standard (NAS) and the New International Version (NIV), acknowledge that the consonants translated as “Babel” should be translated as “Babylon.”

Archeologists have long known the name “Babylon” is an Akkadian word that means “gate of god,” or “house of god,” and that every  temple tower was called a babylon, a gate or house of god.[3] Thus, the Hebrew consonants b-b-l in this story actually refers to a place that came to be called “Babylon” because of the babylon, the temple tower that was built there. The Moody Bible Institute in The Wycliffe Bible Commentary says that, “The best Hebrew lexicographers claim that it [Babel translated Babylon] could not have come from the Hebrew balal to ‘confuse’ or ‘mix,’ but that it meant ‘gate of God.’” The Baker Encyclopedia of the Bible says “a popular etymology [for Babel or Babylon] replaced the original meaning of the name.”  

The key to determining that this story is actually about the destruction of an empire comes from learning the meaning of certain types of political idioms or expressions peculiar to the ancient Near East. For example, in Genesis 11:1 the original Hebrew text of this story literally says “the whole land was of one lip” (e.g. see Septuagint). This has been traditionally translated as “the whole earth was of one language.” However, in the ancient Near East “one lip” is an idiom that means “one government.” Confirmation of this interpretation comes from other terms that are used a number of times in the original Hebrew text of the story that refer to “one government,” “one command” and the people being “one” or “united.” The concepts of “one government,” “one command,” and being “united” convey the concept of “empire.”

Thus, while the traditional translation of Genesis 11:1 says, “And the whole earth was of one language and of one speech”; a historically correct translation of Genesis 11:1 says, “And the whole land was of one government and one commander.” Obviously, the concept of “one government” and “one commander” fit the description of an “empire.” It was through the political power of an empire that the people become “one” and made a “name” or “authority” for themselves (Genesis 11:6 and 11:4 NIV), not the building of another temple tower. To strengthen this empire the Akkadians, the Semitic conquerors of the Sumerians, adopted the Sumerian religion, and a new city and tower or babylon was being built to serve the new empire.

                      Genesis 11: 1 Translation

Literal "And the whole land or earth was of one lip and of one word, cause or command."

Traditional "And the whole earth was of one language and of one speech."

Historically Correct "And the whole land was of one government and one commander."

Coincidentally, a Babylonian document used the same type of idiom that was used in the Bible’s story of the Tower of Babel. This document tells how Sargon, the founder of the Akkadian Empire, conquered a number of countries. Then it literally says, “He made its (the land’s) mouth be one,” which has been translated by a leading expert in the language as “He established there a central government.” In this case, the idiom “mouth be one” was used to refer to “central government,” which is another way to convey the concept of “empire.”[4] 

            Even if one doesn’t know that “one lip” is an ancient idiom meaning “one government,” there is another way to determine that this is a story about the destruction of an empire and not a universal language. The Hebrew word that literally means “lip” (saw-faw #8193 in Strong’s Concordance) that is traditionally translated as “language” or “speech” in the Tower story (Genesis 11:1, 6, 7 and 9) can also be taken to be a Hebrew word that means “gathering” (saw-fakh #5596 in Strong’s Concordance), where “one gathering” is consistent with “one government” under one commander as in empire.[5]  The three Hebrew consonants used for the Hebrew word meaning “lip” (#8193 in Strong’s Concordance) are the same consonants used for the Hebrew word meaning “gathering” (#5596 Strong’s Concordance), the only difference being in the vowel signs.

(It is important to understand that the writing of ancient Hebrew only used consonants. Consonants were written down, vowels were not written down. It was not until about 600 AD that a complete system of vowel signs was added to the text of the Old Testament by the scribes of the Massoretes [“transmitters”]. So aside from context, it is impossible to distinguish between certain ancient Hebrew words that contain the same set of consonants as in the case with words #8193 and #5596 in Strong’s Concordance. )

Thus, in Genesis 11:1 we can have “one gathering” or “one government” (“one lip”) under “one commander,” where either translation fits the historical context of the Akkadian Empire as begun and commanded by Sargon. This empire brought people of different states, cultures and languages together into a single politico-religious entity in the land of Shinar. Genesis 10:10 tells how the land of Shinar, that is, the land of Sumer and Akkad, included the Sumerian city of Erech (Uruk) and the Akkadian cities of Akkad and Babylon. The lesson here is that Biblical translations cannot ignore historical or cultural context. When the Tower story is correctly translated and interpreted, the Bible should be credited with accurately telling the story of the collapse of the historical Akkadian Empire.

So why did God destroy the tower and how? Why is this Bible story important and how does it connect to the end times? This story contains a sore spot for God and a warning for mankind that practically guarantees the intervention of God every time. The answers are revealed in Part 2 of The Tale of the Tower.

www.thecometsofgod.com

About the author:

An archeologist and a geologist, Dr. Goodman has devoted over twenty-five years to the study of the Bible. He holds a geological engineering degree from the Colorado School of Mines, a M.A. in anthropology from the University of Arizona, and a Ph.D. in anthropology from California Coast University. He also earned a M.B.A. from Columbia University Graduate School of Business. He was accredited by the former Society of Professional Archeologists. Goodman is a Messianic Jew who was saved in 1987.


[1]            The unquestioned dean of Sumeriology, Samuel Noah Kramer wrote that scholars usually identify the word “Shinar” with Sumer, but it “actually stands for the Sumerian equivalent of the compound word ‘Sumer-Akkad.’” Samuel Noah Kramer, The Sumerians: Their History, Culture and Character, the University of Chicago Press, Chicago, 1963, p. 297.

[2]            In Modern Hebrew the actual word for the phenomena of speech known as “babble” is “siyach” not “babel.”

[3]            To the Sumerians and the Akkadians a “gate of god” also represented a “door of god,” a “gate of heaven,” and a “house of god”; places where man and god met.  Proverbs 8:34 talks about watching daily at God’s “gates” and at his “doors.” In Genesis 28:12-17 Jacob after dreaming of a ladder or stairs reaching to heaven and seeing God says, “How awesome is the place, this is none other but the house of God, and this is the gate of heaven.”

[4]           Interestingly, the NIV in two instances translates the Hebrew word translated as “lip” (#8193 in Strong’s Concordance) as “mouth.”

[5]            For example, the Hebrew word saw-fakh (#5596 in Strong’s Concordance) is translated as “gathered together” in Job 30:7 KJV and NAS and “unite” in Isaiah 14:1 NIV.

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