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c) Gen 11:4: The immigrants to Shinar (Gen 11:1–3) said, “Behold, let us build for ourselves a city and a tower with its top into the heavens. And let us make for ourselves a name, lest we be scattered on the surface of all the earth.”

God took pleasure in Jerusalem. Therefore, he does not view constructing a city as inherently evil (Ps 48:1–3; Ps 69:34–36; 1 Ki 11:13).[1]

However, the Lord hates human arrogance (Prov 8:13; 2 Ki 19:28).[2] Nevertheless, he did not destroy Cain’s creation even though he named it after his son in an act of hubris (Gen 4:16–17).

Consequently, understanding urbanization in Mesopotamia helps us to determine the nature of God’s concern with this endeavor.[3]



Early Ancient Near Eastern (ANE) cities were not primarily residential areas.[4]

Instead, they functioned as public facilities for religious and economic development.[5] In some cases, the entire city consisted of a temple complex.[6]

For example, the goddess Gula, also known as Baba, owned 11,000 acres in the city of Girsu. Her estate produced barley, wheat, vegetables, dates, dairy products, oil, fish, wool, hides, and reeds. This necessitated employing agricultural workers, bricklayers, carpenters, smiths, spinners and weavers, bakers, butchers, and those who worked with animals.[7]

As a result, temples also operated as storage and distribution facilities (1 Chron 28:11–12; Neh 10:34–39).[8]



People built Eridu for this reason:[9]

[The goddess of birth] Nintur was paying attention, “Let me bethink myself of my humankind, (all) forgotten as they are; and mindful of mine, Nintur’s, creatures let me bring them back, let me lead the people back from their trails.

May they come and build cities and cult-places, that I may cool myself in their shade; may they lay the bricks for the cult-cities in pure spots, and may they found places for divination in pure spots![10]

The goddess ordered the construction of a city for her benefit.



General assemblies administrated early Ancient Near Eastern cities.[11] Their members viewed what happened on earth as a reflection of the activities of the gods. This form of collaborative government affected religious beliefs.[12]

Therefore, people believed a divine assembly ruled over the universe.[13]

Mesopotamian divine councils included at least fifty-seven major gods and goddesses.[14]



According to Enuma Elish, the gods responded to the rebellion of the water goddess in this way:

They made ready to leave on their journey, all the great gods who decree the fates. They entered before Anshar [the god of heaven], filling [Ubshukinna, the Chamber of Destiny]. They kissed one another in the Assembly.

They held converse as they [sat down] to the banquet. They ate festive bread, poured [the wine], they wetted their drinking-tubes with sweet intoxicant.

As they drank the strong drink, [their] bodies swelled. They became very languid as their spirits rose. For Marduk, their avenger, they fixed the decrees.[15]

This divine council determined the fate of the gods and of everyone on earth.[16]

Yet, these gods operated as even the worst of people do, reflecting humanity’s image (Cf. Gen 1:26).[17]



Typically, “towers” (migdal) in the Old Testament refer to defensive battlements or watchtowers (Judg 9:50–53; 2 Sam 22:47–51; 2 Ki 9:17–18).[18]

However, we have scant evidence for such architecture in Mesopotamia.[19]

Equally imposing edifices in that region consisted of specialized temple structures.[20]

Ziggurat” appears to be an Akkadian term related to the verb “to be high.” No comparable buildings existed in Canaan.[21]

Within a Mesopotamian temple complex, the ziggurat featured prominently.[22] The earliest examples date to the late fifth millennium BC.[23]

These structures narrowed as they rose into the sky,[24] lending a sense of infinite height as one stood at the base.[25] The dimensions of their bases ranged from twenty to ninety meters per side.[26]

A letter from a visitor to the twenty-first century BC ziggurat in Ur depicts the wonder elicited by these monumental sites.[27]



Ziggurats depict a clear relationship between ancient structures, urban planning, and religious beliefs.[28]

Often, their builders erected them over earlier shrines while leaving some rooms available for temple functions.[29] A small chamber at the apex included a bed and a table.[30]

People often painted the exterior of those small shrines with blue enamel to blend them with the heavenly dwellings of the gods.[31]

The cult celebrating the erotic relationship between Dumuzi and Inanna gained prominence in the city of Uruk.[32]

Sumerians believed the continued fertility of their land depended upon the ritual reenactment of the marriage, death, and resurrection of Dumuzi. However, the rite centered upon cultic prostitution, rather than human sacrifice. [33]

Inanna’s ziggurat included a bridal chamber where a priestess engaged in mystical marriage with the king to renew the land’s fertility. Only then could the soil produce abundant crops and the king renew his military strength.[34]

Surprisingly, those who constructed ziggurats filled the core of the main structure with dirt, rendering it unusable.[35]

Critically important for this type of building, a staircase ran from the top to the bottom.[36]

Notably, the people building the tower in Shinar sought to make a tower with its top reaching into the heavens.[37]

While their desire to make a name for themselves reflects some hubris,[38] this reflects standard terminology for ziggurat builders.[39] Large platforms raised the bases of these temples high into the sky.[40]



Babylonian theology accounts for this architectural trend.[41]

People constructed ziggurats to represent sacred mountains which connected heaven, the earth, and the underworld.[42]

The staircases permitted the gods to descend into the realm of humanity.[43] Therefore, these temple towers enabled people to contact the gods.[44]

According to the Eridu Genesis:

When the royal scepter was coming down from heaven, the august crown and the royal throne being already down from heaven, he (the king) regularly performed to perfection the august divine services and offices, laid the bricks of those cities in pure spots.[45]

Since ziggurats were usually built for one specific god, important cities might contain several of these structures. However, the patron deity of each municipality received the most prominent tower.[46]

By looming over the surrounding buildings, a ziggurat assured the inhabitants of the god’s ability to enter their presence.[47]

Usually, people built a temple next door as a place for worship, indicating that a ziggurat was intended only for the use of the god.[48]



Some of the names of ziggurats emphasize their intended purpose.

For example, the one later erected in Babylon was called, “The House of the Foundation of Heaven and Earth.” One in Larsa was named, “The House of the Link between Heaven and Earth.”[49]

An Akkadian myth recounts the journey of the goddess of death’s deputy from the underworld. It says:

Namtar ascended the long staircase of the heave[ns]. When he reached the gate of [the gods] Anu, Enlil, and Ea, [An]u, Enlil, and Ea looked at him and (said), “[Wh]y dost thou come, Namtar?”

[He replied,] “Your daughter has sent m[e] with these words, ‘Seize that god and bring (him) to me!’”[50]

The stairs of a ziggurat—in this case, one called, “Temple of the Stairway to Pure Heaven” in Sippar—enabled the goddess’s emissary to travel from the place of the dead to earth and then to the heavenly realm before making the return trip.[51]



Priests provided food at the top of the ziggurat to refresh the traveling god.[52]

They hoped that the deity would then stop by the temple next door to receive the adoration of his people and give them his blessing.[53]

Such practices reflect the weaknesses of the Babylonian concept of gods.[54] In contrast, the Lord has no needs (Ps 50:7–15; Amos 5:21–24; Acts 17:22–26).

Understanding this cultural information helps us to comprehend the nature of the offense committed by those who migrated to Shinar.

Simply building a monumental edifice did not trigger God’s wrath. What they constructed implied that the creator of the universe cannot survive without the assistance of humanity.[55] They reduced the Lord to their likeness.[56]



Some commentators hold that the immigrants’ desire to avoid scattering contradicts God’s command to “be fruitful and multiply and fill the earth” (Gen 1:28–30; Gen 9:1).[57]

Yet, the Lord spoke those words in blessing, not as a command. Furthermore, that mandate involved reproduction, not merely spreading apart. According to Gen 10, they succeeded in that regard.[58]

People belonging to nomadic and semi-nomadic societies tended to scatter by necessity.[59]

For example, the sizes of Abraham’s and Lot’s flocks forced them to separate to find enough resources (Gen 13:5–7).[60]

Urbanization permitted people to specialize into different trades, enabling them to pool resources and increase productivity.[61] By erecting fortified cities, they could also resist attacks.[62]

Therefore, the immigrants to Shinar sought to avoid dispersing by building a metropolis.[63]

Image via Wikimedia Commons


Read Gen 11:4. Why did people living in the Ancient Near East build cities? How do the architectural specifications of ziggurats fit with Babylonian theology? Do you make a similar error by molding God into your image when thinking about him? How can you combat that tendency?






Go to A Deity Descends (Gen 11:5–7)

[Related posts include Made in the Image of God (Gen 1:26 cont.); Stewards of the Earth (Gen 1:26 cont.); Male and Female He Created Them (Gen 1:27); The Blessing of Fruitfulness (Gen 1:28); The Lord Provides Food (Gen 1:29–30); Banished from God’s Presence (Gen 4:15‒16); Cain Dedicated a City (Gen 4:17); Advancements in Civilization (Gen 4:20–22); A Renewed Mandate (Gen 9:1); Seventy Nations (Gen 10:32); A Plain in Shinar (Gen 11:1–2); Let Us Bake Bricks (Gen 11:3); A Deity Descends (Gen 11:5–7); Dispersed over the Face of the Earth (Gen 11:8–9); and Ancient Literature]

[Click here to go to Chapter 12: Scattered to the Ends of the Earth (Gen 11:1–9)]


[1]Walton, Genesis, 376.

[2]Waltke and Fredricks, Genesis: A Commentary, 183.

[3]Walton, “The Mesopotamian Background of the Babel Account and Its Implications,” 167,

[4]Waltke and Fredricks, Genesis: A Commentary, 179.

[5]Walton, Genesis, 372.

[6]Waltke and Fredricks, Genesis: A Commentary, 179.

[7]Robertson, “Temples and Sanctuaries: Mesopotamia,” ABD 6:374.

[8]William A. Ward, “Temples and Sanctuaries: Egypt,” ABD 6:369–72, 371.

[9]Jean-Claude Margueron, trans. by Paul Sager, “Eridu (Place),” ABD 2:573.

[10]Thorkild Jacobsen, “The Eridu Genesis,” JBL 100, no. 4 (1 December 1981): 513–29, 515.

[11]Walton, “The Mesopotamian Background of the Babel Account and Its Implications,” 168,

[12]E. Theodore Mullen, Jr., “Divine Assembly,” ABD 2:213–7, 213.

[13]Walton, “The Mesopotamian Background of the Babel Account and Its Implications,” 168,

[14]Mullen, “Divine Assembly,” ABD 2:215.

[15]Speiser, trans., “Enuma Elish (The Creation Epic),” in ANET, 3:129–38, 65–6.

[16]Mullen, “Divine Assembly,” ABD 2:213.

[17]Walton, “The Mesopotamian Background of the Babel Account and Its Implications,” 169,

[18]Walton, Genesis, 372–3.

[19]Waltke and Fredricks, Genesis: A Commentary, 179.

[20]Paul Zimansky, “Art and Architecture: Ancient Near Eastern Architecture,” ABD 1:408–19, 411.

[21]Walton, “The Mesopotamian Background of the Babel Account and Its Implications,” 156,

[22]Walton, Genesis, 373.

[23]Walton, “The Mesopotamian Background of the Babel Account and Its Implications,” 157,

[24]D. Kellermann, “מִגְדָּל” (migdal) TDOT 8:69–73, 72.

[25]Cheryl A. Thurlby, “File: Great Ziggurat of Ur.JPG,” Wikimedia Commons,

[26]Walton, “The Mesopotamian Background of the Babel Account and Its Implications,” 157,

[27]Michael Taylor, “Letter from Iraq: The Ziggurat Endures,”

[28]Walton, “The Mesopotamian Background of the Babel Account and Its Implications,” 157, 165,

[29]Paul Zimansky, “Art and Architecture: Ancient Near Eastern Architecture,” ABD 1: 408–19, 411.

[30]Walton, Genesis, 373.

[31]Waltke and Fredricks, Genesis: A Commentary, 179.

[32]Pritchard, ANET, 638.

[33]Healey, “Fertility Cults,” ABD 2:792.

[34]Healey, “Fertility Cults,” ABD 2:792.

[35]Walton, “The Mesopotamian Background of the Babel Account and Its Implications,” 164,

[36]Waltke and Fredricks, Genesis: A Commentary, 179.

[37]Hamilton, The Book of Genesis, Chapters 1–17, 353.

[38]Waltke and Fredricks, Genesis: A Commentary, 177.

[39]Walton, Genesis, 373.

[40]Zimansky, “Art and Architecture: Ancient Near Eastern Architecture,” 1:411.

[41]Wenham, Genesis 1–15, 239.

[42]Kline, Kingdom Prologue: Genesis Foundations for a Covenantal Worldview, 273.

[43]Robertson, “Temples and Sanctuaries: Mesopotamia,” 6:375.

[44]Robert P. Gordon, “Babel: Tower of,” NIDOTTE 4:428–30, 428.

[45]Jacobsen, “The Eridu Genesis,” 518.

[46]Walton, Genesis, 373.

[47]Waltke and Fredricks, Genesis: A Commentary, 179.

[48]Walton, Genesis, 373.

[49]Waltke and Fredricks, Genesis: A Commentary, 179.

[50]O. R. Gurney, trans., “Nergal and Ereshkigal,” in ANET, 5:14–17, 511.

[51]Walton, Genesis, 374.

[52]Matthews, Chavalas, and Walton, IVPBBCOT, Gen 11:4.

[53]Walton, Genesis, 374.

[54]Walton, “The Mesopotamian Background of the Babel Account and Its Implications,” 169,

[55]Walton, Genesis, 377.

[56]Walton, “The Mesopotamian Background of the Babel Account and Its Implications,” 169,

[57]Waltke and Fredricks, Genesis: A Commentary, 178.

[58]Walton, Genesis, 375.

[59]Walton, “The Mesopotamian Background of the Babel Account and Its Implications,” 167,

[60]Walton, Genesis, 375.

[61]Walton, “The Mesopotamian Background of the Babel Account and Its Implications,” 167,

[62]Hamilton, The Book of Genesis, Chapters 1–17, 353.

[63]Walton, Genesis, 375.