After the great flood, Noah and his offspring were instructed by God to be fruitful, to multiply, and to fill the earth (Genesis 9:1). According to the Jewish historian, Josephus, after departing the mountains of Ararat, they eventually settled within Mesopotamia’s Euphrates River valley. At this point in history, it was named the plain of Shinar (Antiquities of the Jews 1:4:1). This is in agreement with Genesis 11:2 “and it came about as they journeyed east, that they found a plain in the land of Shinar and settled there.”
In spite of God’s earlier instruction, they made no attempt to disperse; rather the clan of Noah’s son, Shem, stayed together and settled the area. The land of Shinar (Babylonia) was the land of two rivers, the Tigris and Euphrates. Shinar’s meaning is debated, and may have several: “date palm”; “to shake out”; “light of glowing fire”; and “land of the regenerator.” During this time, the world had only one language (Genesis 11:1).
Defying God’s command, the group unified by starting a massive building project. Their city would boast a lofty tower (migdol), one whose pinnacle would ascend to the heavens. The monument represented their rebellion, pride, and governance over all. It was an arrogant, anti-God empire that wished to be recognized and celebrated.
Shinar’s Mesopotamian soil was rich and very well suited for brick making. After being formed and sun-dried, they were fired in a kiln for hardness and stability. Bubbling up from the alluvial ground were pits of viscous tar-like slime, or bitumen, which served as an effective mortar. The city and enormous tower were constructed of bricks for stone, and slime for mortar (Genesis 11:3).
Josephus wrote that it was Nimrod, the great-grandson of Noah, who encouraged the construction of the tower, convincing them that it was cowardly to submit to the will of God: “Now the multitude were very ready to follow the determination of Nimrod, and that it be cowardice to submit to God; and they built a tower, neither sparing any pains, nor being in any degree negligent about the work: and, by reason of the multitude of hands employed in it, it grew very high, sooner than any one could expect; but the thickness of it was so great, and it was so strongly built, that thereby its great height seemed, upon the view, to be less than it really was.”
When the Lord looked upon the tower, he recognized their disobedience; it represented the choice to settle in Shinar, rather than to colonize over the earth. Their ability to communicate gave them the wherewithal to create the city and tower; therefore no objective was impossible for them. So the Lord confused their language, and they suddenly spoke without understanding. This linguistic division brought a halt to construction, and they dispersed and separated across the earth.
Josephus explained that the word babel was derived from the Hebrew word balal, a verb meaning to jumble, confuse or confound. Although there is no phrase “Tower of Babel” in the Bible, the word, babel, is mentioned in reference to the name of the city: “So the Lord scattered them abroad from there over the face of the whole earth; and they stopped building the city. Therefore its name was called Babel, because there the Lord confused the language of the whole earth…” (Genesis 11:8-9). In modern times, the city of Babel is known as Babylon.
There is no mention in the Bible regarding the destruction of the tower. However, in other sources*, God overturns the tower with a great wind. In the Midrash, it said that the top of the tower was burnt, the bottom was swallowed, and the middle was left standing to erode over time.
The esteemed chronologist, Archbishop James Ussher, placed the time of Babel at 106-years after the flood, about the time when Peleg was born.
*Book of Jubilees (chapter 10 v.18–27), Cornelius Alexander (frag. 10), Abydenus (frags. 5 and 6), Josephus (Antiquities 1.4.3), and the Sibylline Oracles (iii. 117–129)
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Excerpt from Ancient Minutus