THE TOWER MYTH

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It is tragic that the mass murderer Putin with his announced “mobilization” is sending even more Russian men to die, deceiving them with lies and propaganda and trying to turn them into murderers as well.  I feel so sorry for the young Russians caught in this nightmare, and sorry too for the Ukrainian people who continue to suffer greatly because of the demented whims of one man.  Let us all hope that soon common sense will prevail and this great evil will end both for Russians and Ukrainians.

Putin’s arrogance reminds me to the old tale in Genesis of the tower that was to be built to heaven so that men could “make a name” for themselves.

There are not many images of the so-called “Tower of Babel” in Eastern Orthodox iconography.  It is seen here and there in frescoes and occasionally as a border image of a larger icon, or as a book illustration, but it is not common.

In the following manuscript image from a 15th century Russian version of the Christian Topography of the 6th century writer Kosmas Indicopleustes, we see the Tower:

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(Russian State Library, Moscow)

It is under construction.  At the base a ruler on a throne gives instructions.  Workers at left bring materials, while at right two men turn a winch to raise them up the tower.  The tower is so high that the sun and moon are seen at left and right.  But Yahweh — the Old Testament God — has come down to see what was happening, and has stopped the building of the tower, from which four men fall to the ground.

The tale itself, found at the beginning of Genesis 11, is brief.  Here it is in Brenton’s Septuagint translation:

And all the earth was one lip, and there was one language to all. And it came to pass as they moved from the east, they found a plain in the land of Senaar, and they dwelt there. And a man said to his neighbour, Come, let us make bricks and bake them with fire. And the brick was to them for stone, and their mortar was bitumen. And they said, Come, let us build to ourselves a city and tower, whose top shall be to heaven, and let us make to ourselves a name, before we are scattered abroad upon the face of all the earth. And the Lord came down to see the city and the tower, which the sons of men built. And the Lord said, Behold, there is one race, and one lip of all, and they have begun to do this, and now nothing shall fail from them of all that they may have undertaken to do. Come, and having gone down let us there confound their tongue, that they may not understand each the voice of his neighbour. And the Lord scattered them thence over the face of all the earth, and they left off building the city and the tower. On this account its name was called Confusion [Babel], because there the Lord confounded the languages of all the earth, and thence the Lord scattered them upon the face of all the earth.

So according to the Biblical story, the people on the Plain of Shinar in Babylonia (Mesopotamia) decided to build a famous city and with it a tower to Heaven, which of course irritated the Old Testament God, Yahweh (he was a very irritable fellow)

This old tale is an etiological myth, a story to explain why people speak different languages, and why the ancient city was called Babel.  Its name was really Bab-ilu  — “Gate of God” in Babylonian, but Hebrews thought that its Hebrew form sounded like balal — meaning “to confuse.”  That gave rise to the notion that there human language became confused and divided into many mutually unintelligible languages.

Note that the people intended to build a tower that would reach to Heaven.  In ancient belief Heaven was the sky — the place above the earth — but not too far above — where God had his dwelling.  In Isaiah we find this:

It is he (God) that sits upon the circle of the earth, and the inhabitants thereof are as grasshoppers; that stretches out the heavens as a curtain, and spreads them out as a tent to dwell in.” 

So from Heaven, people on earth were about the size of grasshoppers in the sight of God.  That is why they thought it possible to build a tower to heaven.  They had not a clue as to the real size of the universe, or even the height of the atmosphere.  Thus the Old Testament gives us a very pre-scientific view of things.  Remember that even in the New Testament, all Jesus had to do to get to Heaven after his resurrection was to rise into the sky.

In our times, such simple “origin” stories are replaced by research and evidence.  We now know (and have for a very long time) that languages evolve, and that it is common for people separated by distance and time and isolation  — even if they began speaking the same language — to change their speech gradually, both vocabulary and grammar.  Eventually such changes result in mutually unintelligible languages.  We can see, for example, how greatly English has changed just since the days of Shakespeare.  So difference of language is simply the natural result of that.  But of course in earlier times this was not known, and such stories as the “Tower of Babel” were used in the absence of actual facts.

Even legends may sometimes have elements of truth in them.   Some think that when the Babylonians were rebuilding the great ziggurat (stepped temple) called Etemenanki (“Temple of the Foundation of Heaven and Earth”), Judeans in Babylon may have seen the great ziggurat there, and that sight, combined with the similarity of the Hebrew word for “confusion” and the Akkadian words for “Gate of God” may have been the origin of the tale.

Here is a modern reconstruction of the likely appearance of the completed Etemenanki:

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