The Real Problem with the Tower of Babel

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What is the meaning of the Tower of Babel and why was God displeased with the project? Dr. John Walton sets the story straight by suggesting that it be read in its ancient context.

The Tower of Babel was, in all probability, an ancient ziggurat—a large, stepped structure typically built next to temples. They were not made for people, but for gods to come down from heaven (note that this is exactly what God does in Gen 11:5) and supply the needs of the people.

The builders tried to establish the sacred space that they lost in the Garden of Eden, but they wanted God for their own purposes. They wanted to manipulate God. What follows in Genesis 12 through the story of Abraham’s calling is God initiating his own plan for re-establishing sacred space.

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Dr. John Walton is Professor of Old Testament at Wheaton College. His recent research has focused on comparative studies between the Old Testament and the ancient Near East. He is a leading expert on Genesis and has a passion for teaching the text in a way that sheds light on complex issues between science and faith.

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  1. Thanks for this, Dr. Walton. When teaching through Genesis with a second grade Sunday School class, I became much more aware of how we needed a better understanding of both the meaning and the significance of this chapter in the biblical story. Thinking about how Pharaoh used the people of God as slave labor, perhaps in such projects as pyramid building, is it possible there is also an element of human oppression in this story? That is, while the text speaks of humanity all together building this tower, could we discern that there was an elite group seeking to use the tower and its associate temple, to give legitimacy to their rule, and to force others to provide for their needs, just as they imagined the gods had created mankind as a slave labor force? Or do you not see that element present in this text?

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