When we think of the Tower of Babel, we often imagine a building stretching high into the clouds, especially since it’s described as “a tower with its top in the heavens” (Ge 11:4). But this expression is not meant to denote the tower’s height, so much as its purpose; for as John Walton points out, “Throughout Mesopotamian literature, almost every occurrence of the expression describing a building ‘with its head in the heavens’ refers to a temple with a ziggurat” (Walton, John H., Ancient Near Eastern Thought and the Old Testament).
The ancients designed these ziggurats to be stairways or ramps from the heavens for their gods to descend to earth and meet with humanity. A small room was often prepared at the top of these towers for the deity to make a home in. If these gods were willing, humanity hoped they might follow the stairs down into the temple to be with them.
While the Bible doesn’t mention a temple alongside the Tower of Babel, it does mention that they built both a city and a tower. Given the timeframe in which we place this event, we recognize that cities were not yet looked at as a place for people to live in. Homes would have been outside of the city and public buildings would have been inside. With this in mind, Walton imagines the city as “a temple complex featuring a ziggurat, which was designed to make it convenient for the god to come down to his temple, bless his people, and receive their worship.”
We can now begin to see more clearly why God was upset with the creation of the Tower of Babel. He wasn’t upset because people had built a big building—He was upset because of what the building was. He was also upset because humanity still wasn’t listening. They were told to fill the earth, yet they stayed in one place.
This is an adapted excerpt from my book, The Rush and the Rest.