Tower of Babel

Posted by ESC on April 14, 2005

In Reply to: Tower of Babel posted by Sangeeta on April 14, 2005

: What does the phrase Tower of Babel mean? How does one use it in a sentence?

It's from the Bible (see below).

I haven't heard it used that much in my part of the U.S. But I'll give it a try: you could say about a noisy classroom (lots of students talking with nobody listening): "It's a Tower of Babel in here." Or about a commmittee meeting: "It was a Tower of Babel -- no one could understand anyone else's viewpoint."

From Bible Gateway, King James Version:

Genesis 11
1 And the whole earth was of one language, and of one speech.
2 And it came to pass, as they journeyed from the east, that they found a plain in the land of Shinar; and they dwelt there.
3 And they said one to another, Go to, let us make brick, and burn them thoroughly. And they had brick for stone, and slime had they for morter.
4 And they said, Go to, let us build us a city and a tower, whose top may reach unto heaven; and let us make us a name, lest we be scattered abroad upon the face of the whole earth.
5 And the LORD came down to see the city and the tower, which the children of men builded.
6 And the LORD said, Behold, the people is one, and they have all one language; and this they begin to do: and now nothing will be restrained from them, which they have imagined to do.
7 Go to, let us go down, and there confound their language, that they may not understand one another's speech.
8 So the LORD scattered them abroad from thence upon the face of all the earth: and they left off to build the city.
9 Therefore is the name of it called Babel; because the LORD did there confound the language of all the earth: and from thence did the LORD scatter them abroad upon the face of all the earth...

I thought this phrase would be easy to find in my references. But it wasn't. I found:

"Babel (Akkadian Bab-ilu, 'gate of God'). A confusion of noises or voices; a hubbub. The allusion is to the confusion of tongues during the building of the Tower of Babel (Genesis 11)." From Brewer's Dictionary of Phrase and Fable revised by Adrian Room (HarperCollinsPublishers, New York, 1999, Sixteenth Edition).

I have also heard it used to mean confusion on a subject. Then there's this meaning:

"...The Babel story had great significance for the early Israelites, because it provided an explanation for the name of the city of Babylon, which in the native Sumerian language meant 'gate of the gods' but in Hebrew was related to the word for 'to confuse.' In other words, the composer of Genesis was using a bilingual pun to disparage the people who later captured the people of Israel and held them captive in the city of Babylon.

In another context, the story once again shows men trying to be 'like gods' and how unfavorably God views that idea. It was an idea opposed not only by the God of the Israelites but by the gods of many mythologies..." From "Don't Know Much About the Bible: Everything You Need to Know About the Good Book but Never Learned" by Kenneth C. Davis (Eagle Brook, New York, 1998.)