The World of the Tower

Authors: Jo Milgrom and Yoel Duman

The World of the Tower

The Bible begins with a series of “how did it come to be” stories: how the world and humanity were created; how paradise was lost; how crime first happened; how human occupations and crafts emerged. Woven into these stories is the disturbing role of the Creator and the dysfunction of His human creation. These aetiological legends (tales of origin) conclude with a grand finale:

These are the families of the sons of Noah, according to their genealogies, by their nations; and out of these, the nations branched out over the earth after the Flood

This concluding verse of Genesis 10 sets the stage for the Tower of Babel story in chapter 11, which can be understood to record how the dispersal occurred and how the world’s languages came into being.
One modern translation renders the first verse of chapter 11 as follows:

The whole world had one language with a common vocabulary.

But the Hebrew actually reads “one language and a few/several words/things”. Thus, our story begins with ambiguity, as befits a story about language. What is the point of the story? One suggestion is that this is a “just so story” about the amazing variety of languages and nations in the world. Another contends that the story is also a dig at pagan Babylonian culture. A third says that the story deals with hybris and its consequences. In this regard, God had already expressed grave reservations about humanity’s character:

Man’s creativity (yetzer lev ha-adam) inclines toward Evil from his youth. Genesis 8:21

The story, containing all of nine verses, is ingeniously composed of recurring words structured like a tower and a ladder. Ascent and descent, language and architecture are hardwired into the story itself.

A unique structure for the verses of the Tower of Babel
A unique structure for the verses of the Tower of Babel

The Midrashic Interpretation

Many modern readers are perplexed by the question: What was sinful about the building of the Tower of Babel? In the biblical account, no clear answer is forthcoming. But Midrash is unequivocal in its condemnation of the intent to reach heaven and displace God. In Targum Yonatan we read:

And they said: Let us build a city and a tower reaching the heights of heaven and place an idol at its top with a sword in its hand; he will make war against Him, so that we not scatter over the face of the earth.

This Midrash serves as the basis for Shalom of Safed’s painting, which portrays the intent as a fait accompli.

Two additional characterizations of the people’s intent are found in the Babylonian Talmud:

R. Jeremiah b. Elazar said: There were three sorts of rebels among the builders. The first party spoke, Let us ascend into the heavens and settle there; the second party spoke, Let us ascend into the heavens, set up our idols, and pay worship unto them there; and the third party spoke, Let us ascend into the heavens, and war against Him. Sanhedrin 109a

While the motif of war against God is central in Jewish Midrash, it is not found, as far as we know, in Jewish or Christian iconography. A reflex of this tradition does, however, appear in this Islamic miniature from 1600, in which Nimrod shoots arrows at God as he is lifted heavenward in a basket powered by eagles.

Fear of flooding

Alone among the commentators, Josephus writes that people built the Tower out of fear of a recurring Flood. Several artists include seascapes in their portrayals of the Tower, apparently responding, like Josephus, to the juxtaposition of the Flood and Tower stories.
Because the viewpoint in Escher’s picture of the Tower is from above (God’s point of view), half of its upper background is filled with waves of the nearby sea. Black storm clouds shape the heavens in Dali’s Tower, also positioned beside water.
The most curious of these three pictures combines the biblical narrative and a French-Roman legend. The picture is a 15th century historical homily of the settlement of Brittany. In the upper left, Noah’s Ark is perched on Mt. Ararat. Parallel with the Ark and to the right, the Tower reaches heavenward. Below right, the burning city of Troy is abandoned. Below left, the refugees board the ship that will take them to Brittany. The following parallels emerge:

Upper left – the Ark, humanity’s means of rescue by and from the sea
Lower left – another ship rescues Troy’s survivors by sea
Upper right – the survivors build their new city
Lower right – the survivors flee their city
Thus the “modern” inhabitants of Brittany are linked to their ancient predecessors. Just as Noah and his family escaped destruction and rebuilt their civilization, so the survivors of Troy escaped by ship to rebuild their lives in Brittany. The Tower of Babel becomes here a symbol of civilization, rather than of impious rebellion. Likewise, the Sea, rather than an agent of destruction, is an agent of salvation.

Nimrod and the Tower

An alternate view of our story, expanded both in Midrash and in art, derives from the juxtaposition of the legend of the Tower (Genesis 11) and the mention of Nimrod, twice entitled gibor (hero) in Genesis 10. The “hero” Nimrod of Genesis 10:8 and 9 becomes a giant in the Septuagint and in Philo’s writings (as well as in the Aramaic Targumim). In addition, we are informed by Genesis 10:10 that Nimrod’s kingdom began with Babel, the city that he built. The next step in the midrashic process connects Nimrod with the Tower of Babel; this connection already appears in the writings of Josephus, which were preserved by the Christian Church.
Josephus makes the giant a despot, paraphrasing the biblical account as follows:

Now it was Nimrod who excited the people to such an affront and contempt of God. He was the grandson of Ham, the son of Noah, a bold man, and of great strength of hand. He persuaded them not to ascribe [their welfare] to God, as if it was through His means they were happy, but to believe that it was their own courage which procured that happiness.

Since these Greek sources were canon for the medieval Church, Nimrod the giant appears in numerous works of Christian art on the Tower of Babel.

Cronique universelle ("La Bouquechardiere") of Jehan de Courcy (10a17
Cronique universelle ("La Bouquechardiere") of Jehan de Courcy (10a17
De civitate Dei of Augustine
De civitate Dei of Augustine

Maitre de l'Echevinage de Rouen

In the two illuminations above, Nimrod towers above the other figures, while God and an angel appear central and high, taking note of the mischief below. The presence of the angel explains God’s plural direct address in verse 7, “Let us go down”.

Tower of Babel
Tower of Babel
zoom-in De civitate Dei of Augustine
zoom-in De civitate Dei of Augustine

The 11th century Solerno ivory (above, right) mocks Nimrod by showing God, rather than the human tyrant, beside the Tower. The Almighty is the real giant and he will undo this human folly.
In a parallel development in Midrash, Nimrod becomes the arch-pagan and arch-tyrant, who challenges God’s authority, intent on reaching the celestial throne in order to displace the Almighty. L. Ginzberg compiles rabbinic Midrashim into the following account in which Nimrod and humanity are co-conspirators:

The iniquity and godlessness of Nimrod reached their climax in the building of the Tower of Babel. His counselors had proposed the plan of erecting such a tower, Nimrod had agreed to it, and it was executed in Shinar by a mob of six hundred thousand men.

However, Midrash rarely stressed Nimrod’s gigantism; instead, it showed more interest in contrasting Nimrod’s delusions of grandeur with Abraham’s piety.

The Tower in Latter Days

Perhaps the most famous portrayal of the Tower is Bruegel’s painting of 1563, once again featuring the giant Nimrod consulting with his builders at the base of a gargantuan edifice.
In fact, this painting is one of more than 100 16th century Dutch representations of the subject. This plethora of artwork has been variously interpreted as a critique of the Catholic penchant for cathedral building or of the tyranny of Spanish domination of Holland in that era, through analogy with Nimrod. In our own times, the Tower has sometimes become a symbol of unbridled urbanism and technology.

See also Julee Holcombe, 2004

Tower of Babel
Tower of Babel

God's response

Just as the diagram above of the story’s verbal structure has a crescendo and decrescendo, so the illustrations below portray heightened action from above and below terminating in desolation and diaspora.
First, the scenes of God’s involvement, initially looking things over and subsequently doing battle together with his heavenly hosts.
In the 18th century Ethiopian illustration, God is suspended within a necklace of clouds, gesturing to indicate speech, while looking quizzically at the builders of the Tower. Likewise, God speaks in the 14th century Bible Historiale, also accompanied by an angel.
In the 11th century Old English Hexateuch, God, standing atop one of the builders’ ladders, observes from heaven.

Tabiba Tabiban (Sage of Sages) (Or. 590
Tabiba Tabiban (Sage of Sages) (Or. 590
Bible historiale by Guiard des Moulins (Français 156
Bible historiale by Guiard des Moulins (Français 156

Fauvel Master

Old English Illustrated Hexateuch of Aelfric (Cotton Claudius B. IV
Old English Illustrated Hexateuch of Aelfric (Cotton Claudius B. IV
Old English Illustrated Hexateuch of Aelfric (Cotton Claudius B. IV
Old English Illustrated Hexateuch of Aelfric (Cotton Claudius B. IV

In a later chapter of the same manuscript, once again a divine figures stands astride a ladder, ascending from the earth to heaven, but this time it is Mary, viewing the sleeping Jacob.
What is the relationship between these two stories that creates similar iconography? Both narratives speak of an ascent to the heavens. Verbal clues also link the two stories: in both, we find the term “its head in heaven” and in both we find reference to gates. In Genesis 28, Jacob exclaims that the site of his dream is “the gate of heaven”. In Genesis 11, the name “Babel” is derived from the word for confusion, but in fact this Semitic word means “the gate of the gods”. At this point, meaning diverges: Jacob’s visionary ascent is a spiritual journey on the axis mundi; the Babel tale is a satire on the futile efforts of humanity to attain fame and eternity through technology. Likewise, the two illustrations diverge: the celestial figure in the Tower of Babel scene is the condemning God of Judgment, whereas in the Jacob’s ladder scene, Mary represents the God of Compassion.

All Hell Breaks Loose

God does not remain a passive observer (see above the Salerno ivory). In the Bedford Book of Hours, two angels dive-bomb the tower and the workmen, the tower begins to crumble and the workmen, unable to understand one another, begin to brawl.

In the Golden Haggadah, as in several Midrashim, human violence is even more graphic, but the divine element, having passed its judgment, has disappeared.

In Gerard Hoet’s 18th century copper engraving, lighting strikes the Tower in a non-iconic divine presence, as the people battle below.
The story of the Tower seems to have also engendered one of the twenty-two signs of the Tarot, in which it represents the human ego whose false self-concept is threatened with destruction.

Tower of Babel
Tower of Babel

Hoet Gerard

Tarot Card: The Tower
Tarot Card: The Tower

Wood Robin

Gustave Dore’s popular rendition of the scene has no violence, but rather panic and dismay among the workers, gathered at the base of the Tower under ominous clouds that seem to turn the Tower into a smoking volcano. There is a frightening similarity between Dore’s image and the now iconic photograph of the Twin Towers.

La Sainte Bible: The Confusion of Tongues
La Sainte Bible: The Confusion of Tongues

Dore Gustave


Don Isaac Abravanel’s 16th century commentary on the Tower pericope strikes a contemporary note:

…the sin of the generation of the Dispersal was similar to the sin of Adam, Cain and his sons, in that despite being provided with all necessary provisions for their welfare, they were unsatisfied and desired to try their hands and put their minds to all types of crafts in the building of a city and a tower within it, in order to be unified there and become urban, rather than rural…the city being characterized by the urge to acquire property, theft and murder, as opposed to the agrarian lifestyle.

Both the attack on the WTC and Abravanel’s reading of the Tower legend are radical rejections of technology and Progress. They differ, of course, in their vehemence and concern for human life. But the intent of the biblical account seems, rather, to be a warning about the inherent dangers of materialism and a call to balance the urge for progress with social and spiritual concern.
The 2004 memorial to the Towers was a totally non-material Tower of Light, perhaps illustrating our current inability to arrive at such a balance.

The Twin Towers of the World Trade Center during the 2004 memorial of the September 11, 2001 attacks
The Twin Towers of the World Trade Center during the 2004 memorial of the September 11, 2001 attacks

We have seen a variety of literary and visual understandings of the story of the Tower of Babel. But when we return to the story in its present setting in Genesis, as we noted, it seems to be describing how humanity scattered over the “face of the earth” from an initial situation of being all in one place. In a recent article, T. Hiebert (“The tower of Babel and the origin of the world’s culture”, Journal of Biblical Literature 126,1 (2007) 29-58) suggests that our story is not concerned with sin and punishment, but with the tension between the natural human desire to remain united and uniform and the Divine will that humanity diversify and fill the entire world. Thus the answer to our initial quandary regarding the sin of the Tower builders is that there was no sin. The so-called punishment is, in fact, none other than the grand design of Genesis, in which there is a gradual zeroing in on a particular people, the seed of Abraham, chosen by God to confront the evils of humanity; for this purpose, humanity must first diversify. We have yet to see in the artwork on the Tower of Babel a visualization of this tension and the far reaching focus on chosenness, a challenge to artists of our time.

Genesis 10
8 Now Cush became the father of Nimrod; he became a mighty one on the earth. 9 He was a mighty hunter before the Lord; therefore it is said, “Like Nimrod a mighty hunter before the Lord.” 10 The beginning of his kingdom was Babel and Erech and Accad and Calneh, in the land of Shinar. 11 From that land he went forth into Assyria, and built Nineveh and Rehoboth-Ir and Calah, 12 and Resen between Nineveh and Calah; that is the great city.

Targum Yonatan Genesis 10
8 Kush begat Nimrod; he began to be a mighty sinner and rebel on earth before the Lord. 9 He was a mighty rebel before the Lord. Therefore it is said: “From the day the world was created there has not been a might hunter and rebel like Nimrod before the Lord.”

Targum Neofiti Genesis 10
8 And Cush begot Nimrod. He began to be a giant on the earth. 9 He was a giant in sin before the Lord, wherefore is it said: “Like Nimrod, a giant in sin before the Lord.”

Targum Yonatan Genesis 11
4 And they said, Come let us build ourselves a city and a tower with its top reaching towards the heavens. Let us make ourselves an idol at its top, and let us put a sword in its hand, and let it draw up battle formations against Him before we are scattered from upon the face of the earth.

Josephus, Antiquities of the Jews, I, 113-114
1. Now the sons of Noah were three, – Shem, Japhet, and Ham, born one hundred years before the Deluge. These first of all descended from the mountains into the plains, and fixed their habitation there; and persuaded others who were greatly afraid of the lower grounds on account of the flood, and so were very loath to come down from the higher places, to venture to follow their examples. Now the plain in which they first dwelt was called Shinar. God also commanded them to send colonies abroad, for the thorough peopling of the earth, that they might not raise seditions among themselves, but might cultivate a great part of the earth, and enjoy its fruits after a plentiful manner. But they were so ill instructed that they did not obey God; for which reason they fell into calamities, and were made sensible, by experience, of what sin they had been guilty: for when they flourished with a numerous youth, God admonished them again to send out colonies; but they, imagining the prosperity they enjoyed was not derived from the favor of God, but supposing that their own power was the proper cause of the plentiful condition they were in, did not obey him. Nay, they added to this their disobedience to the Divine will, the suspicion that they were therefore ordered to send out separate colonies, that, being divided asunder, they might the more easily be Oppressed.

2. Now it was Nimrod who excited them to such an affront and contempt of God. He was the grandson of Ham, the son of Noah, a bold man, and of great strength of hand.

He persuaded them not to ascribe it to God, as if it was through his means they were happy, but to believe that it was their own courage which procured that happiness. He also gradually changed the government into tyranny, seeing no other way of turning men from the fear of God, but to bring them into a constant dependence on his power. He also said he would be revenged on God, if he should have a mind to drown the world again; for that he would build a tower too high for the waters to be able to reach! and that he would avenge himself on God for destroying their forefathers !

3. Now the multitude were very ready to follow the determination of Nimrod, and to esteem it a piece of 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. It was built of burnt brick, cemented together with mortar, made of bitumen, that it might not be liable to admit water. When God saw that they acted so madly, he did not resolve to destroy them utterly, since they were not grown wiser by the destruction of the former sinners; but he caused a tumult among them, by producing in them diverse languages, and causing that, through the multitude of those languages, they should not be able to understand one another. The place wherein they built the tower is now called Babylon, because of the confusion of that language which they readily understood before; for the Hebrews mean by the word Babel, confusion.

Jubilees 10
And in the three and thirtieth jubilee, in the first year in the second week, Peleg took to himself a wife, whose name was Lomna the daughter of Sina’ar, and she bare him a son in the fourth year of this week, and he called his name Reu; for he said: ‘Behold the children of men have become evil through the wicked purpose of building for themselves a city and a tower in the land of Shinar.’ For they departed from the land of Ararat eastward to Shinar; for in his days they built the city and the tower, saying, ‘Go to, let us ascend thereby into heaven.’ And they began to build, and in the fourth week they made brick with fire, and the bricks served them for stone, and the clay with which they cemented them together was asphalt which comes out of the sea, and out of the fountains of water in the land of Shinar. And they built it: forty and three years [1645-1688 A.M.] were they building it; its breadth was 203 bricks, and the height (of a brick) was the third of one; its height amounted to 5433 cubits and 2 palms, and (the extent of one wall was) thirteen stades (and of the other thirty stades). And the Lord our God said unto us: Behold, they are one people, and (this) they begin to do, and now nothing will be withheld from them. Go to, let us go down and confound their language, that they may not understand one another’s speech, and they may be dispersed into cities and nations, and one purpose will no longer abide with them till the day of judgment.’ And the Lord descended, and we descended with him to see the city and the tower which the children of men had built. And he confounded their language, and they no longer understood one another’s speech, and they ceased then to build the city and the tower. For this reason the whole land of Shinar is called Babel, because the Lord did there confound all the language of the children of men, and from thence they were dispersed into their cities, each according to his language and his nation. And the Lord sent a mighty wind against the tower and overthrew it

upon the earth, and behold it was between Asshur and Babylon in the land of Shinar, and they called its name ‘Overthrow’.

Pseudo-Philo, Biblical Antiquities VI – VII
1. Then all they that had been divided and dwelt upon the earth gathered together there after, and dwelt together; and they set forth from the East and found a plain in the land of Babylon: and there they dwelt, and they said every man to his neighbor: Behold, it will come to pass that we shall be scattered every man. from his brother, and in the latter days we shall be fighting one against another. Now, therefore, come and let us build for ourselves a tower, the head whereof shall reach unto heaven, and we shall make us a name and a renown upon the earth.

2. And they said everyone to his neighbor: Let us take bricks (lit. stones), and let us, each one, write our names upon the bricks and burn them with fire: and that which is thoroughly burned shall be for mortar and brick. (Perhaps, that which is not thoroughly burned shall be for mortar, and that which is, for brick)…

VII. And it came to pass after these things, that the people of the land turned not from their evil thoughts: and they came together again unto their princes and said: The people shall not be overcome for ever: and now let us come together and build us a city and a tower which shall never be removed.

2. And when they had begun to build, God saw the city and the tower which the children of men were building, and he said: Behold, this is one people and their speech is one, and this which they have begun to build the earth will not sustain, neither will the heaven suffer it, beholding it: and it shall be, if they be not now hindered, that they shall dare all things that they shall take in mind to do.

3. Therefore, lo, I will divide their speech, and scatter them over all countries, that they may not know every man his brother, neither every man understand the speech of his neighbor. And I will deliver them to the rocks, and they shall build themselves tabernacles of stubble and straw, and shall dig themselves caves and shall live therein like beasts of the field, and thus shall they continue before my face forever, that they may never devise such things. And I will esteem them as a drop of water, and liken them unto spittle: and unto some of them their end shall come by water, and other of them shall be dried up with thirst. 4. And before all of them will I choose my servant Abram, and I will bring him out from their land, and lead him into the land which mine eye hath looked upon from the beginning when all the dwellers upon earth sinned before my face, and I brought on them the water of the flood: and then I destroyed not that land, but preserved it. Therefore the fountains of my wrath did not break forth therein, neither did the water of my destruction come down upon it. For there will I make my servant Abram to dwell, and I will make my covenant with him, and bless his seed, and will be called his God for ever.

5. Howbeit when the people that dwelt in the land had begun to build the tower, God divided their speech, and changed their likeness. And they knew not every man his brother, neither did each understand the speech of his neighbor. So it came to pass that when the builders commanded their helpers to bring bricks they brought water, and if they asked for water, the others brought them straw. And so their counsel was broken and the), ceased building the city: and God scattered them thence over the face

of all the earth. Therefore was the name of that place called Confusion, because there God confounded their speech, and scattered them thence over the face of all the earth.

Babylonian Talmud Sanhedrin 109a
THE GENERATION OF THE DISPERSION HAVE NO PORTION IN THE WORLD TO COME etc. What did they do? — The scholars of R. Shila taught: They said, ‘Let us build a tower, ascend to heaven, and cleave it with axes, that its waters might gush forth.’ In the West [sc. Palestine academies] they laughed at this: If so, they should have built it on a mountain!

R. Jeremiah b. Eleazar said: They split up into three parties. One said, ‘Let us ascend and dwell there;’ the second, ‘Let us ascend and serve idols;’ and the third said, ‘Let us ascend and wage war [with God].’ The party which proposed, ‘Let us ascend, and dwell there’ — the Lord scattered them: the one that said, ‘Let us ascend and wage war’ were turned into apes, spirits, devils, and night-demons; while as for the party which said, ‘Let us ascend and serve idols’ —for there the Lord did confound the language of all the earth.

It has been taught. R. Nathan said: They were all bent on idolatry. [For] here it is written, let us make us a name; while elsewhere it is written, and make no mention of the name of other gods: just as there idolatry is meant, so here too. R. Jonathan said: A third of the tower was burnt, a third sunk [into the earth], and a third is still standing. Rab said: The atmosphere of the tower causes forgetfulness.

Babylonian Talmud Erubin 53a
In the days of Amraphel – Rav and Samuel commented: One said, His name was really Nimrod; and why was he called Amraphel? Because he ordered our father Abraham dropped (hipil) into a fiery furnace. And the other said, Why was he called Nimrod? Because he stirred up the whole world to rebel (himrid) against His [God’s] sovereignty.

Genesis Rabba 38
6. And the whole earth was of one language and of one speech (ahadim). R. Leazar said: That means, of veiled deeds, for the deeds of the generation of the Flood are explicitly stated, whereas those of the generation of Separation are not explicitly stated.

And of one speech (ahadim): that means that they spoke against two who were unique [lit. ‘one ‘], viz. against Abraham who was one (Ezek. 33:24) and against The Lord our God, the Lord is One (Deut. 6:4)· Said they: ‘This Abraham is a barren mule and cannot produce offspring.’ Against ‘The Lord our God, the Lord is One’: ‘He has no right to choose the celestial spheres for Himself and assign us the terrestrial world! But come, let us build a tower at the top of which we will set an idol holding a sword in its hand, which will thus appear to wage war against Him.’

Another interpretation: and one speech (ahadim) means united in possessions, what one possessed being at the other’s disposal. The Rabbis said: of one language (safah) may be illustrated by the case of a man who had a wine cellar. He opened one barrel and found it sour, another and found it sour, and a third and found it sour. ‘This satisfies (mashpo) me that all the barrels are unfit,’ he remarked. R. Leazar said: Who

is worse the one who says to the king, ‘Either you or I will dwell in the palace,’ or the one who says, ‘Neither you nor I will dwell in the palace’? Surely the one who says, ‘Either you or I.’ Similarly, the generation of the Flood said, What is the Almighty, that we should serve Him? (Job 21:15), whereas the generation of Separation said: ‘It does not rest with Him to choose the celestial spheres for Himself and assign the terrestrial world to us. Come, rather, and let us build a tower at the top of which we will set an idol holding a sword, that it may appear to wage war with Him.’ Yet of the former not a remnant was left, whereas of the latter a remnant was left! But because the generation of the Flood was steeped in robbery, as it is written, They remove the landmarks, they violently take away flocks and feed them (ib. 24:2), therefore not a remnant of them was left. And since the latter, on the other hand, loved each other, as it is written, And the whole earth was of one language, therefore a remnant of them was left…

Another interpretation: And of one speech (ahadim) means that they spoke sharp words (hadim), saying, ‘Once in one thousand six hundred and fifty-six years the Firmament totters; therefore let us go and make supports for it, one in the north, one in the south, one in the west, while this spot will be its eastern support.’ Thus it is written, and all the earth was one language of sharp words.

8. And they said one to another (11:3) Who said to whom? Said R. Berekiah: Mizraim said to Cush.

Come, let us make bricks, and burn them (we-nisrefah) thoroughly: This is written we-nissorfah (and we will be burnt): this people is destined to be burnt out of the world.

And they had brick for stone, etc. R. Huna said: Their work prospered: a man came to lay one [stone] and he laid two; he came to plaster one [row] and plastered two.

And they said: come, let us build us a city, and a tower (11:4) R. Judan said: The tower they built, but they did not build the city. An objection is raised: But it is written, And the Lord came down to see the city and the tower (ib. 5)? Read what follows, he replied: And they left off to build the city (ib. 8), the tower, however, not being mentioned. R. Hiyya b. Abba said: A third of this tower which they built sank [into the earth], a third was burnt, while a third is still standing. And should you think that it [the remaining third] is small—R. Huna said in R. Idi’s name: When one ascends to the top, he sees the palm trees below him like grasshoppers.

And let us make a name (shem). The School of R.Ishmael taught: shem (a name) means nothing else but an idol.

Lest we be scattered abroad upon the face of the whole earth. R. Simeon b. Halputha quoted, A fool’s mouth is his ruin (Prov. 18:7).

10. Come, let us go down (11:7). This is one of the things which they altered for King Ptolemy [changing it to] ‘Come, I will go down, and there confound their language.’

R. Abba interpreted it: Through their own lips will I destroy them. Thus one said to his fellow worker, ‘Bring me water,’ whereupon he would give him earth, at which he struck him and split his skull; ‘Bring me an axe,’ but he brought him a spade, at which

he struck him and split his skull. Thus it is written, Through their own lips I will destroy them.

So the lord scattered them abroad (wayyafez 11:8). R. Judan said: The Tyrians went to Sidon and the Sidonites to Tyre, while Mizraim [Egypt] retains his land. R. Nehemiah said: All retained their own lands and returned to their original dwelling places. But what is the meaning of wayyafez? That each nation settled in the highest mountains and became separated from one another. The Rabbis said: wayyafez (scattered) is to be read wayyazef (swept away): the sea came up and swept away thirty families.

Pirke de Rabbi Eliezer 24
Rabbi Eliezer said: They begat their sons and increased and multiplied like a great reptile, six at each birth, and they were all one people, and one heart, and one language, as it is said, And the whole earth was of one language and of one speech (Gen. 11:1). They despised the pleasant land, as it is said, And it came to pass, as they journeyed in the east (ibid. 2). They went to the land of Shinar, and found there a large stone, very extensive, and the whole plain, and they dwelt there, as it is said, And they found a plain in the land of Shinar, and they dwelt there (ibid.).

Rabbi Akiba said: They cast off the Kingdom of Heaven from themselves, and appointed Nimrod king over themselves; a slave son of a slave. Are not all the sons of Ham slaves? And woe to the land when a slave rules, as it is said, For a servant, when he is king (Prov30:22).

Rabbi Hachinai said, Nimrod was a mighty hero as it is said, And Cush begat Nimrod, who began to be a mighty one in the earth (Gen. 10:8). Rabbi Judah said: The coats which the Holy One, blessed be He, made for Adam and his wife, were with Noah in the ark, and when they went forth from the ark, Ham, the son of Noah, brought them forth with him, and gave them as an inheritance to Nimrod. When he put them on, all beasts, animals, and birds, when they saw the coats, came and prostrated themselves before him. The sons of men thought that this (was due) to the power of his might; therefore they made him king over themselves, as it is said, Wherefore it is said, Like Nimrod, a mighty hunter before the Lord (ibid.).

Nimrod said to his people: Come, let us build a great city for ourselves, and let us dwell therein, lest we be scattered upon the face of all the earth, as the first people (were). Let us build a great tower in its midst, ascending to heaven, for the power of the Holy One, blessed be He, is only in the water, and let us make us a great name on the earth, as it is said, And let us make us a name (ibid. 11:4).

Rabbi Phineas said: There were no stones there wherewith to build the city and the tower. What did they do? They baked bricks and burnt them like a builder (would do), until they built it seven miles high, and it had ascents on its east and west. (The laborers) who took up the bricks went up on the eastern (ascent), and those who descended went down on the western (descent). If a man fell and died they paid no heed to him, but if a brick fell they sat down and wept, and said: Woe is us! when will another one come in its stead?

And Abraham, son of Terah, passed by, and saw them building the city and the tower, and he cursed them in the name of his God, as it is said, Swallow up, 0 Lord, divide their language (Ps. 55:9). But they rejected his words, like a stone cast upon the ground. Is it not a fact that every choice and good stone is only put at the corner of a building? and with reference to this, the text says, The stone which the builders rejected is become the head of the corner (ibid. 118:22).

Rabbi Simeon said: The Holy One, blessed be He, called to the seventy angels, who surround the throne of His glory, and He said to them: Come, let us descend and let us confuse the seventy nations and the seventy languages.

Whence (do we know) that the Holy One, blessed be He, spoke to them? Because it is said, Go to, let us go down (Gen. 11:7). “I will go down” is not written, but Go to, let us go down. And they cast lots among them. Because it is said, When the Most High gave to the nations their inheritance (Deut.32:8). The lot of the Holy One, blessed be He, fell upon Abraham and upon his seed, as it is said, For the Lord’s portion is his people; Jacob is the lot of his inheritance (ibid. 9) .

The Holy One, blessed be He, said: The portion and lot which have fallen to Me, My son lives thereby, as it is said, The lots have fallen unto me in pleasures; yea, I have a goodly heritage (Ps. 16:6). The Holy One, blessed be He, descended with the seventy angels, who surround 11 the throne of His glory, and they confused their speech into seventy nations and seventy languages. Whence do we know that the Holy One, blessed be He, descended? Because it is said, And the Lord God came down to see the city and the tower (Gen.11:5). This was the second descent.

And they wished to speak one to another in the language of his fellow-countryman, but one did not understand the language of his fellow. What did they do? Every one took his sword, and they fought one another to destroy (each other), and half the world fell there by the sword, and thence the Lord scattered them upon the face of all the earth, as it is said, So the Lord scattered them abroad on that account, upon the face of all the earth (ibid. 8).

Rabbi Meir said: Esau, the brother of Jacob, saw the coats of Nimrod, and in his heart. he coveted them, and he slew him, and took them from him. “Whence (do we know) that they were desirable in his sight? Because it is said, And Rebeeea took the precious raiment of Esau, her elder son (ibid. 27:15). When he put them on he also became, by means of them, a mighty hero, as it is said, And Esau was a cunning hunter (ibid. 25:27). And when Jacob went forth from the presence of Isaac, his father, he said: Esau, the wicked one, is not worthy to wear these coats. What did he do? He dug in the earth and hid them there, as it is said, A noose is hid for him in the earth (Job 18:10).

Book of Yashar 7
39 And when Nimrod had joyfully returned from battle, after having conquered his enemies, all his brethren, together with those who knew him before, assembled to make him king over them, and they placed the regal crown upon his head.

40 And he set over his subjects and people, princes, judges, and rulers, as is the custom amongst kings.

41 And he placed Terah the son of Nahor the prince of his host, and he dignified him and elevated him above all his princes.

42 And whilst he was reigning according to his heart’s desire, after having conquered all his enemies around, he advised with his counselors to build a city for his palace, and they did so.

43 And they found a large valley opposite to the east, and they built him a large and extensive city, and Nimrod called the name of the city that he built Shinar, for the Lord had vehemently shaken his enemies and destroyed them.

44 And Nimrod dwelt in Shinar, and he reigned securely, and he fought with his enemies and he subdued them, and he prospered in all his battles, and his kingdom became very great.

45 And all nations and tongues heard of his fame, and they gathered themselves to him, and they bowed down to the earth, and they brought him offerings, and he became their lord and king, and they all dwelt with him in the city at Shinar, and Nimrod reigned in the earth over all the sons of Noah, and they were all under his power and counsel.

46 And all the earth was of one tongue and words of union, but Nimrod did not go in the ways of the Lord, and he was more wicked than all the men that were before him, from the days of the flood until those days.

47 And he made gods of wood and stone, and he bowed down to them, and he rebelled against the Lord, and taught all his subjects and the people of the earth his wicked ways; and Mardon his son was more wicked than his father.

Chapter 9
20 And king Nimrod reigned securely, and all the earth was under his control, and all the earth was of one tongue and words of union.

21 And all the princes of Nimrod and his great men took counsel together; Phut, Mitzraim, Cush and Canaan with their families, and they said to each other, Come let us build ourselves a city and in it a strong tower, and its top reaching heaven, and we will make ourselves famed, so that we may reign upon the whole world, in order that the evil of our enemies may cease from us, that we may reign mightily over them, and that we may not become scattered over the earth on account of their wars.

22 And they all went before the king, and they told the king these words, and the king agreed with them in this affair, and he did so.

23 And all the families assembled consisting of about six hundred thousand men, and they went to seek an extensive piece of ground to build the city and the tower, and they sought in the whole earth and they found none like one valley at the east of the land of Shinar, about two days’ walk, and they journeyed there and they dwelt there.

24 And they began to make bricks and burn fires to build the city and the tower that they had imagined to complete.

25 And the building of the tower was unto them a transgression and a sin, and they began to build it, and whilst they were building against the Lord God of heaven, they imagined in their hearts to war against him and to ascend into heaven.

26 And all these people and all the families divided themselves in three parts; the first said We will ascend into heaven and fight against him; the second said, We will ascend to heaven and place our own gods there and serve them; and the third part said, We will ascend to heaven and smite him with bows and spears; and God knew all their works and all their evil thoughts, and he saw the city and the tower which they were building.

27 And when they were building they built themselves a great city and a very high and strong tower; and on account of its height the mortar and bricks did not reach the builders in their ascent to it, until those who went up had completed a full year, and after that, they reached to the builders and gave them the mortar and the bricks; thus was it done daily.

28 And behold these ascended and others descended the whole day; and if a brick should fall from their hands and get broken, they would all weep over it, and if a man fell and died, none of them would look at him.

29 And the Lord knew their thoughts, and it came to pass when they were building they cast the arrows toward the heavens, and all the arrows fell upon them filled with blood, and when they saw them they said to each other, Surely we have slain all those that are in heaven.

30 For this was from the Lord in order to cause them to err, and in order; to destroy them from off the face of the ground.

31 And they built the tower and the city, and they did this thing daily until many days and years were elapsed.

32 And God said to the seventy angels who stood foremost before him, to those who were near to him, saying, Come let us descend and confuse their tongues, that one man shall not understand the language of his neighbor, and they did so unto them.

33 And from that day following, they forgot each man his neighbor’s tongue, and they could not understand to speak in one tongue, and when the builder took from the hands of his neighbor lime or stone which he did not order, the builder would cast it away and throw it upon his neighbor, that he would die.

34 And they did so many days, and they killed many of them in this manner.

35 And the Lord smote the three divisions that were there, and he punished them according to their works and designs; those who said, We will ascend to heaven and serve our gods, became like apes and elephants; and those who said, We will smite the heaven with arrows, the Lord killed them, one man through the hand of his neighbor; and the third division of those who said, We will ascend to heaven and fight against him, the Lord scattered them throughout the earth.

36 And those who were left amongst them, when they knew and understood the evil which was coming upon them, they forsook the building, and they also became scattered upon the face of the whole earth.

37 And they ceased building the city and the tower; therefore he called that place Babel, for there the Lord confounded the Language of the whole earth; behold it was at the east of the land of Shinar.

38 And as to the tower which the sons of men built, the earth opened its mouth and swallowed up one third part thereof, and a fire also descended from heaven and burned another third, and the other third is left to this day, and it is of that part which was aloft, and its circumference is three days’ walk.

39 And many of the sons of men died in that tower, a people without number.

Augustine, The City of God Book IV, Chapter 6.
Concerning the Covetousness of Ninus, Who Was the First Who Made War on His Neighbors, that He Might Rule More Widely.
Justinus, who wrote Greek or rather foreign history in Latin, and briefly, like Trogus Pompeius whom he followed, begins his work thus: In the beginning of the affairs of peoples and nations the government was in the hands of kings, who were raised to the height of this majesty not by courting the people, but by the knowledge good men had of their moderation. The people were held bound by no laws; the decisions of the princes were instead of laws. It was the custom to guard rather than to extend the boundaries of the empire; and kingdoms were kept within the bounds of each ruler’s native land. Ninus king of the Assyrians first of all, through new lust of empire, changed the old and, as it were, ancestral custom of nations. He first made war on his neighbors, and wholly subdued as far as to the frontiers of Libya the nations as yet untrained to resist.

Book xvi, chapter 3
After enumerating these, Scripture returns to the first of the sons, and says, Cush begat Nimrod; he began to be a giant on the earth. He was a giant hunter against the Lord God: wherefore they say, As Nimrod the giant hunter against the Lord. And the beginning of his kingdom was Babylon, Erech, Accad, and Calneh, in the land of Shinar. Out of that land went forth Assur, and built Nineveh, and the city Rehoboth, and Calah, and Resen between Nineveh and Calah: this was a great city. Now this Cush, father of the giant Nimrod, is the first-named among the sons of Ham, to whom five sons and two grandsons are ascribed. … But what is recorded of the land of Shinar which belonged to Nimrod’s kingdom, to wit, that Assur went forth from it and built Nineveh and the other cities mentioned with it, happened long after; but he takes occasion to speak of it here on account of the grandeur of the Assyrian kingdom, which was wonderfully extended by Ninus son of Belus, and founder of the great city Nineveh, which was named after him, Nineveh, from Ninus.

Origen, Against Celsus, Book V, Chapter XXX.
All the people upon the earth are to be regarded as having used one divine language, and so long as they lived harmoniously together were preserved in the use of this divine language, and they remained without moving from the east so long as they were imbued with the sentiments of the “light,” and of the “reflection” of the eternal light. But when they departed from the east, and began to entertain sentiments alien to those of the east, they found a place in the land of Shinar (which, when interpreted, means “gnashing of teeth,” by way of indicating symbolically that they had lost the means of their support), and in it they took up their abode. Then, desiring to gather together material things and to join to heaven what had no natural affinity for it, that by means of material things they might conspire against such as were immaterial, they said, “Come, let us made bricks, and burn them with fire.” Accordingly, when they had hardened and compacted these materials of clay and matter, and had shown their desire to make brick into stone, and clay into bitumen, and by these means to build a city and a tower, the head of which was, at least in their conception, to reach up to the heavens, after the manner of the “high things which exalt themselves against the knowledge of God,” each one was handed over (in proportion to the greater or less departure from the east which had taken place among them, and in proportion to the extent in which bricks had been converted into stones, and clay into bitumen, and building carried on out of these materials) to angels of character more or less severe, and of a nature more or less stern, until they had paid the penalty of their daring deeds; and they were conducted by those angels, who imprinted on each his native language, to the different parts of the earth according to their deserts: some, for example, to a region of burning heat, others to a country which chastises its inhabitants by its cold; others, again, to a land exceedingly difficult of cultivation, others to one less so in degree; while a fifth were brought into a land filled with wild beasts, and a sixth to a country comparatively free of these.