The Wandering Gate of Heaven
The tale of the building of the Tower of Babel (Genesis 11:1–9) is a story of unbounded hubris. Humankind sought to build a tower that would cross the boundary between the human and divine worlds, a tower that would reach the heavens in order “to make a name for ourselves” (v. 4). Expulsion from Eden — after Adam crossed that boundary when he ate from the tree that granted him divine knowledge — was not enough to convince the people of the error of such endeavors. Also the breach between the realms of heaven and earth (this one initiated from above) when the “sons of god” came to the daughters of men (Genesis 6:1–4; see chapter 2) was a recipe for disaster and precipitated the Flood, yet humankind remained determined in its divine aspirations. Also, this time failure was complete, and punishment followed quickly: God disrupted the people’s unity, dispersing the mortal builders throughout the earth and making communication between them impossible by introducing different languages. The story ends with an explanation of the name Babel, the place from which the people had hoped to climb to heaven: “That is why it was called Babel, because there the LORD confounded [balal] the speech of the whole earth” (Genesis 11:9).
The derivation of “Babel” from b-l-l seems to have originated as a response to the widely accepted Babylonian explanation of that place’s name, Bab-ilu, “God’s Gate,” or Bab i-lani, “Gate of the Gods” — a meaning that, we’ll soon see, was known in Israel. Indeed, the story of the Tower of Babel in its entirety polemicizes against a Babylonian tradition according to which the tower-temple in Babylon, which was dedicated to the god Marduk, was built as a tribute both to him and