Legends of Old Testament Characters/Chapter 23

XXIII.

THE TOWER OF BABEL.

FIRST we will take Jewish traditions, and then Mahommedan legends. The Rabbis relate as follows:—

After the times of the great Deluge, men feared a recurrence of that great overthrow, and they assembled on and inhabited the plain of Shinar. There, they no longer obeyed the gentle guidance of Shem, the son of Noah; but they cast the kingdom of God far from them, and chose as their sovereign, Nimrod, son of Cush, son of Ham.[1] Nimrod became very great in power. Having been born when his father was old, he was dearly beloved, and every whim had been gratified. Cush gave him the garment which God made for Adam when he was expelled from Paradise, and which Adam had given to Enoch, and Enoch to Methuselah, and Methuselah had left to Noah, and which Noah had taken with him into the ark. Ham stole it from his father in the ark, concealed it, and gave it to his son Cush. Nimrod, vested in this garment, was unconquerable and irresistible.[2] All beasts and birds fell down before him, and his enemies were overcome almost without a struggle.

It was thus that he triumphed over the king of Babylon. His kingdom rapidly extended, and he became daily more powerful, till at last he was sole monarch over the whole world.[3]

Nimrod rejected God as his ruler; he trusted in his own might, therefore it is said of him, "He was mighty in hunting, and in sin before the Lord; for he was a hunter of the sons of men in their languages. And he said to them, Leave the judgments of Shem, and adhere to the judgments of Nimrod."[4]

But Nimrod was uneasy in his mind, and he feared lest some one should arise who would be empowered by God to overthrow him; therefore he said to his subjects, "Come, let us build a great city, and let us settle therein, that we may not be scattered over the face of the earth, and be destroyed once more by a flood. And in the midst of our city let us build a high tower, so lofty as to overtop any flood, and so strong as to resist any fire. Yea, let us do further, let us prop up the heaven on all sides from the top of the tower, that it may not again fall and inundate us. Then let us climb up into heaven, and break it up with axes, and drain its water away where it can do no injury. Thus shall we avenge the death of our ancestors. And at the summit of our tower we will place an image of our god with a sword in his hand, and he shall fight for us. Thus shall we obtain a great name, and reign over the universe."

Even if all were not inspired with the same presumption, yet all saw in the tower a means of refuge from a future deluge; and therefore they readily fell in with the proposal of the king. Six hundred thousand men were set to work under a thousand captains, and raised the tower to the height of seventy miles (i.e. fifty-six English miles). A great flight of stairs on the east side was used by those carrying up material, and a flight on the west side served those who descended, having deposited their burdens. If a workman fell down and was killed, no one heeded; but if any of the bricks gave way, there was an outcry. Some shot arrows into the sky, and they came down tinged with blood, then they shouted and cried, "See, we have killed every one who is in heaven."[5] Curiously enough a similar story is told by the Chinese of one of their earlier monarchs, who thought himself so great that he might war against heaven. He shot an arrow into the sky, and a drop of blood fell. "So," said he, "I have killed God!"

At this time Abraham was forty-eight. He was filled with grief and shame at the impiety of his fellow-men, and he prayed to God, "O Lord! confound their tongues, for I have spied unrighteousness and strife in the city!"

Then the Lord called the seventy angels who surround His throne, that they should confuse the language of the builders, so that none should understand the other.

The angels came down, and cast confusion among the subjects of Nimrod, and seventy distinct languages sprang up, and the men could not understand each other; so they separated from one another, and were spread over the surface of the earth. The tower itself was destroyed in part. It was in three portions: the upper story was destroyed by fire from heaven, the basement was overthrown by an earthquake, only the middle story was left intact,—how, we are not informed.[6]

We will now take the Mussulman tradition. Nimrod, who, according to the Arabs, was the son of Canaan, and brother of Cush, sons of Ham, having cast Abraham, who refused to acknowledge him as supreme monarch of the world, into a burning, fiery furnace, from which he issued unhurt, said to his courtiers, "I will go to heaven and see this God whom Abraham preaches, and who protects him."

His wise men having represented to him that heaven is very high, Nimrod ordered the erection of a tower, by which he might reach it. For three years an immense multitude of workmen toiled at the erection of this tower. Every day Nimrod ascended it and looked up, but the sky seemed to him as distant from the summit of his tower as it had from the level ground.

One morning he found his tower cast down. But Nimrod was not to be defeated so easily. He ordered a firmer foundation to be laid, and a second tower was constructed; but however high it was built, the sky remained inaccessible. Then Nimrod resolved on reaching heaven in another fashion. He had a large box made, and to the four corners he attached gigantic birds of the species Roc. They bore Nimrod high into the air, and then fluttered here and fluttered there, and finally upset the box, and tumbled him on the top of a mountain, which he cracked by his fall, without however materially injuring himself.

But Nimrod was not penitent, nor ready to submit to the Most High, therefore God confounded the language of his subjects, and thus rent from him a large portion of his kingdom.[7]

God sent a wind, says Abulfaraj, which overthrew the Tower of Babel and buried Nimrod under its ruins.[8]

Of Babel we find fewer traditions preserved amongst the ancient nations, than we did of the Deluge.

The Zendavesta makes no mention of such an event; and it is equally unknown to the Chinese books, though curiously enough, in Chinese hieroglyphics, the tower is the symbol of separation.[9]

The Chaldeans, however, says Abydessus, probably quoting Berosus, the priest of Bel, related, "That the first inhabitants of the earth, glorying in their own strength and size, and despising the gods, undertook to raise a tower whose top should reach the sky in the place where Babylon now stands; but when it approached the heavens, the winds assisted the gods, and overthrew the work of the contrivers; and its ruins are said to be still in Babylon; and the gods introduced a diversity of tongues among men, who till that time had all spoken the same language; and a war arose between Kronos and Titan. The place on which they built the tower is now called Babylon."[10]

Alexander Polyhistor relates the events as follows, and quotes the Sibyl. "The Sibyl says, when all men had one speech, they built a great tower in order to climb into heaven, but the gods blowing against it with the winds, threw it down, and confounded the language of the builders; therefore the city is called Babylon."[11] The writings of this Sibyl, commonly called the Chaldean Sibyl, formed part of the sacred scriptures of the Babylonians. Eupolemus, quoting apparently Syro-phœnician traditions, relates the matter somewhat differently. "The city Babylon," says he, "was built after the Deluge by those who were saved. But they were giants, and they built the famous tower then. But when this was overthrown by the will of the gods, the giants were scattered over the whole face of the earth."[12] The Armenian tradition recorded by Moses of Chorene, is to this effect: "From them (i.e. from the first dwellers on the earth) sprang the race of the giants, with strong bodies and of huge size. Full of pride and envy, they formed the godless resolve to build a high tower. But whilst they were engaged on the undertaking, a fearful wind overthrew it, which the wrath of God had sent against it, and unknown words were at the same time blown about among men, wherefore arose strife and contention."[13]

The Hindu story of the confusion of tongues and the separation of nations is not connected with the erection of a tower, but with the pride of the Tree of Knowledge, or the world tree. This tree grew in the centre of the earth, and its head was in heaven. It said in its heart, I shall hold my head in heaven, and spread my branches over all the earth, and gather all men together under my shadow and protect them, and prevent them from separating. But Brahm, to punish the pride of the tree, cut off its branches and cast them down on the earth, where they sprang up as Wata trees, and made differences of belief and speech and customs to prevail in the earth, to disperse men over its surface.[14]

The Dutch traveller, Hamel van Gorcum, found a tradition of the Tower of Babel, in the seventeenth century, in the Korea, in the midst of a sect which had not adopted Buddhism, but which retained much of the old primitive Schamanism of the race. They said, "That formerly all men spake the same language, but, after building a great tower, wherewith they attempted to invade heaven, they fell into confusion of tongues."[15]

The Mexican story was, that after the Deluge the sole survivors Coxcox and Chichequetzl engendered many children who were born dumb, but one day received the gift of speech from a dove, which came and perched itself on a lofty tree; but the dove did not communicate to them the same language, so they separated in fifteen companies. And Gemelli Carreri and Clavigero describe an ancient Mexican painting representing the dove with thirty-three tongues, answering to the languages and dialects he taught.[16]

At Cholula they related that Xelhuaz began to build a tower on Mount Tlalok to commemorate his having been saved along with his brothers from the Flood. And the tower he built in the form of a pyramid. The clay was baked into bricks in the province of Tlamanalco, at the foot of the Sierra Cocotl, and to bring them to Cholula a row of men was placed, that the bricks might be passed from hand to hand. The gods saw this building, whose top reached the clouds, with anger and dismay, and sent fire from heaven, and destroyed the tower.[17]

  1. Pirke of Rabbi Eliezer, c. xi.
  2. Ibid. c. xxiv.
  3. Ibid. c. xi.
  4. Targums, ed. Etheridge, i. p. 107.
  5. Bechaji, Comm. in 1 Mos. xi.; Pirke of R. Eliezer, c. xi.; Talmud, Sanhedrim, 109a; Targums, i. pp. 189-90, &c.
  6. Talmud, Sanhedrim; see also the history of Nimrod in Yaschar, pp. 1107-8.
  7. Herbelot, s. v. Nimroud.
  8. Hist. Dynast., p. 12.
  9. Mémoires conc. les Chinois, i. p. 213.
  10. Euseb., Præp. Ev., ix. 14; Cory, Ancient Fragments, pp. 34-50.
  11. George Syncellus, Bibl. Græc., v. p. 178.
  12. Euseb., Præp. Ev., ix. 17.
  13. Mos. Chorene, i. 9.
  14. Müller, Glauben u. Wissen. d. Hindus; Mainz, 1822, i. p. 303.
  15. Allgem. Hist. d. Reisen, vi. p. 602.
  16. Luken, p. 287; Amerikanische Urreligionen, p. 517, &c.
  17. Humboldt, Ansichten d. Cordilleren, i. p. 42.