Last week I began discussing the Jaredites and the Tower of Babel, and how the story might be reconciled for those who believe that science and religion do not necessarily conflict. Some people, for instance, believe that the story of the Tower of Babel falls into the realm of fantasy rather than history. There are historical indicators, however, that suggest that the story is a myth in the scholarly sense.
While most people think of myths as fables (which is what the word actually means), scholars loosely define myths as culturally-shared narratives that bind, inspire or help delineate a particular culture. In the academic world, the word myth “is detached from popular associations with falsehood.” They equate to “legends,” which may or may not be based on actual truths. Myths are often pre-scientific stories used to explain why things are as they are. They may represent “types” or models, or they might exaggerate a real event. They may conflate multiple events into a single story, and they typically make erroneous assumptions based on an incomplete understanding of actual facts.
Anciently, oral and written traditions were not “histories” in the modern sense. While such accounts were often based on actual events, historical accuracy was not a high priority. The main purpose was to share cultural events, heroes and villains intentionally selected to relate specific points. Tales of real events could be molded to help convey the moral of the story.
As detailed in a past issue, while I believe in actual Jaredites, Nephites and Lamanites, I also believe we can better appreciate the scriptures when we realize that ancient societies — including prophets — recorded their narratives according to their own understanding of the world around them.
When we shine the light of science and scholarship on the Tower of Babel, we find some interesting things. First, the word “Babel” comes from an Assyro-Babylonian word that means “Gate of God” and is related to a Hebrew word that means “confusion.” It appears that the author(s) of the Babel account are engaging in some word-play to make a particular point about the story. It’s also interesting to note that the book of Ether never mentions “Babel” but simply the “great tower.”
In the Bible, we learn that some time after the days of Noah the land of Shinar (modern Mesopotamia) was ruled by the wicked Nimrod. In Genesis 10:9 he’s referred to as a “mighty hunter before the Lord.” Early Judaic traditions, however, interpret this as a mighty hunter “in opposition to the Lord.” Nimrod’s name, in fact, comes from the Hebrew word verb “let us revolt.” Once again, we see Hebrew word-play utilized as a teaching tool. Nimrod was not a hunter of animals but of the souls of men. And according to ancient traditions, Nimrod was responsible for building the Tower of Babel.
In ancient Mesopotamia, from at least 3,000 B.C., we find the construction of ziggurats — stepped temple monuments. Ancient cultures believed that gods resided on the tops of mountains, and this belief was even incorporated into Greek mythology, which taught that Zeus lived atop Mount Olympus. Early prophets, including Abraham and Nephi, went up into the mountains to pray or commune with God. Likewise Moses met God on Mount Sinai. Temples were considered to be man-made cosmic mountains. As Dr. Nibley notes, they are the “‘binding-place of heaven and earth,’ where alone one could establish contact with the upper and lower worlds.” The ziggurats of Mesopotamia were temples or towers built to reach the heavens or intended “gates” to God. While Nimrod’s connection to the Tower of Babel can only be inferred from the Bible, other ancient traditions support this inference. According to some of these ancient traditions, Nimrod, the great-grandson of Noah, acquired (stole — in many legends) the skin garment that God gave to Adam in the Garden of Eden. The garment supposedly gave Nimrod great power — God-like power. Nibley wrote:
“Now I am not insisting for a minute that the legendary Nimrod ever existed. … I am only interested in the type of thing that happened, and after having examined hundreds of legends from all parts of the ancient world, all telling substantially the same story, I think that anyone would find it difficult, in view of the evidence, to deny that there was some common event behind them. It seems to have been a single event, moreover.”
In ancient Judaic thought Babylon (the ancient city-state of Mesopotamia) represented the wicked while Zion represented the righteous. Since the “priesthood” is God’s power bestowed upon mankind, an imitation God-like power would be a false priesthood and a tower associated with this power would be a false temple. The Tower of Babel, therefore would represent — either historically or mythically — the false temples and priesthoods of wicked men who opposed the true priesthood and the living God.