Smithsonian Channel Claims Babylonian Tablet Preserves "Exactly What the Tower of Babel Looked Like"
Sometime in the last couple of weeks the Smithsonian Channel launched the fourth season of its Secrets TV series, and the season premiere focused on the Tower of Babel. Over the past few days both Christian groups and fringe archaeology types have embraced a clip of the program in which a Babylonian tablet is discussed because they believe that the tablet “proves” that the Biblical story is literally true. I was intrigued enough by the tablet to try to find out why the tinfoil hat brigade would think that the tablet demonstrates the reality of a Biblical legend.
The clip shows Jeff Allen of the World Monuments Fund telling viewers that he always thought that the Biblical account was merely a legend, but he shows us the ruins of the Etemenanki, a massive temple dedicated to the supreme god, Marduk. However, the narrator vastly overstates the case in alleging that “ancient records” link the Etemenanki with the Tower of Babel, but by doing so, the narrator is able to elide the two and claim that a Babylonian tablet shows “exactly what the Tower of Babel looked like.”
Andrew George of SOAS University of London says that the tablet provides “very strong evidence” that the Tower of Babel story “was inspired by this real building.” George published the first scholarly account of the tablet in 2011.
The tablet in question is in the private Schøyen Collection, and it depicts Nebuchadnezzar II restoring and enlarging the Etemenanki, with a depiction of the temple and its seven steps, matching literary descriptions of its appearance. The tablet is here described as “new” evidence, but it made headlines back in 2011, when it was first brought to public attention. The image is not terribly detailed, and it doesn’t really add much to the known ancient descriptions of the tower, which include Herodotus’ account in Histories 1.181. The only real difference is that Herodotus counted eight steps, while modern scholars believe it had seven.
It is not clear how the tablet contributes any additional evidence to the suggestion that the Tower of Babel story was inspired by the Etemnanki beyond what had already been known prior to the tablet’s rediscovery. For example, Etemananki had been suggested as candidate for the Tower of Babel for decades before the tablet was popularized. For example, Stephen L. Harris made the case for the identification back in 2002, and Robert Koldewey said the same thing in 1912’s Excavations at Babylon (pp. 183ff., translated into English in 1914). George connects the tablet to the Biblical account by noting that its description of the temple says that Nebuchadnezzar “mobilized” many peoples from diverse lands to construct it, similar to how the Jews alleged that the Tower gave rise to the many tongues of the Earth. George’s translation of the relevant lines is as follows:
I mobilized [all] countries everywhere, [each and] every ruler [who] had been raised to prominence over all the people of the world [as one] loved by Marduk, from the upper sea [to the] lower [sea,] the [distant nations, the teeming people of] the [world, kings of remote mountains and far-flung islands in the midst of the] upper and lower [seas,] whose lead-ropes [my] lord Marduk placed in [my] hand so [that they should] draw [his] chariot (lit. pull his chariot-pole), and I imposed corvée-duty on the workforces of the gods Šamaš and [Marduk] in order to build E-temen-[anki] and E-ur-me-imin-anki.
And just for kicks: George himself, in his 2011 article, states that the text of the tablet is virtually identical to that of a cylinder seal first published in 1912. George begins his translation of the parallel lines this way:
So I mobilized the teeming people whom my lord Marduk had entrusted to me and whose pastoral care the sun god had handed over to me, all countries everywhere, each and every population from the upper sea to the lower sea, the distant nations, teeming people of the world, kings of remote mountains and far-flung islands in the midst of the upper sea and lower (sea), whose lead-rope my lord Marduk placed in my hand so that they should draw his chariot (lit. pull his chariot-pole)…
The narrator, however, misrepresents the tablet’s text as a major new discovery and says that the text on the tablet is “identical to the Biblical story of how the Tower of Babel was constructed.” That account is given in Genesis 11:1-4. See if you can spot the differences:
1. Now the whole world had one language and a common speech. As people moved eastward, they found a plain in Shinar and settled there.
Here are a few: In the Biblical account, there was only one people in the world, of one tongue, while on the tablet many peoples from across the known world worked on the project. In the Biblical account, all the people spoke one language, while there is no mention of language on the table. In the Biblical account, the people came to the idea of building a tower on their own, but on the tablet Nebuchadnezzar brings them together and orders them to do it. In the Biblical account, the city and tower are built together, while it is quite obvious that Babylon existed when Nebuchadnezzar restored the temple. In other words, the tablet is closer to Jewish and Islamic legends about the Tower and its construction by the wicked Nimrod than to the actual text of Genesis.
“For scholars, the tablet offers further proof that the Tower of Babel wasn’t just a work of fiction,” the narrator says.
An inscription from Borsippa by Nebuchadnezzar describing the restoration of that city’s similar seven-story ziggurat to Nabu has been in print since the 1860s, and it is nearly identical to the abbreviated text on the tablet under consideration here. In the 1800s, this ziggurat was thought to be the Tower of Babel because of the similarity between Nebuchadnezzar’s description of the restoration of an incomplete ziggurat and the Genesis claim that the people stopped work when God confounded their tongues. The similarity of the inscriptions, however, suggests a certain conventional formula to Nebuchadnezzar’s boasts, and also offers some evidence that the Tower of Babel story might have had more than one inspiration.
The Etemenanki, a mud-brick building, fell into disrepair and was destroyed by Alexander the Great in preparation for a rebuilding that never happened due to the Macedonian king’s death. The ruins of the tower were stamped into the ground by elephants on orders of a Seleucid prince who tripped over them a few decades later.
The idea that Etemenanki inspired the Tower of Babel is a reasonable one, but the Smithsonian Channel grossly overstated the connection between the tablet and the Tower, and the newness of the information contained in that tablet vis-à-vis the Tower of the Babel.
I am an author and researcher focusing on pop culture, science, and history. Bylines: New Republic, Slate, etc. There's more about me in the About Jason tab.
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