Biblical Paleoarcheology

Babel was a Transition

article #43

“So the Lord scattered them abroad from thence upon the face of all the earth: and they left off to build the city.” -Genesis 11:8

It is tempting to believe that the rebellious construction efforts at Babel came to an abrupt stop when people began speaking many different languages. The Bible only mentions two elements of what happened: (1) building of one particular city stopped, and (2) people were scattered. Should we suppose from these two facts that people repented of their sins and lived godly lives after this moment? There is no indication that they did. Archeology indicates that the people who were scattered built many cities like the original one, although with greater difficulty due to their linguistic differences.

Fortunately, we are not left to surmise about this transition, since we can clearly see it in the stratigraphy of Eridu and Uruk. We might say that these facts are rock solid. Let’s examine the strata of these two cities shown in the diagram below.

The diagram above places the 18 archeological levels of Eridu on the left, next to the 19 levels of Uruk on the right, and they overlapped in time. Uruk was small when Eridu was the largest. The dark black line indicates the point at which no more building took place at Eridu, at least for centuries afterwards. As the Bible says, they left off building the city. Five strata have been found above the last monumental building, but no definite structure. Attempts were probably made to rebuild, but everything resulted in failure. In other words, the building of three enormous “temples” was followed by times when people leveled the tops of the previous building to make a new foundation, but nothing substantial was ever built on it.

The graph below lists the surface area of the temple buildings at Eridu in square feet. These values come from the second column of the diagram above. The first six buildings were smaller than the average house. At 2200 square feet, the last three temples were about the size of a $300,000 home today. In a city with thousands of workers, it would not have taken them long to build such a mud brick building, perhaps months. We see growth in the city. The last building was more sophisticated than all the other. Nothing, except the Bible, explains why growth did not continue.

Excavation at Uruk has revealed many levels, with pottery styles changing over time. The levels marked Ubaid IV and Post-Ubaid seem to have occurred while Eridu was still a city, although the matching is my own personal opinion, subject to change. Interestingly, monumental buildings, like those at Eridu, did not occur until around level IV. In other words, the Early Uruk period seems to have been recovering from the scattering, and it was slowly rebuilding a commercial center. Later writings indicate that one or more kings ruled over a very large and prosperous city. Writing began here, as well as the mass production of Bevel-Rimmed Bowls (BRB). We have good reason to believe that whoever was king at Eridu moved to Uruk and regrouped.

The transition of power from Eridu to Uruk has several earmarks of a transition. People transitioned from being unified under one language to being divided by many languages. We see this new disunity (1) in the existence of two mounds, (2) in many temple styles, (3) in tokens and seals, and (4) in the city wall.

(1) To begin with, Uruk had two huge temple mounds, a quarter mile from each other, compared to Eridu’s one mound. What was going on? Couldn’t they agree? The Kullab mound had fourteen layers of construction that began with a small building and finished with a massive ziggurat platform topped by the White Temple that could be seen for miles (shown below). It was radically different from the other mound.

(2) The second mound, called Eanna, is the one described in the first diagram, having 19 strata. The shocking fact is that Eanna IV suddenly has many different monumental buildings, or temples, which are all different, as shown below. It’s like they were built by completely different people groups. Not only are the styles different, but even the construction material and building methods are different. What can explain completely different construction taking place side by side other than people who were not working closely together.

(3) Thirdly, writing began at Uruk out of necessity, around Uruk (Eanna) level XIV. When patriarchs lived long lives and everyone spoke the same language, writing was a waste of time. The first proto-writing was simple commercial phrases, such as, two cows or four sacks of wheat. Symbols were made on stamp seals, cylinder seals that could be rolled on clay, and tablets. They could be read in any language. We would expect such writing in a city where a king was trying to get groups to work together who could not speak the same language.

(4) Another change from Eridu was the brick wall around Uruk. It was 40 to 50 feet high and stretched for 5.6 miles around the city. Uruk was the first city in the world to have such a wall, but soon every large city in Mesopotamia had one. When there was only one king in the world at Eridu, there was no need for a wall. Language quickly divided people to the point that regional kings had to keep each other in check.

Thus we see how the world was united with one language at Eridu and was divided by language at Uruk and later large cities. This earth-shattering transition resulted from a miracle of world-wide proportion that is only casually mentioned in the Bible. I like to paraphrase Roosevelt in saying that God walks softly but carries a big stick.

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