The Sins of Babel

Article #11

We saw last week that the Biblical city of Babel, known as the Ubaid Period in archeology, is the most visible and defining event of ancient history. The story of Babel is often ridiculed as fabulous or relegated to a story for children. Even those who want to believe it have many questions that are not answered in the frustratingly short account in Genesis. One of the big unanswered questions is “What did they do wrong?” Many theologians have written that they were wrong to try to build a tower to heaven or that they disobeyed God’s command to fill the earth. Neither of these guesses is reasonable or even close to the correct answer.

Archeology can provide additional information to bridge the gap. We can ask, “What were people doing in the city of Babel?” Knowing what they were doing that was different from other settlements will bring us closer to knowing what they did wrong.

The Cemetery at Eridu

Most of Eridu has never been excavated and never will be. Mostly, the temple area and cemetery have received close attention. Over 800 people were buried in the cemetery but only 193 graves were excavated. We know from artifacts that the people buried in the cemetery were associated with the temple and of a more privileged class than the people who lived in the houses. Some describe Eridu as the last egalitarian society with self-sufficient households. Others see it as the beginning of the hierarchy that would get even worse at Uruk. The abuse of power began here.

Professional Manufacturing

Elsewhere, families produced goods for private use and trade, but in Uruk manufacturing became an industry. Canals with flow control were cut over hundreds of miles to water state agricultural projects. In metal shops, molten metal was poured into channels to be scooped into molds. Specialized stonecutters prepared intricate cylinder seals that required far better technological knowledge than for anything that existed before that time. Images depict groups of women weaving textiles in workshops that would have been centrally administered. State-owned businesses began here.

The Standard List of Professions

One of the oldest documents ever written is an untranslatable list of 120 terms that was accurately copied from the Uruk Period for hundreds of years. Because the first term seems to be “king” and this list was preserved with such respect, archeologists believe that it gives a hierarchy of professions or a pecking order that has been followed since Babel. Whether or not people were born into their profession or just hired, a strong class system existed from the time of Babel.

The Beveled-rim Bowl (BRB)

The most identifiable artifact of the Uruk Period is the beveled-rim bowl, which was mass manufactured by the hundreds of thousands. It was the Tupperware of Mesopotamia, which replaced delicate, beautifully prepared pottery with cheap, disposable, identical pots. Ration lists were found in the later Early Dynastic Period. Together, these suggest that people worked for a predetermined salary. The inhabitants of Eridu and Uruk were paid by the state. Socialism began here.

The First Pyramid Scheme

Why did people suddenly organize to create powerful cities led by kings. Archeology can only guess, and it doesn’t see the moral problem. Being successful is not a crime, unless one person’s success comes at the cost of someone else’s freedom. The first king or super-leader (Ham, Cush, or Nimrod) did not have an army. He would have needed to sell his idea of leadership to his family and people who were willing to follow him for the promise of prosperity or security. Followers could then become leaders themselves. The resulting power structure became the means of building the megaliths, ziggurats, and Egyptian pyramids of the Early Dynastic Period.

So far, archeology has given us four facts about the rise of cities without being able to explain WHY they arose. Next week, we need to go further and ask what the Bible has to offer. What did God think about cities like Babel? Why did God react the way He did?

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