The Book of Mormon and the Tower of Babel
The Tower of Babel is the famous story in Genesis 11 that explains why different civilizations and communities in the ancient world spoke different languages. The Tower of Babel story is estimated to have happened, depending on the source, around the year 2400-2200 BCE, about 100 years after the global flood would’ve occurred.
This story is considered by most biblical scholars and pretty much all secular scholars to be an etiological myth, which is a mythical story to explain the origin of differing languages. Moreover, the Tower of Babel story is similar to other myths all over the world to explain the confounding of languages, and the Genesis account is likely heavily influenced by Sumerian and Assyrian myths.
The Book of Mormon requires that the Tower of Babel be a historical event as it ties directly into not just the Jaredites coming to the Americas, but to their records in the Book of Ether, the Nephite interpreters, and the truth claims of the Book of Mormon and Joseph Smith as well.
Problems with the Tower of Babel Account
As hinted at above, the Tower of Babel cannot be a literal, historical event. Most biblical scholars agree that the stories in Genesis are not historical, but with the Tower of Babel we can clearly point to many reasons why it simply cannot be historical as there was already a diversity of languages before the Tower of Babel would have taken place.
Written records of the Sumerian language exists as early as 3500 BCE, Egyptian as early as 3300 BCE, Akkadian as early as 2800 BCE, and both Canaanite and Eblaite around 2400 BCE. Furthermore, written languages evolved after they were spoken in their community, meaning that they were developed long before their written dates. (List of Early Languages)
Furthermore, Genesis itself confirms there were other languages before the Tower of Babel in Genesis chapter 10:
By these were the isles of the Gentiles divided in their lands, every one after his tongue. Genesis 10:5
These are the sons of Ham, after their families, after their tongues. Genesis 10:20
These are the sons of Shem, after their families, after their tongues. Genesis 10:31
While Genesis was long believed to have been written by Moses himself during his lifetime, estimated to be 1391-1271 BCE, most biblical scholars now agree that the Pentateuch was not compiled until much later. Many scholars now believe that Genesis was not compiled until the 6th and, more likely, 5th century BCE. (Davies, G.I, "Introduction to the Pentateuch")
The belief was that the global flood wiped out all human life on Earth about 100 years earlier, and that all life descended from Noah’s family with one single, Adamic language. Using the Bible’s accounting of the children that came from Noah since the flood (Genesis 10), by the time of the Tower of Babel there were about 70 men born from the lines of Noah, Shem, Ham, and Japeth. Even assuming that about half of their offspring were women, you would still have about 150 people on the entire Earth to create the Tower of Babel.
However, estimates of the world’s population at 3,000 BCE were between 14 and 45 million, growing to between 27 and 72 million by 2,000 BCE. (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Estimates_of_historical_world_population) In addition to there being no evidence for a global flood that wiped out humanity, there is evidence that the world was thriving with a diversity of civilizations and languages.
As mentioned above, the Tower of Babel is very similar to other etiological myths from other cultures. A Sumerian myth written about 2100 BCE called “Enmerkar and the Lord of Aratta” discusses calling upon the Lord to unite the languages again among the people, and an Assyrian myth dating from the 8th century BCE discussed the confounding of tongues:
“Of him, his heart was evil,
[…] against the father of all the gods was wicked,
[…] of him, his heart was evil,
[…] Babylon brought to subjection,
[small] and great he confounded their speech.
[…] Babylon brought to subjection,
[small] and great he confounded their speech.
Their strong place (tower) all the day they founded;
to their strong place in the night
entirely he made an end.
In his anger also word thus he poured out:
[to] scatter abroad he set his face
he gave this? command, their counsel was confused
[…] the course he broke
[…] fixed the sanctuary “
This Assyrian myth is dated to the 8th century BCE, which on the surface sounds like it came after the Tower of Babel story, but as scholarship has figured out, the ‘five books of Moses’ were almost certainly compiled in the 6th or 5th century BCE.
Last, as former CES instructor and biblical scholar David Bokovoy pointed out, the Tower of Babel story is a Babylonian polemic against Ziggurat worship. This makes sense given that scholars have believed that Etemenanki, a ziggurat dedicated to Marduk in the city of Babylon, likely influenced the Tower of Babel story. ”It was famously rebuilt by the 6th-century BCE Neo-Babylonian dynasty rulers Nabopolassar and Nebuchadnezzar II. According to modern scholars, such as Stephen L. Harris, the biblical story of the Tower of Babel was likely influenced by Etemenanki during the Babylonian captivity of the Hebrews.” (Madain Project)
These are issues that cannot be reconciled with a literal, historic event, and this is why as biblical scholars continue work with more evidence over time, the conclusion that the Tower of Babel was mythical only strengthens.
The Book of Mormon and the Tower of Babel
As we outlined above, many biblical scholars, almost every secular scholar, and every linguistic expert agrees that the Tower of Babel story is an etiological myth that was written to explain why there were different languages. For many religions, this is a problem, but one that can be addressed by focusing on the lesson of pride while acknowledging that the story itself was not historical.
For the Book of Mormon, however, the Tower of Babel presents a much greater problem. In the Book of Ether, there is a literal recounting of the Tower of Babel:
33 Which Jared came forth with his brother and their families, with some others and their families, from the great tower, at the time the Lord confounded the language of the people, and swore in his wrath that they should be scattered upon all the face of the earth; and according to the word of the Lord the people were scattered.
34 And the brother of Jared being a large and mighty man, and a man highly favored of the Lord, Jared, his brother, said unto him: Cry unto the Lord, that he will not confound us that we may not understand our words.
35 And it came to pass that the brother of Jared did cry unto the Lord, and the Lord had compassion upon Jared; therefore he did not confound the language of Jared; and Jared and his brother were not confounded.
It is clear from the Book of Mormon that the Tower of Babel must be a literal, historical event if the Book of Mormon is a true, historical record. Jared comes directly from the Tower of Babel, and God then leads them to the Americas with the original Adamic language intact and not confounded.
If the Tower of Babel is a mythical event as the evidence tells us, then Jared’s story immediately becomes non-historical. But it gets even more problematic than just the Jaredite story, because if the Tower of Babel did not happen, then the sixteen stones that the Lord touched were non-historical, which means that the two stones sealed up to translate the plates of Jared (Book of Ether) were also non-historical.
Those same two stones were later used as the Nephite interpreters, which were buried with the gold plates of the Book of Mormon. If the Tower of Babel was mythical as both history and linguistics tells us, then the Nephite interpreters are also mythical because they rely on a literal Tower of Babel.
And if the Nephite interpreters are derived from a mythical story, then the entire Book of Mormon story is derived from a mythical story because the ‘gold plates’ were buried with the interpreters. Moroni claimed to translate the records from the brother of Jared of a vision of “all things from the foundation of the world unto the end thereof” (2 Nephi 27:10) using these Nephite interpreters, which he included with the sealed plates to be revealed “in mine own due time.” (Either 3:27)
If the Tower of Babel is non-historical, then Joseph Smith claiming to obtain the Nephite interpreters and use them (before switching to translating with his own stone in a hat) becomes impossible. In other words, if the Tower of Babel is not historical as the evidence indicates, those Nephite interpreters cannot be historical which means Joseph Smith created the story of the stones as he was familiar with the idea of using stones to see objects and messages from his past with treasure digging.
As we’ve already noted with Adam and Eve and the global flood, the Book of Mormon’s dependence on a literal Bible is why we know the Book of Mormon is not historical before we even get into the issues most members will encounter with the church’s truth claims whether it’s through this site, the CES Letter, or even the gospel topics essays.
We know that there was a diversity of languages before the Tower of Babel times and that those languages were not lost or disrupted following this event. Furthermore, as we’ve explored these topics we can see that these stories in Genesis rely heavily on existing mythological stories, which is an indication that they were not meant to be understood as literal history, but as a way for the people at that time to understand the world around them.
This is a problem for Joseph Smith and the Book of Mormon, because the author of the Book of Mormon is building off of mythological stories with the belief that they are from a literal history, and if the foundation is non-historical then there is absolutely no way that the stories that are derived from it can be historical.
Apologetic Response to the Tower of Babel Problems in the Book of Mormon
The church teaches that the Tower of Babel is a literal, historical event which, as we described above, is necessary given the dependence that the Book of Mormon has on it being a literal history. In a 1998 Ensign article written by BYU professor Donald W. Parry, he notes that “Because of the Prophet Joseph Smith, Latter-day Saints have additional knowledge that confirms the reality of these world-changing historical events.”
This article continues on with the following statement:
“For some in the modern world, the historicity of the tower of Babel story, as with the Flood, is often discounted. One modern school of thought considers the account to be nothing more than an “artful parable” and an “old tale.”11 But Latter-day Saints accept the story as it is presented in Genesis. Further, we have the second witness of the Book of Mormon. The title page of the Book of Mormon explains that the book of Ether “is a record of the people of Jared, who were scattered at the time the Lord confounded the language of the people, when they were building a tower to get to heaven.” The book of Ether itself then tells of when “Jared came forth with his brother and their families, with some others and their families, from the great tower, at the time the Lord confounded the language of the people, and swore in his wrath that they should be scattered upon all the face of the earth”” (Ensign, January 1998)
There is surprisingly little apologetic work on the Tower of Babel and how it relates to the Book of Mormon, but we will highlight an article on FAIR Mormon that attempts to address these issues written by Michael Ash. (FAIR Mormon)
Michael Ash admits in the introduction that “There are historical indicators, however, that suggest that the story is a myth in the scholarly sense.”
Ash then goes on to present the possibility that the Book of Mormon is not actually citing the Tower of Babel with the following statement:
“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.”
While I understand why Ash would want to give plausibility that the Book of Mormon is not referring to the Tower of Babel, it is an argument that simply cannot work. For example, look at the description of the Tower of Babel in the Bible compared to the Book of Mormon:
"And the Lord said, Behold, the people is one, and they have all one language; and this they begin to do: and now nothing will be restrained from them, which they have imagined to do. Go to, let us go down, and there confound their language, that they may not understand one another’s speech. So the Lord scattered them abroad from thence upon the face of all the earth: and they left off to build the city." (Genesis 11:6–8)
"Jared came forth with his brother and their families, with some others and their families, from the great tower, at the time the Lord confounded the language of the people, and swore in his wrath that they should be scattered upon all the face of the earth; and according to the word of the Lord the people were scattered. . . . And the brother of Jared being a large and mighty man, and a man highly favored of the Lord, Jared, his brother, said unto him: Cry unto the Lord, that he will not confound us that we may not understand our words. (Ether 1:33–34)
Not only does the author of the Book of Mormon use the same language as in the Bible, the timing of both also lines up to around the same time. And, most conclusively, Ether 2:1 makes clear that the Jaredites “went down into the valley which was northward, (and the name of the valley was Nimrod, being called after the mighty hunter).”
Nimrod’s kingdom is where the Tower of Babel was built, and “in Hebrew and Christian tradition, Nimrod is considered the leader of those who built the Tower of Babel in the land of Shinar” (Menner, Robert J. (1938). "Nimrod and the Wolf in the Old English 'Solomon and Saturn'")
Even the Book of Mormon’s heading for Ether chapter 1 makes it clear: “Moroni abridges the writings of Ether—Ether’s genealogy is set forth—The language of the Jaredites is not confounded at the Tower of Babel—The Lord promises to lead them to a choice land and make them a great nation.”
We can approach the Tower of Babel from multiple areas of study to know that it is not a historical event. The diversity of languages began long before the Tower of Babel would have occurred, making clear that the story simply is not historical. Furthermore, Genesis 10 contradicts the idea of a single, Adamic language, and we can see that the Tower of Babel story is heavily influenced by other origin myths that sought to explain why there was a diversity of languages.
This is a problem for all religions that view Genesis as scripture, but most religions can accept the Tower of Babel as a myth and focus on the lessons it offers. However, because the Book of Mormon builds the Jaredite story from the Tower of Babel, it is impossible to reconcile the historicity of the Book of Mormon with a mythical Tower of Babel.
To be clear, the Book of Mormon states that the Jaredites come from the Tower of Babel and are only able to maintain the original, Adamic language after pleading with God. Furthermore, they come from the Valley of Nimrod, which is a nod to the Bible, and use similar language in their account to Genesis.
The only reason that some apologists would now want to allow for the possibility that there is a second tower is because the Tower of Babel story is clearly not historical. We have seen this kind of rewriting of church scriptures and teachings on Adam and Eve and the Great Flood as well, but this is a change in teaching that only comes from a position of weakness as the evidence no longer supports the church's core truth claims.
The Book of Mormon tells us that the Jaredite story comes from 24 plates of records that were translated with Nephite interpreters that were touched by the Lord following the Tower of Babel, and those same interpreters were claimed by Joseph Smith to be with the gold plates of the Book of Mormon. If the Tower of Babel is a myth as the evidence tells us, then every story that comes from it cannot be historical.
I know this is a difficult process and I how crushing it is to learn a religion you were raised with or converted to is not true. But if the church is true, then you should be able to read through our materials without any fear. As Apostle James Talmage said, "The man who cannot listen to an argument which opposes his views either has a weak position or is a weak defender of it. No opinion that cannot stand discussion or criticism is worth holding." I don't think I could say it better myself, and no amount of apologetic parallels will change that.