Ancient History, History, Reading

The City and Tower of Babel

A couple of weeks ago, we started a series called “Is That Really What It Says?” at Bedford Road. The series is basically a romp through the Old Testament (and possibly the new) dealing with some of biblical narratives that have been popularized through retelling over the years. These pop versions of the stories generally moralize or dramatize the text to the point that the original intent is lost. The first sermon was on the common telling of “The Tower of Babel” in Genesis 11. I mentioned in the sermon that the common misconception of the tower is that it was some kind of temple or ziggurat (ideas that would be far, far too late if the narrative is historical).


In the course of reading After the Ice by Steven Mithen, I was reminded of Kathleen Kitchen’s discovery of a wall and tower around the post-Natufian site of Jericho. The constructions were built during the Pre-Pottery Neolithic A (PPNA) period of occupation, roughly 10,000-11,000 BP.[1]

As Ofer Bar-Yosef described the structures in 1986:

“The first perimeter wall, 3.6m high, was 1.8m thick at its base and 1.1m at its preserved top. The tower, placed inside the perimeter of the settlement, was 8.2m high (ca. 9m in diameter at the base and 7m at the top) and built of undressed stones. It had a staircase leading to the top with 22 steps built of dressed slabs. Its preserved outlet seemes to be the original one. No rooms were found inside the tower…A recalculation [of the time required to build the wall] based on a more realistic estimate of 0.5m3 per man per day yields a figure of 10,400 work days or about 104 work days for 100 men.”[2]

Kitchen originally believed the walls and tower were meant to be defensive structures; but Bar-Yosef argues that this does not fit with the archaeological evidence. This period was one of very, very sparse population, even by Bronze Age standards.

Instead, Bar-Yosef argues that the walls served as protection from flooding. The site is on a slight incline, the remains of an ancient lake which had long since dissipated. Still, the nearby wadis (W. el Mafjar, W. Qilt and W. Nu’eima) would have be subject to serious flooding, depending on the rains and snow melt.

Topographical Map of the Site of Jericho
Bar-Yosef, “The Walls of Jericho: An Alternative Interpretation,” 158.

The walls face to the west, which is where the land is lowest, and therefore the most likely place to flood. This kind of terraced dike construction was relatively well known in much later societies, although PPNA Jericho is the only Natufian site to have such a construction. In fact, Jericho is the oldest known city site to have any kind of walls.

The tower, which as noted before would have risen 4.6m (15.25 ft) above the top of the walls would have been an exceptional site to view the plains around the city. It is likely that there was another structure atop the tower which did not survive. This tower, probably constructed of the abundant wood in the area (PPNA Jericho sat in the midst of great woodlands), might have reached several more feet into the sky.

This wall and tower of Jericho would have been small compared to the same construction in Shinar, if Genesis 9 is to be taken literally. Still, it provides a template for the construction and fits with the description in Genesis 11 with only one real difference. The walls of PPNA Jericho were built of limestone, which is abundant in the area. Mesopotamia lacks these deposits, and so the wall there was said to be built of clay brick (לבנה) and joined with bitumen (חמר). Ironically, this kind of sun-fired brick might have been more water resistant than the stone of PPNA Jericho.

In my message, I discussed that the city and tower of Babel were constructed to defend against God. Mankind assembles in one place and consolidates their resources. What was the expression of God’s power at that time? The flood of Noah. If the walls and tower of PPNA Jericho had the same purpose as the city and tower of Babel, then to defend against the flooding would be to defend against God. This would be in keeping with our very, very limited knowledge of the religion of the PPNA peoples of the Middles East who viewed the natural world as an expression of the divine.


[1] BP = “before present”; it is a shorthand used when dealing with prehistoric radiocarbon dating. “Present” is the year 1950, when air pollution so radically altered the presence of atmospheric carbon that it skews all radiocarbon dating.

[2] Bar-Yosef, Ofer. “The Walls of Jericho: An Alternative Interpretation.” Current Anthropology. Vol 27, no 2 (April 1986): 157-158

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