Preface and Notes
I am an Engineer. This is a discussion about Engineering, not Religion, or even History. It contains references to texts having religious aspects; but those aspects are not the purpose of this discussion. If this offends you, either because it has a religious element, or because it is a secular viewpoint of a religious text, put this document down and learn some tolerance.
The story of the Tower of Babel looked like a child’s tale to me for much of my adult life. It seemed like a mythological story on how the various languages came to be. It wasn’t until one day, while looking back at it as an engineer with three decades of experience, that I realized that it’s not some cute bedtime story. It is an account of a major disaster.
My curiosity was triggered while searching for background on cuneiform tablet translations after reading an article on archaeology. One thing led to another and before long I was re-reading the biblical version of this story. That’s when the horror of this tale dawned on me. It was a construction project failure of literally epic proportion.
When reading old texts such as the Hebrew Bible, one must remember that it used to be conveyed by oral tradition, as literacy was not commonplace. To properly tell the story without significant embellishment or drift, the word count was minimized. There are no unnecessary words in texts such as this. If extra words were used, it was for a reason.
Without further ado, here is a translation of Genesis Chapter 11:
1 The whole world had one language and a common speech.
2 People moved eastward, found a plain in Shinar, and settled there.
3 They said to each other, “Let’s make bricks and bake them thoroughly.” They used brick instead of stone, and bitumen for mortar.
4 Then they said, “Let us build ourselves a city, with a tower that reaches to the heavens, so that we may make a name for ourselves; otherwise we will be scattered over the face of the whole earth.”
5 But the Lord came down to see the city and the tower the people were building.
6 The Lord said, “If as one people speaking the same language they have begun to do this, then nothing they plan to do will be impossible for them.
7 Come, let us go down and confuse their language so they will not understand each other.
8 So the Lord scattered them from there over all the earth, and they stopped building the city.
There is a lot of assumed context in this story. So I will attempt to convey the important parts of that context and background.
When and Where
Let’s start with the archaeological evidence: Cuneiform tablets were discovered in modern day Iraq, with a remarkably similar story, including the theological aspects. Furthermore, the Ziggurat construction found in that region matches the discussion from this story. I think that this account is likely based upon actual events. Some suggest that this may have happened in the third dynasty of Ur, around 2000 BCE.
However, that assessment doesn’t make sense to me. The text does not name the monarch or any actual government –as other parts of the Hebrew Bible usually do. The text in verse 2 talks about this event as if it were a bunch of nomads settling down in a fertile plain, moving from nomadic living to agrarian living for the first time. If the plain of Shinar was actually where the Kingdom of Ur later stood, I would guess this probably happened around 3200 BCE, or perhaps even earlier.
In other words, this story was about a very large, very expensive prototype. There are many scholars and archaeologists who are trying to find “the Tower of Babel.” If this story has any authenticity, there probably isn’t much left of the original tower. Other Ziggurat structures have suffered from theft and vandalism, and I would imagine that an abandoned structure like the one in this story would meet a similar fate.
Design By Committee
In Verse 3 there is the phrase, “They said to each other…” In other words, they designed this thing by committee. This was not a top-down effort like the pyramids of Egypt, ultimately run by the Pharaoh. Note that this is the sort of governance you might expect from a convergence of several nomadic tribes. Keep this notion in mind, because I will discuss it later.
Another assumed context is that the city they were building was new, and mostly unknown to the rest of civilization. The reason why someone would build something big is that it would put them on the map, so to speak. This would encourage people and trade to come. Without people and trade, the city would not remain viable. Even back then, agrarian societies depended upon trade to function.
When I read this today as an engineer thinking about what was required to build these structures in the past, I see a lot of subtle technical problems that could ensnare the unwary. In fact, I detect a definite note of sarcasm in verses 3 and 4. The text mentioned stone and mortar as the usual alternative –why would a text such as this mention the alternative unless it were significant? To me, I hear someone remarking, “That’s a weird choice; I wouldn’t have done it that way, but they thought they knew what they were doing.” But even without reading between the lines, it is obvious that this was a unique approach and that they should have seen the technical difficulties that arose from these choices.
Assuming my guess of the era this occurred are accurate, all technology was strictly stone age: Buildings were constructed primarily with stone and mud. So the notion that they could build a tower using brick and a bitumen mortar was a new technology at the time, and it would have been untested at large scales.
What if it doesn’t work?
The settlers of Shinar were building a large, significant outpost that this new technology was supposed to facilitate. If it failed, they were probably worried that farming and fishing alone wouldn’t sustain them year round. The text actually says “…otherwise we will be scattered over the face of the whole earth.” In other words, they knew this was likely a one-way, do-or-die effort. If it failed, they would have to go back to nomadic life. And given the population density of the region, they knew that many would die of starvation if this happened.
Further, although everyone started off discussing the same goals, it does not mean that they’re thinking the same things. Remember that this project got started with a Committee. Anyone who has ever attended a design committee meeting knows what kind of impractical and ridiculous decisions can happen. I doubt that things were any different back then.
Re-reading it in context, it is not hard to imagine what must have happened: They were changing more than one thing at a time: new building materials, new mortar, and unprecedented height. The account was terse, so they weren’t going to write down a laundry list of things that didn’t work. But the resources were probably constrained, not to mention the economics of the situation.
For example, consider the number of bricks they had to fire. As the text points out, they didn’t just let these bricks dry in the sun, they fired them. Where does that firewood come from? There had to be trade, and transportation to get it there. But scaling all this up to a size like what we know the Zigguraut to be would mean they may well have cut down entire forests to fuel this effort. No matter who you are, and what era you live in, that is expensive.
I also suspect that the sheer weight of this structure could have caused the bricks on the lowest part of the Zigguraut to crack and crumble. They may not have realized the criticality of a sound foundation. Note that the text says they “baked them thoroughly.” This implies that the bricks were not just hard, but probably quite brittle. Recall that this was high technology for them at the time and the art of brick making may not have been as well understood then as it is today.
Also note that there may have been various grades of Bitumen because, at that scale, it probably didn’t come from just one place. Mixing grades of this mortar may have caused unanticipated stresses and strains on the bricks. If this was the first project at this scale, one can easily imagine that there were cost overruns from all sorts of technical problems. In fact, this just might be the very earliest recounting of Murphy’s Law. If anything could go wrong, it did, in the worst possible way.
Furthermore, there had to have been many trades: People gathering wood for fuel, lumberjacks, ship builders, river-pilots, brick makers, clay gatherers, cart makers, straw growers, bitumen gatherers, bitumen processors, rope makers, surveyors, accountants, large scale farmers, and so on. Each trade developed its own lingo and its own tribal knowledge. These trades don’t just scale up out of nothing. For those who do not plan for it, the complexity gets unmanageable because as each lingo develops, communication and decisions get more difficult. As resources get strained, it leads to everyone working toward their own ends, not a common goal.
The work itself may not seem that complex at small scales. However, it must have gotten out of hand because people probably thought they were dealing with just their one task instead of interdependent tasks and deliverables. It is likely that those managing this project didn’t understand the limits of this technology as well as they thought, and they probably underestimated the complexity of what they were attempting to manage. Throw in a few surprises to the engineers, a few cost overruns, and a construction failure or two, and one could truly say that nobody was speaking the same language even if the words and grammar were in common.
Though there is no mention of it, the financial disaster must have been incredible for that day and age. It must have had trade implications that spread far and wide. And very likely, that is why we have this story recounted in several places. This was hubris, not the hubris of a single person, but the hubris of an early attempt at agrarian civilization failing badly at project management. It’s been taught and repeated for millennia. And the tale it tells is not trivial. It ends with “…scattered them from there over all the earth, and they stopped building the city.” For the people building this city, it was a complete and unmitigated disaster where their worst fears came to pass.
Note as well that the structures we see today are the ones that have survived. One would hope that others learned lessons from this debacle. Nevertheless, while the Hebrew Bible account blames the whole thing on an Almighty God, the Cuneiform version blames it on the conflict between two Gods. The latter actually sounds more plausible to me with people working at cross purposes. But at the end of the day, nobody in the committee took responsibility for this debacle. That’s how these things go, even to this day.
Modern Lessons Learned
Most of all, this tale tells us how fragile civilization is. It should serve as a warning to leaders in every government and culture. Mistakes in governance and project management for infrastructure can doom people to be scattered back to subsistence living far and wide.
It also tells us not to scale things up too fast and too far. There will be problems. We should have diversity in our planning so that we have something to fall back on in case things don’t go well. The people of Shinar had no plan B. It was do or die, and I suspect many died.
This tale of woe is still relevant. It tells me that Murphy’s law is much older than the apocryphal Murphy. It is a warning to the committees who introduce complexity to infrastructure that they must be conservative, show a very likely return on the investment, and manage and monitor the changes from previous projects. In other words, unless you want to see people talking past each other, you must keep things stupidly simple and reliable. Civilization itself is at stake. It is a lesson that I wish more people would think about when discussing “smart-cities.”