So far I’ve really enjoyed reading John Walton‘s Ancient Near Eastern Thought and the Old Testament (US: Baker Academic, 2006; UK: Inter-Varsity Press, 2007). It really helps you to understand the Old Testament better, in the light of its Ancient Near Eastern context (Sumeria, Mesopotamia, Levant, Egypt, etc.). For example, on the tower of Babel.
Walton wrote that most interpreters have identified the tower of Babel as a ziggurat, since throughout Mesopotamian literature, almost every occurrence of the expression describing a building “with its head in the heavens” (Gen 11.4) refers to a temple with its ziggurat. Ziggurat, if you recalled from your high school history lesson, was a series of stairways and ramps. It was usually located within a temple complex, which featured the temple itself, a ziggurat, and a garden (more on the garden on the next post). If the temple symbolized the dwelling place of the god among the people, then the ziggurat stood beside the temple as the place where the deity descended from the heavens to reside from among the people and receive their worship in the temple. Ziggurat is the way that the deity used to travel from the heavens to the earth. So it was built to make it convenient for the god to come down to his temple, bless his people, and receive their worship.
And the story of the tower of Babel then functioned as a critique to this ziggurat ideology of the Mesopotamians. With this ziggurat ideology background, we learnt that the tower of Babel was not built in order for the people to go up to the heavens, but the other way around. The tower of Babel, as a ziggurat, was built for the god to come down. And YHWH did come down in the story: ‘and YHWH came down to see the city and the tower, which the children of man had built.’ Although we did not get any impression that YHWH used the tower to come down to the earth. He came down to see the tower and not through the tower. YHWH, unlike the Mesopotamian gods, did not need the ziggurat to come down to see his people.