The “Mock Building Account” of Genesis 11:1-9: Polemic against Mesopotamian Royal Ideology

in Vetus Testamentum
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This article argues that Genesis 11:1-9 follows the well attested structure of Mesopotamian building accounts polemically addressing the main themes and motifs presented therein. Motifs of name-making, universal hegemony and colossal building projects are found in both the Genesis account and the Mesopotamian inscriptions. The Hebrew author subverts the imperial hubris presented in Mesopotamian royal building ideology by creating a “mock” building account based on components traditional to the building-account genre. Analysis of the Genesis pericope in light of the building-account genre helps explain some of the difficult interpretive contours of the text (e.g. the so-called “double descent” of YHWH) as well as highlights a main aspect of the offense inherent in the actions and attitude of the Babel builders—that building an entirely new city on virgin ground required divine consent—consent that YHWH does not give to such royal imperialistic pretensions.

Vetus Testamentum

A Quarterly Published by the International Organization for the Study of the Old Testament




A. LaCocque, “Whatever Happened in the Valley of Shinar? A Response to Theodore Hiebert” JBL 128 n.1 [2009]: 29-41; Robert Gnuse, “The Tale of Babel: Parable of Divine Judgment or Human Cultural Diversification?” BZ 54 (2010): 229-244 and literature cited therein. Gnuse is specifically responding to the recent article of Theodore Hiebert. Gnuse affirms that the passage is a “parable” against imperial building projects but sees the Chaldean kings and particularly, Nabonidus, as the builder in view.


A. K. Grayson, Assyrian Royal Inscription, I. From the Beginning to Ashur-resha-ishi I. (Wiesbaden: Otto Harrassowitz, 1972), xx.


H. Tadmor, “History and Ideology in the Assyrian Royal Inscriptions,” in Assyrian Royal Inscriptions: New Horizons in Literary, Ideological and Historical Analysis: Papers of a Symposium Held in Cetona (Siena), June 26-28, 1980, ed. by F. M. Fales (Orientalis Antiqui Collectio XVII; Rome: Instituto per l’Oriente, 1981), 14. Tadmor focuses on Assyrian inscriptions but his analysis has broad implications. For discussions of building ideology, see Assyrian Royal Inscriptions; Douglas J. Green, I Undertook Great Works: The Ideology of Domestic Achievements in West Semitic Royal Inscriptions (FAT 42, Tübingen: Mohr Siebeck, 2010); Sandra L. Richter, The Deuteronomistic History and the Name Theology: ləšakkēn šəmô šām in the Bible and the Ancient Near East (BZAW 318; Berlin: Walter de Gruyter GmbH, 2002), 184-218; W. W. Hallo, “Royal Inscriptions of the Early Old Babylonian Period: A Bibliography” BiOr 18 (1961); idem. “Royal Inscriptions of Ur,” HUCA 33 (1962): 1-43; T. J. Schneider, Form and Context in the Royal Inscriptions of Shalmaneser III (Occasional Papers 26; Claremont, CA.: The Institute for Antiquity and Christianity, 1993).


Hurowitz, I Have Built, 64.


See Hurwitz, I Have Built, 32-96. One interesting innovation is found in component (6), “blessings and curses of future generations.”


Uehlinger, Weltreich, 445-514. Uehlinger points to the specific language from inscriptions and overall ideology of Neo-Assyrian rulers in their campaign to bring all peoples under the “yoke” of Assyria as “one people.” However, such strict identifications with the Hebrew שפה אחת and Neo-Assyrian pû ištēn are not essential to the overall argument presented herein and should not detract the reader from the main points of the paper.


R. Campbell Thompson, The Prisms of Esarhaddon and of Ashurbanipal (London: Oxford University Press, 1931), 29. Cf. also an inscription of Tigath-pileser III which reads, “Palace of Tiglath-pileser, great king, mighty king, king of the world, king of Assyria, king of Sumer and Akkad, king of the fo[ur] quarters (of the world)” (RINAP I, Tiglath-pileser III 39, p. 96).


Similarly, Wenham, Genesis 1-15, 239.


Marc van de Mieroop, The Ancient Mesopotamian City (New York: Oxford University Press, 1997), 52-61; idem, Cuneiform Texts and the Writing of History (New York: Routledge, 1999), 73-76. While van de Mieroop concedes that new cities were built from time to time, he emphasizes the lack of inscriptions boasting the fact in any royal inscriptions with the exception of Sargon II (The Ancient Mesopotamian City, 59). Nowhere in the Mesopotamian building accounts does a king build an entirely new city on new ground. Van de Mieroop notes the few Mesopotamian kings known to have founded a city: Sargon of Akkade (Akkade), Kurigalzu a Kassite king (Dur-Karigalzu), Tukultī-Ninurta I (Kār-Tukultī-Ninurta) Aššurnaṣirpal II (Kalḫu), Sargon II (Dur-Šarrukin). Of these, only Tukultī-Ninurta I and Sargon II have any inscriptional attestation from the reigns of their builders. Sargon II is the only king who is perceived to have built upon entirely “virgin” ground (The Ancient Mesopotamian City, 54). Even the earlier Neo-Assyrian ruler Tukultī-Ninurta I carefully characterized his building of Kār-Tukultī-Ninurta as a cult center expanding the existing one in Aššur, not a new city to displace it, “Aššur-Enlil my lord requested of me a cult centre on the bank opposite my city he commanded me to build his sanctuary Enlil bēli māḫāza ērišannimma epēš atmanīšŭ iqbâ (A. K. Grayson, Assyrian Rulers of the Third and Second Millenia BC I [1114-859 BC] [Toronto: Toronto University Press, 1991], 270 [A.O.78.22, 39-40]); cf. also Weidner, 1959, 31 (28.1.88). ” (Enlil bēli māḫāza ērišannimma epēš atmanīšŭ iqbâ; A. K. Grayson, Assyrian Rulers of the Third and Second Millenia BC I [1114-859 BC] [Toronto: Toronto University Press, 1991], 270 [A.O.78.22, 39-40]). Aššurnaṣirpal II rebuilt Kalḫu (Calah), “the ancient city” which Šalmaneser had built before him. “The ancient city Calah which Shalmaneser, king of Assyria, a prince who preceded me, had built–this city had become dilapidated: it lay dormant. I rebuilt this city” (Grayson, RIMA II, A.0.101.2; 227). Of these only Sargon II build an entirely new city of his own design. “The king, with open mind, sharp of eye, in everything equal of the Master (Adapa), who became great in wisdom and intelligence, and grew in understanding . . . day and night I planned to build that city” (D. G. Lyon Keilschrifttexte Sargon’s Königs von Assyrien (722-705 v. Chr.) (Leipzig: Hinrichs, 1883), 34, II.34-43. Cf. Sargon’s statement, “at the foot of Mount Musri above Nineveh, according to the decision of the god and the desire of my heart, I built a city, I called it ‘Dur-Sharrukin’” (H. Winckler, Die Keilschrifttexte Sargons nach den Papierabklatschen und Originalen neu Herausgegeben, I, II [Leipzig: Eduard Pfeiffcr, 1889], I.128).


Marc van de Mieroop, “Literature and Political Discourse in Ancient Mesopotamia: Sargon II of Assyria and Sargon of Agade” in Munuscula Mesopotamica: Festshrift für Johannes Renger, edited by Barbara Böck et al. (Winona Lake: Eisenbrauns, 1999), 327-339.


See Uehlinger, Weltreich, 201-253.


J. H. Walton, “The Mesopotamian Background of the Tower of Babel Account and Its Implications,” BBR 5 (1995): 155-175 (especially 155-162). For temple/ziggurat names see A. R. George, House Most High: The Temples of Ancient Mesopotamia (Winona Lake: Eisenbrauns, 1993), 63-161. See also D. O. Edzard, “Deep Rooted Skyscrapers and Brick: Ancient Mesopotamian Architecture and Imagery” for a discussion of ziggurats and temples raising their heads to the sky and having their foundations deep in the earth (in Figurative Language in the Ancient Near East, edited by M. Mindlin, M. J. Geller and J. E. Wansbrough [School of Oriental and African Studies, 1987], 11-20).


Speiser, “Word Plays,” 55.


See Uehlinger, 236-253; and Hiebert, “The Tower of Babel,” 36-39.


Marc van de Mieroop, The Ancient Mesopotamian City (New York: Oxford University Press, 1997), 48. The thought that the gods were responsible for building cities as their dwellings is not only a feature of the city-state period but endures through the periods of the Neo-Assyrian and Neo-Babylonian empires (idem., 47-48). For the gods constructing cities and temples, see Hurowitz, 332-334; Hanspeter Schaudig, “The Restoration of Temples in the Neo- and Late Babylonian Periods,” in From the Foundations to the Crenellations, 142. For the cosmic origins and centrality of temples in the space of the city see, J. Levenson, “The Temple and World,” JR 64 (1984): 275-298; see also Hurowitz, I Have Built, 335-337.


Richter, The Deuteronomistic History, 205.


So Westermann, Genesis 1-11, 553-554.


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