Hubris on Display

Tower of Babel

One of the most popular subjects of paintings is the Tower of Babel. There are hundreds of them and many used this painting as their inspiration. It tells the story from Genesis 11 of Noah’s descendants who had settled in the lowlands of Sinear after the Flood. They spoke a common language and strove to build a tower that reached to heaven and united them as a people. This tower would serve as a landmark to keep them together as one big city, even though God had commanded them to go out, be fruitful and multiply and fill the earth. 

The artist, Pieter Bruegel the Elder, visited Rome in 1552-1553 and it is likely he used the Coliseum as his inspiration for the Tower. The Coliseum was a building that Christians of his day would certainly consider an expression of faithless pride. At first sight, Bruegel’s towers look sturdy and well-constructed, but on closer inspection, it strikes the viewer that the design contains flaws, probably inserted to indicate how bold and presumptuous the whole project was. ¹

In the foreground, you can see King Nimrod, who was the great-grandson of Noah. His subjects are worshiping him on bended knee. This tower was also built to protect them from any future flood, and I’m sure the memory of the last one was seared in their minds.

The Bible tells us that God didn’t really appreciate the people’s attempts to outdo him. They were ignoring his command to scatter, they were worshiping kings over God, and they were under the impression they could save themselves by their own efforts. So God confused their language and they couldn’t understand each other. One guy wanted a few mud bricks and the guy next to him had no idea what he was asking for. I would have loved to have witnessed the frustration. As you can see, the tower was never finished, and the people were scattered to all parts of the earth.

When I look into this painting, I see the foolishness of humans—I see the foolishness of myself. Ephesians 6:12: For by grace you have been saved through faith, and this is not your own doing; it is the gift of God— not the result of works, so that no one may boast.

Being Human connection: I can’t outsmart God, I can’t add to God, I can’t outdo God, but I can trust God.

Featured Image: Pieter Bruegel the Elder, “The Tower of Babel,” 1563, Kunsthistorisches Museum, Vienna

Note of Interest: According to Art and the Bible,¹ there is evidence that the Tower of Babel actually existed. But in all fairness, it was not built as Bruegel depicted. It was more likely a ziggurat—a temple tower in the form of a terraced pyramid of successively receding stories (see below). One famous ziggurat (Marduk) was almost 100 yards tall and is believed to have had 7 tiers. Marduk was the main Babylonian god. Destroyed by the Assyrians in 689 BC, the Marduk ziggurat was reconstructed and perfected by the likes of Nebuchadnezzar II. In 478 BC the ziggurat was demolished again, this time by the Persians. The Babylonians named their tower Bab-Iloe, Port of God.

Below: The ziggurat of Ur