I Have a Question

Questions of general interest answered for guidance, not as official statements of Church policy

I Have a Question

According to the account in Genesis, the events surrounding the building of the tower of Babel represent a very crucial point in history. Is there additional background information and perspective available to help us better understand the meaning of these events?

Genesis 10 gives the account of the dispersion of the sons of Noah and their descendants after the Flood. Verses 9 and 10 tell us that Nimrod founded the kingdom of Babel, or as it was later called, Babylon, in the land of Shinar. [Gen. 10:9–10] Genesis 11 begins: “And the whole earth was of one language, and of one speech. …

“And they said, Go to, let us build us a city and a tower, whose top may reach unto heaven; and let us make us a name, lest we be scattered abroad upon the face of the whole earth.” (Gen. 11:1, 4.)

The Lord came down to see the city. The decision the Lord made was to confound the language and scatter the people. (See Gen. 11:5–9.)

Early Jewish and Christian traditions reported that Nimrod built the tower of Babel, referred to as a pagan temple, in an attempt to contact heaven. Among the Jews, Nimrod’s name has always been a symbol of rebellion against God and of usurped authority: he “established false priesthood and false kingship in the earth in imitation of God’s rule and ‘made all men to sin.’” (Hugh Nibley, Lehi in the Desert and The World of the Jaredites, vol. 5 of The Collected Works of Hugh Nibley, Salt Lake City: Bookcraft, 1980, p. 156.)

Josephus, an ancient Jewish historian, provided additional helpful information. He noted that Nimrod had done a number of things to gain power over the people. Therefore, by proposing that the people build a tower or temple to reach heaven, Nimrod no doubt felt this counterfeit temple would add to his control.

The building of the tower was undertaken when the people discovered an important new “technology”—the oven-baked brick. Ordinary mud brick, baked in the sun, could only be used to build so high, and then it crumbled under the stress. But the “brick … burned thoroughly” (i.e., in an oven) could be stacked quite high; the ziggurats at Babylon are three hundred feet high. In the Bible, bricks are mentioned only in connection with this tower, pharaoh’s buildings, and idolatrous altars. This detail suggests the impudence in the people’s feelings for the Lord in this society which had developed since the Flood.

The account in Genesis provides further clues regarding the significance of the building of the tower. First, the impetus in building this temple was to make themselves a name. In other words, Nimrod was proposing that they build a temple to receive the name of God without making eternal covenants. Second, they wanted to build this tower-temple so they would not be “scattered.” (Gen. 11:4.) Latter-day revelation ties the temple’s sealing power to preventing the earth from being wasted at the second coming. (See D&C 2:3.) One meaning of the word wasted in Joseph Smith’s day was “destroyed by scattering.” (Webster’s Dictionary, 1828.) Finally, the word Babel in Hebrew meant “confusion,” but in Babylonian or Akkadian, the meaning was “gate of God.” Nimrod and his people were building their own temple, their gate to heaven, without divine approval or priesthood keys.

It is easy to see why an apostate people, having some understanding of temple ordinances and temple purpose, would construct an edifice symbolizing to them that connecting point and, with whatever ceremony they contrived in imitation of true temple worship, would attempt to duplicate the process of preparation for the hereafter.

Another dimension of understanding occurs when we realize that the word Babel in Hebrew is the same word translated everywhere else in the Old Testament as “Babylon.” Thus, in biblical typology, what the people are building in this story is Babylon.

The story of the tower of Babel must be read in the context of the whole book of Genesis. Following the Fall, the gospel was taught to the seed of Adam. Some accepted it, and many rejected it. Secret combinations, starting with that of Cain, brought apostasy into the world. At the same time, Enoch gathered the righteous to Zion, and they were translated. Then the Lord sent a flood that destroyed the unrepentant. In the aftermath, a covenant was made with Noah and his seed to reestablish the teaching of the plan of salvation on the earth. (See Gen. 9:11; JST, Gen. 9:17.)

The city of Enoch had been translated (see Gen. 5:23–24; Moses 7:21–23) before the Flood, but at the time of Abraham (the general time of the tower of Babel), Melchizedek also created a society that produced a Zion people who “sought for the city of Enoch” and “obtained heaven” (JST, Gen. 14:33–34). Considering the trauma of the Flood (Gen. 6–8), the aspiration to build a tower to heaven, with water-impervious materials, may also have been an attempt to survive a flood should God attempt to destroy men again. Thus, their temple-tower was likely designed for a multitude of purposes, making it that much more meaningful in their eyes. Also, note that their attempt to dodge the judgment of God was based on their human ingenuity rather than on repentance. The Lord’s response was to humble these people.

The tower of Babel was the transitional event between the dispensations of Noah and Abraham. It is instructive to note that immediately following mankind’s scattering, the Lord intervened by establishing his covenant with Abraham and took him from the “other side of the Euphrates” to the Promised Land. (See Gen. 12.) The Lord established the Abrahamic covenant as the basis for building Zion, and that covenant was based on man’s acknowledgment of and dependence on the cleansing blood of the Atonement. The narrative begun by Genesis ends in 2 Kings 25, in which the children of Israel found themselves—because they broke the covenant—back in Babylon where the story began. Their breaking of the covenant resulted in their exile from Jerusalem (Zion) to Babylon. Yet the mercy of the Lord had the power to bring them back, through repentance and renewal of the covenant. Subsequently, Israel was released from Babylon by Cyrus and later by Darius. Zerubbabel, and later Ezra and Nehemiah, led the people and some did return and renew the covenant.

In the latter days, the Lord once again has called us out of the world: we have been instructed to “go … out from Babylon” (D&C 133:5) to build Zion.

[photos] Left to right: Lee Donaldson, Church Educational System coordinator, Chicago North Area; V. Dan Rogers, Curriculum Services, Church Educational System; and David Rolph Seely, assistant professor of ancient scripture, Brigham Young University.

What understanding and/or information is there to help us comprehend the longevity of Adam and his descendants until the age lengths were reduced during the Mosaic era to life spans similar to ours? Why did they live so long?

Thomas R. Valletta, instructor, Ogden Utah Institute of Religion. A number of factors can be considered when studying the longevity of the Patriarchs. First and foremost, modern revelation supports the scriptural indication that many Old Testament patriarchs lived incredibly long lives. (See Moses 8:1–13; D&C 107:41–55.) Second, early prophets of this dispensation understood these scriptural references to be literal. (See Brigham Young, Journal of Discourses, 12:37; Wilford Woodruff, Journal of Discourses, 13:319; Wilford Woodruff, Messages of the First Presidency, 6 vols., Salt Lake City: Bookcraft, 1965–75, 3:253.) And third, early historical sources reveal that the ancients took these statements quite literally. The first-century historian Josephus tells us, for example, “Let no one, upon comparing the lives of the ancients with our lives, and with the few years which we now live, think that what we have said of them is false; or make the shortness of our lives at present an argument that neither did they attain to so long a duration of life.” (Josephus, Antiquities of the Jews, bk. 1, ch. 3, par. 9.)

The reasons for the longevity of the Patriarchs are not made completely clear in scripture. Yet several propositions have been put forth. Some have interpreted 2 Nephi 2:21 [2 Ne. 2:21] as referring to the antediluvians: “The days of the children of men were prolonged, according to the will of God, that they might repent while in the flesh; wherefore their state became a state of probation, and their time was lengthened.” (See, for example, Joseph Fielding McConkie and Robert Millet, Doctrinal Commentary on the Book of Mormon, 4 vols., Salt Lake City: Bookcraft, 1987–92, 1:198–99.) Others have suggested that it was righteousness that affected so profoundly the longevity of their lives. Josephus asserted that God “afforded [the ancients] a longer time of life on account of their virtue, and the good use they made of it in astronomical and geometrical discoveries, which would not have afforded the time of foretelling [or determining the periods of the stars] unless they had lived six hundred years.” (Antiquities of the Jews, bk. 1, ch. 3, par. 9.)

The Prophet Brigham Young likewise attributed obedience to the “laws of life” as the primary reason for longevity. He called upon the world to cease “wasting their lives and the lives of their fellow-beings, and the precious time God has given to us to improve our minds and our bodies … , so that the longevity of the human family may begin to return.” (Journal of Discourses, 14:89; see also Josephus, Antiquities of the Jews, bk. 1, ch. 3, par. 9.) A passage in the Book of Mormon supports the contention that the righteous may have their days “lengthened out.” (Hel. 7:24.) It has also been suggested that something in the earth’s environment may have changed radically during or after the time of the great flood and that this also is what accounted for man’s decrease in longevity immediately thereafter. (See Moses 8:17.)

Among the many possible purposes for the prolonged life-span of the ancient patriarchs was the establishment of truth through the Lord’s divine law of witnesses. This design is clearly delineated in Lectures of Faith. After a brief recitation of the “chronology of the world from Adam to Noah,” the commentary declares: “From the foregoing it is easily to be seen, not only how the knowledge of God came into the world, but upon what principle it was preserved; that from the time it was first communicated, it was retained in the minds of righteous men, who taught not only their own posterity but the world; so that there was no need of a new revelation to man, after Adam’s creation to Noah, to give them the first idea or notion of the existence of a God; and not only of a God, but the true and living God.” (Lectures on Faith, 2:44.) All of these factors listed above are feasible explanations. They are not mutually exclusive, nor do they exhaust the possibilities.

It is widely taught in the world that when Adam and Eve “partook of the forbidden fruit,” they committed sexual sin. What is the Latter-day Saint view on the “forbidden fruit”?

Bruce A. Van Orden, associate professor of Church history, Brigham Young University. Adam and Eve were not guilty of committing sexual sin of any kind in the Garden of Eden. Both before their eyes were open (Moses 4:13) and when they partook of the forbidden fruit, they were already married. In 1835 when the Prophet Joseph Smith began performing marriages, he declared that “marriage was an institution of heaven, instituted in the garden of Eden.” (History of the Church, 2:320; emphasis added.) Elder Joseph Fielding Smith also explained, “The transgression of Adam did not involve sex sin as some falsely believe and teach. Adam and Eve were married by the Lord while they were yet immortal beings in the Garden of Eden and before death entered the world.” (Doctrines of Salvation, 3 vols., Salt Lake City: Bookcraft, 1954, 1:114–15.)

The most immediate effect of eating the fruit of the tree of knowledge of good and evil was becoming mortal, becoming subject to death. Soon, Adam and Eve also suffered spiritual death; they were cast out of the presence of God and out of the Garden of Eden. Perhaps the forbidden fruit contained elements that changed Adam’s and Eve’s bodies from being immortal to mortal. As Latter-day Saints, we believe that Adam and Eve partook of actual fruit. Joseph Fielding Smith also explained, “This was a transgression of the law, but not a sin in the strict sense, for it was something that Adam and Eve had to do!” (Doctrines of Salvation, 1:115.)

Was the gospel of Jesus Christ known to Adam and his posterity?

D. Kelly Ogden, associate professor of ancient scripture, Brigham Young University. The gospel and ordinances of the priesthood of God were on the earth from the beginning. Adam and Eve taught their children the principles of salvation and the plan of redemption. “In the beginning was the gospel preached through the Son. And the gospel was the word.” (JST, John 1:1.)

“And thus the Gospel began to be preached, from the beginning, being declared by holy angels sent forth from the presence of God, and by his own voice, and by the gift of the Holy Ghost.

“And thus all things were confirmed unto Adam, by an holy ordinance, and the Gospel preached.” (Moses 5:58–59; see also Moses 6:52–67.) The plurality of Gods, our spiritual premortal existence, the importance of moral agency, the role of Satan, the eternal nature of marriage, the priesthood and its blessings, the role of the Holy Ghost, the law of sacrifice, the principles, covenants, and ordinances of the gospel, knowledge of a Redeemer to come—these principles and more were all known from the beginning.

Many people have difficulty understanding or correctly applying the Lord’s words to Eve at the time of the Fall: “Thy desire shall be to thy husband, and he shall rule over thee.” (Gen. 3:16.) Some feel this is demeaning to women, and some men use it as an excuse to exercise unrighteous dominion. Can you give some insight on this verse?

S. Michael Wilcox, instructor, Salt Lake University Institute of Religion. Part of the reason this verse troubles some people is that they place the emphasis on the word rule instead of on the word desire, which is the key word of the phrase. The root origins of desire give added meaning. Desire means “to long for, to stretch out towards, and to yearn for.” This was not a curse upon Eve but a blessing. Let’s suppose that just before my daughter was to be married, she came to me and asked for a father’s blessing. Let’s further suppose that when I laid my hands on her head, I gave her the following blessing: “I bless you that you will always feel a desire toward your husband. You will long to be with him in eternity. Your heart will stretch out to him in love, and you will yearn for his companionship. I further bless you that he will preside over your home in righteousness and honor.” Would she feel I had cursed and punished her? Surely every righteous woman in the Church desires to be married to a husband and to be able to love him in that manner.

President Spencer W. Kimball offered this valuable insight regarding the phrase “thy husband … shall rule over thee”: “I have a question about the word rule. It gives the wrong impression. I would prefer to use the word preside because that’s what he does. A righteous husband presides over his wife and family.” (Ensign, Mar. 1976, p. 72.)

Also we remember the man the Lord was talking about when he said these words to Eve. Adam was the great Michael, he who had helped Jehovah create the earth, the great first prophet of the Lord on earth, a most righteous son of God. Those who interpret God’s blessing upon Eve as a punishment have not understood the meaning of scripture. The Lord was telling Eve that she would be watched over, cared for, and protected by the righteous love of a noble husband as she entered the fallen world. In the misunderstandings typical of mortality, how ironic that many men take this verse and use it as license to exercise unrighteous dominion and to rule over their wives instead of treating their wives in a manner to encourage a spouse’s desire toward them.

In October 1993 general conference, Elder Boyd K. Packer of the Quorum of the Twelve said: “Should a man ‘exercise control or dominion or compulsion … in any degree of unrighteousness,’ … he violates ‘the oath and covenant which belongeth to the priesthood.’ … Then ‘the heavens withdraw themselves; the Spirit of the Lord is grieved.’ … Unless he repents he will lose his blessings.” (Ensign, Nov. 1993, p. 22; see D&C 84:39; D&C 121:37.)

In the general Relief Society meeting held prior to general conference, Elder M. Russell Ballard, also of the Quorum of the Twelve, said: “God has revealed through his prophets that men are to receive the priesthood, become fathers, and with gentleness and pure, unfeigned love they are to lead and nurture their families in righteousness as the Savior leads the Church (see Eph. 5:23). They have been given the primary responsibility for the temporal and physical needs of the family (see D&C 83:2). Women have the power to bring children into the world and have been given the primary duty and opportunity as mothers to lead, nurture, and teach them in a loving, spiritual environment. In this divine partnership, husbands and wives support one another in their God-given capacities. By appointing different accountabilities to men and women, Heavenly Father provides the greatest opportunity for growth, service, and progress. He did not give different tasks to men and women simply to perpetuate the idea of a family; rather, He did so to ensure that the family can continue forever, the ultimate goal of our Heavenly Father’s eternal plan.” (Ensign, Nov. 1993, p. 90.)

[illustration] Adam and Eve Kneeling at an Altar, by Del Parson