I've read a couple commentators who depend fairly heavily in their interpretations of the tower of Babel narrative on the assumption that the tower being built was a ziggurat; but I'm not sure how this predicate is reached. How safe is this assumption? Are there good reasons for thinking that it was a ziggurat?
Well, the reading of the ToB as a Ziggurat is more or less an example of the duck test: if it walks like a duck, and quacks like a duck...
Stepped pyramids were essentially the only really tall built items of the ancient Near East. (Egypt is not in the field of view here.) So, if you are going to talk about a tall thing, a thing reaching towards heaven, that's what you get.
However, this does not give us much interpretational traction. Whether it's a ziggurat or an anachronistic copy of the Sears Tower, it's a tall thing built by people. Why is it any better or worse for the populace to build in the form of a typical stepped temple than any other form? The plain sense of the text is that the offense was in the ambition, not in the geometry.
If, on the other hand, you're in the mood for a naturalistic interpretation, what you have here is a 'just so story' that explains the multiplicity of human languages. "Why do we have to cope with all these languages? Why can't those Hittites just speak good old Sumerian? Well, once upon a time , ..."
Yes, one can be reasonably certain that the author had in mind a ziggurat.
Whether or not one reads the Tower of Babel story as merely an etiology of the diversity of language, there does seem to be a distinct geographic setting. The wide agreement among scholars is that descriptions of the locale fit southern Mesopotamia.
For one, 11:2 records at the outset of the narrative that the people are moving eastward. As well, the name "Shinar" in verse 2 likely is a linguistic equivalent to "Sumer", another name for the region. The use of bricks is a further indication, as in Palestine there was plenty of stone, which was preferred for construction. But the southern plains of Mesopotamia did not have such quarries and required either imports of stone or the kilnfired bricks we see in 11:3 for construction.
This is all important for two reasons: 1) the predominate tower-like structures in southern Mesopotamia at the time were ziggurats, and 2) it allows for the possibility that the text function as a sort of polemic against a particular culture. Gordon Wenham writes:
As elsewhere in Gen 1–11, there is in this narrative a strong polemic against the mythic theology of the ancient world. Often this polemic is implicit rather than explicit. Only ancient hearers and modern scholars familiar with Mesopotamian accounts of the flood can appreciate the world of difference between the characterizations of Noah and Utnapishtim or between the LORD and the gods of Mesopotamia who cower before the flood and swarm like flies around the sacrifice. But Gen 11 throws discretion to the winds: the assault on Babylonian pretensions is open and undisguised. The tower of Babylon stands as a monument to man’s impotence before his creator, and the multiplicity of human languages is a reminder of divine retribution on human pride.
Wenham, G. J. (1998). Genesis 1–15 (Vol. 1, p. 244). Dallas: Word, Incorporated.
The key phrase is in 11:4 where the tower is to be one "with its head in the heavens." While there are not close parallels in literature to the tower story as there are with the flood narrative, etc... Wenham notes, "The temple of Marduk in Babylon was supposed to have been built by the Annunaki gods with specially prepared bricks. Its name, 'house with the uplifted head,' reflects its claim to have reached the heavens."
Whether the temple of Marduk or some other ziggurat, the Genesis 11 story makes sport of this boast. God has to "come down" in the narrative to even see the tower that is being built up to heaven. A polemic angle to the passage would fit with previous suspicions about the tower's nature.
Unless some other theory comes along that better fits the data, a structure like a ziggurat - with steps indicating its theological purpose in allowing the gods to travel between heaven and earth - seems like the most likely candidate for the tower of Babel.
Disclaimer: This subject is intrinsically speculative and my answer should be taken with the inherent difficulty of recreating the past in mind.
Short answer: Yes, a ziggurat of sorts, not necessarily as drawn as in the literature. This is my hypothesis.
...Temple and temple organisation Ziggurats (Sumerian temples) each had an individual name and consisted of a forecourt, with a central pond for purification. The temple itself had a central nave with aisles along either side. Flanking the aisles would be rooms for the priests. At one end would stand the podium and a mudbrick table for animal and vegetable sacrifices. Granaries and storehouses were usually located near the temples. After a time the Sumerians began to place the temples on top of multi-layered square constructions built as a series of rising terraces, giving rise to the Ziggurat style....
They are sacred architecture, designed to interact with the divine. This site has provides a fascinating and informative exposure to stepped temples around the world and in your own backyard.
For a virtual 3D walk through of a Sumerian ziggurat please check out this excellent animation on Youtube.
Observations and assumptions
If the Sumerians are the descendants of Noah (and according to the scriptural accounts, of course they are) then they knew about sacrificing animals, obeying God, etc. Might the Watchers or Satan or God himself have revealed the proper layout of the temple as a meeting tent, representing heaven and an outer area representing earth. The Jews referred to their temple as heaven and earth.
...In the Sumerian city-states, temple complexes originally were small, elevated one-room structures. In the early dynastic period, temples developed raised terraces and multiple rooms. Toward the end of the Sumerian civilization, ziggurats became the preferred temple structure for Mesopotamian religious centers.6 Temples served as cultural, religious, and political headquarters until approximately 2500 BC, with the rise of military kings known as Lu-gals (“man” + “big”)4 after which time the political and military leadership was often housed in separate "palace" complexes...
...Sumerian religion heavily influenced the religious beliefs of later Mesopotamian peoples; elements of it are retained in the mythologies and religions of the Hurrians, Akkadians, Babylonians, Assyrians, and other Middle Eastern culture groups. Scholars of comparative mythology have noticed many parallels between the stories of the ancient Sumerians and those recorded later in the early parts of the Hebrew Bible...
However, I'm of the opinion that the evidence shows that the stepped temples are found throughout the world, consistent with the idea that the builders of an ambitious pyramid building project at Babel were scattered throughout the world some 4000 to 5000 years ago.
Two of the main differences between the Jewish tabernacle and the stepped temple, the which were explicitly forbidden in the Jewish scriptures are:
- the use of tools to cut out stones - they should be natural
- steps - steps are forbidden:
[Exo 20:24-26 ASV] (24) An altar of earth thou shalt make unto me, and shalt sacrifice thereon thy burnt-offerings, and thy peace-offerings, thy sheep, and thine oxen: in every place where I record my name I will come unto thee and I will bless thee. (25) And if thou make me an altar of stone, thou shalt not build it of hewn stones; for if thou lift up thy tool upon it, thou hast polluted it. (26) Neither shalt thou go up by steps unto mine altar, that thy nakedness be not uncovered thereon.
[Exod 26:30 KJV] (30) And thou shalt rear up the tabernacle according to the fashion thereof which was shewed thee in the mount.
Other than the hewn stones and the steps these ziggurats were largely like the tabernacle, with the chamber in the middle being the place where you move from the earthly realm into the realm of the gods.
The ziggurat is an example of a stepped pyramid.
In the above the upper layers have been destroyed and would have looked like this:
I observe that stepped pyramids spread through the whole world.
This suggests to me that the stepped pyramid is of religious significance and was considered the right way to build a temple. The reason I say that is that it is not easy to build a stepped pyramid and yet all over the world people have gone to phenomenal lengths to build these structures. These are the scattered temple builders of Sumer!
So my inference from all this data is that the stepped pyramid is a corruption of the divinely sanctioned design (or vice versa) in that it is in the inverse. Whereas the divinely sanctioned design has God condescending to dwell among his people, the Sumerian design is an effort to ascend to heaven to be equal to God.
As such it serves as the quintessential symbol of man trying to reach God rather than God reaching down to men.
It may be that the number of tiers on the pyramid indicates the number of steps they think it is to the highest heaven. IE: Three tiers would take you to the third heaven while seven would take you to the seventh heaven.
The general idea of these stepped temples was that the chamber at the top (a tent or other structure) which served as a place to have audience with God. The following from Wikipedia suggests that the tents of nomads in Asia were the inspiration, which I personally find tricky to prove, however, from a scriptural perspective all who walk the earth are descended from passengers of Noah's ark. But nomads aren't exactly into building structures. They traveled in huts.
Celestial tradition Smith writes that in the process of transforming the hut shape from its original pliable materials into more difficult stone construction, the dome had also become associated with celestial and cosmic significance, as evident from decoration such as stars and celestial chariots on the ceilings of domed tombs. This cosmological thinking was not limited to domed ceilings, being part of a symbolic association between any house, tomb, or sanctuary and the universe as a whole, but it popularized the use of the domical shape.3 Michele Melaragno writes that the nomadic tribes of central Asia are the origin of a symbolic tradition of round domed-tents being associated with the sky and heavens that eventually spread to the Middle East and the Mediterranean.4 Rudolf Wittkower writes that a "cosmic interpretation of the dome remained common well into the eighteenth century."6
Divine ruler Herbert Howe writes that throughout the Middle East domes were symbolic of "the tent of the ruler, and especially of the god who dwells in the tent of the heavens." Passages in the Old Testament and intertestamental literature document this, such as Psalms 123:1,[note 1] Isaiah 40:22,[note 2] I Kings 8:30,[note 3] Isaiah 66:1,[note 4] Psalms 19:4,[note 5] and Job 22:14.note 6
Domes and tent-canopies were associated with the heavens in Ancient Persia and the Hellenistic-Roman world. A dome over a square base reflected the geometric symbolism of those shapes. The circle represented perfection, eternity, and the heavens. The square represented the earth. An octagon was intermediate between the two.8 Persian kings used domed tents in their official audiences to symbolize their divinity, and this practice was adopted by Alexander the Great.4
The distinct symbolism of the heavenly or cosmic tent stemming from the royal audience tents of Achaemenid and Indian rulers was adopted by Roman rulers in imitation of Alexander, becoming the imperial baldachin. This probably began with Nero, whose "Golden House" also made the dome an essential feature of palace architecture.9 The allegory of Alexander the Great's domical tent in Roman imperial architecture coincided with the "divinification" of Roman emperors and served as a symbol of this.10 The semi-domed apse became a symbol of Imperial authority under Domitian and depictions of emperors into the Byzantine period used overhead domes or semidomes to identify them.11 Karl Swoboda writes that even by the time of Diocletian, the dome probably symbolized sovereignty over the whole world.11
I have attempted to make a case that in the Ancient Near East (ANE) there was apparently some knowledge of the worship of God but the structure of the temples became corrupted, using hewn stones and multiple tiers, always a stepped-pyramid as evidenced by the existence of these quixotic structures throughout the world.
From this I argue that the tower of Babel would have been built in the language of this sacred architecture. As you note, this is the balance of scholarly opinion. I just added the force of biblical anthropology to show that the ziggurat is ubiquitous because it is a corruption of the true worship revealed by God.
I notice that both the Kaaba at Mecca and Islamic "mosques" serve ultimately as corrupt versions of the temple. The "domes" serve like the tent of the holiest place: