Nimrod and the Tower of Babel: Genesis 10-11 in Seventeenth-Century Quaker Writings

By Esther Greenleaf Murer

This paper grows out of the Quaker Bible Index, an attempt at a comprehensive Scripture index to make readily available Seventeenth and Eighteenth-century Quaker writings. The first version, which appeared in 1993 and is available on CD-ROM, included about 10,000 Scripture references to works by Fox, Barclay, Penn, Woolman and others. Since then, many more early Quaker writings have appeared in print (and yet many more on the web) and I am currently working on a greatly expanded edition.

The index began as a self-education project. I hope that it will provide a useful tool for others who are more knowledgeable than I about the Bible and Quaker history in determining how Quaker uses of Bible texts differ from those of other sects, past and present.

In the interest of providing some counterbalance to the labor of collecting references, I have undertaken to compile selected Quaker texts referring to Genesis into a sort of “Quaker commentary.” This paper is a first attempt at explicating some of it. I offer some examples of the use made in Seventeenth-century Quaker writings of the Biblical narrative about the Tower of Babel, found in Genesis 11:1-9, as well as Babel’s putative builder, Nimrod (Gen 10:8-10).

I chose the Tower of Babel partly because it’s a manageable chunk, but also because it’s dear to my heart. As I child I loved Jeremy Ingalls’ retelling of the Hebrew legend about the rebellion of Nimrod, and as an adult I wrote a musical fantasy using the Tower as a metaphor for the permanent war economy.


1And the whole earth was of one language, and of one speech. 2And it came to pass, as they journeyed from the east, that they found a plain in the land of Shinar; and they dwelt there. 3And they said one to another, Go to, let us make brick, and burn them thoroughly. And they had brick for stone, and slime had they for mortar. 4And 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.

5And the LORD came down to see the city and the tower, which the children of men builded. 6And the LORD said, Behold, the people is one, and they have all one language; and this they begin to do: and now nothing will be restrained from them, which they have imagined to do. 7Go to, let us go down, and there confound their language, that they may not understand one another’s speech. 8So the LORD scattered them abroad from thence upon the face of all the earth: and they left off to build the city. 9Therefore is the name of it called Babel; because the LORD did there confound the language of all the earth: and from thence did the LORD scatter them abroad upon the face of all the earth.

–Genesis 11:1-9 KJV

Babel appears in early Quaker writings as one of many biblical equivalents of “the mystery of iniquity” [2 Th 2:7], a phrase which Douglas Gwyn defines as “the power that continues to defeat personal transformation and social justice.” 1
The 1993 Harper-Collins Study Bible (NRSV) says that the name “Babel” derives from Akkadian bab-ilani, “gate of the gods” – which of course is also the source of “Babylon.” Early Friends often conflate the two, but it is unclear to me whether they understand them as historically the same. Their hermeneutic was heavily typological, and the identification may be on that plane.

References to Babel are comparatively few; Friends, like other radical sects of the period, made much more use of “Mystery Babylon,” its counterpart from the book of Revelation. Yet they tend to associate Babylon with confusion. According to Fox, for example, “Babylon signifies confusion, which is the false church, and is called a woman [Rev 17:3-5], and a city of confusion [Gen 11, Rev 17:18]…” (FOX: 8:184f [361]).

In a tract against music, Humphrey Smith identifies Babel with Babylon in an Old Testament context:

And when them in Israel who had Harps (the Musicioners) them who delighted in music, were carried captive into Babylon, the land of Confusion [Gen 11:6-9], in which land Nimrod the mighty one in the earth went hunting before the Lord [Gen 10:9], and by the River of Babylon they sate down and wept, who were before the Musitioners with their Harps; these went into captivity because of the sin, and hanged their Harps upon the Willowes, and sate down mourning by the River of confusion, and that which delighted in the Musick caused the seed to be captivated, and leads into bondage that which should come to liberty, whereby sorrow, weeping and mourning comes in the end; for the songs of the temple is to be turned into howling [Amos 8:3] and their delight in the musick was turned into weeping; and they led captive from Zion, who were come to the land of promise, and there took liberty in these fleshly delights, Psalm 137, the mind that hath wisdome may read this. 2


Ancient tradition attributes the building of the Tower of Babel to Nimrod. The Bible itself makes only brief mention of Nimrod, in Genesis 10:

8And Cush begat Nimrod: he began to be a mighty one in the earth. 9He was a mighty hunter before the LORD: wherefore it is said, Even as Nimrod the mighty hunter before the LORD. 10And the beginning of his kingdom was Babel, and Erech, and Accad, and Calneh, in the land of Shinar. 11Out of that land went forth Asshur, and builded Nineveh, and the city Rehoboth, and Calah, 12And Resen between Nineveh and Calah: the same is a great city. KJV

The Oxford Companion to the Bible notes that “the list of the cities of his vast kingdom … seems to trace Mesopotamian history up to the beginnings of the Neo-Assyrian empire, when Nineveh and then Calah served as imperial capitals.” Nimrod’s name means “we will rebel” or “let us rebel” in Hebrew, “likely a polemical distortion of the name of the Mesopotamian god Ninurta, who had cult centers in Babel, Calah, and other cities, and was a divine patron of Neo-Assyrian kings.” 3

Nimrod has been an archetype of tyranny since ancient times. Appendix 28 of The Companion Bible (online) gives several quotations from ancient extra-Biblical sources. According to the [Roman/Jewish] historian Josephus (Ant. Jud. I. c. 4. 2), “Nimrod persuaded mankind not to ascribe their happiness to God, but to think that his own excellency was the source of it. And he soon changed things into a tyranny, thinking there was no other way to wean men from the fear of God, than by making them rely upon his own power.”

The Jerusalem Targum says: “He was powerful in hunting and in wickedness before the Lord, for he was a hunter of the sons of men, and he said to them, ‘Depart from the judgment of the Lord, and adhere to the judgment of Nimrod!’ Therefore is it said: ‘As Nimrod [is] the strong one, strong in hunting, and in wickedness before the Lord.’ ” 4
Coming closer to our period, the 1599 Geneva Bible’s marginal notes interpret “mighty one” in Gen 10:8 as “Meaning, a cruel oppressor and tyrant.” The note to v.9 adds, “His tyranny came into a proverb as hated both by God and man: for he did not cease to commit cruelty even in God’s presence.”

Christopher Hill devotes several pages of to a discussion of Nimrod’s significance for the radical sects of the Sixteenth and Seventeenth centuries. 5 In two pamphlets of 1648 and 1649 (around the time of Charles I’s trial and execution) the Digger Gerrard Winstanley “generalized from Nimrod that ‘the whole Scripture declares kings to be no better than tyrants and usurpers…in that they were kings they were tyrants’”….”[The Seeker] William Erbury in 1654, using Winstanley’s pejorative phrase, spoke of ‘Nimrod, that kingly power….Kings with their nobles, lords, and dukes all proceeded from a cursed pedigree.’ They formed ‘a race of oppression over the people of God ’.” (218)

These quotations are from the time of the revolution and the years immediately following, when hopes of a government realizing the biblical vision of the Kingdom of God were still bright. I have so far found no Quaker references to Nimrod from this period. Those that I do have are from the Restoration, after disillusion had set in and the Quaker emphasis had shifted to the soul as the primary locus of the Lamb’s War. Two epistles from the 1660s show that for George Fox, Nimrod’s chief sin was “hunting before the Lord,” i.e. outrunning his Guide:

[Christ] will crush and bruise to pieces all giddy, wandering, and unestablished spirits, and confound them who are cunning, and hunt before the Lord; for the Lord should go before them, he should be the guide. For they that hunt before him, will not have the Lord to be their guide, who is the same to-day as he was yesterday, and so forever 6

Heb 13:8

It was the hubris stemming from this disobedience which resulted in the tower and led inevitably to the confusion of tongues:

The priests say, that Hebrew, Greek, and Latin, are the original; but the many languages began at Babel, which Nimrod, the hunter before the Lord, began to build, after God had destroyed the old world with water; then would he go build a tower, which should reach to heaven; and God came down and confounded them into many languages. So he hunted before the Lord, but the Lord followed him, and confounded him in his work, as he will all the builders that run before him. 7

Fox’s exegesis will hardly convince modern scholars that knowledge of Hebrew and Greek is superfluous. The Hebrew word translated in the Authorised Version (KJV) as “before” is lipnē, literally “in the face of.” It can mean “in the view of” or “volente, by the will of.” The Jewish Publication Society renders “before the Lord” as “by the grace of the Lord;” the Anchor Bible has “by the will of Yahweh;” New Jerusalem, “in the eyes of Yahweh.”

Note, however, that Calvin’s reading of the Hebrew word has a certain kinship with Fox’s. In his commentary on Gen 10:8 he says, “The expression, ‘Before the Lord,’ seems to me to declare that Nimrod attempted to raise himself above the order of men; just as proud men become transported by a vain self-confidence, that they may look down as from the clouds upon others.”


“And the whole earth was of one language, and of one speech.” The question of the original language spoken before Babel was of crucial importance to early Friends, and had profound social and political implications. Larry Kuenning (2000) summarizes the issues as follows:

In his typical style of alluding to multiple biblical texts, Fox argues that since the multiplicity of natural languages “began at Babel” they are therefore “confused” (Gen 11:7,9). Rightly identifying Babel with Babylon, he jumps to “mystery Babylon” of Rev 17:5. Since the whore in the vision of Rev 17 “sitteth upon many waters” (17:1) which are identified as “peoples, and multitudes, and nations, and tongues” (17:15), it follows for Fox that she and the beast on which she sits (17:3) “have power over the tongues.” These he detaches from John’s synonymous parallelism with “peoples, and multitudes, and nations” to argue that the languages as such (and not merely as symbolic of the many nations) are subject to the power of evil. In their role as tools of evil the many languages (and especially those most used in theological study) were “set a-top of Christ” at his crucifixion (John 19:19-20); at his resurrection, therefore, Christ “is risen over them all.” This does not mean that he purifies the languages themselves from the taint of Babel, but that he enables his saints to surmount the confusion of Babel by returning to a pre-fall situation in which they can perceive spiritual truth directly without reliance on the natural languages. For the pre-Babel original tongue to which Fox wants to return is no ordinary outward language; it is “Christ the Word . . . that was in the beginning,” preached in John 1:1ff by the same apostle who wrote the Revelation. 8

For Friends, then, the starting point is John 1:1: “In the beginning was the Word.” Christ the Word, who is “the same yesterday, today, and forever” [Heb 13:8] , has spoken from earliest times to those who will listen. They also quote 2 Peter 1:21: “For the prophecy came not in old time by the will of man: but holy men of God spake as they were moved by the Holy Ghost.” In every age those who do not listen become captive to the confusion of Babel.

Elizabeth Bathurst (1679) asks how Abel and Cain knew whether their gifts were accepted, and concludes that God communicated “by the Spirit of his Son in their hearts.” 9 And in Epistle 248 (1667) Fox reminds his opponents that “all the earth was of one language and one speech before Babel [Gen 11:1]”; and it was in this original language that Enoch [Gen 4:22-24] prophesied of “the coming of Christ in ten thousand of his saints” [Jude 14f, quoting 1 Enoch 1:9], and Lamach made a prophecy concerning his son Noah [Gen 5:29]. 10

Those who are redeemed out of the Fall are restored to the original Spirit-language; by hearing the Word they are empowered to read the Scriptures truly.

Of course, this can only happen after much harrowing openness to the Light’s searching power. Isaac Penington (1660) knows from experience how frightening such openness can be. The tendency is to build one’s own Babel as a defense:

But when the Eternal stirs in him, when the pure Light opens at any time, then he has some little glimmerings of his estate, then he has some sense of his fallen condition, and some desire to remedy it. What doth he then? Then he bestirs himself to get somewhat to cover him [Gen 3:7], then he gathers stones, and makes mortar to build up a wall and raise a tower [Gen 11:1-9], that he may not lie open to the deluge of wrath [Gen 7]; for, by this stirring of life, he hath some little taste and sight that he is not one with the life, but departed from it. 11

Fox, according to Douglas Gwyn, understands despair as the fatal alienation from God:

[Fox] summarizes (4:303) that “the cause of desperation is going from the light, for that which leads to presume, will lead to despair … and that is which wanders to and fro, up and down [Amos 8:12] and hunts abroad, and builds that which God confounds”. Therefore, any gospel that does not lead men and women to… inward reproof will presume to create its own changeable doctrines that must be confounded by God’s judgment, like Babel’s presumptuous stairway to heaven. 12

Babel-building is thus a result of being out of the Truth–of substituting one’s own reason and “airy notions” for the guidance of the Inward Teacher. There is a strong resonance with Paul’s discussion of the wisdom of the world vs. the wisdom of God in 1 Cor 1-2. Thus for Penington, “guessing and imagining and reasoning in . . . carnal wisdom concerning the things of God, and so gathering senses and meanings about the words and expressions of scripture” is ultimately futile; such activity “doth but build up a Babel, which the eternal life and power will throw down…with that which built it.” 13

George Fox “the Younger” (i.e. younger in the faith; d. 1661), in a passage which could stand as a text on the eternal tendency of revolutions to betray themselves, relates how the Puritans’ unfaithfulness led to a Babel of political confusion:

[the Lord gave the Puritans] the power and opportunity to have removed all oppression out of the land. But alas, covetousness and self-seeking lusts sprang up in most of them, and they forgot the Lord, and forgot the oppression of their brethren also….And the Lord raised up many prophets and servants [who] showed them wherein they had erred…. But they would not hearken, but grew stiff-necked against the Lord and his people and suffered many of them to be oppressed…. And thus they rebelled against more and more, and so forgot how it was the Lord that had raised them up from a low degree and gave them power over their enemies. And thus they wrought great provocations in his sight, so that the anger of the Lord was kindled against them; and as they forsook him, so he forsook them; and at length he gave them up to the counsels of their own hearts, because they had rejected his counsel. And then they began to divide and split amongst themselves and to betray one another for self-ends; and faintness and deadness of spirit seized upon them; and having plunged themselves so far into covetousness and lusts, the cloud of error grew so thick upon them that they could not see the cause they were once so zealous for. And then confusion fell upon them, and they groped like blind men and knew not at what they stumbled; but sometimes cried up and engaged for one thing, and shortly after cried against it and threw it down again… and so like Babel’s builders (whom God determined to scatter) they acted; and their eye being blinded, they wrought their own destruction. And few of them saw it, until it was come upon them; and them that did were as men amazed, and knew not how to help themselves. 14

Quakers also saw Babel-building as a deliberate strategy of the power elites. The title page of the King James Bible says that it was “translated out of the original tongues . . . by His Majesty’s special command.” According to Kuenning, Fox sees this as evidence that the king is implicated in a conspiracy with academic institutions to “perpetrate the fraud that all languages studied in the universities are ‘the original,’ the pre-Babel language that confers spiritual truth.” 15

To call Hebrew, Greek, and Latin the “original languages” was tantamount to accepting a university education as a requirement for the ministry. In his Journal Fox tells of a 1658 encounter in which Friends talked a man out of setting up a college in Durham “ to make ministers of Christ, as [he] said”:

And so I and some others went to the man and reasoned with him and let him see that was not the way to make them Christ’s ministers by Hebrew, Greek, and Latin and the Seven Arts, which all were but the teachings of the natural man. For the many languages began at Babel, and to the Greeks that spoke the natural Greek, the preaching of the cross of Christ was foolishness to them; and to the Jews that spoke natural Hebrew, Christ was but a stumbling block to them [1 Cor 1:23], and as for the Romans that had Italian and Latin, they persecuted the Christians; and Pilate, one of the Roman magistrates, could set Hebrew, Greek, and Latin a-top of Christ when they crucified him. [John 19:19f]…. And John the divine, who preached the Word that was in the beginning, said that the beast and the whore have power over tongues and languages, and they are as waters [Rev 13:7]. 16

Friends were certain that the original language used the singular “thou/thee.” James Nayler (1654) maintains that to address individuals as “ye/you” is to be “with the world in the confused language of Babel, yeing and youing one, and thouing another, after your own wills and passionate humors, observing times, places and persons herein….” 17 The opponents’ appeal to convention merely shows that they are “guided by a contrary spirit to Christ, who leads his out of all the customs of the world and the nations, and thereby they are known not to be of the world” [John 15:19]. Out of this contrary spirit and their “enmity to the truth” they “plead against what [they] profess and are ministers of,” in order to “maintain the confused language.” 18

Margaret Fell (1660) calls the teachers and ministers of the established churches “ministers of darkness” who “have not turned people from the darkness to the light [Acts 26:18], but on the contrary have drawn them from the light and spirit of God within them, unto their inventions, imaginations, meanings, and expositions of the scriptures without them. So [they] have been building Babel in the many languages which God is coming to confound.” 19

Sarah Blackborow, in a long diatribe against self-styled ministers and teachers “who preach for hire, and persecute, and throw into prison if you have it not” (1658), accuses such persons of deluding both others and themselves into thinking they are building Zion rather then Babel.

… the light of Christ will deceive none of you, but if you are out of it, it matters not how high your sights, your notions, your airy imaginations are, they are to little purpose, it may join you to the more refined builders of Babel, which are talking of the Corner-stone, but reject it as well as the others [Psa 118:22], and make up a building without it, a Tower which you think must reach up to heaven, strongly fenced and Walled, but its not the Wall nor the Fence which God hath made, or ever appointed; and if ever to the light You return again, you will see that in that building lives the swearer, the liar, the thief, and the adulterer. Your Chamber of Imagery is there, in which all your Images are hid [Ezek 8:12]; your garments which you have stole in the night is laid up there; your confused Languages, and all your stuff which proceeds out of the vessels which are dishonorable [2 Tim 2:20], that’s your store-house, the curse is entered into the midst of it, and will consume the timber thereof, and the stones thereof, the materials [Zech 5:3f]; the fire must consume your fenced Wall, and your high Tower is for a throwing down….your high things have deceived the simple [Rom 16:18], and You also; they that live in the day, see You and your building; its Babel, that’s not Sion whose Walls and Bulwarks are Salvation [Isa 26:1] . . . . 20

As I ponder the above passage I feel a strong resonance with the situation in the Twenty-first century. Language is used by our institutions in order to conceal, deceive, and distract, and to drown out at any cost the still small voice which would show us how our economy depends on the systematic violation of the Ten Commandments and the equally systematic encouragement of the seven deadly sins. A climate of pervasive fear brings political and economic profit; trust in God and a concern for shalom bring neither.
It is good medicine to read the writings of Seventeenth-century Friends.


1. Douglas Gwyn, Seekers Found: Atonement in Early Quaker Experience. (Wallingford, PA: Pendle Hill, 2000), 172.

2. Note: Humphrey Smith, To the Musicioners (1658). Available online:

3. Roland S. Hendel, “Nimrod,” in Oxford Companion to the Bible, Ed. Bruce Metzger and Michael D. Coogan. (NY: Oxford UP, 1993).

4. Both quotations are from

5. Christopher Hill, The English Bible and the Seventeenth-Century Revolution (New York: Penguin, 1994), 217-22.

6. George Fox, Epistle 245, Works (Philadelphia: Gould, 1831/State College: New Foundation, 1990) 7:277.

7. Fox, Epistle 249, Works, 7:289.

8. Lawrence S. Kuenning, The Bunyan-Burrough Debate of 1656-57 Analyzed Using a Computer Hypertext, 2000. Chap 3. online:
<> This chapter of Kuenning’s PhD dissertation contains an illuminating discussion of Fox’s views on language and their socio-political implications.

9. Elizabeth Bathurst, Truth’s Vindication (1679, published 1695), in Hidden in Plain Sight: Quaker Women’s Writings 1650-1700. Ed. Mary Garman et al. (Wallingford, PA: Pendle Hill, 1996), 343f.

10. Fox, Works, 7:290.

11. Isaac Penington, Works. (Glenside, PA: Quaker Heritage Press, 1995-97), 1:405.

12. Douglas Gwyn, Apocalypse of the Word (Richmond, IN: Friends United Press, 1986), 67f.

13. Penington, Works, 2:119.

14. George Fox “the Younger”, A Noble Salutation and a Faithful Greeting Unto Thee, Charles Stuart, Who Art Now Proclaimed King of England…. (1660), in Early Quaker Writings. Edited by Hugh Barbour and Arthur Roberts (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1973), 393f.

15. Kuenning, op.cit.

16. George Fox, Journal, Ed. John L. Nickalls. (Philadelphia: Religious Society of Friends, 1985), 333.

17. James Nayler, Works (Glenside PA: Quaker Heritage Press, 2003- ), 1:320.

18. Nayler, Works, 1:388.

19. Margaret Fell, A Sincere and Constant Love; An Introduction to the Work of Margaret Fell, edited by Terry S. Wallace (Richmond IN, Friends United Pr., 1992), 16.

20. Sarah Blackborow, Unto All You, Who Own Yourselves to be Ministers and Teachers of the People (1658), in Hidden in Plain Sight, 53f.

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