Erich Lessing/Art Resource, NY

The Tower of Babel seems to grow from the ground straight toward heaven in this 1563 painting by Pieter Bruegel the Elder—and indeed that was just what the biblical builders intended. Between the tales of Noah and Abraham, we read that the people of the earth, the descendants of Noah, not only shared the same language, but also a desire for power. “Come, let us build a city,” they say, “and a tower with its top in the sky, to make a name for ourselves; else we shall be scattered all over the world” (Genesis 11:4). God sees the people building this tower, and to punish them decides to “confound their speech” and scatter them over the whole earth.

In the Bible, Abraham is not present at the building or destruction of the Tower of Babel. But postbiblical sources did place him there, as they sought yet another reason for his election by God. The historian known as Pseudo-Philo (first century B.C. or early first century A.D.) wrote that Abraham was one of 12 men who refused to help build the tower. Although 11 of the men were set free by a sympathetic captain, a man named Joktan, Abraham chose to remain in jail, placing his trust in God. The citizens of Babel demanded that Abraham be killed, forcing Joktan to throw him into the brickyard furnace. God, however, destroyed the furnace and the people and rescued Abraham. The patriarch’s refusal to challenge God—even in the face of death—provided yet another illustration of why Abraham was chosen to be the father of God’s people.