The name Babel in the Bible
The names Babel (which is Hebrew: בבל) and Babylon (that's Greek: Βαβυλων) originally belonged to the same city, and later the name Babylon became proverbially applied to any large and overbearing government (1 Peter 5:13, Revelation 14:8, ). This is remarkable because neither the city Babel nor the empire it sat at the heart of was ever as prominent as the Assyrian, Persian, Greek or Roman empires.
Babel's true claim to fame was that it abducted and absorbed the Judahites, who then proceeded to write about it in texts that became holy to many millions of people, placing Babel under the kind of magnifying glass that history wouldn't have.
Babel created by Nimrod
We hear first of Babel when it is created by Nimrod, as the first of a string of famous cities of Shinar or Sumer (Genesis 10:10). This happens right after the flood of Noah, and this indicates that (1) the author of this story reckoned Babel as the cradle of modern civilization, and (2) the earliest two occurrences of the name Babel in the Bible don't specifically apply to the actual city but to the same conceptual empire to which the Babylon of Revelation applies.
The Tower of Babel and Graham Hancock's Lost Civilization
The only other time Babel appears in the Book of Genesis is in the famous story of the Tower of Babel, which again takes place in Shinar (Genesis 11:1-9). Some scholars have proposed that the Tower of Babel was based on Babylon's ubiquitous ziggurats, but the story obviously goes beyond any earthly building. See for a look at the word for tower, מגדל (migdal) our article on the name Migdal El. And see for the word for brick, לבנה (lebenah; those things from which the tower was built) our article on the name Laban.
The author of our story indicates, as no superfluous detail, that apart from the various local languages that were already spoken around the world (see Genesis 10:5, 20, 31) there was a common tongue and the usage of the same words (Genesis 11:1). What that precisely means isn't known for sure, but it appears to relate to what was on people's minds (= what they talked about) rather than in which language they were saying it. These events take place right after the flood and human culture was still pretty much tabula rasa. Perhaps in those days all humans related to each other the way, say, all dogs relate to each other today. A dog from Australia will get along famously with a dog from New York, but a beer drinking rough neck from Arkansas may have terrible trouble relating to his fashion designing neighbor.
Here at Abarim Publications we thoroughly enjoy the works of Graham Hancock, as he quests for his hypothesized Lost Civilization, which existed before all others and which left legacies in buildings all over the world. Contra to Hancock's hypothesis, we like to believe that these buildings were created by not-connected peoples, who worked independently from their heart of hearts. These ancient buildings have a high degree of similarity for the same reason that ant hills and bee hives all over the world are highly similar. It's not the heavens these peoples primarily reflected but DNA. Here at Abarim Publications we are pretty sure that the Bible is a written continuation of what the ancients began to express in stone.
DNA and the languages of humanity
In his delightful (and here at Abarim Publications predominantly disagreed with) book Supernatural, Graham Hancock wonders: "Why does the 97 per cent of DNA that scientists do not understand — so-called "junk DNA" — contain chemical "sequences" arranged in patterns and frequencies that are otherwise only found in the deep coding of all human languages?" Here at Abarim Publications, we are pretty sure that no alien being coded a human-language message in into our junk-DNA, but that the mechanism works the other way around: Human language is essentially an expression of human DNA, and therefore works the same way.
In his even more delightful book The Mother Tongue, Bill Bryson states, "One of the greatest mysteries of prehistory is how people in widely separated places suddenly and spontaneously developed the capacity for language at roughly the same time. It was as if people carried around in their heads a genetic alarm clock that suddenly went off all around the world...[...] No one has come up with a remotely plausible explanation of how a language spoken only in a remote corner of the Pyrenees could have come to influence Indian languages of the New World, but the links between many cognates are too numerous to explain in terms of simple coincidence."
Here at Abarim Publications we are hardly half as smart as Hancock and Bryson combined but to us it seems overly obvious that DNA indeed runs a kind of temporal program. Every human individual started his life as a single cellular organism (called zygote), which means that human DNA contains instructions on how to be one. And that means that when the human genetic program began to run, it must have produced single cellular humans. Zygotes grow into babies, and at some point in our collective history, the entire species must have consisted of individuals that were adult versions of genetic babies. Then, as a child begins to babble, Bryson's alarm clock went off and language emerged globally. Human beings the way we are now are quite likely not the end of the human genetic program. We are still some intermediate phase, and what we now call a mature human being will at some point in the future be the equivalent of a child (for more on this, read our article on the Chaotic Set Theory).
The tower that the Babylonians built had to do with a joining of human forces without specialization of those forces. And once that tower had been in place, the specialization that would ultimately bring forth the degree of diversity that now defines humanity, would have been smothered. Since that's not a good thing, God did something to that common tongue. See below for a discussion on what exactly was done to it, and note that the reversal was performed at the initial outpour of the Holy Spirit, when people from many different language areas could understand Peter and the others as if the common tongue had been restored (Acts 2:8).
The Empire of Babel
We don't hear from Babel until the time of king Hezekiah of Judah (2 Kings 20:12). It had spent its history as a minor kingdom (with most notably, king Hammurapi, the hallowed law giver, and by some equated to king Amraphel mentioned in Genesis 14:1) and at best a vassal state of Assyria. But under king Merodach-baladan, Babylon was promoted to significance by engaging in alliances with various neighbors, including Judah (which thoroughly displeased the prophet Isaiah; see Isaiah 39). Babylon's prominence did not last very long; king Sennacherib of Assyria destroyed the city right after he had laid siege to Jerusalem, still during the reign of Hezekiah (2 Kings 18:13).
Babylon was restored and while the power of the Assyrian empire declined, the Chaldeans made themselves at home at Babylon's courts. Their most famous son, Nebuchadnezzar, fortified and expanded Babylon, and went out conquering the neighbors, including Judah (2 Kings 24:1). Less than sixty years later, Babylon was overrun by the Persians and the Jews were allowed to go home.
Etymology and meaning of the name Babel
The Sumerian name of the city we know as Babel or Babylon was Bab-ilim, and that means Gate Of The Deity. But the Bible demands that our city was named Babel because YHWH did something to the common tongue. That something is conveyed by the somewhat similar Hebrew verb בלל (balal): "On account of this its name is called בבל — Babel — because YHWH balalled the speech of all the earth there" (Genesis 11:9):
Although the verb balal indicates a mixing, it does not suggest chaos. For a meaning of the name Babel, both Jones' Dictionary of Old Testament Proper Names and NOBSE Study Bible Name List read Confusion, but if this name was derived of the verb balal it much rather means Anointment or Consecration.
Also note that the text of Genesis 11:9 does not at all suggest that the name בבל (Babel) was derived from the verb בלל (balal). All it says is that the place was called Gate Of The Deity because YHWH anointed the languages there.