Abarim Publications' online Biblical Hebrew Dictionary
The verb גדל (gadel) basically means to become strong or great. This verb has equivalents in cognate languages where there seems to be an emphasis on the joining of forces or elements of construction. The Arabic equivalent means to twist a cord or make firm.
In the Bible our verb is used to indicate the growing up of a child (Genesis 21:8, Exodus 2:10), or the growing of hair (Numbers 6:5) or plants (Jonah 4:10). Our verb is also used in the meaning of becoming great or wealthy (Genesis 26:13) or important (1 Kings 10:23), or magnified (Zechariah 12:7, Psalm 35:27), or doing deeds of greatness (Psalm 126:2, Joshua 2:21).
An important noun that derives from this verb is the masculine nouns מגדל (migdal) or מגדול (migdol), meaning tower (the prefixed מ indicates agency or "place of" becoming strong or great):
Towers in the Bible
A tower (מגדל, migdal, or מגדול, migdol) is essentially is a very high house (בית, bayit), but where a house commonly describes the central building of one family's total economic sphere, a tower describes the central building of the greater society of houses: the "house" that consists of many "houses" (John 14:2).
The Bible's quintessential tower is of course the Tower of Babel (Genesis 11:1-9), in which mankind's aspirations of greatness are manifested in an accumulative result of works — but see for some verbal context the noun אבן, 'eben, meaning stone, the verb לבן, laban, meaning to bake bricks, and the verb בנה, baneh, meaning to build.
A society's "tower" is its total accumulated wealth in both material sense and in a science and technological sense; its total library of wisdom and skills, its centralization and infrastructure. Quite literally, a society's tower is that what ties society together. The Greek word for tower as used in the New Testament is πυργος (purgos), literally meaning fire-place or light-house; a structure specifically designed to burn a beacon fire in and to guide people toward it. When the menfolk of Penuel refused to help out Gideon, he threatened to tear down their tower, because of which their society would bankrupt and disintegrate (Judges 8:9, 8:17).
These structures would in time evolve into temples for tribal totems, central banks in which societies stored their collective surplus and ultimately centralized government. In the bronze age, communities all over the world appear to have answered the call of nature to flaunt their collective powers and their communal capacities in elaborate monuments that have no further purpose (hence the talaiot of Minorca and Majorca, the torri of Corsica, the sesi of Pantelleria and even the brochs of Scotland — see our article on Temples, ships and treasure troves).
Other Biblical towers are: tower of Eder (Genesis 35:21), the tower of Shechem (Judges 9:46), the tower of Jezreel (2 Kings 9:17), the tower of Meah (Nehemiah 3:1), the tower of Hananel (Nehemiah 3:1), the tower of Tannurim (Nehemiah 3:11), the tower of David (Song of Solomon 4:4), the tower of Lebanon (Song of Solomon 7:4), and many more unnamed ones, such as the towers of Tyre (Ezekiel 26:4).
Over time, the study and subsequent understanding of nature accumulates into a tower too, and since the Creator's "invisible attributes, his eternal power and divine nature, have been clearly seen, being understood through what has been made" (Romans 1:20), king David confidently asserted: "The name of the Lord is a strong tower; the righteous runs into it and is safe" (Psalm 18:10). Likewise, Jesus compared following him to the building of a tower (Luke 14:28) and Paul wrote, "in him are all the treasure of knowledge and wisdom" (Colossians 2:3). Note that the profession of the Nazarene was not carpentry but τεκτων, tekton, meaning builder or assembler.
Building towers is perfectly natural. The difference between prokaryotes and eukaryotes is that the latter have inbuilt nucleic "towers" and the former don't. The difference between a loose federation of tribes and a unified, centralized empire is that the latter has the inbuilt tower of its legal code.
Still, the second law of thermodynamics predicts that eventually every valley shall be exalted, and every mountain and hill be made low, the crooked straight, and the rough places plain (Isaiah 40:4), which implies that all towers will eventually collapse and their energies be reappropriated. Jesus spoke of the collapse of the tower of Siloam, which had killed eighteen people who were "no worse culprits" than the men of Jerusalem (Luke 13:4).
A tower's collapse can be prevented by continued maintenance, but when this maintenance fails or the tower was unstable to begin with, the tower will collapse and the builders are forced to return to each their separate square one. This is what happened when, for instance, the Roman Empire collapsed. But even when the original tower is stable and maintenance is kept up, any single tower can only support a surrounding society of a limited complexity. Once the society progresses beyond that point, the society will breach and copies of the original tower will serve to centralize its many unique interpretations.
This is precisely what happens when a single cellular eukaryote becomes a multi-cellular organism and its initial genetic nucleus becomes the many identical nuclei that all support their own specialized cells. The Body of Christ is of course also such a phenomenon (John 14:20), and the post-Menelik multiple Ark festival of Ethiopia expresses this same idea in national celebration.
The collapse of the Babylonian tower famously resulted in the emergence of the various local languages from the global proto-language described in Genesis 11:1, which is precisely what modern linguists claim happened. The key verb is בלל (balal; Genesis 11:7), which folklore and tradition dutifully translate with "confuse" but which actually is a ritualistic term that deals with the stirring of a mixture of grain and oil. This verb is somewhat on a par with the verb משח (mashah), to anoint, from which comes the familiar term Messiah, meaning an "anointed one." The Greek equivalent is the verb χριω (chrio), from which comes the synonym Christ.
The link between language and the Word is obvious, and the intent of the tower builders, namely to prevent being "scattered abroad upon the face of the whole earth" (Genesis 11:4) reoccurs in the intent of Jesus as he states, "when I am lifted up from the earth, will draw all men to myself" (John 12:32). Jesus hailed from Nazareth, which name could be construed to derive from a Niphal participle of the verb זרע (zara'), meaning to scatter, and one of Jesus' most favored disciples was Mary Magdalene, whose epithet derives from this very word מגדל (migdal).
Other derivations of our verb גדל (gadel) are:
- The masculine participle or adjective גדל (gadel), meaning a becoming great or growing up (Genesis 26:13, Ezekiel 16:26).
- The masculine noun גדל (godel), meaning greatness (Psalm 79:11) or pride (Isaiah 9:8).
- The masculine plural noun גדלים (gedilim), meaning twisted threads: tassels (Deuteronomy 22:12) or festoons (1 Kings 7:17).
- The very common adjective גדול (gadol, masculine) or גדולה (gadola, feminine), meaning great (Genesis 4:13, Exodus 11:6, Psalm 111:2). It's used to distinguish the elder (greater) son from his brothers (Genesis 10:21, 1 Kings 2:22), to indicate a 'loud' voice (1 Samuel 28:12, Proverbs 27:14), and represents the 'high-' part of the term 'high priest' (Joshua 20:6, 2 Kings 12:10).
- The feminine noun גדולה (gedulla), meaning greatness or the great one (Psalm 71:21, 1 Chronicles 29:11).