Genesis 11:1-9 - The Tower of Babel
The Bible does not intend to give us a complete history of the earliest times but gives us those items of history which are necessary to know in order to be able to understand His revelation given at later times. Thus, the history of creation, of the fall into sin, and of the great flood are recorded. Then in chapters five and ten the generations of Adam and of Noah are recorded so that later generations will be able to see the connection between the one age and the other. There is yet one more episode which must be recorded because it has meaning for all men in later times and because it has tremendous importance for His people. Only the Bible gives us the history of the confusion of tongues.
We can well understand the words found in the first verse of this chapter that the whole world (of men) spoke the same language. This was true before the flood and nothing had happened to change this situation until this moment.
Men, no doubt, spoke the same language from the days of Adam until the time of the tower of Babel. The statement is made here so that we will be able to understand the things which are about to be revealed.
Land of Shinar
From the time the ark had rested on the mountains of Ararat the people had journeyed in an easterly direction. When the Hebrew speaks of going "east" it also includes our more specific directions of "southeast" or "northeast." But the place from which it is reckoned is Ararat. They find a sizeable plain in the land "Shinar," the later Babylon, and that is the place where they now make their home. This is a tremendously fertile land and is well able to produce the food which is necessary for the population of that day. We do not know how many years had elapsed since the flood, but it is safe to say that a considerable amount of time lies between the flood and the Tower of Babel.
Not only is this plain of Shinar a land which is well able to support its inhabitants but it also has other resources which the people had not found before. The clay found in this region is fit for the making of brick. This is a building material which enables them to do things which could never be done with the natural stones found in many other places. Besides, this region has a bituminous product which can be used as mortar to bind the bricks together. They have discovered the method of baking the clay so that a useable brick could be made. The writer describes their intention in a very lively way when we hear them say to each other: "Come let us make brick" ... and ... "Come let us build!"
Motivation for Babel
The enormous undertaking of building a city and a tower is motivated by the desire to make a name for themselves and to keep the people together. The city which they intend to build will have to be large if it is to accommodate all the people on the earth at that time. But, the purpose is worth the effort, in their estimation.
To show that they are not "thinking small" they intend to build a tower "whose top may reach unto heaven"! Such building will insure a name for themselves. The tower is to be so high that it will be visible to anyone who might otherwise lose himself as he wandered from the city. When they speak of the height of that tower as being so great that it may reach heaven they are simply speaking of enormous height so that its top seems to touch the heavens much as the tops of the mountains also seem to reach such heights. They do not want to be scattered because "in unity is strength." Being scattered and making a name for ourselves are mutually contradictory. Only by staying together in one large city will they be able to make this name for themselves.
We now read that "Jehovah came down to see the city and the tower." This is an anthropomorphism (a human way of speaking) because God is everywhere present. It emphasizes the fact that God takes note of the intentions of men and their deeds. The impression is left that men had already built a sizeable part of both the city and the tower before God intervenes. Man is determined to carry out his intentions. He has not sought God's approval before he began because he did not intend to glorify his God by his building but to make a name for himself!
The divine disapproval is immediately evident. They are one people and have one language. They have gone so far and from now on nothing will be withheld from them. But why is this so bad? The drastic measures to be taken, from which man has not recovered till the present day, must certainly have sufficient reason. The importance of this historic event can be seen only in the light of that which God had revealed before.
God has His own people on the earth — especially in the generations of Shem. He told Adam and Eve that He would set enmity between the seed of the woman and the seed of the serpent. This would be the only way by which the seed of the woman would be able to continue. But now — they are one people, the seed of Shem and the seed of Ham are almost indistinguishable! This will be the undoing of the seed of the woman. The "enmity" which He has set between believer and unbeliever must be recognized and maintained. The "oneness" of mankind causes men to seek to make a name for themselves; the enmity between believers and unbelievers makes room for the salvation of His people!
By their striving for unity and the attempt to keep them all together so that they will not be scattered over the earth, men are going directly contrary to the command God gave both to Adam and to Noah. Man was to be fruitful, to multiply, and to replenish the earth. Man was to bring the whole earth in subjection and he was to rule over the whole earth. This cannot be accomplished if men all stay together in one place.
When the words are added that nothing will be withheld from them which they may purpose to do, it becomes evident that, if they are successful in the building of this city and tower, they will go on to ever greater sin. If their purpose is realized, the purposes of God will be ignored. Man's sin had become so great before the days of the flood that God had wiped out the human race with the exception of Noah and his family. God had promised never to visit such devastation on man again. However, the direction man is taking here at Babel will bring about conditions as bad or worse than those before the flood. Man must be stopped now in his attempt to ruin himself.
The method which God chooses to thwart man's purpose is unexpected but most effective. He does not destroy that part of the building which they have erected. His method will not only accomplish the immediate purpose He has in mind but will have its effects as long as the world stands. He confuses their speech! They have been one people bound together by a single language. God attacks them in the bond which bound them together. No longer are they able to understand each other. Now there is no possibility of remaining together and, far less, to finish the building which they have begun. "So Jehovah scattered them abroad from thence upon the face of all the earth."
So effective is the deed which God performed that this difference of language has plagued man ever since that time. Oh, there is the possibility of learning more than one language, but this does not bridge the chasm which He has made between the various peoples of the earth. The culture and civilization of each people has developed independently of others. Not only can the other's language not be understood, his thought-patterns are also not understandable. All the attempts which have been made through the centuries to get the peoples of the world together have met with utter failure. It is noteworthy that on Pentecost the disciples of the Lord "began to speak with other tongues, as the Spirit gave them utterance." Only the gospel overcomes Babel.
They, of course, left off building the city. There is no longer the possibility of working together for a common purpose. God did not destroy the work in which they were engaged, but allows that to stand as a memorial to their folly! Today, guides still point out to visitors the ruins which are believed to be the partial building of Babel.
The name itself, says the sacred writer, is significant. The name Babel, in the Hebrew, means confusion. God has so completely confused the speech of man that he is no longer able to live with those he doesn't understand. How this confusion took place is not stated. Some believe it affected the hearing while others believe it affected the speech organs. This is of no importance. God accomplished His purpose and effectively scattered men over the face of the earth as He had told them to do from the beginning.
So ends the early history of the world until Abraham will be chosen as the father of all those who believe. This history is indispensable for the understanding of all that follows in the Scriptures. If the historicity of these first eleven chapters of Genesis is denied we have no assurance concerning the truth of the rest of the Scriptures. But, it is history and we are indebted to the Bible alone to make known to us His mighty acts since the beginning of time!
Questions for Discussion:
The confusion of tongues has brought many problems into the world. Has it solved more problems than it has created?
Would the church be able to stand if the rest of the world were united? Explain.
Should we favor the attempts (League of Nations, United Nations) to unite the peoples of the world?
Does this passage show that the preservation of God's people is the most important thing in the world's history?
Will the whole world ever be united? When? What will then happen to the people of God?
Why can there be a unity in the church but not in the world? Cf. also this writer's seventh lesson in the series: Signs of the Times.