With around 6500 languages in the world, we are a divided people. The previous chapter of Genesis gave to us the Table of Nations, explaining from where each major people group descended. After explaining the descendants of each of Noah’s sons, we were told that they were listed by their clans, languages, lands, and nations. However, no explanation was given for how the family of men formed their own languages and each decided to separate from one another. Fortunately, the Bible does not leave us with such questions unanswered. In the following narrative, we will view the pride of humanity as they try to find significance outside of God and, of course, how God will respond to that pride. Though this account is commonly called the Tower of Babel, the emphasis is not upon the tower but the autonomy of man. The tower is simply an ode to the greatness of mankind, a grand and glorious ode that God must stoop down to see.
A UNIFIED HUMANITY // VERSES 1-2
These two verses serve as the introduction to the following text, providing us with all the information that we will need to understand.
First, everyone used the same language and the same words. This means that the narrative described does not occur chronologically after chapter 10. Instead, Peleg was said to be named as such because the earth was divided in his day. Thus, the dispersion at Babel must have occurred sometime within the fifth generation from Noah. The significance of one worldwide language should be immediately evident to anyone who has attempted communicating with someone of another language. The process can be infuriatingly difficult for both sides. As humans, we are meant to communicate with one another, and the inability to do so vexing. Now from this verse, we learn that multiple languages were never the original plan for humanity. The LORD meant for everyone to be able to communicate with each other; however, something took place that caused different languages to arise, which is the event that will take place in the following verses.
Second, the people migrated east. The unified language gave birth to a unified people. In sociological studies, it is well-known that language is closely bound to culture. If two people are going to share cultural similarities, they must also share linguistic similarities. This is evident in the Eastern/Western world divide. Western cultures are more similar to one another, just as their languages are more similar to each other. Likewise, Eastern cultures share a commonality between their cultures and languages. Therefore, it is easy to understand how the people of earth could be united together under one language, and none of that is wrong. It is by no means a bad thing for people to be united. However, within the potential good of these two verses, the reference to the east sets up the narrative up for disaster. Recall that after Adam’s sin God cast the humans out east of Eden. Moreover, following Abel’s murder, Cain was sent to wander further east. Indeed, in Genesis, east is a motif for leaving God’s presence, so its placement here cannot be good since it means that the events of this chapter will leave humanity further from God.
THE PRIDE OF HUMANITY // VERSES 3-4
Though in the first two verses humanity appeared to be in a rather pleasant state of affairs, these two reveal the problem. Like every other time that sin is mentioned in the Bible, the problem is the prideful heart of humanity. The earth having one language is not sin. The people’s migration east was not a sin. Making the bricks mentioned here is not sin. Even the building of the city and the tower was not a sin. Their motive for doing so was the sin. Their entire justification for building the great tower and city was to make a name for themselves. There are a number of problems with this mentality. First, these men are trying to fight the curse of death. Even with their long lifespans, they realize that they too must die. They realize the futility of their life’s labors, that nothing is permanent. The tower is their answer to the vanity of life. They longed for eternality, for remembrance, so they constructed a monument to their greatness. Thus, their sin was pride. They have elevated themselves as being gods, and the tower and city are to convey their glory.
Especially in this circumstance, the phrase rings true once again: Genesis is not just what happened it’s what always happens. All throughout history, we have still constructed towers to our greatness. Some are literal towers, like the massive skyscrapers that define cities. Others are grand temples of entertainment, such as casinos and stadiums. The human heart is created for eternity, so we all want to be remembered, to be something greater than our fragile lifetime. The great irony is that we will turn to everything imaginable for that greatness rather than submitting the eternal greatness of the Creator.
Other than making a name for themselves, the people also built the city and tower to prevent being dispersed across the earth. Though it might seem logical that they would fight dispersion by building a city large enough for them all to live, the problem is that this is counter to God’s plan for humanity. God’s first commission to Adam (and all of humanity through him) was to multiply and fill the earth. In case they thought that God’s purpose for mankind had changed after the flood, God repeated the command twice to Noah and his sons. Therefore, the tower was an expression of their resistance to God’s explicit will. Multiplication has always been God’s plan for humanity, and it continues to be so through the Great Commission. The earth is meant to be filled with the fruitful and multiplying followers of God. The gathering of the men at Babel is a rebellion against God. However, the irony is unmistakable: in order to be greater humans, they are forsaking the very purpose of being human.
Adding to the evil of these men, the tower in the middle of the city was no doubt a ziggurat. A ziggurat was an ancient temple-tower that was often built in the center of the cities. They resembled stair-stepped square pyramids with great stairwells that would lead to the top tier, which was the actual temple area where the gods were able to dwell. Thus, the expression of the temple reaching to the heavens is likely a statement of idolatry in addition to the boasting in their own grandeur. Furthermore, in case we mistakenly believe that this project was simple, the brickmaking process used was quite difficult. Without the proper materials to build a tower, they were fashioning it together with what they had. This reveals the absolute commitment behind their rebellion.
THE LORD CAME DOWN // VERSES 5-7
Thus far, only the men have been discussed in this chapter, but now God comes into the mix. For anyone that might argue that God does not have a sense of humor, look no further than this verse. The goal of the men was to build a tower that reached to the heavens; however, we are told that God “came down to see the city and the tower.” This is, of course, anthropomorphic language since God is omnipresent, but it is being used to make a point. Their greatest work and accomplishment was still so tiny compared to God that He needed to stoop down in order to see it. If that wasn’t enough, the fact that they are called “the children of men” serves to further emphasize their humanity. Though they aspired for immorality and divinity, they will never be more than mere men.
After stooping down to see the work of the men, God then evaluates their monument. First, He restates that they are one people with one language. The unification of the people gave the means for them to act so heavily upon their pride. However, God’s primary problem with the tower is that it will just be the beginning of what they would do. God is not afraid of how mighty the men could become, as some may read the text. Instead, He understands the danger of unified depravity. The depraved sins of one person are already overwhelming, but the combined wickedness of humans only leads to heightened forms of evil. This is a simple fact about humanity: two humans do not make one another better but worse. Sin compounds, and evil hearts encourage further depraved actions. The concept of “mob mentality” is closely related to this text. Within the supposed safety of a crowd, people are more likely to act in ways that they would not do alone. Of course, this does not mean that people are more evil whenever they are gathered together; instead, it means that we are more likely to act upon our evil thoughts within the context of a group.
God’s response to the compounding of human sin is to divide them. He decides to confuse their language so that they would no longer be united under a common tongue. As with Adam and Eve’s expulsion from the garden, God does this for the benefit of humanity. Like God’s provision for murder in the Noahic Covenant, He is curbing the immediate effects of sin. The principle of capital punishment does not make humanity any less sinful; it only gives clearly defined consequences for acting upon evil thoughts and intentions. Likewise, the confusing of languages would not fix the pride of humanity, but it would make it more difficult to come together in sin as they did here.
A DIVIDED HUMANITY // VERSES 8-9
Through the act of confusing their language, God dispersed them across the whole earth. In the end, God’s sovereign will must be done, through either obedience or judgment. For the men at Babel, it came through judgment. The ramifications of this judgment are significant. Since only five or so generations from Noah had passed, there would have likely been a strong familial bond between the people of the city. Yet in one swift act of God, the relatives that each man had known for centuries were suddenly speaking gibberish. With no way of communicating with one another the people left Babel by families to form the nations and groups seen in the Table of Nations. The city was then called Babel because it sounds like the Hebrew verb for “to confuse.” However, throughout the Old Testament, Babel is the name used for the city of Babylon. Just as Babel is here associated with sin, so Babylon is known as a representation of wickedness.
Since the division of languages is a judgment of God, they stand today as a reminder of sin and its consequences. We are no longer able to communicate with everyone that we encounter because of the depravity of the human heart. However, human sin does not have the final word. Zephaniah 3:9-13 speaks of God reuniting the human tongue under one language: “For at that time I will change the speech of the peoples to a pure speech, that all of them may call upon the name of the LORD and serve him with one accord.” Furthermore, the speaking in tongues in Acts 2 seems to anticipate the undoing of the judgment at Babel.
Indeed, it is only in Christ that people are able to truly unite without the devastating effects of sin and pride. Jesus has bridged the linguistic and cultural divide, commanding us to reach every ethnicity. As with the people of Babel, we cannot gather in one place. The body of Christ unites as it multiplies. The Church grows together as it disperses among the nations. Just as their gathering at Babel was contradiction of the divine commission to all humans, so is a Christian who does not seek to fulfill the Great Commission. The call to make disciples of every ethnicity is the great calling for every Christian. There is no such thing as a Christian who does not fulfill the Great Commission. Whether it is inches or miles, every follower of Christ will go and make disciples; it’s fundamental to the Christian identity.
THE GENERATIONS OF TERAH // VERSES 10-32
This final genealogy of the first eleven chapters of Genesis serves to bridge into the narrative of Abraham. Throughout this first part of the first book of the Bible, the events have been grand and epic. They have affected the entire human population. They are the history of every single person that has ever lived on the planet. However, the focus will shift in chapter 12. The storyline of the Bible will narrow upon Abraham and the three generations that follow him. It is, therefore, quite fitting that Babel is the final event before entering the patriarchal history section of Genesis because though the nations are dispersed, God will center His sight upon Abraham. God will form a great and might nation from this man of God. God will essentially exalt Abraham’s name for His own glory, achieving through obedience what the men at Babel sought through rebellion. Ultimately, however, it is through the lineage of Abraham that the promise Offspring would come into the world, ushering in the recreation of the world.