The Tower of Babel

Written on: January 31, 2022

Article by: Bob Sandiford

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Text: Genesis 11:1-9

(NIV) Now the whole world had one language and a common speech. 2 As people moved eastward, they found a plain in Shinar and settled there. 3 They said to each other, “Come, let’s make bricks and bake them thoroughly.” They used brick instead of stone, and tar for mortar. 4 Then they said, “Come, let us build ourselves a city, with a tower that reaches to the heavens, so that we may make a name for ourselves; otherwise we will be scattered over the face of the whole earth.”
5 But the LORD came down to see the city and the tower the people were building. 6 The LORD said, “If as one people speaking the same language they have begun to do this, then nothing they plan to do will be impossible for them. 7 Come, let us go down and confuse their language so they will not understand each other.” 8 So the LORD scattered them from there over all the earth, and they stopped building the city. 9 That is why it was called Babel —because there the LORD confused the language of the whole world. From there the LORD scattered them over the face of the whole earth.

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The basic story is about a tower that some people built a long time ago – thousands of years ago, in fact. But, far from just an interesting incident, God had a purpose for having Moses write it down. The account is about human pride and rebellion, underlining the importance of obedience to God’s word and the consequences of failing to do so.

This story is set in history, taking place sometime after Noah’s death as recorded in Gen 9:28.

  • Gen 10 is about the descendants of Noah’s sons and their wives. And – this fits in just before the account of God calling Abram, at the start of Gen 12.

Looking back to Noah:

  • After the flood, Noah built an altar and offered sacrifices on it, and God made a covenant with the earth to never again destroy it by flood – that is, to kill all humanity and all living creatures with a flood, and the rainbow is the sign of that covenant. (8:20-9:17)
  • God also blessed Noah and his sons, and gave them some commands, the first and last of which was, “Be fruitful and increase in number and fill the earth.” (9:1 & 7)
  • The ‘be fruitful’ seemed to be no problem – all of Gen 10 is the record of how fruitful Noah’s sons were. Helped out by them living for a few hundred years after the flood! (e.g. Shem 9:11)

Whether this took place before all the migration described in chapter 10, while all the people were still together, or whether this was one of the branches of Noah’s family, we come to the episode of the tower of Babel in chapter 11. It could certainly fit chronologically before the scattering of the people described in chapter 10. And, as we’ll see, this would also make sense in context of the events surrounding the tower.

The location was somewhere in what was to become Babylon and today is modern day Iraq.

  • This may have been under Nimrod, Noah’s great-grandson. Gen 10:10 indicates that Shinar was the location of his kingdom.
  • It’s not surprising that everyone alive at the time shared a common language – all were descended from Noah and his three sons.
  • They found a place and settled there – they weren’t spreading out as God commanded and in fact were resistant to God’s will. They didn’t want to be ‘scattered over the face of the whole earth’ and lose the advantages of a denser population base (11:4)
  • So a decision was made to build not only a city, but also a tower that would be as high as they could make it – figuratively ‘a tower that reaches to the heavens’.
    • This wasn’t an attempt to reach God – it was an attempt to make something so other people would remember them – to make a name for themselves – and something to centre their civilization around, rather than spreading out.
    • Think about it – this was taking place on a plain – plains are flat – so anything tall would be seen from a great distance.
    • It seems that they pioneered the technology of brick-making by baking clay. They did this because stone is not abundant in a fertile plain.
    • The plain where they lived must have been fertile, since there was enough food produced not only for the farmers, but for the workers who would be making the brick, bringing in wood, and building the city and the tower.
    • Archaeology has uncovered a number of ancient towers in the area – called Ziggurats. Square bases, sloping sides, with a small shrine at the top.
      • Observation – even the building materials were man-made, not God-made.
  • Before the tower was finished, God came to take a look.
    • This is figurative of course since God would have known everything about what was going on all along.
    • In much the same way that he had intervened in the lives of Adam and Eve when they rebelled, God took direct action again. He chose to disrupt their ambitions by by replacing their common language with many languages. This made it impossible for them to cooperate in their joint project. All such activity came to a halt as they splintered along linguistic lines and scattered all over the earth.
    • The name by which we recognize the tower today – Babel – wasn’t the name the builders gave it. ‘Babel’ apparently is the word from which Babylon comes – but is also close to the Hebrew word for ‘confused.’

Observation: When members of the godhead purposed to create Mankind in their own image, they expressed that divine intent with the words ‘Let Us’ (Gen 1:27) Similar cooperative intent was echoed by the migrants to the land of Shinar who in rebellion to God said “Come let us build…(Gen 11:4)”. God responded with another ‘Let Us’…to put an end to that rebellion (Gen 11:7).

We are reminded that while men and women rebel and sin, the will of God still prevails. He guides the flow of history, establishing physical and spiritual boundaries beyond which we cannot go. It is rather within these boundaries that we decide whether or not we will trust and obey, or go our own way.

Looking ahead to Abram’s calling

Genesis 12:1-3 (NIV) The LORD had said to Abram, “Go from your country, your people and your father’s household to the land I will show you. 2 “I will make you into a great nation, and I will bless you; I will make your name great, and you will be a blessing. 3 I will bless those who bless you, and whoever curses you I will curse; and all peoples on earth
will be blessed through you. ”

What lessons might we take away from this?

  1. Human pride and earthly plans cannot stand before God’s power.
    1. God’s instructions to Noah and his sons were not only to be fruitful – but also to ‘fill the earth’ – to spread out through the world.
    2. This group wasn’t following that command. Shem was quite likely still alive at this point since he lived 500 years after the flood, and knew that commandment. Instead, they settled in one place and decided to stay there and NOT be scattered over the face of the whole earth. Their pride was in wanting to show off how great they were, how skilled and smart – and that pride led them to rebel against God’s command, and to try to steal His glory.
    3. God put paid to that idea – starting with multiplying languages – and causing them to be scattered.
    4. For us – this is the power of God, and is why we need to be careful about our choices.
  1. Humanity can’t elevate itself in any meaningful way in God’s sight – only God can do that.
    1. In the very next chapter, God chooses Abram – and promises to Abram the results that these humans were striving to achieve for themselves.

“I will make you into a great nation, and I will bless you; I will make your name great, and you will be a blessing.” (12:2). “So Abram went, as the LORD had told him;” (12:4)

  1. The contrast between Babel and Abram has to be intentional
  2. The promise of God vs the intent of human pride
  3. The results of rebellion vs the results of obedience.
  4. For us – put on humility before God and before others – the reward we want is the reward that only God can give us, and humility is the only way to get it.
  1. God’s plans will work themselves out despite human opposition and rebellion. And – there are consequences to that rebellion – consequences to sin.
    1. The disobedience represented by the tower of Babel didn’t stop God’s intent for humanity to spread out through the world.
    2. If people won’t obey – God’s will shall still be accomplished – and may carry immediate consequences for the disobedient, though some of those may be deferred.
    3. With this principle in mind, we ought to examine our hearts and minds regularly to ensure that we follow a path of humble obedience, respecting the authority and power of God…for all glory belongs to God.
      1. God still confounds and confuses the lives of those who set out to create their own ‘tower of Babel’.

Summing up:

  • If you know what God wants, then do it. Even when the things which we do are done in obedience to His will, they must also take place within the boundaries that God has set for our individual lives .

James 4:13-17 (NIV) 13 Now listen, you who say, “Today or tomorrow we will go to this or that city, spend a year there, carry on business and make money.” 14 Why, you do not even know what will happen tomorrow. What is your life? You are a mist that appears for a little while and then vanishes. 15 Instead, you ought to say, “If it is the Lord’s will, we will live and do this or that.” 16 As it is, you boast in your arrogant schemes. All such boasting is evil. 17 If anyone, then, knows the good they ought to do and doesn’t do it, it is sin for them.

  • Focus on making God famous – give Him the glory or credit for all that He accomplishes. Let Him lift us up, rather than trying to do it ourselves.

John 6:40 (NIV) For my Father’s will is that everyone who looks to the Son and believes in him shall have eternal life, and I will raise them up at the last day.”