The Tower of Babel and the Scattering of Men

Genesis 11:1-9

by Bob Wilkin

INTRODUCTION

God told Adam and Eve to be fruitful and to multiply and to fill the earth (Gen 1:28). After the flood, God repeated that same command to Noah and his sons (Gen 9:1).

Man was to fill the earth. We do not know how well man had spread over the earth prior to the flood. Presumably man was widely scattered.

However, after the flood many of the descendants of Noah and his sons fail to spread over the earth as they were told. Instead, they stay grouped together in one place. In addition, they hatch a plot to build a very high tower and to make a great name for themselves.

In this passage we see the hand of God. Many think that God does not intervene in human history. He just created us and then lets us do whatever we want.

Of course the flood itself disproves that.

But soon after the flood, in the Tower of Babel incident, we see more evidence that God has a plan for mankind, and He will indeed intervene when necessary to get men to do what He wants.

The Tower of Babel is really only a minor part of this story. The heart of the story is the dispersion of the nations that occurred at Babel. It shows that God opposes the proud and that God is able and willing to bring them down to accomplish His own purposes.

NOAH'S DESCENDANTS REFUSE TO FILL THE EARTH (GENESIS 11:1-4)

Evidently Gen 11:1-9 explains Genesis 10. That is, Gen 11:1-9 occurred before Genesis 10. Genesis often presents material thematically, out of normal chronological order.

These verses explain to the new nation of Israel (1440 BC) where all the world's nations and languages came from.

The whole earth spoke only one language. That makes sense. God created Adam and Eve with language. They didn't have to learn to speak. They were created as highly educated, articulate people.

Whatever language God gave Adam and Eve was passed from generation to generation. No new language would develop. Everyone could understand everyone.

Evidently that was God's original plan for man. But as a result of this new rebellion, this refusal to scatter and fill the earth, God is going to change the language situation in a big way.

The land of Shinar (see Gen 10:10 which mentions that Babel is in the land of Shinar), later in the OT, is another name for Babylon, and of course Babylon is related to the name Babel in the Tower of Babel.

Shinar is thus the place that became Mesopotamia or Babylon. This is to the east and slightly north of modern Israel. Today Shinar is called Iraq. Thus the place we've had troops for the past decade is where this passage occurs.

Verse 3 seems quite harmless. What is wrong with men making bricks and mortar?

The problem is not the action itself, but, as is often the case, the motive behind the action.

Verse 4 explains why they are making bricks and mortar. They want to build a city, which is fine in itself, and "a tower whose top is in the heavens." They want to "make a name for ourselves, lest we be scattered abroad over the face of the whole earth."

But that is exactly what God wanted men to do. While certainly some families could stay put so that a given region had a reasonable population, banding together for the explicit purpose of keeping others from moving out, and of building a mega-population, was a clear violation of God's call.

And what was this "tower"? Most scholars believe it was a giant ziggurat. Indeed, one has been found in this region.

A ziggurat was a massive monument used for worship. Imagine a huge pyramid, but instead of it being pointed on top, it has a flat surface on top where sacrifices can be offered. The top was a temple.

By "the heavens" they probably mean the upper atmosphere. They intend to build something so massive that it would be an artificial mountain. My guess is the building was similar in height to the highest buildings on earth today.

Currently the world's tallest building is in Dubai and it stands 162 stories high, with a total height of 2,717 feet, or just over one half mile high.

Those in Shinar thought this way:

Greatest strength: unity.
Greatest fear: scattering.
Greatest desire: making a name for themselves.

Alan Ross, in his class on Genesis at DTS, suggested: "The sin of the Shinarites appears to be immense pride... Pride in the OT is much more than an arrogant attitude. It is open rebellion against God, an independence of God. Humility is often equated with trust and obedience. Their refusal to scatter and fill the earth was direct rebellion against God and the height of arrogance."

We will see shortly that what they fear the most is what actually happens, and they indeed make a name for themselves, but it is not the name they would have wished.

THE LORD ASSESSES THE SITUATION & CONFUSES THEIR LANGUAGE (GENESIS 11:5-7)

Verse 5 is a figure of speech since God is omniscient. God already knew what they were up to, and why they were doing it.

This may imply that the Lord Jesus actually came to Shinar in His preincarnate body to inspect what was going on.

There is irony here. Alan Ross points out: "No matter how high they climbed, it seems, the Lord still had to descend to view their human enterprise." This clearly shows how lofty God is and how our greatest aspirations fall far short of the glory of God.

Exactly what the end of verse 6 means is unclear: "Now nothing that they propose to do will be withheld from them." Probably this means something to the effect that if God does not intervene, if He lets them stay clumped in Shinar and build this tower and live together, then they will be able accomplish many things they wish to do, including making a great name for themselves, but which God does not want them doing.

God "decides" to intervene now rather than later. He knows this is the best way to deal with this rebellion.

Precisely what verse 7 means escaped my attention until I was preparing this article. What God did was not simply give the people of Shinar many new languages. Let's say there were 100,000 people and he gave them 25 different languages. But that is only half of what He did.

If that was all he did, they could still all communicate with their first language. Here is the other half of what God did: He took away their first language.

Of course, that had never happened before and it has never happened since.

Imagine what that must have been like. Let's say you are like me and you only speak English. Now imagine one day you lose the ability to speak or understand English, but you now speak and understand Chinese. And the people down the street now speak Arabic, but not English or Mandarin. Your back yard neighbors now speak French, but not English or Mandarin or Arabic. Your neighbors on the next block over speak Swahili, but not any other language. People all over your town speak 20 or more different languages, but no one speaks or understands English any more. What would happen? You would gather together with the people who speak your new language and all of you would form a new community. If you lived in the world after the flood where the whole earth was open to colonization, you would go with the people of your language and pick a land and populate it.

The people who spoke Old Chinese went to what is now called China. The people who spoke Egyptian went to Egypt. The people who spoke Greek went to Greece. And so on.

God got the people to do what He wanted by confusing their languages.

This is an example of the balance between God's sovereignty and man's free will. God allows limited free will. Both individually and collectively God is at work behind the scenes to see to it that we do not veer too far from His plan. He allows lots of freedom and lots of iniquity, but there are limits.

THE LORD SCATTERS THEM (GENESIS 11:8)

Verse 8 might be presenting the results of what God did in confusing the languages. Or it might be presenting a separate point.

Either way, God caused men to do what He wanted, to fill the earth, to scatter, and to cover the planet.

He also wanted them to stop building the mega city they were building. And stop they did.

A REMINDER THAT WE SHOULD FULFILL GOD'S COMMANDS (GENESIS 11:9)

The city is called Babel "because the Lord confused the language of all the earth" (Gen 11:9). Babel is from the Hebrew word that means confusion.

The name Babel reminds us that we should fulfill God's commands. A failure to do so will result in consequences, possibly quite painful. In this case mankind lost the ability to communicate with each other. Suddenly there was a language barrier that had never existed before.

Remember what the people in Shinar wanted the most: to make a name for themselves. Well, in a sense they did. But the name they made was not a glorious one like they had wished. Instead the name they made was Babel, confusion. How would you like to be called confusion.

They were united. Yet they were united in opposition to God.

They feared being scattered. Because they rebelled against God, their greatest fear was realized.

They desired to make a great name for themselves. They made one all right, but not the one they wanted.

If Adam had not sinned, then the Garden of Eden would still be here and there would have been no curse on the earth. No one would have died.

If the sons of God had not intermarried with the daughters of men, then there would have been no flood and no great drop in lifespan. People would still be living 800 to 900 years.

If the descendants of Noah had not decided to clump together in Shinar, if they had scattered over the earth, then there would be only one language on earth today, not hundreds.

Rebellion leads to judgment and curses from God. Obedience results in blessings from God. Why not pick blessings?

LESSONS AND APPLICATIONS

1. Israel was called out of the nations to be God's chosen people, His theocracy. Alan Ross points out that if like those in Shinar "they lifted their head in pride and rebelled against God...then they too would be scattered across the face of the earth." Of course, that is exactly what happened.

2. The separation of peoples into nations is not a bad thing inherently. If they had done this willingly, they would have had one language and none of them would have had the name Babel.

3. God works behind the scenes to get us to do what He wants.

4. We do not have total free will. We have limited free will.

5. God opposes the proud. Those who exalt themselves above God will be put down.

6. God judges disobedience, even if we think He does not.

7. God sees all. We cannot hide from Him.

8. God's plans will ultimately be accomplished, with or without man's obedience.

9. We should look forward to the New Earth in which there will be true unity. Though there will be many nations, most likely we will all speak and understand one language. We will return to the way God intended. We will all worship not in an artificial mountain, the Tower of Babel, but on a real mountain, the New Jerusalem.

10.Until the Lord returns, true unity of the nations is highly unlikely. Allen Ross notes: "The United Nations has often been seen as a lengthening shadow of Babel."

CONCLUSION

Given a chance to start over after the flood, man quickly got way off track. They rejected God's command to fill the earth.

Of course, most people don't want to leave where they grew up and move to some new place, but that was God's command. Thus families should have been pushing out and starting new communities and new nations until eventually all of the inhabitable lands were colonized.

In a sense these people moving out would have been missionaries, taking the message of life to new locations. Unfortunately, this did not happen voluntarily.

The story of Babel is ultimately a story about the futility of rebelling against God. God opposes the proud, but gives grace to the humble. It is Jesus' name we should seek to exalt, not our own. If we seek to make a name for ourselves by rebelling against God, we will find that the name we obtain is more like Ichabod (Hebrew = Inglorious) than Glory.

It always pays to obey God; it never pays to disobey Him.