The Tower of Babel

The Tower of Babel, by Pieter Bruegel
The Tower of Babel, by Pieter Bruegel

11:1-2 – Now the whole earth had one language and one speech. And it came to pass, as they journeyed from the east, that they found a plain in the land of Shinar, and they dwelt there.

The Great Flood had destroyed all life on Earth except for Noah and his family, who were then tasked with multiplying and filling the earth. Naturally, all of Noah’s descendants would speak the same language. Moses does not present this as a bad development, but rather in a matter-of-fact statement. It was not mankind’s common language, but rather the attitude and ambition of mankind that would cause God to see their single language as a liability. The passage implies mankind’s common unity of purpose. God saw that not only were humans speaking the same language, they were of the same mind, too. In verse 2, we see that humans had not fully obeyed God’s command to Noah and his sons: “Be fruitful and multiply, and fill the earth” (Gen. 9:1). Obedience to this command was obviously important to God because he had commanded Adam and Eve to do the same in Genesis: “Be fruitful and multiply; fill the earth and subdue it” (Gen. 1:28). But mankind tends to embrace stasis rather than change, so the postdiluvian humans decided to band together rather than disperse and fill the earth as God had commanded.

11:3-4 – Then they said to one another, “Come, let us make bricks and bake them thoroughly.” They had brick for stone, and they had asphalt for mortar. And they said, “Come, let us build ourselves a city, and a tower whose top is in the heavens; let us make a name for ourselves, lest we be scattered abroad over the face of the whole earth.”

Here is where we see the rebellion of mankind manifest itself once again, even after God had sent a flood to destroy the earth on account of man’s wickedness and rebellion. In these verses we see mankind’s arrogance taken to new heights, literally. Their desire to make a name for themselves is reminiscent of the sin of Lucifer, as well as the sin of Adam and Eve. At the heart of these stories is a spirit of pride, and it was no different in Babel. Men wanted to build a tower that reached into the heavens so that the gods could come down and dwell among mankind.

The passage implies that the men of Babel were already fearful of being scattered, which is why they banded together to build a tower. Because of their pride in wanting to make a name for themselves, God would step in and end their ambitions by fulfilling their greatest fear.

11:5-7 – But the Lord came down to see the city and the tower which the sons of men had built. And the Lord said, “Indeed the people are one and they all have one language, and this is what they begin to do; now nothing that they propose to do will be withheld from them. Come, let Us go down and there confuse their language, that they may not understand one another’s speech.”

God’s dwelling place is in the heavens, while mankind’s proper dwelling place is the earth. The Tower of Babel was mankind’s attempt to upend this God-ordained hierarchy. In v. 6, God seems concerned for mankind and their penchant for pride: “nothing that they propose to do will be withheld from them.” This is an ominous foreboding, meant by Moses to help the reader recall the wickedness of the men of Noah’s day. This passage is not meant to imply that God was actually threatened by mankind’s puny achievements, but rather that if left unchecked mankind would revert to the wickedness found among men before the Great Flood. Having made a covenant with Noah never again to destroy the earth through a flood, God decided to intervene in the affairs of the men of Babel before they were too far gone.

11:8-9 – So the Lord scattered them abroad from there over the face of all the earth, and they ceased building the city. Therefore its name is called Babel, because there the Lord confused the language of all the earth; and from there the Lord scattered them abroad over the face of all the earth.

Just as Adam and Eve were driven out of the Garden of Eden for their high-handed pride and disobedience, so were the men and women of Babel scattered from their would-be heavenly city. It is notable that God did not destroy the Tower of Babel, but rather used a much more gracious means of scattering. He could have treated Babel as he treated the cities in Noah’s day, or even as he would treat Sodom and Gomorrah in Abraham’s day, but he did not. Instead, God chose to disperse mankind through confusion, not cataclysm. This was a great mercy.

Application

Thankfully, we are able to read much of the Old Testament and find the themes and archetypes repeated (or even reversed) in the New Testament. We have the blessing of the whole canon of Scripture, which allows us to understand the meaning and significance of the context of the stories throughout. In the New Testament, we see that the Tower of Babel was reversed at Pentecost. At Babel, men could not understand each other. But at Pentecost, the Holy Spirit opened the ears of men so that each one heard the Gospel in his own language. Though Babel erected a language barrier between men, Pentecost tore down that barrier by initiating the Gospel into every language.

Adam and Eve wanted to be like God, so they believed the serpent. The men of Babel wanted God to be like them, so they built a tower. But, as Scripture teaches, God will not be mocked (Gal. 6:7). Neither will he be mimicked or minimized, contrary to the desires of the primeval couple or the primeval builders.

We can learn much from the story of the Tower of Babel, namely humility. How often do we seek to mimic God through our pride and arrogance rather than understanding our role as creatures of the Creator, ready to obey his every command? Furthermore, how often do we seek to minimize God by reducing him to something we call upon only when we need him, rather than seeing ourselves as his servants, ready to give our all for his glory?

The men of Babel wanted to bring God down to their level, which is why they built a tower which would reach into the heavens. Even though the men of Babel desired to bring God to their level, God was not ready to be like them, at least not on their terms. God’s redemptive plan would come to fruition thousands of years later when He sent His only Son, Jesus, to become a man and dwell among us.

The scattering was probably seen as a devastating blow to those directly affected by it, but as we stand at this end of history, we see that it was one more piece of God’s redemptive plan. Though the scattering was likely seen as a curse to the people of Babel, we now can see it as a gracious act of providence through which God would eventually bless all nations through his son, Jesus Christ. Though God scattered the earth through Babel, he would one day gather it together again through Christ. The nations, tribes, and tongues that God created through Babel will one day sing praise and honor to him. The beauty of their praise will not be found in unanimity of language, but rather in the harmonious sound of thousands of languages and tongues, all tuned to sing his praise. Though the people of God are one, they are not the same. Though the Scriptures teach us that in God’s economy there is “neither Jew nor Greek”(Gal. 3:28, NKJV), we also know that at the beginning of our eternity with God, there will be “a great multitude which no one could number, of all nations, tribes, peoples, and tongues, standing before the Lamb, clothed in white robes, with palm branches in their hands, and crying out with a loud voice, saying, “Salvation belongs to our God who sits on the throne, and to the Lamb” (Rev. 7:9-10). Indeed, let the nations be glad!

One comment

  1. Thank you for writing such a fantastic post. I enjoyed reading it very much. The application was the best part. So encouraging!

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Theology and Ethics