By Sam E. Stone
After Noah and his family came out of the ark, they sought to follow God’s directions (Genesis 8, 9). Chapter 10 is sometimes called “The Table of Nations,” listing where the families of Noah’s sons settled after the flood. The chapter concludes, “These are the clans of Noah’s sons, according to their lines of descent, within their nations” (10:32).
Genesis 11:1, 2
Noah’s descendants were evidently nomadic people. They moved south and east to the land of Shinar. At some point, they determined to build a city in the region around the area later known as Babylon. Some students believe that Shinar is near where the Garden of Eden was located, since the Tigris and Euphrates Rivers both ran through that region.
E. F. Kevan suggests that when Genesis states the world had one language and a common speech, it means that everyone spoke in the same way both as to pronunciation and vocabulary. Basil Atkinson agrees, pointing out that the Hebrew word translated language means literally lip and that speech means literally words. “Perhaps the former refers to phonetics, the actual sounds and their pronunciation, and the latter to vocabulary.” Various dialects and speech patterns had not kept the people from understanding one another up until this point.
Genesis 11:3, 4
The people determined to build a large tower, one that reaches to the heavens. The original purpose of the structure may have been for defensive security and political domination. The tower may have also had a religious and astrological significance. Some Bible teachers feel that this was a kind of temple tower, common later in the cities of Mesopotamia and known as a zigurrat. Such buildings were used for pagan worship.
James E. Smith explains, “The motives of the tower builders are not entirely clear. . . . They hoped that the tower would provide protection from another Flood or from enemies who might attempt to scatter them. So the tower pointed to man’s attempt to glorify and fortify himself.” C. F. Keil suggests, “The real motive therefore was the desire for renown, and the object was to establish a noted central point, which might serve to maintain their unity.”
The Sovereign God
The people were not “putting one over” on God by their plans. The Lord had carefully observed all that they were doing. He knew their hearts as well. 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. The power of sin will continue to grow. Sin rules in a corrupt heart. Wrong desires lead to wrong action (James 1:15). No wonder Proverbs 4:23 teaches, “Above all else, guard your heart for it is the wellspring of life” (NIV 1984). In the case of the tower of Babel, “God moved to deprive them of the ability to comprehend one another, and thus effected their dispersion” (Keil).
E. F. Kevan points out the significance of Babel (Babylon) in Scripture. “Right through to the book of Revelation, Babylon represents the idea of materialistic and humanistic federation in opposition to God.” He adds, “The proud builders of the city had called it Babel (the gate or court of God), but God, taking up their word and derisively giving it another meaning from a similar sounding root, also called it Babel (confusion).”
God said, “Let us go down and confuse their language so they will not understand each other.” The “us” is most likely a reference to the Trinity. By confusing their language, the Lord caused the people to leave their construction project and scatter across the face of the earth. This brought the building of the tower to an abrupt halt. The place was called Babel, “confusion,” to commemorate this judicial act of God.
Significantly when the church began in Jerusalem on the Day of Pentecost many years later, people were there from every nation (Acts 2:5), and all of them could hear the message of salvation in their own language. With the outpouring of the Holy Spirit upon the apostles, the confusion of Babel was replaced by a single divinely-directed message preached by the apostles (Acts 2:1-11).
Sam E. Stone is the former editor of Christian Standard. He continues his writing and speaking ministry from his home in Cincinnati, Ohio.