Scripture: Genesis 11:1-9
1All people on the earth had one language and the same words. 2When they traveled east, they found a valley in the land of Shinar and settled there. 3They said to each other, “Come, let’s make bricks and bake them hard.” They used bricks for stones and asphalt for mortar. 4They said, “Come, let’s build for ourselves a city and a tower with its top in the sky, and let’s make a name for ourselves so that we won’t be dispersed over all the earth.”
5Then the Lord came down to see the city and the tower that the humans built. 6And the Lord said, “There is now one people and they all have one language. This is what they have begun to do, and now all that they plan to do will be possible for them. 7Come, let’s go down and mix up their language there so they won’t understand each other’s language.” 8Then the Lord dispersed them from there over all of the earth, and they stopped building the city. 9Therefore, it is named Babel, because there the Lord mixed up the language of all the earth; and from there the Lord dispersed them over all the earth.
Theme- Even after the Flood humanity stays the same and so does God
- Why does the passage begin with “All peopleon the earth had one language and the same words” when chapter 10 has told us people dispersed across the earth after the Flood?
- What is the goal of the people who are building Babel, why are they concerned with this city and this tower?
- What did Babel’s builders do wrong in building the tower?
- What does it mean that God mixed up the language of the people, is it as simple as they suddenly started speaking different languages?
- What is the significance of God punishing the people of Babel with confused speech?
Related texts: Zephaniah 3:19, Galatians 3:28, Revelation 7:9-17
Humanity scatters across the earth in Genesis 10 and so the phrase “All people” does not mean that all living humans gathered at Babel. It means that all people are represented by the people at Babel. Much like in the Noah story “all people” is symbolic of human nature.
There is a dramatic irony in the fact that the people who wanted “to make a name for themselves” are anonymous in the text. The people who wanted to be remembered are forgotten.
Much of the wording in 11:1-4 is also used in Exodus of the Israelite slaves, this is likely a subtle way to imply a connection between these passages. It is likely we are meant to read that Babel used slave labor.
Tall towers often represent arrogance in the Bible and the goal of the builders is not literally to reach heaven but to display their greatness.
The wording of the passage indicates the builders were intentionally thwarting God’s command to fill the earth.
“But, as the ancient Hebrew commentators (like Gersonides) noted, God’s treatment of Babel was ultimately a blessing. He helped them, despite themselves, recover the blessings of diversity bequeathed to Noah.” Ari Lamm
One question that has haunted me this week is, why the story of the Tower of Babel (Gen. 11) follows the distribution of people (Gen. 10). It would make more sense to describe “all people” being united then dispersed before listing where people settled after the flood. The authors of the Bible were not stupid and so when I run across an issue like this, I know to read slower and ask different questions because chances are I’m making the wrong assumption about what the text is trying to tell me. Reading Genesis showed me “all people” does not literally mean every person but is representative of humanity. In fact, the group of people who attempt to settle and build the tower are simply “they” and never identified with “all people” in verse 1; because of this it is likely some of Ham’s descendants who stand as the models for human evil. Given this, I do not think we should think of this group’s sin as failing to populate the world, because that command was for all humanity, and this is only a piece.
I think it is much more fitting to focus on the hubris of this people in their plans to “create a name” for themselves and in their attempt to construct an empire. The group who settles in Babel definitely are arrogant in their desire for power, a name is about influence and influence is about power. The fact that these people want to create a name for themselves means that they want to concentrate power for themselves. The Bible thwarts this desire by not giving them a name which is meant to highlight how little power they were actually able to accumulate and to show the ultimate fruitlessness of evil. Their power was to be displayed in a tower; this tower would have been either a watchtower connected to military authority or a ziggurat which was an artificial mountain created for a god. Either this group was trying to show military authority over the region or reign in God by constructing God’s habitation. in either case, this group of individuals is committed to dominating others either the people outside the walls of the city or else God. Some of the language used overlaps with the treatment of Israel in Egypt and suggests the system of Babel was built on slavery and oppression. All of this shows that you community after the flood has not changed, and it was still bent towards sinful outcomes. God though stays committed to eliminating evil from the earth and does so by confusing the plans of these people causing them to abandon their bid for power.
Once is a fluke, twice as a theme; the fact that the world after Noah follows the same pattern that the world before Noah laid down shows us humanity’s nature. It is at the end of this story that we see God begin to rewrite the script in a new way so that humanity does not continually fall into to track upset. the story of Babel reveals that when humanity comes together in hubris and pride the result is confusion and disorder, this does not mean that God wants us to be fragmented and isolated small groups. Zephaniah 3 and Revelation 7 both play on this passage, in both places God brings humanity together as one people with a variety of customs and languages in worship and glory. God’s goal for humanity is that we should be united with one goal but that goal should be to worship God. What humanity is constantly fighting against is the temptation to unify around our own prosperity, arrogance, security, pride, or power. When these are our goals, we falter and fracture because we will ultimately seek to achieve these goals on the backs of others. God’s command to humanity to fill the earth was meant as a repetition of the command in Genesis 1 to fill the earth and take care of it, instead humanity decided to sit and manipulate the environment for their own glorification. Genesis 11 is another reminder to us of how humanity consistently attempts to dodge our primary responsibility on this earth and yet our ever-faithful God