The tower of Babel, though never completed, was never completely forgotten.
Babel has endured to this day for most as a fable. It’s an intriguing attempt to explain the many languages spoken around the world and the diversity and disunity which come from language barriers.
For those who understand Babel as more than myth, the events surrounding the tower serve as a reminder of mankind’s sinful and rebellious nature.
Yet the tower of Babel is a reminder of something greater than our pride. It is also a testimony to God’s unfathomable mercy and boundless grace. God may have impeded our ability to communicate with each other but not our ability to praise him and make his greatness known.
Let’s study the people and events surrounding the tower of Babel. May the Lord grant us a deeper grasp of this pivotal moment in history and the implications which endure to this day.
Noah and the Tower of Babel
Let’s begin our discussion of Babel in Gen 9 with God’s blessing and instructions for Noah. It’s important to start with Noah because the events at Babel involved Noah’s family and, in a matter of speaking, offer a glimpse into the last years of Noah’s life.
In Gen 9:1, Noah and his family left the ark, and he offered a burnt sacrifice to God. God was pleased and promised to never again destroy all life like he did with the flood. Then, in Gen 9:1, he blessed Noah and said, “Be fruitful and increase in number and fill the earth” (ESV).
God’s words to Noah are almost the same as what he said to Adam and Eve in Gen 1:28. After creating them, God blessed them and then commanded them, “Be fruitful and increase in number; fill the earth and subdue it.”
It’s important to keep this command to fill the earth in mind because we will see that the events at the tower of Babel resulted in the scattering of the people to the ends of the earth. In short, God ensured that his command was accomplished.
The next recorded event in Noah’s life is found in Gen 9:20-29. Noah planted a vineyard and made some wine from his crop of grapes. He got drunk, and his son Ham came into his tent and saw him exposed. Ham did not respond in a respectful way such as covering him with a blanket and quietly leaving. Instead, Ham went and told his brothers what he saw.
His brothers, Shem and Japheth, did the respectful thing for their dad. They went into the tent and covered him with a blanket, taking pains not to see him with their own eyes. When Noah learned about all that had happened, he was upset with Ham and cursed Ham’s fourth son, Canaan.
Let’s consider what Noah said as he blessed and cursed his sons and grandson. First, he said that Canaan would be lowest of servants and would serve his brothers. In case there was any uncertainty as to whom Canaan would serve, Noah then specifically states that he would serve Shem (Gen 9:26) and then Japheth (Gen 9:27). Noah also blessed Japheth and stated that he would live in the tents of his brother Shem (Gen 9:27).
These blessings and curses suggest that Noah envisioned his sons, grandchildren, and their families living in close proximity and as a single community. Furthermore, Ham’s side of the family would have a lower position because of their disrespect for Noah.
From these events in Gen 9, we can infer that Noah and his sons and their children lived as a community for a considerable time. In fact, they may have lived in close proximity until the time that Babel was founded.
On the Plain of Shinar
When we take these observations and compare them with what we read in Gen 11:2, “As men moved eastward, they found a plain in Shinar and settled there,” it suggests that Noah and his sons, grandchildren, and even great grandchildren moved as a community and settled in the same area, the plain of Shinar.
It would be natural that they would be a close community because Noah’s grandchildren were probably marrying their cousins, and then his great grandchildren would probably marry their first and second cousins as well. So, by direct descent, by marriage, and by necessity of survival, they lived together or at least in the same general region.
Noah was the leader of his growing family, but the tensions with Ham and his side of the family were about to reach a new level. One of Ham’s descendants, possibly a great great grandson through his firstborn Cush, was apparently a very charismatic leader. His name was Nimrod.
We read in Gen 10:8-12 that Nimrod became a leading figure in their community, even establishing permanent settlements in Babylon and three other locations in the plain of Shinar. He may have been the person who first decided to build a city and tower with fired bricks and tar.
During this period, another noteworthy thing happened. Shem had a great great grandson named Peleg. In Gen 10:25, we are told that Peleg was given his name because during his life the earth was divided. This appears to be a reference to the division of the plain of Shinar and, by extension, the earth among the distinct nations and clans, with people scattered and living in separate areas. In short, the confusion of their language and scattering of the nations happened during the life of Peleg.
When we reach the end of chapter 10, we read that the descendants of Noah were spread out over the earth, having different clans, nations, and languages. However, we don’t know exactly how these events came to pass.
Did Noah’s descendent move away in a gradual manner out of a desire to fill the earth in obedience to God? Or were they compelled to leave?
Rebellion in Shinar
The events that transpired at the tower of Babel are then presented in Gen 11:1-9. Note that the account begins by mentioning that everyone spoke the same language. At this point in the history of Noah’s family, it was between 100 and 300 years after the flood, and so there was not enough time for their language to develop into separate languages.
Furthermore, they were a single community, living and moving together. As long as they remained together, they would continue to have the same language.
If the speakers of a single language remain together, their language may change, but they will not readily perceive it because they will continue to communicate together.
If speakers of a single language separate and have no further contact, their language may become two separate languages after 500 to 1,000 years.
In verse 3, they decide to make fired bricks and build a city. They wanted to have a permanent home and a new place of worship; they did not want to be scattered but instead wanted to make a name for themselves.
The desire to make a name for themselves fits well in the mouth of Nimrod. He was already making a name for himself as a hunter, and he wanted everyone to stir up that same pride and spirit of rebellion.
It’s important to keep in mind that Nimrod and those who were following him doubtless knew Noah and his sons. Noah and others who were still faithful to God must have been warning them to stop their foolish plans. They may have reminded Nimrod that they were supposed to fill the earth, not settle down and make permanent settlements with a tower. But Nimrod would not listen.
Confused and Scattered
Then God descends from heaven and comments that the people have a common language in Gen 11:5-6. God states that nothing will be impossible for these descendants of Noah because, with a single language, they can rebel to newer and newer heights.
In other words, a common language was essential for this group of people to function as a community, especially a community with the goal of establishing a new religion in a new city and with a tower of unprecedented height. However, if they could not communicate, their community and common endeavors would stall.
Then God confuses their language, and they are no longer able to comprehend each other. It appears that no sooner did God confuse their language than he scattered the peoples.
It’s important to note that it does not say that the people left their work because they couldn’t understand each other. Some commentators suggest that the people at Babel left their work because they could no longer understand each other.
I don’t doubt that the confusion of their language would impair their work, but I don’t think it would have led them to abandon their community, homes, crops, and all they knew.
It’s more likely that they would have stumbled along, hampered in their ability to work collectively but able to do their regular work in the fields and at home.
Furthermore, with time, their children would have become multilingual, understanding several languages. And after a generation or two, they would be a multilingual community back at work on the tower. So, it was essential that God scattered this community.
God’s Mercy at Babel
Thinking about the insights we can glean from these passages, we see that God is sovereign over humanity and, although he tolerated some rebellion on the part of Noah’s descendants, he finally acted, firmly and decisively. He scattered the peoples so they would fulfil his initial command to be fruitful, multiple, and fill the earth.
Furthermore, God’s judgment is a merciful correction. There was no fire from heaven, no earthquakes, no disease or death of any kind. Instead, the people were confused and scattered.
In fact, not everyone was scattered very far. Peleg’s family and his descendants, eventually including Abraham, remained in the same region.
Bear in mind that Noah and his three sons were alive at the time of the building of the tower. Noah may have preached against Nimrod’s rebellion and the building at Babel just as he preached against the sin and rebellion before the flood.
Could it have been for the sake of Noah and a faithful handful that God was so merciful?
God’s Grace at Babel
When God confused the language spoken at Babel, he turned a monolingual community into a number of distinct language communities. However, God was gracious to these rebellious communities because he didn’t confuse their language in such a way that they could never communicate again with each other or with him.
God confused their language but left them with the ability to learn multiple languages. I think that God scattered the languages, in part, to ensure that these communities remained separate. If he had confused their languages without scattering them, they could have gradually learned each other’s languages over a generation or two.
Furthermore, one of the languages, such as the language of Nimrod and his people, may have become the dominant language and eventually displaced the others.
By scattering the people, God ensured that the languages created at Babel were preserved and, in fact, continued to diversify.
There is an even greater grace in the confusion at Babel. God impeded their ability to unite in rebellion but not their ability to unite in praise of him.
To this day, we struggle to communicate with those who speak other languages but not with God. The Holy Spirit ministers to every heart, and God understands every prayer and word of praise that we offer up to him.
The tower of Babel is more than an account of God’s judgment. He did judge the people at the tower, but with a merciful correction that led to them being scattered over the face of the earth.
The judgment also included the confusing of their language. Yet even their confusion and inability to communicate with each other did not impair their communication with God. God was driving them apart from each other but not apart from him.
In the next blog post, we’ll consider how God brought about a diversity of languages on earth yet preserved human language as the unique quality of mankind that distinguishes us from the rest of creation. Language is an important facet of being made in the image of God.
Furthermore, we will also consider Babel in light of another miraculous event—Pentecost, when the Holy Spirit descended on the disciples and empowered them to take the gospel to the nations, scattering them to the ends of the earth.
May we remember Babel as more than a reminder of rebellion and pride. It stands as a testimony to the mercy and grace of our God who is ever working to accomplish his purposes for his glory.