The Tower of Babel (Genesis 11:1-9)

What is the purpose of the story of the Tower of Babel in Genesis 11? How is it connected to the Gospel of Jesus Christ? Here are a few meditations that I pray would help answer these questions.

1. The story occurs in the days following the flood. Noah had three sons, Shem, Ham, and Japheth; and from these men came many tribes and peoples that populated the land. In 10:32, we not only find these nations descended from Noah, but also that “from these [families] the nations spread abroad on the earth after the flood,” the phrase further explained in 11:1-9.

2. Now, we can imagine this story being told to the Israelites as they were coming out of slavery in Egypt, as Moses recounts to them their history. The only thing they knew was a world of diverse languages, especially that of the Egyptians. However, here Moses points out to them that it has not always been that way, and that there is a significant story which tells of why the diversity exists now–a story which communicates grand theological truths about God, judgment, grace, and the Gospel.

3. Moses writes, “the whole earth had one language and the same words” (lit. they were all of “one lip”). All of the inhabited earth had one language, a unity in speech. There was no hindrance in communication.

4. Then he says, “it came about as people migrated eastward, they found a plain in the land of Shinar and settled there.” As early as Genesis 3:24, we find Adam and Eve being cast out of the Garden into a land towards the “east.” In 4:16, when Cain went out from the presence of the Lord, he too went to a land in the “east.” In 13:11, Lot separated himself from Abram and also journeyed east. In the story before us, we also find that these people were migrating “eastward.” Not only does this story call attention to the fall of man, but it also prepares the Hebrew readers for a move away from God’s way of blessing to man’s way of finding his own so-called good.

5. “And they said to one another, ‘Come, let us make bricks, and burn them thoroughly.’ And they had brick for stone, and tar for mortar. Then they said, ‘Come, let us build ourselves a city and a tower with its top in the heavens, and let us make a name for ourselves, lest we be dispersed over the face of the whole earth.’ Notice in verses 3-4 that we clearly see the desires of mankind behind the Tower of Babel. Listening in on their human plans, we hear, “Come, let us make bricks, and burn them thoroughly.” Doubtless, the land they indwelt had much clay so that they might accomplish such a task; however, there follows an additional note by Moses, the narrator. He adds, “And they had brick for stone, and tar for mortar.” This statement would have been quite significant for Moses’ readers, because they knew just a little bit about bricks and building. Prior to the Exodus, Pharaoh had increased their labors, and they had to gather their own stubble to make the bricks (Exod 5:1-21). Israel knew, however, that if you wanted to make a monument of any great size, you built it with stone, not brick, and mortar, not tar. It seems as if the narrator writes this laughing out of one side of his mouth: “Clearly, they are not even using the best materials!” The irony of the text, is that this people is only using brick to build a monument that reaches to the heavens. The readers would have already began to consider their ways as foolish.

6. In light of their “skilled” brick manufacturing, they say amongst themselves, “Come, let us build ourselves a city and a tower with its top in the heavens, and let us make a name for ourselves, lest we be dispersed over the face of the whole earth.” Clearly the motivation of mankind, apart from God’s gracious initiative, is to make much of themselves, not to make much of their Creator. Listen to the human ambitions here: let us build a city; let us build a tower; let us make a name for ourselves, lest we be dispersed over the face of the earth. The problem with their desires, therefore, is clear. The end of their pursuit to make a great city was to make for themselves a great name. Furthermore, they would do so in a way that was contrary to God’s purposes and blessing for man to subdue the earth. Their actions leave God out of the equation. To exalt human autonomy over God’s gracious purposes will always be a declaration of war against the Almighty, because it says we are sufficient in and of ourselves and we have no need of God.

God made man in His image, so that man might publicly display the glory of His maker in all of the creation. We do this by positioning ourselves under His grace. He gives, and we give Him glory. Being self-sufficient says to God, “We have no need for you. We can make it on our own.” The only glory reflected in that worldview, is that of man. They had no desire to make a name for the eternal God by positioning themselves under His grace, but every desire to make a name for themselves on this temporary earth, by asserting their own willful desires and abilities.

7. In 11:5 there is a turning point in the text. We find a divine inspection of the peoples’ plans and progress in building this great city. We no longer see the city, the tower, and the name, through the eyes of man; rather, we see them all through the eyes of the Almighty. Moses writes, “And the LORD came down to see the city and the tower, which the children of man had built.”

The words, “the Lord came down,” reflect the similar anthropomorphic language used in Genesis 3 when God asked Adam, “Where are you?” as if He did not know. Anthropomorphisms occur when human language finds itself inadequate to explain the actions of God relating to man. This text does not tell us that God has lost His omnipresence or transcendence; rather, it points out the inferiority of mankind’s project. In other words, Moses expresses that the tower was so magnificent, that God had to come down to look at it. In other words, what man thought was great, was nothing compared to God. The monument they erected for their name only displayed their shame.

8. After the inspection, the Lord then speaks, “Behold, they are one people, and they have all one language, and this is only the beginning of what they will do. And nothing that they propose to do will now be impossible for them. Come, let us go down and there confuse their language, so that they may not understand one another’s speech.” When the Lord calls attention to them being one people and one language, he is simply reiterating what has already been mentioned at the beginning of the story. These are all of those who are descended from Adam and Noah. They are one people and have no hindrance of communication. What is more, this observation explains that their self-sufficiency is indeed evil: “This is only the beginning of what they will do;” and furthermore, “nothing that they propose to do will now be impossible for them.” In other words, if this is what a unified people will do now, just think of what dangers they will continue in. It seems here that God is not concerned about them accomplishing such great things that heaven should shake, but about the destruction man will bring upon himself if he continues to assert his self-sufficiency.

9. Therefore, in contrast to man’s “Come, let us make for ourselves a name,” God says, “Come, let us go down and there confuse their language, so that they may not understand one another’s speech.” God brings judgment upon their self-centered actions, by confusing what once made them so effective in their God-less project. “So the LORD dispersed them from there over the face of all the earth, and they left off building the city.” Operation Man’s-glory, failed. According to the Lord’s sovereign decree, they were no longer of a unified tongue, but now of confused tongues. The confusion was so destructive, they could no longer build. Thus, they closed up shop, and from there they were scattered abroad. “Therefore its name was called Babel, because there the LORD confused the language of all the earth. And from there the LORD dispersed them over the face of all the earth.” The very dispersion they were trying to prevent, now took place by the decree of the Sovereign. The very tower they erected for the sake of their name, now an unfinished work, displayed an embarrassing fame.

10. Notice, there is no Godly remnant at Babel, as there was in the previous story in Genesis (i.e. Noah and his family). Without doubt, this prepares the readers for an amazing contrast to God’s gracious initiative with Abraham in 12:1-3. According to his purpose, God calls the pagan, Abram, out of Ur of the Chaldees, and tells him, “I will make you a great nation, and I will bless you and make your name great, so that you will be a blessing.” Unlike the people at Babel, Abram positions himself under God’s gracious purposes, and in so doing, was made a great nation, and was blessed with a great name. The people of Babel, in their self-sufficiency, waved the banner of making much of themselves, whereas Abram, positioned under God’s gracious purpose, waved the banner of making much of God.

The Purpose and The Gospel

If we are self-sufficient, we are living contrary to God’s gracious purpose. We are saying we don’t need Him. And if we don’t need Him, then we are God. But if we are totally dependent upon His grace, like Abram, then we will testify to the nations of God’s gracious purpose, especially his gracious purpose in Christ. You see, it is through Abram that the true seed, Jesus Christ would (and has!) come. By placing our faith in Christ, we declare to all our need for God’s grace. Yes, at Babel the nations were scattered, and the languages confused. However, the message is this: don’t make much of your name by being self-sufficient; only judgment awaits you. Instead, make much of God’s name by positioning yourself under God’s gracious initiative, and their receive all that He is for you in Jesus. Then, only redemption awaits you; and finally, you shall join an assembly, which God has restored and united again to praise his great name.

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11 Responses to “The Tower of Babel (Genesis 11:1-9)”

  1. SWBTSphere Weekly Update (3) « Straight out of the SWBTS Blogosphere Says:

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  8. Mark R Smith Says:

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