1 Now the whole earth had one language and the same words. 2 And as people migrated from the east, they found a plain in the land of Shinar and settled there. 3 And they said to one another, “Come, let us make bricks, and burn them thoroughly.” And they had brick for stone, and bitumen for mortar. 4 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.” 5 And the Lord came down to see the city and the tower, which the children of man had built. 6 And the Lord said, “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. 7 Come, let us go down and there confuse their language, so that they may not understand one another’s speech.” 8 So the Lord dispersed them from there over the face of all the earth, and they left off building the city. 9 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. – Genesis 11:1-9 ESV
With the opening verses of chapter 11, Moses provides an explanation of an earlier comment he made regarding Peleg, a descendant of Shem.
To Eber were born two sons: the name of the one was Peleg, for in his days the earth was divided… – Genesis 10:25 ESV
The genealogy of Shem found in chapter 10 contains no lineage for Peleg. It simply mentions his name, then moves on to his brother Joktan. But Moses had a good reason for leaving out Peleg. He wanted to emphasize another major turning point in mankind’s story of expansion and moral degeneration. The sons of Noah were filling the earth, just as God had commanded. But as the genealogy of Ham revealed, the spread of mankind was accompanied by a rising number of people groups who would later be characterized as idolatrous, licentious, and evil. The existence of nations like Egypt, Assyria, and Babylon was the direct result of Noah’s sons fulfilling God’s mandate to be fruitful, multiply, and fill the earth. Their efforts had been successful.
…the nations spread abroad on the earth after the flood. – Genesis 10:32 ESV
And Moses opens chapter 11 with a stunning revelation. There had been a time when all the nations of the earth shared a common language. This never-disclosed-before insight would have come as a shock to Moses’ Jewish audience. They were already having to deal with the fact that all mankind shared the same lineage. Their enemies, the Egyptians, Assyrians, Canaanites, and Babylonians, were actually their long-lost brothers. And now, they were learning for the first time, that there had been a point in time when all these disparate people groups had shared the same language.
One of the underlying and often overlooked themes in the book of Genesis is mankind’s reticence to obey God’s command to fill the earth. After the fall, the two sons of Adam and Eve chose domestication over migration and expansion.
Abel was a keeper of sheep, and Cain a worker of the ground. – Genesis 4:2 ESV
There is nothing inherently wrong with either of these professions. But it is apparent from the context that the two sons had both chosen to remain close to home. They had settled down not far from their mother and father. And their close proximity proved to be deadly. It was not long before “Cain rose up against his brother Abel and killed him” (Genesis 4:8 ESV). And, as a result, God cursed Cain.
“When you work the ground, it shall no longer yield to you its strength. You shall be a fugitive and a wanderer on the earth.” – Genesis 4:12 ESV
As part of his divine punishment, Cain was cast out of the comfort of his familial surroundings. He was forced to leave home. And his ban from his homeland is reminiscent of Adam and Eve’s expulsion from the garden.
Then the Lord God said, “Behold, the man has become like one of us in knowing good and evil. Now, lest he reach out his hand and take also of the tree of life and eat, and live forever—” therefore the Lord God sent him out from the garden of Eden to work the ground from which he was taken. He drove out the man, and at the east of the garden of Eden he placed the cherubim and a flaming sword that turned every way to guard the way to the tree of life. – Genesis 3:22-24 ESV
Adam and Eve had been cast out of Eden, but the divine mandate remained intact. They were to fill the earth. Ever since the fall, the trajectory of mankind was always intended to be away from Eden and into the world. But it seems that Adam and Eve didn’t wander far from the border of Eden. And their two sons chose to remain nearby as well. But after his sin, Cain was cursed to live the life of a wanderer – a nomad.
Yet, Cain ignored God’s edict and “settled in the land of Nod, east of Eden” (Genesis 4:16 ESV). He blatantly refused to live under God’s curse, choosing instead to settle down.
Cain knew his wife, and she conceived and bore Enoch. When he built a city, he called the name of the city after the name of his son, Enoch. – Genesis 4:17 ESV
Rather than wander, Cain settled down once again. And this same predisposition to ignore God’s mandate can be seen in Noah. When the floodwaters had receded and Noah was able to exit the ark, he and his three sons were assigned the task of fulfilling the divine mandate to fill the earth. But Noah decided to settle down instead.
Noah began to be a man of the soil, and he planted a vineyard. – Genesis 9:20 ESV
And Noah’s seemingly innocuous decision had devasting consequences. It resulted in the cursing of his own grandson and a growing division among all his progeny.
As each new generation came into existence, they continued the slow but steady movement away from Eden. Moses indicates that “as people migrated from the east, they found a plain in the land of Shinar and settled there” (Genesis 11:2 ESV). Whether they realized it or now, they were filling the earth. But, once again, mankind’s inherent desire for autonomy and self-determination raised its ugly head.
During Peleg’s lifetime, some of his relatives made the same fateful decision that Cain and Noah had made. They chose to settle down.
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.” – Genesis 11: 4 ESV
These industrious individuals decided to make bricks and build a tower to the sky – intended as a monument to their own ingenuity and industry. Their ambitious building project was motivated by a desire to “be like God, knowing good and evil” (Genesis 3:5). They wanted to be the determiners of their own fate and to control their collective destiny. Nowhere in this passage does Moses relate a command issued from God that they should construct a city. This had been their decision and it was purely self-centered and aimed at self-glorification. They wanted to make a name for themselves. Rather than choosing to glorify God, they attempted to glorify themselves. That same attitude is reflected in the words of one of their descendants, a powerful man who would build a great city and then one day proclaim:
“Look at this great city of Babylon! By my own mighty power, I have built this beautiful city as my royal residence to display my majestic splendor.” – Daniel 4:30 NLT
Nebuchadnezzar, the great king of Babylon, would attempt to rob glory from God and suffer the consequences. He gloried in his greatness as a self-made man. But God would give this egotistical king a painful lesson in humility and divine sovereignty. Nebuchadnezzar would have to learn “that the Most High rules over the kingdoms of the world and gives them to anyone he chooses” (Daniel 4:32 NLT).
And the overly ambitious and egotistical builders of the tower would learn a similar lesson about God’s sovereignty. When the Almighty saw what they were doing, He reacted immediately.
“Look!” he said. “The people are united, and they all speak the same language. After this, nothing they set out to do will be impossible for them! Come, let’s go down and confuse the people with different languages. Then they won’t be able to understand each other.” – Genesis 11:6-7 NLT
There are some who believe that these people were attempting to build a tower that would allow them to access God. But up until this point in the story, mankind had always considered Eden to be the home of God. It’s interesting to note that Adam and Eve had been banned from the garden, the place where they had enjoyed unbroken fellowship with God. And when their son, Cain, had been cursed by God, he “went away from the presence of the Lord and settled in the land of Nod, east of Eden” (Genesis 4:16 ESV).
The story of mankind is characterized by a constant movement away from God. Made in His image and designed to reflect His glory, humanity has made a habit out of distancing itself from God. And the apostle Paul paints a rather bleak portrait of the fallen state of mankind.
Since they thought it foolish to acknowledge God, he abandoned them to their foolish thinking and let them do things that should never be done. Their lives became full of every kind of wickedness, sin, greed, hate, envy, murder, quarreling, deception, malicious behavior, and gossip. They are backstabbers, haters of God, insolent, proud, and boastful. They invent new ways of sinning, and they disobey their parents. They refuse to understand, break their promises, are heartless, and have no mercy. They know God’s justice requires that those who do these things deserve to die, yet they do them anyway. Worse yet, they encourage others to do them, too. – Romans 1:28-32 NLT
In order to disrupt the self-aggrandizing efforts of the tower builders, God created an instant source of confusion by confounding their ability to communicate. In an instant, God turned their call to make a name for themselves into a cacophony of disparate languages. They could no longer understand one another. And with no common language, their ability to conspire against God evaporated.
Moses indicates that “the Lord scattered them all over the world, and they stopped building the city” (Genesis 11:8 NLT). This was a divine punishment that had sovereign consequences. God knew what He was doing. He was forcing humanity to obey His kingdom mandate and fill the earth. It was only in the fulfillment of that command that humanity could act as His image-bearers and bring glory to His name. His will would be done, whether they wanted to participate or not. And Moses states that “in this way, he scattered them all over the world” (Genesis 11:9 NLT).
But while the people dispersed, the tower and the city remained. The site became known as Babel. There is a powerful sense of irony in this story because the name Babel would become synonymous with the future nation of Babylon. In their language, Babel came to mean “the gate of God.” But in Hebrew, the word meant “confusion.” The site of Babel would become the future home of the mighty city of Babylon, the resplendent capital of Nebuchadnezzar’s vast domain. The very city over which he gazed and pridefully proclaimed, “Look at this great city of Babylon! By my own mighty power, I have built this beautiful city as my royal residence to display my majestic splendor.”
Man’s incessant pride is nothing more than misplaced glory that always results in confusion and conflict. Man’s consistent attempts to dethrone God have always produced nothing but chaos. The psalmist provides a sobering assessment of humanity’s ill-fated and futile attempts to replace God.
Why are the nations so angry?
Why do they waste their time with futile plans?
The kings of the earth prepare for battle;
the rulers plot together
against the Lord
and against his anointed one.
“Let us break their chains,” they cry,
“and free ourselves from slavery to God.”
But the one who rules in heaven laughs.
The Lord scoffs at them.
Then in anger he rebukes them,
terrifying them with his fierce fury. – Psalm 2:1-5 NLT
English Standard Version (ESV) The Holy Bible, English Standard Version. ESV® Permanent Text Edition® (2016). Copyright © 2001 by Crossway Bibles, a publishing ministry of Good News Publishers.