And they said, “Come, let us build us a city, and a tower, whose top may reach unto heaven, and let us make us a name; lest we be scattered abroad upon the face of the whole earth” (Genesis 11:4).
It may seem like just a little story tucked in-between the stories of Noah and Abraham; one might easily pass over it as they read in Genesis. And yet the story of the Tower of Babel proves instructive in many ways.
The Genesis author sets forth the story of the tower of Babel in order to explain how humanity has reached its present condition. After the Flood all humanity spoke the same language (Genesis 11:1); they remained together and came upon a plain in the land of Shinar (Genesis 11:2). They did not want to be scattered, and so they planned to build a tower whose top would reach high into the heavens (Genesis 11:3-4). God saw what they were doing, and recognized the very strong potential of what humans could do when they were all of the same mind and purpose (Genesis 11:5-6). God determined to confound them by confusing their speech; if they could not understand each other, they would prove unable to work with one another (Genesis 11:7). Thus it happened, and from then on humans scattered around the world, as God had intended, and we all speak different languages to this day (Genesis 11:8). The place was called “Babel” (Greek Babylon), the Hebrew word for “confusion,” because there God confused the languages of mankind (Genesis 11:9).
From the story of the Tower of Babel we thus learn why people speak different languages and how Babylon both came to be and received its name. We also learn about just how effectively humans can work together if they can effectively communicate with one another; God says that there is nothing we cannot do (Genesis 11:5-6)! So why would God want to hinder us from doing so?
The problem with, and thus great and important lesson of, the tower of Babel is found in humanity’s motivations for its construction. They built the tower to make a name for themselves and to avoid being scattered over the face of the earth (Genesis 11:4). As humans, we like to think it is a good thing when we work together. Unfortunately, as is evident throughout time, humans too often work together for their own aggrandizement. They work together to use resources, to attack others and deprive them of resources, and to build monuments to their own greatness. God felt compelled to separate mankind from each other lest the entire creation be overrun with human “development” and “progress”!
Thus, when fallen man is left to his own devices, he builds some sort of monument to his own greatness and to keep him from feeling so alone and isolated in the world. Such things do not lead him back to the God who created him; they inflate his pride and ambitions. Therefore, while man has stopped attempting to build the tower of Babel, man has never stopped attempting to build all sorts of other Babels, monuments to their own greatness, attempting to stand and work against God’s purposes for His creation.
What would have happened if the Bible ended at Genesis 11:9? At that point man was lost in his sins with no hope for redemption, having been separated from his God since the Garden of Eden (Genesis 3:1-24). After Babel man was separated from one another (Genesis 11:7-9). Mankind was separated from its God, from one another, without a nation, without a hope (cf. Ephesians 2:11-12). After Babel God chose one man, Abraham, and through him would provide hope for redemption in Israel (cf. Genesis 12:1ff). The hope of Israel was found in Jesus of Nazareth who provided reconciliation between God and man and through whom the curse of Babel is undone; in the Spirit His Apostles proclaimed the mighty works of God in many languages (Acts 2:7-11, Romans 5:6-11). After Babel man despaired; through Christ, the promised Seed of Abraham, all mankind has hope in God. May we serve God in Christ and be saved!
Ethan R. Longhenry