Genesis 11:1-4… Now the whole earth used the same language and the same words. 2 And it came about as they journeyed east, that 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 used brick for stone, and they used tar for mortar. 4 And they said, “Come, let us build for ourselves a city, and a tower whose top will reach into heaven, and let us make for ourselves a name; lest we be scattered abroad over the face of the whole earth.”
The word for “earth” here refers to the people of the earth, and at this point in the Genesis narrative there is no way to know exactly how many there actually were. Genesis 10:25 says that in Peleg’s day the earth was divided. If Peleg refers to the events that transpired following the building of the Tower of Babel, then a conservative estimation of the earth’s population at that time would be somewhere around 1,500 people given that Peleg was the great-great-grandson of Shem (who had fives sons; Japheth had seven sons; Ham had four sons). Whatever the population was in that day, they all spoke the same language (“one lip and one set of words”).
Verse 2 speaks of these people journeying east. Apparently the area of Ararat where the ark came to rest was not where these people wanted to stay, and the fact that they journeyed “east” to the land of Shinar (Babylon; modern Iraq), directly south of Ararat, means that they had already traveled southwest in search of a place in which to settle. At any rate, their eastward journey brought them to the land of Shinar, and it is there that they settled. This area of the globe is located in what is known as the Fertile Crescent – Mesopotamia. There are two rivers there that were named by these settlers as “Tigris and Euphrates” – likely in memory of the ones that flowed out of Eden in the beginning (2:10-14). They did indeed pick an area to settle in that was far more conducive to agriculture and beauty than the area of the Ararat Mountains. This is also the area and the time period that Nimrod is said to have built four cities in Shinar called Babel, Erech, Accad, and Calneh. These settlers had come to an area already beginning to thrive.
Verses 3-4 pictures a thriving society of people who have come together for a common purpose. They are set on building buildings using “bricks and burning them thoroughly.” The common Israelite practice was to use stone and mortar, but the Babylonians used sun-dried bricks and a slimy bitumen (asphalt) that archaeologists have found to be common in that region. Their purpose is revealed in verse 4… they agree to build a city and a tall tower that reaches to the sky. Though this endeavor is not evil in and of itself, their motive for building such was. They wanted to make a name for themselves with this city so that they could stay together without fulfilling God’s commission to “fill the earth and multiply” (9:1) – to “populate the earth abundantly and multiply in it” (9:7). They had an alternative plan that differed from God’s commission, and they set out to thwart God through the building of their city complete with a tower that would reach to the highest heavens.
Food for Thought
Mankind hasn’t strayed far away from the rebellion in Genesis 11. He still enjoys making his own rules in spite of God’s warnings to the contrary. God forbids humans having anything in their lives that take a place of authority over Him, yet man continually places his faith in money and material pleasures. God forbids the taking of His name in vain, yet today’s society loves to place curse words before and after God and quote the oft-used phrase “Oh my God!” God forbids adultery, yet extra-marital affairs and divorce are so common even in the church today that most people hardly bat an eye. No, mankind hasn’t change much in 6,000 years. Will we ever?
Genesis 11:5-6… And the LORD came down to see the city and the tower which the sons of men had built. 6 And the LORD said, “Behold, they are one people, and they all have the same language. And this is what they began to do, and now nothing which they purpose to do will be impossible for them.”
There appears to be a hint of sarcasm in verse 5. As the rebellion against God to remain in one city unfolded – as they built a tower to reach into heaven so as to make a name for themselves – God comes down to see it. It apparently wasn’t tall enough! While they’re building upward in arrogance, God has to come down to see it. Now this is another example of an anthropomorphism (assigning human traits to the unseen God), and it in no way teaches that God needs to get closer in order to get a better view of what’s going on with mankind. God is always fully aware of everything, and His “coming down” in this passage is about judgment. He’s been longsuffering amidst the free will of humans who have chosen the path of rebellion (a path all humans take) in building the tower and city up to this point, and now He is taking His seat in judgment. It is God’s will that the people multiply and fill the earth, but it is the people’s will to rebel and stay together, making a name for themselves. God knows that there is great danger in this, and in the same way that He intervened in the days of Noah (when the “sons of God had come into the daughters of men” in Gen. 6) so as to thwart the will of man, He does so here too.
The tower that is being built by these rebels is akin to the Mesopotamian ziggurat – a massive brick staircase building. Dr. B.K. Waltke says, “This humanly created mountain gave humanity access to heaven and served as a convenient stairway for the gods to come down into their temple and into the city.” The most famous of all ziggurats today is in Babylon, and its name is “The House of the Foundation of Heaven and Earth.” These structures had a small shrine at the top that was painted blue so as to blend in with the sky where it was believed the gods dwelled. The worshippers could ascend to the top of the tower and commune with the gods who presumably found favor in this. The shrine at the top had paintings on the walls and three-dimensional representations of men, birds, and four-footed beasts and creeping things. These designs took on a whole new life of their own in later times in the signs of the zodiac.
God’s response in verse six is intriguing. He sees that the people are “one people,” but their cohesion comes as a result of speaking the same language. God then sees the end result of such an endeavor when He admits “now nothing which they propose to do will be impossible for them.” Apparently with one language and one common purpose to rebel against the plan of God, their plans would lead them into a world of endless possibilities. However, since the “intent of man’s heart is evil from his youth” (8:21) the possibilities that existed lead only to destruction. Verses 7-9 will show that God’s study of man’s rebellion will lead Him to another act of grace.
Food for Thought
The city and tower these people were building were to be a symbol of their pride and accomplishment. They wanted to make a name for themselves so they undertook the task of building and coming together to make their name, not God’s, great. It worked for a while, and by God’s own admission it would have progressed more and more without His intervention.
If God “came down” upon your life today what would He find? What are you attempting to build so as to make your name great? God acted against the builders in Babel for their own good so as to keep them from becoming something that would destroy them. Proverbs 16:18 says, “Pride goes before destruction…” Is there a fall in your future as a result of pride?
Genesis 11:7-9… “Come, let Us go down and there confuse their language, that they may not understand one another's speech.” 8 So the LORD scattered them abroad from there over the face of the whole earth; and they stopped building the city. 9 Therefore its name was called Babel, because there the LORD confused the language of the whole earth; and from there the LORD scattered them abroad over the face of the whole earth.
Verse seven pictures God in the divine assembly. He is speaking to someone just as He did in Genesis 1:26. The question of who He is speaking to is a matter of conjecture, but it seems clear that either He is speaking with the members of the Trinity (Father, Son, Holy Spirit) and/or the heavenly host of angels who are “ministering spirits sent out to render service for the sake of those who will inherit salvation” (Hebrews 1:14). His solution to man’s rebellion is that all of them go down to the earth and confuse their language so “that they may not understand one another’s speech.” Human language is a miracle in and of itself, and it cannot be adequately explained by those who espouse evolutionary teachings. Barks from dogs and grunts from other beasts simply do not evolve into languages as we know them. Language is an unexplainable phenomenon that all humans are born with. When God sets out to confuse the one language on the earth at that point it stands to reason that without a common understanding of communication among the builders of the city and tower, they would have to terminate the project.
Verse seven also begs the question of how this “divine assembly” went down to earth to confuse the language of mankind. It is clear that later on in Genesis 18-19 the Sovereign God actually appeared to Abraham in bodily form. This was no doubt the pre-incarnate Lord Jesus Christ, but He was also accompanied by two angels who later made their way into the town of Sodom to seek Lot and save him from the impending disaster. When the wicked men of the city wanted to rape these angel-men, they supernaturally blinded them. Now with this in mind, it stands to reason that it may have occurred the same way in the above account. The Lord had already “come down” to observe what the inhabitants of Shinar were doing. Now in verse seven He goes down again with His heavenly host, presumably to the very earth itself in the same manner He does with Abraham. The result of what happened is explained in verse eight: “The Lord scattered them abroad from there over the face of the whole earth; and they stopped building the city.” The people’s greatest fear in verse four of being scattered abroad over the face of the whole earth was now coming to pass in verse nine. Any why not? This was God’s plan for them in the first place to multiply greatly and fill the earth (cf. 9:1, 7). From that day forward verse nine says that the place was called “Babel” (“confusion”), short for Babylon (modern Iraq).
Food for Thought
In reference to the oft-asked question of where did all the culturally diverse ethnic groups arise if we all came from one man and woman, Dr. H.M. Morris says, “It is well established genetically that variations take place very quickly in a small inbreeding population but slowly in a large interbreeding population. In the latter, only the dominant genes will find common expression in the outward physical characteristics of the population. In a small population the particular suite of genes that may be present in its members, though recessive in the larger population, will have opportunity to become openly expressed and even dominant under these circumstances. Thus, in a very few generations of such inbreeding, distinctive characteristics of skin color, height, hair texture, facial features, temperament, environmental adjustments, and others, could come to be associated with particular tribes and nations.”