Our story of humanity so far has been about rebellion and rescue. We’ve seen Adam and Eve sin and face both judgement and grace, we’ve observed this pattern repeated through Cain and Abel. We’ve then watched as evil has filled the earth leading to judgement through cataclysm. There was salvation in the midst of The Flood though as God acted to rescue Noah and his family. What though will redeemed humanity do with this second chance? Will they seize the moment and seek to re-populate the world with God’s image bearers or will they relapse like their forebearers into rebellion?
Tower builders (Genesis 11:1-9)
V1 After the flood, God’s people have begin to multiply again and to fill the earth. Genesis 10 indicates that we are now entering a new phase of history with a list of “the generations of the sons of Noah.” This shows the multiplication and spreading out of the people into many nations, however, that progression is not smooth. We find the people in v 1 speaking as one. The reference both to lip and word suggests not just that they spoke the same language but that they shared worship, religion and ideology. This is important because it means that whilst common language enabled effective communication, if religion and worldview were shared then we need to know if this was a good thing or not. Were the people united in praise of YHWH or against him? The rest of the narrative will make this plain.
V2-3. Events are located around Shinar and Mesopotamia, the cradle of civilisation. The people find a plain suitable for settling on and develop the technology to mass produce bricks ready for building a city. The location eastward both locates the descendants of Noah on their journey away from the Ark and locates the events described east of Canaan in relation to its intended audience. There are also echoes back to Genesis 3-4 and the movement of Adam and his heirs east from Eden.
V4. A decision is made to build a city with a tall tower at its centre. Notice the use of the phrase “Come let us…” The people are deliberating about a creative act. Their words here echoing the frequent use of “let us” to describe God’s actions and decisions in Genesis. Will they be following in God’s purposes, in his image? Or is their intent to rival God? We soon find out as they make their intentions clear. Their aim is to:
- Build a tower which reaches to the heavens
- Make a name for themselves
- Prevent their dispersal and scattering.
There actions are seen to be against YHWH. By seeking to reach up into the heavens, they are looking for power and security. They are looking to ascend to the throne of God. Their aim is to exalt their own name and identity, in other words to draw fame and attention to themselves. As those who were made in God’s image, they were meant to bear and honour his name.
Furthermore, their desire to remain in one place indicates an intention to thwart God’s purposes and resist his creation mandate. They talk negatively in terms of scattering but God’s purpose was for them to multiple and spread out to fill the earth.
V5. In an ironic response to the lofty ambitions of the people, believing that they can build a tower into the heavens, the narrator speaks in terms of God having to come down to inspect their work! They have failed to reach God by a long way. As Wenham puts it:
“With heavy irony, we now see the tower through God’s eyes. This tower which man thought reached to heaven, God can hardly see. From the heights of heaven it seems so insignificant so the Lord must come down to look at it.”
This reminds us that all human efforts to reach God fail.
V6. However, God is concerned that their united purpose and ambitions will lead to trouble, that they will be able to achieve what they set out to do. It’s not that they are invincible compared to God but rather that they will be united in godless plans that will result in their own harm. As Wenham notes, there are echoes here of God’s deliberations in Genesis 3 about where the first sin might lead and the implications of man and woman going on to eat from the Tree of Life.
“Only God may plan without limit. Man is not supposed to emulate his creator in this way.”
V7. We now have the second use of the phrase “Come let us…” Now it is God who determines to act in order to thwart their plans and bring their building project to a halt. God does this by bringing confusion. The people no-longer share a common language leading to a breakdown in communication. This would also suggest that there is a falling out over religion and ideology too. Incidentally, this may well have taken place over time rather than instantaneously, just as the tower would have taken a long time to build.
V8. The result is that the people end up scattered despite their best efforts to avoid this. Observe that this means the events here reflect both judgement and blessing. You see, their desire to remain in one place is in resistance to God’s blessing. So, whilst there is the curse of confusion and scattering, at the same time this ensures that the Creation Mandate to fill and subdue the earth is eventually fulfilled.
V9. The place where this happened is now identified as Babel. The root word here is clearly a reference to Babylon. Babylonians thought of their city and it’s temple ziggurat as the “gate way to the gods” and that is the etymological root of its name. By way of word play, the author of Genesis insists in fact a Hebraic origin. The name refers not to a gateway to the gods but rather a confusion or babel. 
Implications from Babel
Unity and diversity
Before we come to the heart of what Genesis 10-11 has to say about the human condition, I’d like to make a preliminary observation. Babel has something to say about race, ethnicity and identity. This is something we will come back to later.
The traditional view has been that Babel was overwhelmingly negative. Humanity sinned and the result was a further curse. From that perspective, one expected consequence of salvation is that the peoples of earth should be brought together again. Pentecost is therefore seen as a correction to Babel. Where the people had been divided by different languages, we now see them united through the sending of the Holy Spirit and the gift of tongues.
I think we are right to see parallels between Babel and Pentecost. Certainly, there is a corrective to be seen in Acts 2. Confusion is replaced by clear communication. All are able to hear and understand. However, it is worth noting that even in the context of the Pentecost miracle, that people still hear in their own language. It isn’t that the diversity is replaced with homogeneity. Diversity is retained but its negative side effects are removed.
From such a perspective, we might assume that just as a gradual spreading out of people around the world and into different environments would have led to greater physical diversity, that in the same way, we may have expected languages to evolve and diversify. This would not have necessarily been negative without the shock and confusion of Babel.
Whilst we think of judgement and curse at Babel, perhaps them we should also seek to emphasise God’s grace in the situation, just as we see God’s grace to Adam in Eve in his provision for them of clothing and his guarantee of work and children in Genesis 3. God judges with confusion but through this, he enables humanity to return to his original creation plan. The whole world will be filled with people, language and culture.
It does however, challenge our expectations on what post-Pentecost church life is meant to like. This is particularly pertinent to debates about homogeneity within church and also around racial injustice. Should the church for want of a better term be “colour blind?” Hays writes:
“All manifestations of racial and ethnic divisiveness are betrayals of the true gospel.”
Whilst his view is that the Gospel should transcend ethnic differences, the trajectory here seems to be towards the elimination of diversity within church life. However, if diversity was meant to be part and parcel of our filling and subduing the world, then perhaps a healthy church should seek not to eliminate but to reflect that diversity within unity.
What kind of unity?
The key implication of the Babel incident is what it tells us about the nature of human unity. At the start we saw that the people were united in speech reflecting language, ideology and worship. The question was about whether that unity was in service to God’s mission or against it.
We’ve seen that at this stage, the human race was united in its opposition to God. There is a hostility to God which leads to fear of God’s plans and purposes. Blessing is seen as curse to be resisted. Therefore, the aim of humankind at Babel was to refuse the terms of the blessing in Genesis 1:26-28. Whilst the people were happy to be fruitful and multiply, they did not believe that they could subdue creation and so chose not to spread out and fill the earth.
Instead, humanity was united in seeking to rival God by building a name and reputation for themselves. The joke in this chapter is that although they believed their efforts to be noble, they in fact turned out to be puny and futile. They were not able to match the glory and fame of God, nor could they resist his will.
A Tale of Two Cities
Finally, the Tower of Babel story sets up the conflict between to great cities. Whilst, the events of Babel would have predated the foundation of the actual Babylon and its Ziggurat, this is proto-Babylon. Babylon will become the rival to Jerusalem, God’s holy city. It will be the capital of an empire that will launch terror upon God’s people and will eventually become a place of exile for God’s people. Yet, there is Babylon, the exiles will discover grace again, there the prophet Daniel will meet with God and receive prophecies pointing to the restoration of Zion, the resurrection of God’s people and the coming of the Son of Man.
A theme emerging in the first chapters of Genesis is that there are two distinctive lines of descent. Yes, there is Babel and Babylon. There are sons of Adam who choose to follow in his sin, there are the descendants of Cain of Ham and Canaan. However, there are also the sons of God, Seth’s line, Shem’s line and soon the heirs of Abraham Isaac and Jacob. There will always be those who discover true righteousness through faith.
 Kidner, Genesis, 110.
 Goldingay, Genesis, 187.
 Wenham, Genesis 1-15, 240.
 Wenham, Genesis 1-15, 240,
 Wenham, Genesis 1-15, 241.
 Wenham, Genesis 1-15, 241.
 See e.g. Mark Kreitzer, “The Table of Nations, The Tower of Babel and Ethnic Solidarity,” Published in Global Missiology, Featured Articles, July 2004. 12. Cited 24th November 2007 Online: www.globalmissiology.net,
 Kreitzer, “Table of Nations,” 13.
 RB Hays, cited in Daniel Hays, From Every People and Nation. A Biblical Theology of Race (New Studies in Biblical Theology, Apollos, Leicester:2003), 183.
 Hays would be arguing that differences are transcended but not removed. The latter would be a more extreme version of this position. See Hays, From Every People and Nation, 199.