When the writer provides the generational records for Noah’s sons, he reverses the expected order. We are told first about Japheth’s sons the Hams. The line of Shem is delayed into chapter 11 and before that we have some further detail about what Ham’s descendants get up to. This will enable Moses to go on to introduce Shem’s line, like Seth’s as the godly line through whom the solution to Ham’s problem and Adam’s sin will come.
Read Genesis 11:1-9
At this stage, there is unity with all peoples on earth sharing the same language. The words used are “lip” and “words” and could refer to speech and song with wider implications not just for language but for ideology and worship/religion (v1). The people are migrating and the reach a plain, identifiable as Mesopotamia where they seek to settle (v2).
There, they address one another “come let us make bricks”, the exhortation mimics the words of God in Genesis 1, humans are seeking to create as God did, to bring order and structure. The reference to brick making foreshadows the forced labour in Egypt where God’s people will be required to make bricks without straw. With the bricks they seek to build a city and at its centre, a temple tower, reaching up to the sky, a prototype ziggurat. Notice their concern is that if they don’t do this, they will be scattered across the earth. Notice too the desire to “make a name for ourselves” with the belief that this will protect them. The aim is to develop an identity that will rival God’s and enable them to resist his purpose for them to spread out across his world (v3-4).
God comes down! Notice the irony. They seek to build something so magnificent that it will have its roof up in the clouds. They hope to reach up to God and to rival him. However, it is so puny that God has to stoop to inspect it (v5). God expresses concern that if they are not kept in check and constrained then the people will be able to do whatever they please, the evidence pre-flood is that unrestrained human power leads to unrestrained evil (v6). So God acts, his exhortatory “come let us” parallels the “come let us make bricks”. God steps in by bringing confusion so that they are unable to understand one another (v7).
The result is that the thing they feared happened because God scatters and disperses them. The city is left unfinished for the time and we must presume that for all its later glory that it never reached its originally intended potential (v8). They intended to make a name for themselves and that is achieved but not the one they wanted. The city becomes known as “babel” a word that plays on the name “Babylon” but suggests a babble or confusion of language (v9).
The name Babylon was understood by its citizens to refer to the city and its temple as being the gateway to the gods, the place where heaven and earth met so that humans could ascend. There are therefore a number of intentional ironies in the Bible’s account of its foundation. Yes, it does prove to be a gateway where heaven and earth meet because God, Yahweh himself does come down but in judgement not blessing. Furthermore, the impressive sounding name takes on a different meaning in Hebrew. What the world sees as proud, wise and strong turns out to be foolish.
God’s confusion of the languages is an act of judgement yet at the same time it also enables him to fulfil his purpose. The people are scattered so that they must spread out and fill the earth. Of course, it is likely that this would have led to diversity over time and evolution of different languages but perhaps with the potential to understand one another.
The remedy to Genesis 11 is found in Acts 2 as people are united by the Holy Spirit in praising the one God. Their words are still heard as babble by cynical unbelievers but though they continue to have diverse languages, God’s people are enabled to understand one another.
You and me?
This leaves us with a couple of questions to consider for ourselves.
- Do we seek a name for ourselves or to honour God’s name?
- Are we willing to be sent out by God to take his message out to the world and fulfil his new mandate, the Great Commission?