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Genesis 11:1-9 is one of those sections within the Bible where many people believe they have it figured out. The story of the Tower of Babel is one where most, if not the majority of Christians, know something about. For them, this is where the different nationalities of people came from. This is where the different languages are derived. Well, you are right, but is there more to the story than that? You better believe there is!
The story of the Tower of Babel actually fits in between Noah’s death and Abram’s beginning. The story takes place over a long span of time. We have already seen the division of “clans” and “languages” in chapter 10.
The people came together in one language and one speech. The opening verses establish the unity of mankind, both in its language and its habitation. This will be reversed by the time the story ends.
When the author speaks of “the whole earth,” he means the inhabitants of the earth collectively. He shares with us that “all the people” had one common language and a common speech. They understood one another very well.
They came together in one place. The people journeyed eastward into a plain in the land of Shinar, and they dwelt there. We have seen the name Shinar in 10:10 where it casts Nimrod’s career in the shadow of the infamous Tower of Babel. Shinar is actually the name for Babylon. Babylon is an empire that every Christian should know about. It is found in modern day Iraq.
Shinar is the place where the people decide to live and make their homes.The people came together for a common cause. They wanted to build a city. They knew how to make mortar and bricks which means they were builders in many respects. They had bricks for stone and they had asphalt for mortar. With all the building materials they needed, they decided to build themselves a city. This does not sound bad until you see what else they decide to do.
Not only did the people want to build a city, but they wanted to build a tower to heaven, sort of a stairway to heaven. Their vision was for the top of the tower to reach all the way into the heavens. This also does sound bad considering that we have skyscrapers that do reach into the sky.
So why did the people want to do such a thing? The people undertook this mammoth project because they wanted to make a name for themselves; they were searching for some type of immortality. That humans find a sense of immortality in erecting monumental buildings is seen even in ancient times! The people’s unity was one bestowed by God, not founded on a social state. The people resisted God’s command to “fill the earth.” In their eyes their security rested on them remaining together, and they set about to preserve their union by building the city as a haven with its symbolic tower to heaven.
So what happens when God sees and hears what the people are doing? Unlike the flood event, where God’s anger is stirred and the measures taken are extreme, here we encounter a God who responds to human frailty as he did in the garden with Adam and Eve.
Actually this verse is quiet entertaining. The necessary descent of God and the people’s enterprise of creating a tower to heaven shows the escapade for what it was --- a tiny tower, conceived by a puny plan and attempted by a pint-sized people. The LORD is dismayed by the people’s work. Communication with all of its comforts has become their entanglement, for it has left them as a single people rather than the diversity that God had intended. God is dismayed because the people will spend more time and effort on anything and everything they can think of instead of spending it for what God desires.
In response, we see the Trinity at work once again. We see this when man was created, now we see it when God will take care of business. To put an end to the people’s ridiculous vision, the Godhead makes it so that the people cannot speak or understand each other. Their confused speech and language causes them to stop their building program and then the LORD scatters them abroad from there over the face of the earth. What they had set out to do on their own was now over.
The Babel story teaches us that the will of God supersedes the designs of man. God did not instruct them to build this tower, but rather to fill the earth which they were not doing. In trying to remain together, they actually fell apart.
Keith Stewart is pastor of Morriston Baptist Church.