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Genesis 11:1-9: The Tower of Babel

January 24, 2009

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Genesis 11:1-9: The Tower of Babel

1 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."
5 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."
7 "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 (Genesis
11:1-9 NAS).

In this classic story from the Old Testament of the Bible, the
people of the Earth were building a colossal "staged temple-tower or
multi-storeyed ziggurat" (Douglas 111). Two questions might
immediately come to mind: What was the purpose or significance of
the tower? And why were its builders punished?

Dr. Harold L. Willmington gives an eisegetical appraisal of the
situation. He submits that in reality they had no intention of
building a tower that would actually reach into heaven. As evidence
he points out that they chose as their construction site a plain in
Shinar when a mountaintop location would have spared them a
tremendous amount of work (53). Willmington alleges the true
intentions of the builders:

Actually, the purpose of the tower was to provide a
common religious center as a rallying point, lest the
people be scattered. The builders of the tower were in
open defiance of God's command (Genesis 9:1) (53).

In the ninth chapter of Genesis, God commands Noah and his sons
to "Be fruitful and multiply, and fill the earth" (9:1 NAS). On the
fifth day of the creation of the Earth, God gave this command to the
birds and fishes (Gen. 1:20-23). On the sixth day, God reiterated
this command to the pinnacles of creation, man and woman (Gen.
1:26-28). Humanity was to subjugate the untamed Earth by dispersing
themselves.

The builders in Shinar banded together for a common ecumenical
purpose. Genesis 11:6 suggests that this assembly would have given
rise to projects of a purely secular nature. The people did not
consider that their misguided enthusiasm may have been just a bit
shortsighted. Considering the benevolent, omniscient knowledge of
God it appears that the long-term consequences of the Tower of Babel
might have resulted in a plight similar to the apostate state of
humanity (Gen. 6:1-5) prior to the sanctifying flood of the entire
Earth (Gen. 6:6-24).

Genesis 9:18-19 and the entire tenth chapter of Genesis contain
the Table of the Nations. All of the people alive at the time of
Babel were descended solely from the three sons of Noah.
Consequently, Shem, Ham and Japheth are the fathers of modern
civilization. Hayes remarks that Genesis 10 is specifically written
to demonstrate that all humanity descended from these three men
(146). As Noah was a virtuous man in the eyes of God (Gen. 6:8-9),
it is reasonable to presume that the commandments of God were passed
on to his sons.

Genesis chapter 10, verses 5, 20 and 32 also suggest that the
land of the Earth was physically divided at this time in response to
Babel. Genesis specifies: ". . . the name of the one was Peleg,
for in his days the earth was divided . . ." (10:25). Willmington
comments that "Peleg" means "division" (53). The coastal outlines
of the Earth's continents suggest the likely prior unification of
the various land masses. The terra firma can be viewed as a
once-unified puzzle now separated into its various fragments.

It is important to note that although chapter 10 precedes the
account of Babel in chapter 11, the events described in both
chapters are not rendered in a chronologically consecutive fashion.
Accordingly, it must be understood that the tenth chapter of Genesis
details events prior, during and after those described in chapter
11. Chapter 12 of Genesis portrays the beginning of God's
redemptive plan commencing with the call of Abram.

Despite the bleak future of Babel, God had promised Himself
never to destroy the Earth with a flood again due to the
disobedience of mankind (Gen. 8:20-22). God also made a covenant
with Noah, his descendents and "every living creature," that He
would never again destroy the Earth with a flood. Genesis 9:8-17
affirms that the rainbow serves as a personal reminder to God of His
covenant.

Accordingly, God separated the people to different lands and
languages to frustrate their self-destructive plans. Determined to
stay faithful to His covenant, this was God's only merciful
alternative in response to the tower. If the people were punished,
it was a light affliction administered. The reproof was quite mild
compared to the prior worldwide flood (Gen. 7:21-23). Similarly,
the rebuke of God at Babel hardly parallels the subsequent fiery
obliteration of Sodom and Gomorrah (Gen. 19:24-30).

Although at a casual glance this rebellion appears benign, it
has been demonstrated that this autonomous or self-governing spirit
would likely prove to be self-destructive. Willmington points out
that the first person plural pronouns "us" and "we" occur no less
than 5 times in this King James Version rendering of one sentence:

And they said, Go to, 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 (Gen. 11:4) (50).

Nowhere in the entire passage referring to the Tower of Babel is
there found the slightest indication that the builders considered
God's will in their plans. The Bible goes to great lengths to
confirm God's disdain for society's self-ruling ecumenical pursuits.
The Psalmist writes of God's intervention into the affairs of
humanity:

The LORD nullifies the counsel of the nations; He
frustrates the plans of the peoples (Psalm 33:10 NAS).

Archaeologists have long desired to locate the Tower of Babel.
They have been unfruitful in their efforts. There may be Scriptural
evidence for why the ruins have not been found. The land of Shinar
is shown in Zechariah 5:11 as a site for the city of Babylon. The
ancient city of Babylon was located some 80 kilometers south of
modern-day Baghdad, Iraq (Douglas 111). The Bible confirms that
Babel and Babylon were both located in Shinar. Of the history of
the Tower of Babel, Hayes states:

This episode (Gen. 11:1-9) was included . . . as the
capstone of . . . primeval history. . . . The original
story was . . . to explain the existence of multiple
language groups with its play on the words Babel
(Babylon) and babal ("confuse") (146).

Babylon is an apostate city frequently mentioned in the Old
Testament. From 2nd Kings 17:24 through Zechariah 6:10 there are at
least 257 direct references to Babylon (Strong's 94-95). Webster's
Ninth New Collegiate Dictionary defines ancient Babylon as: ". . .
a city devoted to materialism and the pursuit of sensual pleasure"
(122). In the 18th chapter of the Book of Revelation, Babylon
epitomizes mankind's final organized rebellion against the
sovereignty of God and is utterly destroyed. This parallels the
destruction of ancient Babylon, overthrown pursuant to the prophecy
of the 13th chapter of Isaiah.

Babel's founder was Nimrod the Hunter (Gen. 10:8-12), who also
was a "king of Shinar" (Webster's 798). Nimrod was a ruthless
conqueror of the ancient day with ambitious political aspirations
(Willmington 53). Willmington states: "Nimrod's name means 'let us
revolt'" (53). Genesis 10:9-12 shows that Babel was the first of
many cities that Nimrod established.

The Assyrian capital of Nineveh is enumerated (Gen. 10:11) as
one of the many cities built by Nimrod. The prophecy of the Book of
Jonah records God's solemn warning to the city to repent of its evil
ways. God sent the reluctant prophet Jonah to deliver the
admonition. Nineveh immediately repented. However, the prophecy of
the Book of Nahum declares that God's judgment would fall on the
subsequently backsliding and unrepentant Nineveh and that they would
be pillaged by the Babylonians, Scythians and the Medes.

In Genesis 11:5-7 an exceptionally rare and uncommon event
occurred. God personally visited the Tower of Babel to see what was
going on. Later, God paid a visit to the twin cities of Sodom and
Gomorrah to ascertain the degree of depravity of their inhabitants.
These cities were completely disintegrated by a fiery earthquake
metaphorically referred to as a "furnace" (Gen. 19:24-29).

Bible scholars believe that Sodom and Gomorrah stood at the
south end of what is now known as the Dead Sea (Douglas 944). As
with the Tower of Babel, Sodom and Gomorrah have never been found by
archaeologists. Isaiah prophesies of the forthcoming destruction
and perpetual desolation of Babylon. Babylon was sentenced to be
overthrown in a manner similar to the calamity executed upon Sodom
and Gomorrah:

And Babylon, the beauty of kingdoms, the glory of the
Chaldeans' pride, Will be as when God overthrew Sodom and
Gomorrah. It will never be inhabited or lived in from
generation to generation; Nor will the Arab pitch his
tent there, Nor will shepherds make their flocks lie down
there (Isaiah 13:19-20 NAS).

The cities of Babylon, Sodom, and Gomorrah reached unrepentant
stages of iniquity and therefore doomed themselves to destruction.
Contrarily, God frustrated the efforts of the builders at Babel
before they reached the point of no return. God thwarted their
plans in His benevolent omniscience.

So, the modern word "babbler" referring to an incoherent
individual has its roots in the Tower of Babel. Since they could
not communicate with one another, tempers flared and immediate
anarchy resulted. Each person appeared completely unintelligible in
their speech to the other, culminating in utter chaos.

The NIV Study Bible declares the meaning associated with Babel:
". . . The word is of Akkadian origin and means 'gateway to a god .
. .'" (23). The NIV Study Bible describes 4 other known temples or
ziggurats and the meanings associated with their names. First, at
Larsa, "The House of the Link between Heaven and Earth." Second, at
Borsippa, "The House of the Seven Guides of Heaven and Earth."
Thirdly, at Babylon, "The House of the Foundation-Platform of Heaven
and Earth." Lastly, at Asshur, "The House of the Mountain of the
Universe" (23). There is a common theme of "stairway to heaven" in
all of these names and parallels the desire to build a tower to
heaven as indicated in Genesis 11:4.

There is a method for unlocking the history written in the
Bible. The stories and events depicted in the Old Testament are
often reversed, reiterated, repeated or redefined in the New
Testament. Applying this concept facilitates interpretation of the
Bible and greatly enhances its dramatic impact upon the reader.

With this in mind, a parallel can be drawn between Genesis
11:1-9 and a significant event found in the Book of Acts. This
event is accepted as the beginning of the Church Age. However, the
two events are inversely correlated. In Acts, the disciples of
Jesus are at work bringing converts into the Christian church.
Jesus Christ's promise of the Holy Spirit to the believers (Luke
24:49; John 14:26, 15:26, 16:7; Acts 1:5, 8) is about to manifest.
God then acts to unite His followers in the proper fashion:

When the day of Pentecost came, they were all together in
one place. Suddenly a sound like the blowing of a
violent wind came from Heaven and filled the whole house
where they were sitting. They saw what seemed to be
tongues of fire that separated and came to rest on each
of them. All of them were filled with the Holy Spirit
and began to speak in other tongues as the Spirit enabled
them (Acts 2:1-4 NIV).

When the resurrected Christ sent the Holy Spirit to the
disciples it confirmed that the "stairway to heaven" sought by the
ancients had been established. However, this gateway was not
accomplished by human initiative or effort but by the supernatural
power and grace of God. The timing and purpose were of God's
determination, not of the people. The Book of Acts details the
marvelous accomplishments by the Christians empowered by the Holy
Spirit.

And not only were their spirits united, but the language barrier
was broken. The disunity initiated by the scattering at the tower
of Babel has begun to be reversed and this time God gets the glory:

Now there were staying in Jerusalem God-fearing Jews from
every nation under heaven. When they heard this sound, a
crowd came together in bewilderment, because each one
heard them speaking in his own language. Utterly amazed,
they asked: "Are not all these men who are speaking
Galileans? Then how is it that each of us hears them in
his own native language? Parthians, Medes and Elamites;
residents of Mesopotamia, Judea and Capadocia, Pontus and
Asia, Phrygia and Pamphylia, Egypt and the parts of Libya
near Cyrene; visitors from Rome (both Jews and converts
to Judaism); Cretans and Arabs--we hear them declaring
the wonders of God in our own tongues! (Acts 2:5-11
NIV).

The Apostle Peter preaches in Acts 2:14-41 sharing the Gospel of
Jesus Christ to all who were attending. There is debate whether the
tongues were actual foreign languages or a supernatural
understanding (Acts 2:8, 11). Barclay argues against the
manifestation of foreign languages in this event (21-22).

The Tower of Babel is extremely significant to the epic of the
Bible. The story is much more than God indiscriminately
interrupting an insignificant building project. The Tower of Babel
marks the origins of the nations of the Earth. Will its mistakes be
repeated by future generations?

Works Cited

Barclay, William. The Acts of the Apostles. Philadelphia,
Pennsylvania: The Westminster Press, 1976.

Douglas, J. D. New Bible Dictionary - Second Edition. Wheaton,
Illinois: Tyndale House Publishers, Inc., 1982.

Harper Study Bible (New American Standard Version). Grand
Rapids, Michigan: The Zondervan Corporation, 1985.

Hayes, John H. Introduction to the Bible. Philadelphia,
Pennsylvania: The Westminster Press, 1971.

Strong, James. Strong's Exhaustive Concordance of the Bible.
Peabody, Massachusetts: Hendrickson Publishers.

The NIV Study Bible (New International Version). Grand Rapids,
Michigan: Zondervan Bible Publishers, 1985.

Webster's Ninth New Collegiate Dictionary. Springfield,
Massachusetts: Merriam-Webster, Inc., 1989.

Willmington, Harold L. Willmington's Survey Of The Old
Testament. Wheaton, Illinois: Victor Books, 1987.

Zodhiates, Spiros. The Hebrew-Greek Key Study Bible (King James
Version). Chattanooga, Tennessee: AMG Publishers, 1985.

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