The Significance of Genesis: The Tower of Babylon, How does Babel Connect with the Rest of the Bible? (Genesis 11:1-9)
Prepared and preached by Pastor Steve Rhodes for and at Bethel Friends Church in Poland, OH on Sunday, July 24, 2022
Over the course of several months, Peter Skillman conducted a study pitting the skill of elite university students against that of the average kindergartner. Groups of four built structures using 20 pieces of spaghetti, 1 yard of tape, 1 yard of string, and 1 marshmallow. The only rule, the marshmallow had to end up on top.
Business students began by diagnosing the task, formulating a solution, and assigning roles. The kindergarteners, by contrast, got right to work, trying, failing, and trying again. Author Daniel Coyle explains the outcome, “We presume skilled individuals will combine to produce skilled performance.” But this assumption is wrong. In dozens of trials, the kindergartners built structures that averaged 26 inches tall, while the business school students built structures that averaged less than 10 inches.
We see smart, experienced business school students, and we find it difficult to imagine that they would combine to produce a poor performance. We see unsophisticated, inexperienced kindergartners, and we find it difficult to imagine that they would combine to produce a successful performance . . . individual skills are not what matters. What matters is the interaction.
The kindergartners succeed not because they are smarter but because they work together in a smarter way. They are tapping into a simple and powerful method in which a group of ordinary people can create a performance far beyond the sum of their parts.
Human beings are amazing. Our abilities to build and communicate are amazing. Today, we will look at the tower of babel incident. What is with this story? Why does it matter? Well, let’s find out.
My theme today is:
The tower of Babel, God intervenes to help humanity and prevent sin.
- The Sin (11:1–4): All human beings attempt to unify themselves for their own glory.
Read with me Genesis 11:1-4: Now the whole earth had one language and the same words. And as people migrated from the east, they found a plain in the land of Shinar and settled there. And they said to one another, “Come, let us make bricks, and burn them thoroughly.” And they had brick for stone, and bitumen for mortar. Then they said, “Come, let us build ourselves a city and a tower with its top in the heavens, and let us make a name for ourselves, lest we be dispersed over the face of the whole earth.
- This section seems to not be after Genesis 10, but sometime during Genesis 10.
- The whole earth used the same language, or more literally, one set of words. This does not mean simple language. Instead, it means one language.
- CSB: The tower of Babylon incident occurred earlier than at least some of the events of chap. 10 since the whole earth still had the same language and vocabulary (10:5, 20, 31).
- I like what MacArthur shares: God, who made man as the one creature with whom He could speak (1:28), was to take the gift of language and use it to divide the race, for the apostate worship at Babel indicated that man had turned against God in pride (11:8, 9).
- Verse 2: they journey east…
Dr Constable: Some of the Hamites migrated “east” (specifically southeast) to the plain of Shinar (cf. 10:10). This was in the Mesopotamian basin (modern Iraq).
“In light of such intentional uses of the notion of ‘eastward’ within the Genesis narratives, we can see that here too the author intentionally draws the story of the founding of Babylon into the larger scheme at work throughout the book. It is a scheme that contrasts God’s way of blessing (e.g., Eden and the Promised Land) with man’s own attempt to find the ‘good.’ In the Genesis narratives, when man goes ‘east,’ he leaves the land of blessing (Eden and the Promised Land) and goes to a land where the greatest of his hopes will turn to ruin (Babylon and Sodom).365
- The land of Shinar corresponds to ancient Babylonia and includes the region of the cities of Babylon, Erech, Accad, and Calneh (10:10). Migrated from the east can be translated “migrated eastward.”
- They find a plain… God had commanded them to fill the earth (Genesis 1, 2, and 9), but they were all together in one place, so God in His mercy is going to help them spread out.
- Verse 3 continues now with what is going to happen.
- Notice they say, “Let us…” this is echoing God’s language from Genesis 1. They want to be like God. See Gen 1:24.
- Verse 4: they are gathered all together and they are united in a common purpose, but it is the wrong purpose.
- The people’s pride and ambition is expressed in three different ways: (1) the fivefold use of the first-person pronouns—us (three times), ourselves (twice), and we; (2) their desire to build … a tower into the sky, thus giving them access to “the heavens,” the domain of God; and (3) their attempt at self-glorification—let us make a name for ourselves. Because they did it to avoid being scattered throughout the earth, all their efforts amounted to a rebellion against God and his command to fill the earth (9:1).
- Think of Stonehenge.
- Do you hear the ignorance and insurrection? Lest we be dispersed (ESV)…
- Or, be scattered in NASB…
- “Let us” again…
- Build a city
- A tower that will reach to the heavens…
- Make for ourselves a name…
- Notice repetition of “us,” “ourselves,” and “we.”
- This is human pride.
- This is human depravity.
- God is not as much judging them, but rather in His grace He is saving them from their own sin by scattering them.
- Humanity’s great sin is, in any event, explicitly indicated in v. 4, centered in their collective desire—expressed with one “voice” (Come, let us)—to build for ourselves a city, and a tower … and … make for ourselves a name. In other words the building project itself did not represent man’s sin. Instead the sin was in the purpose for which the building project was undertaken, to “make for ourselves a name.”
- This is, in essence, the first expression of secular humanism (i.e., the promotion of human values and achievement to the exclusion of theological ones). In contrast, God promises Abram that as part of the promised blessing, God would make his name great.
- The Sentence (11:5–9): God scatters them by confusing their language at the tower of Babel.
Read with me Genesis 11:5-9: And the Lord came down to see the city and the tower, which the children of man had built. And the Lord said, “Behold, they are one people, and they have all one language, and this is only the beginning of what they will do. And nothing that they propose to do will now be impossible for them. Come, let us go down and there confuse their language, so that they may not understand one another’s speech.” So the Lord dispersed them from there over the face of all the earth, and they left off building the city. Therefore its name was called Babel, because there the Lord confused the language of all the earth. And from there the Lord dispersed them over the face of all the earth.
- The Lord comes down… That phrase is anthropomorphic in nature. It is ascribing to God human attributes. We see it other places: Gen 18:21; Ex 3:8; 19:11, 18, 20.
- In Genesis 18:21 it seems to be a Theophany or more likely a Christophany where God is present in human form.
- The Lord knows what is going on as He is omniscient and omnipresent.
- Notice verse 5 says “children of man” had built. This seems to be emphasizing the descendants of humanity multiplying.
- Verse 6: The Lord speaks.
- Who is the Lord talking to?
- It seems to be just like in Genesis 1:3, 24 and throughout that passage. God is speaking to either the angels, or the Godhead. This could also be anthropomorphic language, that is ascribing to God human attributes. This could be sharing with us God’s thinking.
- God has great concern. In their depravity with the same language and the same location this could lead to very bad things.
- Verse 7: God intervenes, He does what they were trying to prevent in verse 4. This is an act of grace.
- God confuses their language.
- God says, “Let Us go down…” Again, anthropomorphic language as God is omnipresent.
- CSB: Perhaps the most dramatic Hebrew wordplay in the tower of Babylon episode involves the deliberate reversal of sounds between vv. 3 and 7. Humans created brick—a word that contains the sound sequence l-b-n in Hebrew—to rebel against God. In response God created confusion—a Hebrew word containing n-b-l—to reverse the evil human plot.
- Some scholars believe that this judgment also involved the implantation of ethnic and racial distinctions in humankind. The Table of Nations in chapter 10 may imply this.371
- Verse 8 gets interesting. The Lord had already confused their language. Now it says, the Lord “Scattered them abroad from there over the face of the whole earth…”
- It seems that God is confusing their language and scattering them.
- God scattered them and they stopped building the city.
- The name of that city was called “Babel”which means to confuse.
- The Lord confused the language of the “whole” earth and “scattered them…”
- NET: Babel. Here is the climax of the account, a parody on the pride of Babylon. In the Babylonian literature the name bab-ili meant “the gate of God,” but in Hebrew it sounds like the word for “confusion,” and so retained that connotation. The name “Babel” (בָּבֶל, bavel) and the verb translated “confused” (בָּלַל, balal) form a paronomasia (sound play). For the many wordplays and other rhetorical devices in Genesis, see J. P. Fokkelman, Narrative Art in Genesis (SSN).
- Moody: Just as He graciously prevented humanity from expressing their collective rejection of Him by “confusing” their language and causing them to scatter, so He will graciously enable them to one day express their collective worship of Him by “restoring” to them a clarified speech to serve Him in one accord (Zph 3:9). A foretaste of this was given at Pentecost, on the day the church was born, when the language of the people was clarified and the gospel was heard by all (Ac 2:5–6).
- Applications and review:
- They wanted to make themselves a name (Gen. 11:4). We must always be about God’s Name. We must not be prideful.
- God had told them to multiply and fill the earth (Gen. 9:1), yet they all came to one place (Gen. 11:1-2). We must obey the Lord’s instructions.
- The Lord intervened and praise God that He did. The Lord prevented further sin (Gen. 11:7-8).
- Rather than thinking like a child, and thinking that God deprived them of their opportunities, we must understand God acted for the betterment of humanity.
- We must worship the Lord for His goodness.
- We must objectively consider how God acted in history and try to notice His goodness.
- Someday God, through the Holy Spirit, will bring unity to the people for a good thing. Jesus prayed that the church will be one (John 17:21). To this day, there is more sin in a city. Many times, people come together for bad and not for good.
 Daniel Coyle, The Culture Code (Bantam, 2018), pp. xv-xvii.
 John F. MacArthur Jr., The MacArthur Study Bible: New American Standard Bible. (Nashville, TN: Thomas Nelson Publishers, 2006), Ge 11:1.
365 365. Idem, “Genesis,” p. 104.
371 371. See Merrill, “The Peoples . . .,” p. 22.