Originally published in Creation 24, no 3 (June 2002): 31-33.
God’s judgment of the Tower of Babel was one of the greatest catastrophes in the history of the world. In one moment, a massive, highly complex building project, involving the entire human race, came to an end.
Thousands of workers suddenly found themselves incapable of communicating with anyone outside their extended family group. Overwhelmed by fear and frustration, each family group moved away from the others. Mankind has never recovered.
But what really happened, and why? For centuries, Bible students have wondered about the following three statements:
Let us now consider these three statements in order. First, were these Mesopotamians who descended from Noah’s family actually attempting to build “a tower whose top [would] reach into heaven” (Genesis 11:4)? The clear answer is “No!” The NASB puts the words “will reach” in italics, which means that they are not in the original Hebrew text, but were added in an effort to make sense out of the wording. (The KJV italicizes “may reach”.)
But what happens when the Hebrew wording is translated literally? We then have “a tower whose top [is] into heaven.” (cf. NKJV). And this is exactly what ancient Mesopotamian ziggurat temple-towers were for! The top compartment represented heaven. The inner walls, in all probability, were decorated with blue glazed tile, with the sun, the moon, and the five known planets (Mercury, Venus, Mars, Jupiter and Saturn) lined up along the plane of the zodiac. In the centre of the room would be their “god” seated upon a throne! Nebuchadnezzar later rebuilt such a tower in Babylon, which the Sumerians had called E-TEMEN-AN-KI (‘the building of the foundation-platform of heaven and earth’).1 The pyramids of Egypt and, much later, the great Mayan temples of Central America, reflected the design of the original Tower of Babel.
This was not an innocent, scientifically naive, primitive effort to reach the highest heavens! It was, instead, a brilliant but blasphemous effort to dismiss forever the God who had commanded Noah and his three sons after the Flood to “be fruitful and multiply, and fill the earth” (Genesis 9:1). Instead of honouring His name (i.e. His character and attributes), they said, “Let us build for ourselves a city … and let us make for ourselves a name; lest we be scattered abroad over the face of the whole earth” (Genesis 11:4).
The entire enterprise simply reeked with human pride and arrogance. Satan almost succeeded in completely dominating mankind again, as he had done at the fall of Adam and Eve, and as he had done before the Flood (with the exception of one family [Genesis 6:5; Hebrews 11:7]).
The second statement is the astounding response of God to the Babel project: “Nothing which they purpose to do will be impossible for them” (Genesis 11:6). The triune, sovereign God of the universe, anthropomorphically viewed as coming down from the third heaven, through the immeasurable distances of “outer space”, views this tower emerging from the tiny speck called Earth with a sadness that only He can know, and pronounces judgment: “Let us … confuse their language … So the LORD scattered them abroad from there over the face of the whole earth” (Genesis 11:7-8).
But how did their linguistic unity provide the possibility and potential for immense iniquity? Perhaps we can find the answer by looking at the vast English-speaking world today. Almost instantly, demonic perversions and poisons can penetrate and permeate the minds of millions through the Internet, as well as via avalanches of morally hideous films, videos, books and magazines.
Now, what would happen to this Satanic sewage if the more than 300 million people who speak English suddenly discovered that their linguistic unity was shattered? The blow to Satan and sinful men would be staggering. God’s intervention at Babel, dividing and separating people from each other, had a holy and loving purpose.
This brings us to the third significant statement: a descendant of Shem named Peleg was a living witness of this great judgment of God, for “in his days the earth was divided” (Genesis 10:25). Some have speculated that this division was the breakup and separation of continents after the Flood. However, these gigantic earth movements occurred in association with the Flood itself, whereas Peleg lived long after the Flood.
The entire context of Genesis 10 makes it clear that the division which occurred in the days of Peleg was linguistic, not geological.
The entire context of Genesis 10 makes it clear that the division which occurred in the days of Peleg was linguistic, not geological. Note this threefold emphasis: “the coastlands of the nations were separated into their lands, every one according to his language … (Genesis 10:5); according to their languages … (Genesis 10:20); according to their languages … (Genesis 10:31).” Thus, the linguistic division of mankind described in Genesis 10 anticipates the more detailed explanation in Genesis 11, just as the brief statement of mankind’s creation in Genesis 1:26-28 anticipates the greater details of Genesis 2. Genesis 10 leaves the reader pondering these major questions: how and why did Noah’s monolinguistic family become “separated” from each other (Genesis 10:5, 31), speaking different languages (Genesis 10:5, 20, 31)? Genesis 11 provides God’s amazing answers.
Peleg , which means “division”, was the name which this particular descendant of Noah and Shem acquired by virtue of his presence at the scene of God’s judgment of the Tower of Babel (Genesis 10:25).
Consider briefly the positive and the negative aspects of the Babel judgment with respect to God’s love for the world (John 3:16). Positively, as we have seen, Babel has been God’s enormous roadblock to Satan.
Negatively, however, linguistic pluralism has proven to be for the church, weakened by centuries of theological and spiritual corruption, a great hindrance to the spread of the Gospel and the written Word of God, apart from occasional special divine enablement. The widespread use of Greek in the Roman Empire when the church was born on the Day of Pentecost was God’s provision for the Gospel message to reach millions of people in a relatively short period of time (Colossians 1:23). But our Lord never intended the Gospel to be confined to Greek! He commanded us: “Make disciples of all the nations …” (Matthew 28:19).
Just ten days after His ascension, a great linguistic miracle occurred: “There were Jews living in Jerusalem, devout men, from every nation under heaven. And … they were each one hearing [the Apostles] speak in their own language” (Acts 2:5-6). Not just Greek, but over a dozen other languages are listed (vs. Acts 2:9-11)! Here was Babel in reverse in one sense: in the days of Peleg the Earth was divided; but in the days of the Apostles thousands of people from many lands were united for many months, “continuing with one mind … and continually devoting themselves to the apostles” teaching” (Acts 2:42-46).
The church, however, has only partly succeeded in fulfilling the Great Commission. Several thousand languages, after two millennia, still have no part of the written Word of God. How tragic! How many of us will “suffer loss” at the Judgment Seat of Christ (1 Corinthians 3:15) because of disobedience to our Lord’s commands?
Nevertheless, at the end of this age, there will be “a great multitude … from every nation and all tribes and peoples and tongues … and they will cry out with a loud voice, saying, ‘Salvation to our God who sits on the throne, and to the Lamb’” (Revelation 7:9-10). The curse of Babel, the division (peleg) of peoples, the separation of nations, and the confusion of tongues will end forever; and the wisdom and love of our great God, even in His judgments, will be understood in a new way by those who have put their trust in Him.
Adapted from a two-part article originally appearing in the Faith Pulpit, a publication of Faith Baptist Theological Seminary, Ankeny, Iowa, USA, October.