Nations that once feared God now ignore Him and despise His Word. Children from godly homes are rebelling against the faith of their parents. Not much has changed in the last four thousand years, since Babel.
God recorded key moments in history to warn and comfort His people (1 Corinthians 10:11; Romans 15:4). We may get discouraged by the sins of our nation and our children, but God wants to encourage us. A quick walk through the Bible’s account of Babel reveals some important lessons for us today. God is still patiently working out His plans, even though we can’t always see how.
“Now the whole earth had one language and one speech.” (Genesis 11:1)
To properly understand the account of Babel, we must remember the circumstances in which Moses presented it to the Hebrew people. They had just been freed from slavery in Egypt around 1491 BC. They were about to enter the Promised Land and annihilate the wicked nations of Canaan. They needed to understand where nations came from and why God had the authority to judge them for their sin.
Moses knew about the history, geography, languages, and cultures of his world. He had been trained in the court of pharaoh. Yet he did not rely on his education because God spoke to Him directly. God’s words—whether spoken to Moses or recorded in the Bible for us today—are the highest authority we could or should ever want.
God’s claims do not have to be “proven,” yet the evidence lines up with God’s statements about the past. Genesis 11:1–9 describes a unique revolution in human history. At first, all people on earth were literally of “one lip” and “one words.” They had the same grammar and vocabulary. But as a result of God’s judgment, their language was divided into several languages, according to “families.” This is what we find today.
“They found a plain in the land of Shinar, and they dwelt there.” (v. 2)
After the Flood (about 2348 BC, according to Ussher) God had commanded Noah’s descendants to “be fruitful, and multiply, and replenish the earth” (Genesis 9:1), but instead they took up permanent residence, with no apparent intention to spread out.
This rebellion, which took place a century or two after Noah’s Flood, was no surprise to God. While promising not to send another Flood, God told Noah that human sinfulness was still a problem: “The imagination of man’s heart is evil from his youth” (Genesis 8:21). Rebellion has been a pattern ever since Adam disobeyed God.
“Come, let us make bricks and bake them thoroughly.” (v. 3)
Where did these early humans learn to build a city and tower? Long before Noah’s Flood, Cain was a city-builder, and his descendant Tubal-cain was gifted in brass and iron (Genesis 4:17–22). It is clear from the genealogies in Genesis that Noah lived among these people for six hundred years before the Flood came, acquiring their technology and possibly their books. His sons had plenty of time to develop their construction skills, too, while building the Ark.
“Come, let us build ourselves a city and a tower . . . lest we be scattered abroad.” (v. 4)
The settlers at Babel went out of their way to ensure that they would not be scattered, contrary to what God had commanded. They put down roots in one place, including a tower that they could rally around.
Notice the words us, ourselves, and we. Moses makes it clear that pride was the real problem at Babel. Building cities and towers is not evil, but proud motives can turn even the most worthwhile activities into sin. Any human activity, done for the wrong reason, is wicked, as Proverbs 21:4 warns (“The plowing of the wicked is sin”).
The rebels wanted to build their tower “whose top is in the heavens.” This figure of speech, a hyperbole, is similar to the description of the cities in Canaan as “walled up to heaven” (Deuteronomy 1:28).
There is some question about the purpose of the tower. Some have suggested they wanted to build a structure large enough and strong enough to survive another Flood, but why would they build the tower in the plains rather than on a mountain? Other commentators, such as Luther, suggest that the builders wanted to construct a symbol of their self-reliance. The rebels were shaking their fist at heaven, as it were, by building such a great structure in their own power.
Early Jewish writers and Christian commentators suggested that the tower was the first center of false religion in the post-Flood world. (Revelation 17:5 also indicates that Babel was the mother of world religions.) One recent suggestion is that, like ziggurats built in later cities of the region, the tower was a symbolic bridge between heaven and earth, a place where the gods could come down to earth or rest (David S. DeWitt, Journal of the Evangelical Theological Society 22:1, p. 19).
While God does interact with humans in unusual ways (see Jacob’s ladder in Genesis 28:12), it is the height of folly for humans to think they can bridge the gap between the physical world and the spiritual world by their own efforts.
“. . . and let us make a name for ourselves.” (v. 4)
This sentence reveals the arrogance of the people at Babel. They sought a name for themselves rather than to honor the name of their Creator, who is above all and whose name is worthy of all praise.
Throughout history, humans have longed to share God’s glory. The serpent tempted Eve with the promise that she and Adam could “be as gods.” All man-made religions try to “honor” God by the works of our own hands. God, in contrast, is not impressed by our works. He desires obedience and humility (1 Samuel 15:22–23). Moses’s account reminds us how we are all naturally stubborn and rebellious.
Ironically, if we are humble and obedient, God will honor our name. Moses shows this by contrasting the events at Babel with the later faithfulness of Abraham. God promised to make Abraham’s name great, and all he needed was humble faith (Genesis 12:2).
“But the Lord came down to see the city and the tower.” (v. 5)
This verse marks the dramatic turning point in Moses’s account of the events at Babel. God takes note of man’s plans. Then He steps in to reverse them.
Repeatedly, we learn that God observes our actions (Adam, the wicked generation of Noah’s day, Babel, Sodom and Gomorrah, etc.), and He judges us accordingly. Nothing escapes God’s attention. No individual sin, no sin of a nation. That is the lesson of Babel.
“. . . now nothing that they propose to do will be withheld from them.” (v. 6)
This is one of the most amazing claims in the Bible. God has truly given mankind incredible gifts. He can fly to the moon, land probes on comets, and peer into the deepest recesses of the universe.
God gave us these talents for the purpose of glorifying His name, but our incredible gifts, if used for the wrong purpose, can destroy us. So God “restrains” humans. Unlike the judgment during Noah’s day, when God wiped out the entire world, here He intervened before the rebellion had gone too far.
“Come, let us go down and there confound their language.” (v. 7)
God’s gentleness in judging the rebels at Babel is a lesson for us today. God did not let man’s rebellion run its full course, as He had before Noah’s Flood. He nipped the rebellion in its early stages so that humans would not hurt themselves too much.
By changing one language into many, He separated nations more effectively than any Wall of China. God stepped in to prevent the human race from falling under the sway of a single, absolute tyrant over all the earth. Only in His time would Christ gather together God’s family from every nation and tongue (Revelation 7:9).
Note God’s ironic words. Just as the rebels said, “Let us build a tower,” God said, “Let us confound their language.” Man’s counsels can’t stand in the face of God’s counsel. As the original creator of human speech, God could easily rewire speech so that the evil speakers could no longer speak to one another.
“So the Lord scattered them abroad.” (v. 8)
Moses closes this account with a reminder that God will always accomplish His will. We may think we have found a way to circumvent His will, but that is just an appearance. As King Solomon later wrote, “The king’s heart is in the hand of the Lord, like the rivers of water; He turns it wherever He wishes” (Proverbs 21:1).
By this simple act, God forced humanity to proceed down His chosen path—to resettle the earth by families.
God’s first judgment after the Flood proved that He would continue to superintend the events of human history. God wants us to turn to Him, rather than relying on ourselves. One day, whether they like it or not, all people will bow their knee before the name of Jesus Christ, the true bridge between heaven and earth (Philippians 2:9–11).
“Therefore its name is called Babel.” (v. 9)
Mankind’s rebellion came full circle. The people earned a name for their city, but not a name of their own choosing. Their city’s name became Babel, from a related word meaning “confusion.”
But the story does not end there. The next verse opens a new chapter in the history of mankind: “This is the genealogy of Shem” (Genesis 11:10). The history of this family becomes the focus of the rest of the Old Testament.
Through Abraham, a descendant of Shem, all the nations on earth would be blessed. God had promised Abraham that He would make of him a great nation and make his name great (Genesis 12:2). God planned that the nations would one day learn about a Savior, Jesus Christ, who would descend from Abraham. All along, God had planned eventually to build a city, united under the rule of Christ. Unlike impatient man, however, God would patiently build this city on His own timetable.
With the eyes of faith, Abraham looked for this city, “whose builder and maker is God” (Hebrews 11:10). In contrast to the tiny cities built by human hands, God’s city will be everlasting, built on a grand scale, approximately 1,500 miles (2,225 km) square and 1,500 miles high, with streets of gold and walls of precious jewels (Revelation 21:16).
God’s plans included an incredible way for repentant sinners to join Him in this city—by faith in Jesus Christ. With His dramatic miracle at Pentecost when people from nations all over the earth first heard the gospel in their own tongue, God let the world know that He had begun overcoming the effects of Babel. Since then, He has been patiently fulfilling His plan to call people to His eternal city “out of every tribe and tongue and people and nation” (Revelation 5:9).