May 30, 2006

The Tower of Babel

Genesis 11:1–9

“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” (Gen. 11:9).

The table of nations found in Genesis 10 reveals that the various cultures and peoples that now live in this world are all descended from three brothers. But how were the tribes of men dispersed across the globe, and how did the different languages develop?

Though one of the first duties laid upon humanity was to spread across the planet (1:28; 9:7), it was disobedience to this command that made Noah’s progeny fill all corners of the earth. The story of Babel, found in today’s passage, explains how this happened.

Babylon was known for its ziggurats, and all the earth marveled at these stepped temples that reached into the sky. Babylonian stories praise the majesty of man who built these structures after the form of an ancient ziggurat, an edifice likely memorialized in Genesis 11.

Set against pagan accounts, Scripture frowns upon man’s effort. After the flood, all men spoke one language and settled in Shinar (11:1–2). Yet instead of using the ease of communication to govern the earth cooperatively for God’s glory, man rebelled and tried to exalt himself with a tall tower (vv. 3–4). As John Calvin writes, humanity gathered not to worship but “to excite war against God.”

Our Father then came down from heaven to see their progress (v. 5). Of course, the Lord knew how tall the tower was from heaven, but this figurative account of His descent shows how feeble man’s attempt really was. The tower that was supposed to reach into God’s abode was so tiny that He had to leave His home to evaluate it!

Nevertheless, the Lord saw this claim to autonomy for what it was and perceived man thought nothing would be impossible for him (v. 6). This does not imply divine impotency but recognizes the dangers of collective apostasy. Depraved men will eagerly join with others to fight against God and His people. So the Lord judged mankind, dividing our tongues to curtail our efforts (vv. 7–9). The differences in language make it harder for the serpent’s seed to unite against the woman’s.

Though the wicked join forces to exalt themselves, defy God, and assault His church, their efforts are ultimately futile. Society may “advance,” but it is finally subject to the Lord’s holy evaluation.

Coram Deo

Matthew Henry comments, “Those who aim at a great name commonly come off with a bad name.” In our sin, all of us want to promote our fame at the expense of humble service to the Lord. How do you aim at a great name? Are you overly concerned with recognition, fame, or your own achievements? Maybe you feign humility whenever you are praised? If someone affirms you, simply thank him and do what you can to proclaim God’s name on the earth.

For Further Study