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The Lesson of the Tower of Babel -- a study of Genesis 11:1-9

Updated: Jan 25

No one can disobey God forever.


Bible Study Outlines and Commentary for Genesis 11:1-9

In the famous story of the Tower of Babel, we learn that the emphasis really isn't on the tower at all. It's on the people's disobedience and how God overrode it. They wanted to congregate and make a name for themselves. God wanted them to fill the earth with beautiful diversity. Guess how it turned out.

Let’s make a name for ourselves; otherwise, we will be scattered throughout the earth. (11:4)


When We Studied This Passage in 2015

This is one of my favorite posts because I geek out on the history of civilization:

I can't help but repeat some of it below. That post also goes into

  • Pentecost

  • Ziggurats

  • Monuments

This week's passage is foundational to understanding human civilization (even if the so-called experts try to ignore it).


Getting Started: Things to Think About

Why Do People Move to Cities?

This topic may be a bit of a sore subject for some of our group members who have had kids or grandkids move away to someplace like Atlanta. But, it helps us understand this week's passage, so I'm throwing it out there.


Why do people move to cities?



There are so many directions you could go with this (most of which turn into a referendum on city life vs. country life), and I would expect that you have person experience with the decision. Before we moved to Thomson, I had lived in Houston (18 years), College Station (4 years), Wichita (3 years), Kansas City (6 years), and Burleson (6 years) (which is like a bigger Evans). Oh, and 18 months in a town called Godley. It's a pretty good gamut. I've decided that I prefer living in a town like Thomson, but I am very aware of the draws to living in "the big city". This Sacramento-based blog recently posted "7 Reasons Families Are Moving To The City (railyards.com)", and it hits all the high notes.


If you have a good imagination, I want you to take the next step: remove modern technology and modern nation-building from the mix. In that circumstance, what additional reasons would people have for moving to the city?


This week's passage describes the first "big city" (for all intents and purposes) and why people were drawn to it. It should all make sense to us.


Why Are Cities Located Where They Are?

I'm going to be taking my post in a nerdy direction. Work with me. The locations of cities is such a wonderfully human topic. Why some cities grow and others wither. Why some cities have a character unlike any other city. But it's a topic that your group members should have no trouble with: Why is Thomson located where it is? Why did Thomson grow larger than, say, Warrenton or Boneville? Why is Augusta located where it is? Why is it larger than, say, Aiken or Waynesboro? Keep it going -- Atlanta? Charleston? Nashville?


This is an older Wendover video, but it covers the basics if you truly want to know more.

And if you truly, truly want to know more, Google to your heart's delight.


Acknowledging that there is some dispute about this (see below), most scholars believe that Babel (in this week's passage) was located somewhere in the Fertile Crescent, known as the birthplace of civilization. I sure hope you remember why!


The point of this topic would be to get everyone thinking about why these people were drawn to the "valley in the land of Shinar".


The Difficulties of a Language Barrier

This is another topic that everyone in your group should be able to latch on to. Whether or not you have traveled abroad, you have talked to people for whom English is not their native language. At what point (I'm thinking in terms of vocabulary and accent) do those conversations get frustrating?


[And boy howdy -- you had better not let this turn into a conversation about "people who should learn English better". One, that's not the point and thus not helpful. And two, it tempts me to evaluate the language abilities of so-called native English speakers.]


And if you have traveled somewhere where the primary language is not English, what was that experience like?


And this also gives me an excuse to show this wonderful skit that my German professor shared with our class one morning:


When our church travels to Honduras, the language barrier does not prevent us from working extremely well with the villagers. However, we also have translators nearby, and both groups have been trained on what we are doing and how.


What do you think it would be like to do a complex project with someone who does not speak your language?

 

This Week's Big Idea: Cities, Monuments, and Civilization

I have no idea if this topic really needs to be part of a group Bible study, but I sure think it's interesting. I taught a course on Western Civilization in a college for a few years, and it quickly became one of my favorite topics. I'll just hit a couple of highlights:

  • "Civilization" refers to a special kind of culture; from civilis – “relating to a citizen or state”

  • "Culture" refers to patterns of thought and behavior that characterize a group of people or a region

  • "Cities" are the building blocks of states, which are the bases of “civilizations”


Most of what I taught was the Christian worldview of stuff we all learned in middle school and high school. For example, here is text from a NatGeo course:

All civilizations have certain characteristics. These include: large population centers; monumental architecture and unique art styles; shared communication strategies; systems for administering territories; a complex division of labor; and the division of people into social and economic classes. The development of urban settlements, cities, is the primary characteristic of a civilization.

(Incidentally, they also have a short course about cities you might be interested in: The History of Cities (nationalgeographic.org))


Do you see the parallels with Babel?


If you're interested in this subject, here are a couple of short but interesting videos. This first one is about what happens when a "modern monument" becomes outdated and too expensive to maintain -- the Woolworth Building in New York City:

And this video is intended to make you feel better about yourself -- even people in the lower economic classes in America today live far better than the people in the highest classes of antiquity. One great example: the aqueducts of Rome were considered technological marvels. But today, even the poorest city in America is expected to have "indoor plumbing".


For the sake of space (and your attention), I'm just going to focus on monumental architecture. Let's do it this way: I'll name a part of the world, and you have to name a famous monument located there (suggestions to follow) --

  • Egypt

  • Greece

  • Rome

  • China

  • France

  • Mexico


We can safely say that cultures are not shifting away from great monuments. If you Google topics like "largest monuments" and "largest temples", you'll find things that are now. The rightmost picture (Ayodhya) is a Hindu temple that has caused a ruckus in India for being built on the ruins of a Muslim holy site.


I've shared a "tallest building in the world" list before:

And those pale in comparison with a building currently under construction in Dubai:

This is the Dubai Creek Tower, and on-again off-again structure that is back on-again. It's scheduled to be more than 1,300 m tall (more than 4,000 feet; for comparison, One World Trade Center is about 1,300 feet tall).


The only reason to build a tower like that is to make a name for yourself.


Sound familiar?

 

Where We Are in Genesis

After the flood episode, the Bible mentions a strange event involving a naked, drunk Noah and his son Ham (the father of Canaan). The Bible Project video suggests that something very scandalous happened, which is why Noah was so furious that he cursed Ham's son Canaan (and also blessed Shem and Japheth).


What follows is the "Table of Nations" in Genesis 10. There is a GREAT deal of debate over "who" and "where", and that debate is way beyond our focus this week. But it is a fascinating list of names and connections. You'll notice that many of Israel's enemies in the Old Testament are descended from Ham. This map is as close to "representative" as any.


You'll also notice that we haven't gotten to the Tower of Babel yet. Technically, chapter 10 follows chapter 11. But there is an important narrative device:

  • The children of Shem (Gen 10:21-31)

  • The scattering of the nations (Gen 11:1-9)

  • The line of Shem to ... Abraham (Gen 11:10-32)

Moses frames the filling of the world from the perspective of showing his Hebrew audience where "father Abraham" came from (and why they have so many enemies in the Promised Land).


Look -- there are so many debates about the nature of the Tower of Babel, particularly if it actually happened. Yes, it actually happened. I'll spend some time later in the post addressing some of the biggest debates. But our focus today is to understand what happened and why it matters to us. Leave the debate for another day.

 

Part 1: Irrationally Confident Humans (Genesis 11:1-4)

The whole earth had the same language and vocabulary. 2 As people migrated from the east, they found a valley in the land of Shinar and settled there. 3 They said to each other, “Come, let’s make oven-fired bricks.” (They used brick for stone and asphalt for mortar.) 4 And they said, “Come, let’s build ourselves a city and a tower with its top in the sky. Let’s make a name for ourselves; otherwise, we will be scattered throughout the earth.”

My son plays an extremely popular (and unbelievably dark) video game called Elden Ring. One of the "bosses" leans very heavily into a common fantasy trope called "kill the gods" -- "together let us devour the gods" (also the plot of the latest Thor movie). Usually, the games/movies try to create sympathy for the plan by making the gods out to be, you know, terrible people. Setting that aside, the hubris of the idea is astronomical. It has a real-world parallel in modern atheistic philosophy. Nietzsche first laid it bare in his The Gay Science: "God is dead. God remains dead. And we have killed him." He pushed the Enlightenment to its final conclusion -- "what if there is no god, and we are the ultimate power of our world?"


That seems to be what's motivating these descendants of Noah.


There are two common suggestions for the location of "Shinar", as these two maps show. The first is the plain between the Tigris and Euphrates; the most common suggestion is that Babel was built very near Babylon. The second is the region near Ararat -- folks dispersed a little and then came back. We won't know for sure; the word translated "from the east" can also mean "in the east". Hence the debate.


"The whole earth" is another debated phrase. This usually has to do with the date of Babel, and I'll address that below. For now, know that the phrase has to do with the Table of Nations in chapter 10. It's poetic -- a metonymy -- reminding the reader that the people who were supposed to fill the earth according to God's commission had not done so. It does not have to mean that every single individual person was living in Shinar.


I realize that I might not have made something clear last week. God gave this commission:

  • be fruitful and multiply

  • spread out over the earth and fill it

Obviously, remaining in Shinar is in violation to God's commission. But note this emphasis on language. Language is intimately connected to culture. This is one of the proofs we have that God didn't just want to fill the earth with people -- He wanted us to fill the world with a diversity of culture.


Last week, I focused on the connection with the Great Commission -- God wants us to fill the earth with people who are rightly related to Him. But note that the Great Commission doesn't say anything about language (other than the call to make disciples of Jesus regardless of the language they speak). Being a disciple of Jesus doesn't mean you have to learn English (or any other language); God wants disciples who are native to every culture. And that means only one thing: God is not only glorified by the physical diversity of human beings; He is also glorified by our cultural diversity. This is why Revelation continues to point out the diversity of the people surrounding the throne of heaven:

9 After this I looked, and there was a vast multitude from every nation, tribe, people, and language, which no one could number, standing before the throne and before the Lamb. (Rev 7:9)

That's why when we "do missions", we don't export our language and culture. Instead, we learn another language and culture, and we work to make the timeless values and truths of Christianity at home in that culture.


Anyway, back to the passage.


The reference to "oven-fired bricks" is actually quite important. On the one hand, it seems to put a timestamp on things; many historians place the earliest "fired bricks" at about 3,500 BC (more on this below). But more importantly, it's a process made entirely by human effort. "Sun-dried bricks" date back thousands of years more, at least to ancient Jericho, but they relied on natural processes. When people developed the technology to bake the bricks themselves, they created bricks that were harder, stronger, and could be made in a fraction of the time even in the winter. This was something the people could do "on their own", without God, so to speak. ("Get your own mud" would be my response, but whatever. And it sure helped that God placed that "asphalt"/bitumen in the Fertile Crescent for them to use. But again, whatever. Stick it to the man, people of Shinar!)


Their intent was to create a city and monument to themselves. They don't say anything about God in this appeal. This is about them. This is about imagining a world without God. (Or at the very least, imagining a world in which they ignore God's commission to spread out over the world.)


[Aside: I'm sure you can understand that churches can fall into the trap of building a monument to themselves. Their buildings and their broadcasts become more about getting attention and popularity, not about God's mission for them. Every church has to be wary of this tendency.]


The sections above about cities and civilizations were intended to explain to you the appeal of staying in one large group and building a great city. As the last few hundred years have demonstrated, people living in cities can accomplish fantastical things. (And let the cynic in me come out -- cities/concentrated populations -- also allow a few to become incredibly wealthy and powerful.)


The important thing to note is that God gave a commission, and the people were ignoring it. This sounds very much like how God told the children of Israel to be a blessing to the whole world, and they instead chose to ignore the rest of the world. It's an important reminder to us today to wonder how intent we are on fulfilling the Great Commission. If we choose not to, history suggests that God will do something to force us.

 

Aside: The Controversy of the Date of Babel

The most common anthropology narrative says that Mesopotamia was uninhabited before 6,000 BC, that oven-fired bricks were unknown before 3,500 BC, and that the earliest large "towers" (ziggurats) date to 2,500 BC.


Furthermore, there is evidence of human populations in Thailand and Japan in 5,000 BC, and in Mexico in 7,000 BC.


So, huh.


The most woodenly literal interpretations of the Bible put the Tower of Babel at 2,242-2,206 BC. Technologically, that works out. But what about these other human populations?


I'm just going to make three statements to explain why I'm agnostic on this:


(1) The Bible does not have to be exhaustive to be accurate. We learned this in Jesus' genealogies. The Gospel writers did not include every generation in Jesus' lineage because they were making theological points. The same could be true of the genealogies in Genesis; Moses might not have written down every single generation. There could be more time passed before or after Babel. In other words, the date of Babel could be earlier or later than that 2,200 BC date without calling into question the accuracy of the Bible.


[I tend to think that Babel would have been much earlier than that.]


(2) Every single human being did not have to be in Shinar for this story to be accurate. It is possible that small groups had indeed migrated elsewhere in the world and put down roots while the vast majority of people had remained in Shinar. I believe that the language used in Genesis gives that flexibility. So, I'm not super worried about it.


(3) Technological "crashes" are a known human experience. In other words, if we want to say that Babel happened before 3,500 BC, it is perfectly reasonable to conclude that the technology for making oven-fired bricks was lost when the people were scattered. Why do historians refer to the Early Middle Ages as the "Dark Ages"?


Oh: bonus statement! The date of the Tower of Babel doesn't affect your salvation.

 

Part 2: The Consequence of Hubris (Genesis 11:5-7)

5 Then the Lord came down to look over the city and the tower that the humans were building. 6 The Lord said, “If they have begun to do this as one people all having the same language, then nothing they plan to do will be impossible for them. 7 Come, let’s go down there and confuse their language so that they will not understand one another’s speech.”

There are two things that Christians interpret wrongly here:

  • that God felt threatened by these humans

  • that God stands opposed to human unity

(Well, and a third thing -- that God has to travel somewhere to investigate something.)


Remember that Moses is sharing this story with a bunch of nonreligious Hebrew former slaves. He is showing God to be reasonable, measured, and consistent (unlike the various other deities in the Near East). God's response to human behavior is in keeping with what He has said. God told the humans to spread out, and they did not. So, God will (more or less) force them to do so.


Also, this is not in opposition to human unity. Unity is a key goal in Christianity (Col 3:14)! Rather, this is about the wrong kind of unity -- unity around the wrong purpose. And that kind of unity leads to uniformity. And uniformity is not what God wants for His wonderful, diverse, human creation. After generation of generation, this group of humans will become drones in pursuit of this tower.


What are all of the ways this violates the commission God gave to Noah?


The short sections above on language should have made it clear how important clear communication is for a society to function. We really have no way to understand what happened there. The closest we can come is the person who had a specific brain injury that caused them to lose their language centers (severe aphasia), but that's usually accompanied by other extremely traumatic disorders. Otherwise, perhaps this would be like the person who was kidnapped and taken to a foreign country to work as a slave, not knowing the language. But even then, they would be surrounded by strangers. In Genesis 11, these are people they knew and had worked with. And all of a sudden, they couldn't communicate.


I think that the fact that they could remember their former amicable(?) relationships prevented this event from becoming a tragic war.


Anyway, the point is that when people disobey God, there are consequences.

 

Part 3: We All Obey God in the End (Genesis 11:8-9)

8 So from there the Lord scattered them throughout the earth, and they stopped building the city. 9 Therefore it is called Babylon [Babel], for there the Lord confused the language of the whole earth, and from there the Lord scattered them throughout the earth.

We're actually supposed to think of this event as a mercy. God could have used any number of means to move people along, but He used a non-violent one. Language. The emphasis is not on the tower -- it is on the scattering.


This version of the Bible says "Babylon". The Hebrew word is babel, which is a play on the Hebrew word for "confused" (balal). Later Jews liked to point out the similarity between this word and "Babylon", a nation known for its pride. (The name "Babylon" meant "gate of God" in their language.) But most of us know this story as about "The Tower of Babel".


[Note: some documentary hypothesists say that this story was invented by Jews living in the Babylonian Exile to make themselves feel better. That's why I prefer to stick with the name "Babel". I do believe that "Babel" was located very near the later "Babylon", but I don't believe they should be confused.]


For Moses and the Hebrews, this event helped them understand why their part of the world was the way it was.


For us, this event points us to Pentecost.

5 Now there were Jews staying in Jerusalem, devout people from every nation under heaven. 6 When this sound occurred, a crowd came together and was confused because each one heard them speaking in his own language. (Acts 2)

Some Christians might despair that the language and cultural barriers are too great to be bridged. At Pentecost, God demonstrated otherwise. Those barriers can be crossed. That first experience was a "miraculous jump start", but the rest of the book of Acts shows how the early Christian missionaries used their knowledge of language and culture to spread their message throughout the empire.


That gives us two important lessons:

  • As a church, are we more worried about making a name for ourselves, or making the name of God glorious?

  • As a church, are we letting cultural (and language) barriers prevent us from fulfilling the Great Commission?


A pretty useful lesson, wouldn't you say?

 

What Happened to the Tower of Babel?

According to these verses, it sounds like the project was abandoned. Does that mean we should still have the remains of the tower somewhere in the Near East?


We do have the remains of some towers (called ziggurats). The picture on the left is of a partially reconstructed tower in Iraq that dates to 2,100 BC. The picture on the right is of a tower that's even older, perhaps by centuries.

It's possible that one of those is the Tower of Babel. Unfortunately, no one left a sign saying "This Is the Tower of Babel Made Famous in Genesis 11").


I think one of two things is far more likely:

  1. Just like what I think happened with the Garden of Eden (which God somehow removed from the earth), God could have very easily swept the remains of the tower away so as not to be a temptation to the people anymore.

  2. Just like what I think happened with Noah's ark, the people pillaged the bricks to build their own cities and towers. A lot of work went into making those bricks; enterprising humans would not have let them go to waste.

There is archeological evidence for a burst of influence throughout the Near East in which a wide range of locations share common pottery and building patterns, but only for a very short time (somewhere around 3,100 BC, disputed). Perhaps the various ziggurats in the region were the people's attempts to recreate (on a smaller scale) the Tower of legend. There's no way to know for sure.


If you research this, you'll find a number of older articles suggesting that the foundations of the Tower were discovered in the ruins of ancient Babylon. It's a very romantic notion, but few archeologists today believe it.


A more recent trend is to equate Nebuchadnezzar's "Tower of Borsippa" with the Tower of Babel. This is apparently a tower he discovered near Babylon which was unfinished.

Archeologists are all over the map as to when the ziggurat was built and why, so I don't think we can say anything definitive. I have a hard time believing that Nebuchadnezzar had evidence linking the site to the Tower of Babel (which he wouldn't have known anything about), but sure, the foundation under the Tower of Borsippa could be the ruins of Babel.


I just don't lose a lot of sleep over this. Archeologists are discovering new things in the Near East all the time, so what we "know" to be true today (archeologically) might be completely changed a year from now. My faith is in God's Word, not man's efforts to independently validate it.

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