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The Tower of Babel and Genesis 11

God’s purposes cannot be thwarted by humanity’s best efforts

Bible Study Ideas and Commentary for Genesis 11

The human race decided to make a name for itself, violating God’s commands in order to do so. God directly intervened, and those people came to nothing. But in the story that immediately follows, God finds a man whose name He will make great. That man, Abram, simply had to trust and obey. Who are we like?

Let us make a name for ourselves (11:4)

This weekly post started as a resource for Bible study leaders; I am slowing adding older posts for reference.

Getting Started: The Icebreaker

Monuments and Civilization.

I taught Early Western Civilization for a college, and you’re going to get a dose of it in this handout because that’s really what the Tower of Babel is about. The rise of civilization has always been marked by the growth of cities, the specialization of labor, the use of writing, the organization of government, the rise of complex religion, and the building of monuments.

The purpose of monumental architecture is very simple: impress your neighbors and make your mark. For example, in the Epic of Gilgamesh, when Gilgamesh finally finds the flood survivor, he is told to abandon his impossible quest for immortality and focus on building monuments that will survive him. What are the pyramids but tombs built by the men entombed in order to remind the people how great they were! Greco-Roman cities are filled with such monuments, like the 100’ Colossus of Rhodes. Sadly, early medieval Catholics used church buildings in that way, using massive cathedrals as a reminder to everyone (including nobility) where power lay. Modern civilizations continue to do this; the Arc de Triomphe and Eiffel Tower come to mind. Sometimes these can be built for more altruistic reasons (say, the Lincoln Memorial). I still see people do this today when they donate a great deal of money to a school or building project and insist that their name be etched somewhere in recognition. Mausoleums can also be used to this end—when they are built for the purpose of impressing the people who see it. The most famous of these is probably the Taj Mahal. Anyway, talk about the wildest and most impressive monuments you’ve seen (Crazy Horse? Statue of Liberty?) and the impression they left on you.

The Context of Genesis

Chapter 10 is the “Table of Nations” or the descendants of Shem (the Semitic language tribes), Ham and Japheth. There are 70 nations listed (which could be a “perfect” representation of a larger number). It clearly follows Genesis 11. You’ll notice that Moses has put the emphasis on Shem, whose family tree precedes and follows the Babel story. Why? Because that is the line of Abraham . . .

This Week's Big Idea: Mesopotamian Civilization vs. Egyptian

Egypt is going to play a very large role in later Hebrew history, and you might have noticed that things are very different in Egypt than Mesopotamia. In the Near East (cf. Babel), we have countless wars as tribes endlessly fight for supremacy. In Egypt, we have probably the most stable dynasty the world has ever known. In the Near East, they worshiped the stars and moon and feared the water. In Egypt, they worshiped the sun and the beasts. In the Near East, their leaders were warriors and law-givers. In Egypt, they were gods.

Why is this? Geography.

Mesopotamia is essentially a giant plain; it has no natural defenses at all. The rivers flooded frequently and unpredictably. There was no safety and security apart from military conquest of one’s neighbors. (Just a thought: how is it that peoples who obviously share ancestors and live in the same region and frequently interact with one another have different languages and hate one another so? This is “ground zero” of Babel . . .) Sargon the Sumerian built the first empire, but his children were conquered by Hittites and Assyrians, and then the Amorites and Babylonians, and so on. On the other hand, Egypt is protected by vast desert on two sides, a narrow straight on a third, and a sea on the fourth. The Nile is one of the most predictable rivers anywhere. As a result, the leaders in Egypt were blessed both with security and stability, allowing the development of great dynasties (little for the people to fuss about). Given enough time, dynasties turn into gods. It took centuries for that to happen in Egypt, of which they had many.

Anyway, when you read Genesis and Exodus, this might help you understand why the land of Canaan (and thus of the Jews) was always at war and an ever changing list of peoples seemed in ascendance, but the land of Egypt was always, well, Egypt. But God chose to put the Hebrews in Canaan, not Egypt. Interesting!


Part 1: United by Sinful Purpose (Genesis 11:1-4)

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

On later pages, I’ll give you the controversy surrounding dates and cultures and whatnot (anthropology), but I think I can explain these verses fairly easily. (By the way, if you have an easy way of explaining a Bible passage that scholars don’t regularly take, that's a red flag!) Obviously, when the whole world consisted of Noah’s family, they had one language and dialect (which is what the “vocabulary” is hinting at). That should not be controversial, unless you don’t believe the flood story. Anyway, verse 2 includes a pronoun “they,” whose antecedent is likely the “whole earth.” However, all of chapter 10 is a breakdown of the people groups who spread over the earth following the flood. Consequently, I don’t feel obligated to understand “whole earth” as “every single person alive.” Rather, as the HCSB translates it above, this means that people moved east (and I think it should to and not from the east—the word can be translated either way), and those who did chose to build a great city. But not all of them did! Some stayed behind. Some spread in other directions. Most of them stayed together in the otherwise unknown plain of Shinar (see below). I cannot argue that the Hebrews would have read this and concluded that every living person was involved in the building of Babel, but I don’t think God said that. It’s a very natural conclusion for a people whose world would not have extended a few hundred miles.

Anyway, these people get the crazy idea that they can immortalize themselves and the culture by building a really tall tower that everyone can see. This is that “monumental architecture” mentality I mentioned earlier. Now, they might have wanted to build a tower to heaven and thus march in and claim immortality (that’s what some scholars conclude), but that’s not what the text says. They just use a common euphemism for “really stinking tall.” In fact, they don’t mention any sort of religious purpose for this tower at all! This tower is about humanity, not God/gods. They just want to make a name for themselves. Note that they don’t use natural stones; they use man-made bricks. A testimony to human technology.

David pointed out irony when he preached on Pentecost a while back. In a portion of the Bible completely filled with names and genealogies, there is only one section without any names at all recorded: the story of the tower of Babel. That’s a brilliant observation! What did these people want to do? Make a name for themselves. What will we never know about these people? Their names. If I’m going to bring this up, let me remind you what David preached on this subject:

Babel vs. Pentecost. At Babel, the languages were confused by God. At Pentecost, God enabled the people to overcome the language barriers. At Babel, the purpose was to glorify humanity. At Pentecost, the purpose was to glorify God in Christ. After Babel, the people were scattered and warred against each other. After Pentecost, the worldwide church was born. Good, huh?

Anyway, I think the application is pretty easy. Was it a sin to build a city and a tower? No. Else we’d be in trouble! The sin was their purpose. What had God commanded them to do? Fill the earth. What were they trying to do here? Stay together. In every sense, the purpose of this tower was disobedience to God. We’ve had some ambitious projects around here. But if our purpose was ever to glorify ourselves or make a name for ourselves, then that’s bad. Have your class evaluate their accomplishments and purposes. What are they all about?


Aside: The Importance of Language

This is more a personal soapbox than anything. As most Americans only know one language (and not very well at that), we don’t appreciate its importance and thus miss the deep impact of the story of Babel. Yes, language is a product of culture, but language also shapes culture. For example: personal pronouns. English has one for the second person: “you” (southerners also have “y’all”). Because everyone is called the same thing (we would say “hey you” to a group of kids and also the queen of England), or relationships tend to be more informal. In Thailand, there are 12 words for “you” reflecting status and intimacy. Not surprisingly, they are a much more formal culture than ours. Another example: direct answers. Around here, I like to receive direct answers, and I like to give them. But in many Asian countries, you are very likely to hear “maybe” and “perhaps” because it is considered polite and appropriate to be more nuanced and deferent. Their language has evolved around and shaped that indirectness. Third example: theology. Did you know that the Roman Catholic Church split from the Eastern Orthodox Church in no small part because Greek is a significantly more technical language than Latin? The Greek speakers were debating nuances that the Latin speakers couldn’t even understand, so they couldn’t agree about anything! You see, language is not a “code” to be “decoded.” You can’t replace an English word with the corresponding French word and be speaking French. Sentence structures are different; thought patterns are different; sometimes words are simply untranslatable! Our language shapes us and our brains. When God confused the languages, He was creating unique cultures, new ways of looking at the world, new ways of working (have you ever tried to translate a sheet of Chinese or German instructions? I have!). That’s why the building project fell apart. God scattered the people, and even when they reassembled, they were now different cultures.

Bonus Aside: Ziggurats and Towers

One of my favorite lessons to teach was on ziggurats. Ziggurats are artificial mountains on the top of which is a temple. One theory is that the people who first built them had moved to the plains from the mountains and thought they could only meet with their gods in a high place. Most historians believe that the Tower of Babel Moses had in mind was some kind of ziggurat. The tallest one that we know of was built in Ur; its remains are impressive enough (more than 70’ high), and Hussein began rebuilding efforts that make it even more so. What I find most interesting is that the basic ziggurat design can be found all over the world—anywhere people were advanced enough to develop the technology for heavy brick-making. For example, Mayan temples (even though they weren’t built until thousands of years later) are the same design (the first picture below is Mayan). What exactly does that mean? Goodness, I have no idea. But I find it very interesting that people the world over developed technologies that lend to the same kind of architecture with respect to building “up.” Not tall by today’s standards; enormous by theirs.


Part 2: Reviewed by God (Genesis 11:5)

Then the Lord came down to look over the city and the tower that the men were building.

This is pretty straightforward, and you have plenty of examples in the Bible where God “came down” to evaluate the behavior of His people. God is everywhere; He does not need to “come down.” But this language is very important to the readers to be reminded that God is not distant. He can “show up” whenever He wants to and He can evaluate our hearts, not just the straightness of our lines.

At least one commentator said that “coming down” was also meant to remind the people how insignificant their great building project was. No matter how high they built it (see below), it would never reach God.

I think if you do anything with this section, simply point out that we cannot hide our work from God. God does not need our permission to make an inspection. Whatever we do, God knows and God observes.


Aside: The Date of Babel

Things get challenging here because we’re now talking anthropology. If you want to read a challenging and stimulating article on the issue, Google “Date of Babel Seely” and you’ll get one. But I think it’s reasonable, so I deal with it here. This scholar says that Mesopotamia was uninhabited before 6000 BC, and there is no evidence of brickmaking in the region before 3500 BC, particularly those which include what we now think of as asphalt. Furthermore, there is no evidence of major ziggurats before 2500 BC. Consequently, Babel must have been built somewhere around 3000 BC. However, this scholar contends that we have evidence of people living in Thailand (the Spirit Cave) in 5000 BC. There are farms in China that date to 4000 BC. There is strong evidence of farms in Japan before 5000 BC. Indian cultures in Mexico (Sierra Madre) and America (Danger Cave) date to 7000 and even 9000 BC. Though we have no evidence of a written language for any of these people, we can be certain they were not speaking Sumerian. This scholar uses carbon-dating to show that the flood could not have happened after 9300 BC, and it could have been as far back as 12000 BC. Frankly, the Bible does not help us in this chronology as it doesn’t seem to give exhaustive genealogies. Therefore, I really don’t know what to say about the date of the flood. But should that be the case, this scholar concludes that people started migrating around the world very early and the Tower of Babel was built by those who had stayed behind. The earliest readers would have thought “the whole world” was there, but God never actually said that. I’m okay with that conclusion.


Part 3: Scattered by Confusion (Genesis 11:6-9)

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. Come, let Us go down there and confuse their language so that they will not understand one another’s speech.” So from there the Lord scattered them over the face of the whole earth, and they stopped building the city. Therefore its name is called Babylon, for there the Lord confused the language of the whole earth, and from there the Lord scattered them over the face of the whole earth.

Below, I give you some very unscientific musings about why God was so concerned with such advanced human technology. Basically, we couldn't handle it without destroying ourselves, so God in His mercy scattered us to force us to go through the long, slow, and violent development of civilization. And now we can clone sheep. Great. Anyway, God intervened in this because He clearly saw a more dangerous outcome than the people did. (In the same way, I believe God allowed the destruction of Jerusalem both in judgment of the Jews and in part to force the Christians to spread His message around the world.)

What God was not was afraid of humans. That’s not what’s going on here. Rather, God had a purpose for humanity, and nothing humans could do could thwart it. And that’s where I see you taking the lesson. This is both a warning and an encouragement: you cannot prevent God’s plan from coming to be. For His enemies, that’s a problem, because God’s plan is to conquer and judge His enemies. For His followers, it’s comfort. I am so glad I can’t get in the way of God’s plan. I can screw up just about anything! But God would not allow me to get in His way. He loves me and the people He wants to reach through me too much. Discussion question: describe a time in your life when God allowed you to pursue a project that was against His will. What came out of it? In my life, God allowed me to experience pain and rejection, but He put me where He wanted me to be anyway.

I don’t necessarily understand this verse to mean that God snapped His fingers and everybody started talking nonsense. Rather, a project like this would have taken decades, so it could have been a process of accelerating dialects into languages and slowly scattering people abroad. However He did it, that’s how He ended this foolishness without doing bodily harm to the people involved.

This lesson makes the most sense when you let folks know that the next lesson is about Abram (Abraham). God called to him and said that He would make his name great if Abraham would just obey. That’s the legacy we want to leave—not one of monuments to ourselves, but of obedience and righteousness. That’s what I want to leave my children. Noah’s descendants disobeyed so God scattered them over the earth (which is where He wanted them to go in the first place). Japheth’s people went toward Europe, Ham’s people went toward Africa, and Shem’s people went toward the Middle East.

Illustration: Soap and Pepper. Pour water in a bowl and sprinkle pepper in it; the pepper clumps together. Put a few drops of soap in the water and the pepper spreads out. Kids might think that’s cool.

Application: Spread out, people! David has been preaching about this a lot recently, and we can use this lesson to reinforce. Our tendency is to want to stay with people who are like us; it’s safer and more comfortable. The same is certainly true of church. But God has called all people, especially His children, to fill the earth. Like David says, we can’t be the salt of the earth if we stay in the shaker.

Have your group do an “inventory” of themselves. God has given them gifts, skills, resources, connections. What are they using them to do? Are they worried about their own comfort, status, security? Or are they wanting to make God’s name great? Someone in your class might have a story about how God intervened in his/her life to help him start thinking the right way about that. I know what happened to me: God sent me Shelly, and our dreams changed almost overnight. What about you and your group?


Aside: How Big Was the Tower of Babel?

The great pyramid of Khufu (built around 2500 BC) is 455’ tall. The tallest ziggurat was probably only about 300’ tall. For people who were trying to reach the heavens, this might seem disappointing, especially since the tallest building in the world today (in Dubai) is a startling 2700’ tall. I think we have two ways of looking at this. (1) Because it was the largest building in the world at the time, it didn’t really need to be that tall. Or (2), and this is the direction I lean, the people of this region, because they spoke the same language and dialect and had no real enemies, had more advanced technology than the people afterward. That’s why I don’t feel obligated to limit the date of Babel by the available technology. I have no problem with a much earlier date, believing that God would wipe out any remains of this city and thus the ability to recreate it. I’m not saying that the tower could have been thousands of feet high! But I don’t think it has to be limited by the tallest known ziggurat. Perhaps the biggest problem God had was that the people’s very advanced technology would have become a big, big problem too early for humanity to handle it (can you imagine the ancient Egyptians with assault rifles? or the Romans with tanks?). That’s the way I handle the difficulties here: I don’t think God wants us to know!

Final Aside: Where Is Shinar?

Well, different people used the word in different ways. In the Bible, it seems to refer to Mesopotamia. The king of Shinar shows up in Gen 14:1 against Abraham. Isaiah 11:11 prophesies that the remnant will be brought of Shinar. Most importantly, both Daniel 1:2 and Zechariah 5:11 seem to equate Shinar with Babylon, which is the primary reason most scholars put Babel in the region of Babylon. Outside of the Bible, some letters seem to equate Shinar with a region in Syria, others seem to equate it with the region near Mosul in Iraq, and others seem to equate it with a nomadic tribe.


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