The Tower of Babel
11:1 Now the whole earth had one language and the same words. 2 And as people migrated from the east, they found a plain in the land of Shinar and settled there. 3 And they said to one another, “Come, let us make bricks, and burn them thoroughly.” And they had brick for stone, and bitumen for mortar. 4 Then they said, “Come, let us build ourselves a city and a tower with its top in the heavens, and let us make a name for ourselves, lest we be dispersed over the face of the whole earth.” 5 And the LORD came down to see the city and the tower, which the children of man had built. 6 And the LORD said, “Behold, they are one people, and they have all one language, and this is only the beginning of what they will do. And nothing that they propose to do will now be impossible for them. 7 Come, let us go down and there confuse their language, so that they may not understand one another’s speech.” 8 So the LORD dispersed them from there over the face of all the earth, and they left off building the city. 9 Therefore its name was called Babel, because there the LORD confused1 the language of all the earth. And from there the LORD dispersed them over the face of all the earth.
10 These are the generations of Shem. When Shem was 100 years old, he fathered Arpachshad two years after the flood. 11 And Shem lived after he fathered Arpachshad 500 years and had other sons and daughters.
12 When Arpachshad had lived 35 years, he fathered Shelah. 13 And Arpachshad lived after he fathered Shelah 403 years and had other sons and daughters.
14 When Shelah had lived 30 years, he fathered Eber. 15 And Shelah lived after he fathered Eber 403 years and had other sons and daughters.
16 When Eber had lived 34 years, he fathered Peleg. 17 And Eber lived after he fathered Peleg 430 years and had other sons and daughters.
18 When Peleg had lived 30 years, he fathered Reu. 19 And Peleg lived after he fathered Reu 209 years and had other sons and daughters.
20 When Reu had lived 32 years, he fathered Serug. 21 And Reu lived after he fathered Serug 207 years and had other sons and daughters.
22 When Serug had lived 30 years, he fathered Nahor. 23 And Serug lived after he fathered Nahor 200 years and had other sons and daughters.
24 When Nahor had lived 29 years, he fathered Terah. 25 And Nahor lived after he fathered Terah 119 years and had other sons and daughters.
26 When Terah had lived 70 years, he fathered Abram, Nahor, and Haran.
27 Now these are the generations of Terah. Terah fathered Abram, Nahor, and Haran; and Haran fathered Lot. 28 Haran died in the presence of his father Terah in the land of his kindred, in Ur of the Chaldeans. 29 And Abram and Nahor took wives. The name of Abram’s wife was Sarai, and the name of Nahor’s wife, Milcah, the daughter of Haran the father of Milcah and Iscah. 30 Now Sarai was barren; she had no child.
31 Terah took Abram his son and Lot the son of Haran, his grandson, and Sarai his daughter-in-law, his son Abram’s wife, and they went forth together from Ur of the Chaldeans to go into the land of Canaan, but when they came to Haran, they settled there. 32 The days of Terah were 205 years, and Terah died in Haran.
God divided mankind into different linguistic groups in order to put a brake on man’s growing rebellion. The brake has been remarkably effective. Throughout human history there have been multiple attempts to bring the nations together, but any success has always been limited and short-lived.
But God is bringing people from all nations together through Jesus Christ. In heaven all the barriers that have divided people throughout history—race, class, and language—will be completely removed, and God calls His people to begin expressing that unity now in His church.
Just one more push and he was out. And a moment later, the noise began as the world’s first baby announced his arrival on the scene. His mother had no midwife. She had only her husband to help her, and he didn’t have the faintest idea of what to do. Come to think of it, neither did she; but somehow in the mercy of God, they both got through, and now she could hold their little son, Cain, in her arms.
Eve must have seen the blessing of God in the birth of her child. After all, God said that it would be through the offspring of the woman that the head of the serpent would be bruised. Perhaps as she looked into her son’s eyes, she pondered how he might reverse the tide of evil and restore them to paradise.
If those were her thoughts, she must have been very disappointed, because the baby into whose seemingly innocent eyes she stared turned out to be the world’s first murderer. Far from being the one who would deliver the family from evil, Cain was the one who introduced new depths of evil to the world and new depths of pain to his parents’ hearts.
The early chapters of Genesis chart the growing power of sin in the world. This “knowledge of evil” that seemed so attractive at the beginning turned out to be a destroying power and a bitter enemy.
The Growing Power of Sin
In Genesis 3, we read about one act of disobedience to God. That may seem like a small thing, but the point is that sin did not end there. It is almost impossible to commit a single sin, because sin is a power, and when that power is given room, it grows. Adam and Eve’s sin attached itself to them, and when Cain, the world’s first baby, was born it was already attached to him.
Genesis 4 describes how Cain became an angry young man. An impulse to fight against God was already inside him, and when he saw his brother enjoying the blessing of God, that made his anger even worse. Cain told his brother, “Let’s go out to the field.” The two of them went out, and while they were there alone, “Cain rose up against his brother Abel and killed him” (4:8). Evil had reached a new depth and violence erupted for the first time.
It’s natural for us to think that if we provide a loving environment for our children, give them a good education, and bring them to church, the result will be godly kids. But, as the world’s first parents discovered, it’s not always like that. When Adam and Eve finally grasped that evil was a growing power, they began to call on the name of the Lord (4:26). That was the first prayer. Maybe you will discover the reality of prayer in your pain also.
In the generations that followed, sin became rampant. Man’s wickedness on earth became great, and “every intention of the thoughts of his heart was only evil continually” (6:5). The world “was filled with violence” (6:11). In a short time the human race had fallen from one act of disobedience in the garden to a tide of violence that was sweeping across the earth. Far from telling us that human nature gets better and better, which is what our society likes to believe, the Bible tells us that as we move away from God, we become worse and worse.
God Cuts Back Sin
God sent a flood to reign in the pervasive power of evil. This flood was a devastating judgment, in which God cut the entire human population back to just one family of eight people who were saved through the ark (7:23).
Noah had a wonderful opportunity as he emerged from the ark into a new beginning, in a new environment, with no old scores to settle, and no enemies to fight. But Noah carried the seeds of sin into the new world with him, and before long, he was drunk (9:20–23) and the seeds of cynicism were growing in one of his children.
When Karen and I lived in London we spent sixteen years battling bindweed, a fast growing vine-like weed that wound its way round our roses. The bindweed was deeply rooted in the clay soil of our garden and, having attached itself to the root system of our plants, it was impossible to remove. The best we could do was to cut it back and try to keep it under control.
Sin is like that. When you choose to violate one of God’s commands you plant a living seed, and it will grow. The devil tells you that experience will broaden your horizons, but the reality is that sin will set up terrible battles in your soul.
The first thing that the Bible says to us about sin is, “Don’t go there.” Flee from evil. Get as far from it as you possibly can, because it is a growing power. Don’t set yourself up for wounds and scars and battles that may be with you for years.
Maybe you’re thinking, “I wish I had thought about that years ago, because I’ve done some things that have formed habits in my life and now they’re battles within my soul.” That’s a great response. You are being honest about the weeds you’ve allowed to grow, and you don’t want them to take over your life. Now is the time for you to fight back, and you can do that through the strength that God gives you (Phil. 4:13).
God will not allow the bindweed to take over His garden, so He cuts it back. If God did not exercise judgment in this way, sin would destroy everything good, so God keeps cutting it back: Adam and Eve disobeyed God, so God checked the progress of their sin by excluding them from the garden. Cain became the first murderer, so God separated him from his family. In the time of Noah, evil multiplied, so God cut it back through the flood. But sin kept growing, and it was not long before a community of people at Babel found a new way to express their defiance toward God.
Confusion on the 22nd Floor
In the course of time, a new technology was developed that opened up a world of possibilities. Bricks paved the way for a magnificent project: “Come, let us build ourselves a city and a tower with its top in the heavens, and let us make a name for ourselves, lest we be dispersed over the face of the whole earth” (Gen. 11:4).
The problem with this building was not its height but its purpose, which was to proclaim human greatness. Men wanted to make a name for themselves and to provide for their own security. Once again, we were grasping at the throne of God.
God watched the building of man’s city and allowed it to proceed to a certain point, but then He cut it back. The Lord said, “Behold, they are one people, and they have all one language, and this is only the beginning of what they will do. And nothing that they propose to do will now be impossible for them. Come, let us go down and there confuse their language, so that they may not understand one another’s speech” (11:6-7).
Imagine that for the last two months you have been working alongside the same man on the twenty-second floor of the Tower of Babel. One day when you arrive and greet him, he responds with incomprehensible sounds. What is wrong with this guy? You soon discover that the rest of the crew seem to be talking gibberish as well and you wonder if this is some kind of joke.
Eventually, to your relief, you find someone else on the building site who speaks just like you. So you say to him, “The rest of these folks are mad. Let’s get out of here.” So the two of you find others who talk like you, and together you move off to start a new community where everyone will speak the same language.
God cut man’s rebellion back by confusing human language, and in this way, “the LORD dispersed them over the face of all the earth” (11:9). Babel was abandoned by little groups of families going off in every direction with the seeds of future conflict already sown in their hearts. Ironically, the fragmentation that men were trying to avoid was the very thing that God caused to happen, and He did it in order to restrain the advance of evil.
Room For God’s Grace
When God cuts back sin, He always creates room for His grace. Adam and Eve were excluded from the garden, but God promised a deliverer. Cain murdered his brother, but God gave another son, Seth, who began a new line of hope. The flood destroyed all human life, but God saved Noah and his family in the ark. So when God brought His judgment at the Tower of Babel, we are left wondering how His grace will take the initiative.
At the end of the story of the Tower of Babel, we read a genealogy beginning with Shem and ending with Terah (11:10–26), the father of Abraham. God appeared to Abraham, just as he had appeared to Adam in the garden (Acts 7:2). Up to that time, Abraham had known nothing about God. His family had worshiped idols (Josh. 24:2). But God promised to bless Abraham and his descendants, and He pledged that through his line every nation on the face of the earth would be blessed (Gen. 12:1–3).
The rest of the Old Testament follows this family line that leads us to Christ, who was crucified and rose on the third day. Forty days later, He ascended to heaven. Then on the Day of Pentecost, God reversed Babel. When the Spirit of God came, the apostles found themselves speaking spontaneously in languages they had never learned, so that people from all over the world could hear and understand the good news of Jesus Christ in their own language (Acts 2:5–8, 11).
Do you see the contrast? At Babel, the tongues were a judgment from God leading to confusion and people being scattered. At Pentecost, the tongues were a blessing from God leading to understanding and people being gathered together.
The story of God gathering His people culminates in Revelation, the last book of the Bible, where we find a vast crowd of people from every tribe and nation and language, united as one, as they worship Christ who redeemed them and brought them together. “Salvation belongs to our God who sits on the throne, and to the Lamb” (Rev. 7:10).
- What do you think about the common sentiment in our culture today that people are generally good? How does this square with the early chapters of Genesis?
- Where have you seen the reality of the power of sin in your own life?
- Can you think of a time when you may have personally experienced God cutting back sin in your life?
- React to this: “When God cuts back sin, He always creates room for His grace.”
- Have you ever thought about why we have multiple languages in the world today?