What Really Happened at the Tower of Babel?

Herbert Wolf
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Just before the account of God’s call to Abram, Genesis gives a succinct description of yet another judgment, the confusion of languages and the scattering of the peoples. These nine verses (11:1–9) are given in an inverted, or hourglass, form that is beautifully symmetrical. Verses 1 and 2 parallel verses 8 and 9, all four being written in narrative style. Verses 3 and 4 match verses 6 and 7 with the emphasis on the words of men and God respectively. In both instances the phrase “Come, let us” is emphasized.[1]

At first glance it is difficult to identify the sin committed by the tower builders, but the problem was probably human pride. Like the “men of renown” in 6:4, the Babel builders wanted to “make a name” for themselves (11:4) and defy God. In Hebrew the word for “Babel” is normally translated “Babylon,” and throughout Scripture Babylon represents a kingdom that is dramatically opposed to God. This is perhaps best seen in the description of the arrogant king of Babylon, who wants to raise his throne “above the stars of God” (Isa. 14:13).[2] Nebuchadnezzar was filled with pride over his accomplishments as the architect of the Neo-Babylonian Empire about 600 B.C. (cf. Dan. 4:30), and even in Revelation 17–18 the final form of the kingdom of Babylon will face God’s judgment. Man must acknowledge God’s sovereign ability to rule over His creation.

“Babel” sounds like the Hebrew word for “confuse” (ba ̄ lal), and this wordplay has forever associated the word not with “gate of God” (its Akkadian meaning) but with the confusion of languages that stopped the building of the city. The strength of the people—their unity—was destroyed by their inability to communicate, and the resultant struggle was reminiscent of Adam’s toilsome efforts at working the soil after God had cursed it. In a very real sense, the unity lost at Babel was restored on the day of Pentecost, when Jews from many different nations heard Galileans speaking their languages (Acts 2:6–12). Only when individuals submit to the lordship of Christ can there be a genuine unity blessed by God. People from every nation can be one in Christ, who is building His church to the glory of God.

Ironically, the Tower of Babel was most likely similar to the Mesopotamian temple towers known as ziggurats, which were intended to bring man into touch with God. Built with square bases and sloping sides, the ziggurat had a small shrine at the top where the gods could be worshiped. Although such a structure was often designed to be a staircase between heaven and earth (cf. Gen. 28:12), in this instance communication between God and man was broken off.

To punish the tower builders, God scattered them far and wide, a dispersion reflected in chapter 10. In all probability, the Tower of Babel episode preceded the scattering of the families of the three sons of Noah and was the cause of their dispersion. Chapter 10 already refers to the different languages spoken by the nations as they spread throughout the world (vv. 5, 20, 31). To Moses’ contemporaries, the association of “scattering” with “punishment” was a sobering warning because of the curses connected with covenant disobedience. If Israel chose to disobey God, God would scatter them among the nations and fill them with terror and dread (Deut. 28:64–67).

The choice of Israel as God’s special people is connected with Noah’s son Shem, and both chapters 10 and 11 contain genealogies of the family of Shem. Both genealogies mention Shem’s descendant Eber (10:24–25; 11:14–17), from whom the name “Hebrew” is derived. In the more detailed genealogy of chapter 11, we are introduced to Terah and his son Abram and their journey from Ur of the Chaldeans to Haran. It is Abram (later called Abraham) and his family who occupy center stage for the rest of Genesis and the Pentateuch.

[1] See I. M. Kikawada, “The Shape of Genesis 11:1–9,” in Rhetorical Criticism: Essays in Honor of James Muilenburg, ed. J. J. Jackson and M. Kessler (Pittsburgh: Pickwick, 1974), 18–32.

[2] Cf. Herbert M. Wolf, Interpreting Isaiah (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1985), 113.

For Further Reading:

An Introduction to the Old Testament Pentateuch

by Herbert Wolf

The Pentateuch—Genesis, Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers, Deuteronomy—are the vital first books in the Bible. Understanding their scope, meaning,...

book cover for An Introduction to the Old Testament Pentateuch