One of the most controversial episodes recorded in the Bible is the confusion of tongues at Babel (Genesis 11:1-9
). Like other events recorded in the first eleven chapters of Genesis, it has been classified as myth by unbelievers. Yet there is no hint in Scripture that this event should be taken as anything but literally occurring. In fact, this episode explains how and why the different languages developed.
The Book of Genesis emphasizes that as man moves eastward he moves away from God. We see this in the Garden of Eden, the Flood of Noah, and now in the Tower of Babel. It will also be seen later in Genesis when Lot separated from Abraham and went to Sodom. When humankind leaves the area of God's blessing, he goes to places that cause him problems.
Not Obeyed Command
The descendants of Noah had not obeyed the commandment of God to fill the earth. Rather than spreading out as God had ordered, they settled in the land of Shinar-a fertile land watered by the Tigris and Euphrates river. Once the people reached this plain in Babylon, they started a massive building project. The city was built in defiance of God's commandment. The building of a city would establish a unified front against God by preventing a scattering. These descendants of Noah had been disobedient to the call of God.
Make A Name
These particular descendants of Shem wanted to make a name for themselves instead of glorifying God. There is a play on words in the Hebrew with respect to the word name in this section of Scripture. The builders, the descendants of Shem, (Hebrew sham
) wanted to make a name (Hebrew sham
) for themselves. Instead of making a name, they will end up scattered and the name
of their city (verse 9) will be Babel (confusion). The fact that they wanted to make a name for themselves will be contrasted to the account of Abraham in the next chapter-where God Himself makes a name for Abraham.
Why Build A Tower?
Once settled, they built the Tower of Babel as a monument to their own greatness-to make a name for themselves. Though Scripture does not give us the exact reason as to why they built this tower, there are several possible reasons.
1.Protection From Another Flood
A traditional view states that the tower was built by the people to protect themselves from another Flood. The phrase whose top may reach unto heaven is a figurative expression of great height. The tower was built high enough for the people to gain revenge against God-should He attempt to drown the inhabitants of earth again. The problem with this view is that God clearly promised not to send another Flood (Genesis 8:21-22
). Furthermore, why build a tower on a plain if the purpose was to be too high for floodwaters?
2.Tower To Reach God
Some critics of this account believe that the people were building a tower in an attempt to reach God. This is because the ancients had a belief that heaven was directly above the earth, and if they built a tower high enough, they could reach the presence of God. If they constructed this gigantic tower they could have thought that its tops would have pierced the vault above them. From this vantage point they could establish their own importance in the sight of humankind and God. There is nothing in the text to support the view that the people thought they could reach God's presence by building a tower.
A popular view is that the people were building a Ziggurat- a tower built for the purpose of worship of the heavens. This meant the people were practicing the art of astrology rather than worshipping God. Yet the Hebrew word translated tower is migdol
which simply means tower. In addition, the passage does not teach that the tower was for the purpose of worship.
4.Prevent A Scattering
We know the builders wanted to make a name for themselves rather than obeying God's commandment to be fruitful and multiply. Hence, they attempted to build a monument to their greatness. The monument was to set themselves up as a power-center to their own fame, glory and ambition. They wanted one united government that would rule over all, in defiance to the commandment of God.
The Scripture itself tends to support this as the proper way of understanding why they built the tower. It was that the people wanted to make a name for themselves rather than glorifying God.
And they said, Come, let us build a city, and tower whose top is in the heavens; let us make a name for ourselves lest we be scattered abroad over the face of the whole earth (Genesis 11:4).
The Tower of Babel was built by the descendants of Noah to prevent the people from scattering. This was done in defiance of God's commandment. The Tower symbolized their own efforts to settle a land rather than to fill the earth as was God's command.