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The Tower Of Babel (1/3)

The Tower Of Babel

The record of the tower of Babel is one of the most well known but most misunderstood passages of the Bible. People remember in general terms the great tower, man’s challenge to God, and the confusion of language, but they usually remember the specific details imperfectly.

It’s a short record, so let’s read it now so we know what it actually says:

Genesis 11:
1 The whole earth had a common language and a common vocabulary.
2 When the people moved eastward, they found a plain in Shinar and settled there.
3 Then they said to one another, “Come, let’s make bricks and bake them thoroughly.” (They had brick instead of stone and tar instead of mortar.)
4 Then they said, “Come, let’s build ourselves a city and a tower with its top in the heavens so that we may make a name for ourselves. Otherwise we will be scattered across the face of the entire earth.”
5 But the Lord came down to see the city and the tower that the people had started building.
6 And the Lord said, “If as one people all sharing a common language they have begun to do this, then nothing they plan to do will be beyond them.
7 Come, let’s go down and confuse their language so they won’t be able to understand each other.”
8 So the Lord scattered them from there across the face of the entire earth, and they stopped building the city.
9 That is why its name was called Babel—because there the Lord confused the language of the entire world, and from there the Lord scattered them across the face of the entire earth.

It is a surprise to most people to realise that the Bible does not present the narrative of the tower of Babel as an explanation of how all the languages of the world came about, though many people wrongly believe it says this.

From the previous chapter of Genesis, we find that many nations with their own languages already existed outside the Middle East at this time:

Genesis 10:
4 The sons of Javan were Elishah, Tarshish, the Kittim, and the Dodanim.
5 From these the coastlands of the nations were separated into their lands, every one according to its language, according to their families, by their nations.

From this record we can see that the descendants of Japheth already had their own languages at the time that the descendants of Ham had moved to Shinar. The Bible does not connect these two events, and although the history of Genesis 11 certainly steps back in time to the events of Genesis 10:9-10 (just after 2,900 BC), whereas the historical record of Genesis 10 contains events least as late as the building of Calah in verse 11 (about 1,200 BC), it does not make any reference to the descendants of Shem, Ham, or Japheth, or explain their diversity of language as a result of the events at Shinar (a diversity already referred to in Genesis 11:5-6, 20, 31).

The most decisive proof that this incident is not related in order to explain the origin of the world’s languages, is that the record says no such thing, and actually uses this event to explain something else entirely:

Genesis 11:
8 So the Lord scattered them from there across the face of the entire earth, and they stopped building the city.
9 That is why its name was called Babel—because there the Lord confused the language of the entire world, and from there the Lord scattered them across the face of the entire earth.

The record explicitly uses this event to explain why the Hebrew name ‘Babel’ was given to this city. The record tells us exactly what it intends to use this event to explain, and it is certainly not to explain the origin of the world’s languages.

It is also important to understand that the Babel narrative is confined to a local area within Mesopotamia, in the Middle East. The record is not speaking of the entire globe. The ‘earth’ in verse 1 is to be understood in its local sense. We saw that this is the same language as was used to describe the flood.

The proof of this is found in the first two verses of Genesis 11:

* Verse 1: the ‘whole earth’ shared a common language, but Genesis 10:5 tells that many nations with their own languages already existed outside the Middle East at ths time, so the word ‘earth’ in chapter 11 cannot be speaking globally

* Verse 2: ‘the people moved eastward’, a statement which cannot refer to all the people on the planet (did all the people on the planet really move eastward?), and must therefore refer to a group of people belonging to a local area

* Verse 2: the people moved from the west and arrived in a plain in the land of Shinar, a statement which only makes sense if referring to a group of people moving eastward from a local area west of Shinar, and makes no sense if applied globally (people in India or Russia could not be said to be travelling ‘eastward’ to Babylon)

* Verse 2: the group of people was small enough to consider a plain in nearby Shinar to be an area sufficient to accommodate their new urban development, indicating that this refers to a local group of people, and not the entire planet

What then is the record intending to teach us? What lessons are we to learn from this?

Some have seen the narrative as condemning urbanization, connecting the tower of Babel with God’s calling of Abraham out of Ur (an event which takes place in the very next chapter). It is suggested that the urban dwellers at Babel were deliberately scattered by God in order to teach them that the nomadic lifestyle was acceptable to God, whereas the urban lifestyle was not.

Since the city of Ur belonged to the same civilization to which the tower of Babel belonged, and since God called Abraham out of the urban lifestyle to a nomadic lifestyle, this seems at first to be a legitimate conclusion. However, whilst there are certainly important connections between the tower of Babel and the call of Abraham (and the two narratives do appear to have been placed next to each other in deliberate contrast), God’s punishment of the people at Babel is clearly declared to be the Divine judgment on a certain attitude, not simply a way of life.

The urbanization at Babel is a symptom of that attitude, but it is the attitude rather than the symptom which is punished:

Genesis 11:
4 Then they said, “Come, let’s build ourselves a city and a tower with its top in the heavens so that11 we may make a name for ourselves. Otherwise we will be scattered13 across the face of the entire earth.”
6 And the Lord said, “If as one people all sharing a common language they have begun to do this, then nothing they plan to do will be beyond them. [18]

[18] tn Heb “all that they purpose to do will not be withheld from them.”

It is this attitude of challenging the Divine, the assumption that man can dominate not only the natural realm of his own environment, but also the Divine realm of heaven, which is the attitude God condemns. This challenge to Divine authority, and the remaking of God in the image of man, is the sin which the tower of Babel represents, an attitude which is displayed today whenever Babel is used as a sign of man’s achievements or aims.

In fact, the lessons of the tower of Babel are so well understood that for centuries the tower of Babel has been used as a symbol of the very attitudes God condemned there.

Part two.

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10 comments

  1. I’m not sure what the justification is for saying that Abraham’s UR was the same civilization as the tower of Babel group. This article even argues itself that the tower of Babel was built by the descendents of Ham that moved to Shinar. Abram and his Chaldean relatives are clearly Semitic. How are these the same civilization?


  2. The article says that the city of Ur belonged to the same civilization to which the tower of Babel belonged. The city of Ur belonged to the Sumerians, and the Sumerians most likely built the tower of Babel. The article does not say that Abraham belonged to the same civilization that built the tower of Babel. It simply says that he lived in Ur.

    Although Ur was built by the descendants of Ham, it was later taken by the descendants of Shem. The city of Ur belonged first to the Sumerians, then to the Akkadians, who were an invading Semitic group. They took Ur in around 2,300 BC. This was the civilization of Abraham.


  3. It should be mentioned that “Babel” is the Hebrew name for Babylon, which Ur was at one time part of.


  4. And what about understanding that if men are able to overcome the difficulty of understanding each others because of the different languages, then they most probably would be able to build a stair to the heaven and this means being able of building the paradise where “The wolf and the lamb shall feed together, the lion shall eat straw like the ox; “


    • That’s the way I have always understood it !


  5. This article is painfully illogical. It quotes from Genesis- “The whole earth had a common language and a common vocabulary.” Then attempts to explain, baselessly, how that isn’t true. The article states, “chapter 11 cannot be speaking globally” What else could one mean by “the whole earth”? What a bunch of detestable lunacy.


    • If you have a logically coherent argument based on evidence, please present it. Simply claiming the article is wrong because you disagree with it, does not count. Relying on the English translation without even attempting to understand the Hebrew text, is not a good start.


  6. So the only way to really understand the bible is to read the texts in the language they were originally written in ? Might the lord release an app that will give everyone the true meaning in their own language? He kept up with technology up to scrolls and then left it to men to keep up with. We are due for an upgrade..


    • No, you can also understands the texts in a different language, as long as they have been translated correctly. But to translate them correctly requires an understanding of the socio-historical context in which they were written. And that’s the point.


  7. I don’t know Hebrew, but still it is interesting to see from a concordance that the word translated “earth” in Genesis 11:1 (haaretz) is the same word translated “land” in 13:6. The *land* could not support Abram and Lot together. This was clearly a limited area, because a wider area could indeed support them. Even when Abram said to Lot “is not the whole land before you?” (13:9) (“kal haaretz”, the same phrase as in 11:1), there is no indication that this has to mean the whole earth – the account in chapter 13 makes perfectly reasonable sense using the NIV’s translation of “kal haaretz” as “the whole land”. So I am perfectly prepared to believe that the same phrase in 11:1 could refer to a limited area, unless a scholar of Hebrew can explain to me why this is not the case. Also, given ambiguity about two possible meanings, I see nothing wrong with using external evidence (if we know from anthropological studies that languages had diversified before that date) to help us pick the correct meaning.



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