Tower of Babel: Genesis 11:1-9

Summary point:
God’s people, in God’s world, God’s way.

Summary purpose:
Know your place, as God’s special chosen people, called out of the world, to honor and obey God.

Falling between genealogy accounts, this passage contributes an anachronistic explanation for the dispersion of people groups after the flood. The area where the Tower of Babel narrative occurs is mentioned in the preceding genealogy in Gen 10:10 as one of the emerging centres of people.

The error of the people in building a city and tower reaching to the heavens appears to be two-fold:

  1. They were disobeying the creation and post-flood mandates to fill and multiply on the earth (Gen 1:28, 9:7)
  2. They were attempting to be like God, and/or attempting to bring God down to humankind’s level, by building a tower that connects the earth to the heavens, the dwelling place of God

The narrative follows a similar pattern established throughout the earlier chapters of Genesis in revealing a God who deals with his disobedient creation in ways that show both his righteous judgment along with his grace. The pattern established usually involves sin, mitigation and then punishment, and varies in scope between individuals (Adam/Eve, Cain) to groups (Noah and his descendent’s).

In this story, the pattern reaches something of a climax, as God punishes ‘the whole world’ (Gen 11:1) for their sin by confusing their language and confounding their efforts. But by scattering the people over the face of the earth, He is also showing grace and providing a blessing to the ‘whole world’ by ensuring that His good purposes for humanity in multiplying and subduing his creation are realised.

The narrative clearly portrays God as the hero of the story. God matches their devious but complex plans by his own seemingly casual and simple act of language confusion. Twice the LORD is said to have scattered the people over the face of the earth. It is not that the people scatter, but that God scatters.

The story serves as a summary and conclusion to the theology and place of humanity in God’s world established in Genesis 1-11. It also serves as the context and launching point for the next stage of God’s history established through the Patriarchs and the founding of the nation of Israel. It is as though the lens on humanity focuses right out in chapter 11 to see the big picture of the ‘whole earth’ being directed by God to multiply and fill the earth, before focusing right back down from chapter 12 onto a single family line stemming from in Abram.

Andrew E. Hill, A Survey of the Old Testament (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 2009), 94.
John D. Barry et al., Faithlife Study Bible (Bellingham, WA: Logos Bible Software, 2012), Ge 10:1–32.
K. A. Mathews, Genesis 1-11:26 (vol. 1A; The New American Commentary; Nashville: Broadman & Holman Publishers, 1996), 466.
W. Osborne, “Babel,” Dictionary of the Old Testament: Pentateuch (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 2003), 73.

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