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The Tower of Babel (Gen 11:1-9)

Julian Spriggs M.A.


In the early chapters of the Book of Genesis, four significant events are described: the creation, the fall, the flood, and the Tower of Babel. It is frequently claimed that these are merely myths and fables, and therefore have no historical reality, but, if so, we are left with the question, at what point does myth turn into truth, as we progressively read through the Bible?

We need to take the early chapters of Genesis seriously. Genesis is the book of origins, giving us God’s explanation of the world we live in, being good but fallen. It also describes the situation of mankind, being made in God’s image, but also fallen, in rebellion to our Creator, with potential to achieve wonderfully good things, but also the potential for unbelievable wickedness and evil. No other religious or philosophical system gives such a good explanation of the paradox of our existence.

Any attempt to merge Genesis with evolutionary theory is doomed to failure. The deliberate and expressed aim of evolution is to explain origins without God or any other supernatural element, because it is a naturalistic system of thought. It is important to realise that evolution is more of a philosophy than a science.

As we look at the story of the tower of Babel, we will see that it gives a good explanation of the origin of languages and nations, far better than the other naturalistic explanations we are normally presented with. It also teaches us some important things about our attitudes to other nations and peoples, as well as demonstrating man’s long-standing tendency to rebel against their Creator.

The Setting

After the account of the flood (Gen 6-9), comes the Table of the Nations (Gen 10), the Tower of Babel (Gen 11), and the genealogy from Noah, through his son, Shem, to Abraham. We need to look at chapters 10 and 11 together, because the nations came into being as a result of the division of the languages at Babel.

A look at the text (Gen 11:1-9)

Before this event, the whole earth had one language and same words (v1). Mankind was created with an ability to communicate (Gen 1-2), both with each other and with God, so they must have had a language. Adam was able to name the animals (2:19), and to express delight when presented with Eve (2:23). Before Babel, everyone could understand each other, and there were no problems with communication. We do not know what the original language was. It is often suggested that it was Hebrew. This is quite possible, as it would be most unlikely that Noah or the family of Shem were involved in the building of the tower, so their language would have remained unchanged.

From Ararat, the people had migrated eastwards, then moved west and settled in Mesopotamia, between the Tigris and Euphrates rivers, named after two of the rivers in the Garden of Eden (2:14). This was the land of Shinar (v2), where Daniel and his friends were exiled, much later (Dan 1:2). Shinar is the same name as Sumer, the land of the Sumerians, who were an early, but surprisingly advanced, civilisation in Mesopotamia.

This action of settling in Shinar was in direct disobedience to God’s command for Noah’s sons after the flood to be fruitful, multiply and fill the earth: "Be fruitful and multiply and fill the earth" (9:1), "And you, be fruitful and multiply, abound on the earth and multiply in it" (9:7). The family of Noah, consisting of eight people, were the only people to survive the flood: "The sons of Noah who went out of the ark were Shem, Ham and Japheth. Ham was the father of Canaan. These three were the sons of Noah and from these the whole earth was peopled" (9:18). Peter wrote this: "He (God) did not spare the ancient world, even though he saved Noah, a herald of righteousness, with seven others, when he brought a flood on a world of the ungodly" (2 Pet 2:5). Following the flood, God intended that they spread out and repopulate the world. They multiplied, but failed to spread out to fill the earth.

After settling in Shinar, they encouraged each other to make bricks (v3). Mesopotamia (meaning "the land between the rivers" - the rivers Tigris and Euphrates) is a flat land, with no stone for building, so they had to use clay to bake bricks, and use bitumen for mortar.

They called to each other to make a city and a tower with its top in the heavens (v4). It appears that it was intended as a place of worship, probably of the sun and other heavenly bodies - the host of heaven. The building of this tower was clearly based in rebellion against God, as it was a place to worship the created objects instead of the Creator. This was one of the first rebellions against God described by Paul: "they exchanged the truth about God for a lie and worshipped and served the creature rather than the Creator" (Rom1:25). They also wanted to make a name for themselves (v4), another word for pride, as well as resisting God’s command to be scattered over the face of the earth. So there were a three aspects of their rebellion - idolatry, pride and disobedience (v4).

The account rather sarcastically describes how the Lord came down to see the city and the tower (v5). It was built with the intention to reach the heavens, but this verse seems to imply that God could hardly see it.

Verse six explains the problem God had with the building of the tower. Because mankind is made in the image of God, people are able to do almost anything - "nothing they propose to do will be impossible for them" (v6). After the fall, people are still made in the image of God, but lack the moral principles to guide them, so God wanted to limit this rebellion against him, and to enforce the scattering of people over the world.

To do this, he confused the languages (v7), so they could not communicate, and could no longer work together to build the tower. This would mean that they have to spread out and scatter, as he originally intended. It is likely that members of each wider family could still understand each other, so they would move away together in a group, and form the nucleus of a new nation, the peoples listed in chapter 10. Stronger or more numerous families would probably take the best places nearby, while smaller, weaker families would have to move further away.

These families would naturally become isolated from each other, marrying would mostly be within the family, thus each wider family would quickly develop their own physical and cultural characteristics. The genetic isolation would allow different physical characteristics to appear within only a few generations. This would include differences in skin colour, facial appearance and hair colour, the characteristics of what we often today refer to as different races. Human beings are still all one kind, because people of all nations can interbreed, but each nation and tribe would quickly become distinct, with their own language and culture.

God’s plan worked. They stopped building the tower and city, and were scattered over the face of the earth (v8). An important aspect of the Book of Genesis is the origin of names of people and places. The city is called Babel (meaning confused), because God confused the language (v9), the city of Babylon.

The Table of the Nations (Gen 10)

As noted above, the account of the Tower of Babel needs to be read together with the Table of the Nations (Gen 10). This lists the descendants of the three sons of Noah, who had survived the flood: Japheth (10:2-5), Ham (10:6-20) and Shem (10:21-31). The whole Table of the Nations is summarised as follows: "These are the families of Noah’s sons, according to their genealogies, in their nations; and from these the nations spread on the earth after the flood" (10:32).

The descendants of Shem are followed for five generations as far as Peleg (10:21-25): Shem, Arpachshad, Shelah, Eber and Peleg. These can also be followed in chapter eleven (11:10b-16), where the generations continue down to Terah, the father of Abram (who later was renamed as Abraham). According to the footnote, Peleg’s name means "division". He was named this because, "in his days, the earth was divided" (10:25). Some have suggested this is talking about the geological division of continents and the start of continental drift, but it is much more likely that Peleg got his name because he was born shortly after the division of the nations that occurred as a result of the Tower of Babel. Josephus gives this reason for Peleg’s name: "Heber begat Joctan and Phaleg; he was called Phaleg, because he was born at the dispersion of the nations to their several countries; for Phaleg, among the Hebrews, signifies division." (Ant 1:6:4).

The birth of Peleg gives an indication of the timespan. From the genealogy from Shem to Abraham (ch 11), it appears that Peleg was born 101 years after the end of the flood (11:10b,12,14,16), so the building of the Tower of Babel was about a century after the flood ended.

The descendants of Ham are given a longer list (v6-20), because many of these nations later became the enemies of Israel, including Egypt (v6), the Canaanites (v18) and the Philistines (v14). One individual is given particular focus. This is Nimrod, the great-grandson of Noah (Noah - Ham - Cush - Nimrod):
Cush became the father of Nimrod; he was the first on earth to become a mighty warrior. He was a mighty hunter before the Lord; therefore it is said, "Like Nimrod a mighty hunter before the Lord."
"The beginning of his kingdom was Babel, Erech, and Accad, all of them in the land of Shinar. From that land he went into Assyria, and built Nineveh, Rehoboth-ir, Calah, and Resen between Nineveh and Calah (Nimrud); that is the great city." (10:8-12)

In the genealogies in 1 Chronicles, Nimrod is described as follows: Cush became the father of Nimrod; he was the first to be a mighty one on the earth. (1 Chron 1:10).

Micah describes Assyria as the land of Nimrod in the parallelism:
They shall rule the land of Assyria with the sword,
   and the land of Nimrod with the drawn sword;
they shall rescue us from the Assyrians
   if they come into our land or tread within our border.
" (Micah 5:6)

The role of Nimrod

From chapter 10, it is not immediately clear what sort of character Nimrod was, whether he was a good or wicked person. He is described as a mighty hunter (presumably of animals) before the Lord (v9), who made a great kingdom, first around the area of Babylon, and later extending north into the area later known as Assyria.

However, Josephus describes him like this:
Now it was Nimrod who excited them to such an affront and contempt of God. He was the grandson of Ham, the son of Noah, - a bold man, and of great strength of hand. He persuaded them not to ascribe it to God as if it was through his means they were happy, but to believe that it was their own courage which procured that happiness. He also gradually changed the government into tyranny, - seeing no other way of turning men from the fear of God, but to bring them into a constant dependence upon his power. He also said he would be revenged on God, if he should have a mind to drown the world again; for that he would build a tower too high for the waters to be able to reach! and that he would avenge himself on God for destroying their forefathers! (Jos Ant 1:4:2)

The Targum of Jonathan says this: From the foundation of the world none was found like Nimrod, powerful in hunting and rebellions against the Lord, and the Jerusalem Targum describes him as follows: He was powerful in hunting and in wickedness before the Lord, got he was a hunter of the sons of men, and he said to them, "Depart from the judgement of the Lord, and adhere to the judgement of Nimrod!" Therefore is it said, "As Nimrod the strong one, strong in hunting, and in wickedness before the Lord."

From these examples of Jewish tradition, it is clear that Nimrod hunted people, rather than animals, he rebelled against God and was a cruel tyrant, who ruled over a large kingdom, who also instigated the building of the Tower of Babel.

Nimrod’s name in Hebrew means "rebel". One possibility is that Cush named his son "The Rebel", perhaps as a reaction against the curse on his brother Canaan, son of Ham, which said that he will be a slave to his brothers. In the previous chapter, Canaan, the son of Ham was cursed by God, after seeing the nakedness of drunken Noah (9:20-22): "Cursed be Canaan; lowest of slaves shall he be to his brothers" (9:25). Perhaps Nimrod decided that instead of being a slave, he will rule over them.

Another possibility is that Nimrod is a description of his character, rather than a name, a description given by the writer of Genesis. The book of Genesis is divided into sections, each ending "These are the generations of". The Hebrew word is "toledot", meaning family records. These sections represented the original tablets, written shortly after the events described, which were collected together into one book by Moses. For further information, please see the page on The Book of Genesis. Chapters 10-11 are in the tablet of Shem, probably written by Shem, so Shem referred to Nimrod as the rebel, because he led the rebellion against God.

It is difficult to identify who the rebel was, so there have been many suggestions. One of the best is the Babylonian hero Gilgamesh, described in the well-known Gilgamesh Epic. He was a evil tyrant who ruled over a large kingdom, who was opposed to God, and forced people to rebel against the Creator.

From the earliest times Nimrod was worshipped as a god. In Babylon, he was represented as a child seated on his mother’s lap. His mother was worshipped as the Queen of heaven, with Nimrod her son. Later, the main deity of Babylon and king over their gods was Marduk, or Merodach, which should probably to be identified with Nimrod. The Roman god Bacchus, or bar-Cush, means son of Chus, which is Nimrod. The Assyrians named the city of Calah as Nimrud (originally founded by Nimrod - Gen 10:12). They also remembered the founder of Nineveh as a person called, "Ninus", who may well be Nimrod. Walter Raleigh’s map of the world in 1634 calls the Caspian Sea "Mar de Bacu", meaning Sea of Bacchus, the son of cush. I wonder whether Baku, the capital city of Azerbaijan, also has this derivation.

There is a strong tradition about Nimrod in many cultures. He was one of the most notorious characters in the ancient world, who led the rebellion against God at Babel. He was a tyrant, who forced people to follow him, and build the tower. He was also the man who started the practice of paganism, including the practice of magic and astrology, and the worship of the heavenly host - the sun, moon and stars. This polytheistic religious system based on astrology became the established religion in the ancient world, which was taken by the people spreading out around the world, and was incorporated in the religious systems that developed from it. The city of Babylon becomes the characteristic anti-God city through the rest of the Bible, and was the place that Judah was later taken into exile. The Book of Revelation describes Babylon as: "Babylon the great, mother of prostitutes and of the earth’s abominations" (Rev 17:5), and contrasts the prostitute city of Babylon with the bride city of Jerusalem.

Conclusions from the account of the Tower of Babel

There are a number of important facts we can deduce from this account.

The first is that all human beings come from a single ancestor. Paul stated this in his speech in Athens: "From one ancestor he made all nations to inhabit the whole earth, and he allotted the times of their existence and the boundaries of the places where they would live" (Acts 17:26). We can see that the concept of different races of human beings is unbiblical, and there are no grounds to believe some races are superior to others. There is only one race - the human race. The idea of race is race is an evolutionary concept, based on the assumption that races evolve into subspecies, and then into separate species. Many of the early evolutionists were very racist, believing that the white races were superior to others because they were more highly evolved. They assumed that different races came from a different ancestor, and that through survival of the fittest, the superior races will become dominant and others will die out. This became the basis for Hitler’s beliefs, that the Germans were the master race.

The second is that the origin of language was a supernatural creation by God, and that human language has not evolved from animal communication. Language is far too complex, and so-called primitive languages actually have a very complex grammar. The complexity of language is often lost, rather than gained, as the years go by. From the account of the Tower of Babel, we see that languages did not all come from a single root, but from many roots. Each root language divided and developed, and sometimes merged together, to form the multitudes of modern languages and dialects, as people separated and settled in different geographical areas. Even today, nearby languages often have the same root. Language is the greatest barrier between peoples, because it prevents communication and causes separation of cultures.

The developments of early civilisations

As people spread away from Babel, they tended to name themselves after the name of their common ancestor, and to name their land, major city, or major river by his name. They also tended to worship the founder of their people. For example, Ashur became the god of the Assyrians (10:22).

They took with them a vague memory of the One True Creator God who had become unknowable, as well as a vague memory of paradise, which had been lost. The Greeks had altars dedicated to "an unknown God", who Paul was able to identify as the Creator-God in his message in Athens (Acts 17:23). They had a more recent memory of a worldwide flood, and the scattering from Babel. They also had a knowledge of the names of their ancestors, even back to Noah. Many of these memories would be forgotten, but others would be passed down the generations being mixed with pagan ideas and gradually changed as they were passed on. Even today, there are remnants of these memories among different peoples of the world. Flood stories are found among many peoples in every continent. All of these have the central themes of mankind upsetting the gods in some way, who sent a flood to wipe out all people, and one person making boat to escape the flood, taking some animals with him. Some stories are remarkably similar to the Genesis account, even including the sending out of birds, the appearance of the rainbow and of sacrifices following the flood.

They also took with them practical skills and various aspects of their culture. For example, pyramids of similar design are found from the same time in history in many different parts of the world, including the Middle east, Egypt, Central and South America. Appearance of these surprisingly advanced civilisations was at the same time in history in many different parts of the world, which again would fit with the scattering of people following the building of the Tower of Babel.

The development of the story of salvation

Following this point in the Book of Genesis the focus changes. Before the Tower of Babel, the focus is on all of humanity, but this changes to a narrower focus on to the line of Shem. The generations are followed down to Abraham (ch 11). Later, God would choose Abraham to be the father of the nation of Israel, who would receive the special revelation of the One True God, and through whom the Messiah would eventually come. Israel had the calling to be a light to the nations, to live as the people of God, and to communicate their lifestyle to the Gentile nations. The ministry of the Messiah, Jesus, was to bring salvation to all nations, beginning with the Jewish nation, and expanding this to include all Gentile nations as well. In the great commission Jesus commanded his disciples to go and make disciples of all nations (Matt 28:19).

God’s plan of salvation is for all nations to come back to know him, and to worship him. This was predicted by a number of the prophets, including Zephaniah: "At that time I will change the speech of the peoples to a pure speech, that all of them may call upon the name of the Lord and serve him with one accord." (Zeph 3:9). Another prophet which predicted this was Micah: "Many nations shall come and say, ‘Come, let us go up to the mountain of the Lord, to the house of the God of Jacob, that he may teach us his ways, and that we may walk in his paths." (Micah 4:2).

The foretaste of the future elimination of the language barrier was experienced on the Day of Pentecost, when the disciples were heard declaring the works of the Lord in many different languages (Acts 2:4-9). We all look forward to the future consummation of God’s plan, when "a great multitude that no one could count from every nation, from all the tribes and peoples and languages standing before the throne, and before the lamb." (Rev 7:9).

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