Noah’s Descendants and the Tower of Babel (Genesis 10:1-11:32)

Bible Commentary / Produced by TOW Project

In what is called the Table of Nations, Genesis 10 traces first the descendants of Japheth (Gen. 10:2-5), then the descendants of Ham (Gen. 10:6-20), and finally the descendants of Shem (Gen. 10:21-31). Among them, Ham’s grandson Nimrod stands out for his significance to the theology of work. Nimrod founds an empire of naked aggression based in Babylon. He is a tyrant, a mighty hunter to be feared, and most significantly a builder of cities (Gen. 10:8-12).

With Nimrod, the tyrannical city-builder, fresh in our memory, we come to the building of the tower of Babel (Gen. 11:1-9). Babel, like many cities in the ancient Near East is designed as a walled enclosure of a great temple or ziggurat, a mud-brick stair tower designed to reach to the realm of the gods. With such a tower, people could ascend to the gods, and the gods could descend to earth. Although God does not condemn this drive to reach the heavens, we see in it the self-aggrandizing ambition and escalating sin of pride that drives these people to begin building such a mighty tower. "Let us build ourselves a city, and a tower with its top in the heavens, and let us make a name for ourselves; otherwise we shall be scattered abroad upon the face of the whole earth" (Gen. 11:4). What did they want? Fame. What did they fear? Being scattered without the security of numbers. The tower they envisioned building seemed huge to them, but the Genesis narrator smiles while telling us that it was so puny that God "came down to see the city and the tower" (Gen. 11:5). How different from the city of peace, order, and virtue that are God’s purposes for the world.[1]

God’s objection to the tower is that it will give people the expectation that “nothing that they propose to do will now be impossible for them" (Gen. 11:6). Like Adam and Eve before them, they intend to use the creative power they possess as image-bearers of God to act against God’s purposes. In this case, they plan to do the opposite of what God commanded in the cultural mandate. Instead of filling the earth, they intend to concentrate themselves here in one location. Instead of exploring the fullness of the name God gave them—adam, “humankind” (Gen. 5:2)—they decide to make a name for themselves. God sees that their arrogance and ambition are out of bounds and says, "Let us go down and confuse their language there, so that they will not understand one another's speech” (Gen. 11:7). Then “the Lord scattered them abroad from there over the face of all the earth, and they left off building the city. Therefore it was called Babel, because there the Lord confused the language of all the earth; and from there the Lord scattered them abroad over the face of all the earth” (Gen. 11:8-9).

We might be tempted to conclude from this study that cities are inherently bad, but this is not so. God gave Israel their capital city of Jerusalem, and the ultimate abode of God’s people is God's holy city coming down from heaven (Rev. 21:2). The concept of "city" is not evil, but the pride that we may come to attach to cities is what displeases God (Gen. 19:12-14). We sin when we look to civic triumph and culture, in place of God, as our source of meaning and direction. Bruce Waltke concludes his analysis of Genesis 11 in these words:

Society apart from God is totally unstable. On the one hand, people earnestly seek existential meaning and security in their collective unity. On the other hand, they have an insatiable appetite to consume what others possess....At the heart of the city of man is love for self and hatred for God. The city reveals that the human spirit will not stop at anything short of usurping God's throne in heaven.[2]

While it might appear that God’s scattering of the peoples is a punishment, in fact it is also a means of redemption. From the beginning, God intended people to disperse across the world. “Be fruitful and multiply, and fill the earth” (Gen. 1:28). By scattering people after the fall of the tower, God put people back on the path of filling the earth, ultimately resulting in the beautiful array of peoples and cultures that populate it today. If people had completed the tower under a singularity of malicious intent and social tyranny, with the result that “nothing that they propose to do will now be impossible for them" (Gen. 11:6), we can only imagine the horrors they would have worked in their pride and strength of sin. The scale of evil worked by humanity in the twentieth and twenty-first centuries gives a mere glimpse of what people might do if all things were possible without dependence on God. As Dostoevsky put it, “Without God and the future life, it means everything is permitted.”[3] Sometimes God will not give us our way because his mercy toward us is too great.

What can we learn from the incident of the Tower of Babel for our work today? The specific offense the builders committed was disobeying God’s command to spread out and fill the earth. They centralized not only their geographical dwellings, but also their culture, language, and institutions. In their ambition to do one great thing ("make a name for ourselves" [Gen. 11:4]), they stifled the breadth of endeavor that ought to come with the varieties of gifts, services, activities, and functions with which God endows people (1 Cor. 12:4-11). Although God wants people to work together for the common good (Gen. 2:18; 1 Cor. 12:7), he has not created us to accomplish it through centralization and accumulation of power. He warned the people of Israel against the dangers of concentrating power in a king (1 Sam. 8:10-18). God has prepared for us a divine king, Christ our Lord, and under him there is no place for great concentration of power in human individuals, institutions, or governments.

So, then, we could expect Christian leaders and institutions to be careful to disperse authority and to favor coordination, common goals and values, and democratic decision-making instead of concentration of power. But in many cases Christians have sought something different, the same kind of concentration of power that tyrants and authoritarians seek, though with more benevolent goals. In this mode, Christian legislators seek just as much control over the populace, though with the object of enforcing piety or morality. In this mode, Christian business people seek as much oligopoly as others, though for the purpose of enhancing quality, customer service, or ethical behavior. In this mode, Christian educators seek as little freedom of thought as authoritarian educators do, though with the intent of enforcing moral expression, kindness, and sound doctrine.

As laudable as all these goals are, the events of the Tower of Babel suggest they are often dangerously misguided (God’s later warning to Israel about the dangers of having a king echo this suggestion; see 1 Sam. 8:10-18). In a world where even those in Christ still struggle with sin, God’s idea of good dominion (by humans), seems to be to disperse people, power, authority, and capabilities, rather than concentrating it in one person, institution, party, or movement. Of course, some situations demand decisive exercise of power by one person or a small group. A pilot would be foolish to take a passenger vote about which runway to land on. But could it be that more often than we realize, when we are in positions of power, God is calling us to disperse, delegate, authorize, and train others, rather than exercising it all ourselves? Doing so is messy, inefficient, hard to measure, risky, and anxiety-inducing. But it may be exactly what God calls Christian leaders to do in many situations.