Genesis 10-11 – The Tower of Babel: Man’s Will vs God’s Will

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BiblePictureNow Read: Genesis 10-11

Imagine you are watching a suspenseful movie. It opens up with the main character waking up in a haze, groggy, unsure what’s going on. He looks down at his hands. Gasp! They are covered in blood, and holding a knife. He drops it. It clangs loudly as it hits the ground. He looks around and sees three dead bodies strewn around about him, each one with multiple stab wounds, obviously inflicted by the very knife he was just holding. What is going? Who are these people? What happened to them? Why is he in the midst of them, holding the knife? Suddenly you hear the sounds of sirens, and see the red-white-blue flashing of police lights. “FREEZE! HANDS ON YOUR HEAD!” Oh no! He’s caught. No he’s not, he bolts! There is a 10 minute chase scene as he runs for his life through streets and alleys. He knocks over several piles of beautifully stacked oranges and lemons at a farmers market, and otherwise leaves general mayhem and pandemonium behind him. He keeps running. They keep chasing. Eventually he finds himself in the middle of a bridge over a large river. They are coming at him from both directions. What will he do? Will he jump? What’s going on?????

The scene ends, leaving you gripped in suspense, and as the next scene begins we are told it is, “Three weeks earlier” and you see the same man going about his daily, carefree existence. You then spend the majority of the movie finding out how he goes from his happy, somewhat mundane life, to his current predicament. Somewhere around three-quarters of the way through the movie you return to where you began, and you pick up with the hero precariously perched on the bridge, only now you know why he’s there. The remainder of the movie then takes you suspensefully to the final conclusion. The hero is vindicated, the villains are vanquished, and you walk out of the movie theater declaring the film is, “Just OK”.

This is kind of what we see here in Genesis Chapters 10-11.

Stay with me on this.

It is a common literary (and cinematic) device, where you are put in the middle of a somewhat confusing point mid-plot. You left gripped with suspense as you are then taken back to the beginning where it is then explained how you got to that point, and then the story is continued (from where you first started) and bringing you to a conclusion. It is such a common plot device that you could probably list 10 movies (or books) off the top of your head that follows pretty much that exact progression. But as the wise Solomon once said, “There is nothing new under the sun.” (Ecclesiastes 1:9) and this plot device is not something new invented by Hollywood. It is old. So old in fact that it appears here in the early chapters of the book of Genesis.

The “Mid-plot” Introduction: The Scattering of Nations (Genesis 10)

Following from the account of the Flood we are shown how the families, and nations, descending from the three sons of Noah (Japheth, Ham, and Shem) are all of the sudden dispersing throughout the earth.

We are told of the sons of Japheth, and their sons. We are told how, “From these the coastlands of the nations were separated into their lands.” (10:5)

We are told of the sons of Ham. Cush and his descendants established kingdoms in the land of Shinar (10:10) and then went into Assyria (10:11). Mizraim and his descendants became several nations, including the Philistines (10:13-14). Canaan and his descendants were “spread abroad” (10:18) such that “the territory of the Canaanite extended from Sidon as you go toward Gerar, as far as Gaza; as you go toward Sodom and Gomorrah and admah and Zeboiim, as far as Lasha” (10:19).

We are told of the sons of Shem, and their descendants, and how “their settlement extended from Mesha as you go toward Sephar, the hill country of the east” (10:30)

Throughout Chapter 10 we are given a lot of names and places that to us today don’t really have much significance or meaning. But the main message that we can take away from it is this: the nations descending from the sons of Noah were spreading out throughout the earth. They weren’t staying with each other. Japheth’s descendants went one way. Hams descendants went in many different directions. Shem’s descendants went to yet different lands.

One would think if these were all “sons of Noah” that they would all stay together and form one big nation, united and intermingled. But that’s not what’s happening. There is division. There is scattering.

What happened?

This is the “mid-plot” that we are introduced with. We see what should be a unified people, dividing and dispersing away from each other, and we don’t know why.

The Explanation: The Tower of Babel (Genesis 11:1-9)

After seeing the dispersion of the nations, we are left wondering what is going on, why are these people all trying to get away from each other as fast as they can?

At this point the Genesis narrative steps back to before the dispersion and explains to us just how and why it happened. The reason: The Tower of Babel.

In Chapter 10 there are three times (once for each of Noah’s sons) we told of the scattering peoples, “according their families, according to their languages, by their lands, by their nations.” (10:5, 10:20, 10:31) We see multiple nations, multiple lands, multiple languages.

Yet as Chapter 11 opens we are told, “Now the whole earth used the same language and the same words. It came about as they journeyed east, that they found a plain in the land of Shinar and settled there.” (11:1-2). Here we see one nation, one land, one language. Clearly we have stepped back in time before there were many nations with many languages dispersing into many lands. This is the Biblical equivalent to being told, “Three weeks earlier.”

We are told how this one people, speaking one language, said, “Come, let us build for ourselves a city, and a tower whose top will reach into heaven, and let us make for ourselves a name, otherwise we will be scattered abroad over the face of the whole earth.” (11:4). Clearly it was not their intent, or desire to be divided and disperse throughout the earth. They wanted to stay united, and “make a name for themselves.”

But God had different plans. God said, “Let Us go down there and there confuse their language, so that they will not understand one another’s speech.” (11:7). That is exactly what God did, and as a result they could not remain united. They could not communicate with each other or work together. For that reason, “Its name was called Babel, because there the Lord confused the language of the whole earth; and from there the Lord scattered them abroad over the face of the whole earth.” (11:9)

And so we are brought back to where we started: Multiple nations, with multiple languages, being scattered throughout the earth into multiple lands. And now it makes sense. Now we know why they were scattering across the earth: God scattered them.

The Conclusion: The Origins of Abram (Genesis 11:10-32)

And then the story continues from where we were left at the end of Chapter 10. In fact there is some repetition of what we already saw in Chapter 10 with some of the descendants of Shem being repeated. The descendants of Shem are traced from Shem to Peleg, who in chapter 10 we were told, “in his days the earth was divided” (10:25), indicating that Babel happened in the days of Peleg.

And after the scattering of the nations, the line continues from Peleg all the way down Terah, the father of Abram, who would become Abraham. Thus the culmination of the opening chapters of Genesis has brought us to the man who is the father of the people of Israel, God’s chosen people.

Why did God confuse the people at Babel?

At first glance it might seem odd that God would want to divide the people of the earth and inject disharmony into them. Wouldn’t God want all of his created children to be united and cooperate with each other?

But, we must remember the reason that God created mankind to begin with. Going back to the creation account, after God created man, in His image, God told them to “Be fruitful and multiply, and fill the earth, and subdue it.” (Genesis 1:28). This command was reiterated to Noah and his sons after the Flood, “Be fruitful and multiply, and fill the earth.” (Genesis 9:1)

It is very clear that God wanted mankind to multiply and fill the earth. He created mankind uniquely different from all the other creatures of the earth. He created mankind in His image, to be His representatives to His creation. He created mankind in His image so that there would be beings throughout the world that could both proclaim, and see, God’s glory. That’s mankind’s very reason for existence: to magnify God’s glory throughout all the earth.

But before mankind can do any of that, they must first fill the earth. Mankind can’t have dominion over the earth, and subdue it, if they haven’t spread out across the world. They can’t marvel at all of the wonders and beauties of God’s creation if they haven’t spread out to actually see them. They can’t proclaim God’s glory throughout the world if they haven’t actually gone out into the world.

But the people at Babel have no desire to fill the earth. Instead they say, “Come, let us build for ourselves a city, and a tower whose top will reach into heaven, and let us make for ourselves a name, otherwise we will be scattered abroad over the face of the whole earth.” (11:4). Their primary objective with building the city and tower is precisely because they DON’T want to spread out and fill the whole earth. They wanted to stay as one people, in one place, doing what they want. And why did they want to do that? Because they wanted to make a name for themselves.

And that is the heart of the problem at Babel. It’s not that they wanted to build a tower. It is because rather than following God’s will for them to fill the earth and glorify God, they wanted to stay where they were and glorify themselves.

God saw this and said, “Behold, they are one people, and they all have the same language. And this is what they began to do, and now nothing which they purpose to do will be impossible for them.” (11:6)

God is not concerned that man will somehow grow too powerful. What would the all-powerful creator of the cosmos have to fear from puny man? God is saying that because they are one people, with one language, they have grown arrogant and prideful. They have abandoned God’s will and instead followed their own. When God says “now nothing which they purpose to do will be impossible for them” he is saying that as one people, with one language, they will be empowered to continue to do things as they see fit. This is reminiscent of the sons of God who took wives for themselves, “whomever they chose” (Genesis 6:2) prior to the Flood leading to a world of men whose “every intent of the thoughts of his heart was only evil continuously” (Genesis 6:5) or the people of Israel in the book of Judges who constantly turned away from God with “everyone doing what was right in his own eyes.” (Judges 21:25) God saw that as long as they remain in one place, as one people, with one language, they will never follow after God or follow His will, but instead follow their own will.

And so God confused their language, and in doing so “scattered them abroad from there over the face of the whole earth” (11:8) He didn’t divide them because he didn’t want his children to be in harmony with each other. He did it because as long as they remained united in their arrogance and pride they would never be in harmony with Him. They would never follow His will for them. They would always be consumed with vain ambition and self-conceit.

And thus we see what the city and tower of Babel were really about. It isn’t about a tower; it is about the ever present battle between the will of man and the will of God. It is about the arrogance and pride that sits at the foundation of all sin. It is about what holds us back from realizing the true plan that God has for our existence.

What is our tower? What do we hold on to and use as an excuse to exert our will over the will of God? Our careers? Our families? Our wealth? Our security? Our country? Not all of these things are bad in-and-of themselves, but when we turn them into idols and worship them, or even worse, use them as an avenue to worship ourselves, we miss our true purpose in life. Instead of finding fulfillment in glorifying God, we strive in vain to glorify ourselves; but at the end of the day all we end up doing is babbling.

Next Post: Genesis 12 – The Flawed Faith of Abram

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