God Confuses Languages

The story about the Tower of Babel is sandwiched between genealogies.[1] Still, these are more than portions of Scripture we’d want to skip. It’s what’s often referred to as the Table of Nations. It comes between two toledoth (10:1; 11:10), the second of which is followed by yet another (11:27). The sections become more extended from here out, so while we have ten in total and six already used, their frequency becomes less. What’s interesting to note, first, is that all of these nations have their own language (Gen. 10:5, 20, 31). Still, when we arrive at Babel’s story, it begins with everyone having the same language (Gen. 11:1). Some might see this as a contradiction, but it’s actually a literary device that beckons the reader to pay attention.

We could detail the various people and the nations from them, but I want to focus on the point leading up to the story about the Tower of Babel. Cush (Ethiopia) is the father of Nimrod, a name often used to insult someone else in our time. Nimrod built Babel and Nineveh, who would later be two of Israel’s greatest enemies (Gen. 10:8–11). Jonah would preach to Nineveh, which later became the Capitol city of Assyria—who conquered the northern ten tribes of Israel. They led them into captivity while importing foreigners to intermingle with them, thus diluting the bloodline in 721 BCE. Years later, Babylon would subdue Judah and Benjamin, the Southern Kingdom, and lead them into captivity in 586 BCE.  

Centuries before, however, these two enemies of Israel can be traced to one person, Nimrod, who we eventually trace back to the degraded son of Noah, Ham. When we look at Ham’s sons, all of them are later enemies of Israel (Gen. 10:6). Cush, whom we’ve already looked at, birthed enemy kingdoms of Israel. Ham’s son, Canaan, well, we know about him. Mizraim was the Aramaic name of the Egyptians, who were often hostile to Israel. Put (Libya) was further west than Egypt and often supported the Egyptians and other Israel enemies (cf. Nahum 3:9; Ezek. 27:10; 30:5; 38:5).

Let’s say you’re an ancient Israelite who lives either before, during, or after Jerusalem’s siege by the Babylonians. This story and the Table of Nations are especially intriguing to you. The part about the Tower of Babel appears mid-genealogy in explaining your own lineage, so you sit up straight and take note. These post-flood people come together in the plain of Shinar (11:1; cf. 10:10), which is Iraq today. Iraq was, long ago, Babylon, and before then, it was the land of the Chaldeans. That’s important because it’s where Abraham came from, Ur of the Chaldeans.

Nevertheless, these people come together to build a city and a tower. This ancient tower is what’s known as a ziggurat. This sort of structure was common in ancient Mesopotamia. They weren’t built for people to go up despite it looking like a pyramid with stairs around it and the top having an altar. Ancient people often sought high places to worship the gods because they were “up there,” so the higher you could get, the closer to the gods. In this case, the ziggurat was for the gods to come down more than for the people to go up. In Genesis 3, humanity lost the presence of God by being cast from Eden, so they build this structure with the hope that God would come to them. They were often made next to temples, and the thinking was that God would come down and enter His temple to occupy it and so that they could have His presence among them once more.  

The two indicators of what might have been wrong here are that they 1) wanted to make a name for themselves, and 2) didn’t want to be scattered (11:4). I’m going to get to what I believe was wrong here, keeping in mind the story of Genesis up to this point. Still, God’s solution is to balal (“confuse”) their language. Literally, God is going to balal babel. It’s sort of punny. Ok, so what’s the problem? Humanity is at it again. From the beginning, humanity has crossed the boundaries of being creatures. We, time and again, want to be gods. Our initial fall was aspiring to have God’s wisdom (Gen. 3:4). Sons of God come down once again, transgressing the earthy and heavenly boundaries (Gen. 6:1–4). Humanity, or a portion of humanity, wants to break through those exact boundaries, not by going up (Gen. 11:4), but by making a name for God rather than self. That was their sin. That was what displeased God. There were several ways they could have made a name for themselves, but when it came to sacred space, that was to be done for God and not for oneself.

God is the one who creates and orders. Still, in building this tower and city, these people were making their own order and unity around themselves and not God, so He confuses and disperses them. Yet, God undid His work at Babel on Pentecost (Acts 2:1–7). The Holy Spirit gave the apostles the ability to speak in languages for which they were untrained, but what’s even more marvelous is how everyone present heard in their own language. They listened to the good news about Jesus, who came to rectify humanity’s errors plagued upon the earth. He did this by dying on the cross, and those who have faith in Him will be saved. They exalted the name of Jesus rather than themselves.

[1] Archaeologists have uncovered a relief detailing the building of a ziggurat during the reign of Nebuchadnezzar II. The archaeological evidence, including bricks from the ziggurat in question, plus the story in Genesis has caused scholars to date the account here to the exilic period that began in 586 BCE. A redactor is believed to have inserted it as a fictional story with a very real meaning.

Babylon Falls and Heaven Rejoices

Think of pride. Think of ego, arrogance, and even rebellion. As far back as Genesis 11, this is what Babylon stood for when the whole earth had one language. God confused the tongues of those who wanted to build a tower to the heights of the heavens and make a name for themselves, but God confused their language, and rather than one, the peoples of the earth spoke multiple. Centuries later, Babylon herself marched into Jerusalem, destroyed the temple, and carted off many into a land of exile—there to despair of their lot but also to repent and rededicate themselves to God. Now, in the first century, Babylon isn’t the actual, physical location itself but a sobriquet for Rome. The angel gave John the interpretation of the vision he saw (Rev. 17:9–18). Rome is situated on seven hills (v. 9),[1] the five kinds who’d fallen number from Augustus through Nero. Vespasian was the one who is, and the beast himself, who was the eighth was Domitian (vv. 10–11).

Many of the descriptions of the harlot lend to the understanding of Rome herself. Like a harlot, we recall that in the Old Testament, harlotry was a description for those who consorted with idols over the God of Israel. Being seated on many waters lends itself to the fact that Rome, Italy is a peninsula. The kings of the earth committing fornication with her speak to how so many other kingdoms were vassal states to Rome and even adopted the gods of Rome. The names of blasphemy on the scarlet beast may very well allude to the divine titles that the Emperor of Rome bore. What we’ll see in good time is that toward the end of this prophecy, the harlot so arrayed in purple and scarlet is to be contrasted with the pure linen in which the bride of Christ is arrayed (Rev. 19:6–8). The city of Babylon is nothing compared to the New Jerusalem of Christ. The former falls, but the latter prevails and absorbs what’s left behind in the act of grace.

Babylon’s Judgment 

When we speak about Babylon’s judgment and subsequent fall (Rev. 18:2), we mustn’t think of the fall of Rome herself—something that didn’t occur until the fifth century—but of the downfall of what the empire stood for concerning God.[2] The pronouncement of Babylon’s fall reaffirms what John already saw in Rev 14:8 and what he knew from Isaiah 21:9 of Israel’s history with the empire of old (cf. Jer. 51:8). Eventually, when Isaiah and Jeremiah saw the fall of Babylon, the empire itself did fall but not immediately. In the mind of God, however, it was as good as done, just as the Roman Empire was as good as done in God’s mind and would eventually happen in the fifth century. When Rome would fall, the birds would take over (Rev. 18:2). In John’s day, the city had as much as a million inhabitants, and when it fell, it was as few as 30,000.[3]

When the other voice urges that the people of God come out of Babylon, this may not be so much a literal evacuation of Rome as much as a call to fidelity. As we’ve seen with the seven churches at the front of the book, several of them had compromised and given into some of the whiles of Babylon. Though some strived to remain faithful, they still had faults against them and deeds from which they needed to repent. To the Christians living in Babylon who were unfaithful to the Lord, or on the cusp of backsliding, they by the grace of God are called to come out of her lest they share in her sins (Rev. 18:4). There are always some situations and places that we Christians need to remove ourselves from out of fidelity to God. If we don’t remove ourselves, we may give in to the powerful ways of perdition that God wants us to avoid, so He bids us come out of her. Why? Because such sins reach to God and though Babylon is complacent, God will not forget her deeds and is one who is reliable that will judge her (Rev. 18:5–8). Sometimes our Babylon can be school, work, or, sadly, home. Sometimes it can be an environment we put ourselves in for sport but turns out to be bad for us. A friend of mine’s husband used to be a minor league baseball player, and after marrying, he converted to Christ, having formerly been an atheist. As a relatively new Christian on the road with his team, he called his wife one night, and she heard in the background some noise and asked what it was. In the adjoining room where many of his teammates were was the entertainment of strippers. He had removed himself and eventually left the sport he loved to be with his family and not in an environment that invited sin.

Heaven Rejoices

With the downfall of Babylon comes lamenting from those who made themselves rich from her (Rev. 18:9–19). However, the heavens, apostles, and prophets are called to rejoice over her fall because God will have avenged them (Rev. 18:20). It’s often been thought that we shouldn’t celebrate when something terrible happens even to those who are evil. It isn’t that we can rejoice over their downfall, but that the justice of God has had its measure. We know that God would have given such evil people time to repent, and He would have sent them sign after sign after sign and messenger after messenger after messenger to urge such. After such forbearance, God judges (Rev. 18:21–24), and His justice and vengeance is not moved by passions such as ours, but by a balancing of the scales (Rev.19:1–5).

Notice how two women are juxtaposed: the harlot in purple and scarlet, and the bride of Christ in fine linen, clean and bright (Rev. 19:8). After Israel was delivered from Egypt, she was united to the Lord as a betrothed to her bridegroom (Hos. 2:19–20; Rom. 7:1–6). Marriage is the symbol of God’s union to His people (Is. 54:1–8; Ezek. 16:7–14; Eph. 5:22–32). It’s also an occasion for joy and celebration. The beatitude pronounced here is one of several meant to encourage fidelity amidst their circumstances (see also Rev. 1:3; 14:13; 16:15; 20:6; 22:7, 14). While the birds feast on the carcasses of the wicked (Rev. 19:9, 17–18), the supper of the Lamb is prepared as Isaiah once foretold (Is. 25:6, 8). There are two pictures here: the banquet of the Lord and the feast upon the wicked. The whole motif is that God triumphs, and in His triumph, His people feast while the enemy is left on the streets to be preyed upon by scavengers. This is a typical depiction of what appears after the war.

When a person follows the beast, they end up in Armageddon—the wrath of God, or divine consent to our own self-destruction. If we follow the Lamb, we’ll find ourselves in New Jerusalem. The latter is what God desires. According to some interpretations of Revelation, Armageddon is a battle that must occur before Christ can come, so they become warmongers rather than peacemakers. Even the vision of Christ here as the faithful and true horseman in Revelation 19 is often invoked in a misguided effort to portray God as violent and retributive when he would rather no one suffer wrath but humble themselves to Him. The peaceful Jesus in the gospels is the same peaceful Jesus in Revelation, but if we set ourselves against Him, we experience Him in wrath. Jesus isn’t schizophrenic, preferring peace one minute and violence the next. This is the danger of literalizing what is symbolically given. Jesus sits upon the white horse of triumph, not the red horse of war. I wish to close with an excerpt from a thought-provoking book.

Christ always rules from the cross, never from an Apache attack helicopter. John stresses that Jesus reigns through self-sacrifice by depicting the white horse’s rider as wearing a robe drenched in blood before the battle begins. Jesus’s robe is soaked in his own blood. Jesus doesn’t shed the blood of enemies; Jesus sheds his own blood. This is the gospel! The rider on the white horse is the slaughtered Lamb, not the slaughtering beast. To further make his point, John tells us that the sword the rider uses to smite the nations is not in his hand but in his mouth. Soldiers with literal weapons of war hold them in their hands, not their mouths. This is not Caesar’s sword but the word of God. The Revelator so desires that we not miss this point that he comes right out and tells us, “His name is called The Word of God.” … The sword is not a sword; the sword is a symbol. The sword is the word of God. If we combine all of John’s creative symbols, the message is clear: Jesus wages war by self-sacrifice and by what he says. Jesus combats evil by cosuffering love and the word of God. This is the righteous war of the Lamb. Christians are called to believe that cosuffering love and the divine word are all Christ needs to overcome evil. A fallen world addicted to war does not believe this, but the followers of Jesus do, or should! If Jesus conquers evil by killing his enemies, he’s just another Caesar. But the whole point of John’s Revelation is that Jesus is nothing like Caesar! The idea that the world would continue to be run by the violent ways of Caesar and Pharaoh and all the rest was the bad news that made John weep when the elder told him there was none worthy to open the scroll of God. John the Revelator is giving us the gospel, not the antigospel. The war of the Lamb looks nothing like the war of the beast. Jesus is not like Caesar. Jesus does not wage war like Caesar.[4]

[1] Vergil, Aen. 6.783; Ovid, Trista 1.5.69; Cicero, Letters to Atticus 6.5.

[2] Reardon, Revelation, 97.

[3] Keener, Revelation, 423.

[4] Brian Zahnd, Sinners, 176–77.

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