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.

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