September 10 – Genesis 11:1-9


Main focus: God’s glory is demonstrated in an earth-filling, diverse human community.

The Tower of Babel may or may not be a familiar story for you, but often it’s taught simply as a tale of God thwarting human arrogance. And it is that—the tower builders wanted to be treated as gods by building their way to heaven, forgetting their status as created beings. But it’s also more than that—in response, God’s reaction was to squash their futile efforts but also to reestablish his initial plan, despite their resistance, for their good.

We’ll see this by recalling last week’s passage, Genesis 1:26-28, and reminding ourselves of God’s original plan for mankind to “be fruitful and multiply” and to “fill the earth.” In fact, that’s the same (re)commission God gave to Noah and his family after the Flood (Gen 9:7), so God is quite clear about his intent for humanity even after Adam and Eve sinned against him. In Genesis 11 we find a group of folks we can call the Tower Builders (who are different from the Babylonians, who surface later in history). With Genesis 1:26-28 in mind we can see just how contrary to God’s will they are; not only are they prideful, but their pride reveals their conscious rebellion against God’s command: “Come, let us build ourselves a city and a tower with its top in the heavens, and let us make a name for ourselves, lest we be dispersed over the face of the whole earth” (Gen 11:4). They actively do not want to “teem on the earth and multiply in it” like God commanded their fore-father Noah.

For this reason God comes down to frustrate their rebellion. A second point of contact we should note is the similarity between this and the Fall narrative in Genesis 3. God gave Adam and Eve a command, to not eat of the tree, but they disobeyed. “Then the Lord God said, ‘Behold, the man has become like one of us in knowing good and evil. Now, lest he reach out his hand and take also of the tree of life and eat, and live forever—‘ therefore the Lord God sent him out from the garden of Eden”(Gen 3:22-23). So too in Genesis 11, God gave mankind a command, fill the earth, but they disobeyed. Thus God concludes, “Behold, they are one people, and they have all one language, and this is only the beginning of what they will do. And nothing that they propose to do will now be impossible for them”(Gen 11:6).

In both situations mankind disobeys, God observes for us the possible disaster that could occur if mankind is allowed to continue in that trajectory, then God institutes discipline to propel his plan forward despite the sinfulness of mankind. Both show God’s perfect, sovereign control of the situation and his shocking ability to use even our sinful rebellion to accomplish his purposes, the highest example of this being Jesus’s execution on the cross. And let’s not miss that word ‘discipline.’ This is the best way for us to understand his confusing of human language—he does this not to be a punk, but as a consequence of rebellion just like Adam and Eve’s exile from Eden. But discipline is a step shorter than a curse; in fact, the Bible never refers to God’s actions at Babel as a curse, just as the exile from Eden in Genesis 3:22-24 isn’t technically a component of the Edenic curse in Genesis 3:14-19. 

This then adds a dimension of complexity to how we understand cultural differences across humanity. God’s plan for mankind was to fill the earth in perfect obedience to his word, to continue to develop cultures that, though different from one another, together reflect the creativity and complexity of God as his image bearers. However, with sin in the mix, these differences are no longer just beautiful and benevolent—now they divide us and we misunderstand each other. The problem certainly has to do with language differences, but the problem goes deeper than this. Now two people can use the same words but mean two different things; now people can be distinguished as outsiders because of their accent; now one group of people can look down on another group of people because they don’t speak the same. In short, where we experience cross-cultural conflict and divisiveness, we experience a problem of our own devising, a direct consequence of human disobedience to God.

But the battle is certainly not lost. The study guide for this week turns to Acts 2 and the miracle of Pentecost to see how, in Christ, God is undoing the curse of sin along with the curse of Babel. Here’s John Stott on the subject: “[The Day of Pentecost] symbolized a new unity in the Spirit transcending barriers of race, nationality and language. So Luke takes care to emphasize the multi-cultural character of the crowd, not least by the expression from every nation under heaven (5)…Ever since the early Church Fathers, commentators have seen the blessing of Pentecost as a deliberate and dramatic reversal of…Babel. At Babel human languages were confused and the nations were scattered; in Jerusalem the language barrier was supernaturally overcome as a sign that the nations would now be gathered together in Christ, anticipating the great day when the redeemed company will be drawn ‘from every nation, tribe, people and language’.[Rev 7:9] Besides, at Babel earth proudly tried to ascend to heaven, whereas in Jerusalem heaven humbly descended to earth.”(John Stott, The Message of Acts, 49-50)

 In discussion we’ll remind ourselves of that “great day” in Revelation 7:9-10 to catch a glimpse of how, in Christ, our linguistic and societal divisions will be finally and forever overcome. But it’s worth stressing what we see in Revelation 7, that though our divisions are overcome our differences aren’t erased. Remember, just by looking at them John can tell they are a people of “every tribe, tongue, and nation.” This is yet another way we see God achieving his original purpose, a diverse people for his own possession, even through our sinful rebellion, to the praise of his glorious might.

Questions for Discussion

• Could someone read Genesis 11:1-9 for us?

• Think back to Genesis 1:26-28 (last week)—what did that tell us about God’s mission for mankind?

• How does Genesis 11 present the Tower Builders in contrast with God’s mission?

• How can this help us see how God works out his plan despite human disobedience?

• In summary, God wanted humanity to spread and diversify, and because of their resistance he confused their languages—how can that help us understand the complexity of cultural differences even today?

• Think back to Revelation 7:9-10 (week 1)—how does that give us hope for God’s ability to overcome our differences?

• Prayer prompt: Thank God for his ability to unite us across differences that would otherwise divide us, and ask him to use each one of us in bringing his kingdom on earth as it is in heaven.