The Tower of Babel Meditation and Retelling: Genesis 11:1-9
Introduction Shinar was in what is now modern day Iraq. The land of Babylon got its name from the Tower of Babel, so named because the Hebrew word Bāḇel means confusion. Presumably the etymology of the English word babble comes from its Hebrew equivalent. It’s interesting what is not in the text in this story. The people of the earth built a fortified city and a tower, intending for it to reach up to heaven. We know from God’s reaction that what they did was somehow evil, but there’s nothing inherently evil in building a city or a tower. What was the problem? I think the clue is in the phrase, “…a tower whose top is in the heavens; let us make a name for ourselves, lest we be scattered abroad over the face of the whole earth.” Remember that this was only one hundred (and one) years after the flood—Noah and his sons were still alive. Could the point have been that their descendants were trying to protect themselves against a future act of God, even though He had already promised He would never again send a flood upon the earth? Was the problem that they were trusting in their own might and seeking their own glory, leaning on “their own understanding” (Proverbs 3:5-6)? Did the tower up to the heavens imply that they saw themselves as equal with God? Ultimately I think the issue was pride—and the fact that, left unchecked, the people might actually achieve their ends. God had to intervene once more; He had to make sure that the people of the earth did not once again become corrupted beyond redemption, beyond the point where He could bring forth a savior. The fact that He went about it by confusing their language is profound, though. He said, “the people are one and they have one language, and… now nothing that they propose to do will be withheld from them. Come, let Us go down and there confuse their language, that they may not understand one another’s speech” (Genesis 11:6-7). What a powerful statement about the power both of the tongue (Proverbs 12:14), and of agreement of vision and purpose! The Hebrew word for “nothing they propose to do” is zāmam, translated elsewhere as devise, imagine, or plot. We do nothing without first imagining or considering it, conceiving it in our minds. In the same way, the writer of Proverbs tells us to guard our hearts (or our minds or imaginations), “for out of it spring the issues of life” (Proverbs 4:23), and “as a man thinks in his heart, so is he” (Proverbs 23:7). First comes the thought; then comes the word, and this translates into the deed or the action itself. We are created in God’s image (Genesis 1:26-27), and God spoke the world into being (Genesis 1:3). In the same way, our words have great power (Proverbs 18:21). When God saw that the descendants of Noah used this power to pursue their own ends and to forget Him, He dealt with it by confusing their language. He could not change their thoughts without violating their free will, so He intervened at a later stage in the process. Their words, lacking understanding, also lost the power of the unity of vision. Even with the loss of a huge percentage of his workers, Nimrod son of Cush, the son of Ham still went on to found Babylon, Assyria, and Nineveh, as well as many other cities (Genesis 10:8-12). Imagine what he could have done had they maintained the unity of language! In the same way, think of all the seemingly impossible advances in knowledge, understanding, and technology that have occurred even within our own lifetimes. All of these began as an idea, an imagination, a vision—which were subsequently communicated to others who caught the vision and could then add their own skills in pursuit of a common purpose. God Himself said of this process, “now nothing that they propose to do will be withheld from them” (Genesis 11:6). What a statement! What incredible power He has given to mankind, to use for good or ill. I also find it interesting that while this initial incident of producing different tongues divided and scattered...
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June 11, 2021
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