Genesis 11:1-9

Now the whole earth had one language and the same words. And as people migrated from the east, they found a plain in the land of Shinar and settled there. And they said to one another, “Come, let us make bricks, and burn them thoroughly.” And they had brick for stone, and bitumen for mortar. Then they said, “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.” And the Lord came down to see the city and the tower, which the children of man had built. And the Lord said, “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. Come, let us go down and there confuse their language, so that they may not understand one another’s speech.” So the Lord dispersed them from there over the face of all the earth, and they left off building the city. Therefore its name was called Babel, because there the Lord confused the language of all the earth. And from there the Lord dispersed them over the face of all the earth. [1]

The list of names we looked at last week in Genesis 10, known as the Table of Nations, gives us a verbal map of the known world at the dawn of history. Three times (once for Japheth, then for Ham, and then for Shem), the author states that the Table was composed according to “their clans, their languages, their lands, and their nations” (v. 31; cf. vv. 5, 20).

Moses’ Table of Nations is his picture of how God fulfilled his command to Noah to “Be fruitful and multiply and fill the earth.[2] The Table concludes with these grand words, “32 These are the clans of the sons of Noah, according to their genealogies, in their nations, and from these the nations spread abroad on the earth after the flood.[3]

The Table of Nations is bedrock theology for the Children of Israel who are supposed to be a light to the Gentiles that are promised blessing through Abraham, the ancestor of the Promised Seed. It’s a reminder that they are not special for any other reason than God sovereignly chose to set his loyalty love upon them and preserve them as a people built around his promise of the Seed of the Woman (Gen. 3:15). It’s a reminder for us that in Adam we are all losers, not one of us better than the next. It suggests to us a mantra the Israelites (and most of us most of the time) forget:

  • We are ALL broken messes.
  • Our future is brighter than we can imagine.
  • ANYONE can get in on this!

Following the Table of Nations, Moses inserts the narrative of the Tower of Babel. The story is arranged thematically, not chronologically. In the first 11 chapters, Moses has six genealogies and in between each pair of two he places a narrative.[4] The Babel event comes chronologically before the spreading out of the nations recorded in chapter 10. But it’s placed after the multiplication table because of the themes we find in the Table. “It is located between the two lines that are traced from Shem: first, the line that extends from Shem (10:22) through Eber (v.24) through Joktan (vv.26–29); and, second, the line extending from Shem (11:10) through Eber (v.14), through Peleg (v.17) [that produces Abram]. “The placement of the story of Babel is deliberate, especially in light of the continuous interplay between the name Shem (šēm) and the quest for making “a name” (šēm) both in the account of the building of Babylon (11:4) and in the account of God’s election of Abraham (12:2).”[5] The absurdity of all humanity attempting to stay together follows the fact of the dispersal pictured in the Table of Nations. The Table shows how futile man’s rebellion is against God’s will.

SETTING (11:1-2)

Imagine the entire world being at peace. Mankind is united in one great noble goal – everyone working happily and excitedly together for the common good. Moses paints us a picture of a peaceful and unified world here in Genesis 11. Everyone has a job – no child left behind. Everyone feels secure. Everyone is enthusiastic and hopeful. Nobody is fighting to take someone else’s resources because there’s plenty of fertile ground, plenty of water, plenty of sand and soil for making bricks, plenty of black gooey stuff oozing out of the ground for gluing bricks together. It is a time of peace and plenty and perfect harmony and manifest destiny for all humanity.

Brickmakers worked happily together. Bricklayers industriously set the bricks in place, mortaring them together according to the architectural plans overseen by the engineers who had carefully selected the best site and done all the necessary foundation work. Artisans carved and painted. Farmers supplied the food and cooks served it up to the work crews. All people had a job and a common mission: building a great man-made mountain in the middle of this fertile garden-like plain that would serve as place of worship for the ages to come.

Of course, Moses tips us off in verse 2 that something is amiss. He writes, “And as people migrated from the east, they found a plain in the land of Shinar and settled there.[6] Recall Adam and Eve were punted out of the garden to live east of Eden (3:24). The context of the founding of both Cain’s city and Babel is dispersed mankind wandering in the east (cf. 4:16).[7] When Lot left Abraham, he traveled “eastward,” where he met disaster in Sodom and Gomorrah (13: 10-12). Abraham’s sons by his concubine Keturah were sent “away from his son Isaac, eastward to the east country” (25: 6). Jacob fled his homeland to “the land of the people of the east” (29: 1). The direction of “east” is Moses’ metaphorical symbol for the sinful human condition and its consequences. We know then, when he says humanity collectively wandered from the east, he is hinting at rebellion and opposition to God.

Meanwhile, back at the tower. One day, Seba the architect was conferring with Havilah the engineer. Seba was stressing the importance of making sure the stairsteps of the tower lined up perfectly with the setting sun of the winter solstice. But as Seba was speaking, all Havilah could hear was, “Havilah, blah blah blah blah….” Havilah interrupted to say he suspected Seba might be having a stroke since his words weren’t making sense. But all Seba could hear was, “Seba, yada yada yada yada.” They looked around and saw farmers, cooks, brickmakers, bricklayers, artisans, muleskinners were all shouting and gesturing wildly, and the panic was rising. No one, it seemed, could make anyone else understand them. What began as such a peaceful, noble enterprise turned into pandemonium.

What happened? What mankind saw as a peaceful, unified effort toward the greatest scientific, artistic, religious enterprise in the world, God saw as rebellious idolatry and complete rejection of him. This fertile, Eden-like plain becomes the very symbol for mankind’s rejection of, and rebellion against their Covenant Creator God. Where mankind multiplied, so did the condition of sin. What began as Noah’s personal wine festival and Ham’s scoffing rebellion blossomed once again into the whole world actively refusing God’s command. In this case, he had commanded them to spread out across the earth. Instead, they chose to stay together and build their own personal mountain of the Lord.

Many centuries after the great rebellion at the Tower of Babel, Nebuchadnezzar walked the ramparts of his royal palace overlooking his great city and bragged, “Is not this great Babylon, which I have built by my mighty power as a royal residence and for the glory of my majesty?[8] “Centuries later when King Herod, decked out in royal [attire], addressed his people, they shouted, ‘The voice of a god, and not of a man!’ (Acts 12:22). The litany of history’s Babylonian hearts rolls easily from our lips. Alexander the Great. Caesar Augustus— when he died, some feared that God had died. Louis XIV, the sun king. Stalin, who encouraged those who were weary to think of him. Of course, we do not need history to understand this. We have the imperial self— our tendency to become [our own deified rulers] to exalt our little Babylonian hearts to the thrones of our lives.”[9]

What looks like the world’s most impressive, peaceful, unified endeavor is the Babylonian heart of man actively engaged in a demonized rebellion. And Moses tells the story with remarkable literary skill and spiritual insight. Hidden the in Hebrew are stings of word plays through same-sounding words, rhyme, and alliteration. The story forms another chiasm in which the first part of the story is mirrored by the second part with the hinge found in verse 5 when “the Lord came down to see the city and the tower.[10] The last four verses become a point-by-point inversion of verses 1 through 4. The story is in three parts: verses 1-4 show the great rebellion; verse 5 shows God’s mindfulness; and, verses 6-9 demonstrate God’s restrained judgment.


The story of Babel mirrors Adam and Eve’s attempt in Eden to grasp power from God. The tower builders’ attempt to exceed proscribed human limits is much like Eve’s desire for the tree (3:5, 6). The use of the divine plural (“Come, let us go down,” v. 7) reflects similar language in Eden (“The man has become like one of us,” 3:22), and both instances focus on God’s concern for the future of humanity. Genesis 1-11 comes full circle from Adam and Eve’s rebellion and expulsion to Babel’s rebellion and dispersion. There is bedrock theology that parallels Adam’s fall.

Moses notes the whole world was of one language, literally “one lip” and “the same words.” Ideally, everyone had all the facilities to be united in the praise of and obedience to God.

The people said, Come, let us make bricks, and burn them thoroughly.” And they had brick for stone, and bitumen for mortar. Then they said, “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.[11] Humanity wants to earn by their own work what only Shem was graciously and freely given: association with the saving name of YHWH (remember, “Shem” means “name”). God said “Go, multiply, spread out.” Man said, “Come, let’s stay in one big group so that we keep ourselves safe and bless ourselves by our own efforts. Let’s make our own names great.” “…one characteristic of the God of the Bible is that he names people. He gives them names symbolic of what he is going …to make of them. God named Adam (Gen. 5:2), Abraham (Gen. 17:5), Israel (Gen. 32:8), even Jesus (Matt. 1:21). In each case, the names point to what God has done or will yet do. The people of Babylon wanted none of this. They wanted to establish their own reputation and eliminate God entirely.”[12] This was the pre-flood heart of the Nephilim (“men of name”; 6:4) reasserting itself.

Babel’s people were driven by the fear of anonymity. Today this same drive for fame is everywhere. It drives politicians and preachers and athletes and actors. If we can make a name for ourselves so people esteem us, we have succeeded in life – so we think. It is the powerful force behind social media and our near-constant self-marketing through pictures, memes, and clever sayings. It tempts us to give ourselves the honor and glory that only God deserves. “The tower builders were going to make a name for themselves, but not the one they had hoped for. Their name would become a joke. The only name that counts is that which God gives, as when he said to Abraham, ‘I will . . . make your name great’ (12:2). The fame that lasts comes from God. ‘They will see his face, and his name will be on their foreheads’ (Revelation 22:4).”[13]

The mention of “brick for stone, and bitumen for mortar” would be a mocking reference to the Israelites who built with more durable stone and mortar. It’s also mockery to the Israelites because the Babel society built a Mesopotamian ziggurat or sacred mountain, like the original mountain of the Lord in the Garden of Eden or the Mountain of the Law in Sinai. According to later Babylonian mythic theology of the ancient world, they believed their ziggurats were built by their gods.[14] Not only did the Babel rebels envision their own great city built so they could pursue their own security and safety, and not only did they envision making their own name great, but they also were building their own religion. This is a highly satirical story told from a Godly vantage point.

The leaders of this great human endeavor realized that to truly keep the people unified, they needed religious motivation strong enough to overcome their knowledge that God had commanded them to scatter. The Bible traces all false religions to Babylon, and it began with this tower. The Bible speaks of “mystery Babylon,” that is, of the reality symbolized by the earthly city, saying that it is “the mother of prostitutes and of the abominations of the earth” (Rev. 17:5).[15] Scripture substitutes the picture of sexual immorality for any idolatry – worship of anything other than God.

When the builders in our story speak of a tower “with its top in the heavens,”[16] they mean a tower dedicated to the heavens, to the signs of the zodiac. The Chaldeans (or Babylonians) first developed the zodiac by dividing the sky into sections and giving meanings to each on the basis of the stars that are found there. From Babylon, astrology passed to the empire of ancient Egypt where it mingled with animism and polytheism. The pyramids were constructed with mathematical relationships to the stars. The Sphinx has astrological significance. It has the head of a woman, symbolizing Virgo, the virgin, and the body of a lion, symbolizing Leo. Virgo is the first sign of the zodiac, Leo the last. So, the Sphinx (which means “joining” in Greek) is the meeting point of the zodiac, indicating Egyptian priests believed the starting point of the earth in relation to the zodiac lay in Egypt, on the banks of the Nile.[17] Of course, the builders at Babel would have disagreed. They were building the meeting place between their demon gods and mankind – their own shabby version of the “mountain of the Lord.”

The tower wasn’t simply a peaceful, unifying enterprise. The tower was a religious statement of a demonized culture. It represented the religion of the City of Man: I am the master of my fate; I am the captain of my soul. I make my own fame. I create my own security. I control my own life by observing what the Universe tells me in the stars. That is the Babylonian heart of the spiritually dead. It dreads what it cannot control. And, in reality, it can control nothing at all! That’s the point of verses 5-9. God, not man, is in perfect and total control of absolutely everything.


The scene changes from earth to heaven – the true power in heaven rather than the alleged power of the zodiac. Though Babel’s tower was supposed to reach toward the stars, God must “come down” – he must stoop – to see this ant mound. God’s response to Babel’s self-supposed grandeur is mocking laughter. Isaiah sang of God, “It is he who sits above the circle of the earth, and its inhabitants are like grasshoppers; who stretches out the heavens like a curtain, and spreads them like a tent to dwell in; 23 who brings princes to nothing, and makes the rulers of the earth as emptiness.[18]

The soft blow of God’s muted judgment falls in verse 7 and 8. God scatters the City of Man by turning their unified language into many different languages. Deprived of their sense of unity and community, they lost their cooperative technology and the great project simply fell apart. God in his goodness and common mercy was being true to his covenant with Noah. He was scattering the City of Man so that he could continue to seek and save sinners into the City of God in and through the Promised Seed. He was exercising his forbearance with sin and allowing the weeds to grow up with the wheat.

In the scattered City of Man, there remains a source of great hope. The prophet Zephaniah promised: “For at that time I will change the speech of the peoples to a pure speech, that all of them may call upon the name of the Lord and serve him with one accord. 10 From beyond the rivers of Cush my worshipers, the daughter of my dispersed ones, shall bring my offering.[19] Then came Messiah Jesus, the Promised Seed who gathered a people to himself with his perfectly-lived life and his sacrificial death so that mankind might have God’s demand for holiness imputed to them and might have the payment for acts of their Babylonian hearts made for them at Calvary.

And with his resurrection from the grave and his ascension into heaven, he began to reverse the scattering in the City of Man by gathering men and women and children of all colors, shapes, sizes, ages, and languages. When his followers began to preach that good news in at Jerusalem during Pentecost, Luke wrote “each one was hearing them speak in his own language.”— a reversal of Babel and a sign of the last days when all who call upon the name of the Lord will be saved (Acts 2: 6-21). The hopelessness of Babel was not God’s last word.[20]

Man’s Babylonian heart may meld political philosophy and economic theory and technology and psychology and religion into a mighty, self-elevating ziggurat— but it will never give us the self-rule or security for which we long. We must abandon the building projects of our Babylonian heats. We must give up our search for security, meaning, and control of our lives in the delusional and demonized City of Man. We cannot climb our way to our own version of heaven. We don’t need to. Heaven has come down to us so that we can abandon building a name for ourselves and find our new identity in Christ.

But to all who did receive him, who believed in his name, he gave the right to become children of God, 13 who were born, not of blood nor of the will of the flesh nor of the will of man, but of God. [21]


[1] The Holy Bible: English Standard Version (Wheaton, IL: Crossway Bibles, 2016), Ge 11:1–9.

[2] The Holy Bible: English Standard Version (Wheaton, IL: Crossway Bibles, 2016), Ge 9:1.

[3] The Holy Bible: English Standard Version (Wheaton, IL: Crossway Bibles, 2016), Ge 10:32.

[4] Hamilton, 350.

[5] John H. Sailhamer, “Genesis,” in The Expositor’s Bible Commentary: Genesis, Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers, ed. Frank E. Gaebelein, vol. 2 (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan Publishing House, 1990), 103–104.

[6] The Holy Bible: English Standard Version (Wheaton, IL: Crossway Bibles, 2016), Ge 11:2.

[7] Kline, 48.

[8] The Holy Bible: English Standard Version (Wheaton, IL: Crossway Bibles, 2016), Da 4:30.

[9] Hughes, 158. Kindle Edition.

[10] The Holy Bible: English Standard Version (Wheaton, IL: Crossway Bibles, 2016), Ge 11:5.

[11] The Holy Bible: English Standard Version (Wheaton, IL: Crossway Bibles, 2016), Ge 11:3–4.

[12] Boice, 422.

[13] Hughes, 172. Kindle Edition

[14] Id., 170.

[15] Boice, 422.

[16] The Holy Bible: English Standard Version (Wheaton, IL: Crossway Bibles, 2016), Ge 11:4.

[17] Boice, 423.

[18] The Holy Bible: English Standard Version (Wheaton, IL: Crossway Bibles, 2016), Is 40:22–23.

[19] The Holy Bible: English Standard Version (Wheaton, IL: Crossway Bibles, 2016), Zep 3:9–10.

[20] Hughes, 174. Kindle Edition.

[21] The Holy Bible: English Standard Version (Wheaton, IL: Crossway Bibles, 2016), Jn 1:12–13.