A Verse by Verse Study of Genesis 11:1-32
Despite getting a second chance after the flood, humanity continued in their evil ways and tried to make a name for themselves. A group of people gathered to build a tower to create something great on their terms.
Pride is the Root of All Evil
Genesis 11:1 suggests that the whole earth had one language. Some interpret this to mean that only one language existed, while other scholars say that Genesis 11:2 refers to a specific location – a plain in the land of Shinar near Sumer, also known as Babylonia. They believe it means that everyone in that local area had one language, which could have been a precursor for Sumerian or Akkadian.
What happens next in Genesis 11:3-4 is that the people build a city and a tower with its tops in the heavens. Many people who read this story, believe it means that the people literally tried to build a tower that would reach heaven and take over.
But scholars have found that the phrase “tops in the heavens” (or translated as “reaches to the heavens” in the New Living Translation), is a hyperbole (or exaggeration) found in Mesopotamian inscriptions for celebrating high towers, and to make a name for themselves by erecting a lasting monument. This is a recurrent idea in ancient Hebrew culture.
But man’s pride led to there downfall.
A Tower to the Heavens
You may have been taught, or heard, that the Tower of Babel story depicted a tower of incredible height in man’s attempt to reach God, or that it represented man’s foolishness in trying to be like gods, but this part of the story is not that unique.
Rather than attempting to reach heaven, take over, and become gods, this story is speaking of ancient ziggurats. A ziggurat was an ancient Mesopotamian structure with raised platforms, and they were meant to be the highest structure of the city. Scholars believed that they were intended to be gateways, so that the gods could come down from the heavens above, rather than going up to reach the gods.
This may have been one of the first ziggurats, or possibly an attempt at the tallest, but the Tower of Babel was not the only structure of its kind and wouldn’t be the last.
They were attempting to create a sacred space and make a way for the gods to meet with them. It gave the townsmen visible assurance that the gods were present among them.
Pride Seeks Independence from God
In Genesis 3, humans lost their access to God – their sacred space – when they were exiled from the Garden of Eden. Babel was essentially an attempt to regain access to sacred space with God.
This, in itself, doesn’t seem wrong because later in the Bible, God comes down to Mount Sinai to meet with Moses, and later he comes down in the temple of Solomon. The desire for God to come down and meet with man was not, in itself, wrong.
However, the difference with Babel is that they were making a ziggurat as a means to an end. Ziggurats, or temples, are built to make a name for God. But in this story, the workers were trying to make a name for themselves and to protect themselves from being scattered. They wanted to make a strong and indestructible city and empire.
Adam and Eve were in a sacred space where they met with God, but they began to focus on gaining wisdom for themselves – rather than trust in God. The Babel story mirrors the Garden of Eden, in that the people were attempting to achieve power independently of God.
Pride Goes Before the Fall
Pride in man’s achievements moved humanity further and further away from God. In Genesis 4, Cain built a city and named it after his son. In Genesis 6, human sons were becoming great warriors and heroes. Humanity was becoming increasingly wicked.
In their ancient Mesopotamian mindsets, they believed that if they built this tower and honored God with sacrifices, they would receive praise and rewards from God.
The goal was not to glorify God but glorify themselves.
God Came Down
In Genesis 11:5, God comes down to see the tower. Some people translate this to mean that God is not omniscient, because he had to come down to see what they were up to.
But scholars believe that this is merely literary device use by the authors to insult the Mesopotamians: the “great” tower couldn’t have been so great if God had to come all the way down to earth to see it. From the height of heaven, man’s accomplishments seem insignificant in comparison with God’s omnipotence.
This is also much like in Genesis 3 when God called to Adam asking where he was. God is calling out man to admit and confess his sinfulness.
The personal characteristics of the language used also indicates that this was perhaps a time when God came down in the form of a man, in the Person of Jesus Christ.
The God in Our Minds
The ancient Mesopotamians thought of God as having human characteristics and needs. This is called anthropomorphism – assigning human characteristics to God.
God’s response to the tower, was not to worry that they might grow so strong that they might overpower him, but rather that, if they could come to believe such twisted ideas about God, what other terrible beliefs would they come to accept. The potential of a fallen humanity is terrible and powerful. We all can think of examples of man’s horrific accomplishments throughout history.
But we all can be guilty of assigning characteristics to God that simply are not in his nature. Do we worship the true God, or the god of our minds?
Babel went beyond mere idolatry. It degraded the nature of God by portraying him as having needs.
A Broken Covenant
God made a covenant with Noah, his family, and their descendants. But it wasn’t long before the people had broken their covenant with God.
In Genesis 11:6-9, God does not banish them in judgment. This was God’s mercy on mankind: a separation, both geographically and linguistically, to put a check on the power of man’s fallen nature.
Given how the degradation of Babel was progressing, this was their natural inclination anyway. God was merely giving them over to the evil desires of their hearts. They refused to seek the true God and know him by his nature, so God disperses them and allowed them to chase after new gods.
The phrase “Let Us go down” is yet another reference to the Trinity, the first occurring being during creation.
All Part of God’s Plan
But that is not the end of the story. Now that humanity had abandoned God and become the seed of the Serpent, God would make a new plan to crush the Serpent’s head by starting a new family through a new man he would elect (Genesis 3:15).
God would make his own name great, and through him all the nations would, one day, be called back.
In Genesis 11:10-25, God began his plan to elect a new man and a new people, through Shem’s line.
This genealogy is placed here, after Babel, to show us that God is starting to build his Kingdom. Not with bricks but with one man: Abram. The Kingdom of God is about people. Peter says that we are living stones fitted together in God’s Kingdom (1 Peter 2:5).
The genealogy of Shem will eventually be part of the Messianic line – Jesus line – which is completed in Luke 3.
A Tale of Two Kingdoms
There is a tale of two kingdoms that begins here and is carried throughout Scripture, particularly in Daniel and Revelations. The contrast of Babylon and God’s Kingdom – Jerusalem – gives us a picture of idolatry versus true worship and empty religion versus a real covenant between God and man.
Genesis 11:26 is the first mention of Abram. Abram is unique in the way he is called “the friend of God” (2 Chronicles 20.7. Isaiah 41:8, James 2:23).
Men and women of the Bible are famous for many different things. Abram was great for his faith. Many, if not most of us, will never be recognized or remembered for great things, but we too can be great people of faith. We can be friends of God.
In Genesis 11:29-30 Abram starts a family. The name Abram means father and his wife Sarai was barren. Abram and Sarai could not have children. But their lack of children would play an important role in God’s plan of redemption.
Confidence in God, Not Man
Genesis 11:31-32 gives us Abram’s background story. Abram’s story begins in Ur of the Chaldeans, another name for Babylon. Revelations calls Babylon the “mother of all harlots“, and Joshua 24:2 describes Abram as coming from a family of pagans who worshiped idols. From this family of pagans, God found his elect with whom he would make his covenant.
No matter our past, like Abram, God can use us where we are when we put our trust in him.
Men wanted to make their own name great, while Abram wanted to make God’s name great. When we trust and obey God, he can use us to accomplish his great plan, and give him the glory.
Knowing God by J.I. Packer. God wants us to know him – his true nature and his characteristics. Knowing God and his attributes is essential to enjoying an intimate relationship with him. And the more we realize who God is, the more we will humbly trust in in him.