Published: 5 July 2021

A Tower With Its Top In The Heavens, Part 2

Tower of Babel.

Genesis 10 lists the clans and nations that we’ll encounter later in the Bible. It shows us Noah’s family tree, but it doesn’t explain how or why his descendants spread across the ancient world. The last verse summarizes what the chapter was about.

“These are the clans of the sons of Noah, according to their genealogies, in their nations, (Gen. 10:32a ESV)

It also transitions us to chapter 11 and sets the expectation that we’ll be told how and why the nations dispersed after the flood.

and from these the nations spread abroad on the earth after the flood.” (Gen. 10:32b ESV)

In the last blog post we examined why the Bible does not support some popular ideas about the tower of Babel story. In this post, we’ll focus on what the text really does say.

What really happened at the Tower of Babel?

“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.”” (Gen. 11:4 ESV)

Gen 11:4 tells us there were two goals the people had in mind. The first is that they wished to make a name for themselves. The second was that they desired to remain together. What this means is that the city with its tower was nothing more than a means to an end. They believed that their construction project would help them achieve their goals of making a name for themselves and maintaining their social cohesion. Was there anything sinful about either of these goals?

Great name

Historically, Bible students have assumed that this story is one about human pride and Divine punishment. It has been said that it was their pride and vanity which motivated them to “make a name” for themselves. However, we cannot assume that desiring a great name was an act of pride. Hiebert points out that “making a name” is a phrase used with approval in the Scriptures:

“As the case of Abraham in Gen 12:2 shows, making a name is honorable, and wherever this idiom is used in biblical literature, it is used with approval.

Making a name is described with respect even when humans make names for themselves, as in Gen 11:4. Describing David’s fame with approval, the historian says once that God made a name for David (2 Sam 7:9) and elsewhere that David made a name for himself (2 Sam 8:13). In the occasional cases when a reputation is negatively valued, it is clearly marked as such, as when Nehemiah speaks of the “bad reputation” his enemies wish for him (Neh 6:13). Making a name in the Bible, that is, securing a lasting identity, can be accomplished by bearing descendants, who preserve one’s memory (e.g., Gen 12:2; 2 Sam 18:18; Isa 48:19; 56:5). A name may also be gained through enduring cultural achievements, such as military victories and building projects (2 Sam 23:18; 2 Chr 26:8,15).”[1]Hiebert, Theodore. “The Tower of Babel and the Origin of the World’s Cultures.” Journal of Biblical Literature 126, no. 1 (2007): 40.

This point is well made and since the scriptures do not speak negatively of their wish for a great name, we cannot conclude this desire was an act of sinful pride.

One people

When God shows up He makes an interesting statement. He said they were all one people (Gen 11:6). God says this people composed a single culture with one language. This is contrary to the claims of some who insert “empire” in this narrative – the idea that the city was the result of ruthless empire building.

The Bible simply doesn’t support the idea that a powerful culture imposed their customs and practices upon minority cultures and gained status and power by oppressing the weak and poor. The Bible does not say the city was a symbol of human imperialism. In fact, the text is completely neutral about the city; it says nothing good or bad about the building project.

Some have inferred that the people had a sinister purpose or sinister plans for the future based on God’s comment, “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 ESV). Some people infer that God foresaw nefarious future plans they would be able to carry out as a unified society.

Hiebert argues that God is not referring to some future action, but instead is referring to the completion of the city and tower which would unify them and aid them in remaining in one place.

“We are now in a position to grasp the meaning of God’s entire speech in v. 6 and to understand God’s response to the human project. The first thing God notices, upon encountering the human project (v. 5), is the cultural homogeneity of the human race: “There is now one people and they all have one language.” The next thing God recognizes is that based on what they have been able to achieve— “This is what they have begun to do”—they will be able to carry out their plans to remain together—”and now all that they plan to do will be possible for them.” The real sense of God’s response, rendered colloquially, could be put like this: “And Yahweh said, ‘From what they have accomplished already, it looks like their plans to remain one people with one language in one place will succeed.” God recognizes that the human race, left to itself, is intent on preserving one uniform culture, and that recognition spurs God to action in vv. 7-8.”[2]Ibid., 45.

Multiply and fill the earth

The text does not describe God’s confusion of their language and subsequent dispersion as a punishment! We cannot get the idea of punishment from the text because it’s simply not there. It would appear that in and of itself, building a city to live in was not objectionable to God. 

If we focus on what God says and does, we can understand what He found objectionable. God created a condition where the people would no longer be able to maintain social cohesion. By mixing up their languages it was no longer possible for them to remain one people. 

What did God want to accomplish by creating multiple languages and cultures? As in the beginning, God told Noah and his family after the flood to “multiply and fill the earth” (Gen 1:28, 9:1). God wanted them to populate the Earth, but they only wanted to populate a city. This was the problem.

We aren’t seeing judgement taking place. God is giving them a firm nudge; He is leaving them no alternative other than to disperse and fill the earth as He commanded in Gen 9:1. The people’s failure to disperse was not necessarily a case of defiance. The text does not state, neither directly nor indirectly, that the people were shaking their fist at God in rebellion. The text does not say they were sinning, neither willfully nor in ignorance. 

A simple message

The story of the tower of Babel is an origin story plain and simple. It explains the origins of the nations described in Gen 10 and tells us how all the languages came to be. It really is just that simple.

“The story’s aim to explain the origin of the world’s cultures is summarized in its final sentence, where God’s acts to introduce cultural diversity are repeated: “there Yahweh mixed the language of all the earth, and from there Yahweh dispersed them over the surface of all the earth.” “There” in this sentence refers, of course, to the city which the people built and which here in the story’s conclusion God names Babel. While traditionally understood to represent an evil empire, the role Babel actually plays in this story is to represent the place where cultural diversity originated, that is, the cradle of civilization.”[3]Ibid., 50.

References

References
1 Hiebert, Theodore. “The Tower of Babel and the Origin of the World’s Cultures.” Journal of Biblical Literature 126, no. 1 (2007): 40.
2 Ibid., 45.
3 Ibid., 50.