Read Genesis 11:1-9 in your Bible. I used the NLT to prepare these remarks.
“In November 2012, the Cornerstone Bank of Waco, Nebraska, was robbed of $6,000. The bank employees gave the police a good description of the teenage girl who pulled off the crime and the car in which she escaped. As it turned out, the investigators didn’t really need those descriptions, because the thief recorded a YouTube video titled ‘Chick bank robber’ boasting of her criminal prowess.
“Fanning out the cash in front of the camera, 19-year-old Hannah Sabata held up a sign that read, ‘I just stole a car and robbed a bank. Now I’m rich, I can pay off my college financial aid, and tomorrow I’m going for a shopping spree.’ Hannah’s brief criminal career ended later that week when police took her into custody.” (Ministry127.com.)
Luke 1:51 is part of Mary’s song of praise to God after her cousin Elizabeth confirmed the divine nature of her pregnancy. One stanza from her song reminds us of this account of the tower of Babylon. She sang, “[The Mighty One] has scattered the proud and haughty ones.”
That sentence is the moral to this story, though Mary may not have intended to draw a connection. It was pride and haughtiness that motivated the construction of the tower and it was God’s action against their pride and haughtiness that brought it to an end. This, then, is a cautionary tale against the sin of pride.
Pride can become idolatry of self. Idolatry is sin.
1. After the Flood, the people were united by pride. (1-4)
With all humanity having descended from Noah, it’s no surprise they all SPOKE THE SAME LANGUAGE. (1) You might expect that they would remember the Flood and that memory would be a deterrent to defying God, but there had been many generations and fear of God had evidently been lost. United by a common language and finding a home on the plains of Shinar, they were convinced there was nothing they could do.
However, 10:5, 20, 31 all refer to the differences between the descendants of Noah’s three sons in CLAN, LANGUAGE, TERRITORY, AND NATIONAL IDENTITY. I believe 11:1-9 explains how these differences arose. Just remember, the Bible is not always arranged in chronological order.
The geographical reference in verse two is important. In this part of Genesis, after every big event, people moved EAST.
After Adam & Eve were removed from Eden they went east (3:24).
When Cain was cast out following Abel’s murder, he moved further east (4:16).
When Abraham and Lot parted company, Lot chose land to the east (13:10-12).
In each of these cases, east was the wrong direction; it was a either a consequence or a choice of evil. This event will be no different.
Their technological advance may’ve also fueled their ambition (pride and technology often accompany one another, it seems). It was easier for them to make BRICKS than to quarry STONE and transport it to the site (the city was situation on the PLAINS after all). TAR WAS USED FOR MORTAR. Working in the city of Bagdad, archaeologists have unearthed what may be part of the foundation of the tower. It is made of bricks fused together with bitumen (tar), just as the Bible says.
Their ambition was prideful as verse four makes plain. “THIS WILL MAKE US FAMOUS (make a name for us)” they said to each other. Instead of FAMOUS, they became infamous. Ironically, their ancestor’s name was Shem, a name which means “name” or “renown.” Shem’s descendants built the tower to make a “name” for themselves.
They added, “THIS WILL...KEEP US FROM BEING SCATTERED ALL OVER THE WORLD.” I wonder why they were afraid of being SCATTERED. The only thing I can find is in Genesis 9:1 where God commanded Noah and his sons to multiply and FILL THE EARTH. Maybe they were concerned if they stayed together God would be angry with them for defying His command and would scatter them across the Earth Himself. The word SCATTERED is used 3 times in the passage. Along with the matter of languages, it is a key theme of this narrative. Ironically, the structure they hoped would keep them together was the very reason God tore them apart.
2. God dealt with their pride at its source. (5-9)
It is not that God opposed their progress, but their ambition was founded on pleasing themselves, not God (5-7). It is a recurring theme of these first few accounts in Genesis that people defied God to go their own way, with disastrous consequences to follow (8-9). The Hebrew word for “confusion” is “balel,” which sounds very similar to “Babel.” In a language related to Hebrew, Akkadian, the name of the city is “Bab-ili,” meaning “the gate of God.” That is a fitting name for a tower that was intended to reach up to heaven. Generations later, Jacob would use this word to refer to the place of his vision of the stairs going up and down from heaven (Genesis 28:17). He named the place Bethel or “house of God.”
Genesis 1-2 explains the origin of humanity, Genesis 11 explains the origin of nations. Why is this account an interruption of the genealogy from Shem to Abram? It may be an elaboration of 10:25, “Eber had two sons. The first was named Peleg (which means ‘division’), for during his lifetime the people of the world were divided into different language groups. His brother’s name was Joktan.”
We refer to Shem’s descendants as “Semites,” though in modern times, the word Semite is synonymous with Jew. Shem’s grandson Eber became the basis of the name “Hebrew,” the name for Abram’s people. The sons of Noah gave rise to the cultures of the ancient period of history.
For our purposes, the history is secondary to the personal application. The tower of Babel is a warning about how personal ambition can become idolatry. How pride can turn us against God. Worldly ambition and pride can appear sensible, even appropriate, but it can turn us away from God if we allow it to take first place in our lives. Pride starts when we’re a baby who gets tired of being fed strained peas. We take the spoon away and say, “Lemme do it" or “Me do it.”
Think about it; self-sufficiency is a good thing if it’s not the most important thing. The account of the Tower of Babel cautions us against making an idol of it.
Bank robber illustration from https://ministry127.com/resources/illustration/the-mouth-of-the-fool, retrieved on 9 September 22.
Genealogical information from https://christiananswers.net/dictionary/shem.html, retrieved on 8 September 2022.
The Expositor’s Bible Commentary, Vol. 2, Genesis, 1990, John H. Sailhammer
Zondervan Bible Commentary, One-Volume Illustrated Edition, 2008, Genesis, H.L. Ellison, David F. Payne
The Daily Study Bible Series, Genesis, Vol. 1, 1981, John C. L. Gibson
The Interpreter’s One-Volume Commentary on the Bible, Genesis, 1971, John H. Marks