What Really Happened at Babel?

by Bob Burridge ©2015

We can miss the main point of stories in the Bible if we get distracted by unimportant details, or if we’ve been taught a wrong interpretation of them. Art work can be a very helpful tool in teaching Bible stories, but it can also fix incorrect images in our minds which can influence our appreciation of the story’s purpose. Sometimes our English translations use words which don’t represent the meanings of the original words.

One of the events often misunderstood is the incident that occurred at the building of the tower of Babel recorded in Genesis 11:1-9. We often picture a tall tower reaching up into the sky trying to extend all the way to heaven. That may not be the most accurate way to picture what is described in this historical record. We may picture a worker asking for a “brick”, then someone handing him a “board” with a confused look on his face because suddenly they were speaking different languages. That may be what happened, but it’s not necessarily the way things were on that day long ago in Babel.

Some have taught that the story is recorded in Genesis to explain where our different languages came from. That misses the real purpose behind the preserving of this story. God put it there as a lesson for us in every period of human history.

A closer look at the actual text should make us re-think this important event recorded in God’s word. Our goal should always be to let the Scriptures speak for themselves, and to direct our focus to the actual purpose of the story preserved for us by our Creator. We should not let paintings from the middle ages or traditional stories about this event color our interpretation of what took place at Babel.

One Language for All
The account begins by informing us that only one language was in use at that time. Genesis 11:1 says, “Now the whole earth had one language and one speech.”

It is not easy to pinpoint when this took place in history. The Genealogies in the Old Testament were not intended to record every generation. Their purpose seems to be to show line of descent. It is unsound to try to use them to date events or the span of time between them. The genealogies tell that at some age or at some time one person “fathered” or “begat” someone. The Hebrew word in the original text which is translated as “fathered” or “begat” is yelad (ילד). It is better translated “became an ancestor of”. Sometimes the same genealogy is recorded in different places in the Bible which show us that every generation was not intended to be included. The genealogies are never added up in the Bible. Genesis 10 describes the nations that descended from Noah after he and his family survived the great flood. For a detailed analysis of the Genealogies of the Bible see Primeval Chronolgy by Dr. William Henry Green as published in Bibliotheca Sacra in 1890.

We are told that the descendents of Noah journeyed east to a plain in the land of Shinar where they settled down to build a community (Genesis 11:2).

A Plan that Offended God
There were some in the community who came together with a plan to build a city and a large impressive structure. The language of the text does not necessarily mean that all were involved in this plan. The builders knew how to make sturdy structures of brick and mortar. The English translations use modern terms to describe these ancient building materials.

Genesis 11:3-4, Then they said to one another, “Come, let us make bricks and bake them thoroughly.” They had brick for stone, and they had asphalt for mortar. And they said, “Come, let us build ourselves a city, and 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.”

Obviously the making of bricks and the building of a city were good things, not the reason behind God’s judgment upon the people of Babel. The focus of the story is the purpose the people had in wanting to build the “tower”. The Hebrew word used for this structure is migdol (מגדל). According to the Brown, Driver and Briggs Hebrew Lexicon this word is used to describe a “tower, elevated stage, pulpit, raised bed.”

The top of the migdol would be “in heavens”. The word for “heavens” is “shamayim” (שׁמים) which is a majestic plural in Hebrew, not necessarily meaning “more than one”. That plural form was often used to describe things of great majesty or importance. The word was used to describe the atmosphere around us, sometimes the sky, or at times to indicate the dwelling place of a deity which was sometimes thought to be high above the visible sky. Archeology has uncovered many flat top mounds, some like pyramids with a flat top instead of a pointed one. They often had ramps or stairs leading to the top and were several stories high. On top of them they often built pagan temples to their gods, or had drawings and religious symbols on them where gods up above in the heavens could look down and see the devotion of the people.

It’s not necessary to believe that they were attempting to build a tower all the way to above the sky to where the god’s lived. It could very well be that these workers were taken in by the pagan beliefs which developed in the generations following the flood. If they were building a migdol with a flat place on the top to honor other deities (like the ancient ziggurat mounds of the pagans), that would certainly be offensive to the true God of the Bible. Their united efforts in building such a pagan thing would invite Divine judgment.

Their stated goal in building the city and the migdol was to ensure that they would not become “scattered abroad over the face of the whole earth.” Their reasoning seemed to be that this construction would make a name for themselves. The grandure of their magnificent city and migdol would unite them, and keep individuals from wanting to move away.

Their goal of wanting to keep from being spread out was another strike against the revealed commands of God. When God first created Adam and Eve he told them in Genesis 1:28, “Be fruitful and multiply; fill the earth and subdue it.” After the flood he told Noah and his sons, “Be fruitful and multiply, and fill the earth.”

Of course what they did is exactly what ended up causing their scattering as a judgment of God for their rebellion. They would scatter and fill the earth as a direct result of their rebellion.

Genesis 11:5-8 But the LORD came down to see the city and the tower which the sons of men had built. And the LORD said, “Indeed the people are one and they all have one language, and this is what they begin to do; 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.” So the LORD scattered them abroad from there over the face of all the earth, and they ceased building the city.

God does not come down in the sense of entering a place he had not already occupied. God is omni-present, he fill all space completely all the time (Psalm 139:7-10). When God “enters” a place it means he is revealing himself to particular persons in a particular place, not that he wasn’t already present there. God observed what these rebellious men were doing. He knew their hearts that drove them in this impressive project.

God specifically noted their unity and the ease with which they carried out their work by having a common language. They had developed the arrogant and man-centered view that there was nothing they couldn’t accomplish. He saw in that an attitude of independence from their Creator and Sustainer.

God’s judgment had two parts.
The people would be scattered, and would speak different languages. There are two ways scholars have understood this judgment. Either 1) God miraculously and suddenly made them speak with different languages causing them to scatter and settle to different places. Or 2) God caused them to scatter to other places where different languages then developed to hinder them from easily working together again.

We only have a few brief statements upon which to base our interpretation. There are unanswered questions faced by both views.

If God supernaturally changed their languages suddenly causing them to scatter, we assume there were several families in each language group. They would become united within those language groups motivating them to move to a location where they could become unified communities. However, we see people of different languages working together on complex projects today and at other times in human history. Also, this in itself would not keep one of the language groups from remaining behind to boast of the migdol, and to complete the project for themselves.

The immediate descendents of Noah obviously spoke the same language in the years directly after the flood. We also know that different languages existed in very ancient times after the flood. In the field of language studies (Philology) there are a small number of original basic language groups. Within each basic group there are many variations. There are different theories about how many basic groups there are, and how they relate with one another.

The events at Babel seem to be the origin of that language diversity. Whether it happened suddenly or developed because of the isolation and scattering which God brought about by means not directly stated, is not determined by the text of Scripture taken by itself. Philologists have traced similarities in ancient writings indicating that the present wide variety of lauguages seems to have diversified over long periods of time.

If God scattered them first by somehow keeping the people from being able to get along, we are not told the mechanism by which God broke up their unity. Maybe he withdrew his restraints upon their sin nature and caused arguments and jealousies to divide them. Once they were scattered, according to this view, their isolation eventually caused them to develop different language groups which would hinder their reuniting.

The text taken by itself mentions the confusion of languages first, but the Hebrew grammatical structure does not necessarily mean that it took place first. It states that God determined that he would cause them to not understand one another, and that they would be scattered. Which is the cause and which is the effect is not directly made clear.

The conjunction that begins verse 8 (“So the LORD scattered them …”) is simply the Hebrew letter “vav” (ו) which is translated in a variety of ways. Primarily it is similar to our English words, “and” or “also”. The word itself does not imply sequence or consequence. The text just lists what God did without indicating priority, or cause and effect. The text therefore does not difinitively settle the issue. In his judgment God confused their language, and scattered them into various groups around the world. To be faithful to the text it is wise to accept the facts of God’s judgment without insisting upon one explanation over the other.

The result is not ambiguous.

Genesis 11:9, Therefore its name is called Babel, because there the LORD confused the language of all the earth; and from there the LORD scattered them abroad over the face of all the earth.

It is believed that the word “Babel” (בבל) means, “confusion”. The intent of humans in rebellion against God built this migdol to ensure that they would not be scattered. God judged them by scattering them. The judgment also brought about the various lanuages of our world. Lanugage and geography remains a barrier which can be overcome to a certain extent, but continues to divide us into a variety of cultures.

The Real Lesson
Rather than teaching the foundations of Philology, this portion of God’s word is preserved as a reminder that we are a fallen race and can easily fall into rebellion against our Creator while we imagine that we are furthering our self-centered ambitions. We are inclined by our own nature to desire life and satisfaction of our desires. In our fallen condition we are inclined to seek satisfaction of those desires in ways contrary to what God says is moral. Because of our rebellion we deserve and are destined to death and dissatisfaction. It was the work of our Savior Jesus Christ that rescues some, and gives them life and joy forever. Those blessed in this way are redeemed from judgment by grace alone. The Savior took their condemnation upon himself and clothes them with his own righteousness.

When we see the judgments described in the Bible, our response should be humble thankfulness for undeserved blessings as we recognize what we all actually deserve if it wasn’t for that amazing grace.

(Bible quotations are from the New King James Version unless otherwise noted.)

Leave a Reply