News & Stories


Genesis 11:1–9 The Tower of Babel—Scattered Humanity

David Eastwood

David Eastwood has served for thirty-one years in Taiwan with OMF International. During that time, his ministry has included Bible teaching, preaching, and church planting, and, for the last eight years, he has served as the Field Director. David initially trained at All Nations Christian College in the UK but has since completed further studies with Singapore Bible College and Spurgeon’s College in the UK. He is studying for a Doctorate in Practical Theology with the Cambridge Theological Federation, investigating the experiences of the Taiwanese working class as they become part of a local church.

Mission Round Table 18:2 (Jul-Sep 2023): 4-7

To read articles in this edition, visit this post on Mission Round Table 18:2.

1 Now the whole world had one language and a common speech. 2 As people moved eastward, they found a plain in Shinar and settled there.

3 They said to each other, “Come, let’s make bricks and bake them thoroughly.” They used brick instead of stone, and tar for mortar. 4 Then they said, “Come, let us build ourselves a city, with a tower that reaches to the heavens, so that we may make a name for ourselves; otherwise we will be scattered over the face of the whole earth.”

5 But the LORD came down to see the city and the tower the people were building. 6 The LORD said, “If as one people speaking the same language they have begun to do this, then nothing they plan to do will be impossible for them. 7 Come, let us go down and confuse their language so they will not understand each other.”

8 So the LORD scattered them from there over all the earth, and they stopped building the city. 9 That is why it was called Babel—because there the LORD confused the language of the whole world. From there the LORD scattered them over the face of the whole earth. (Genesis 11:1–9 NIV)

Whatever you believe about the historicity of the first eleven chapters of Genesis—if you are a Christian who accepts that the Bible is authoritative and that these accounts are primarily theological texts intended to teach us about God and his relationship to his people in contrast to the multiple religious stories and myths of the nations surrounding Israel—then the story of the tower of Babel has to draw our attention. It is the culmination of a set of stories leading from creation through to the start of God’s call to and covenant with Abraham. Up to this point, the story of Genesis reads as the story of God and humanity. It is one that charts the spread of sin into all aspects of human life and culture. Sin ruins the relationship between man and his creator (chapter 3), man and woman (chapter 3), and man and his brother (chapter 4). Sin corrupts human society to the point that God decides to wipe it out and start again (chapters 6–9). The covenant with Noah and his sons is a promise to all humanity that God will never again take such drastic action. But at the same time, the story of Noah serves as both a warning and a promise of judgement to come.

As we come to Genesis 10 and 11, we see parallel accounts—one positive and one negative—of the spread of people across the world following God’s blessing of Noah and his sons and his command to them to “Be fruitful and increase in number and fill the earth” (9:1).

There are hints that chapter 10 and 9:1–9 should be looked at as one literary unit.[1] Genesis 5 onward follows a structure of three sets of genealogy, narrative, and genealogy, with chapters 10–11 being the last section. We definitely don’t have space to dig through chapter 10 in this limited study. But as you read through the long, and not exactly thrilling, list of names which the NIV entitles “The Table of the Nations”, the first thing that strikes me about chapter 10 is that it seems to be in the wrong place.[2] Why, before the story of Babel—a story that starts with the claim, “Now the whole world had one language and a common speech”—do we have an account of humanity spread across the world into different clans and nations, each with their own language—a phrase repeated as a summary three times in Genesis 10?[3] I think the answer to that question is actually quite important in our understanding of how to interpret the story of Babel.

If the order of these chapters had been reversed, then this whole section would have a very different feeling. The Table of the Nations would have read as a consequence of God’s punishment of humanity at the end of the Babel story.[4] God’s blessing of Noah and his sons would have been meaningless as the Babel story would have emphasised their disobedience. The choosing of Abraham would have seemed like a plan B—God reacting to the disaster of humanity’s scattering into different peoples and languages rather than it being his plan all along.

Instead, Genesis 10 comes as an affirmation that God’s will regarding the scattering of humanity across the world—the geographic, cultural, and linguistic separation of peoples—is part of his plan to bless the descendants of all the sons of Noah. It is his intention that they will be fruitful and multiply just as he had promised for humanity before the fall.

God blessed them and said to them, “Be fruitful and increase in number; fill the earth and subdue it. Rule over the fish in the sea and the birds in the sky and over every living creature that moves on the ground.” (Gen 1:28)

In addition, this list of the nations places Israel in the context of the rest of humanity. There is no mythological story here that gives the ancestors of Abraham some special created status. Even the curse on Canaan, the son of Ham by Noah (9:24–25), is seemingly nullified by the fruitfulness granted to the Hamites by God. Though from Genesis 12 through to the coming of Jesus there will be a focus on Israel as God’s covenant people, their context is the whole of humanity all equally created by God, and all equally tainted by the fall. Not only does this oppose blatant attempts to claim the inferiority of one people, race, or culture based on God’s supposed rejection,[5] but it also opposes later subtle claims to superiority based on trying to claim one race or people as the equivalent of the people of God.[6]

Instead, we come to the story of Babel as one that lacks tension because we already know God’s will is going to be done. The whole emphasis is on God having been in control all along. By placing the story after chapter 10, we can follow the story of the people being scattered by God with a sure knowledge that this is all God’s plan.

The story of chapter 11 starts with a people disobeying God’s command to scatter and instead building a city. The chapter ends with Abraham (Abram) who will be the one chosen to initiate God’s plan to restore humanity. He has been told to leave his family and go to Canaan, but he also disobeys for a while and settles in the city of Haran—but we know God’s will is unfolding.[7]

So, our story starts in Genesis 11:1–3 with mankind unified by one language and culture settling down to build a city on the plains of Shinar, in contrast to God’s clear command to spread over the world (9:7, a repeat of the command to Adam and Eve in 1:28).

In verses 3 and 4, the emphasis is on the words of the people. Their plan to build a city out of bricks, with bitumen for mortar and—as the centrepiece—a big tower reaching to the heavens.

Commentators point out how thoroughly human-centric these verses are.[8] The materials used were man-made bricks, not wood or quarried stones. The idea of a city to keep people together requires plans for the logistics and technology needed not only to build a city but to supply it with water and food, and to remove the consequences of so many humans living together. From then until now, more and more of the world’s population live in cities surrounded by the technology that emphasises human achievements and distracts us from the far more magnificent creations of God.[9]

My first experience of full-time Christian ministry was a year spent working as a voluntary evangelist with the London City Mission. Our youth ministry in Hoxton, in the East End of London, arranged an outing to a place about an hour’s drive from the city. Some of the children that came were eight to ten-year-olds who, in their entire lives, had never been outside of London. As we reached the motorway and the buildings either side of the road gave way to fields of grass and country scenes, one small boy began to behave strangely. He was terrified by this vista of wide horizons and green nature. All his life he had lived surrounded by concrete, tarmac, and brick. His was a man-made environment. And now he was seeing the beauty of God’s creation all around him and it was frightening. As more and more people in the world spend most of their life in mega-cities, surrounded by man-made environments and unable to see the stars that declare the glory of the Lord (Psalm 19:1), it is not surprising that they are unaware of the Creator. It is not surprising that retreats to the countryside, mountains, or sea can be effective tools in reaching urban unbelievers. It is much easier to believe in a creator God when you are faced with the vastness and beauty of his creation, less easy when surrounded by a man-made cityscape.

Back to our story and the irony of all this is this ability and creativity of humanity. Our ability to subdue and master our environment is itself a gift from God who created us in his image. But the city also perhaps was a search for man-made security. The builders sought security behind human-constructed walls, sheltered from the environment, perhaps even waterproofed by bitumen, in case God’s promises were not true and he sent another flood. In the ancient Near East, a city would have been an awesome thing. After forty years in the wilderness when the Israelites first saw the cities of Canaan, they described them as “fortified up to the heavens” (Deut 1:28) and this is exactly the impression the builders of Babel were trying to achieve, even more so because of their huge vanity project—a tower reaching to the heavens “so that we may make a name for ourselves” (Gen 11:4).

Taipei 101, image credit: Markus Laurinkari

Humanity hasn’t changed much. To this day, nations are building big towers so that they will be bigger than those found in another city or country. Many in Taiwan were sad when the Taipei 101 ceased to be the tallest building in the world, a title it held for only six years (2004–2010). Now it is only the eleventh tallest building.[10] We still have our desire for people to look at us and be impressed. What, I wonder, are the towers in your life, the unacknowledged sources of pride and calls for attention? Certainly, in the academic world, it is easy for people to measure their value by qualifications, positions, and publications, but in all spheres of human activity, we easily—individually and corporately—ascribe value to things that glorify ourselves and not our Creator.

The irony in this text is that no names are mentioned here whatsoever. Possibly, this was the work of Nimrod—the mighty warrior and hunter of Genesis 10:8–12. The Ziggurats of the ancient Near East sound like the tower of Babel and the most ancient ones were believed to have been built by gods. But if this kind of legacy was what Nimrod—or whoever built Babel—was looking for, the text just sets that aside completely.

In verses 5–7, we have the contrast to the human plan and speech. This huge work that the people were attempting—a city and a tower reaching to heaven—is so insignificant in comparison to God, that the writer describes him as having to come down to look at it, like a person stooping down to look at a bunch of busy ants. It is an almost humorous reminder that both the hugely important projects and seemingly unsolvable problems that consume our lives seem so different if looked at from God’s perspective. However, God is not amused. In his dialogue with himself—another of those intriguing hints at his trinitarian nature—he sees the serious consequences of man’s success in this project and takes steps to prevent it. It’s worth noting that the issue here is not so much the vanity displayed by the tower project—God could easily have toppled that—but the co-operation of men in direct disobedience to his command to scatter and the building of the city and all it represents. So, God confuses their language. I wonder whether they woke up one morning and headed off to work on the tower and suddenly found that they were speaking different languages.

“Put the bricks over there”. “你在說什麼?” “What did you just say?” “No entiendo ¿Qué están diciendo estas personas?” “你明白他在說什麼嗎?” “Saya tidak mengerti.”

From organised co-operation, there was a change to confusion and disunity. Presumably, people found those they could communicate with and left. The result that God was looking for was achieved: “the LORD scattered them from there over all the earth, and they stopped building the city” (Gen 11:8). Verse 9 repeats the declaration that it was the LORD who scattered them.

What are we to make of this story? As I have already said, people have in the past used it to claim that it is God’s will for people of different races and cultures to be separated. And that, of course, is used as an excuse to then maintain privilege or supposed superiority of one race or culture. I don’t believe that is a valid use of the Bible here.

Firstly, as I have said, the order of Chapters 10 and 11 seem deliberately to oppose such an interpretation. Secondly, that really doesn’t seem to be the way the people of Israel came to understand things. Consider, for example, when Paul tells his Greek audience, “From one man he made all the nations, that they should inhabit the whole earth; and he marked out their appointed times in history and the boundaries of their lands” (Acts 17:26). Paul seems to be drawing on the point made in the Table of Nations—that God was over the rise and fall and geographic limits of nations and that “we (collectively) are his offspring.” (Paul is here quoting from a third-century BC Greek writer and, in doing so, opening the door for thousands of PhD theses spanning the spectrum from contextualisation to syncretism.)

Thirdly when we look at the theological setting of this story within the bigger story of the Bible, we see that God ultimately does have a plan for the unity of mankind. What he is preventing here is that man himself should try to bring it about in some way with the Creator God left out of the picture. This becomes apparent in the very next chapter when God chooses Abraham, who will be the ancestor of the people of God, Israel, who the Bible will focus on for the next 2000 or so years. God includes in his covenant relationship the statement, “All peoples on earth will be blessed through you” (Gen 12:3).

As that plan comes to fruition, it becomes apparent that the Saviour who emerges from this chosen people is concerned with all people. The command he gave to his followers was to make disciples of all nations and the coming of the Holy Spirit at Pentecost is a deliberate symbolic reversal of the story of Babel, showing that God’s plan will be very different from the plans of men. However, there is a subtle difference in Acts 2. The new believers—Jews and Jewish converts gathered from all over the Roman Empire and beyond—did not all suddenly become fluent in whatever ancient language was spoken at Babel. They declared that they heard everyone else speaking in their native tongues. Later, when Christ returns to bring to fruition the plan to restore humanity’s relationship with God through his own sacrifice, we are told that a multitude will be gathered from every nation, tribe, people, and language standing before the throne and worshipping the Lamb (Rev 7:9).

The picture we get is not that God somehow reluctantly punished humanity for their sinful presumptuousness by separating them into different groups on the basis of geography, language, and eventually race and culture. Rather, the Bible seems to be presenting it as God’s plan that humanity should scatter across the world and develop into these languages and cultures so that at the end of all things, the celebration of the salvation that comes from the Lamb of God, should be all that more amazing because it incorporates the richness and variety of peoples and languages that God has ordained, controlled, watched over, set the boundaries for, and then sent his servants to with the amazing message of the gospel. That is the awesome mission of God to which each of us has the privilege of having been called.

To conclude, this simple story reminds us that when we lose sight of the Creator God—by trying to work on our own projects, consciously or unconsciously seek our own glory, trying to maintain the feeling of security based on our own efforts—we are quickly straying from God’s will. How does that apply to your life right now? What cities or towers are you building that God needs a magnifying glass to see?

But the story also reminds us that the unity of humanity is based on the creation of man in God’s image. It was God’s will that humanity be divided into separate peoples, and God will use this to bring himself more glory when he brings an end to division and prejudice and hatred. That truth should impact all Christians and give us an appropriate humility when it comes to facing differences such as race, culture, or even gender. But we also have a reminder that, ultimately, man-made attempts to force a unity or co-operation between people will fail because they are the works of fallen humans and they smack of the arrogance and pride of Babel. Prejudice, hatred, and racial bias will never really be dealt with if the starting point is humanity and human experience. Our starting point has to be the God who created humanity and commanded them to be fruitful and multiply.

[1] David Atkinson, The Message of Genesis 1–11: The Dawn of Creation, BST (Leicester: IVP, 1990), 173.

[2] Further questions address such issues as historicity, authorship, and how the offspring of three sons become associated with identifiable people groups stretching from Africa up to the Mediterranean and Asia (people that were known to exist between 2,000 to 700 BC).

[3] Genesis 10:5, 20, and 31.

[4] Victor P. Hamilton, The Book of Genesis: Chapters 1–17, NICOT, (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1990), 347.

[5] See for example, David M. Goldenberg, The Curse of Ham: Race and Slavery in Early Judaism, Christianity, and Islam (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2003).

[6] As an example, Stanley notes that an underlying assumption of the nineteenth century British missionary movement was that Britain constituted a model of Christian culture and society. “She was the archetype of the Christian nation, and God’s design was to create more Christian nations on the same pattern.” Brian Stanley, The Bible and the Flag: Protestant Missions and British Imperialism in the Nineteenth and Twentieth Centuries (Leicester: Apollos, 1990), 161.

[7] There is debate among scholars as to the exact details of Abrahams stay in Haram because of the claim in Acts 7:4 that he waited until his father Terah died. But the statement in Genesis 11:32 that Terah died aged 205 makes calculating the timing difficult. See Hamilton, The Book of Genesis: Chapters 1–17, 366. Whatever the timing, it is clear that Abraham’s sojourn in Haran was a failure to fully obey the commandment to leave his family and people and go to Canaan. He was not entirely free of the sins of the builders of Babylon and is not commended as righteous in the same way as Noah (Gen 6:9). God’s choosing of and faithfulness to him was entirely an act of grace.

[8] Hamilton, The Book of Genesis: Chapters 1–17, 392.

[9] Atkinson, The Message of Genesis 1–11, 178.

[10] Currently, the tallest building is the Burj Khalifa in Dubai, but fifteen of the top twenty are unsurprisingly in East Asia.

Share this post

Get Involved

Have Questions? Send us an email.

To help you serve better, kindly fill all the fields (required). Your query will be routed to the relevant OMF team.

Contact Form

By clicking Submit, you agree that we may process your information in accordance with the terms in our Privacy Policy.

You’re on the OMF International website.
We have a network of centres across the world.
If your country/region is not listed, please select our International website.