The Scattering of the Peoples (Gen 11:1-9)

Author’s Note: I am preaching through Genesis on Wednesday nights. Here I will present edited notes in blog form. You can listen to the sermon below and download it here. May God be glorified and His people edified. Comments below if you like.

Now we arrive at one of the most famous episodes recorded in the book of Genesis, and one of the most important moments in the history of creation. Secular historians dismiss it as myth, but archaeology has proven this account correct time and time again. And yet, we don’t depend on the discipline of archaeology to make the case for us. We depend — we must depend — upon the word of God. It’s Genesis 11 and the Tower of Babel, a passage which explains why there are so many languages in the world. It helps explain why there are so many differences in people in the world. But more than that, it speaks to a great and tragic commonality all men possess: inherent sinfulness. In Genesis 11 we again see the inherent sinfulness of man and the mercy of God.

It’s also important to remember, beloved, what we looked at in our previous study. Genesis 10 was written with the events of chapter eleven in mind, giving us details about where different families went, where they were spread out. We were also introduced to Nimrod, son of Cush, grandson of Ham, and great-grandson of Noah, who essentially became the world’s first king or emperor. He established his kingdom at Babel, and although he is not named in the passage we’re about to read, he kind of hovers over it given what we learned about him in chapter ten. So let’s get into it. Genesis 11, this evening reading verses 1 through 9…

Now the whole earth used the same language and the same words. It came about as they journeyed east, that they found a plain in the land of Shinar and settled there. They said to one another, “Come, let us make bricks and burn them thoroughly.” And they used brick for stone, and they used tar for mortar. They said, “Come, let us build for ourselves a city, and a tower whose top will reach into heaven, and let us make for ourselves a name, otherwise we will be scattered abroad over the face of the whole earth.” The Lord came down to see the city and the tower which the sons of men had built. The Lord said, “Behold, they are one people, and they all have the same language. And this is what they began to do, and now nothing which they purpose to do will be impossible for them. Come, let Us go down and there confuse their language, so that they will not understand one another’s speech.” So the Lord scattered them abroad from there over the face of the whole earth; and they stopped building the city. Therefore its name was called Babel, because there the Lord confused the language of the whole earth; and from there the Lord scattered them abroad over the face of the whole earth.

Now many, when reading this passage, tend to focus on the tower in this story, and it’s easy to understand why. But right from the start I want to make clear — the tower is not the main point of these nine verses. The main point is the scattering of the peoples, not the tower. And that’s hinted at right away in verse one where the unity of all the people of the earth was emphasized.

If we go back to the Flood, and the waters abating in chapter eight, we saw there the ark rested on the mountains of Ararat, known today as a pretty forbidding terrain upon which to establish civilization. It’s likely that when it was still just Noah, his wife, his sons, and his sons’ wives, that they began moving, looking for the place they would eventually settle. And that’s what we see happening in verse 1-2.

First, we see the whole earth used the same language and the same words, which today is hard to comprehend but not hard to fathom when we remember all men came from one of three — Shem, Ham, Japheth. So they all spoke one language. Literally, one lip and one set of words, one phonology, one vocabulary. And it’s highly likely it was the same language men were speaking before the Flood. I believe it was probably Hebrew, or perhaps something related to Hebrew, because we see proper names of men and places before Babel have meanings in Hebrew and related languages.

Another reason I believe it was Hebrew is that Shem was alive at the time of the Tower of Babel. In fact, Noah was alive at the Tower of Babel. And while the whole earth may have been rebelling against God there, it seems unlikely Noah and Shem would have joined in on that rebellion. Thus, the language of Noah and Shem was probably not affected by the Babel judgment. They would have continued to use the same language they had always used.

In any event, as of verse one everyone is speaking one language. Everyone is using one speech, one vocabulary. And they journeyed east. I know the King James says from the east but it should probably be translated eastward. From the forbidding terrain of Ararat, over the course of the next hundred years or so, people generally stayed together, knowing where everyone was, not straying too far from one another, so that all of humanity eventually settled in and around the region — the plain in the land of Shinar.

Shinar means between two rivers, and we know this to be an area we know now as Iraq, because the Tigris and Euphrates are the only two parallel rivers in the area, at least in the post-Flood word. This is an area known as the Fertile Crescent, an area of relatively moist and fruitful land in a region of the world mostly very dry, and an area recognized as the cradle of civilization. But more on that later. The fact is they came to the land which was fertile enough, productive enough, that people didn’t have to devote 100% of their attention to where their next meal was coming from, and it became possible to begin developing a civilization, an urban community.

Now remember at this point what God had commanded Noah in Genesis 9:7: “Be fruitful and multiply; populate the earth abundantly and multiply in it.” But now in chapter 11 we are seeing a specific tract of land being mentioned as the area in which they all were. So verse 3…

They said to one another, “Come, let us make bricks and burn them thoroughly.” And they used brick for stone, and they used tar for mortar.

By the time this happened Nimrod had become established as the leader of all the people, the king, establishing his kingdom at Babel. And as king, mighty warrior that he was, being the mighty one on the earth that he was, he could’ve gone one of two ways. One, he could have set out to colonize and develop the whole earth bit by bit; or two, he could establish a strong centralized society which could in time go out and control the whole world.

It’s clear he chose option number two. Remember, Nimrod’s name means let us rebel, and he chose the option of developing a society which, at least in his mind, would have no need for God. Nimrod, thus, became the first big government totalitarian, which is made all the more sad when we consider he would have learned about the Flood, just a little over a century earlier, from his granddad Ham who was in it, and his great-grandfather Noah who was in it.

Nevertheless, they decided to make bricks. It’s noted they used brick for stone, indicating that before this, perhaps as the people migrated over the years, they had used stones they would find to build structures. But in the plain of Shinar those stones were not readily available like they were in other places. What the area was abundant in, however, was clay soil highly suitable for making strong bricks.

The writer here, perhaps Shem, Moses later using his material, makes special note that they burned the bricks thoroughly. It shows how quickly their society was developed technologically. They developed a system of furnace-treating bricks to make them stronger than stone bricks that had been used before. And then tar, translated slime in the King James, was used as well. Archaeologists have back up that this type of brick and asphalt construction, from the tar, was common in ancient Babylon.

But what was all this technology and construction for? Verse four…

They said, “Come, let us build for ourselves a city, and a tower whose top will reach into heaven, and let us make for ourselves a name, otherwise we will be scattered abroad over the face of the whole earth.”

They make a concerted decision, under the leadership of King Nimrod no doubt, to not spread themselves throughout the earth… to stop obeying God’s command to Noah to populate the earth abundantly and multiply in it. They make the decision to concentrate in the plain on Shinar, to build an urban community, a carefully planned city, which would be dominated by a tower.

Now it should be noted there may have been, and perhaps likely was, a minority of people who didn’t agree with Nimrod’s plans. Perhaps they, remembering what their great-grandfather Noah and grandfather Shem told them about God’s instructions, resisted and perhaps urged Nimrod to spread throughout the earth instead of concentrating power in Babel. Noah and Shem seem unlikely to have gone along with these city and tower plans. And this may explain why in Genesis 10 we read the beginning of Nimrod’s kingdom was Babel and Erech and Accad and Calneh, in the land of Shinar. It could be he controlled those places to show others he was spreading out. But more likely, he invaded these areas to stop expansion he wasn’t in control of. Remember, he was a mighty hunter, a mighty warrior, and his control prevailed, centralized in Babel.

And in Babel they wanted three things: a city, a tower, and a name. A city, a tower, and a name.

First, a city. And not for God. “Let’s build for ourselves a city.” It was for themselves. Like Nebuchadnezzar, the king of a later Babylonian Empire about 1700 years later, the city was all about themselves. Remember how he walked on the roof of his palace in Daniel 4:30 and said, “Is this not Babylon the Great with I, myself, have built as a royal residence by the might of my power and for the glory of my majesty?” It would seem the people making the first Babel suffered from that same pride.

Let’s build for ourselves a city… one people, with one ruler, without God… and we’ll use our architectural and construction skills and satisfy ourselves, despite what God has told us to do. So they wanted a city.

Then the tower. The construction of the tower commenced, but why? They were all together. There weren’t any formidable enemies out there to threaten their plans, and if there were Nimrod could and would take care of them. So the tower wasn’t a watchtower of any kind.

Well we see it says, “let us build for ourselves… a tower whose top will reach into heaven.” The words will reach aren’t in the original Hebrew. It’s probably better to read it, a tower whose top is connected to heaven,” or something to that effect. Beloved, it’s perhaps probable they built this tower to connect to God, except He hadn’t told them to do that. God had told them to spread out. Nimrod may have convinced the people this was a way to worship God even if they weren’t going to obey Him, which is something Satan has always tried to convince people to do — act like you’re worshiping God while not obeying Him. In fact, I think, sadly, Satan is very successful today at getting people to do just that — act like you’re worshiping God while not obeying Him. So they built this thing to go as high as they could make it, to reach into the heavens.

This was probably the first of these kinds of towers which would become common in this region throughout the next several centuries. These towers, called ziggurats, were seen to be ladders by which gods could descend and ascend and connect with men. This was a way for the people to connect with their god, and Nimrod — no dummy — knew people needed a common purpose now that they’d abandoned their intended common purpose — to love God, worship God, and obey God by spreading throughout the earth.

Nimrod may have portrayed this whole city and tower idea as something noble, something good. But then again, Satan disguises himself as what? An angel of light… an angel of light. These towers, these ziggurats, would become staples of the false religions of this area of the world — even in Nebuchadnezzar’s Babylon. Daniel would have seen ziggurats and resisted worshiping at them. But they all started here in Genesis 11 with Nimrod, which is why the Bible — going all the way to Revelation — associates false religion with Babylon.

They wanted a city. They wanted a tower. They wanted a name. They wanted to make for themselves a name. That’s pride, beloved. Self-righteousness. Self-sufficiency. Self-will. It’s rebellion. Rebellion following their leader, whose name means let us rebel. Rather than do all to the glory of God, they turned away from Him and did all to the glory of themselves. They would live their way.

“Come let us,” they said to themselves. But God would step in and say, “No, come let Us…” Verse five…

The LORD came down to see the city and the tower which the sons of men had built.

This verse is not to infer the LORD, YHWH, was unaware of what they were doing the whole time, of course. It’s not to infer He was away doing other things in other places and decided to pay His special creation of humanity a visit. No. What the language of verse five infers is that God was being patient. God, in His sovereign will, in His longsuffering, allowed man every opportunity to turn from his selfish ambition and return to doing what He commanded. But eventually their rebellion became so outlandish, so flagrant, that just as He had to intervene in Genesis 6, so too He had to come down and see for Himself the city and the tower the sons of men had built. He had to act.

The LORD said, “Behold, they are one people, and they all have the same language. And this is what they began to do, and now nothing which they purpose to do will be impossible for them.

The problem was that they were one. They were unified. And this is instructive for us, beloved, because unity in the Scriptures, by and large, is seen as a very good thing. Right? Jesus’ prayer the night before His death, recorded in John 17, was what? That His disciples — which includes us — may be one, just as Jesus and His Father were one. Unity is not just a good thing in the Scriptures. It is essential for disciples of Jesus. It is essential for the church.

But not unity at all costs. Not unity for the sake of unity. Why? Because truth and error cannot mix. Unrighteousness will always war against righteousness. Light cannot have fellowship with darkness. “What do Christ and Belial [Satan] have in common?” Paul asks. Nothing… nothing.

And… unity around that which is not truth… unity around that which is not God-honoring… unity around sin… unity around rebellion. That is a problem, too. That was the problem in Nimrod’s kingdom. They were one — unified — in their rebellion against YHWH. They weren’t just looking to thwart another judgment like the Flood. They were looking to dethrone the Judge. And so God recognized this unity around rebellion to be a problem. They would engage in every possible sin together if they were allowed to remain together, if they continued in their rebellion together. So, verse seven…

Come, let Us go down and there confuse their language, so that they will not understand one another’s speech.

It brings to mind Proverbs 19:21, “Many plans are in a man’s heart, but the counsel of the LORD will stand.” Nimrod’s kingdom attempts to go full on in their plan, but there is a divine council convened. “Let Us go down” we read. The three Persons of the Eternal Trinity, who we have seen in Genesis 1:26 and 3:22, determine to act.

And may that be a lesson to us all tonight. When we know the right thing to do, beloved… when we know what we need to do, what we must do, to obey God, and we persist in rebellion… then we mustn’t be surprised when the Lord Himself determines to act to fix the problem.

That’s what He did at Babel. Verses 8-9…

So the LORD scattered them abroad from there over the face of the whole earth; and they stopped building the city. Therefore its name was called Babel, because there the LORD confused the language of the whole earth; and from there the LORD scattered them abroad over the face of the whole earth.

Think about what God could have done here. He could have sent another Flood. Of course, He had promised never to do that again, and God always keeps His promises. He could have sent some other kind of global judgment some other way, and He would have been righteous in that judgment. They were in active, open rebellion against Him after all. But He shows mercy instead. He shows mercy by practically forcing upon them what He had commanded them to do in the first place. And He does this by confusing their languages.

Have you ever thought about what it must have been like to be able to talk to anybody at any time, and in a moment not understand a word they were saying or them understand a word of what you were saying? Now, because in Genesis 10 we read about how they spread out around the world by families, we can presume individual members of each family group could still understand each other, communicating with one another. But from family to family, no.

It’s not hard to imagine fights breaking out as people think others are mocking them. Work coming to a standstill. Nimrod himself not being able to order people around. And everyone being helpless to do anything about it, until eventually they realize, family by family, that they had to move away from Babel to work out life for themselves, just as God had intended them to do.

As the population grew — and remember, people were still living long lives so this happened rapidly — as the population grew their spread over the earth was quick as well. It didn’t take as long as you might think. Probably just a few generations. Archaeological studies over the past few decades have confirmed this… that civilizations appeared at more or less the same time, only a few thousand years ago. For instance, it’s believed the Tower of Babel spreading occurred in 2242 BC. After a few years of confusion, it’s believed the Babylonian civilization that remained and lasted began about 2234. Egypt in 2188. Greece in 2089. The closer to Babel, the Middle East, the earlier. But progressively civilizations formed around the globe.

The patterns with which new civilizations formed was similar as well. A tribe… a family… would find suitable territory. The stronger the tribe the better the territory. Higher elevations were preferable for protection, but near a water source, and somewhere with fertile ground. Then, they would establish a village, then different skills would show up, like agriculture, metalworks, animal, and more. Clay huts would give away to forms of brick structures or stone or wood. They would progress from a stone age to a bronze age or an iron age, and urbanization would follow.

So there were similarities in development, but they also each — as they left Babel — developed their own distinctive cultures, with distinctive biological, physical characteristics. We talked a bit about this last week, but since people could only communicate with members of their own family (or tribe), that limited the possibilities on marriage. So for several generations at least, new families would be composed of close relatives. And when there is interbreeding in a large population, genetic studies have proven the dominant genes are the ones that express themselves. So in just a few generations different shades of skin, height, the texture of hair, facial features, and other factors… because associated with particular people groups, particular families, in particular parts of the world.

Now as time went on, people figured out how to communicate, how to learn other families’ languages, so that a mixing of nations would somewhat occur. But that never did away with distinct nations themselves. Ever since Babel there have been distinct nations, and there will even be distinct nations in the millennial reign of Christ. But the different tongues, the different languages… that was not God’s original design.

And so in the Scriptures we read that there is coming a day when all nations will obey His word, and with one language again. Zephaniah 3:9-10 says, “For then I will give to the peoples purified lips, that all of them may call on the name of the LORD to serve Him shoulder to shoulder. From beyond the rivers of Ethiopia My worshipers, My dispersed ones, will bring My offerings.”

And the world got a foretaste of this at Pentecost. When the Holy Spirit came and those first disciples received tongues, they preached the gospel, declaring the mighty deeds of God in the languages of all the various peoples who were in Jerusalem for the Feast. When Christ returns, in His kingdom it will be like that again.

As for Nimrod’s kingdom, “Therefore its name is called Babel, because there the LORD confused the language of the whole earth; and from there the LORD scattered them abroad over the face of the whole earth.” Babel meaning confusion. The name Babylon would come to mean the city of babbling, or confusion.

And so the Scriptures explain how the nations came to be, how the nations came to be scattered across the globe. And they would know, these nations, that you cannot defy God for long and survive. Sooner or later, no matter how powerful the kingdom, persistent rebellion against God will always invite His judgment. Ask the Babylonian Empire, the Medo-Persian Empire, the Greek Empire, the Roman Empire. Ask Israel, the ones who should have always known better.

Beloved, the lesson from these nine verses is personal, in that it reinforces to us the necessity of humble submission to God’s will — revealed to us in His word… the God who created us, who created the nations, and in this text showed His sovereignty over all. His purposes will never be thwarted. May that truth comfort us, and if necessary be a warning to us, that we might follow Jesus Christ, our Lord and Savior, in obedient faith.

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