- The Confusion of Tongues (Genesis 11:1-9)
It would seem that when we compare what is recorded in these verses, especially verse 2, with what we read in Genesis 10: 8 -10, that we must conclude that the history recorded in Chapter 11 is antecedent to that recorded in Chapter 10. If this conclusion is correct, we may conceive of the historical events in this order: Mankind, under the leadership of Nimrod the mighty hunter before the Lord, moved eastward till they came to the plain of Shinar. They settled there, and attempted to establish a kingdom of universal proportions with its center in the tower and city they planned to build. God, however, frustrates their plan and defeats their purpose by causing the nations to be divided through the confusion of tongues.
What we have in the verses 1-4 is a concerted attempt of the people of the earth to remain one, contrary to the commandment of God to ‘‘be fruitful, and multiply, and replenish the earth” (Genesis 9:1,7,19). Moreover, in defiance of this commandment mankind also sought to have dominion over the earth, and to realize that dominion through consolidation. Such a kingdom was all the more conceivable because all the earth was of one language, and of one speech.
We should not forget here that man was originally created to have dominion over the earth. And when man sinned, he did not change essentially. He did not become another creature, but he remained what he essentially was, a man created to have dominion. However, since the fall he would attempt to obtain this dominion under the power of sin. This power was not completely destroyed in the flood, but came out of the ark, and became manifest in the generations of Noah (Genesis 9).
What we have, therefore, in the plain of Shinar is this attempt to establish a world kingdom, no doubt under the leadership of one man, Nimrod the mighty hunter. It was he who undoubtedly was the first man to conceive of the possibility of a union of power and authority different than that which formerly was tribal and patriarchal. It was he who conceived of the plan to break the bonds of family and tribal ties to found a kingdom of universal dimensions. By his feats of daring in hunting the wild beasts that threatened the lives and well-being of his contemporaries, and his humanitarian acts he had gained prestige and fame which aided him in molding the minds of the humanity surrounding him and which made it easy for him to persuade them to follow his plan. Thus persuaded, they with one accord exclaim, “Go to, let us make brick … let us build us a city and a tower, whose top may reach unto heaven; and let us make us a name, lest we be scattered abroad upon the face of the whole earth.”
The purpose of this construction was not, as some explain, to have a safe retreat in case another flood should threaten. The very fact that God had promised never again to destroy the earth with a flood should disprove this theory. Rather the purpose, as expressed in verse 4, was twofold: to make themselves a name, and to prevent their being scattered over the face of the earth.
We must not forget here that that only which can unify and keep together, namely, the true knowledge, righteousness and holiness, in one word, the image of God in man, was lost through sin. Yet sinful and corrupt man would nevertheless bring about a unity in which sin may have full sway, and God may be entirely ruled out.
The central purpose, therefore, of the tower was, in the first place, to solidify and consolidate into a great commonwealth. All the peoples of the earth must be one. This they contrived to do in order to magnify their name and to have their honor and glory extolled. In the second place, they purposed in their plan to make the tower to reach unto heaven to reflect their open defiance against God. If it were possible, they purposed to dethrone God, to erase the name of God from the earth, and to realize a kingdom that would be anti-God, and anti-Christ.
But according to verses 5-9, God frustrated their plan and spoiled their purpose through the confusion of tongues.
In this connection, there are especially three thoughts that bear special emphasis. The first of these is the significance of the name Babel. The name comes from a word the root of which means to confuse. Evidently it was given to the tower after the work of building was halted. It serves as a memorial of the judgment of God, not, of course, in the intention of the builders, but in God’s intention, Who destroys their unity with confusion. Secondly, it should be noted that this confusion was more than the creation of different languages. In reality here the Lord separates the peoples of the earth into many nations, some of which still remain to this day. The difference between the nations is not merely one of language, but also of natures and colors. By this confusion, God made it impossible for whites and blacks, for example, to dwell under one roof. Though science, no doubt, would disagree with us, we believe there is something in the pigment of the skin, an odor which perhaps is pleasing to those who are of like skin, but repulsive to others of different skin. Moreover, with this confusion God also placed each in his own habitat. Hence the Eskimo cannot live at the equator, nor can the white man live without great discomfort in the Sahara Desert. And in the third place, and most of all, it should be emphasized that the purpose of God in the confusion was to halt the progress of the kingdom of Antichrist, until the cause of Christ should first be realized. The prime purpose of all history is the cause of Christ in which He gathers His elect from all nations. No other causes may interfere or come to a head until this cause of Christ is first realized.
It should be pointed out at this juncture that since the confusion at Babel there have been and still are attempts made to overcome this confusion. There is always a spiritual counterpart of the tower of Babel in the world. The spirit that was behind the building and that moved the builders in the construction of that first tower is still with us. The world does not want that confusion. It is well known that the world for some time has endeavored to establish a universal language. And many and varied are the attempts to unite the nations. The late Wendell Willkie’s One World is an idea not foreign to the mind and will of sinful man. We may observe this attempt at unity in the U.N.O. We are convinced that the World Council of Churches is another attempt at world union with a religious color. The principle back of the Peace Corps initiated by the President of the United States is another very apparent attempt at world unity. All the integration movements of our time are evidently the same endeavor.
However, not before the marvel of Pentecost has been fully realized can this worldly endeavor to establish world unity be accomplished. On the day of Pentecost God caused the gospel to be preached in many tongues. Each heard the wonderful works of God in his own tongue. By the Spirit of Pentecost God causes all the nations in principle to be united. He gives them one language — heavenly. He gives them one nature — heavenly. He gives them a new life — heavenly. So that the redeemed church can boast of one God, one Spirit, one faith, etc. And this unifying work of the Spirit of Christ must yet be perfected. Only then can the prophecy of Revelation 13 be fulfilled. Then the head with the deadly wound shall be healed. That wound was inflicted, we believe, at Babel. That it is healed means that the time is coming when the confusion of nations will cease. At that time, the Antichrist will affect his own unity.
- The Covenant Line from Shem to Abraham. (Genesis 11:10-26)
The canonical significance of the Book of Genesis is the setting forth of the beginning and the first stage of the realization of God’s purpose to glorify Himself in His covenant people antithetically. This significance should never be lost out of sight as you study this first book of the Bible. The appearance of the genealogy of Shem’s generations in this context is evidently to show forth this purpose.
We have not the time nor the space to compare this genealogy with that recorded in Genesis 10:22 – 30, I Chronicles I, and those recorded in the Gospels according to Matthew and Luke. Such a comparison would produce no doubt some very interesting observations.
One of these observations is in connection with verse 16 as compared with Chapter 10:25 and I Chronicles 1:19. From the latter passages we learn that Peleg lived in the days when “the earth was divided.” The question was once asked me: Where were the children of God at the time of the confusion of tongues? My answer was that they were evidently there, and Peleg was one of them. If my mathematics is correct, Peleg was born 100 years after the flood, and all his forebears, including Shem, Arphaxad, Salah, Eber, and perhaps even Noah were living at the time of the division of nations.
We may also observe that the name Peleg means “division.” This would seem to indicate that Peleg was born at the time of the confusion and that his name was given to him by his father Eber as a memorial of God’s judgment of the wicked in those days. Indicating also that by faith Eber saw in the division of the nations also the separation of the covenant line that must ultimately bring forth the Seed of the Promise.
One more observation could be made here, namely, that the life span of man is considerably but gradually shortened. Shem’s age is given at 600 years, Arphaxad at 438 years, Salah at 433, Eber at 464, Peleg at 239, Reu at 239, Serug at 230, Nahor at 148, Terah at 205, and Abraham at 175 years. Since all the names of those mentioned above were progenitors of the covenant line, an interesting question it might be to discuss: Why did God cut short the life span of these fathers?
III. The Family of Terah.
Terah lived in Ur of Chaldees. The capital city of Chaldea was Babylon, earlier Babel. So, we must conclude that Terah, four generations after Peleg, had not moved far from the original site when God had divided the nations and purposed that they should scatter over the face of the earth.
Joshua tells us in Joshua 24:2 that the house of Terah served other gods. The context of this latter passage shows us that Joshua had gathered all Israel to Shechem where he exhorted the people to put away the gods which their fathers served on the other side of the flood. Reference is undoubtedly to the fact that Terah served idols. At this same place in Shechem Jacob later buried the strange gods in his household under the oak. Also, these strange gods were taken from the house of Laban, where Jacob had sojourned in his flight from Esau (Genesis 35:2-4).
It is because of these facts, namely, that strange gods continued in the family of Terah, that it is taught by some that when God called Abram from his father’s house to go to the land that He would show him, it was to preserve the true religion. This thought is disproved, it seems to me, by the fact that the true religion was not preserved in Abram alone. Contemporary with Abram were men like Melchizedek and Job, both of whom were God-fearing men. Rather, the reason why God called Abram apart was to initiate another phase in the development of His covenant. Abram must go to the land God would show him, in order there to live the life of an elect stranger in the midst of the world. There, walking thetically, he would evoke the antithesis, the bitter opposition of the world.
Terah, it appears from the text, took his family, with the exception of Haran who died in Ur of the Chaldees, and moved to the province of Mesopotamia, particularly to the place called Haran. Here Terah died, and from here God called Abram to go to the land of Canaan (Gen. 12:1). We know from subsequent Scriptures that part of Terah’s family, i.e., the household of Nahor, remained in Haran (Gen. 24:4, 10).
Haran, it appears before he died, brought forth three children: Milcah, Iscah, and Lot. Nahor, Terah’s son, married Milcah the daughter of Haran. The genealogy that followed out of this marriage is mentioned in Gen. 22:20 – 24. Abram married Sarai. She, according to Gen. 20:12, was Abram’s half-sister, indicating that Terah had more than one wife. That she is called Terah’s daughter in law in vs. 31. is due no doubt to the fact that she was married to Abram, while the truth was also that she was his daughter by another wife than the one who gave birth to Abram.
Some suggested questions for discussion:
- What purpose did the builders of the tower of Babel have in mind with the tower?
- How did God by the confusion of tongues frustrate that purpose?
- Of what did the confusion of tongues consist?
- Is the tower of Babel an isolated attempt on the part of man to attempt a unity without God?
- Will the evil purpose of the tower builders eventually be realized? If so, how?
- Why is the genealogy of Shem recorded in this context?
- Were there sincere people of God living at the time of the building of the tower of Babel? If so, who were they?
- Is there any significance in the fact that Scripture records no protest of the God-fearing against the idea of the tower?
- Does verse 31 suggest that Terah was also of a mind to go to the land of Canaan?
- How are we to judge of Terah’s family in the light of other Scriptures?