In today’s world there are some 200 different languages and more than 2000 dialects spoken. Many linguists concur that initially there was just one language. So how did we go from one to two hundred? As one might expect, the most popular response theorizes that human language evolved along with man, thus as the millennia passed humanity moved from grunts to words and from a single language to several. The Bible, however, paints a much different picture. In Genesis 11:1-9 we are not only told how, but even more importantly, why the many languages came to be.
Following the flood God gave specific instructions to Noah and his sons. They, like Adam and Eve, were to be “fruitful and multiply” and “fill the earth” (Genesis 9:1,7). This “filling” would eventually transpire, but not because of man’s cooperation. Instead of spreading over the earth in keeping with God’s commands, man believes he has a better idea. Earth’s residents rebelliously make up their minds to settle down in one place—and to do it without God. They decide to build their city and their tower in order to emphasize their name!
Surely these people were aware that God had previously judged human disobedience by means of a universal flood, weren’t they? But while the names and faces may differ, the same attitude of defiance remains. This new generation will function according to the same personal ambition and human pride that marked previous generations. They, too, would choose their own will over the revealed will of God.
Facilitating their rebellion is the fact they “used the same language and the same words” (Genesis 11:1). They did more than speak the same tongue, they employed the same vocabulary. Because Americans speak English, there are a lot of places we can travel in the world and still communicate with those who are foreign to us. But while we may speak the same language, we will quickly discover there are numerous variations in how certain words are used. For example, our flashlight is a torch in England and where we instruct people to form a line, the British are told to queue. But for the folks in Genesis 11, not even these small barriers existed; with no barriers to communication, there were no obstacles to a unified effort of rebellion. Instead of scattering, they chose to journey east and together settle in the land of Shinar (v. 2).
It is here we see the ingenuity of human enterprise. Had they been somewhere else, stone might have been the building material of choice, but Shinar doesn’t have much of that; what it does have is an abundance of clay and tar. As they move forward with their objective using bricks and tar mastic, they demonstrate a keen understanding of architecture, engineering, and mathematics. They look to build a city they believe will prevent them from being scattered. They make plans to build a tower, but not a watchtower to provide defense (there aren’t any enemies to attack them), but a structure connecting them to heaven (the emphasis is on its purpose, not its height). Finally, they desire to make a name for themselves; that is, they refuse to recognize God’s authority with the intention of establishing their own. They want to leave their mark on the world, to be remembered after death, to outlive their life!
God responds by “coming down” to view the results of their efforts (v. 5). Moses isn’t suggesting that God didn’t know about it. His point is that in spite of their ingenuity and diligence, they didn’t get close to heaven! God’s perspective of this project is much different than humanity’s. What man believed to be glorious, was in the eyes of God so insignificant that He had to descend from His lofty place to even know it existed!
But God also recognized they had crossed a line. This was not sin on an individual level as had been true in the days of Noah (Genesis 6:5). This was sin resulting from a concentrated and collective human effort! Hence, their success in this act of defiance would only produce greater levels of rebellion and more tragic enterprises. They have huddled together in one place, but God will prevent the achievement of their sinful objective in a way they never would have conceived.
By altering their languages God confounds their wicked imaginations. One minute they’re conversing, making further plans, and marveling at the grandeur of their tower—then suddenly they can’t understand someone they’ve known their entire life! Confusion becomes fear, and fear rapidly accelerates to utter panic. The noise of unintelligible speech compels them to search out those of common language, thus separating them into much smaller groups. The power of a unified yet rebellious humanity is shattered, leaving behind an unfinished tower as a testament to their failure. A name is given, Babel, a Hebrew word meaning “to mix up, confuse.” The multiple earphones used during meetings of the United Nations stand as a lingering testament to the rebellion of an earlier generation.
We certainly see the power of unity. “Nothing which they purpose to do will be impossible for them” (Genesis 11:6). If that is true regarding men in rebellion, how much more so would it apply to those who seek to walk according to God’s will? Is it any wonder that we are so frequently called upon to be of the same mind (Romans 12:16; 1 Corinthians 1:10). How much more could we achieve in the kingdom if we genuinely and diligently sought to preserve the unity of the Spirit in a bond of peace (Ephesians 4:3)?
Also, we find many in our world who reflect the same kind of defiance. Like their ancient predecessors, they seek greatness apart from God. They look to build a world marked by human achievement, a utopia of their own design—but all they create is an atmosphere marred by conflict and hostility. But for those who are Christians, we know of a place of lasting fellowship, where unity is to be the rule, where race is a non-issue, where peace is to prevail, and love is ever-present. Those things aren’t found in a world where God isn’t, but rather in a “body” of people where God is. And it is here that humanity is able to find the very thing sought for so long ago—a name that is eternal.