The Tower of Babel, Part 2: What Happened?

By Jacob Toman

This is the second part of a three-part series.  The first part can be read here; part three will be coming soon.

Have you ever been told a story, but been unsatisfied with the details of the retelling? Perhaps the storyteller gave you too many details, too few details, or simply told a tale that you evaluated as impossible. In this study we are confronted by two options: belief or disbelief at what exactly happened on the plains of Shinar in Genesis 11.

Reading the text of Genesis 11:1-9 we are immediately confronted with the supernatural. Supernatural interpositioning happens on multiple occasions throughout the text:

  1. The explicit mention of supernatural observation v5
  2. The explicit mention of supernatural exasperation v6
  3. The explicit mention of supernatural intervention v7-8

Do you believe in a God who is capable of changing the language of humanity in a matter of moments?

Many gamers whom we minister to and serve here at Gospel & Gaming espouse a sort of lackadaisical deism that professes a god who is “out there”, but unaware, or unable, or simply apathetic to the daily events of this present earth. This god could be described as “inept at best”.

The God that is revealed in Genesis 11 is a present God, capable of taking action in the daily events and moments of human life. This God is motivated by a desire to see humanity at it’s peak, not at its most bleak. As was discussed in the first part of this study, God’s motives for scattering the people of Shinar was to prevent groupthink or a rebellion against God’s command to multiply and spread out over the whole earth.

Do you believe in a God who is available to take interest in the daily efforts and actions of humanity?

Other gamers whom we spoken with over the last 2+ years of evangelism have spoken about a god who is powerful and capable of creation, but is apathetic or careless in regards to the affairs of creation. This is the sort of belief proposes the world and created universe is similar to a wind up mechanical toy.

This sort of belief amends Genesis 1:1 with “In the beginning, God created the heavens and the earth, then he let it run its course”. Genesis 11 confronts us with a God who does just the opposite. This God is active, involved, and cares deeply about the beings known as “humanity”.

There is no escaping the far reaching implications of Genesis 11:1-9. Babel leaves us either in doubt of the historicity of the events recorded, or amazed by the power of God. There isn’t much middle ground to take away from Babel. Either this story is one of truth and gives us an insight into who God is and what he is willing to do to further his purposes, or it is a trifling matter not to be bothered with.

There are at least 3 objections that must be answered to understand what happened at Babel.

  1. How did God “come down” to see the tower? (verse 5 & 7)
  2. How did God confuse the language of the people? (verse 7 & 9)
  3. How did God disperse the people? (Verse 8 & 9)

 

Objection 1: How did God “come down” to see the tower? (verse 5 & 7)

The first objection is actually a play on words in ancient Hebrew. To understand this poetic joke we must adopt the attitude of someone believing that the God in Genesis 11 is mighty, creative, and above the created universe. The verb used to describe God’s action here is יָרַד (pronounced, yarad). This verb is most often translated as “come” or “go” “down”. This translation occurs some 340 times in the Old Testament. This is by far the most common translation of this verb, with the next most prevalent translation rendered as “descend”. At this point, you’re wondering, what’s so hilarious about God descending or going down?

The joke of this passage comes by way or irony. The people in the plains of Shinar had desired to build a city making a name for themselves, and build a tower that would ascend to the heavens (another way of referencing the residence of God). The city was so large, and the tower so huge, that God had to come down, descend, and observe up close this supposedly massive project. This irony is even more palpable when God’s action of coming down in 11:5 is juxtaposed right after the announcement of the tower’s construction in 11:4. The same God who spoke the universe into existence in Genesis 1 now observes the laughable ambitions of a people who seek to ascend to his residence.

 

Objection 2: How did God confuse the language of the people? (verse 7 & 9)

The second objection is most likely on the forefront of anyone’s mind who has studied a foreign language before. How did God confuse the language of the people? The first thing to note is the distinction made in this question as opposed to another question that often is asked about this passage:

How is it possible to somehow spontaneously create multiple language groups when it otherwise takes years to learn new languages?

This question must quickly be dismissed as the text of Genesis 11 makes no claims to the creation of language, but rather the confusion of language. If someone should ever claim that all the languages of the earth were made during the time when God confused the people of Babel, they are either inserting something into the text that isn’t there, or are simply mistaken as to the text’s claims itself.

The text claims that the people of Shinar share one language (11:1,5) and the text claims that by the end of the incident, everyone ends up confused and unable to live together due to the confusion that God brought. The Hebrew verb that is used to describe the confusion God caused is בָּלַל (pronounced Ba-lal). This verb is most often translated as “mingled” (found 37 times in the Old Testament) and “confound” (found twice in the Old Testament). The verb is often used to describe a mixing, pouring, or staining process. In this regard the languages of the people could be said to be mixed, stained, or confused rather than unified or pure.

Frankly this is the most difficult objection in the passage to explain without the intervention of the supernatural. Even if God did instantaneously create multiple languages, the text claims that God DID forcibly make the people of the plains of Shinar unlearn the language they already knew.

For God to confuse the language of the people so that they could not understand one another would mean God would have had to unwrite the minds and memories of the people. This is without a double a claim of the supernatural. This is not a daily occurrence or a regular occurrence within history. This is a one time, singularly unique event.

 

Objection 3: How did God disperse the people? (Verse 8 & 9)

If you believe that God was able to change the language of people by having them essentially unlearn the common language at the time, then it is not hard to see what happens next. Without a shared language it’s difficult to accomplish any simple task, let alone large complex tasks like living in one single place and working towards the completion of a single building.

In 2014 I had an opportunity to work with a group of Brazilians for some gaming events online. My online connection with one of the individuals was a strong one, as both of us could read and write in English. However things became very difficult when the project expanded beyond just the two of us. As more and more co-workers of my friend came into the group, the dynamics shifted quickly. Within a week we went from the two of us, to six of us working on the same project. This initially wasn’t a problem as I maintained work in English, and my friend translated anything that needed to be moved from English to Portuguese. It became a problem when group members had questions for me and I began to interact more and more with those who couldn’t read or write in my language.

Imagine living in a society where everyone shared one language, but one day, people whom you used to be able to speak to, share with, and live in community with, simply couldn't understand you. This is the historical event that Genesis 11:1-9 gives us. One day the people of the plains of Shinar were united in language, and then God intervenes, disrupts their ambitions and lives, and gradually the people spread into language groups that can understand one another and work together.

 

Last study we saw in Genesis 11:1-9 God had the desire to see humanity flourish and spread out over all the earth. This study we saw how God accomplished the goal of spreading out a united people. Next study we will study the impact Babel has on us here at Gospel & Gaming and the call to action that arises from Genesis 11:1-9.