The story of the Tower of Babel in its historical context is still, in the opinion of this author, a little easier to comprehend. However, with some supplemental research, we can better-understand the motives behind the migration and settlement of these builders. The Expositor’s Bible Commentary (Salihamer, 2008) says this, “As early as Genesis 3 the author has shown an interest in marking the directions of travel taken in humankind’s search for a home” (p. 143). Perhaps one key aspect is not in specifically where this tower was built. But rather, why this land was settled. Salihamer continues by citing several references to the settlements of Adam and Eve upon banishment from the Garden of Eden; Cain and his settlement east of Eden; Abram and Lot as they migrated and then separated from one another. All of these help us to understand that even these builders sought a virgin, fertile land; a place where they could call home.
Further analysis of this story allows us to see why the placement of this story is so interesting. Following the flood and the repopulation of the earth, we see that man is already growing-apart from God. Their internal desire for making a name for themselves is continued from the Semites in Genesis 10. Martens (2003) says Babel is:
“A sinful activity not because it involved newer technology (brick-making) but, so it might be inferred, because of a people’s refusal to fill the earth as God commanded and also because of humans’ invading the diving realm and so exceeding set limits.” (p. 764)
The positioning of this story is also critical, as to understanding the two distinct lines from Shem; from the two sons of Eber. One line would be the men who settled here and built the tower, another being the through the house of Abram, or Abraham as Salihamer points out.
I. Man’s conquest in Shinar (8:1-4)
a. Man had one common speech (8:1)
b. Man moved east and settled in Shinar (8:2)
c. Man constructed a tower to the heavens (8:3-4b)
d. Man vowed to remain unified in the land (8:4c)
II. God’s response to man’s plan (8:5-8)
a. God saw man’s plan (8:5)
b. God assess the plan man has for their kingdom (8:6)
c. God descends with an army to scatter man (8:7)
d. God is victorious; He scatters man over the land with new tongues (8:8)
The story of the Tower of Babel is constructed as an historical narrative and in two parts; the first being the story of man’s conquest in Shinar, and the second being God’s response to man. In the opening verses of this epic story, we see how this group of builders moved east and settled in a plain in Shinar. We see that geography was a key point in understanding this story. While many have long believed that settling on the high ground is vital for defense and early warning from invasion, these settlers constructed in a plain, which would denote a flat area. This could be viewed for two very distinct reasons. 1) Agriculturally a plain, especially a valley situated between two major water sources such a rivers (Tigris and Euphrates) would surely yield a richer harvest. After all, who ever heard of planting corn or wheat on the side of a mountain? 2) The plain would offer a great view, perhaps for miles, making a very large structure easier to spot.
Upon entering and settling the land, the text tells us that the builders – unified in thought and intent – decided to construct a city and tower with bricks rather than stones. This offers some interesting ideological insight into the goal of this nation. Many of us have seen or heard of the show Survivor. Or similarly, the movie Cast Away with Tom Hanks. Upon being stranded in a remote setting, the casts immediately turn to their natural surroundings as means of constructing their dwellings. They turn to nature perhaps for water and food. But the narrative in Genesis 11 is quite different. The builders turn to themselves. Under the lead of King Nimrod, rather than constructing a city and tower out of stones, they decide to make bricks and tar for mortar, as opposed to natural clay, and build everything for themselves, and by themselves. Why would this be?
Rabbi Daniel Lapin has an interesting take on this very question. In his book Tower of Power (2006) he points out that stones represent natural things made of and by God; that they are unique in their own way, size, and shape. The clay that would be used for holding those stones together is shaped by the hands of a craftsman, much the way God shapes us and much the way the Potter and His clay is used metaphorically throughout the Bible.
But bricks are symmetrical. They are made from a mold to be all the same. More importantly, they can be made into anything the designer desires. Pink Floyd’s masterpiece The Wall tells the story of how we’re all just bricks in the wall. We don’t need an education; we don’t need thought control; all-in-all we’re just bricks in the wall. Perhaps this helps us to understand why human nature is completely removed from this aspect of the story? Turner (2003) declares that in Genesis 11:4b, to the matter regarding the goal of humanity – that being reproduction – those in the story of Babel simply “refuse to comply” (p. 353).
Perhaps there is truth in the rabbi’s interpretation of the ideology that ruled Nimrod and his council. Perhaps this is why the Lord chose to judge these people as opposed to others throughout time. Salihamer (2008) poses this very question (p. 143). The text itself doesn’t lend us to an absolute conclusion, which is why this story is so mysterious, yet, also why it is so intriguing.
To contrast the first half of the story however, God sees something in the way the tower and city is being constructed. Thus He chooses to judge their actions and act upon them in a decisive way. The second part of this story serves as further narrative while in some ways providing enough rich irony to almost be taken as a bit of comic relief. The intent was clear from the builders: they wanted to construct a city and tower of their own means and design. Yet God knew that too much could come from this. Differently from what He instructed Noah when building the arc, the builders of the tower were building for the purpose of their own name, not the glory of God. They were constructing a city and tower to show their Creator glory for their abilities and craftsmanship, they were seeking to be a single-rule authority throughout the entire earth. God realized this plan, and He brought it to a screeching halt.
The theological implications are easy to see: when we rely on ourselves as opposed to God, He will show us how we are misguided by any means He sees fit. God creates us all to be unique, and as one Body of believers, each with our own purpose and function, to be used to construct His kingdom for His glory. God’s plan is the ultimate authority, thus it should be consulted first and foremost, in everything we do. To God be the glory. Amen
Martens, E. (2003). Dictionary of the old testament pentateuch: sin, guilt. Downers Grove, IL: Varsity Press.
Salihamer, J. (2008). The expositor’s Bible commentary: genesis~leviticus. Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan.