Genesis 11:1 (NIV) 1 Now the whole world had one language and a common speech.
On verse 1: How could the whole world, or at least the whole world as the author of Genesis had known it, have one language and a common speech when Genesis 10:5 already says that certain maritime peoples had their own languages? One theory is that there may have been one common language by which all people groups communicated, though each group may have also had their own dialects. Another theory is that Genesis 10:5 is referring to events that took place after what we read about here in Genesis 11:1.
Genesis 11:2 (NIV) 2 As men moved eastward, they found a plain in Shinar and settled there.
On verse 2: According to some scholars, Shinar was likely located in modern day Iraq.
Genesis 11:3-4 (NIV) 3 They said to each other, “Come, let’s make bricks and bake them thoroughly.” They used brick instead of stone, and tar for mortar. 4 Then they said, “Come, let us build ourselves a city, with a tower that reaches to the heavens, so that we may make a name for ourselves and not be scattered over the face of the whole earth.”
On verses 3-4: When the people of Shinar decided to build a city and a tower that reaches to the heavens, their ambitions were rooted in pride. They were all about building a kingdom for themselves (“so that we may make a name for ourselves” (v4). Their attitude reflects the attitude of people who only live for themselves, for their own fame and glory. Their attitude also reflects the attitude of Christ-less religion, where people think that by their own effort, they can become like God and reach heaven on their own. When the people of Shinar tried to build a tower to reach heaven, it was similar to when Adam and Eve reached for the forbidden fruit in Genesis 3, thinking that in doing so they could become equal with God. As we will see in the following verses, God opposes this kind of prideful attitude. As the Bible says repeatedly, “God opposes the proud but gives grace to the humble.” (1 Peter 5:5; James 4:6; Proverbs 3:34)
Genesis 11:5-6 (NIV) 5 But the LORD came down to see the city and the tower that the men were building. 6 The LORD said, “If as one people speaking the same language they have begun to do this, then nothing they plan to do will be impossible for them.
On verses 5-6: A couple things impress about these verses. First, the words “But the LORD came down” (v5) remind me of what God would do many centuries later: when we couldn’t go to where God is, God would come down to where we are when He sent Jesus Christ to die for our sins. That time, instead of coming to confuse the people, God would come down to save the people.
Second, these verses teach us about the power of a united team. God observes in verse 6 that “if as one people speaking the same language they have begun to do this, then nothing they plan will be impossible for them” (v6). Though their motivations were fueled by pride, the fact is that the people of Shinar were very united in their cause, and as a result they could accomplish much. It goes to show that, whether for a good cause or a bad cause, a united team is a very powerful thing. Imagine if we as a church were totally united in our cause. Imagine if the one purpose driving all our lives was to give Jesus worship, grow more like Jesus, serve Jesus with our talents, lead others to Jesus, and love the family Jesus started called His church. Nothing would be impossible for us. We would be an unstoppable force in our world for Jesus Christ. It is no wonder Jesus prayed so much for His church to be united (see John 17).
Genesis 11:7-9 (NIV) 7 Come, let us go down and confuse their language so they will not understand each other.” 8 So the LORD scattered them from there over all the earth, and they stopped building the city. 9 That is why it was called Babel–because there the LORD confused the language of the whole world. From there the LORD scattered them over the face of the whole earth.
On verses 7-9: As powerful as a united team is, nothing stands up against the power and will of God. We can be very united, and we can plan and plan until we’re blue in the face, but if it’s not God’s timing or God’s will, it’s not going to happen. That is why it is so important not just to do whatever you plan or to ask God to bless your plans. Even more we need to seek God and discern what His plans are. As Proverbs 16:1 says, “To man belong the plans of the heart, but from the LORD comes the reply of the tongue.”
In this case, the Lord’s “reply of the tongue” came in the form of confusing the language of the builders such that they could not understand each other. The tower would be known as the Tower of “Babel”, which sounds like the Hebrew word for “confusion” (balal). Instead of building a great city and a tower that reached the heavens, they ended up scattered over all the earth.
Centuries later God would send another “reply of the tongue” as His church prayed to Him in an upper room in Jerusalem. As the church prayed for the establishment not of their own kingdom but God’s kingdom on earth, God would send tongues of fire to land upon every believer there, causing them all to speak in new tongues (see Acts 2). The sending of such tongues would result in the gathering of people from every nation to find salvation in Jesus Christ. So you can see the difference: The church’s prayers in Acts 2 reached heaven in a way that the tower of Babel in Genesis 11 could not. The sending of tongues in Acts brought unity whereas the sending of tongues in Genesis 11 brought disunity and confusion.
What can we learn from this? When your heart is to see God’s kingdom come, God will bless you and give you more grace. When your heart is to see your own kingdom built, God will eventually oppose and confuse your efforts.
Another lesson from these verses is that you can’t work together with others when you’re not speaking the same language or you’re not on the same page.
Heavenly Father, thank You for teaching me today about the power of unity, the importance of having pure motives, and the sovereignty of Your will, that no matter how much we plan, it means nothing if You’re not in it. In Jesus’ name, AMEN!