“Therefore its name is called Babel, because there the Lord confused the language of all the earth; and from there the Lord God scattered them abroad over the face of all the earth.” (OSB)
The story of the Tower of Babel is the next chapter in the story of humanity’s fall into pride, self-destruction. Babel looks backwards to the Garden. The pride that crept into Adam & Eve’s heart to grasp at the Fruit, in their ironic attempt to “become like God” (Gen 3:5, having already been made in God’s Image!), is now manifested in humanity’s attempt to make a name for themselves by building a city and a tower up to heaven (Gen 11:4)—to “lose sight of their own nature” and “[entertain] ambitions beyond [their] capacity” (St. John Chrysostom, Hom. Gen. 30.5), and thus to forcefully attempt to cross the boundary between Creator and created. Indeed, by even gathering together in a single city, humanity has already disobeyed God’s mandate to “fill the earth and subdue it” (Gen 1:28).
God (in the plural, “Let Us,” as in Gen 1:26; 3:22) responds to the building of the Tower—in an ironic twist—by coming down to see what humanity is up to (Gen 11:7). It would seem that the Tower is not reaching its intended object! God concludes that humanity must be scattered so that their capacity for evil might be diminished, for as St. Jerome observes,
Just as when holy men live together, it is a great grace and blessing; so, likewise, that congregation is the worst kind when sinners dwell together. The more sinners there are at one time, the worse they are. (Homilies 21 [ACC Genesis 1-11], p. 169)
Towards that end, God confuses (Heb. balal) the language of the humans such that they must cease building and go instead to cultivate a life with their own “people-group” of the same language.
Genesis 11:1-9 also looks back to the so-called “Table of Nations” in Genesis 10, explaining the negative reason why all the descendants of Noah and his three sons, Shem (Heb. for “Name”), Ham, and Japheth all disperse and take up residence in various places, which sets the stage for many of the ethnic (fraternal!) conflicts that will be played out across the Biblical story (e.g., Ham’s descendants are in Egypt and Canaan, both of which will oppress and fight against the descendants of Shem, i.e., Abraham and his Seed [Gen 11:10-26]).
Babel also looks forward to Genesis 11:27ff and the call of Abraham out of “Babel = Babylon = Ur of the Chaldeans.” With this, God signals a sea change in His relationship with humanity. God has “given up” working with humanity as a whole, and is now turning to one family, that of Abraham, as the vehicle through which “all the tribes of the earth will be blessed” (Gen 12:3). In contrast to the fame-seeking builders of Babel, God Himself will make Abraham’s name great (Gen 12:2)! In a very significant passage, Moses reflects on Israel’s unique relationship with God in view of Genesis 11:
When the Most High divided the nations, When He scattered the sons of Adam, He set the boundaries of the nations according to the number of the angels of God. For the Lord’s portion became the people of Jacob; The allotment of His inheritance is Israel. (Deut 32:8-9)
This scattering is only temporary, however, and is intended for the salvation of all of humanity (Acts 17:26-27). The enmity and division of humanity and the confusion of languages will begin to be healed at Pentecost, in the Spirit-empowered life of the Church, the New Humanity (Acts 2:5ff; Eph 2:11-22), where we all, in our own ways, speak the one language of God’s Word, the eternal Logos.
~ By Reader Justin Gohl