In Genesis 10 and 11 there are lists of the descendants of the three sons of Noah. The lists may not seem interesting, but to deduce that they are unimportant would be to make a mistake. It all depends on how we read them because God’s method of writing history focuses on issues that are important on the development of his kingdom.
Firstly, the genealogies help us locate when the judgement of the tower of Babel took place. In 10:25 Moses records, ‘To Eber were born two sons: the name of the one was Peleg, for in his days the earth was divided, and his brother's name was Joktan.’ When we turn to the genealogy in chapter 11, we discover how long after the flood Peleg was born: 2 years after the flood Arphaxad was born, 35 years later Shelah was born, 30 years later Eber was born, 34 years later Peleg was born. Peleg was born 101 years after the flood. Peleg lived for 239 years, which means that the incident of the tower of Babel took place between 101 and 340 years after the flood, which indicates that Shem was still alive then.
Secondly, the important details of the genealogies concern later developments in the history of Israel. This is seen in a number of ways. To begin with, there is the limited space that is given to the descendants of Japheth, which is surprising given that much of the world’s population has come from him. Then, in the list of Ham’s descendants, Moses records the origins of Babylon and Nineveh (empires that were later to oppress Israel) and also points out the origin of the Philistines and of the Canaanites whom Israel had to battle with before they could conquer the land of Canaan. With regard to Shem, the list continues the longest, down unto the birth of Abraham. The reference to him is obvious because he was the one through whom the nations would be blessed.
Thirdly, the genealogies locate the division of the nations within a certain period. The judgement of Babel was the beginning of distinct language groups, which eventually led to separate nations. This is a reminder of the sovereignty of God, a sovereign act that Paul refers to in Acts 17:26: ‘From one man he made every nation of men, that they should inhabit the whole earth; and he determined the times set for them and the exact places where they should live.’ Moses gives more details about this in Deuteronomy 32:8: ‘When the Most High gave the nations their inheritance, when he divided all mankind, he set up boundaries for the peoples according to the number of the sons of Israel.’ God had in mind the population of Israel when he allotted specific locations to particular groups.
Fourthly, we are to note that all these people once lived on this earth. We are told their names, but nothing else, apart from the details of Nimrod. Yet God took note of what they did, and one day they will all stand before his judgment.
The Religion of Babel (vv. 3-4)
Moses summarises their plan, their hope and their motive. Their plan was to build a city with a tower, their hope was to become famous, and their motive was to prevent separation. At first glance, their words may seem commendable and could be used as slogans for a political party. Yet when we look more closely we can see that there are problems.
First, the previous time the author referred to the erection of a city and the making of a name, he was describing the outlook of Cain after he was cast out of the presence of God. Second, their words are an expression of self-confidence, with no reference to God. Third, their motive was based on a determination to disobey God who had commanded them to disperse throughout the earth and fill it with people. What we have here is humanism, life without God. This situation depicts a sinful society.
The idea of a city is obvious, but what was the significance of the tower. It is absurd to imagine that the people thought they could build a tower that would reach the heavens; if they had wanted to do this, they would not have built it on a plane. Many scholars suggest that what they had in mind was a high platform that reflected the heavenly bodies. In other words, this was a religious edifice concerned with astrology.
What we see here at Babel is a combination of the political and religious systems against the will of God. Although God came down and destroyed this effort, the combination has appeared many times since. We see it in Egypt when Pharaoh’s magicians opposed Moses and Aaron; we see it in Babylon when Nebuchadnessar erected his giant idol. Sadly we see it in Israel when the Jewish religious leaders combined with their civil rulers to get rid of Jesus.
At Babel, we see a self-confident, God-rejecting alliance of the religious and political worlds against the kingdom of God.
The response of God
God was not unaware of what was taking place. When the writer says that the Lord went down to see what was happening, he does not mean that God was ignorant of what was taking place. Rather he is indicating that the Lord investigates and assesses before he judges. The outcome tells us that God achieved his purpose, which was that humans should inhabit all the earth. He had given this purpose in grace, but his demand was refused. But his goal cannot be prevented. He achieved in judgment what had been resisted when offered in grace.
I wonder what the response of God was as he surveyed the blatant sin of his creatures. Remember that his judgment of the flood was still within living memory of his rebellious creatures. I suspect God was disappointed as he saw the evidence that his creatures still wanted to engage in sin.
In addition, the Lord was determined to put a stop to their sin. He did not come down to discuss things with them. Nor did he suggest that they turn their religious tower into a place where he could be worshipped. Rather he came down to destroy their efforts at removing him from their lives. The judgment that he implemented was immediate, individual (everyone was affected) and irreversible (as far as they were concerned). It was also effective because it achieved God’s purpose of spreading the human race around the world.
But God also came down in a distinctive sense. Notice that in verse 7, he uses a plural pronoun when referring to himself. In this usage there is an early hint that God is a Trinity of persons. It also indicates that God came down in ways distinctive to each. The Father, the Son and the Spirit were there. I suppose many things could be suggested. For example, here is the Creator in the presence of his creatures and he receives no worship. Here is the Spirit, who strives with sinners, observing that his convicting has had no effect. But I want to focus on the Son of God. Here he comes not as the Saviour but as the Judge, an anticipation of the day in which he will judge not merely the rebels at Babel but the whole of humanity.
As we think of these details, we should see that they describe the way that the Lord reacts to us. He is disappointed with our persistent rebellion; he is determined to put a stop to it and will destroy all our efforts to dismiss him from our lives; he comes to us in distinctive ways and addresses us according to our sinful state.
The remedy of God
Is there a remedy for the curse of Babel? Has God turned his back on the nations because they have rejected him? The answer is no.
The first place where we see his plan of blessing is in his promise to Abraham that through his seed all the nations of the world would be blessed. There would come one of his descendants who would bring salvation to the world. Of course, this is a reference to Jesus, the Son of God. Jesus, although born from the descendant of Shem, would bring blessings to the nations.
A second way of blessing is seen on the Day of Pentecost, when God in a miraculous manner showed that it was possible for sinners from different nations to hear in their individual languages the wonderful grace of God.
The third way that blessing will have been seen in the experience of the nations is that the large crowd who will be gathered around the throne of God will have come from every nation and from every language. Hopefully, some of those who were judged at Babel availed themselves of God’s mercy and will be in that great crowd.