Shinar was in what is now modern day Iraq. The land of Babylon got its name from the Tower of Babel, so named because the Hebrew word Bāḇel means confusion. Presumably the etymology of the English word babble comes from its Hebrew equivalent.
It’s interesting what is not in the text in this story. The people of the earth built a fortified city and a tower, intending for it to reach up to heaven. We know from God’s reaction that what they did was somehow evil, but there’s nothing inherently evil in building a city or a tower. What was the problem?
I think the clue is in the phrase, “…a tower whose top is in the heavens; let us make a name for ourselves, lest we be scattered abroad over the face of the whole earth.” Remember that this was only one hundred (and one) years after the flood—Noah and his sons were still alive. Could the point have been that their descendants were trying to protect themselves against a future act of God, even though He had already promised He would never again send a flood upon the earth? Was the problem that they were trusting in their own might and seeking their own glory, leaning on “their own understanding” (Proverbs 3:5-6)? Did the tower up to the heavens imply that they saw themselves as equal with God?
Ultimately I think the issue was pride—and the fact that, left unchecked, the people might actually achieve their ends. God had to intervene once more; He had to make sure that the people of the earth did not once again become corrupted beyond redemption, beyond the point where He could bring forth a savior. The fact that He went about it by confusing their language is profound, though. He said, “the people are one and they have one language, and… now nothing that they propose to do will be withheld from them. Come, let Us go down and there confuse their language, that they may not understand one another’s speech” (Genesis 11:6-7). What a powerful statement about the power both of the tongue (Proverbs 12:14), and of agreement of vision and purpose! The Hebrew word for “nothing they propose to do” is zāmam, translated elsewhere as devise, imagine, or plot. We do nothing without first imagining or considering it, conceiving it in our minds. In the same way, the writer of Proverbs tells us to guard our hearts (or our minds or imaginations), “for out of it spring the issues of life” (Proverbs 4:23), and “as a man thinks in his heart, so is he” (Proverbs 23:7). First comes the thought; then comes the word, and this translates into the deed or the action itself. We are created in God’s image (Genesis 1:26-27), and God spoke the world into being (Genesis 1:3). In the same way, our words have great power (Proverbs 18:21). When God saw that the descendants of Noah used this power to pursue their own ends and to forget Him, He dealt with it by confusing their language. He could not change their thoughts without violating their free will, so He intervened at a later stage in the process. Their words, lacking understanding, also lost the power of the unity of vision. Even with the loss of a huge percentage of his workers, Nimrod son of Cush, the son of Ham still went on to found Babylon, Assyria, and Nineveh, as well as many other cities (Genesis 10:8-12). Imagine what he could have done had they maintained the unity of language! In the same way, think of all the seemingly impossible advances in knowledge, understanding, and technology that have occurred even within our own lifetimes. All of these began as an idea, an imagination, a vision—which were subsequently communicated to others who caught the vision and could then add their own skills in pursuit of a common purpose. God Himself said of this process, “now nothing that they propose to do will be withheld from them” (Genesis 11:6). What a statement! What incredible power He has given to mankind, to use for good or ill.
I also find it interesting that while this initial incident of producing different tongues divided and scattered mankind across the globe, Pentecost had the exact opposite effect: the coming of the Holy Spirit upon the church united those who had been divided by language in a common purpose and vision (Acts 2:1-12). The Lord brought men together with the supernatural understanding of one another’s languages, and as a result, the church swelled from one hundred and twenty people (Acts 1:15) to over three thousand in a single day (Acts 2:41).
What struck me most about this story was that Noah was still alive at the time—in fact, he lived for another 150 years after this (Genesis 9:28). I’d never thought of that before. Everyone on earth at the time would have been family to him: his children, grandchildren, and great grandchildren. How did the patriarch let this happen? How did his descendants go astray only one century after the flood? And how awful for him to essentially lose much of his family when they could no longer communicate with one another. It wasn’t like they could just pick up the Rosetta Stone and learn; this was the advent of all the new languages of the earth. Even if there existed a written alphabet for the original language they all spoke, there certainly wasn’t one yet for any of the new languages. So those who shared a language in common presumably migrated together to found new nations with their new tongues (Genesis 11:8).
Fictionalized Retelling: Preincarnate Jesus’ Perspective
I looked down at the earth and frowned.
It was desolate, compared to the lush world before the flood one hundred years earlier. The earth had given forth its fruit and prospered in the last hundred years, but it was nothing to what it had been before. The temperate climate I had intended, and the tropical forests and glades spanning the globe had now become predominately ocean, desert nearer the equator, and tundra toward the poles. Still, My intention was for Noah’s descendants to repopulate the inhabitable portions of the earth, such as it was. That was not what they were doing.
There were just over ten thousand of them now. I had kept my covenant with Noah simple. I needed a nation of those whose hearts would follow Me before going into detail about morality, to both teach them that they needed the Seed of Eve to come and redeem them, and to keep them pure enough that He could come at all. They weren’t there yet. In fact to start, I needed one man whose heart toward me was pure.
That was why I frowned upon the earth now. I had given my vow to Noah that never again would I wipe out the earth’s entire population, and yet here they were only a century later, already challenging that resolution.
“We told them to fill the earth and subdue it,” the Father observed to Me. “Yet they have all settled in Shinar, and the rest of the earth remains uninhabited.”
“Yes, and see what they are doing,” the Spirit growled. “They are building a great city, with a temple to reach to heaven. Nimrod thinks he is God.”
“Satan heard the covenant too, that we would never again destroy the earth in a flood,” I murmured. “He thinks that means if he corrupts mankind again, there will be nothing We can do to stop him.”
The Father sighed. “If mankind can only get past this stage without complete corruption, and give Us something to work with—”
“Where is Noah?” I groaned. I knew the answer, but expressed my frustration. Noah was their patriarch, the eldest man of the earth and the father of them all, at over seven hundred years of age. Yet he had said nothing to hinder the rebellion of his descendants, or to remind them of Us. He had grown complacent. He had Our promise, repeated several times per year in the heavens after each rainfall, that We would never again destroy the earth in that way again. We had not explained to him Our ultimate purpose. We had not explained that he and all mankind had an enemy that longed to keep Us from bringing the Seed that would ultimately redeem them. He would not have understood if We had. So he watched as his grandchildren and great-grandchildren grew ambitious for their own legacy upon the earth, and forgot Us. He was actually even proud of their accomplishments. He did not think to warn them. He too was blinded.
We would have to get involved once again, since We lacked a man upon the earth to do it for Us. Yet We would need to do it without destruction, abiding by the rules of Our own covenant with Noah.
“I will go,” I announced, “and see this city and tower which the children of men have built.”
So I descended from heaven to the land of Shinar, deliberately obscuring My radiance so that they would not know Me. I walked about the city incognito, like a stranger to those parts, dismayed at what I saw. Under the direction of Nimrod, son of Cush, all of the men of the land worked together toward Nimrod’s common vision. They had developed bricks and mortar, just like men had done before the flood, and had used them to create a sprawling city. At its center was a ziggurat, built with successive layers and a tower at the center which reached halfway to the sky. With an intricate system of pulleys, the people of Shinar continued to pile layer upon layer to the tower, with a spiral staircase on the inside so that they could still climb to the top. They worked well together. Too well.
“In and of itself, the tower is not evil,” I murmured to the Spirit, who was with Me, but invisible to the men around us.
“No,” He agreed, “but what is the motive for building it?”
This was rhetorical, but I answered anyway. “The people have become great in their own eyes, convinced they can accomplish anything they wish, without Us.”
“To a large degree they are correct,” He replied, pensive. “They are one people, and they all have the same language. And this is what they have started to do, and now nothing which they plan to do will be impossible for them.”
I sighed, and made My way to the center of the ziggurat beside the tower, where Nimrod and his family lived. From there, he gave orders to all of his sons and nephews and cousins who built the tower with him. I frowned, listening and observing, until he had a moment of reprieve between the giving of orders.
“You are in charge of this land?” I asked him.
Nimrod looked at Me, narrowed his eyes, and sniffed with disdain. “Whose son are you? I do not recall.”
“God’s son,” I told him.
He gave Me an odd look followed by a little sneer. “Mmm, aren’t we all.”
“Yes, though it seems you have forgotten it,” I said. “What is the purpose of this great city and the tower you have built?”
He regarded Me again, as if deciding whether or not to dismiss Me. But, not willing to give up an opportunity to boast, he replied, “My grandfather, and probably Your great-grandfather, saw the earth destroyed in a great flood. This was only possible because the people had not fortified themselves against such disaster. We shall not make such a mistake.”
I arched a brow at him. “You think that your ziggurat would save you against the hand of God, should He decide to destroy this generation?”
Nimrod puffed out his chest. “Yes,” he declared. “My grandfather Ham told me that the flood waters rose above the peaks of the highest mountain of the earth. My tower shall reach higher than that, up to the very heavens themselves!”
I considered telling Nimrod to ask Ham, or Noah, how it really was when the fountains of the deep broke open. The very idea that this ziggurat or its tower would have survived that was laughable. But it did not matter; Nimrod would not hear it, and the point was moot anyway.
“You do recall the Lord’s covenant with Noah that He would never again destroy the earth with a flood,” I said. “Why fortify yourself against a disaster which shall never recur?”
“Ah,” Nimrod’s mouth curled at the edges. “Perhaps not a flood, but there are other kinds of disasters, are there not? This fortress would withstand a cyclone, or an earthquake, or a volcano, or a rebellion—whatever disaster may befall, my great name shall live on in the earth. My descendants shall still speak of me for thousands of generations to come.”
“So your goal is your own glory, then,” I concluded.
He shrugged. “Mine and that of my children after me. My glory is their glory. Why am I still talking to You? Get back to work!”
I regarded him, and then murmured, “You have fortified yourself and your children against physical destruction, yes. But there is a kind of disaster that you cannot guard against, which shall destroy your best laid plans and bring them all to nothing.”
He sneered. “‘Awh nem, wama hdha?” He blinked, confused, and then suddenly frightened. He clapped a hand over his mouth. “Madha faealt bi?” he demanded.
“I have confused your language,” I informed him, though I knew he would no longer understand Me. “And not yours only. All around, you will find that your workers no longer understand one another. A few will share each tongue, and those few shall become tribes unto themselves, and will scatter together across the globe—”
“Madha faealt bi?” Nimrod wailed, lunging at Me. I casually raised a hand as if to deflect him, and lifted the veil from his eyes so that he could behold My true form. His eyes widened, and he collapsed to the ground in terror as My glory radiated all around him.
I left him like that, groveling on the ground, as I strolled down the stairs of the ziggurat, joined by the Spirit as the cacophony of new tongues erupted all around Us. They shouted at one another now, as if that would help.
Halfway down the ziggurat, We caught sight of the seven hundred year old Noah, and his son Japheth. I felt a pang of sorrow as Japheth shouted at his father, “Miért nem tudsz megérteni engem?” Noah shook his hoary head with dismay, as he at last realized that this was no joke.
“I’ve lost my children,” he moaned to himself. “I’ve lost them forever—” He raised his eyes to Me then, and though I had again resumed My cloaked appearance, he knew Me. “We have forgotten You,” he whispered. “So you’ve made their language like the babbling of a baby to me.”
“This is a mercy, not a punishment,” I told him gently. “Just as it was when We expelled Adam and Eve from the garden so that they could not take of the tree and live forever in their fallen state. Left unchecked, Nimrod and all your family in unity against Me would have corrupted the earth, just as surely as did the Nephilim.”
“Have you left me anyone at all?” Noah choked.
“Shem, Arphaxad, and his children retain your language,” I murmured, laying a hand on his shoulder. “You will journey together with them to the land of Ur of the Chaldeans, together with their wives and children.”
“What of Nimrod?” he asked me. “And Shinar?”
“Nimrod will remain here, of course, along with all those who share his language. But he now has less than a tenth of the men he had before. He will continue to build here, and then will move on to construct the beginnings of other mighty nations. Your great-grandson will yet be great upon the earth, though not the absolute ruler he had imagined himself.”
Noah covered his face with his hands, and I allowed him to fall into step beside Us. He looked back at the ziggurat once we had descended to the earth with one last look of sorrow, the unintelligible shouts mingling together in an angry, distant din.
“Nimrod had called it the Tower of Shinar,” he murmured. “But hereafter I will call it the Tower of Babel.”