This chapter of Genesis gives us the only accurate historical record of the origin of the people groups and languages of the world. We discover here that, contrary to popular belief, it was not a process of sociological evolution over hundreds of thousands of years. Instead, the origin of nations was the result of a single act of God that happened in an instant. And if we take the genealogical records of Genesis for what they are (I do!), it only happened 6,000-7,000 years ago.
Genesis 10:32 says that the different families of the world, all descended from Noah, “spread abroad on the earth after the flood.” Chapter 11 tells us how that happened. After the flood, the entire population of the world spoke the same language and lived in the same area, and they were building a mega-city. What was wrong with that?
My understanding is that as sinful people with wicked hearts which were determined to rebel against God, their unity would allow for evil to be concentrated and very destructive — a repeat of the situation described in Genesis 6:5-6. According to God (Genesis 11:6), their potential for evil as “one people” would be unstoppable.
What was the Tower of Babel and why was it a problem? It was not a lookout tower or a fortress they were building for a time of war; they didn’t have any enemies as “one people.” The only explanation that makes sense to me is that their tower had a spiritual purpose. The tower, which was to reach to heaven, would be the way for man to get to God and God to get to man. It was a silly substitute for God’s plan. The tower was a symbol of a false religion.
The people wanted a god they could see and touch, a god they could access on their own terms, a god they could ultimately control and manipulate. The tower they were building to attain that end would be only the beginning of some serious threats to the survival of the human race (v.6).
God’s answer was to “confuse” the language, making communication difficult and cooperation impossible. This dividing of language was effective, and that is why we have different people groups spread all over the world today.
I hope you didn’t skip over verses 10-32, the list of the generations of Shem. Odd, hard-to-pronounce names? Yep. Redundant and a little boring? Sure. But it is an important record that connects Abraham to Noah and sets up the centuries-long conflict between Shem’s descendants and Canaan’s (Genesis 9:25-27).
One of these days your name will be written with others in a long list of somebody’s ancestors, and all that will matter is your faithfulness to God and your part in the great story of His gospel.