(1) Now the whole earth had one language and one speech. (2) And it came to pass, as they journeyed from the east, that they found a plain in the land of Shinar, and they dwelt there. (3) Then they said to one another, “Come, let us make bricks and bake themthoroughly.” They had brick for stone, and they had asphalt for mortar. (4) And they said, “Come, let us build ourselves a city, and 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.”
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After the waters of the Flood receded, and Noah's sons began having children of their own, mankind began rebuilding and re-establishing itself on the planet. Although God had promised never again to destroy the world with a flood, after a few generations the people—not knowing God and thus not trusting Him—were still inclined to look to their own resources for protection and stability. Many gathered around strong men like Nimrod (meaning "rebellion" or "let us revolt"), hoping that having the right leadership—the leadership that they deemed was right—would shield them from further woe.
The people of one of Nimrod's cities, Babel, began a project conceived out of a desire to preserve themselves rather than to glorify the Divine. With the Flood undoubtedly still on their minds, their first consideration was not their standing before God. Instead, they wanted to create a monument to stand the test of time—something that would help them to endure as a people and bestow a noteworthy reputation upon them. Their natural—carnal—inclination was to try to defend against an act of God rather than to make peace with Him.
In their hostility, it probably did not occur to them to come into alignment and favor with the One who has the power to scatter. Instead, they made contingency plans. Rather than being chastened by the Flood and turning to God, mankind became suspicious of Him—He was not behaving as they thought He should!—and sought to develop a structure to keep the consequences of sin (like scattering) at bay.
Nimrod was the grandson of Ham, yet only three generations after God's destruction of all but eight human beings, God was not part of humanity's calculations. Did the people really believe that God had sent the Flood? Or did they conclude that it was just a natural catastrophe—out of God's control and thus one that they needed to guard against in the future? Though the stories of the Flood undoubtedly played into their thinking, the Bible gives no indication that they received any positive instruction from them. Neither God nor His governance of earth was in their thoughts (Psalm 10:4).
Strong's Concordance shows that name in Genesis 11:4 means "an appellation, as a mark or memorial of individuality; by implication honor, authority, character." It contains the idea of a "definite and conspicuous position." Rather than submitting to God, they sought to elevate themselves. They were sure that they could find a way to advance beyond God-ordained consequences. The ironic outcome is that the identical consequence of sin they were trying so hard to avoid was what God ordained should befall them:
So the LORD scattered them abroad from there over the face of all the earth, and they ceased building the city. Therefore its name is called Babel, because there the LORD confused the language of all the earth; and from there the LORDscattered them abroad over the face of all the earth. (Genesis 11:8-9)
At the Tower of Babel, the peoples' greatest fear came to pass because they left God out of their thoughts. However, it did not have to be that way. It would not have been difficult to inquire about moral and spiritual conditions before the Flood to ascertain why God acted as He did. It does not take much to understand sin and its consequences.
For the people of Babel and the children of Israel, idolatry in some form led them away from God. If they only had wholeheartedly sought God, peace could have been made between Him and them. Instead, they trusted in structures—the Tower of Babel and the Temple in Jerusalem (Jeremiah 7:1-15). In both cases, what they trusted in was destroyed, either by neglect or violence.
The structure was not the problem, for God Himself commissioned the building of the Temple, and after it was destroyed, He commanded that it be rebuilt. The problem was that the structure occupied more of their minds than God did. The same decision is before us: to trust in a structure for safety or to seek the sovereign God of heaven and earth.
— David C. Grabbe