The account of the Tower of Babel is closely tied to the genealogical list of Gen. 10, which is commonly called, “The Table of Nations.” The central part of that listing (10:6-20) is that of the sons of Ham, Noah’s disfavored son who disgraced him after the Flood. Of the four sons, Cush, Mizraim, Phut, and Canaan, the text gives the most attention to the descendants of Cush and Canaan. Canaan’s descendants comprise a listing of the different peoples that the Israelites would encounter and have to defeat in the conquest of the Holy Land, after the Exodus. Among Cush’s descendants, Nimrod is given particular prominence as the founder of the first empire (10:8-12), Babel, in the land of Shinar, in what would be modern day Iraq. Archeological evidence confirms that this Fertile Crescent region gave rise to the earliest empires in human history. The Tower of Babel account links back to Nimrod through the geographic reference to Shinar.
In Genesis 11, the people in Shinar are building a city and a tower that will reach to heaven so that they may make a name for themselves and not be scattered abroad. God responds by confounding their language and scattering them across the earth. It would be a simplistic misreading of the text to assume that the problem is the mere building of a tower or that it somehow was a threat to God. The problem, fundamentally, was one of the sinful human heart seeking self-exaltation and autonomy from God. Most commentators agree that the “tower” referred to here is a ziggurat, a stepped structure, which typically in the ancient Near East had religious significance as a temple to the gods. The height of the ziggurat reflects man’s effort to reach heaven. In this case, the men of Shinar are de facto building a man-made religion, since God did not command such a tower to be built. Such towers also typically increased the prestige of the city, enabling them to become cultic centers that would have broader political influence. Thus, man-made religion serves the interest of man’s power. Moreover, the men of Shinar were violating God’s command to go across the earth, multiplying, exercising dominion, and replenishing the earth (1:26-28 cf. 9:1-2, 19); instead, they wanted to stay in one place to build up their own glory.
God’s response is telling. Where men tried to build their own religion to reach the gods, the true God came down to men in judgment. While not referring to Genesis 11 directly, Psalm 2:1-4 aptly describes a comparable situation: “Why do the nations rage and the people plot a vain thing? The kings of the earth set themselves, and the rulers take counsel together, against the LORD and against His anointed saying, ‘Let us break their bonds in pieces and cast away their cords from us. He that sits in the heavens shall laugh; the LORD shall hold them in derision.” The power of men is defeated by the subtlety of the LORD. The men’s resistance to the LORD’s command is turned into forced obedience to His command.
The transition from this account to the genealogy of Abraham, shows the shift of God’s working. Where He previously exercised self-restraint in the Covenant with Noah and restrained man’s ambitions by confusing his languages, God would now begin to positively provide for man’s redemption through Abraham and his seed. The Israelites, Moses’s original audience, no doubt would have seen a parallel between Abraham coming out of the world system of his day—Babel—to worship the LORD and their own Exodus from the world system of their day of Egypt. For us, the curse of Babel would be reversed by God at Pentecost (Acts ch. 2), and the Book of Revelation shows how God’s people will be finally delivered from the ultimate manmade religion and world system in the Final Judgment and Christ’s Second Coming (Revelation chs. 17-19).