Now the whole earth had one language and the same words. And as people migrated from the east, they found a plain in the land of Shinar and settled there. And they said to one another, “Come, let us make bricks, and burn them thoroughly.” And they had brick for stone, and bitumen for mortar. Then they said, “Come, let us build ourselves a city and a tower with its top in the heavens, and let us make a name for ourselves, lest we be dispersed over the face of the whole earth.” And the LORD came down to see the city and the tower, which the children of man had built. And the LORD said, “Behold, they are one people, and they have all one language, and this is only the beginning of what they will do. And nothing that they propose to do will now be impossible for them. Come, let us go down and there confuse their language, so that they may not understand one another’s speech.” So the LORD dispersed them from there over the face of all the earth, and they left off building the city. Therefore its name was called Babel, because there the LORD confused the language of all the earth. And from there the LORD dispersed them over the face of all the earth. (Genesis 11:1-9)
God’s plan for humanity was to “fill the earth.” He commanded this to Adam and his descendants (Genesis 1:28) and to Noah and his descendants (Genesis 9:1). But, man was ambitious and said, “Come…let us make a name for ourselves, lest we be dispersed over the face of the whole earth.” (Genesis 11:4) Translation: let us make much of ourselves. So, they decided to build a city (Babylon, about 50 miles south of Baghdad in modern-day Iraq). This city actually became quite large and powerful in biblical times. There is nothing at all wrong with achievement, but these people were into achievement for the sake of their own name and glory. God is about His own glory. Created things exist to reflect the glory of their creator.
God is sovereign, and His glory will not be stolen. So, he confused their language so that his decreed purpose of filling the earth would be fulfilled. “Babel” means “confusion.”
I think this passage is very important in understanding the Bible, and here’s why. If you read this and go, “It sure sounds petty of God to interfere with them building a city,” then pretty much the rest of Scripture is going to be hard for you to swallow. Over and over throughout Scripture, God is going to command things and expect obedience. And over and over in Scripture, man is going to have other (he would actually even say “better”) ideas. A person who doesn’t believe that God actually intervenes in the world and governs and guides the things that happen in the world is called a deist. This is a very popular view of God now (and it has been throughout history). It’s a popular view, I think, because it lets us do “whatever we think is right.” Thomas Jefferson was a deist. If you are a deist, there is really no reason to pray, because basically you believe that God created the world, set it all in motion, and then said to man, “Run with it.” That means of course, that we are on our own for salvation as well, since sending Jesus into the world to die for our sins is a pretty major intervention on God’s part.
I believe that God created the world and actively governs the world. He has allowed sin and suffering to be a part of how he accomplishes his divine purposes in the world, but he is actively at work accomplishing our redemption and will ultimately restore the world to the way it was before the fall in Genesis 3. I believe this, because (as you will see), it is the clear teaching of Scripture. (Thomas Jefferson famously took scissors and cut out every incident of God intervening in the world out of his Bible, because he didn’t believe they were true.) But if you believe Scripture, then passages like this one (and many others) testify that God cares about our obedience to Him and is actively involved in ensuring that His will is accomplished in the world and in our lives. I believe that this is good news, because I believe that His divine will and purpose for you and for me is good.