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Genesis 11:1-9: Tower of Babel
Bible Essentials: Set 3, Lesson 8
Individuals: Take time to think back about your past week. Where have you seen God work in your life or answer prayer? Write down any prayer requests you have.
Group: Open the study by sharing life updates, reviewing highs and lows of your past week, or sharing prayer requests and praises.
Icebreaker: What is your experience with other languages? Do you speak a second (or more) language fluently? Have you traveled to a place where you didn’t speak the native language?
All: Begin the study with a word of prayer, asking God to open your heart for today’s study. You can also pray for any prayer requests now, or save that for the end.
Read today’s passage: Genesis 11:1-9.
11 Now the whole world had one language and a common speech. 2 As people moved eastward, they found a plain in Shinar and settled there.
3 They said to each other, “Come, let’s make bricks and bake them thoroughly.” They used brick instead of stone, and tar for mortar. 4 Then they said, “Come, let us build ourselves a city, with a tower that reaches to the heavens, so that we may make a name for ourselves; otherwise we will be scattered over the face of the whole earth.”
5 But the Lord came down to see the city and the tower the people were building. 6 The Lord said, “If as one people speaking the same language they have begun to do this, then nothing they plan to do will be impossible for them. 7 Come, let us go down and confuse their language so they will not understand each other.”
8 So the Lord scattered them from there over all the earth, and they stopped building the city. 9 That is why it was called Babel—because there the Lord confused the language of the whole world. From there the Lord scattered them over the face of the whole earth.
What is the context for this passage?
In our previous lesson, we saw Noah and his family leave the ark, and the first thing they did was build an altar to worship God. God blessed Noah and his sons and gave them a command: “Be fruitful and increase in number and fill the earth.” This was an essential command because currently there were only 8 people on the face of the whole earth.
Noah and his descendants do OK with the first part of God’s command. They increased in number, as is discussed in Genesis 10. But they didn’t do so well with the second part of God’s command. They decided that they didn’t want to be scattered over the face of the whole earth, so they planned to build a tower to the heavens. This is where today’s story in Genesis begins.
Read the passage again.
Explore a different version if you have one available. If you are online, here is Genesis 11 in NIV through Bible Gateway. You can change the version by using the dropdown menu at the top right of the page.
Try to summarize the passage in your own words.
Answer these three questions about the passage:
1. What does the passage say about God?
God watches over people. Once the flood was over, God didn’t just sit back and ignore humans. He kept track of what they were doing and how they were behaving. In this passage, God saw something that disturbed him. The people were not following his command to spread over the whole earth. Instead, they were trying to build a great city so that they could all stay in one place. He knew he had to step in yet again.
God knows the capabilities and hearts of people. Because God is all-knowing, and he knows intimately the beings he created, he knows exactly what their capabilities are, and he can see into their hearts to know their intentions. God knew that once the people started to organize and plan this great city, there would be no stopping them from doing anything they wanted.
God is able to instantly change a person’s language abilities. Just as God has all knowledge, he also has all power, and that includes power over the brain. He can change the brain’s internal wiring and memory to make it understand a new or different language. He doesn’t use his power often to do this, but we see it a few times in the Bible.
2. What does the passage say about people?
After the flood, all the people spoke one language. At this point in time, all the people on earth descended from Noah and his family, and as such, they all spoke the same language. Effective communication is a key to building communities and structures of power.
After the flood, people continued to expand where they settled due to the growing number of people. As the people had children and families grew after the flood, the people spread out to make room for their growing communities. However, they did not spread as far as God commanded. They tried to find a way to stay put so that they would not be spread far and wide.
People are skilled at planning and building. With the movement of people comes a need for creating new community structures—houses, cities, and towers for protection. The people in this story were skilled at planning a city with a great tower, and they started to build this city with its tower before God stepped in.
People want to make a name for themselves. The people in this story didn’t just want to build a city so they could live their lives. They wanted to be known throughout the world as a great people with a great city. This suggests that they were a prideful people who wanted success and power.
People want to live close to their community. One of the reasons that the people in this story wanted to build a city was so that they wouldn’t be scattered over the face of the whole earth. They wanted to stay close to their people. Although God created us to live in community, he didn’t want us to depend on community so much that we forget about our need for him. It seems like that was the path that these people were on.
People see different languages as a barrier to communication and progress. Once God scrambled their languages, the people decided to spread out throughout the earth. The new language barrier that God put in their path was enough to discourage them from their plan of building a great city.
3. What does the passage say about God’s plan?
God’s plan was to slow down people’s progress by confusing their language. When God saw that the people were working together to build a great city that reached the heavens, he knew that their goal was to become powerful. With power often comes a disdain for God or anything else that might have power over them. To create a barrier to this type of progress, God confused the people’s language so they could not communicate. Without communication, their ability to succeed in building their city was cut off.
God’s plan was that people would be scattered over the whole earth. One reason the people wanted to build a great city was so that they wouldn’t be scattered over the face of the earth. But God had commanded them to fill the earth. In order to guide the people into obeying his command, God confused their languages so that they would decide to spread out and fill the earth.
How does the passage fit into the overarching story of the Bible?
Sometimes it’s easier to understand a passage if you have a little outside knowledge from other passages in the Bible. This section will help provide that outside perspective.
The idea of people being scattered over the face of the earth is seen throughout the Bible, with the establishment of different nations in different areas. Of course, the Bible primarily focuses on people in what is now the Middle East and parts of Africa and Europe, but ultimately, people did eventually move to fill all corners of the earth. The Old Testament is primarily concerned with the nation of Israel, which we will meet later in our study of Genesis, but in the New Testament, we find that God wants to reach all nations and tribes and tongues with the gospel—the good news of Jesus Christ.
When it comes to languages, although having different languages did temporarily slow down the progress of people, the continued growth of the human race enabled groups of people to establish great cities and nations for themselves. This same act that was meant to slow down people’s progress in making themselves great also created a barrier when it came to spreading the gospel later. Yet we see that just as God can scramble languages, he can also make people speak or understand other languages, as shown in Acts 2. On the day of Pentecost, God allowed the disciples to speak other languages so that his gospel could go out to all nations without a language barrier.
Individual: Answer the following questions thoughtfully for yourself.
Group: Pose these questions for discussion.
All: If you are willing to share, I’d love to hear your thoughts to these questions. Feel free to use the comment section to start a discussion about this passage.
What else strikes you about this passage?
How does the passage affect how you view God? How you view yourself?
How does this passage affect how you will live your life?
For additional study related to this topic, read Acts 2:1-13.
For Bible Essential studies, you can use my thoughts as your devotional, or you can download and use the journaling sheet to work through the passage on your own. If desired, you can then compare your thoughts to mine. Journal sheets can be downloaded and used now or later. They can be printed and filled in by hand or saved and filled out electronically. Journal sheets are available for individual or group use.
If you plan to lead a group study, a PowerPoint presentation is also available.
You can access these resources by clicking here: Genesis 11 Resources
Or you can download the journal sheets here*:
*Substack doesn’t support PowerPoint file downloads yet, so if you want to access the PowerPoint file for group study, you will need to download it from the resource page linked above.