In His Days the Earth was Divided


Genesis 11:1–9

We learn some hints of the timing of the tower of Babel after the flood. Genesis 10:5 speaks of the grandsons of Japheth giving rise to the “coastland peoples” and adds the description, “each with his own language, by their clans, in their nations.” The text mentions four sons of Javan, the son of Japheth. Each son had time to produce  descendants that were called a clan. From the descendants of Shem, we learn that “the earth was divided” (10:25) in the days of Peleg. Peleg was born 101 years after the flood, fathered a child at 30 years of age, and lived to be 239 years old (Genesis 11:16–19). At the most, the tower of Babel came within 340 years after the flood, while Noah still was alive. The genealogies both before and after the account of the tower of Babel help us focus the narrative on the people through whom the promise of a seed through the woman (Genesis 3:15) would come. Moses called attention to this as something that should be remembered as they “consider the years of many generations” (Deuteronomy 32:7). Moses spoke as if the events of the Tower of Babel were still a part of the historical tradition passed down by narrative (as obviously it was since he records it here in Genesis 11). When Abram was born, Noah still had 58 years to live.


I. The natural gravity of human sinfulness toward secularism – 11:1–4

A. Singularity of language made communication immediate and accurate.

This should be a great advantage for godliness and for promoting proper worship. They had access to the narrative of divine judgment from the mouth of Noah and his immediate descendants. None, apparently, had taken advantage of the knowledge of divine jealousy that kindled the wrath of the flood or of the necessity of sacrifice for sin that had been practiced by Noah. Today Christian missionaries seek to learn languages in order to communicate the gospel to tribes that have never heard. They had a common language but did not use it for edification.

B. A favorable locality made the sense of well-being prominent.

Not only was there a common language, but they found a locality where there would not be natural divisions caused by mountains, valleys, cliffs, and impassable waters. The entire population could live together. At least two great dangers accompanied this phenomenon. This gave opportunity for strong leaders to become dominant, control the entire population and establish an autocratic society where all people were subservient to and dependent on the will of a tyrant. Second, it inculcated a sense of absolute finality in the securities of this life and in the pleasures such a society could produce. It is quite possible that the vision of Babylon in Revelation 18 as the fallen city that “glorified herself and lived in luxury” providing the entire world with all its wares, food, luxuries, crafts, jewels, metals, livestock, and slaves is a picture of what the leaders at the plain of Shinar intended.

C. Technical knowledge gives a sense of control (3).

They found all the means to pursue their project in the material available to them. Their knowledge of making brick and mortar and of engineering enabled them to project a building that would be the center of this proposed one world city.

D. Verse 4 – They envisioned the creation of a center of culture and of political uniformity that gave a sense of permanence to the quest for ultimate pleasure in this life.

How quickly the mind can be blinded to the internal witness that upon death judgement will come (Romans 1:18, 19, 32) is a strong emphasis of this passage. People quickly can be lulled into giving all energy to comfort, power, and prestigious position in this present life and forget the eternal condition of joy or woe that follows.

    1. This was the first attempt to organize and give systematic expression to an unabashed secular movement. It is a movement committed to the proposition that this life is all that there is, nothing beyond it exists, and any attempt to find solace in a god is a sign of weakness. That these events occurred in a place whose founder was Nimrod (Genesis 10:8–12), obviously a dominant power-hungry man, says much about the rapidity with which the culture became totally focused on itself and lost any consciousness of God. No more whining about sin, looking for forgiveness, or finding a hope to be realized only in eternity, but we live for now. Hitler’s Germany, Stalin’s Russia, and Mao’s China were all Shinar redivivus. Nietzsche would have loved Nimrod.
    2. The language, “Come let us build for ourselves . . . and let us make a name for ourselves” shows the unity given by common language and common place. The “Let us” indicates an idolatrous perception of human unity and prerogative. It betrays a false and destructive impression foundational to, and the fatal flaw in, virtually all human political and philosophical systems. These promise either personal autonomy or a completely egalitarian society in which the needs (as perceived by secularists) of all will be abundantly supplied. It is the kind of language that shows a sense of autonomy and sovereignty based on unity of purpose and concentration of power. The people, under whatever leadership prompted them to this project, assumed a prerogative that only God has.
    3. This language of verse 4 first appears as divine speech at the creation of man in Genesis 1:26: “Let us make man in our image.” They had forsaken the position of the creature and had assumed the position of the creator—independent, immortal, autonomous, self-existent, and unrestricted in accomplishing one’s will. This is an illusion that comes from a grotesque corruption of the divine image in which the triune God created us. God endowed humanity with aspects of the natural image such as intelligence, self-consciousness, rationality, foresight, and the soulish insight that assumes that some standard must regulate conduct (Romans 2:1–3). These great natural gifts have been turned against the more excellent aspects of the divine image such as righteousness, holiness, and an intrinsic knowledge that terminates on God as the final uncreated excellence, infinite in goodness (Romans 1:18–23; Ephesians 4:17–24; Colossians 3:5–10).


II. Verses 5–7 – God observes and evaluates the human desire for self sufficiency.


A. Though God is in heaven and his glory transcends all temporal things, yet his knowledge extends to all the details of human activity and thought.

    1. The symbolism here is both profound and ironic. We grasp its profundity in that God still abides far above all the mutability and transitions of this earth, His throne is in heaven, and earth is his footstool.
    2. We see the irony in God’s descending to see this human achievement that had its goal of reaching the heavens. The simple anthropomorphic language must not make us overlook the powerful reality of this incident. God’s observations are constant, universal, and infallibly accurate. He sees and gives infallible moral evaluations in terms of absolute justice to all human activity as it proceeds in its fallen reality. He always sees human societies and individual human hearts that are seeking to construct a way of achieving permanence and satisfaction without an enthralling vision of the transcendent glories of divine immutability, natural omnipotence and omniscience, and inexhaustible moral perfection. Humanity always sets itself on course for a fool’s errand.

B. God knows all our thoughts and despises our quest for a life independent of his Sovereignty and his perfect beauty.

    1. “The Lord said, ‘Behold.’” Even as Genesis 1:26 (“Let us”) this indicates the powers of observation present and commonly held within the persons of the triune God. He beholds all, and all that he beholds is held in common by Father, Son and Holy Spirit. They say within themselves and thus the One God says within himself, “Behold.”
    2. The illusion of power and autonomy provided by their unity of language and place as “one people” will permit the deceit of achieving fullness of life apart from God to run rampant. To this kind of existence nations continue to aspire. Each apparent accomplishment in the absence of dependence on God amounts to an advance in oppression and a cementing of the misperception of healthy independence. This is a fatal misperception. Each achievement is celebrated in some quarters as another reason not to believe in God and most potently to view Christianity as backward to human progress.
    3. Political absolutism, scientism and technocracy, philosophical naturalism/skepticism, the culture of death under the guise of compassion and health concerns, and the rainbow coalition fall within the category implied in the phrase “nothing that they propose to do will now be impossible for them” (6). “See, this alone I have found,” wrote the observant Solomon, “that God hath made man upright; but they have sought out many schemes” (Ecclesiastes 7:29).


III. The mercy of God in destroying the illusion of self-sufficiency (11:7–9)

A. God reclaims the reality that he alone embodies perfect unity of purpose, power, and excellence of knowledge.

God assumes the original language he used in the creation of man (“Let us”) as he now disperses them into nations to interrupt this haughty attempt at deification of culture.

    1. “Come, let us go down” – God descends on a mission of both judgment and mercy. This is a quick repudiation of the unfounded confidence of fallen humanity in its quest for total freedom from the “God delusion.” Plans for the project were halted immediately.
    2. This is a mercy by God’s setting within human memory the reality that all attempts at absolute independence will come to nothing; human achievement will always fall short of its intended goal of providing complete contentment by means of human contrivance.
    3. God’s language again sets forth the reality that he alone accomplishes his will at any moment and that he alone can use the language of perfect unity and absolute conformity and agreement in purpose.
      • Behind this truth lies Paul’s admonition to Christians “And above all these put on love, which binds everything together in perfect harmony” (Colossians 3:14). God’s perfect unity in threeness shows the perfect knowledge of, perfect approval of, and absolute agreement of purpose within the three-personed, single essence eternal God. The eternal property of intrinsic love constitutes the fountain of the eternal self-existence and perfect unity of God.
      • We see this applied similarly in Paul’s prayer in Ephesians 3 and his application in Ephesians 4: “that you, being rooted and grounded in love, may have strength to comprehend with all the saints what is the breadth and length and height and depth, and to know the love of Christ that surpasses knowledge, that you may be filled with all the fullness of God . … bearing with one another in love, eager to maintain the unity of the Spirit in the bond of peace” (Ephesians 3:17–4:3).

B. God introduced another faculty present in the human mind, that of diversity of language, and used it to destroy their attempt at establishing a dominant, controlling, and autocratic culture.

Even as a multiplicity of words bearing virtually endless nuances of meaning are characteristic of a single language and may be employed in a meaningful way by the human consciousness, so a multiplicity of languages was possible from the beginning. God prompted Adam to develop language in showing how he was distinct from the non-language creatures and to establish a sense of the need for unity with another image-bearer (Genesis 2:18–23). Now God would use language to establish disunity and thus minimize the possibility of universal oppression and damning self-sufficiency.

C. Verses 8, 9 – God forced his purpose on the human race of populating the entire earth.

    1. Moses refers to this in his Song in Deuteronomy 32:8, 9 – “When the Most High gave to the nations their inheritance, when he divided mankind he fixed the borders of the peoples according to the number of the sons of God. But the Lord’s portion is his people, Jacob his allotted heritage.” All of this was done according to the redemptive purpose of God. He would separate one nation from all of the people. The Sethites survived the flood; from Shem would come Abram, from whom would arise the nation of Israel, the sons of God through the promise to Abra[ha]m, Isaac, and Jacob.
    2. Even as God by immediate intervention confused the tongues at Babel, so by immediate intervention, he eliminated that division for the first proclamation of the gospel of the risen Christ (Acts 2:5–11). Having moved toward the singular absoluteness of his purpose by consolidating his covenant into the faith of one man, Abraham, he extends it to the nation arising from the loins of Abraham. Then through the Seed promised to all nations by the preaching of the gospel (Matthew 28:18–20; Revelation 5:9, 10), God brings this united people into the very heavens where all praise is given, not to the vain pretensions of man, but to the Lamb who was slain and yet lives.


Humanity’s number had flourished indeed:
Humanity’s arrogance too.
Ambitious advance a proud spirit did breed,
Far beyond prudence and all human need.
The leaders promoted a coup.

“Storm heaven, we will,” without covenant rights,
Technology gives us all pow’r.
Brick sealed on brick will span up to the heights
Reaching God’s heaven above human eye-sight;
Triumph will crown us this hour.

“No needs do we have that we cannot provide.
Why should we be scattered on earth?
True happiness comes when we stand side by side;
Our human potential comes from deep inside;
We’re good and we’re clever from birth.”

The Lord knows the purposes of all their hearts,
Their pride, their vainglorious plans.
At God’s law, a laugh which corruption imparts,
Alignment with Satan where godlessness starts;
Yet holy grace fills the Lord’s hands.

The Father, the Lord, shows us mercy and grace,
A purpose of eternal life.
Begotten One, Son, by the death he would face,
Borne up by the Spirit to give wrath its place
To remove sin’s power of strife.

Tom has most recently served as the Professor of Historical Theology at The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary. He previously taught at Trinity Evangelical Divinity School where he was Professor of Church History and Chair of the Department of Church History. Prior to that, he taught at Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary and Mid-America Baptist Theological Seminary. Along with numerous journal articles and scholarly papers, Dr. Nettles is the author and editor of fifteen books. Among his books are By His Grace and For His Glory; Baptists and the Bible, James Petigru Boyce: A Southern Baptist Statesman, and Living by Revealed Truth: The Life and Pastoral Theology of Charles H. Spurgeon.
Get Founders
in Your Inbox
A weekly brief of our new teaching resources.

"*" indicates required fields

This field is for validation purposes and should be left unchanged.

Teaching BY TYPE
Teaching BY Author
Founders Podcasts