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Babel and Babylon Bookends

Matt Carter

Tower of Babel

The story of the tower of Babel is famous and fascinating. We learn from Genesis 10:10 that Nimrod, a descendent of Ham and a mighty hunter, built the city of Babel on the plains of Shinar. In Genesis 11, we find that people from all over have come here to build a great tower that stretches into heaven. They all spoke the same language and were engaged in a common and singular task of building this tower.

The building of this tower angered the LORD. To stop its construction, He scattered the people at Babel by creating different languages among them. When people could no longer understand each other, they scattered.

Why was this tower-building such a problem to the LORD? People wanted to reach into heaven. They wanted to de-throne God. The history of humanity is riddled with us trying to reach into heaven by any means except humility, faith, and repentance.

Interestingly, this is the time period right after the great flood with Noah. After the flood, the LORD commanded the people in Genesis 9:7 to spread across the Earth. In Genesis 10:5 we read that people were dispersed and had their own languages. Yet in chapter 11 of Genesis, we read that now people were concentrated at Babel on the plains of Shinar speaking the same language. How does this happen?

We know from history that this is exactly what happens with empires. A powerful nation or king will conquer foreign lands and force those people to work at empire-building often in exile. Those people will learn the imperial language and its customs. They will be stripped of their cultural identity, language, and heritage. This is imperial work. This is colonization. This is evil.

The LORD uses cultural and linguistic diversity to restrain evil, which is what we see happening in the Tower of Babel story. The scattering of the people is a liberation.

Babylon

We see this same process repeated later in the Old Testament when Jerusalem is destroyed and her people are marched in exile to Babylon. The prophet Daniel and his friends undergo this cultural re-education process in service to imperial King Nebuchadnezzar. They resist as much as they can, clinging to their faith and hope in the LORD.

King Nebuchadnezzar, for his part, reenacts the imperial rule of Nimrod at the Tower of Babel several millennia earlier. In Daniel 4:29-30, we find him walking on his roof to get a good look at his empire. He reflects and asserts “Is this not Babylon the great, which I myself have built as a royal residence by the might of my power and for the glory of my majesty?” It would seem that not much has changed.

Babylon is Babel

Indeed, not much has changed, because Babel and Babylon are actually the same place. Babel is the English transliteration of the Hebrew word for this city on the plains of Shinar. Babylon is the English transliteration of the Greek word for this city on the plains of Shinar. The Babel of Genesis 10:10 is the same place as the Babylon of Daniel 1:2. The Hebrew word, the Greek word, and the English words Babel and Babylon all refer to this same place.

This means that when the people of Jerusalem are exiled to Babylon, this is a return to Babel. This is not merely symbolic. This was a real life return to coercion, indoctrination, and conscription. When they return home from exile, this re-scattering is also a liberation.

Babel Bookends

The Bible begins and ends with the LORD toppling Babel. The Babel of Genesis was founded by Nimrod the mighty hunter. This Babel is the archetypal earthly kingdom hell-bent on de-throning the LORD. We see in Daniel several millennia later that not much has changed on Planet Earth. In Revelation 17:4-5, however, we read that one day this will all change. Babylon or Babel the whore represents earthly kingdoms in rebellion against the LORD.

Every person working to loft himself or herself in defiance of the LORD will be scattered (Genesis 11:8). Every proud emperor will be humiliated like a beast (Daniel 4:31-33). Every kingdom breeding immorality will be destroyed (Revelation 18:2).

Out of scattering, humiliation, and destruction, however, will come servants of the LORD who bless all nations. Alongside of justice is hope. This is the hope of a new creation, overflowing with the blessings of shalom.

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