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All Bible references are to the Anglicised New International Version (NIVUK)
Now the whole world had one language and a common speech. As men moved eastward, they found a plain in Shinar and settled there. . . . 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 and not be scattered over the face of the whole earth.”
WHEN THE WATERS of the great flood had subsided, Noah and his family released all the wild creatures they had kept safe in their enormous ship, and then brought out all their possessions, along with the flocks and herds of domestic livestock, and began to rebuild their lives in their new surroundings.
The Noah family built themselves homes, planted crops, and increased their stocks of cattle and sheep. Many children were born to them, and these children in turn had large families, so that people soon began to multiply on the earth. They spread abroad to establish separate communities, but probably for some centuries remained within easy travelling distance of one another. For some time no differences arose between the various communities. Genesis 11: 1 tells us that they spoke one language – they shared one common vocabulary of words and one pronunciation, almost certainly the language spoken by Noah and his sons when they entered the Ark.
Yet there would be differences of personality and preference, varied talents and abilities, some content with their life, others ambitious for great achievements. So it was that a community settled in Shinar devised an enterprising project that would give them pre-eminence in the world. They would build a great city, the crowning achievement of which would be a tower that appeared to reach up to Heaven. Their motives were not necessarily bad, but the concept betrayed a desire to be important, even to become forever the chief nation on earth. People everywhere would
marvel at their cleverness and skill. They would be famous as the first ones ever to build a true skyscraper. They began the work, and soon the tower – afterwards known as the Tower of Babel – seemed very impressive.
How amazed those people would be in today’s world, where towering structures truly have their peaks in the clouds, and really do appear to ‘scrape’ the sky! (For an article on really tall buildings and structures go here.)
But God was not pleased with the people of Shinar. The Bible is not clear as to the reason, but a tradition has persisted from ancient times that the Tower was built as an act of defiance against God. The planners had not consulted Him about the project, nor was their chief purpose to glorify His name. God’s way of defeating their plans and calling a halt to the building work was quite remarkable, but very simple. He confused their language, so that they could not understand one another. How frustrating that must have been!
The obvious result was that the ambitious scheme was abandoned and those involved began to drift away, re-establishing themselves in new surroundings with those of like mind. That separation would naturally promote the development of variant languages, a process which has continued as people spread over the world. To this day, international communication and co-operation requires that men and women learn one another’s language.
In spite of their experience at Shinar, the building of great cities continued to inspire the efforts and achievements of skilled men. Eventually on that very site Babylon was built, one of the most magnificent cities the world has ever known. But Babylon the Great became notorious for its worship of false gods, and the Lord abandoned it to its fate. Nothing now remains but a desolate and barren area of rubble.
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