What was the Sin at Babel?
The biblical narrative often gives little commentary on major events it records. For instance, the death of James the apostle is mentioned in a single verse in Acts 12:2. Due to this abbreviated style in certain instances, one must take a rather in-depth look into the text for answers to questions that naturally arise from a straightforward reading. One such instance involves the details surrounding the tower of Babel in Genesis.
In an amazing act of divine intervention, God confused the language of all the inhabitants. Yet, this monumental event is recorded in a mere nine verses. Such brevity quite possibly leaves the reader wondering what sin those at Babel had committed to elicit such an unprecedented and active response from the Almighty. The text of Genesis 11:1-9 that describes the event does not forthrightly declare specific sins of which the denizens of Babel were guilty. But a close look at the passage and context reveals at least two areas in which those building the tower erred.
First, after Noah and his family exited the ark, God said to them, “Be fruitful and multiply, and fill the earth” (Genesis 9:1). After the Flood, God desired that humans spread throughout the world and “fill” it. Yet, those at the tower of Babel appear to have been in overt rebellion against this command of God. The rebels at Babel said: “Come, let us build ourselves a city, and a tower whose top is in the heavens; let us make a name for ourselves, lest we be scattered over the face of the whole earth” (Genesis 11:4, emp. added). These people obviously understood that they would (or should) be scattered over the face of the Earth, but they were attempting to fight against this directive. When God confused their languages, the text states that He also “scattered them abroad from there over the face of all the earth” (Genesis 11:8).
Second, the rebellious tower builders mentioned that they were building the tower to “make a name” for themselves. At the heart of the confusion at Babel was the sin of pride. The New Testament writer John mentioned that the sinful world consists of three primary areas of temptation: the lust of the flesh, the lust of the eyes, and the pride of life (1 John 2:16). Pride had so infested those at Babel that they were no longer seeking to glorify and honor their Creator Who was responsible for endowing them with the ingenuity to survive, build, and thrive. Instead, they sinfully heaped up recognition for themselves in an attempt to gain undue notoriety. As Burton Coffman stated: “The children of men who wrought this wickedness in God’s sight were clearly infected with the us virus, the pride, arrogance, and conceit of the people standing starkly obvious in this cryptic account of it” (1985, p. 159, italics in orig.).
Furthermore, it has been suggested that the tower of Babel was one of the first organized efforts to propagate pagan worship and idolatry (Coffman, p. 158). While such could be the case, it is not necessary to establish in order to document sins of such a grievous nature that would deserve God’s condemnation. Those at the tower of Babel were rebellious, arrogant sinners who attempted to thwart God’s design to have the Earth inhabited by men. Not only were they unsuccessful, they were also punished. Their story stands as a reminder to all who read: God demands obedience, and His ultimate will always prevail.
Coffman, Burton (1985), Commentary on Genesis (Abilene, TX: ACU Press).