Why Do We Have Different Nations?

The book of Genesis is where we read not only of the beginnings of the nation of Israel (chapters 12-50), but also of the beginnings of the whole world and the beginnings of the many nations that scatter the globe (chapters 1-11). Now of course this isn’t to suggest that by opening the book of Genesis we can read of the founding fathers of the United States, or the earliest settlers of the British Isles, or the story of the foundation of the city of Rome. But through the account of the events at Babel, Genesis teaches us why we have different nations in the first place. And even more importantly, Genesis gives us some insight into the attitudes that led to this division of the earth, and opens our eyes to the stark contrast that is drawn between the origins of the gentile nations and the origins of God’s nation.

“Which side will you take?” the world asks. “Which nations will you give you allegiance to? Will you support the Americans, or the Middle Easterners? Will you side with the Republicans or the Democrats? Will you lean towards the left or the right? The world is divided into different groups, and you have to pick a side.”

The book of Genesis asks the same question from a very different angle. “Which side will you take? Will you follow men, or follow God? Will you do things your own way, or do things His way? Will you side with the ways of Babel, or will you live with the faith of Abraham? The world is divided into different groups, but through the Seed of Abraham, all the different families and nations of the earth will be blessed.”

Setting the Context: Why Babel Matters

Genesis 10 is sometimes overlooked as one of those “boring genealogy chapters.” But Genesis 10 is not just any ole’ list of names. After discussing the downfall of mankind (the sin of Adam and Eve, Cain’s murder of Abel, the flood, Noah’s drunkenness and Canaan’s sin), Genesis 10 and 11 build the bridge between those ancient events and the not-so-ancient pagan world that would surround the nation of Israel. Rather than being just a “boring genealogy chapter”, Genesis 10 is a table of nations. The table of nations is a “horizontal” genealogy rather than a “vertical” one. Its purpose is not to show ancestry, but rather to show the historical origins of the gentile nations.

Interestingly, the long list of descendants is interrupted in verses 8-11 to give us some additional details about one of these descendants, Nimrod.

Now Cush became the father of Nimrod; he became a mighty one on the earth. He was a mighty hunter before the LORD; therefore it is said, “Like Nimrod a mighty hunter before the LORD.” The beginning of his kingdom was Babel and Erech and Accad and Calneh, in the land of Shinar. – Gen. 10.8-11

This is all we know of this man Nimrod. He was a mighty man in ancient Mesopotamia. We also read of the kingdom he established. Interestingly, Nimrod’s kingdom established at Babel is the first time we ever read of any kind of human government anywhere in Scripture.

By sidetracking to tell us of the mighty ruler of the kingdom of Babel, the Holy Spirit connects the table of nations in Genesis 10 to the events at Babel in Genesis 11. So as we turn the page we should not make the mistake of reading the Tower of Babel as just an isolated Bible story. Rather we should be asking “How do these events at Babel tell us more about the origins of the gentile nations?” All nations, both then and now, that were scattered across the face of the earth can ultimately point back to the kingdom of Nimrod at Babel for their origin.

What was Babel’s Big Blunder?

Now the whole earth used the same language and the same words. It came about as they journeyed east, that they found a plain in the land of Shinar and settled there. They said to one another, “Come, let us make bricks and burn them thoroughly.” And they used brick for stone, and they used tar for mortar. They said, “Come, let us build for ourselves a city, and a tower whose top will reach into heaven, and let us make for ourselves a name, otherwise we will be scattered abroad over the face of the whole earth.”– Gen. 11.1-4

At this point, everything was looking promising in Shinar. They were all of one language, ready and willing to work together in unity. They developed technology to make brick and asphalt. So what went wrong? Was it wrong to build a city? Was it wrong to build a skyscraper? Was God just upset because man was getting smart and successful? Did God just want for man to remain stuck in the dark ages?

If we look closely at the text we can see some pieces of evidence that paint a clearer picture of exactly what went wrong.

Clue #1: “Let us make a name for ourselves”

At first this short phrase may not jump out at us as meaningful, but “naming” something or someone was once a big deal. To “name” something was an indication of authority over that which is named. For example, notice how the book of Genesis points out that it was God who named man (Gen. 5.2), yet it was Adam who named Eve (Gen. 2.23; 3.20), and it was Adam that named the animals (Gen. 2.19-20).

The phrase “Let us make a name for ourselves” seems to imply that they wanted to be their own authority. They wanted to rule themselves.

Clue #2: “The beginning of his kingdom was Babel”

Once again, by reading Genesis 10 and 11 together as one unit, we notice that for some reason the Holy Spirit sidetracked from the list of Noah’s descendants to point out that Babel was a “kingdom” ruled by a “mighty man.” This side note in chapter 10 leads us into chapter 11 already looking carefully at the issue of might, kingship and authority.

Clue #3: God commanded Noah to “Be fruitful, and multiply, and fill the earth.”

In Genesis 11:4, we read that the motive of the men of Shinar was to build a tower, “otherwise we will be scattered abroad over the face of the whole earth.” Their goal in building the tower was in direct rebellion to God’s commandment to Noah in Genesis 9.7.

Every indication from the text suggests that the sin at Babel was that of rebellion against God’s authority, by exalting themselves as their own rulers. Babel’s faith was in themselves. They wanted to build greatness on their own terms. They wanted to make a name for themselves. They wanted to be their own kingdom. They wanted to do things their own way in direct rebellion to God’s commandment.

The LORD’s Response to Babel

The LORD came down to see the city and the tower which the sons of men had built. The LORD said, “Behold, they are one people, and they all have the same language. And this is what they began to do, and now nothing which they purpose to do will be impossible for them.” – Gen. 11.5-6

Once man takes God out of the picture, he recognizes no limits for his ideas and actions. This is not a good thing. Since the men of Babel had placed their confidence in themselves to succeed, the outcome would be limitless evil.

“Come, let Us go down and there confuse their language, so that they will not understand one another’s speech.” So the LORD scattered them abroad from there over the face of the whole earth; and they stopped building the city. Therefore its name was called Babel, because there the LORD confused the language of the whole earth; and from there the LORD scattered them abroad over the face of the whole earth. – Gen. 11:7-9

Although they built a tower to maintain their unity, they left a legacy of babbling confusion. Although they wanted to make a name for themselves, they ended up being given the name Babel. Although they wanted to be their own authority, ultimately it was the LORD who ruled the day.

Babel went on to eventually become the Babylonians. The nations that were scattered ended up becoming Israel’s enemies throughout the Old Testament. The Egyptians, the Canaanite nations, the Assyrians, and the Romans can all point back to the rebellion at Babel for their origin since it was the confusion at Babel that scattered them in the first place.

The legacy of Babel lives on even today. Every border line drawn between nations continues to suggest that our world is still divided ethnically, culturally and politically. The world continues to babel on striving to make names for themselves rather than submitting to the rule of the LORD.

A Blessing to the Nations

Go forth from your country,
And from your relatives
And from your father’s house,
To the land which I will show you;
And I will make you a great nation,
And I will bless you,
And make your name great;
And so you shall be a blessing;
And I will bless those who bless you,
And the one who curses you I will curse.
And in you all the families of the earth will be blessed. – Gen. 12.1-3

Strategically placed right after Babel’s rebellion, we are introduced to a man who desired a radically different kind of city.

By faith Abraham, when he was called, obeyed by going out to a place which he was to receive as an inheritance… For he waited for the city which has foundations, whose builder and maker is God. – Heb. 11.8, 10

In contrast to Babel wanting to build their own city, Abraham looked for God to build him a city. Rather than looking to make his own name, Abraham waited for God to make his name great. Rather than leaving a legacy of division, Abraham left a Legacy who would be a blessing to all nations.

What was the difference? Abraham understood that God is the one with authority. God is the only one who can rightfully rule over man. Abraham placed his faith in God’s rule, and believed in God’s commandments enough to obey them.

The Lord is sovereign whether man admits it or not. Abraham admitted it; Babel did not. Nimrod was described as a mighty man, yet ultimately it was God’s might that won the day at Babel.

May we strive to imitate the faith of Abraham, not the self-rule of Babel.