From childhood we have loved the old folk tales that began, ‘Once upon a time … ’ Well, here’s one that is worth a closer look – the story of Babel in Genesis 11:1-9.
‘The story goes, …’ – starting rather quaintly, in fact:
‘Now the whole earth had one lip and the same language’ (literally).
The Hebrew text uses two different words throughout the little tale with quite distinct meanings that we do well to examine carefully. The first of the two (Hebrew saphah), literally ‘lip,’ is repeated in verses Genesis 11:6,7 and Genesis 11:9 and is consistently used throughout the Old Testament for religious confession. An excellent example is found in Zephaniah 3:9, referring to a future conversion of non-Jewish people:
‘For at that time I will change the speech of the peoples to a pure speech [lip], that all of them may call upon the name of the Lord and serve him with one accord.’
Compare Malachi 2:6-7 where the instruction [Hebrew torah, law] from the lips of the Levitical priest turns many to righteousness and godly peace. Also Psalm 81:4-5 where the statute, decree and rule of the Lord are contrasted to the pagan ‘lip’ of the Egyptians’ religious confession. In Psalm 16:4 David prophesies the multiplied sorrows of those who worship other gods, vowing, ‘I will not … take their names on my lips’ in religious confession. Psalm 40:9 is in the same vein, and in Psalm 51:15 he prays, O Lord, open my lips, and my mouth will declare your praise.’
The other word in our Babel story is ‘language’ (Hebrew lashon, meaning vocabulary – and includes grammar, of course). According to the previous chapter in Genesis, each of the tribes descended from Noah’s three sons had its own language – presumably after Babel – (Japheth, verse 5; Ham, verse Genesis 11:20, and Shem, verse Genesis 11:31)! The meaning is consistent with Deuteronomy 28:49; Nehemiah 13:24; Esther 1:22; 3:12; 8:9; and Jeremiah 5:15 etc.
Despite the opening statement, that ‘the whole earth had … the same language’, the story loses all interest in the language/s of the various people groups. Its great grief is over the fact that they no longer consistently believed in, praised and obeyed the God revealed in the entire storyline from the beginning of human history. What is emphasised is the confusion of the confession (saphah, the lip, repeated in verses Genesis 11:6,7 and Genesis 11:9). The other vital clue in this simple story, told in such accurate detail, is that the rebels against God not only built a city, which was a matter of culture, and wholly acceptable – for God ends the whole story in the last two chapters of Scripture having built his people into a city community (Revelation 21 -22); these who originally forsook the Lord also built a tower for religious intention – ‘with its top in the heavens, and let us make a name for ourselves’ (verse 4). Also they wanted to settle there in Babylon (Shinar) rather then continue as a pilgrim people spreading God’s kingdom to the ends of the earth. The gospel came from heaven to earth, many religions are earth’s attempts to reach heaven!