“…let us make for ourselves a name, otherwise we will be scattered abroad over the face of the whole earth.” Gen. 11:4
When most people think of Genesis 11, they think of the story of the Tower of Babel. But what was the underlying motivation to build the city and the tower? Their increased desire for solidarity. Gen. 11:1 reads “Now the whole earth used the same language and the same words.” and sets the stage for the chapter. Their desire to make a great city and tower, as well as a name for themselves was not a path God wanted them to take. God, being worthy alone of all worship, requires He is seen as great in our eyes, and does not appreciate human competition for His greatness.
After the event of the flood, which no doubt left physical evidence of its occurrence, as well as the fact that many of the people’s grandparents would have the images of the aftermath still in their minds, it seems difficult to comprehend how the focus of men became their own strength in unity rather than God. It brings to mind the fact that Cain murdered Abel, and them both being children of Adam, the first man. There was only one generation between Adam and Cain – and things turned bad very quickly. Likewise, one of Noah’s children did something worthy of a curse at a time when blessings were being given. Not long after Ham was Cush, then Nimrod. And while the text doesn’t refer to the building of the city and the tower as wickedness, we can infer from God’s actions that it did not please Him.
The general opinion of antiquity is that Nimrod incited the people against God. Josephus remarks that as they saw the destruction of the flood (it took some convincing to get them to come down from the mountains), and led the people to build a tower that would reach into the heavens (literally!) so they could bring war against God for destroying their forefathers, and preventing God from flooding the earth again. It is true the text does not reveal this much; however it is quite interesting to note that they used tar, or bitumen, as mortar between the bricks of the tower, as this likely made the tower waterproof. This would illustrate A) their lack of trust in God’s promise, as He said he would never again flood the earth and destroy all living things again, and B) their misunderstanding of God’s all-powerful nature, and lastly C) their thought that God was against them in some way.
Alter’s commentary notes the wordplay happening here: The men say “Come, let us make bricks…” and “Come, let us build for ourselves a city…”. In turn, God plays along and says “Come, let Us go down there and confuse their language.” (Gen. 11:7). Additionally, there is an illustration of the punishment fitting the crime: Their desire was to be united, but God instead creates a situation which results in their scattering.
We can empathize with Nimrod and the people in a way. If they did not know or trust God, the only other thing they would try to trust in would be themselves. If such a calamity as the flood could have occurred and wiped almost everyone out, they probably felt they were safer in numbers.