From the inbox: “Dear Pastor John, my name is Jeremy, a 30-year-old living and working in Hollywood. My question is about The Tower of Babel, where God ‘confused their language’ as punishment. Was this the beginning of all the other ethnicities (separate from Israel)? I’ve always stumbled over the vast racial representation on the earth stemming from just Adam and Eve or from Noah. Does the Bible imply anything about this, or is it simply a mystery?”
Let me try to give what I think is a probable answer to the question as it relates to the Tower of Babel and Noah, but then shift the focus on to what the apostle Paul does with this answer — which I think is far more important than the precise answer to when and how all the thousands of different ethnicities came into being.
After the flood, in Genesis 9:19 it says, “These three were the sons of Noah, and from these the people of the whole earth were dispersed.” So, all the people — I haven’t said peoples yet. I haven’t said ethnicities. I am just saying people. All the people of the earth derive from Noah’s offspring. Then at the end of Genesis 10 — and we haven’t gotten to Babel yet: that is chapter 11 — at the end of Genesis 10:32, the author delineates, in this chapter he delineates, the genealogies: the whole chapter is genealogies of Noah’s children. Then he says, “These are the clans of the sons of Noah, according to their genealogies, in their nations, and from these the nations spread abroad on the earth after the flood” (Genesis 10:32).
“All the people of the earth derive from Noah’s offspring.”
So, here he makes explicit that not just people in general but nations, different nations — and that is not political nations, but ethnolinguistic nations, families, ethnicities, spread across the world. Then in Genesis 11 surprisingly comes in kind of reverse chronological order the story of the Tower of Babel. And there we see the immediate cause of the linguistic diversity of the nations that scatter across the lands.
They were in rebellion against God trying to build this tower, as it were, to reach into heaven and to make a name for themselves. Therefore, God intended for them to be now fractured so that their rebellion did not have a united front. So, this is what he says in Genesis 11:7–8, “‘Come, let us go down and there confuse their language, so that they may not understand one another’s speech.’ So the Lord dispersed them from there over the face of all the earth,” — just like he had said in Genesis 9:19 — “over the face of all the earth, and they left off building the city.”
“God intends for us to reach all the nations with the gospel and count them as our brothers and sisters in Christ.”
Now, the way John Sailhamer in his Genesis commentary puts it is like this: What the author has described geographically and linguistically in Genesis 10 he will describe theologically in Genesis 11; namely, God’s judgment of Babylon and the dispersion of the nations.
Here is one of those paradoxes in God’s ruling over the history of the world. On the one hand, the division of humanity into languages and ethnicities was a kind of judgment. Nevertheless, on the other hand, it was clearly part of God’s overarching intention in the plan of salvation that Christ would be known and loved and praised, not by a single ethnicity, but by thousands of peoples and ethnicities and languages, because Christ gets more glory by being honored from a diversity of peoples than a single people. So, this is another example of how evil in the world is orchestrated and overruled by God for Christ-exalting, saving purposes in the end.
“The division of humanity into languages and ethnicities was both judgment and the plan for salvation.”
Now, watch what the apostle Paul does with the diversity of peoples when he is confronting the ethnocentricity and arrogance of the Athenian elite in Acts 17:26. Here is what he says: “And [God] made from one man every nation of mankind to live on all the face of the earth, having determined allotted periods and the boundaries of their dwelling.” So, he stresses: one man and, from him, every nation — both the so-called brilliant Athenians and the so-called barbarians. Both of them sprung from one ancestor.
In other words, you bright, arrogant, racist men of Athens have the same blood flowing in your veins as the barbarians do, whom you despise. You have the same great, great, great, great grandfather — and Paul does that explicitly to undermine the pride and racism and ethnocentrism and arrogance of the Athenian philosophers. This is the message that Hitler and the Nazis and all white supremacists needed and need to hear.
And then the apostle John elevates the diversity of the nations to an even higher level when he connects it with the purposes of God in the shedding of the blood of Jesus in Revelation 5:9–10: “They sang a new song, saying, ‘Worthy are you to take the scroll and to open its seals, for you were slain, and by your blood you ransomed people for God from every tribe and language and people and nation, and you made them a kingdom and priests to our God, and they shall reign on the earth.’”
“Christ died in order to ransom and possess a people of his own from a diverse peoples.”
In other words, Christ died in order to ransom and possess a people of his own from a diverse peoples. And then in Revelation 7:9, John gives a picture of the great final multitude: “After this I looked, and behold, a great multitude that no one could number, from every nation, all tribes and peoples and languages, standing before the throne and before the Lamb.” So, whatever the precise way God brought these diverse ethnicities into being, it is clear he intends for us to reach them all with the gospel and count them in Christ as our brothers and sisters in the hope of a common kingdom and a common glory.