Genesis 11:1-9 is admittedly an odd choice for Pentecost. The assumption behind the choice seems to be that Pentecost has “reversed” Babel, so to speak. Where God had confused the languages of the people and scattered them, He brings them back together with the coming of the Holy Spirit. However, Pentecost is not a reversal of the confusion. The Jews gathered in Acts 2 note that the apostles were “telling in our own tongues the mighty works of God” (Acts 2:11). The Holy Spirit, through the miracle of Pentecost, addresses man in his natural diversity. The apostles do not speak one language which is understood by all, but in the various languages as the Spirit gave them utterance. Nevertheless, there are aspects of the passage which contribute to a fuller understanding of the miracle of Pentecost, and these will be the focus for this study.
Genesis 10-11 form one of the smallest subdivisions of the whole book. Genesis 10 is important for noting how the descendants of Noah and his sons spread abroad throughout the earth after the flood. It is difficult to date exactly when the judgment at Babel occurred because of this. Did it occur early on after the flood, so that the spreading abroad in the earth is a result? Did it occur later on, so that it involved only a certain part of the sons of Noah? Even if only a portion of the total global population was involved at Babel, the judgment affected the whole.
The land of Shinar immediately refers back to Nimrod in the previous chapter, where it notes that “the beginning of his kingdom was Babel, Erech, Accad, and Calneh, in the land of Shinar” (Genesis 10:10). Shinar is also mentioned in passing as one of the kingdoms involved in the war which would make Lot a prisoner of war (Genesis 14:1, 9). Achan covets a cloak from Shinar (Joshua 7:21). The woman Wickedness in the vision of Zechariah is taken to the land of Shinar (Zechariah 5:11). But these passages do not clarify the location of this land very much. Two passages are more helpful in this regard. The first is Isaiah 11:11, where Shinar is distinguished from Assyria, Egypt, Pathros, Cush, Elam, Hamath, and the coastlands. In Daniel 1:2, Nebuchadnezzar takes the vessels of the temple to the land of Shinar, “to the house of his god.” Coupled with the Isaiah passage, therefore, it would seem that Shinar is another name for Babylon or Mesopotamia.
The people decide to build a city and a tower in the land of Shinar. The tower does not need to be understood as an ancient skyscraper. Moses records in Deuteronomy 1:28 that Israel refused to enter Canaan with its cities “fortified up to heaven. The height of this tower is not even the main problem, but rather its aim. By building this city and this tower, the people desired to make “a name for ourselves, lest we be dispersed over the face of the whole earth” (Genesis 11:4). They were deliberately sinning against God’s command to fill the whole earth, choosing instead to stay in one place (Genesis 9:7, for example).
The Lord confuses their language, therefore, as a judgment which forces them to do what He had originally commanded them to do. If they would not scatter abroad, the Lord Himself would “disperse them over the face of all the earth” (Genesis 11:9). The continual flexibility of language even today, to say nothing of language drift, is therefore the result of both the judgment and the command. The Lord commands us to fill the earth. The judgment of Babel ensures that we will do so.
Genesis 11 can be set into parallel with Acts 2, then, in a couple of ways. In Genesis, men strive to make a name for themselves contrary to the command of God. In Acts, the apostles wait in patient faith according to the command of God. At Babel, God comes down to bring judgment so that His will is carried out on earth. At Jerusalem, God comes down to bring salvation so that His will is carried out on earth. The two passages center, therefore, in God’s action and His sovereignty: man cannot hinder what the Lord desires to do.