The first half of Genesis chapter 11 tells the story of the city of Babel and their attempt to build a great tower to reach to the heavens. The city was founded and the tower begun so that the people might make a great name for themselves (vs. 4). “The primeval history reaches its fruitless climax as man, conscious of new abilities, prepares to glorify and fortify himself by collective effort. The elements of the story are timelessly characteristic of the spirit of the world. The project is typically grandiose… At the same time they betray their insecurity as they crowd together to preserve their identity and control their fortunes” (Kidner, 109).
What is recorded in Genesis chapter 11 occurs chronologically within the events described in chapter 10. This is called an anachronism. Specifically, the events surrounding the scattering of the people of Babel is referenced in verse 25 of chapter 10: “To Eber were born two sons: the name of the one was Peleg, for in his days the earth was divided, and his brother’s name was Joktan (emphasis mine). The use of anachronism is not uncommon in most cultures as facts are recounted and stories told.
Though an awesome challenge for the builders, the passage exposes the absurdity of their project. God is depicted as having to stoop down to even see what for them was a mighty edifice (vs. 5). God’s intervention is not an act of envy or competition as some have mistakenly inferred from verse 6: “And the LORD said, ‘Behold, they are one people, and they have all one language, and this is only the beginning of what they will do. And nothing that they propose to do will now be impossible for them.’” God’s words portray the concern of a Creator and Father, not those of a rival. On the plains of Shinar man once again had attempted to transcend the boundaries set in place by God. Such efforts to break free of God’s boundaries always end disastrously.
So, God’s act of confusing the people’s language and thus scattering them was an act of mercy. The people had refused to obey the creation mandate and fill the earth. They had disregarded God’s rightful glory and sought to make a name for themselves. They had refused a properly mediated relationship with God and instead sought to stand with him face-to-face as equals. So by scattering them, God rescued them from their own foolishness and pride.