The book of Genesis is the book of generations and covenants. Although the Abrahamic covenant is arguably the most foundational covenant of the Bible, Noah was the first to receive the offer of a covenant relationship with God (Gen 6:18). This covenant was God’s promise to deliver Noah and his family while destroying the rest of the human race. In Genesis 9-11, the gift of deliverance God bestowed upon Noah was followed by the command that Noah and his descendants repopulate and manage the earth.
This blessing/requirement rubric is stated in Gen 9:1-17. The demands God made were the natural and logical progression of the deliverance Noah and his descendants received when the rest of humanity was destroyed. In Gen 9:8-17, God confirmed His covenant with the Noahic family—a covenant that would be memorialized in the sky to reassure Noah and his descendants that God would keep His covenant with them (Gen 9:12-17). The early chapters of Genesis establish patterns that will be followed throughout the lives of the Patriarchs. In the latter half of Genesis 9, Noah heard the promises of God’s covenant only to falter in faithfulness. Abraham (Genesis 16), Isaac (Gen 26:7-11), and national Israel (Exodus 32) follow in Noah’s footsteps by failing to keep the requirements that would bring God’s blessing. Genesis 9:20-27 records the drunken stupor of a father, the shameful curiosity of a son, and Noah’s harsh words of discipline.
God’s faithfulness to Noah did not inspire faithfulness in Noah’s descendants. They settled in one place—as opposed to obeying God’s command to spread out over the whole earth (Gen 9:1, 17; 11:1-3). Their motive was self-preservation, as seen in their statement in Gen 11:4, “Come, let us build ourselves a city and a tower with its top in the sky. Let us make a name for ourselves; otherwise, we will be scattered over the face of the whole earth.” Noah’s descendants were afraid that they would not be able to maintain their corporate identity. In an effort to sustain posterity, they built a tower to make a name for themselves. In so doing, they rejected God’s name upon them, and the promises God had made to Noah. God disciplined those inhabiting the plain of Shinar. He said, “Come, let Us go down there and confuse their language so that they will not understand one another’s speech” (Gen 11:7). Genesis 11:9 reveals that God not only halted their building project by confusing their speech, He also scattered them across the earth, creating geographic boundaries that would reinforce the diverse languages the people would speak.
The Noahic covenant and the tower of Babel, like so many statements and events in Genesis, establish tracks upon which the plotline of the Bible progresses.
(1) In God’s promise to Noah that He would never flood the earth again, Isaiah saw an illustration for his audience to understand God’s mercy upon them. “‘In a surge of anger I hid My face from you for a moment, but I will have compassion on you with everlasting love,’ says the LORD your Redeemer. ‘For this is like the days of Noah to Me: when I swore that the waters of Noah would never flood the earth again, so I have sworn that I will not be angry with you or rebuke you,’” the prophet stated (Isa 54:8-9).
(2) God’s decision to confuse human languages established people groups, ethnicities that would be redeemed through Jesus. The diversification of languages in Genesis 11 provides the backdrop for the call of Abraham in Genesis 12. In the flow of Genesis to ch. 11, God has continually sought His image-bearers, wanting to relate with them. His choice to make a covenant with one nation, the descendants of Abraham, becomes the vehicle through which God will reveal Himself to all nations. His promise to Abraham in Gen 12:1-3 concludes with the phrase that “all peoples on earth will be blessed through you.” The Old Testament storyline reiterates God’s international concern (see Ruth 4; Psalm 67; Isaiah 56). Jesus commissioned His disciples to make disciples of all nations (Matt 28:19). After Jesus’ resurrection, God sent the Spirit on those gathered in Jerusalem for Pentecost and the people heard God’s word in their own language (Acts 2). Paul told the Athenians that from one man God made all the nations of humanity and determined their times and boundaries “so that they might seek God, and perhaps they might reach out and find Him, though He is not far from each one of us” (Acts 17:27). In Rev 21:24, 26, John noted that the nations will walk in the light of the heavenly Jerusalem.