What does Genesis 10:25 mean when it says that Peleg was so named because in his day the earth (ha-aretz) was divided (nifelegah, from the verb root plg)? To some, the answer might be obvious, but others may have heard alternative answers, such as the view (which I heard years ago) that it refers to the physical separation of the original continents (though technically this happened quite a bit before humans).
The context supplies what is probably the best answer. The following context narrates how God scattered the peoples and confused their languages (Gen 11:1-9). Although that narrative concerning the tower of Babel does not use the same term for dividing, the term probably is a functional synonym for the one used for God confusing the languages there (cf. plg applied to languages or speech in Psa 55:9 [MT 55:10]). Ha-aretz often means “the land” or even “the people of the land”; here, God scatters the people and so divides the earth.
But why did God scatter the peoples at the tower of Babel? He had already commanded people to fill the earth in a positive way (Gen 1:28). But now God divided peoples in a negative way because they wanted to build a tower reaching to heaven (11:4). Technically, this may have been a ziggurat, which people of this region understood as providing a connection between heaven and earth, inviting visits from the gods. But in the context of Genesis, their action of trying to reach heaven echoes the primeval sin of trying to take the place of God (3:5; cf. Isa 14:13). Ultimately, God himself was the one to establish a conduit between heaven and earth, as in Jacob’s dream about the place where angels were ascending and descending (Gen 28:12). (In John’s Gospel, Jesus is Jacob’s ladder, the way to the Father; John 1:51 with 1:47.)
In the context of genesis, their action of trying to reach heaven echoes the primeval sin of trying to take the place of god.
Further, the people sought to make a name for themselves, to establish their own honour (Gen 11:4). By contrast, God soon promised to make Abram’s name great (12:2). As in the case of connecting to heaven, the issue was not whether God could bless such a connection or such honour. The issue was the recognition that must come from God, not from human determination. God chose to exalt and bless his obedient servant, not those who simply took their destiny into their own hands without seeking to obey Him.
Whereas God came down at Babel to confuse people’s languages… at Pentecost, Jesus, now exalted to heaven, sent the spirit to his people, empowering them to worship in others’ languages.
Just as God did not want the primeval sinners to seize perpetual life in their fallen state (Gen 3:22), he did not want fallen people to achieve everything within their potential reach (11:6). If we are tempted to ask why, we need only consider the past century. Technology has produced wonderful benefits for humanity that are surely God’s gift, especially in medicine, agriculture, and the like. But it has also degraded the environment, particularly conspicuously in Nigeria’s Delta, Congo’s Pool region, and elsewhere. It has produced weapons of mass destruction. While we may suggest that possessing them functions as a deterrent against aggressors, the very reason for needing a deterrent is that some people will use them irresponsibly. In other words, whereas technology is a blessing, it is amoral in itself—it can be used for good or for evil. And, humanity’s moral character has not changed. Like the people at Babel, today we can do more and more things; despite an increasing global economy, humanity’s continuing division has so far prevented one unscrupulous empire from controlling everything (whether that be a Third Reich, a Soviet empire, ISIS, or even an absolute oligarchically controlled consumer market).
But God’s kingdom offers a different approach to the global diversity of languages and cultures. Whereas God came down at Babel to confuse people’s languages (Gen 11:7), at Pentecost, Jesus, now exalted to heaven, sent the Spirit to his people, empowering them to worship in others’ languages (Acts 2:4). The Babel narrative follows the Bible’s first listing of the nations (Gen 10); the language groups represented at Pentecost reflect a first-century updating of the same geographic spheres (Acts 2:9-11). At Babel, God scattered peoples into disunity to keep them from a dangerous unity. At Pentecost, God honours the diversity of peoples by empowering his people to worship him in all languages. That is the point, after all, of Spirit empowerment in Acts: inspiration to speak God’s message among all peoples (1:8). As Denzil Miller and others have pointed out, this empowerment further is available to members of all peoples, who thus become partners and sharers in God’s mission (Acts 8:15-17; 10:44-47).In the same way, Revelation depicts an evil empire that seeks to control and exploit all peoples and languages, epitomizing a world alienated from God (Rev 11:9; 13:7; 17:15), echoing Babylon’s empire of old (Dan 3:4, 7, 29; cf. 5:19). But, as also in Daniel (Dan 7:14, 27; cf. 6:25-26), God himself would have a multicultural people from all peoples and languages who would honour Him (Rev 5:9; 7:9; cf. 11:15). Babel illustrates the unity of an evil empire; God’s kingdom, by contrast, is the ultimate, perfect, eternal unity of those who will worship him.