Most people have heard the phrase “Tower of Babel” whether they have heard the biblical story or not. The story about how God broke up the mass of humanity at the Tower of Babel by turning their one language into many is found in Genesis 11:1-9. But few people, even serious Bible readers, understand its real significance. Its importance transcends the variety of human languages. It’s actually the focal point of the Bible’s theology of spiritual warfare.
The relationship between the Tower of Babel story and spiritual warfare derives from several passages, none more important than Deuteronomy 32:8-9:8When the Most High gave to the nations their inheritance, when he divided mankind, he fixed the borders of the peoples according to the number of the sons of God.9 But the Lord’s portion is his people, Jacob his allotted heritage. (ESV)
The key thing to see in these verses is that the Most High, the God of the Bible, divided humankind into many nations “according to the number of the sons of God.” Many English translations do not read “sons of God” in Deuteronomy 32:8. Instead those translations will say “sons of Israel” or “children of Israel.” The difference is due to a divergence found in Hebrew manuscripts for these verses. The traditional Hebrew text of the Old Testament (the “Masoretic Text”) has beney yisrael (“sons of Israel”). However, the oldest textual evidence known for Deut 32:8 (the Dead Sea Scrolls) reads beney elohim (“sons of God”).
The Tower of Babel and Holy Ground: The Sons of God
There are a number of scholarly arguments that establish that “sons of God” found in the Dead Sea Scrolls is the original text of this biblical passage. I’ve written a scholarly journal article about that (see below). But as I wrote in my book The Unseen Realm, you don’t need to be a textual critic to see that “sons of God” is correct:
. . . Deuteronomy 32:8–9 is what the verse originally said. You just need to think a bit about the wrong reading, the “sons of Israel.” Deuteronomy 32:8–9 harks back to events at the Tower of Babel, an event that occurred before the call of Abraham, the father of the nation of Israel. This means that the nations of the earth were divided at Babel before Israel even existed as a people. It would make no sense for God to divide up the nations of the earth “according to the number of the sons of Israel” if there was no Israel. This point is also brought home in another way, namely by the fact that Israel is not listed in the Table of Nations.
Why is it important to realize that “sons of God” is the correct reading of Deuteronomy 32:8–9? This wording unlocks the meaning of the Tower of Babel event.
Before God’s judgment of humanity at the Tower of Babel, his relationship to humanity was open—it was not restricted to one nation or people. God was working with the descendants of Adam and Eve as a corporate whole. That changed at Babel. When the Most High God divided the nations and dispersed them, Deut 32:8-9 make it clear that he sought no special relationship with any of them. Deuteronomy 32:9 explicitly says that Israel was Yahweh’s portion, but Israel didn’t exist yet. The picture that emerges is that Yahweh rejected all the nations of the world as candidates to be his own people at Babel. This explains why, in the very next chapter following the Babel event (Gen 11:1-9) God called Abraham for the specific purpose of creating a new nation (Gen 12:1-3). Deuteronomy 32:8-9 is the explanation for why Israel had to be given the land of Canaan (it didn’t exist earlier when the nations were allotted), why it became Yahweh’s own nation to the exclusion of all other nations. But the flip side also comes into view—the other nations have their gods because Yahweh allotted those gods to them when he severed his own relationship to them.
The Tower of Babel and Holy Ground: The Gods of the Nations
These two verses explain how and why the other nations had other gods. Israel was chosen as Yahweh’s “portion” (Deut 32:9) while the other nations were divided “according to the number of the sons of God” (Deut 32:8). Some related passages in Deuteronomy explain what this means, starting with Deut 4:19–20:
19 . . . do not lift your eyes toward heaven and observe the sun and the moon and the stars, all the host of the heaven, and be led astray and bow down to them and serve them, things that Yahweh your God has allotted to all of the peoples under all of the heaven. 20 But Yahweh has taken you and brought you out from the furnace of iron, from Egypt, to be a people of inheritance to him, as it is this day.
Deuteronomy 4:19–20 and Deuteronomy 32:8–9 describe the same circumstance from two different perspectives. Deuteronomy 32:9 says that Yahweh’s allotted people was Israel. This doesn’t mean that a higher god gave Israel to Yahweh. Rather, Yahweh took Israel to be an inheritance to himself (Deut 4:20). But the other nations had their gods allotted to them by Yahweh (Deut 4:19).
The “host of heaven” of Deut 4:19 are not idols. Other passages in Deuteronomy make it clear that they were real spirit beings. Deuteronomy 17:3 calls them elohim(“gods”). Deuteronomy 29:26 does precisely the same thing—using the same “allotment” language of Deut 4:19-20: “[Israel] and went and served other gods and worshiped them, gods whom they had not known and whom he had not allotted to them.” Just a few verses after the statement that the Most High had divided up the nations according to the number of the sons of God (Deut 32:8), the gods allotted to those nations are called “demons” (shedim; Deut 32:17), a term that describe a territorial spirit. The apostle Paul referenced Deut 32:17 when admonishing the Corinthians to avoid fellowship with demons (1 Cor 10:21-22). Paul believed these beings were real, and so did the Israelites.
There is no indication that the lesser gods allotted to the nations by Yahweh were initially hostile to Yahweh or evil. They were essentially appointed as placeholders. They were there because Yahweh chose to distance himself from humanity at the Tower of Babel and create a new people of his own from nothing—Israel. But when God called Abraham to begin that new nation, the original covenant between them included the divorced nations. God told Abraham: “I will bless those who bless you, and him who dishonors you I will curse, and in you all the families of the earth shall be blessed” (Gen 12:3). Israel would be a kingdom of priests (Exod 19:6), and idea that, in part, means functioning as a mediating presence to the true God. Paul understood that the disinheritance of the nations and allotment of other gods was somehow part of bringing the nations back to the true God:
[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 place, that they should seek God, and perhaps feel their way toward him and find him. (Acts 17:26-27)
At some point, however, these gods became adversaries of Yahweh and Israel. They seduced the Israelites into turning from Yahweh (Deut 32:17) and instead of administering their nations in a manner consistent with the justice and order Yahweh desired, they became corrupt (Psa 82:2-5). As a result, they themselves were put under judgment. At the day of the Lord they would be destroyed and Yahweh would take back the nations (Psa 82:6-8).
At the Tower of Babel Yahweh judged disobedient humanity by dividing them and allotting lesser gods to administrate them. Consequently, Israel became holy ground—Yahweh’s domain—and the other nations were unholy ground—under dominion of hostile gods.