Noah's descendants rebelled against God's command to fill the earth, instead, conspiring to build the Tower of Babel.
As Noah and family exited the ark following the flood, GOD made Noah several promises:
1 Thus God blessed Noah and his sons, and said to them, “Increase and multiply, and fill the earth, and have dominion over it. 2 For the dread and fear of you shall be upon all the wild animals of the earth, all the birds of heaven, all that move upon the earth, and all the fish of the sea. I have put them under your authority. 3 Every moving thing that lives shall be food for you. I have given you all things, even as I did the green herbs. 4 But you shall not eat flesh with its lifeblood. 5 Surely for your lifeblood I will demand a reckoning; from the hand of all the wild animals I will require it; and I will require the life of man at the hand of his fellow man. 6 Whoever sheds man's blood, by man his blood shall be shed; because I made man in God's image. 7 So then, increase and multiply; and fill the earth and have dominion over it.”
8 Then God spoke to Noah and his sons with him, saying, 9 “Behold, I am establishing My covenant with you and with your seed after you, 10 and every living creature with you: the birds, the cattle, and all the wild animals of the earth, of all that came out of the ark with you.
11 Thus I will establish My covenant with you, and never again shall all flesh be cut off by the waters of the flood; nor shall there ever again be a flood to destroy the earth.” 12 Then the Lord God said to Noah, “This is the sign of the covenant I am making between Me and you, and every living creature with you, for perpetual generations: 13 I am setting My rainbow in the cloud, and it shall be a sign of the covenant between Me and the earth. 14 It shall be, when I bring a cloud over the earth, the rainbow shall be seen in the cloud; 15 and I will remember My covenant between Me and you and every living creature of all flesh; the waters shall never again become a flood to destroy all flesh. 16 My rainbow shall be in the cloud, and I will certainly remember the everlasting covenant between God and every living creature of all flesh on the earth.” 17 Again God said to Noah, “This is the sign of the covenant I established between Me and all flesh on the earth.”
(Genesis 9:1-17 OSB)
Imagine how Noah's family must have felt. They were the only humans in a vast wilderness with only the occasional remnant of the world that existed prior to the great flood.
Imagine how quiet the world would have seemed—probably eerily quiet.
Could something like this happen again, they must have wondered. It happened once. Perhaps this whole "promise" of GOD (to not destroy the earth again) isn't true. Or perhaps GOD may change His mind.
Regardless of the rainbow, I imagine Noah's descendants had some doubts or even post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) from such an awesome, awful, and scary situation they and their ancestors had endured.
Putting ourselves in their shoes, we can understand how Noah's descendants might have been fearful to execute GOD's instruction to "fill the earth." Instead, they wanted to stick together. Strength in numbers.
So, instead of spreading out and filling the earth, they chose a different path:
1 Now the whole earth was one language and one speech.
2 And it came to pass, as they journeyed from the east, they found a plain in the land of Shinar, and dwelt there. 3 Then they said to one another, “Come, let us make bricks and bake them with fire.” They had brick for stone and asphalt for mortar. 4 They also said, “Come, let us build ourselves a city and a tower, whose top will reach to heaven; and let us make a name for ourselves, lest we be scattered abroad over the face of the whole earth.” 5 But the Lord came down to see the city and the tower the sons of men built. 6 Then the Lord said, “Indeed, the people are one race and one language, and they have begun to do what they said. Now they will not fail to accomplish what they have undertaken. 7 Come, let Us go down there and confuse their language, so they may not understand one another's speech.” 8 So the Lord scattered them abroad from there over the face of all the earth, and they ceased building the city and the tower. 9 Therefore its name is called Babel, because there the Lord confused the languages of all the earth; and from there the Lord God scattered them abroad over the face of all the earth.
(Genesis 11:1-9 OSB)
The Bible provides little insight into this scene beyond what is stated here. However, the first century A.D. Jewish historian Josephus has more to say. (To be sure, Josephus' writings are not divine Scripture. But they do inform us as to what the Jews some 2,000 years ago understood about these events, which is much closer to them than we are today.)
Regarding the Tower of Babel, Josephus wrote:
1. Now the sons of Noah were three, - Shem, Japhet, and Ham, born one hundred years before the Deluge. These first of all descended from the mountains into the plains, and fixed their habitation there; and persuaded others who were greatly afraid of the lower grounds on account of the flood, and so were very loath to come down from the higher places, to venture to follow their examples. Now the plain in which they first dwelt was called Shinar. God also commanded them to send colonies abroad, for the thorough peopling of the earth, that they might not raise seditions among themselves, but might cultivate a great part of the earth, and enjoy its fruits after a plentiful manner. But they were so ill instructed that they did not obey God; for which reason they fell into calamities, and were made sensible, by experience, of what sin they had been guilty: for when they flourished with a numerous youth, God admonished them again to send out colonies; but they, imagining the prosperity they enjoyed was not derived from the favor of God, but supposing that their own power was the proper cause of the plentiful condition they were in, did not obey him. Nay, they added to this their disobedience to the Divine will, the suspicion that they were therefore ordered to send out separate colonies, that, being divided asunder, they might the more easily be Oppressed.
2. Now it was Nimrod who excited them to such an affront and contempt of God. He was the grandson of Ham, the son of Noah, a bold man, and of great strength of hand. He persuaded them not to ascribe it to God, as if it was through his means they were happy, but to believe that it was their own courage which procured that happiness. He also gradually changed the government into tyranny, seeing no other way of turning men from the fear of God, but to bring them into a constant dependence on his power. He also said he would be revenged on God, if he should have a mind to drown the world again; for that he would build a tower too high for the waters to be able to reach! and that he would avenge himself on God for destroying their forefathers!
3. Now the multitude were very ready to follow the determination of Nimrod, and to esteem it a piece of cowardice to submit to God; and they built a tower, neither sparing any pains, nor being in any degree negligent about the work: and, by reason of the multitude of hands employed in it, it grew very high, sooner than any one could expect; but the thickness of it was so great, and it was so strongly built, that thereby its great height seemed, upon the view, to be less than it really was. It was built of burnt brick, cemented together with mortar, made of bitumen, that it might not be liable to admit water. When God saw that they acted so madly, he did not resolve to destroy them utterly, since they were not grown wiser by the destruction of the former sinners; but he caused a tumult among them, by producing in them divers languages, and causing that, through the multitude of those languages, they should not be able to understand one another. The place wherein they built the tower is now called Babylon, because of the confusion of that language which they readily understood before; for the Hebrews mean by the word Babel, confusion. The Sibyl also makes mention of this tower, and of the confusion of the language, when she says thus: "When all men were of one language, some of them built a high tower, as if they would thereby ascend up to heaven, but the gods sent storms of wind and overthrew the tower, and gave every one his peculiar language; and for this reason it was that the city was called Babylon." But as to the plan of Shinar, in the country of Babylonia, Hestiaeus mentions it, when he says thus: "Such of the priests as were saved, took the sacred vessels of Jupiter Enyalius, and came to Shinar of Babylonia."
(Josephus, Antiquities of the Jews, b1.c4.v.1-3)
If Josephus is accurate here, this explanation certainly makes sense. In summary:
- After the flood, as Noah's descendants increased, many were hesitant to leave the high ground because they feared another flood.
- GOD wanted the people to enjoy the blessings of the earth and so He told them to spread out.
- Rather than respond in faith, the people responded in fear. They refused to accept GOD's blessings, instead, trusting in their own reasoning.
- Rather than trust GOD's promise to never again flood the earth, they decided they'd "out-muscle" GOD by building a tower higher than He had made the floodwaters.
- Seeing what was happening, GOD knew that it was not best. Therefore, He confused the languages of the people and spread them out across the earth.