When the people of Babel decide to build a “city and a tower” in order to make a name for themselves (Gen 11:4), God confuses their language and scatters them over the face of the earth (11:7-8). In response to this mass dispersion, God chooses one person, Abram, whose lineage leads to the formation of Israel. Through this single nation, God resolves to bless “all the families of the earth” (Gen 12:3) – the descendants of those scattered at Babel. The beginning of Exodus recalls the Hebrew of Genesis 11 in order to show the reader that Egypt is the new Babel, and that God will choose Moses to carry on Abram’s call.
The people of Babel build their city and tower using “brick (לבנה; levenah) for stone, and bitumen for mortar (חמר; chomer)” (Gen 11:3). The next time that Scripture mentions “brick” and “mortar” together is in Exodus’ description of the Hebrews’ slavery; the Egyptians “made their lives bitter with hard service, in mortar (חמר; chomer) and brick (לבנה; levenah), and in all kinds of work in the field” (Exod 1:14). In this way, the biblical writer shows us that Egypt is a new Babel.
Casting Egypt as Babel anticipates God choosing Moses—and the entire nation of Israel—as the conduit to fulfill the divine promise to Abram. When Israel comes out of Egypt in the exodus (Exodus 14-15) and receives the Torah on Sinai (Exodus 20), it marks the formation of a “kingdom of priests, and a holy nation” (Exod 19:6). Ultimately, God’s love of Israel will lead to the chosen people being “a light for the nations” (Isa 49:6). The mention of “brick” (לבנה; levenah) and “mortar” (חמר; chomer) in Egypt tells the reader that, as with Abram, God is about to choose one man (Moses) and one nation (Israel) — just as God did after Babel — as the divine means to bless and regather the whole world.