The Tower of Babel (Genesis 11:1-9)
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Posing for the camera of Playboy magazine cost a 26 year-old stewardess her job recently. The tragedy, as reported in the Dallas Morning News,112 was not her release, but in her reasons for her decision. She had learned that lung surgery was needed and the outcome might not be good. She decided to pose so that the world would remember her.
I admire this young woman’s honesty, but I am grieved by her decision. While most people are not so candid about their motives, the world is filled with people who desperately wish to be remembered. All of us are inclined to build monuments to ourselves in one way or another.
Men must face what has come to be referred to as the ‘mid-life syndrome.’ We reach those middle years when we begin to realize that most of what we intended to do has not yet been accomplished. And we can no longer deny the fact that the better part of life has been lived. Often at this crisis point men feverishly begin to build monuments by which they will be remembered.
This is why the account of Babel, found in Genesis chapter 11, is so important for us. It exposes the underlying cause for building monuments. Better yet, it gives us the cure and teaches us how to face the future with peace of heart.
The temptation is great to refer to this incident on the plain of Shiner as ‘the tower of Babel.’ While all that we have learned about this event may incline us to focus on the tower, it was not the primary evil, but only a symptom. Cassuto, in his commentary on Genesis, refused to title the section in the traditional way because he recognized the real villain.113 Once we appreciate the wisdom of Cassuto, we will arrive at the heart of the story, and its application to us today.
Conditions Prior to
the Confusion of Tongues
Verse one highlights a particular condition of mankind which is not in and of itself evil: “… and the whole earth used the same language and the same words” (Genesis 11:1). We would assume, since mankind came from a common ancestor, namely Noah, that all men spoke a common language.114 Moses began the account of the confusion of languages by drawing our attention to this fact.
Now there is nothing wrong with a common language. It is not evil, nor is it the cause of evil. Communication was greatly enhanced by it. It facilitated community life and was the foundation for unity. Potentially, a common language could have drawn men and women together in the worship and work of God. Practically, it was perverted to promote disobedience and unbelief. God’s gift of language, like other gifts of His grace, was misused. Sinful man cannot do anything but misappropriate God’s gifts of grace.
Our attention is thus drawn to the fact of a common knowledge, not because we would be unaware of it, but because it was the occasion for the evil that followed. Also, it was the condition which God changed in order to prevent this evil which men conspired to achieve.
The Intentions of Man
Man had migrated to the fertile plain in the land of Shinar and there settled down. “And it come about as they journeyed east, that they found a plain in the land of Shiner and settled there” (Genesis 11:2).
It would seem that the offspring of Noah had decided to trade in their tents for a townhouse.115 Yet in the prophecy of Noah we read, “May God enlarge Japheth, and let him dwell in the tents of Shem; and let Canaan be his servant” (Genesis 9:27).
Leupold observes that the word “journeyed” in Genesis 11:2 literally meant ‘to pull up stakes.’116 Urban life has not been presented in a favorable light thus far in Genesis. Cain built a city and named it after his son Enoch (Genesis 4:17). God had said that he should live as a vagrant and a wanderer (4:12). Nimrod, a descendent of Ham, seemed to be an empire builder also (10:9-12). In fact, it is possible that Nimrod was the leader in the movement to settle in Shinar and build this city with its tower.117
Settling in the valley of Shinar was an act of disobedience. God had commanded men to spread out and fill the land, not to congregate in cities:
And God blessed Noah and his sons and said to them, ‘Be fruitful and multiply, and fill the earth.… And as for you, be fruitful and multiply; populate the earth abundantly and multiply in it’ (Genesis 9:1,7).
In verses 3 and 4 the intentions of man are spelled out:
And they said to one another, ‘Come, let us make bricks and burn them thoroughly.’ And they used brick for stone, and they used tar for mortar. And they said, ‘Come, let us build for ourselves a city, and a tower whose top will reach into heaven, and let us make for ourselves a name; lest we be scattered abroad over the face of the whole earth’ (Genesis 11:3,4).
Verse 3 informs us of the intensity of man’s intentions to build a city and a tower. A Palestinian Jew, especially one who had just come from Egypt, would expect any building project to employ stone and mortar. These materials were not plentiful and thus it was necessary to substitute fire-hardened brick for stone and tar for mortar.118
These men did not begin to build without counting the cost. They anticipated the obstacles and were determined to overcome them. The resolve of mankind to build the city despite the difficulties tells us of the intensity of this endeavor. Some have seen in verse 4 a strong religious flavor, as though men were trying to get to God by building a tower.
And they said, ‘Come, let us build for ourselves a city, and a tower whose top will reach into heaven, and let us make for ourselves a name; lest we be scattered abroad over the face of the whole earth’ (Genesis 11:4).
I do not think such claims can be substantiated. It is hard to believe that Moses would have left such matters to mere inference. The expression, “will reach into heaven,” is not so much spiritual as it is special. It simply implies great height. Such is its connotation in other passages:
Where can we go up? Our brethren have made our hearts melt, saying, ‘The people are bigger and taller than we; the cities are large and fortified to heaven. And besides, we saw the sons of the Anakim there’ (Deuteronomy 1:28; cf. 9:1; Psalm 107:26).
No great emphasis is placed upon the tower. It is considered a part of the city. While the Mesopotamian ziggurats of later times were distinctly religious,119 no such indication is given in our text. The purpose for building the city and its imposing tower is best explained in the statement, “… and let us make for ourselves a name; … ” (verse 4).
Arrogance, rebellion, and pride seem to be the root of men’s activities here.120
As is often the case, we do not reveal our true motives until the very last. I think this is true in our text. The last statement of the people of ancient Babel is the key to our passage: “… lest we be scattered over the face of the whole earth” (verse 4).
These people could not conceive of blessing and security coming as a result of dispersion, even though God commanded it. They felt most secure when they were living in close proximity. They saw the future as brighter when they could leave posterity a monument to their ingenuity and industry.121
While rebellion, pride, and unbelief are evident in the story, the underlying problem is one of fear. Richardson put his finger on this when he wrote:
The hatred of anonymity drives men to heroic feats of valour or long hours of drudgery; or it urges them to spectacular acts of shame or of unscrupulous self-preferment. In the worse forms it attempts to give the honour and the glory to themselves which properly belong to the name of God.122
These men of old must have known of God’s command and of His covenant. Otherwise why would they have feared being scattered? But all they had was a promise from God. Their hopes were on abstract words, nothing concrete, and so they placed their faith in bricks and tar.
The following verses record the response of God to man’s disobedience:
And the Lord came down to see the city and the tower which the sons of men had built. And the Lord said, ‘Behold, they are one people, and they all have the same language. And this is what they began to do, and now nothing which they purpose to do will be impossible for them. ‘Come, let Us go down and there confuse their language, that they may not understand one another’s speech.’ So the Lord scattered them abroad from there over the face of the whole earth; and they stopped building the city (Genesis 11:5-8).
As Cassuto has observed,123 this passage is an example of literary artistry. Man’s intentions are curbed by divine intervention.
Verses 5 and 6 have been disturbing to many because they may seem to diminish the sovereignty of God. There is the appearance that God has let a situation get nearly out of control before He was even aware of it. It looks as though one of the angels has informed God of the incident at Babel and God has hastily descended to investigate the matter. Any such conception has missed the point of the writer.
These verses are a beautifully fashioned satire on the folly of man’s activities. Men had commenced to build a city with a high tower that they thought would make a name for them. Moses is suggesting to us that man’s thoughts and efforts, no matter how lofty, are insignificant to God. While the top of the tower may, from the vantage point of earth, seem to pierce the clouds, to the infinite, almighty God it was a barely visible dot on the earth. It was as though God would have to stoop to view it.124 If God should have to ‘descend’ to scrutinize this city, it was due to the insignificance of it all, not God’s inability to keep up with His creation.
If verse 5 describes the investigation of God, verse 6 informs us of God’s appraisal of the situation.
And the Lord said, ‘Behold, they are one people, and they all have the same language. And this is what they began to do, and now nothing which they purpose to do will be impossible for them’ (Genesis 11:6).
The evil does not lie in the fact that all men spoke one language. This only provided the occasion for man’s sinfulness to express itself more easily. Yet it did suggest a means of reversing man’s plans.
The completion of this city would in no way threaten the rule of God. Obviously, it would violate the command of God for man to disperse and fill the earth. Verse 6 explains the impact which the success of man’s plans to build this city would have on man. Men would conclude that since they were able to build this city despite many obstacles, they could do anything they set their minds to. A bit of that mentality was evidenced when man first set foot on the moon. I recall that something like this was said: “One small step for man, one giant step for mankind.” When man’s ingenuity was successfully employed to overcome the many barriers to reaching the moon’s surface, man felt that no problem was beyond a human solution.
In the days of the offspring of Noah at Babel, men placed their confidence in bricks and mortar and the work of their hands. In our time we are just a bit more sophisticated. We trust in transistors, integrated circuits, and technology. We feel that if we can put a man on the moon, nothing can keep us from solving any problem.
It is this attitude of arrogant self-confidence and independence of God which God knew was inevitable if man succeeded. Because of this, God purposed to thwart man’s plans: “Come, let Us go down and there confuse their language that they may not understand one another’s speech” (Genesis 11:7).
What we see here is not so much a punishment being meted out as preventive measures being taken. The mechanics of the confusion of language can only be guessed at, but the outcome is evident. The project came to an abrupt halt, a monument to man’s sin.
Conditions After the Confusion of Tongues
That which man most feared had come to pass.
“Therefore its name was called Babel, because there the Lord confused the language of the whole earth; and from there the Lord scattered them abroad over the face of the whose earth” (Genesis 11:9).
The irony of this event is that what men most desired would have destroyed them, and what they most dreaded would prove to be a part of their deliverance.
At one time in history the name Babel (Bab-ili) meant in Babylonian “the gate of God.”125 By means of a play on words God changed its name to “confusion” (Balal).126
In this brief narrative we find some principles which are vital to true believers in any age.
(1) Man’s plans will never thwart God’s purposes. God had commanded mankind to “fill the earth” (Genesis 9:1). Man preferred to cloister rather than to comply with God’s command to spread out. In spite of man’s greatest efforts, God’s purposes prevailed. My friend, men of every age have learned that God’s will cannot be resisted. You may be destroyed, but God will not be diverted from His purposes. Such was the conclusion to which Saul was forced:
And when we had all fallen to the ground, I heard a voice saying to me in the Hebrew dialect, ‘Saul, Saul, why are you persecuting Me? It is hard for you to kick against the goads’ (Acts 26:14).
A friend of mine used to say, “Is that brick wall getting any softer, or is my head just getting bloodier and bloodier?”
No man can thwart the will of God. A life lived in resistance to the revealed Lord of God must end in frustration and failure. No one can succeed at resisting God.
(2) Unity is not the highest good, but purity and obedience to the Word of God. Ecumenism is the watch word of religion today, but it is a unity at the cost of truth. Some regard unity as a goal worthy of any sacrifice. God does not. In fact, the Israelites of old were soon to learn that the Canaanites, unlike the Egyptians (cf. Genesis 46:33-34), were eager to unite with the chosen people of God (cf. Genesis 34:8-10, Numbers 25:1ff.). Unity and peace must never be attained at the price of purity. God’s people are to be holy, even as He is holy (Leviticus 11:44f; I Peter 1:16).
True unity can only occur in Christ (John 17:21; cf. Ephesians 2:4-22). This unity is to be diligently preserved (Ephesians 4:3). But oneness in Christ results in division from those who reject Christ (Matthew 10:34-36). We must separate ourselves from those who deny the truth (II John 7-11; Jude 3). There can be no true unity with those who deny our God.
(3) The communication gap created in Genesis chapter 11 can only be bridged by Christ. The Old Testament prophets recognized the ongoing effect of Babel, and spoke of a day when it would be reversed:
‘For then I will give to the peoples purified lips, that all of them may call on the name of the Lord, to serve Him shoulder to shoulder. From beyond the rivers of Ethiopia My worshipers, My dispersed ones, will bring My offerings. In that day you will feel no shame because of all your deeds by which you have rebelled against Me; for then I will remove from your midst your proud, exulting ones, and you will never again be haughty on my holy mountain’ (Zephaniah 3:9-11).127
The phenomenon of tongues in Acts chapter two indicates the ‘first fruits’ of the renewal which is yet to be realized in full.
Frankly, I am deeply troubled at the ignorance of Christians today regarding the communication gap we experience in our relationships. The communication breakdown has its roots in Genesis chapter 11. Many wives silently agonize at the way their husbands fail to comprehend what they are trying to tell them, and at their failure to disclose their innermost feelings. While Christ is the answer to this dilemma, most of us fail to grasp the fact that it is a problem which threatens our relationships.
(4) Superficial relationships and artificial activity will inevitably miss the meaning of life. Someone has said that the definition of the ‘upper crust’ is, ‘a few crumbs with a little dough to hold them together.’ What is it that holds your life together? How tragic that the Babylonians of old found their security in a city and put their hope in fired bricks and tar.
What frightens me most is that the church has often fallen into the same trap as the world. We find ourselves creating programs to keep people busy and to give them the false security of involvement and activity. While programs are not antithetical to life, they are often a substitute for living faith and devotion and power. In many churches, God could have died 50 years ago and we would still not know it.
I cannot but help think of the church building program as I have considered the tower of Babel. How often we enter into a building program, thinking that it will give people a cause to get excited about, and that a lovely building will somehow attract new members.
God help us to avoid the artificiality of Babel. It is a counterfeit religion that has no life and no ultimate worth.
(5) The Word of God, and not the works of our hands, is the only thing worthy of our faith. The men of Babel began to look at work as the cure rather than the curse. They believed that the work of their hands could assure them of some kind of immortality beyond the grave. Here, I suspect, is the driving force behind the workaholic. He cannot ever rest because he (or she) is never certain that a large enough monument has been built.
Is this not that of which the Psalmist has written?
Unless the Lord builds the house, they labor in vain who build it; unless the Lord guards the city, the watchman keeps awake in vain. It is vain for you to rise up early, to retire late, to eat the bread of painful labors; for He gives to His beloved even in his sleep. Behold, children are a gift of the Lord; the fruit of the womb is a reward. Like arrows in the hand of a warrior, so are the children of one’s youth. How blessed is the man whose quiver is full of them; they shall not be ashamed, when they speak with their enemies in the gate (Psalm 127:1-5).
Did you notice the reference in verse two to the ‘bread of painful labors’? Surely it is a reflection of the curse in Genesis chapter three, “By the sweat of your face you shall eat bread, … ” (Genesis 3:19a).
The Psalmist knew that work could never give man the rest and peace for which he toiled, but only trusting in that which God would provide. God’s blessing would come through the children which God would give in rest and intimate fellowship (Psalm 127:3-5). Is this not what the people of Babylon needed to understand?
Human endeavor is never satisfying, never fulfilling. Only work which is done for the Lord and in His strength brings lasting satisfaction.
The woman at the well in John chapter 4 sought water to quench her thirst. Jesus offered that which would forever satisfy:
Jesus answered and said to her, ‘Everyone who drinks of this water shall thirst again; but whoever drinks of the water that I shall give him shall never thirst; but the water that I shall give him shall become in him a well of water springing up to eternal life’ (John 4:13-14).
That ‘meat’ which was greater than mere food was to do the will of the Father:
In the meanwhile the disciples were requesting Him, saying ‘Rabbi, eat.’ But He said to them, ‘I have food to eat that you did not know about.’ The disciples therefore were saying to one another, ‘No one brought Him any thing to eat, did he?’ Jesus said to them, ‘My food is to do the will of Him who sent Me, and to accomplish His work’ (John 4:31-34).
Have you found the satisfaction and rest which God has provided in Jesus Christ? It alone can satisfy the longings of man.
This “rest” is that for which Lamech, the father of Noah, looked for in the seed of his son:
Now he called his name Noah, saying, ‘This one shall give us rest from our work and from the toil of our hands arising from the ground which the Lord has cursed’ (Genesis 5:29).
God has now provided a salvation for men in the sacrificial death of Jesus Christ on the cross of Calvary. He has assured men that to as many as believe upon Him—that trust Him for forgiveness of sins and eternal life—they shall be saved. That is enough. And that is the only basis for hope beyond the grave.
(6) Much of what man does on this earth is a monument to his insecurity. This passage has impressed me more than ever before because of the intense insecurity of man. I have often felt that the root of man’s sinful actions is willful rebellion or active aggression against God. Man does rebel against God, but the root of much of his disobedience is based upon his insecurity.
Behind the facade of achievement, accomplishment, bravado and self-assurance is the haunting spectra of leaving this life with no certainty of what is to follow. That, in my estimation, is the real reason for the building of the city of Babel and its tower. The people of that day were willing to make nearly any sacrifice to have some hope of immortality. They saw this in the name they could make for themselves.
Have you ever stopped to think about the role insecurity may play in the things you devote time and energy to? Christians who do not fathom the grace of God and His sovereign control are plagued by the insecurity of supposing that God’s work and will is conditioned by our faithfulness, rather than by His. Our insecurity may be the motive for much of our Christian service. If only we can do more for the Lord, we shall feel more secure and certain of His blessing. Such activity is little different than that of those who lived on the plain of Shinar.
We preachers must learn a very important lesson here also. We want to see results from our work. We may be insecure in what God has called us to do. Because of our own insecurity, we may urge others to work harder in Christian activity, and we may motivate this activity by playing upon the wrong motives of guilt and insecurity. These motives are always wrong reasons for Christian service. Service should be based upon gratitude, not guilt or fear.
As Paul has written, “I urge you therefore, brethren, by the mercies of God, to present your bodies … ” (Romans 12:1a).
The problems we have discussed are complex, but the solution is simple. We should do what the children of Noah should have done, simply trust and obey. This is the way to have blessing in Jesus.