Genesis 11:1-9 The Tower of Babel

I love a good book.  Wonderful plot lines, twists and turns, great humor, maybe even irony.  But more than anything, a good book must be engaging and speak to human experiences and universal longings.  That is what has made the great classics stand the test of time.  Dicken’s A Christmas Carol is surely a superb book it is so not because of the language and the literary constructions, it is wonderful because each of these technical aspects is put to the larger task of communicating the universal desire for redemption and the ability to change.  The Lord of the Rings is a masterpiece because it touches our heart and communicates valor, bravery and the fight for truth and goodness.  Good stories make us of many technical tools but they do it in the service of explaining the human predicament.  And the Bible is the greatest of stories, for it is God’s living word, given to humanity to make sense of our world and our need. 

There is so much going on in today’s story related to plot, humor and irony that it is truly a literary work of art for it reveals the situation of humanity. The first literary device employed in the story is related to the direction of people’s hearts, are they coming toward God or moving away from him.


This is illustrated by the direction that men are moving.  Our story begins with men moving eastward but if we backup a little we will find whenever people move eastward, something about their relationship to God is being declared.  In Genesis 3:24 the first couple were sent out of the garden and an angel with a flaming sword was placed on the eastern side of the garden to block their entrance back into the oasis.  Then we find that Cain, after killing his brother, (Gen. 4:16) went out from the LORD’s presence and lived in the land of Nod, east of Eden.  In chapter 13, it is Lot who moves further east, in fact every time in the book of Genesis that people move eastward, sin abounds but whenever people move westward, they are returning to God and his plans.  Consider Abraham who leaves Haran in the east and moves westward to Canaan and the great things God does through him and his descendants.


Unfortunately as Genesis 10 records, the people after the flood tend to be moving away from God.  They are all living on the plain of Shinar in an area built up by Nimrod. Many commentators believe Nimrod’s name means something like “We shall rebel”.[1]  If this is so, then the story of Babel is foreshadowed; it will be a story of rebellion and God’s judgment upon that rebellion, which we will find is true.


But God doesn’t record the story solemnly, he intersperses little bits of humor and irony in the story as well, to show just how laughable it is that people even try to rebel against God.  Consider the fact that these rebels want to build a great tower to reach to the heavens. Yet we are told that the greatest, tallest structure they can build is puny and diminutive when compared with the abode of God and his position.


Literally, he must descend, come down in order to even view the giant accomplishments of humanity. (Gen. 11:5)  But the Lord came down to see the city and the tower that the men were building. Or consider that this tower was to be a source of protection from evil, for ancient ziggurats were places where the gods were worshipped, while simultaneously serving as lookout structures so that the gods and their followers would see any approaching threat and take the necessary steps to ensure the safety of the people.  But the exact opposite occurs, these protectors can’t stand against the judgment of God and he shows all forms of human idolatry and security to be false and worthless when compared to the power of God almighty. In fact, the towers of men offer no protection from the advancing judgment of God as we will see.  But our study last year of Micah already declared this truth to us.  Chapter 1 verses 3 and 4 declare Look! The Lord is coming from his dwelling place; he comes down and treads the high places of the earth. The mountains melt beneath him and the valleys split apart, like wax before the fire, like water rushing down a slope but the Proverbs declare (Prov. 18:10) The name of the Lord is a strong tower; the righteous run to it and are safe.


Or what about the building materials of these rebels?  They want to use bricks and tar, dirt and slime is the best material they can come up with to build, but we know later on in the scriptures that God builds not with dirt and slime but with precious stones, gold, and silver. (Is. 54:11-12) O afflicted city, lashed by storms and not comforted, I will build you with stones of turquoise, your foundations with sapphires. I will make your battlements of rubies, your gates of sparkling jewels, and all your walls of precious stones.


Who likes Anagrams?  Taking the letters in one word and rearranging them into other words with new meaning. For example, parliament is an anagram of partial men while Clint Eastwood is and anagram of Old West Action.  Scrabble® is a classic game where people take letters and make words out of them and depending on person, the number of words you can make with your cache is extraordinary.


I bring this up because word games or Anagrams are part of God’s sense of humor in the story of the Tower of Babel as well.  Consider the fact that rebellious humanity wants to make a name for themselves, but God ultimately makes their name come to mean “foolish” or “confused.”  The Hebrew word for “make a name” contains consonants only and God takes these consonants and rearranges them to make his word, “let us confuse” whose consonants are subsequently rearranged into the proper place name “Babel”.


The story, as Moses writes it, tells of the hubris of the Babylonians who assumed their city was a “gate to the gods” (reaching to the heavens – Gen 11:4) but God’s pronouncement is that their wisdom and ways are really a seat of confusion.  Everything is mixed up in their world, for only God can make a name for someone as we will find in his promise to Abram, (Gen 12:2) I will make you name great and you will be a blessing.”  But even more than that, it is only God whose name is great. (1Sam. 12:22) For the sake of his great name the Lord will not reject his people, because the Lord was pleased to make you his own.  Or (Neh. 9:10) You sent miraculous signs and wonders against Pharaoh, against all his officials and all the people of his land, for you know how arrogantly the Egyptians treated them. You made a name for yourself, which remains to this day knew.


As you can see from this quick review of the literary components of the story, God is a master storyteller and he has a wry sense of humor when it comes to “human greatness”.  He inspired Moses to write about this specific event in history and he cast it in terms of irony to teach all people about the folly of rebellion and the danger of pursuing life apart from relationship with him.  Through this story about Babel, God was showing all human efforts to secure safety, security, renown and even entrance into heaven apart from obedience to and relation with Him to be false and worthless.


Humanity’s incessant lust with pride and arrogance is deeply rooted into our history as a people.  Like the ancient people who refused to obey the Lord and instead sought to establish their own rebellious ways, people and culture today continues to walk in this same rebellion.  Desiring financial and economic security and prosperity, modern cultures decry global population, espouse birth control and abortion and even instill one child per family policies but God has always declared, be fruitful and multiply and fill the earth  for I am your God and your provider (Gen 1:28, cp. 8:15-17), Modern jurisprudence says avoid the wicked and sue those who make life hard on you, but  God declares: Love your enemies and do good to those who hate you (Luke 6:27).  Unfortunately, Christians and non-Christians alike live life in the court room and with the lawyer. While modern culture says trust in yourself and your own wisdom, if God agrees with it, great, if not, then trust your own instincts, don’t believe the Sermon on the Mount for it isn’t practicable, but God says, trust in the Lord and lean not on your own understanding, in all your ways acknowledge him and he will direct your paths (Prov. 3:5-6).  Do you see yourself in any of these anti-God behaviors?


If so, all of these are modern examples of the pride present on the plains of Shinar.  But even more than our pride and arrogance is our continued drive to separate ourselves from the Creator of Heaven and Earth – God Almighty. Just like the people who built the Tower of Babel seeking security amidst their direct disobedience to God, today, men and women, boys and girls, cultures and governments gather together to defy God’s commands, to remove The Lord from any discussions of politics or cultural rights and wrongs.  We rewrite history to exclude the Christian foundations our Nation was founded upon, instead of giving Glory to God. We tell everyone but Christians that they can express their faith in school, but do not speak about Jesus or else you are closed minded.  We are trying to make a world devoid of God, for our glory.


But all of this pales in comparison to the way we respond to God’s words in verse 6: If they have begun to do this, then nothing they plan will be impossible for them” (Genesis 11:6).  In our modern technological and pluralistic culture we condemn God for such thoughts and his subsequent actions saying, “God has stopped us from finding cures for cancer.  He has stopped us from achieving world peace.  He has stopped progress and enshrined pain.  What kind of God is this?!”  We have rebelled against the very words of God and twisted them from an indictment against humanity and made them into an assault on the very character of God.  We have been trying for the last 50 years to do the impossible of uniting nations and ushering world peace through the work of the United Nations, but again, we are trying to do this apart from God and without any recognition of sin – and it can only end in failure.


But God never wanted to deny us progress, peace and health or any other blessing for that matter, rather God wanted to deny us these things if they were not found as a result of dependence upon, obedience to and relationship with him.  God wants peace and health and security and life for his people, but we must understand that these things can only be achieved in connection to him.  For God to allow these blessings and gifts to be given to the arrogant, selfish, independent deniers of God would have been to deny these gifts to humanity for all eternity.  Imagine people living in their own power, by their own will and with their own sinful ideas – can you picture that world as one free from strife, full of love, equitable and just?  It’s impossible because it is grounded in pride not selfless love.  And so the confusion of the languages and the scattering over the earth was God’s answer until the fullness of time would come and a people obedient to his call could be formed and empowered.


Zeph. 3:9-10 speaks about a future time when the effects of Babel, its confusion, the separation of people, and the disobedience of humans would be reversed and instead men would head westward back into the gates of the holy city.  Listen to the picture of redemption: “Then will I purify the lips of the peoples, that all of them may call on the name of the Lord and serve him shoulder to shoulder. beyond the rivers of Cush my worshipers, my scattered people, will bring me offerings. And that is what the story of Jesus Christ is all about.


For in Christ (Gal. 3:28) There is neither Jew nor Greek, slave nor free, male nor female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus. In another letter, Paul declares similarly (Col. 3:11) Here there is no Greek or Jew, circumcised or uncircumcised, barbarian, Scythian, slave or free, but Christ is all, and is in all. It is Jesus who reverses the curse of the rebellion, it is he who gives us new hearts of flesh not of stone, it is his spirit that empowers us to obedience and gives us love.  All that God wanted to deny rebellious humanity, he makes available to us in Christ as part of his obedience to the complete law of God.  Babel is a story about God’s judgment upon human rebellion, but the gospels are God’s story about the one who brings our greatest desires for peace, security, belonging, blessing, a name and future.


For in Christ, there is nothing impossible.  The great story of redemption and reversal is set in opposition to the story of Babel.  We can say to the mountain, throw yourself in the sea (Matt 21:21), or to the sinner, If you confess your sins he is faithful and just and will forgive your sins and cleanse you of all unrighteousness (1John 1:9) or to the lost, come to the one who knows the way. In fact, (Phil. 4:13) I can do everything through him who gives me strength.  In Christ, the way to true unity and love is made real.  In Christ, true peace, progress and health are achieved.  Through Christ, the way, the truth and the life is made available and it trumps our greatest efforts to achieve renown apart from him.  He melds his people into a single living organism that the gates of hell cannot prevail against (Matt 16:18).  He reverses the curse of Babel, and the confusion of languages by giving us the language of love and pouring out the gifts of the spirit, one of which is the ability to speak in tongues and another is the ability to interpret them.


Jesus has come down, not to judge, though that time is coming, but now he is present in this world to save and redeem us from the cursed life we bring upon ourselves.  Whose story are you participating in – the story of Babel of the story of Christ?  Don’t turn from Jesus to build your own city in disobedience and arrogance, suffering the folly of separation from God, but instead turn to Christ, by repentance and faith, fleeing disobedience and receiving the promised Spirit of God and being built into a holy temple that doesn’t just reach the heavens but is the very abode of God himself.


Eph. 2:19-22 Consequently, you are no longer foreigners and aliens, but fellow citizens with God’s people and members of God’s household, built on the foundation of the apostles and prophets, with Christ Jesus himself as the chief cornerstone.  In him the whole building is joined together and rises to become a holy temple in the Lord. And in him you too are being built together to become a dwelling in which God lives by his Spirit.


This is the great story which stands in opposition to Babel.  Christ in you, the hope of glory! (Col 1:27)

[1] WBC, Genesis 11:1-9, explanation.; Anchor


Sermon Outline:


Different ways

Build high to reach god, he descends

Make name, only God makes name

Disobey, rebel; God always gets his way

Not gate of gods, but place of confusion

Nothing will be impossible in Jesus

God building a city


About Scott Roberts

pastor of Hope in Christ Church, Bellingham, WA
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