In this post, I want to look at the story of the tower of Babel, but to get the background of the story, we need to go back Genesis 10 where we read the genealogy of Noah, through the lines of Shem, Ham and Japheth. And we want to focus especially on the line of Ham – remembering that he is the one whose family was cursed by his father Noah.
Building of cities
And among one of the first things we see in the story of the sons of Ham is the building of cities. Ham had four sons, Cush, Mizraim, Put and Canaan. The oldest son was Cush. And so we are told:
“Gen 10:8 Cush fathered Nimrod; he was the first on earth to be a mighty man. He was a mighty hunter before the LORD. Therefore it is said, “Like Nimrod a mighty hunter before the LORD.” The beginning of his kingdom was Babel, Erech, Accad, and Calneh, in the land of Shinar. From that land he went into Assyria and built Nineveh, Rehoboth-Ir, Calah, and Resen between Nineveh and Calah; that is the great city.”
Now before we focus on Babel, we need to note that there are very definite similarities between the story of Cush and the story of Cain. What seems to be happening in Genesis 11 is in some ways a repeat of the events of Genesis 4.
Remember what happened in Genesis 4:
17 Cain knew his wife, and she conceived and bore Enoch. When he built a city, he called the name of the city after the name of his son, Enoch. … Adah bore Jabal; he was the father of those who dwell in tents and have livestock. His brother’s name was Jubal; he was the father of all those who play the lyre and pipe. Zillah also bore Tubal-cain; he was the forger of all instruments of bronze and iron.
So in Genesis 11, we see that like the descendants of Cain, Cush’s descendants are also focussed on building cities and developing societies and cultures to inhabit those cities. In the cities there is protection and community, a common bond which sustains people and protects them from external threats.
And like we saw with Cain’s descendants, this unity and strength is achieved in opposition to God and His purposes.
The culture and community of the city, with its culture, its music and its technology, is to fill the void left by the absence of God in their hearts and lives.
But that culture which Cain’s descendants created was ultimately toxic, and the world created by them degenerated into chaos and violence that was so bad, God had to step in and put an end to it, by sending the flood.
So we are told that on the plains of Shinar, the grandson of Ham, Nimrod, had built several great cities. Nimrod, the “mighty hunter before the Lord”, had not only built Babylon and several other cities in Shinar, but he also built Ninevah and other cities further to the west. So the name of Nimrod, the descendant of Ham, is associated with two of the most evil and destructive societies in Bible history.
Moving away from God
Just as Cain built cities when he was put under God’s curse in Genesis 4, so Nimrod builds cities in response to God’s curse on his family in this story. The building of these cities wasn’t something done to celebrate the community and care of God for His people, but it was done as an act of rebellion against God.
And just as Cain wandered to the east of Eden, so the people in our story have moved east to the plains of Shinar. Moving east in the Bible is always moving away from God. It signifies a turning away from God and a reliance on their own resources.
Instead of relying on God for their safety, they built cities to defend themselves. Instead of finding their self-esteem in being made in the image of God, they found their self-esteem by building impressive idols of self-sufficiency, and power over the forces of nature and surrounding peoples. They used science and technology to build stronger bricks, stones not made by God, but formed with the intellect and cunning of humanity.
We see later in the Bible that God tells Israel that when they make an altar for sacrifice, they are either to make it of earth (dirt) or stones that have not been chiselled or worked in any way. In other words, they are to use only natural items that have not been transformed by human labour in any way.
The bricks that the tower-builders use are the complete opposite; they have been made by an especially clever process that transforms the dirt of the area into rock-hard bricks of a uniform shape that can be easily used to make a large, strong structure.
So the whole culture of the city is turned against God and is an exultation of human achievement and independence.
A new unity
And so if we move on now to the Babel story, we see a distinct contrast between the state of society before the flood and how things are now.
Before the flood, we are told that the world was filed with violence. The place was an absolute mess and the whole fabric of society had all but disintegrated.
But now, we see a very great unity amongst the people.
We are told that all the people have one language and one set of words; literally one lip and one set of words – they have a common spirit and a common understanding of the world.
Now there is word in the Hebrew, “hava” which means “come on”, or “give it up, let’s go” and the writer repeats this word in the story to introduce some subtlety that is not easily evident in the English version.
“Hava” is an imperative, a call to action, it’s meant to encourage people to get moving and do something. It’s a call to join in and be part of the action. It could be translated idiomatically as “Let’s go!”.
So we read in the story that they say to one another
“Hava! Come, let us make bricks”;
“Hava! Come, let us build a tower”. Right up to the heavens.
There is an enthusiasm and a keenness to work together and do something great. Some commentators (R. Meir Schweiger) have compared this “one language and one set of words” to having a set of buzz-words, a common jargon reflecting values that everyone subscribed to.
And so they start work on building a tower that will have its head in the heavens, and they will make a name for themselves on the earth, as a mighty people who can achieve great things by working together.
Now this seems like a great picture of co-operation and togetherness. People working together in unity, encouraging each other to greater and greater achievement.
But remember, as we said before, that these cities and this tower is built in a spirit of rebellion against God. It is a visible shaking of the fist towards God, a loud claim to independence from God and a sign of humanity’s power over God’s creation.
And it is this sort of spirit that leads them to build a tower “that will reach the heavens” in one of these cities. Now that they have this incredible technology, they believe that they can ascend into the heavens and throw God off His throne.
Making a name
They also intend to “make a name” for themselves by building this tower. And of course, in Hebrew the word for “name” is “shem”, which also happens to be the name of Noah’s oldest son.
In Genesis 9, God had promised that He would bless the world through Shem. But instead of blessing God’s Shem, God’s Name if you like, they are making their own shem – their own name.
Some of the rabbis (according to R Ari Kahn) have suggested that there was something far more sinister going on here, something that is irrefutable evidence that this tower project was designed to be a rebellion against God and a show of independence from God.
The plains of Shinar are part of the flood plains of the Tigris and Euphrates rivers, a very low-lying area of that part of the world.
The ancient rabbis posed the question as to why a group of people who wanted to build a tower to reach the heavens would pick such a low-lying area, and an area devoid of rocks and natural building materials. Surely they would have picked a spot on a plateau, surrounded by rocky terrain that could be broken up and used for building materials.
The answer they give is that because this flood plain is the lowest region in the whole area, most of the dead bodies of the victims of the flood would have come to rest in this area, and over time, their decomposed bones would have been mixed into the dirt of that region.
There was a saying that if you ate vegetables grown in the plains of Shinar, you were eating your ancestors, because their decomposed remains fertilised the soil.
This very same dirt was then used to make the bricks to be used in the tower.
And the ancient rabbis point to the fact that the text seems to be unduly preoccupied with the process of making bricks. Why go to all the trouble of telling us that they made bricks, baking them thoroughly and using tar for mortar? Why not just say “they made bricks” without going into the specifics?
So they conclude there was something very special about these bricks.
This tower is really a monument made of the human remains of the victims of the flood, a memorial that will glorify the violence of that generation and stand permanently opposed to the righteous judgement of God.
The tower becomes a magnified fist being shaken towards God in anger, an act of rebellion that refuses to submit to the judgement of God.
Now this may perhaps be reading a bit much into the text, but the fact that this idea arose in the ranks of Jewish teachers over the years means that this tower was, for many reasons, universally seen as a rebellion against God and a usurping of His authority in the world.
The descendants of Ham have rejected the “Shem”, the “name” provided by God, and they want to make their own “shem’, their own “name”. They have rejected the promises and purposes of God in preserving a name for himself through Shem, and they want to substitute that name with their own name. The spirit of rebellion and independence is clear to see.
Safety in numbers
To cap all of this off, we find them deliberately working against the plans of God for the world.
When Noah and his family came out of the ark, God told them to increase in number and fill the earth, just as he had told Adam back in Genesis 1 as well. But these people did not want to fill the earth, because that meant being scattered over the earth and losing the security in numbers and the ability to band together for political and economic power. They would have to trust in God to provide for them and to protect them, instead of developing their own independence.
So the tower became a symbol of a people’s rejection of God and His plan for the world, and the substitution of their own purposes and plans.
And so they begin to build the tower, higher and higher every day.
Now at this point, the writer injects a little humour into the story. The tower-builders imagined that their tower was going to reach into the heavens, but the story teller informs us that God came ‘down” to see this tower.
In God’s eyes, it had no standing at all, because he had to come down out of heaven to see this thing that was supposed to reach up into the heavens.
So we find God deciding to end this tower-building project, because it had the potential to totally disrupt, if not even destroy, the plan of God to renew the creation through His Messiah. If this spirit of rebellion and independence were to become widespread amongst all the three divisions in the nations, then His name would no longer be carried, and instead only the name created by humanity would exist. And that would ultimately spell disaster for all.
We read in verse 6:
The Lord said, “If as one people speaking the same language they have begun to do this, then nothing they plan to do will be impossible for them.”
So God is very concerned about this state of affairs, and God’s response is very similar to His response which we read in Genesis 3 after Adam and his wife eat the forbidden fruit.
“And the Lord God said, ‘The man has now become like one of us, knowing good and evil. He must not be allowed to reach out his hand and take also from the tree of life and eat, and live forever.’”
Whilst it is not so obvious in the English translation, in Hebrew there is a repetition of three words/phrases; “The Lord God said”, “behold” and “one”.
“Behold, the Lord God says, the man has become one of us. “
“They may eat from the tree of life and live forever.”
“Behold, the Lord says, they have become one people.”
“Nothing they plan to do will be impossible.”
It’s the same concern being expressed. God’s entire plan for redeeming humanity is now threatened, because even though this tower was built in Nimrod’s city, there is nothing to suggest that only Ham’s descendants were involved in it. It is very likely that they were attracting descendants of Shem and Japheth as well. This meant that God’s ultimate purpose of bringing the Messiah to birth could be jeopardised by this tower.
And so just as Adam and his wife were expelled from the garden, so now God expels these people from their tower-building project.
And the writer explains how God does this in a sarcastic, almost mocking way.
Remember how the people have been fired up with their buzz words at the beginning of the story?
- “Hava! Let us make bricks”
- “Hava! Let us build a tower”.
Well now God says:
- “Hava! Let us go down and confuse their language”.
And so their unity of purpose and language, their buzz-words and jargon become useless, because nobody can understand each other. Without this unity of mind and heart, nothing can be achieved. The tower project folds and fails, and people are scattered across the earth as God had intended in the beginning.
These people had set out to create a name for themselves, but the only name that these people end up creating is “Babel”, or “confusion”. Their name is not strength or wisdom or power, but only confusion.
So in spite of all the attempts to work against God, His purposes prevail. God’s plans and purposes will not be over-ruled by humanity, no matter how ingenious, skilful or well-organised people may be.
And at the end of this story, we have gone through yet another cycle of new creation, act of rebellion, spread of sin and God’s judgement upon sin.
God re-created the earth when Noah and his family came out of the ark, but Noah fell into sin and one of his sons was cursed. Then that son’s family built cities in opposition to God. We seem to have gone back to where we started from.
So the stage is now set for something new. The spotlight is now thrown back on God to see what He will do next.
God has divided the world into three parts, but how will He bring them back together again? And Babel has made the division wider, because now those three parts speak a whole host of different languages.
Abram to Jesus – a new name (shem)
Well the story then focuses back on the Name, the Shem that God is creating for Himself. In the second half of Genesis 11 we pick up again the line of Shem and we trace it through to Terah and Abram.
It is from Abram that God will eventually bring forth the seed promised in Genesis 3; His Messiah who will repair the damage done by sin, and restore the world to the way it was meant to be.
It is through Jesus, born in Bethlehem thousands of years later that we see the shem, the Name of God, take on flesh and do what the first Adam could not do – obey God fully.
And like the righteous Abel, Jesus died at the hands of evil men so that His blood could take away the sin of the world.
And like Noah, Jesus survived the judgement of God – not in a flood, but on the cross; and like Noah, Jesus not only saved Himself, but His whole family as well – and that family is huge, it includes all those who bless His name and look to Him for forgiveness.
And Jesus was raised from the dead to show that God had accepted His sacrifice and that the way was now open for anyone who called upon the Name of the Lord to be saved.
And God confirmed all of this in the giving of His Spirit on the day of Pentecost. The Spirit who gave the gift of tongues to the church, and lifted the curse of Babel. Now it didn’t matter if there were different languages, because everyone could hear the praises of God in their own language.
At Babel, God came down and confused the languages.
At Pentecost, God (in the person of the Holy Spirit) came down and removed the confusion, so that everyone could hear the praises of God in their own language.
Unity beyond buzz-words
But this wasn’t just a return to the former state where there was only one language – a drab uniformity; but rather through the Spirit, the diversity of languages remained, but their message became the same regardless of what language it was spoken in.
The message spoken in those languages brought a far better and longer lasting unity than did the single language of buzz-words. God showered the church with His Spirit in a celebration of diversity and with a power that united people far more fundamentally than the use of buzz-words.
Now every tongue and language can confess that Jesus Christ is Lord and people everywhere throughout the whole world can understand that.
The power is not in their own words, like it was at Babel, but rather the power is now in the Word of God as the Spirit empowers people to speak it.
So we need to beware, when people say to us “Hava, come let us make bricks”, when people ask us to join together in a project that will make us strong and important in the world.
And this invitation comes in many forms.
It comes in business, when people say, “Hava, let us build a business so strong that nobody will be able to compete with us and we will become wealthy beyond our dreams.”
Or in politics: “Hava, let us build a united country that is strong and resilient and that no nation can invade and conquer.”
But it also comes in churches and families and all sorts of other places as well.
“Hava, let us make a super-church that all the people of the community can see for miles around, and make our name great”.
“Hava, let us formulate our doctrines and examine them thoroughly, so that we can build a theological fortress with them that will protect us from our enemies”.
Because even though these things may be good and at times necessary, when our unity is focused on these things at the expense of all other things, then they ultimately remove God from our vision and our purposes.
When people are fixed on a goal, they tend to mistake their own will for God’s will. At the time of Babel, it certainly was God’s will that people live in unity and security, able to provide for their families in safety.
But the way that God intended to accomplish that was by people being scattered over the earth and fulfilling God’s command to fill the earth and manage it. God would provide their security, not an organised militia.
When we look to our unity for strength, we ignore the strength that God gives in weakness. As Paul says, “when I am weak, then I am strong”. When we humble ourselves and live by faith, then God provides all of our needs.
A God of diversity
God is a God of diversity – we are meant to spread out and fill the whole earth, not to live in a pasteurised, homogenised cloister.
Our strength is in God; our Creator, Redeemer and Friend, not in ourselves. Our only help is the Lord, the Maker of heaven and earth.
It is only in our weakness and our scatteredness that we can fulfil the task God has given us.
He doesn’t want us sitting around in holy huddles telling each other, “Hava, let us make coffee”. He wants us scattered among the people who don’t know about His love and His grace in Jesus.
That’s why persecution came to the church in Jerusalem after Pentecost. To get them out of the huddle and into the world where they can be light and salt.
Because if you’re meant to be the light of the world, there’s no use huddling in a corner with all the other little lights – you need to get out into the darkness where you can do some good.
If you’re meant to be the salt of the earth, there’s no use tipping the whole saltshaker onto the one plate of food – it makes everything inedible. You need to get out into the rotting and the tasteless parts of the earth where you can do some good.
The Spirit gives us power to speak the gospel in every language in the whole world; He gives us the ability to unite people who see the world differently from us; even people who go to different churches from us, dare I say.
He gives us the power to speak the gospel into every culture and sub-culture so that those who inhabit those cultures can understand the glory of what God has done in Jesus.
We don’t have to teach the world how to speak Latin so that they can understand the message of the gospel, but rather we have the power to be able to speak the gospel so that each person hears it in their own language, in the ways that can be understood clearly by their cultures and sub-cultures.
The apostle John talks about this in his vision recorded in Revelation 7:
“I looked, and there before me was a great multitude that no one could count, from every nation, tribe, people and language, standing before the throne and before the Lamb. They were wearing white robes and were holding palm branches in their hands. And they cried out in a loud voice: “Salvation belongs to our God, who sits on the throne, and to the Lamb.””
God’s intention is to establish unity in the world, not by having one nation or one tribe or one people or one language, but by bringing all of these people together in the unity of His Son. They were all wearing the white robes given to them by Jesus, the robes of glorious perfection which Jesus won for us on the cross.
Our unity is not in our words, but in the Word of God made flesh, Jesus the Messiah, the promised One sent by God to put the pieces of our broken world back together again. And He invites us to join Him in that task today.
So, “hava”, let us be scattered and be salt and light in this world.