The Babble of Babel

Genesis 11:1-9
Some people say that England and America are two countries separated by a common language. If that is true of two countries that both speak English (although our English friends would disagree that we speak English), how much more is confusion possible when there is not a common language. But there was a time when confusion of tongues was nonexistent. “Now the whole earth had one language and the same words.”

We have seen last time just how divided the world is by the time Moses writes. There are different nations all over the place. Seventy nations, in fact. Now we come to the explanation of how all that diversity came about. In other words, chapter 11 happened before chapter 10. It is important to ask “Why did Moses write it this way?” The answer is that the ambition of the people of Babel looks pretty stupid after you have read chapter 10.

One interesting fact that we must keep in mind is that Noah is still alive at the time of the tower of Babel. In 10:25, we learn that the division of the world took place in the lifetime of Peleg. Noah outlives Peleg by 40 years, and most likely the tower occurred early in Peleg’s life. Therefore, Noah would have continued to be that preacher of righteousness that he had been before the Flood, preaching to all his grandsons and great-grandsons, etc. One writer estimated that if each family had eight children, assuming about 30 years for the start of each new generation, then there would be 30,000 people at the time of the tower of Babel. Nimrod was also alive at this time, since he founded Babylon, and went off to found Nineveh after the dispersion at Babel. Noah and Nimrod were opponents, then, in this whole affair. This is another example of the combat of the two seeds that we have seen already quite a few times, and will continue to see all through Genesis. Here at the Tower of Babel, we see a very strong statement of the seed of the serpent. Babel’s sin is the sin of Adam, ultimately a sin of idolatry, wanting to take God off His throne, and put ourselves there instead.

Our passage forbids us to try to achieve any kind of world unity that leaves God out of the picture. In Daniel 4:30, Nebuchadnezzar boasts about his power in just this way. This is the kingdom that he built, and that his might and power accomplished. That very day God took away the kingdom from him until he acknowledged that God gave power to rulers on this earth.

Now, there is nothing like this story in any of the stories of the Ancient Near East (ANE). The reason for that is that the ANE thought in quite a different direction than Israel did. People believed that building such buildings as these could get them in touch with the gods. The Babylonian version of this building is called a ziggurat, like the picture given above. A ziggurat is like a pyramid, only it has stairs going around the outside, climbing all the way to the top. It has seven floors, representing the seven planets and the gods that go along with those seven planets. The inside of the ziggurat is not hollow like the pyramids, but is instead filled in with dirt. On the top of the ziggurat is a temple, representing the entrance into heaven itself. It was thought that if a person climbed that ziggurat, he could have an entrance into heaven. Babylonians believed that the gods built such structures, not men. As such, ziggurats were a gateway to the gods. In fact, that is what the name “Babylon” meant in the Babylonian tongue. It is highly ironic that the Babylonians wanted to build something that resulted in having a gateway to heaven (Babel), but all they got was what the name meant in Hebrew: confusion. It was the Hebrew definition of Babel that won out in the end, not the Babylonian.

Babel was a sign of human rebellion. That rebellion showed itself in two ways: by trying to get to heaven in another way than God had commanded, and by misusing God’s good gift of language. Language had been given as a gift to mankind in order that man might communicate with one another, and mankind misused that gift by trying to put one over on God, the giver of the gift.

God had commanded mankind to multiply and to fill the earth. That is something they were not doing. In fact, they fear to do that. In verse 4 we see the real motivation of the builders: “let us make a name for ourselves, lest we be dispersed over the face of the whole earth.” Notice that they do not ask God about this project. They know that it is rebellion against God, and so they attempt this building project on their own. As Psalm 127 says, “Unless the Lord builds the house, they labor in vain who build it.” That is certainly true here. They start without God’s approval, and so they will end without God’s mercy. This provides us with a great contrast: in chapter 12 verse 2, we see God saying to Abraham, “I will make of you a great nation, and I will bless you and make your name great. In you all the families of the earth shall be blessed.” Notice that Babel does their thing on its own, whereas for Abraham, God does it. Notice that Babel wants to make its own name, whereas for Abraham God will make his name great. Notice that Babel wants to do this for itself, whereas Abraham is to be a blessing for others. The contrast between Abraham and Babel could not be made any clearer than that.

So the people of Babel make bricks, and they burn the bricks. That means a relatively stable building material. There were no stones in this area of the Middle East, and so one had to use sand, straw and water to make bricks. This is exactly the same kind of bricks that the Israelites had to make later. But in Israel, there were plenty of stones. Stone is a superior building material to brick, because stone is not so brittle. That is the significance of the end of verse 3: they had brick instead of stone (like the Israelites had). They also had bitumen instead of the better binder mortar. They had tar instead of mortar.

In verse 4 we have the motives for what these people are doing, as we said before. They want to build this skyscraper in order that they might have a name for themselves. They want to be remembered for something. Lots of people are like this. The heroes of old, in Genesis 6 were men of renown, literally men of name. Pharaoh wanted to build towers very much like the Babylonians. He made the Israelites build the bricks. He did this because he feared that the Israelites would multiply and overpower the Egyptians. People today build many empires for themselves, whether farming, or industrial, or religious, or any number of areas. People want to be famous. That is what “having a name for themselves” means. These kind of people want to build their empire up to the heavens to defy death and God. They want to be God themselves. “There are many people even today who in imitation of them want to be remembered for such achievements, by building splendid homes, baths, porches and avenues. I mean, if you were to ask each of them why they toil and labor and lay out such great expense to no good purpose, you would heart nothing but these very words. They would be seeking to. Ensure that their memory survives in perpetuity and to have it said that ‘this is the house belonging to so-and-so,’ ‘this is the property of so-and-so.’ This, on the contrary, is worthy not of commemoration but of condemnation.” Chrysostom. You really have to wonder sometimes at the motives of those people who want to build the tallest building in the world. Are they not doing the very same thing, and for the very same reasons? Now, this story is not saying that cities are bad in and of themselves. Indeed, the story is really saying that any empire we would want to build apart from God is doing what the tower builders were doing.

One of the motives here recorded is that they did not want to be scattered. As we have seen, that is resistance to God’s will to multiply and fill the earth. There is a kind of unity that God wills in His Word. That is the unity of Jesus Christ. There is only one way to climb to heaven, and it isn’t by doing it ourselves, but rather riding on the back of Jesus Christ, who has gone through the heavens. That is the only unity that we can have today. We cannot have peace, for instance, through the United Nations. They are trying to build a foundation of peace without having God build the foundation on top of the Prince of Peace, Jesus Christ, the chief cornerstone of the church.

That is why God laughs and mocks all attempts to climb to heaven on our own. Look at verse 5. God has to come down from heaven even to be able to see this paltry little building that man built (not the gods). God does not come down because He is near-sighted. Rather, it is because He dwells so far off from us that there is no way this puny little building will ever reach Him. Isaiah 40:22 says this: “It is he who sits above the circle of the earth, and its inhabitants are like grasshoppers.” These grasshoppers can try all they want to build a temple. But it will never even begin to approach the grandeur of heaven and earth. Now, God takes this project seriously, even if Moses does not. Moses mocks the Babylonians and their puny efforts. But God is concerned about humanity. He does not want them to achieve complete independence. Understand here that God does not feel threatened by the tower of Babel. God is not at a loss as to how to deal with these people. Rather, God is concerned that the builders will try to achieve everything themselves, such that they forget God entirely. What God did was really an act of grace. People are by definition dependent on God. If they try to throw off that dependency, they will destroy themselves. So God is preventing them from destroying themselves. And so God did something better than to merely knock down the tower, which was one possible response. That would only have been a temporary solution to the problem. Instead, God did something more permanent, though not totally permanent, as we will see. God confused their language. One day, minding his own business (and not God’s), one worker wakes up one morning to find that he is watching a foreign movie with no sub-titles!

What God is saying here is that God is the only one who can determine where the gate to heaven is. That gate is Jesus Christ. Jesus said, “I am the way, the truth, and the life. No one comes to the Father, except through me.” We cannot see God, except through Jesus. We cannot communicate with God or speak God’s language, unless we believe in Jesus Christ. One of the many reasons why Christ came to earth to save sinners is so that these boundaries between nations could be broken down, and a new unity achieved by God. It is called the church. As a down-payment on that complete unity, God gave the Holy Spirit to the church at Pentecost. Pentecost was a reversal of the tower of Babel. Instead of everyone being confused by one another’s foreign language, everyone at Pentecost was able to hear the Gospel in his own language. Jesus had commanded his disciples to scatter over the face of the earth, and bring unity in Jesus Christ through preaching and making disciples, baptizing them in the name of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. The Great Commission spells the end of the tower of Babel syndrome. That is our call. We are to end that tower of Babel syndrome. Zephaniah 3:9-11 says this: “For at that time I will change the speech of the peoples to a pure speech, that all of them may call upon the name of the Lord and serve him with one accord. From beyond the rivers of Cush my worshipers, the daughter of my dispersed ones, shall bring my offering. “On that day you shall not be put to shame because of the deeds by which you have rebelled against me; for then I will remove from your midst your proudly exultant ones, and you shall no longer be haughty in my holy mountain.” We are not build castles in the air, trying to reach heaven. That means we are not to try to build a kingdom here on earth, whether it is by building a farm empire, or building a reputation in some way, or by stealing from others what does not belong to us. If only we would be concerned about God’s name, then we would not be so concerned about our own. The irony is that when we do that, God gives us a new name in heaven, written on a stone, one that shall never be forgotten. We can only get it by belonging to Jesus Christ, and finding our identity there.

Now picture the New Jerusalem, coming down out of heaven like a bride adorned for her husband. There is only one language in the new Jerusalem. All will speak it. Only then will the effects of Babel be completely reversed. That is what we are waiting for. We must join in the city of God, not the babble of Babel.