Genesis Lessons 11: 1-9 - Scattered
CONTEXT: Last week, in Gen. 8:15-22; 9:1, 11-16, we studied the story of Noah as the flood subsided and the ark came to rest on Mount Ararat, and afterward, how Noah and his family spent a full year aboard the ark waiting for the floodwaters to recede. When the time was right, God ordered Noah, his family, and all the animals to disembark into a new world that had essentially been remade by the devastation of the flood waters. God clearly intended for them to vacate the ark permanently and three times issued the command to "Be fruitful and multiply and fill the earth." Soon afterward, for the first time recorded in Scripture, Noah demonstrated his faithfulness by building an altar to God and offering sacrifices. God blessed them and established His covenant to never again destroy the earth by flood and established a "sign," His "bow in the cloud," to ratify the covenant and serve as a remembrance both to mankind and God. The main relevance of this lesson to us is that is the fundamental truth that God remembers and always keeps His promises. We 21st Century Christians need to remember God by trusting in His salvation. Just as Noah trusted God's Word enough to build an ark that ultimately saved him and his family from destruction, God's Word has provided Jesus Christ to you and me as an ark that will carry us safely into eternity from the judgment to come.
This week, in Gen. 11:1-9, we'll cover the well-known account of the Tower of Babel. It is essentially a story of rebellion that is situated between two stories of faithful obedience-Noah and Abram. When God speaks to Abram the first time, he orders him to, "Go from your country and your kindred and your father's house to the land that I will show you" (Gen 12:1). Today, Chap. 11 actually backtracks from the Table of Nations reported in Gen. 10, where the descendants of Noah have formed into tribes and nations that have spread all over the known world, to a previous time when these descendants all shared the same a language and culture. I plan to skip all the scholarly theories that attempt to explain why these two chapters are out of order and will focus only on today's text.
Read Gen. 11:1-2 - THE WHOLE EARTH HAD ONE LANGUAGE
1 Now the whole earth had one language and the same words. 2 And as people migrated from the east, they found a plain in the land of Shinar and settled there.
v. 1: "Now the whole earth had one language and the same words." - Only one group of people existed on the earth at this time and they all shared a common language and culture. It pictures a unified humanity that was using all of its resources to congregate in one region, which was completely contrary to what God intended when He created the world and after the flood, when he had commanded Noah and his family to "Be fruitful and multiply and fill the earth" (Gen.9:1).
v. 2: "And as people migrated from the east, they found a plain in the land of Shinar and settled there." - The direction "east" reminds us of the creation story where God drove Adam and Eve from the garden to the east, and when Cain went out of God's presence to the land of Nod, east of Eden. In the Genesis narratives, when a man goes 'east' he leaves behind the land of blessing (Eden, Promised Land) and goes to a land where the greatest of his hopes will turn to ruin (Babylon and Sodom). According the Gen. 10:10, the "land of Shinar" included three settlements, Babel, Erech, and Accad, which were all relatively near one another.
Read Gen. 11:3-4 - COME LET US BUILD A CITY AND A TOWER
3 And they said to one another, "Come, let us make bricks, and burn them thoroughly." And they had brick for stone, and bitumen for mortar. 4 Then they said, "Come, let us build ourselves a city and a tower with its top in the heavens, and let us make a name for ourselves, lest we be dispersed over the face of the whole earth."
v. 3: "And they said to one another, "Come, let us make bricks, and burn them thoroughly." And they had brick for stone, and bitumen for mortar." - The phrase, "Come, let us...," is repeated three times in this story, two as part of the people's rebellion and the third as part of God's response to it. Here the object of the peoples' building efforts was to establish a central location where they could focus all their plans to unify and consolidate themselves as one people. Cities of the ancient Near East in those times were not designed so much to be lived-in but were gathering places for religious and public purposes. The reference to "brick" and "bitumen mortar" indicated their intention to build a very permanent and long-lasting structure for their new homeland.
v. 4a: "Then they said, "Come, let us build ourselves a city and a tower" - The second instance of "Come let us..." expresses the stubborn self-sufficiency of these people. While God desired for humanity to be unified, He wanted it to be based on something He created-a theocratic kingdom, not a social state founded by human ideas and effort.
v. 4b: "with its top in the heavens," - This was most likely a ziggurat, a pyramidal structure composed of ascending square towers or stories (see Babel illustration), which was a fairly common form of structure in ancient Babylon. Based upon ancient archeological data in that region, scholars estimate the Tower of Babel may have risen to 160 feet, the height of a 16-story building. The object of the builders was to elevate themselves-by their own efforts-up to the heavenly realm.
v. 4c: "and let us make a name for ourselves, lest we be dispersed over the face of the whole earth." - The phrase, "let us make a name for ourselves," identifies their motives and purposes for building the city and a great tower: It tells us that the flood had not changed the sinful nature of human beings, not at all. They desired to empower and glorify themselves, to be like God. The city and its tower would magnify them rather than God. In effect, their entire scheme represented a determined rebellion against God's command to multiply and spread mankind all over the earth.
APPLICATION 1: It's impossible for man to reach up to God by purely human effort. Man is incapable of coming up on his own. He must submit to God as ask Him to come down.
Read Genesis 11:5-7 - COME, LET US GO DOWN
5 And the LORD came down to see the city and the tower, which the children of man had built. 6 And the Lord said, "Behold, they are one people, and they have all one language, and this is only the beginning of what they will do. And nothing that they propose to do will now be impossible for them. 7 Come, let us go down and there confuse their language, so that they may not understand one another's speech."
v. 5a: "And the LORD came down to see the city and the tower." - Notice this doesn't portray a disengaged "LORD" (Yahweh), but an all-powerful Creator who comes down from the heavenly realm to inspect this city and its great tower. And don't miss the irony here: this tower, which the people intended to reach to heaven, is so short that Yahweh has to come down to inspect it. What might seen as grandiose on a human level is trivial in comparison to the majesty and power of God.
v. 5b: "which the children of man had built." - The phrase "children of man" (Heb. bə-nê hā-'ā-ḏām) literally connects the people of Babel to the rebellion and fall of man in the Garden. They were both rebellions that sought to rise above human limitations in order to assume God-like prerogatives.
v. 6: "And the LORD said, "Behold, they are one people, and they have all one language, and this is only the beginning of what they will do. And nothing that they propose to do will now be impossible for them." - This verse could be misunderstood to mean that God saw the potential power of these people to be some kind of threat to Himself, which, of course, is absurd. The problem is not that these people might storm the heavens and wrest power from god, but that a powerful, united humanity, given its predisposition to sin and do evil, could once again fill the earth with "violence" (Gen. 6:11) if they are left unchecked. Note: The construction of cities in human civilization is not in and of itself sinful. God chose Jerusalem for His people, and He will create a New Jerusalem for Christian believers to inhabit in the future. It is the pride and self-sufficiency that people place in their cities to which God objects.
v. 7: "Come, let us go down and there confuse their language, so that they may not understand one another's speech." - This is the third iteration of "Come, let us..." and using sarcasm, God imitates the prideful language used by the tower builders. The words "let us" imply that multiple divine beings were included, a heavenly host. And this is God's judgment: For starters, God decided to halt their progress by dividing people according to language. People who speak distinct languages run into an immediate barrier to any kind of meaningful communication. It makes cooperation far harder, even impossible. Moreover, this would cause people to reorganize themselves into separate and distinct groups, according to the languages they spoke, and these varied linguistic groups would naturally tend to migrate away from dissimilar groups and make a new place for themselves, which, in turn, fulfilled God's original intent for humanity after the flood (Gen. 9:1). Some scholars believe that this judgment also involved the implantation of racial and ethnic distinctions in humankind implied by the Table of Nations in Genesis 10.
APPLICATION 2: History has shown that a unified and powerful humanity, apart from God, will fill the earth with violence. The human predisposition to sin and do evil makes this a forgone conclusion. Just look at the last century: WWI, WWII, Korea, Vietnam, the Gulf War; and the 21st Century opened with a brand new War on Terror that's been ongoing for over 20 years.
Read Gen. 11:8-9 - THE LORD DISPERSED THEM
8 So the LORD dispersed them from there over the face of all the earth, and they left off building the city. 9 Therefore its name was called Babel, because there the LORD confused the language of all the earth. And from there the LORD dispersed them over the face of all the earth.
v. 8: "So the Lord dispersed them from there over the face of all the earth, and they left off building the city." - You'll recall that one of the peoples' main objectives for building a city and a tower was to avoid being "dispersed over the face of the whole earth" (v. 4). It had been the guiding mindset that drove them to embark on this ambitious project in the first place. And now that they are scattered hither and yon, all work stops, and the city and the tower are forgotten-pointless.
v. 9: "Therefore its name was called Babel, because there the LORD confused the language of all the earth. And from there the Lord dispersed them over the face of all the earth." - This verse sums up God's judgment with a play on words. The word for the name of the city of Babel comes from the Hebrew root word balal (baw-lal'), which literally means to confuse or confound. Much later Babel became known as Babylon, the capital city of Babylonia, which became the dominant nation of the second millennium B.C. Ironically, when God judged Judah for its sin, it was conquered in 586 B.C. by the Babylonian king, Nebuchadnezzar, who forced the Jews into captivity for half a century.
APPLICATION 3: Rebellion against God leads to scatteredness and broken relationships. We've seen this trend in nations over the past 100 years. The rise of godless nations like Nazi Germany and the Soviet Union, which seemed unstoppable at first, destroyed themselves by war or by simply falling apart from within. It seems like we are living is a world that is largely opposed to God. Even our own U.S.A., the moral leader of the free world, can no longer claim to be one nation under God.
With all the modern technological advances that basically use digital software to overcome language, cultural, ethnic, legal, and financial barriers, has our world become a new Babel?
Note: Acts 2 tells of a day in the life of the church-Pentecost-when the barriers of language, erected at Babel, were overruled by the grace of God and the power of the Holy Spirit. One day, when God will a new kingdom for believing Christians, He will reverse the curse of Babel, and there will be a single language and culture once again. (Rev. 22:3).