Pride and Confusion at Babel

Genesis 11

After the flood, Noah and his family begin a new start for humanity.  They do indeed “go forth and multiply” as God had commanded.  Genesis 10 chronicles the descendants of the three sons of Noah:  Shem, Ham and Japheth.  Generations come and go, the population multiplies, time passes – long enough that the flood becomes a distant memory – a myth, a fairy tale, a story you tell around the campfire at night.  But no one takes it seriously, and in time, no one takes God seriously – again. 

The knowledge of God dwindles, and what takes God’s place?  The elevation of self, and the glorification of human potential.  (Like we’ve observed before – it’s first in Genesis that we get a good look at ourselves, and find out that people haven’t changed very much.)

We see the attitude as we read Gen. 11:1-4 – Now the whole world had one language and a common speech. As men moved eastward, they found a plain in Shinar and settled there. They said to each other, “Come, let’s make bricks and bake them thoroughly.” They used brick instead of stone, and tar for mortar. Then they said, “Come, let us build ourselves a city, with a tower that reaches to the heavens, so that we may make a name for ourselves and not be scattered over the face of the whole earth.”

Now, we get a little slice of the ancient world.  We’re in Mesopotamia.  One day it will become a nation that will dominate the ancient world with its military power.  At this point, it is a crossroads as people move and expand into new lands.  The new settlers see potential – “let’s build a city and a tower and make a name for ourselves – people will come from everywhere to live here.”  What we can gather from that is that they are beginning to advance in culture.  They no longer build mud huts with thatch roofs, they’ve grown beyond stacking stones.  This is the newest technology – “let’s bake our own bricks and use tar for mortar” .  This way they can build taller and stronger.  In fact, there are ancient ziggurats that still stand as monuments to a great society of people.

There is nothing inherently wrong with building a tower.  God made us creative beings – when Brad or Kurt use their talents to design structures, when Brent or Steve build houses – they are using God-given gifts – the structures they build are expressions of something that is inspired by God himself – that desire to create.

What is wrong – with this or anything that we might attempt to do – is found in the attitude that motivates it.  In this case, pride and arrogance – it is a self-centered, self-glorifying accomplishment.  It is already an age-old yearning planted by Satan – “You will be just like God.”  You can just hear the reveling and celebration at the ground breaking ceremony.  This is going to be big.

Verse 5 says, “But the Lord came down…”  They attempted to reach the heavens, but the writer puts it into perspective.  God didn’t even notice until he came down to where they were – it was an accomplishment of relative insignificance.  Now understand, just as when God asks questions, he’s not asking for information.  When it says, “God came down” it’s not as if he isn’t already here.  There is nothing outside of God’s attention.  But if they think they are building something to rival God, it’s laughable.  Our greatest accomplishments, our grandest successes pale before the least of God’s everyday works.

But God is concerned.  When God saw the city and the tower the men were building he 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.”

Is God intimidated or threatened?  No.  He sees the end results of their short term success – absolute trust in themselves and no sense of their need for God.  Ultimately, they will become so calloused and hardened that God could never reach them.  Is that success?

There have been times in history when this same kind of human potential movement has overshadowed and threatened to eliminate the “need” for God.  We’ve talked about the Enlightenment of the 18th century with the rise of science and the rapid accumulation of knowledge that relegated God to the “gaps” – those areas of relative insignificance that man just hasn’t figured out yet.  But beginning with the 1960’s we experienced another explosion of knowledge and technology and the onset of the age of the computer (I remember sitting at my first Tandy Model 1 computer in 1983 – it was slow, it was relatively functionless – it was at best a glorified typewriter.)  Within thirty years we were all carrying around our own pocket size computers with more computing capacity than the computers that sent astronauts to the moon in 1969.

And every year, the technology gets more sophisticated and advanced, and knowledge gets more detailed and far-reaching.  At what cost, though?  Depersonalization, a widening gap between the haves and have-nots, a de-emphasis on the spiritual, a blatant rejection of religion.  God has become an anachronism – out of date, irrelevant – a symbol of an earlier pre-modern time of ignorance.

Is technology inherently evil?  Like the tower of Babel, no.  It is the resultant attitudes that accompany it.  When we exalt humankind and replace God with self - we have sold out for a cheap, shoddy bargain.

If we don’t hear anything else from this story, let’s make sure we hear that God is sovereign – he is in control.  Listen to verse 7:  “Come let us go down and confuse their language so they will not understand each other.”  So the Lord scattered them from there over all the earth, and they stopped building the city.  That is why it was called Babel – because there the Lord confused the language of the whole world.  From there the Lord scattered them over the face of the whole earth.  (Gen. 11:7-9)

How does he exercise control? 

He begins by confusing their language.  The fact is, even when we speak the same language we have trouble cooperating and working toward unified goals.  Their unification and cooperation, from our perspective, seems like a positive thing – think of what a better world this would be if we could come together and agree on the issues that divide us.  But God saw where this was leading – not to draw them together and on a path toward him, but toward arrogance and domination and ultimately further away from him.

And so God confused their language.  It doesn’t take much to sidetrack our common goals.  In their case, it brought them to a standstill.  Remember I mentioned that this would one day be the great nation?  They wanted to make a name for themselves, and it is at this moment that it received its name:  “Babel” – similar to the Hebrew word for “confusion.”  Babel, out of which Babylon will develop will be a monument, not to human achievement, but to God’s sovereignty.

Second, he scatters them over the whole earth.  Remember their original intention for gathering and building there?  “…so that we… will not be scattered over the face of the whole earth.”  God defeats this purpose and scatters them across the face of the land. 

We might look at God’s actions and assume they were punitive – intended to punish, but I think God did what he did to avert greater problems later on.  His ultimate purpose is not to punish and destroy, but to discipline and reconcile.

In Genesis 11, God exercised his concerned discipline in the life of a great people.  Pride and arrogance are a great danger as much for a nation as for an individual.  Humility is the antidote.  A relationship with God is the opportunity and reward.  If we are full of self, we are incapable of recognizing our need for God.  Only when self is emptied does that relationship become a possibility.

The second thing I want us to take away from Genesis 11, as we have come to anticipate all the way through Genesis, is that God isn’t finished.

Beginning in vs. 10, the writer starts listing the descendents of Shem – not an arbitrary, dry-as-dust list of people, but a purposeful recounting of a lineage and a plan.  A plan that unfolds throughout scripture – one which we can only fully understand in its fulfillment in Jesus Christ.

It is a plan which began in the mind of God before the creation of the world – it is a plan for the redemption of his lost people.

What God scattered at Babel, he will once again gather together in his church.  The OT prophets Jeremiah, Isaiah, and Micah all prophecy of  a time when all the nations will say, “Come, let us go up to the mountain of the LORD, to the house of the God of Jacob. He will teach us his ways, so that we may walk in his paths.”

Paul will declare that purpose in Ephesians 2:12-14 – Remember at that time you were separate from Christ, excluded from citizenship in Israel and foreigners to the covenants of the promise, without hope and without God in the world.  But now in Christ Jesus you who once were far away have been brought near through the blood of Christ.  For he himself is our peace, who has made the two one and has destroyed the barrier, the dividing wall of hostility.

What God confused in Babel, God will make clear on the day of Pentecost in Jerusalem:   Now there were staying in Jerusalem God-fearing Jews from every nation under heaven. When they heard this sound, a crowd came together in bewilderment, because each one heard them speaking in his own language. (Acts 2:5-6)  The gospel, and only the gospel is capable of transcending our differences.  It reaches beyond our languages to make us one in Jesus Christ.

It’s a reminder that God’s plan doesn’t always resolve itself like a 30 minute sitcom or even a 3 hour movie.  We may not be able to make sense of what God is doing by next month or next year – it may not even be in my lifetime.  But I have faith that whatever God is doing in my life is a part of a bigger picture, of which I may only be an extra cast member.  I may not play the starring role, and in fact, my life’s greatest value may be as a supporting role to someone else – an Aaron to Moses, a Barnabas to Paul, a John to Jesus.  Even that may be overstating my importance – but it is to say that what I do and how I live is important to God and I need to see myself as a part of the larger story which is still being told by God.

And speaking of the larger story…  When we come to Genesis 11:27, we read “Terah became the father of Abram…”  There, buried in this list of descendents (like reading a telephone book) is a name that suddenly grabs our attention and reminds us that God is not finished.

Abraham, the father of the faithful, the friend of God. Abraham, whose name rings out like a bell through the pages of the Old Testament, and whose name will be the very definition of faith in the New.

God was not finished with them, nor is he yet finished with us.  In spite of our pride, our sin, our selfishness, God sent his son to die for us.  God doesn’t leave us to our own devices.  He challenges us and convicts us and calls us to return to him.

What is your tower that you are building to “make a name for yourself”?  A successful career, an investment portfolio, houses and cars, awards and accomplishments?  The Psalmist wrote, “Unless the Lord builds the house, its builders labor in vain.”  (Ps. 127:1)  There is nothing inherently wrong with any of those goals, unless you are doing it without God.  If you “make a name for yourself” at the expense of your relationship with God, you can probably see Babel off in the distance.