Lessons from a Tower

Genesis 11

Alan Lewis
Elon, North Carolina
January 2015

Today, I want to look at a very familiar story in Scripture.  It is the story of a massive building project called the Tower of Babel.  It was an architectural marvel in its own day.  It doesn’t much compare to tall buildings in our own day.  The tallest building in the world today is in Dubai.  It was built in 2010 and is almost 3000 feet tall.  It has 163 floors but it was still impressive by their standards.  Ours are taller today and a little sturdier.  We do not use mud bricks.  We use steel or concrete.

Skeptics mock this story but this is a story that we have archaeological evidence for.  No one has ever discovered the tower that these men built but archaeologists have found many just like them in the area of Mesopotamia.  They are called ziggurats.  They looked like a pyramid.

There are about thirty of them in the area.  The Sumerians, Babylonians, Elamites, Akkadians, and Assyrians all built them.  At the center of each major city in Mesopotamia was one of these large structures.  The Tower of Babel apparently was the first one ever built.  It has never been found but the thirty that have been found were based on the original Tower of Babel.

When I was in Chicago, I went to the same church as an OT scholar named Gleason Archer. He was a very smart man.  He knew 27 languages.  He went to Princeton.  He got his PhD from Harvard in Classics.  I told him that I would be teaching on the Tower of Babel on Sunday and he wanted to know how I would find it.

This one story is fascinating.  It is misunderstood by some.  There is a lot of figurative language in this chapter.  If you take everything literally in this passage, you run into all kinds of problems.  There are three things I want to us all to see in this passage: a surprising sin, an unusual judgment and an incredible miracle.  All three of these are in this short story, which takes up only nine verses.  We want to look at that and then I want to look at some applications that come right out of this story.

Before we begin, let’s look at the setting of this story.  They got off the ark and migrated east.  As you move east from that area, you come to Southern Mesopotamia (modern day Iraq).  When they got there, they wanted to do two things. They want to build a city and they want to build a tower (11:4).  When did it take place?  The chronology is very interesting.

We know that it took place after the Flood but that doesn’t tell us much.  Did it take place fifty years or a thousand years after the Flood?  If you read Genesis very closely, you can find the answer.  Genesis gives us three important hints.  The first hint is that it took place in the time of Peleg (10:25).  It took place in his lifetime.  His name means “division”. When did he live?  He was born one hundred years after the Flood (cf. 11:12-16).  That is the second hint.  If you add up the numbers 35, 30 and 34 from that genealogy, you get about a hundred.

The third hint in Genesis is that Peleg lived about two hundred years (11:19).  That means that this took place two to three hundred years after the Flood.  Why is that important?  Noah would still have been alive when it was built.  The Bible says that Noah lived for 350 years after the Flood (9:28).  Who built the tower?  Genesis calls them “the children of men” (11:5).  These also happen to be Noah’s kids, his great, great grandchildren.  He would have been horrified.

Much of what they did was good. These builders were united.  Unity is a good thing.  We are commanded as Christians to “maintain the unity of the Spirit in the bond of peace” (Ephesians 4:3).  The people of Shinar were of one language and even of one speech.  Apparently, they not only spoke the same language, they spoke the same dialect.

That does not describe the church today, which is completely divided. This group at Babel had complete unity.  They had a common task that they were all engaged in doing.  Getting the whole world united on one task is no small matter. Of course, the world was not as big then as it is now.

These builders are also hard working.  They built two things: a city and a tower (11:4). This took a lot of work.  The people who built this tower were not lazy.  They spent a lot of hours working in the hot Sun.  It would have taken years to build this tower.  The Bible commends hard work.  Proverbs 13:4 says, “The soul of the sluggard craves and gets nothing, while the soul of the diligent is richly supplied.”  Proverbs 14:23 says, “In all toil there is profit, but mere talk tends only to poverty.”

These builders were also creative.  This job involved ingenuity and creativity.  They wanted to build a big tower but they had one problem.  They didn’t have any stones and they did not have any cement.  They had stones in Israel but not in Babylon.  They lived in Mesopotamia and there were few stones available.

They had to make their own stones.  They learned how to make mud bricks.  The technology is still used today (adobe bricks).  You can go onto YouTube and find out how to make mud bricks.  It is a science project in some schools.

A Surprising Sin

What sin was committed in Genesis 11? This raises all kinds of questions to think about.  What was wrong with what they did?  It doesn’t seem like such a terrible thing to do.  What didn’t God like about what they were doing?  Why did God stop the building program?

Doesn’t God doesn’t like tall buildings?  What’s wrong with building a tall tower?  What is wrong with making a beautiful tower? What is the big deal about making a skyscraper?  Every big city has one today.

Is architecture a sin?  Is God against all architects, builders and contractors?  That cannot be right.  Noah just finished a building project.  He built a huge boat that was bigger than a football field.  Why did He oppose these builders?  Is God against creativity or ingenuity?  As far as we know, this was the first tower ever built by man.  They were innovators. This was visionary.  This was the first skyscraper in history.

Is God against technology?  They had to use some modern technology to build this building.  Is Genesis 11 anti-technology?  Was God against cities?  Does God hate cities?  Was the problem that these were city slickers? What’s the problem?

What did they do wrong?  The problem was NOT what they built.  There is nothing wrong with building a tall building or building a skyscraper.  They did three things wrong.  They committed three sins that made God angry.

Pride

The sin was not the building of a tower.  There was nothing wrong with what they built or even how they built it. The problem was WHY they built this tower. The problem was their MOTIVE. Their sin is found in 11:4: “Come, let US build OURSELVES a city, with a tower that reaches to the heavens, so that WE may make a name FOR OURSELVES”.  Notice how self-centered this tasks is.

This tower was a monument to human pride.  We still do this today.  Sometimes we even do the right things for the wrong reason.  There is nothing wrong with doing things, even doing great things.  Noah worked on a building project for over a hundred years.  He did not do it so he could be in the Guinness Book of Records.  He did it because God told him to do it.

It is worthwhile to contrast the humility of Abraham with the pride of Babel.  God told Abraham “Get out of your country, from your family and from your father’s house, to a land that I will show you. I will make you a great nation; I will bless you and make your name great” (12:1 NKJV). God, not Abraham, was the one who made his name great.   Abraham probably thought he would be totally forgotten when he left his family.  God said, “I will make your name great”.  The builders at Babel tried to make their name great but it backfired.  Instead of being famous, they became infamous.

Rebellion

Genesis 11:4 says, “And they said, “Come, let us build ourselves a city, and a tower whose top is in the heavens; let us make a name for ourselves, LEST WE BE SCATTERED ABROAD OVER THE FACE OF THE EARTH” (NKJV).  This was not just a tower.  It was an act of rebellion.  God told Noah to ““Be fruitful and multiply, and fill the earth” (9:1).  It was intentional and deliberate rebellion.  It was an act of direct defiance to the known will of God.

God said, “Be dispersed.” They said, “We don’t want to be dispersed and we are not going to be dispersed.”  Many preachers call this building with God and not thinking of God when we make our plans.  This was not just building without God.  It was building in direct and deliberate defiance to God.

Idolatry

You wouldn’t know this from reading Genesis.  The text does not say this explicitly but we know that the tower they built was religious in nature.  They used it to worship idols.  How do we know this?  We know it from archaeology.

These Mesopotamian Ziggurats were not just tall buildings.   They were temples.  They were temple towers.  They had temples at the top of them. Most modern skyscrapers are not religious in nature.  They are just all buildings.  This tower was actually a church but not a church that worshiped the true God.

One of the largest of these ziggurats was discovered at Babylon.  It was seven stories high was built to the Babylonian god Marduk.  It was one of the wonders of the ancient world. These cities had temples to other gods but they would only have a ziggurat to the main god of the city.  It was limited to the local patron deity.

They were built really high so they could be close to the gods.  They could have been built at ground level but on top of the ziggurat they thought they would be closer to the gods.  They were considered homes of the gods.

An Unusual Judgment

“But the Lord came down to see the city and the tower which the sons of men had built. 6 And the Lord said, “Indeed the people are one and they all have one language, and this is what they begin to do; now nothing that they propose to do will be withheld from them. 7 Come, let Us go down and there confuse their language, that they may not understand one another’s speech.” 8 So the Lord scattered them abroad from there over the face of all the earth, and they ceased building the city. 9 Therefore its name is called Babel, because there the Lord confused the language of all the earth; and from there the Lord scattered them abroad over the face of all the earth.” (NKJV)

This raises many questions.  Couldn’t God see what was going on from heaven?  Why did he have to come down to see what was going on?  Isn’t God omniscient?  Doesn’t He know all things?  Yes.

This is called anthropomorphism.  It is a figure of speech.  It describes God in human terms.  It is no more literal than when the Bible says that God sets his face against evil or stretches out his hands against Egypt or when it says that they eyes of the Lord are on the righteous.  God does not have hands or a face.  He does not have literal eyes.  It is a figure of speech.

The point is not that God had to look down to find out what was happening.  It just means that God took special notice of it.  The point is that the tower was so small that God had to come down to even see it.  It looked big to the builders but not to God.  Many buildings look huge on earth but if you are in an airplane, they are microscopic.  You can barely see them.  This shows how insignificant this tower was to God.

Why did God say, “Indeed the people are one and they all have one language, and this is what they begin to do; now nothing that they propose to do will be withheld from them” (11:6)? Was God worried if they built this tower than they could do anything?  Was He threatened by them?   No.

God is omnipotent.  He is not threatened by a few bricks and mortar. In fact, He is so not threatened by this tower that He did not even destroy it.  He could have stepped on it and squashed it.  He could have killed all of the builders.  He wiped out the entire planet just a few hundred years before this.  He did not do that.  Instead, he gave them all new languages in judgment.  Those languages are not a monument to human ingenuity but are a monument to human sin.  It is a testimony to the depravity of the race.

God did not have to kill the builders.  He just divided them.  He caused division.  God likes unity but here He caused division.  It’s kind of funny when you think about it. This is one of the funniest parts of the Bible. It shows that God has a sense of humor. They couldn’t communicate with each other, so they could not continue the project.

They could not even talk to one another.  One may began speaking in Chinese and another man replied in German.  No one was hurt.  No one was injured.  They just couldn’t understand each other and stopped working on the project and eventually went their own separate paths.  What would it be like if you could not understand your wife or kids?

God was not threatened by these builders but He did take their actions seriously.  This was not just rebellion, it was a conspiracy.  It was a global conspiracy to rebel against God.  It does not mean that they could literally do anything.  It is another figure of speech.  It just shows the seriousness and danger of united rebellion against God.  God’s judgment involved two things.  God gave them a new language and scattered them, ending the building project.

An Incredible Miracle

The Tower of Babel is a very important event in human  history. It gives us the origin of languages.  In Genesis 11, everyone spoke only one language (11:1). No one knows what that language was. The text doesn’t say but it does say that they spoke on language. Many call Genesis 11 the first UN Summit Meeting.  That is a very common interpretation.

When preachers want to rail against the UN, they usually turn to Genesis 11 but there is only one problem.  There was only one nation on the earth at this time, so it could not possibly be the first UN Meeting.  In Genesis 11, there is one language and nation.

Today, there are over seven thousand languages are spoken in the world. The most spoken language in the world today is Chinese.  About five hundred and eight million people speak English but over a billion people speak Mandarin.

How is it that we are all genetically related and yet so linguistically diverse? Where did all of these languages come from?  How did we go from one language to many languages?  Evolution cannot explain how where languages came from.  Genesis 11 tells us where they came from.  God created them supernaturally.  This was a linguistic miracle.

It is the exact opposite of Pentecost.  There were some similarities.  In both cases, people spoke a language that they had never learned.  In both cases, it was completely supernatural and miraculous but Pentecost was the reversal of Babel.  In one case, people understood the foreign languages.  In the other case, the languages were not understood.  One resulted in unity and one resulted in division.  One was a blessing.  The other involved divine judgment on sin.  One brought confusion and one brought amazement and wonder.

Lessons from This Tower

1) Man’s program is not the same thing as God’s program.

God says “My thoughts are not your thoughts, neither are your ways my ways… As the heavens are higher than the earth, so are my ways higher than your ways and my thoughts than your thoughts.” (Isaiah 55:8-9). His ways are not just different from our ways, they are HIGHER than our ways.  What God thinks is important is different from what the world thinks is important.   God’s program is different from man’s program.  God takes sin seriously.

Man wanted to stay in one place and build a big tower.  That seemed like a good idea to them.  God wanted everyone to spread out and fill the earth.  The same is still true today.  What God commands in His Word is very different from what the world says is acceptable.

2) Disobedience is always counterproductive.

God said to spread out over the world but many thought it would be better to stay together in one place but they ended up worse off in the end.  We sometimes think if we disobey God we will be better off. The truth is that God gives us commandments because they are good for us.  He does not give us commands to hold us back but to help us.  It is like a parent that tells a child not to run out in the middle of a busy street.  As James MacDonald used to say, “When God says don’t, he means don’t hurt yourself”.

3) Pride causes a fall.

Proverbs 16:8 says, “Pride goes before destruction, a haughty spirit before a fall.” Jesus said, “All those who exalt themselves will be humbled, and those who humble themselves will be exalted” (Luke 14:11 NIV). When the Titanic was built, it was called an unsinkable ship.  People said that even God Himself could not sink it but pride went before a fall.  The builders of Babel exalted themselves.  They were humbled.  Abraham humbled himself.  He was exalted.  It is a clear biblical principle.

4) Unity is not always good.

This seems a little strange to us. Here people were completely united.  They were all working together on a common project and God scattered them.  Why?  Doesn’t God believe in unity?  Isn’t unity a good thing?  David said in the OT, “How good and pleasant it is when God’s people live together in unity!” (Psalm 133:1 NIV).  God looks down at man and doesn’t say, “Isn’t it great that all of my creatures are getting along and working together.”  Why?

Unity is NOT always a good thing.  That is a myth.  The people in Genesis 11 were united in their rebellion against God. God said to Jeremiah, “Do not pray for this people nor offer any plea or petition for them; do not plead with me, for I will not listen to you. Do you not see what they are doing in the towns of Judah and in the streets of Jerusalem? The children gather wood, the fathers light the fire, and the women knead the dough and make cakes to offer to the Queen of Heaven. They pour out drink offerings to other gods to arouse my anger. But am I the one they are provoking? declares the Lord. Are they not rather harming themselves, to their own shame?” (Jeremiah 7:16-19).

That is a picture of great unity.  Everyone is working together.  The parents and children are all involved but it is unity in idolatry and false religion.    God says that it only hurts themselves. Jesus even said that unity is not always a good thing.  The Bible predicts a future day in which the whole world will worship the Antichrist.  We see this in Revelation 13:8.  The whole world will worship the beast.   They will have great unity but it will be unity around the Antichrist.

5) God sometimes helps us obey Him when we do not want to.

When we do not want to do what God tells us to do, sometimes He gives us a push in the right direction.  Just ask Jonah.  God told him to do one thing and he did the exact opposite until God got a hold of him.  Here, God told man to scatter.  They refused, so God forced them to scatter.  The same thing happened in the NT to the church.  Jesus told them to be witnesses to end the ends of the earth.  They stayed in Jerusalem instead.  Finally, a great persecution of the church took place and they were forced to scatter and go elsewhere.

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