Tower of Babel

Even though lunch today is at Fajita Flats, I brought along a suggestion from a restaurant I was recently visiting called La Place in Hengelo, The Netherlands. Here’s also a list of today’s specials; I can highly recommend the voorgerecht.

(Other handouts go here: the complete menu, shopping flyers, German newspaper, Dutch newspaper, French airport guide. If you’re reading this online, you’re out of luck.)

One of the toughest things about traveling is the language barrier between us and the country. It’s rewarding and exciting to travel outside of the touristy areas, but the further you get away, the more language becomes a problem.

About a year and a half ago, Diane accompanied me on a business trip to Europe, and one of the places we stayed at was a little French town of Honfluer in lower Normandy. It was quaint, a little fishing village of about 8000 people. Diane and I had just arrived in France earlier that day and driven in from Paris and were sitting down to our first meal. We chose a little outdoor café where we could watch the sights and the people and enjoy the sunshine. The waitress came by to drop off some menus and I asked, “English menus?” and she shook her head no. Diane and I stared at the words in French.

So, like a gentleman, I offered to order for Diane. When the waitress came back, I pointed at Diane and said, “She’ll have” and then pointed at the menu, “this, this, and this.” Then I pointed at me and said, “I’ll have that, that, and that.” The waitress wrote it down, smiled, and walked off.

Diane asked me what I had ordered. “For you, I ordered this this and this. For me, that that and that. Pay attention.” I had little idea what I had ordered. I recognized a few words from previous trips, so I was fairly certain I had ordered some sort of chicken with potatoes, but I may have ordered snails with motor oil.

Communication is very difficult when there is a language barrier. You know, I’ve discovered that, even when we all speak English, communication is difficult. We say one thing, our spouse hears another. Our spouse says one thing, we hear something else. Why is communication so difficult? Let’s turn to Genesis 11 and study the chapter on scrambled communication, The Tower of Babel. Genesis 11:1-9:

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.”

But the LORD came down to see the city and the tower that the men were building. 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. 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.

I had to look up the pronunciation since I’ve heard it pronounced “babble” and “BAY-bell.” Turns out the correct pronunciation is “buh-BELL.”

Verse 1, “Now the whole world had one language and a common speech.” When did this take place? Some scholars look back a chapter at Genesis 10 verse 5, 20, and 31 which tell us that Noah’s offspring had their own language. For instance, in Genesis 10:5 it says, “From these the maritime peoples spread out into their territories by their clans within their nations, each with its own language.” So it seems reasonable that the building of the tower took place soon after the flood and before Noah’s offspring had completely left to populate the earth. This makes sense; in Genesis 9:7 as God was placing His rainbow in the sky, God told Noah, “As for you, be fruitful and increase in number; multiply on the earth and increase upon it.” And Genesis 10 tells us that Noah had a son named Ham who had a son named Cush who had a son named Nimrod and that Nimrod was a mighty hunter before the LORD, and Genesis 10:10 says Nimrod founded Babylon in the plain of Shinar. Instead of these sons of Noah spreading out and populating the earth, though, men thought they knew better than God. Instead of spreading out, they found a plain in Shinar and settled there. Huh. Direct disobedience to what God told them to do. Of course, *we* would never do that, would we?

Genesis 11:3-4 says,

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.”

Where’s God in this decision? Let us make bricks, let us build ourselves a city, so that *we may make a name for ourselves* and not be scattered over the face of the whole earth. We see man deciding that he knows better than God. When we go against God’s instruction, it is always evil. It is always sin. It is the same sort of sin that has tempted man since the Garden of Eden. We know better than God what we need. We know better than God what’s important. So here we see Godly men, mighty hunters before the LORD, giving way to their own desires again.

The evil in this case is in numbers; the safety in numbers is a flawed concept when compared to being in the safety of God, but these men wanted to make a name for themselves. Perhaps with the flood still fresh in their minds, they wanted to build a tower of safety. Instead of trusting God’s rainbow, they will trust themselves. This is the beginning of secular humanism, thousands of years before we gave it a name. Safety in numbers does not provide safety in the world. Safety in the world is obtained by trusting in God. Correct worship of God is in trust and obedience in Him.

This secular humanism, trusting man instead of God, continues today. While we can blame our secular society for teaching to trust in man, in separation of church and state, it continues inside each and every one of us. We give lip service to trusting in God, but when we find some instruction from God in God’s Word that we don’t like, we trust ourselves first. Oh, I’m not going to do that, certainly God can’t mean that. Or, I know that God says that, but he doesn’t understand our difficult that is, so I’m going to do it my way. This secular humanism, this trusting in ourselves, leads to pride. If we’re going to trust ourselves, then we must promote ourselves until we are on equal footing with God. Or we must bring God down to our level so that we seem better than we are. These descendents of Nimrod are saying, “let us build a tower so that we may make a name for ourselves.” Trust in ourselves leads us to inflate our own egos. Let us not be fooled; we are not God. Making a name for ourselves is not God’s plan. Fellowship with our Lord and giving praise to God’s name is His plan.

Is God pleased by pride? Genesis 11:5-7,

But the LORD came down to see the city and the tower that the men were building. 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. Come, let us go down and confuse their language so they will not understand each other.”

While men believed they were building a tower that reached to the heavens as a monument to themselves, from God’s perspective, this was a puny little project. Whatever they were trying to build for themselves, these people had no claim to greatness. When people begin to rely on people and we inflate our own egos and we begin to act like we are gods, nothing seems impossible. But look at our track record as people independent from God. Have we ended war? Have we ended poverty? Have we ended hunger? Have we ended sickness or disease or global warming or pollution or overpopulation or illegal immigration or child abuse or murder or stealing or anything else? Is there anything man has accomplished apart from God?

This puny tower did not threaten God’s sovereignty. This puny tower was only huge in the eyes of the people that created it. I don’t believe God took the building of the tower as a threat, but God did take the sin of pride that led to the building of the tower seriously. God’s plan was for man to spread out and populate the earth, and instead, man has staked a spot in the desert and is building a monument to himself. This is a step along the path to disobedience and the resulting consequences. Whenever we attempt to be our own God, God will confuse our plans. God already has a plan and doesn’t want us to make our own plans independent from Him. The common language of the people led to achievement, which led to prideful disobedience. They substituted their own purposes for God’s purposes.

Discussion questions –
If we believe we can accomplish anything, is that right or wrong? Why?
What things do people do today that show they trust themselves more than they trust God?

I think of how powerful and omniscient and holy God is, looking down at this pitiful little tower and seeing man placing their faith in their own accomplishments. How little it takes for us to develop pride in ourselves. Apart from Him, we can do nothing, but often we think we can do anything we want without repercussions. God could have easily toppled the tower, just given it a little tap and knocked it over. But I think we’d be like some sort of human ant colony, we’d start scurrying around and swarming and rebuilding the monument to ourselves. Instead of using brick instead of stone, and tar for mortar, we’d delude ourselves by upgrading the building material. We’d build towers out of steel and glass, skyscrapers reaching to the sky to demonstrate the power of man. It’s still all self-delusional accomplishments. It pales next to the creations of God.

God does something more amazing than knocking over an anthill; He confuses their language. While Nimrod and the people have this wonderful idea to band together to worship themselves, God effortlessly stops them. Nimrod’s idea to unite the world in one religion of secular humanity depended on effective communication. With the inability to communicate effectively disabled, Nimrod’s idea still gave birth to alternative worship, alternative man-made gods, that we still are dealing with today. Nimrod may have failed at creating a single unified counterfeit religion, but he still created the basic idea of a counterfeit religion. Even now, man’s belief in his own superiority leads to confusion, conflict, wars, and often based on counterfeit, man-made religion. All because man attempted to create a plan independent of God.

The sin of pride in man’s own accomplishment no doubt led to the first of God’s Ten Commandments, “Thou shalt have no other gods before me.” God acts here to prevent man from establishing a counterfeit, uniform worship that would disrupt God’s plan of redemption. By confusing their language, man could no longer find adequate safety in numbers. With communication problems, now they become suspicious of each other, sometimes angry at each other when communication is impossible. They had tried to band together to show they could unite in rebellion against God, but now, effortlessly, God made that impossible.

Lastly, in Genesis 11:8-9,

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.

It’s ironic; they find themselves doing God’s will, whether they want to or not. They wanted to proclaim themselves free of God, able to do their own will, but God scattered them all over the face of the earth. Where they once had freedom to go where they wanted to and fulfill the Lord’s command to populate the earth, now the Lord simply scattered them. In search of their own freedom, they now find themselves in slavery to their sin. The Lord is always in control and His will is always done. We can have the freedom to do it His way, or He will accomplish His will without us. God works out His plan through people who resist Him as well as people who obey Him. Nimrod and his followers discovered God’s control through His judgment. Ultimately, every human who rebels against the Lord also discovers the same thing. God is and always has been and always will be in control. We have the freedom to be in His will, but we do not have to freedom to override His will.

More discussion:
Why do people, even believers, sometimes resist God’s will and directions?
How does God accomplish His will anyway even if people resist Him?

So “bay-bell” or “babble” or “buh-bell” in the ancient Hebrew means “to confuse by mixing.” Where is the tower of Babel today? The plain of Shinar is today’s modern day Iraq, and Babel eventually became Babylon. Today, it’s an area of ruins about 60 miles south of Baghdad. It’s amazing that the defiance of God and the source of much of the world’s continuing confusion still emanates from the same place after all these centuries.

Is it God’s will that we cannot communicate with each other? No, God’s will here at the Tower of Babel ended man’s ability to unite together in defiance of God. Man is still in defiance of God, but there are dozens and dozens of man-made religions and are no longer united against the Lord. God’s will is that we are able to communicate His purpose. In Acts 2 as the Holy Spirit came upon men, it says “we heard them declaring the wonders of God in our own tongues!” When we unite behind God’s purpose, God can facilitate our communication. The first thing, though, before we communicate with each other, is to communicate with God. We read God’s Word so He speaks to us; we go to the Lord in prayer so we can speak to Him. How can we possibly know God’s will if we’re not in communication with Him? We should choose to talk to God and cooperate with Him first. I believe we’ll find our communication with each other is far, far better if we’re in communication with our heavenly father first.

As humanity spreads out across the earth, we see a small remnant that worships the one true God, and the rest of humanity abandoning God and worshiping itself or other false religions. And we can begin to see how God is going to take this mess that humanity makes and offer us a true relationship with Him. From Adam and Eve who sought to become their own gods and know right from wrong, God’s justice banned them from the Garden of Evil and the Tree of Life. We saw through Cain and Abel as humanity’s ability to sin further separated us from God as Cain killed Abel. The true worship of our Lord continued through Seth, the son of Adam, but by the time of Noah, the true worship of God was only alive in one man, and through the story of the ark, God’s grace was extended to Noah and his family and the human race was spared. And even with the flood, we see that man’s ability to try to make himself his own God continuing as Nimrod’s people attempt to build a tower, a monument, to their own secular power.

At the end of Genesis 11 in verse 10, we see a genealogy emerge. We know from Genesis 10 that Noah had 3 sons to continue the true worship of the Lord; Ham, Shem and Japheth. Ham fathered Cush, Cush fathered Nimrod. The apostasy of Nimrod led to the rise of the pride in humanity and the consequences of the Tower of Babel. But in another line from Noah, God’s true name is worshipped. Two years after the flood, Shem became the father of Asphaxad who fathered Shelah. Shelah fathered Eber who fathered Peleg. Peleg fathered Reu who fathered Serug. Serug fathered Nahor who fathered Terah who became the father of Abram. And in Abram the worship of God is being preserved.

We see a repeat of Noah; Abram alone is worshipping the one true God while the rest of the world, now a confusion of many languages. Will God repeat the flood? No, He made a covenant with Noah and sealed it with His rainbow. No, God will not destroy humanity with another flood. God has a new plan of redemption that He will establish, beginning with Abram. While Nimrod said, “Let us build a city,” through Abram God promises, “I will make of thee a great nation.” The nation that God will create through Abram shall identify the one true God to a world that has turned from Him. Nimrod, the mighty hunter whose name means “rebellion,” sought to make a city, a tower for themselves. God’s plan was to make a nation unto Him.

Our communication problem, even when we’re all speaking English, is a result of man’s pride so many centuries ago. God did not create us to create little monuments to ourselves. God created us to show His glory in a world that continually turns its back on Him. While His perfect judgment led to our multitude of languages, His Holy Spirit unifies us and gives us a singular purpose. We become one in the body with each other when we are in communication with He who created us. Let us seek Him and communicate with Him through prayer and worship and obedience, and we will find that we can communicate with each other far better than if we try to do it without Him.

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6 thoughts on “Tower of Babel

  1. says, “When we are so focused on building little monuments to ourselves, we can’t see the big picture. God’s picture. Communicate with Him first and do His will, and then communications with others is far better.” See hisTower of Babel, a study of Genesis 11. Don Bosch at The Evangelical Ecologist says: “I’m a big fan of Touchstone’s blog and the posts of senior editor S. M. Hutchens in particular. A very deep guy. That’s why I was intrigued when I found (while googling

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  2. That pride. It’ll kill you. I’m learning, slowly, about the real cause of my communication problems with certain people close to me. Guess what? It’s not all their fault! You are so right, I need to have excellent communication with God *first* and then allow His Holy Spirit to intervene in my relationship with others.

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  3. Jennifer, when I was given “Tower of Babel” to teach from, I was amazed that pride was the fall of man here. Just like in the Garden, just like… well, in everything. It’s the one sin that says, “I don’t need God.”

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  4. The Bible says what it says, giving no particular reason as to why God wouldn’t want one tongue or as a result of one tongue, the ability to accomplish all plans. It would seem to me if one were supposed to “interpret” the story that the first impulse would be to interpret it from a childlike point of view. That is, God must be jealous or threatened. The next instinctive answer might be that God doesn’t want accomplishments from a group level. Perhaps God wants individual progress not systematic hive like mentalities. At no time, unless planted previously in my head, would I have leaped to pride as an interpretation of the story.

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  5. What an enlightening study you have provided. We are truly living in the last days and many have build their own towers unto themselves. Lovers of themselves rather than lovers of God. Our newest mission is to unite. I am glad to use this model to make sure that we are first communicating with God and focusing to communicate His purpose and not our own. Second:Full Faith in Him and not our own accomplishments. Thank you.

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