Mercy, Hope, and The Tower of Babel
Most people have heard the story of Babel and the division of the languages. And while this is a story of God’s judgment on a prideful and arrogant people, God’s mercy can be found shining amongst the rubble.
While this occurrence happened only a few years after the flood, you may be surprised at how relatable it is today in our world, especially to those of us who know the unifying truth of the Gospel.
Now the whole earth used the same language and the same words. It came about as they journeyed east, that they found a plain in the land of Shinar and settled there. (Genesis 11:1-2)
Shinar means “country of two rivers.” These two rivers were the Tigris & Euphrates. This was likely in the same the same are as the Garden of Eden had been located. This land later becomes known as Babylonia or Chaldea and is near modern day Baghdad, Iraq.
How interesting it is that in the Garden, Adam and Eve listened to the serpent who said “You will be like God” and, here, in almost the same exact location several hundred years later, these people intend to do the same.
The land of Shinar was a lush and fertile land. This was a good place to build a city. They had plenty of land to spread out on and fertile land to graze their livestock on and raise fields.
As is often the case, as we live a life of comfort, prosperity, and leisure, mankind becomes arrogant and abandons God to seek after selfishness and greed.
“So long as the church endured hardship, and affliction, she was greatly preserved from revolts and backslidings; but after she had turned her face from the sun, and had found the plain of Shinar; that is, the fleshly contents that the pleasures, and profits, and honours of this world afford; she forgetting the word and order of God, was content, with Lot, to pitch towards Sodom; or, with the travellers in the text, to dwell in the land of Babel.” ~ John Bunyan2
They said to one another, “Come, let us make bricks and burn them thoroughly.” And they used brick for stone, and they used tar for mortar. They said, “Come, let us build for ourselves a city, and a tower whose top will reach into heaven, and let us make for ourselves a name, otherwise we will be scattered abroad over the face of the whole earth.” (Genesis 11:3-4)
“Come let us make bricks…” seems like a strange thing to mention in this story but there is more going on here than we first notice. Brick making was new technology at this time. Most structures were built using stone back then but in this land of Shinar, there were not stones to build with. So, they learned to create their own bricks. There were also large tar pits in the area. They collected the tar for mortar between the bricks. This still may not sound like that big of a deal but both of these enterprises were incredibly dangerous and labor intensive jobs.
When man desires to sin, when, as Romans 1 states, God has turned people over to their sin nature, inconvenience and hard work will not dissuade them from carrying out their evil.
Building a city was not sinful. However, in verse four, we see that what they were doing was. They were doing this in order to make a name for themselves. They wanted fame, notoriety, and admiration.
“There’s nothing wrong with building. There’s nothing wrong with sowing and reaping. Those are the tasks that God gave to us in creation, but they’re to be done under the authority of God. They’re to be done coram Deo, before the face of God, under the authority of God, and unto the glory of God.
“But what happened in the cosmic revolt? Man wanted to build a city for himself, to build his own kingdom. Man wanted to make a name for himself, not for God. And this is not a story of ancient defects of human beings. This is our story. We’re the players in this drama. Babel is representative of the whole human enterprise that we are so busily engaged in.” ~ RC Sproul8
This was a direct affront to God. All sin is but this was an to dethrone Him. Their contempt for God and their love of self was evident. This monument of their pride would not last. They did make a name for themselves, but it was not one they desired. They went down in history as an example of ugly pride, arrogance, weakness, destruction, derision, and a cause of much disunity and strife throughout all generations.
Twice in these two verses, we see the people encouraging one another in this evil task. Just as Eve usurped her role as ezer to Adam, these people fail one another. Rather than exhorting them to a life of holiness, they exhort on another into greater and greater sin.
“Great things may be brought to pass when the undertakers are numerous and unanimous, and stir up one another. Let us learn to provoke one another to love and to good works, as sinners stir up and encourage one another to wicked works.” ~ Matthew Henry5
The Lord came down to see the city and the tower which the sons of men had built. The Lord said, “Behold, they are one people, and they all have the same language. And this is what they began to do, and now nothing which they purpose to do will be impossible for them. Come, let Us go down and there confuse their language, so that they will not understand one another’s speech.” (Genesis 11:5-7)
“The Lord came down…” is not a denial of God’s omnipresence but a demonstration of His power compared to that of man. Here are the people of Babel working tirelessly day after day, year after year, one brick at a time to build a tower to heaven. And, here, God effortlessly descends to them.
“with what ease the Lord could overturn their insane attempts, and scatter abroad all their preparations.” ~ John Calvin3
It is also important to note that God did not come down to investigate what was going on as if He was unaware, but, rather, He was coming down to judge the people for their sin.
In this passage, we see another allusion to the Trinity. God says, “Come, let Us…” This is similar to the passage in Genesis where God says, “Let Us make man in Our image…” This is not a testament of polytheism or tritheism but of the Trinity: God the Father, God the Son, and God the Spirit.
For many years this passage bothered me. It seems, upon first reading, that God is in a bit of distress over man’s ability as if He is worried that man my have some sort of ability to over throw Him. However, this is not the case. This is a bit of God mocking these people who think much more highly of themselves than they aught. We can see this because God stops their plans immediately by nothing more than simply causing them to speak different languages.
This also shows how truly powerful God is. He could have caused a great earthquake or storm to destroy their buildings but He quietly and without great fanfare, immediately changes how they communicate.
This simple thing, communication, completely derails their plans and empties the city. What was simple for God, utterly destroyed man’s plans.
There are reports of even just a couple of hundred years ago from people traveling in this area claiming that this tower still stood. It was in ruins but it still stood as a testament of God’s power and the frailty of man’s plans.
“He suffered them to proceed a good way in their enterprise before he put a stop to it, that they might have space to repent, and, if they had so much consideration left, might be ashamed of it and weary of it themselves; and if not that their disappointment might be the more shameful, and every one that passed by might laugh at them, saying, These men began to build, and were not able to finish, that so the works of their hands, from which they promised themselves immortal honour, might turn to their perpetual reproach.” ~ Matthew Henry5
We should also recognize the great mercy God showed these sinners. God could have wiped them all out. They knew this. This was just over a hundred years after the flood. They all knew the story very well. But God, didn’t destroy them. The Bible doesn’t mention a single person that lost their life in this judgment of God. Rather, God confused their language.
Since I mentioned that this occurrence happened so soon after the flood, I also wanted to acknowledge something that I had not thought of before studying this chapter. John Calvin brought up the fact that it is likely that Noah was still alive during this time. People lived much longer than they do today. Noah was nine hundred and fifty years old when he died. He lived three hundred and fifty years after the flood. Having seen the destruction of perversion of man before the flood, I’m sure he was devastated to see his decedents returning to the same sinfulness and arrogance that led to God judging the world in the first place.
“It must, indeed, have added greatly to the weight of Noah’s sufferings, when he heard of this wicked counsel, which had been taken by his posterity. And it is not to be doubted that he was wounded with the deepest grief, when he beheld them, with devoted minds, rushing to their own destruction. But the Lord thus exercised the holy man, even in extreme old age, to teach us not to be discouraged by a continual succession of conflicts.” ~ John Calvin3
Now all people groups spoke different languages. They could no longer communicate adequately. This led to them breaking unity and scattering throughout the earth. This was their greatest fear but it was also God’s original command to them. They were to scatter upon the face of the earth and take dominion over it.
The original unity should have caused them to better communicate who God is and have one unified religion of the true God. However, even though they spoke the same language, they rejected the gracious and merciful God and pursued gods of their own making. Now, they spoke many different languages that, in modern day, has turned into what some estimate to be over 7,000 living languages.
In spite of this inability to communicate and this disunity, God started to reverse this curse at Pentecost. Full reversal will not take place until the time has come to an end but we see the promise of their reunification at Pentecost. This miracle shows us that true Israel, the true chosen people of God, the Church, has one language, one Gospel, one Savior, one Father to call upon and find mercy and grace.
“Now, although the world bears this curse to the present day; yet, in the midst of punishment, and of the most dreadful proofs of Divine anger against the pride of men, the admirable goodness of God is rendered conspicuous, because the nations hold mutual communication among themselves, though in different languages; but especially because He has proclaimed one gospel, in all languages, through the whole world, and has endued the Apostles with the gift of tongues. Whence it has come to pass, that they who before were miserably divided, have coalesced in the unity of the faith. In this sense Isaiah says, that the language of Canaan should be common to all under the reign of Christ, (Isaiah 19:18;) because, although their language may differ in sound, they all speak the same thing, while they cry, Abba, Father.” ~ John Calvin3
So the Lord scattered them abroad from there over the face of the whole earth; and they stopped building the city. Therefore its name was called Babel, because there the Lord confused the language of the whole earth; and from there the Lord scattered them abroad over the face of the whole earth. (Genesis 11:8-9)
The people’s great fear had come true. They were scattered. They had formed smaller bands of people which went in different directions. They would eventually develop different physical and cultural characteristics.
This diversity, however, is not part of the curse of Babel but an expression of God’s original plan for man to scatter throughout the earth. Diversity is not hierarchy. Rather it is God’s gift of variety to His creation. As with Creation week, God gifted us with variety in environments and foods for our joy and pleasure. He does the same with the variety in people in appearances, cultures, personalities, attire, expressions, etc… We should rejoice when we worship with a variety of people, for this is what heaven will be like; a gathering of all nations, all people groups, all tribes.
“Diversity is not an accident; it is a divine purpose. Diversity is not a problem; it is a divine gift. It does not reflect evolutionary development and social evolution; it reflects the imago Dei and the Genesis mandate to fill the earth.” ~ Albert Mohler7
We serve an omnipotent, omnipresent, omniscient, sovereign God. Though it seems, at times, evil men succeed in their evil plans, blasphemers prosper, and God-haters multiply, God is in complete control at all times. He may allow them success in their ventures for a time, but they will never ultimately dethrone our majestic King.
“Though the wicked join forces to exalt themselves, defy God, and assault His church, their efforts are ultimately futile. Society may ‘advance,’ but it is finally subject to the Lord’s holy evaluation.” ~ Ligonier9
We struggle to communicate effectively with others but God has unified His people in one story, in one hope, in one Savior. Though it may be complicated at times, the Good News we have it the only real hope for real unity in this life and the next. It is our charge to take this message to all people, all cultures, all languages.
“We are the stewards of the only story that saves, the only story that leads to the healing of the nations and the gathering of a new humanity in Christ. The gospel is the only story that offers real hope and the only story that celebrates what the world fears. Principalities and powers offer many plans but no real hope. The gospel offers a hope that celebrates the breaking down of ethnic barriers and celebrates the sound of the gospel in different languages and tongues.” ~ Albert Mohler7
1. “Babel Reversed”. 2017. Ligonier Ministries. http://www.ligonier.org/learn/devotionals/babel-reversed/.
2. Bunyan, John. 2017. “An Exposition On The First Ten Chapters Of Genesis, And Part Of The Eleventh”. Acacia.Pairsite.Com. http://acacia.pairsite.com/Acacia.John.Bunyan/Sermons.Allegories/Exposition.Genesis/Chapter.XI.html.
3. Calvin, John. 2017. “Genesis 11 – John Calvin’S Bible Commentary – Bible Commentary”. Christianity.Com. http://www.christianity.com/bible/commentary.php?com=clvn&b=1&c=11.
4. Gill, John. 2017. “Genesis 11 Commentary – John Gill’s Exposition Of The Bible”. Bible Study Tools. http://www.biblestudytools.com/commentaries/gills-exposition-of-the-bible/genesis-11/.
5. Henry, Matthew. 2017. “Chapter 11 – Matthew Henry’s Commentary – Bible Gateway”. Biblegateway.Com. https://www.biblegateway.com/resources/matthew-henry/Gen.11.1-Gen.11.32.
6. Mohler, Albert. 2015. “The Table Of The Nations, The Tower Of Babel, And The Marriage Supper Of The Lamb: Part 1 – Albertmohler.Com”. Albertmohler.Com. http://www.albertmohler.com/2015/02/24/the-table-of-the-nations-the-tower-of-babel-and-the-marriage-supper-of-the-lamb-part-1/.
7. Mohler, Albert. 2015. “The Table Of The Nations, The Tower Of Babel, And The Marriage Supper Of The Lamb: Part 2 – Albertmohler.Com”. Albertmohler.Com. http://www.albertmohler.com/2015/02/27/the-table-of-the-nations-the-tower-of-babel-and-the-marriage-supper-of-the-lamb-part-2/.
8. Sproul, R.C. 2016. “Don’t Boast In Human Achievement”. http://www.ligonier.org/blog/dont-boast-human-achievement/.
9. “The Tower Of Babel”. 2017. Ligonier Ministries. http://www.ligonier.org/learn/devotionals/tower-babel/.
10. Thomas, Derek. 2017. “The Undoing Of Babel By Derek Thomas”. Ligonier Ministries. http://www.ligonier.org/learn/articles/undoing-babel/.