What was happening in the land of Shinar?
You have probably never given much thought to the genealogies in the Bible, especially those recorded in Genesis. Their names are difficult to enunciate, they seem foreign to our Western minds, and we may ponder if these parts are as inspired as the epic historical narratives that move our hearts to worship. I assure you, even the genealogies are inspired by The Holy Spirit of God. They function like golden seams that often tie together historical narratives for us.
Genesis chapter 10 is literally like a golden seam separating the closing narrative of Noah (Genesis 9) and the opening of the story of Babel (Genesis 11). Here, in Genesis 10, is the genealogy recording the generations that descended from Noah’s sons: Shem, Ham, and Japheth. It’s an important list of names because it reveals how the ancient family emerged into the eventual nations of the earth. Now, are topic tonight is not a comprehensive review of world history, but rather to seek the glory of God in the story of the great divine scattering at Babel. So, let me draw your mind to one specific part of this great national heritage list in Genesis 10,
Cush fathered Nimrod; he was the first on the earth to be a mighty man. He was a mighty hunter before the Lord. Therefore it is said, “Like Nimrod a mighty hunter before the Lord.” The beginning of his kingdom was Babel, Erech, Accad, and Calneh, in the land of Shinar.Genesis 10:8-10, ESV.
Let’s meet Nimrod. The first mighty man, a superb hunter—so superb that he apparently had earned a little popular catchphrase, ‘Like Nimrod a mighty hunter before the Lord.’ In addition to these traits, Nimrod was also a great politician and city-builder. In fact, Moses explicitly tells us that Nimrod founded the Babylonian empire which dominated the ancient world— and was located on the plain of Shinar. One additional observation that is necessary, and you may not have caught this one. The name Nimrod, in the Hebrew language, literally means we shall rebel. That’s a pretty good summary statement for the Tower of Babel story.
Okay, so let’s piece a few things together. Following the devastating flood, Noah and his family resume the cultural mandate of populating the earth with God’s image-bearers (9:7). Among the descendants of Ham, whose line through Canaan was cursed by Noah (9:25), is born a mighty man, hunter, and builder named, Nimrod, AKA we shall rebel. Nimrod, and his people, begin migrating east and settle on a flat piece of land in Shinar (11:2), which is the ancient name for the area later known as Babylon or Chaldea. Here on this plain Nimrod apparently taps into the intellect available through everyone speaking the same language and discovers an innovative way to build with bricks. And, with this new technology Nimrod lives up to his name by orchestrating a rebellion against the Lord—a rebellion epitomized by the construction of a massive brick tower.
I am suggesting this is the setting that is being described in the first four verses of Genesis 11,
Now the whole earth had one language and the same words. And as the people migrated from the east, they found a plain in the land of Shinar and settled there. And they said to one another, ‘Come, let us make bricks, and burn them throughly.” And they had brick for stone, and bitumen for mortar. Then they said, ‘Come, let us build ourselves a city and a tower with its top in the heavens…Genesis 11:1-4a, ESV.
Now, we shouldn’t think too lightly of this tower-building activity. There is more to the tower than technological innovation. As I said, it characterized the rebellion of Nimrod and his friends—which is expressed vividly in the hope attached to the building of this city-tower.
What was the hope of this city-tower?
Let’s look at how Moses describes the motivation of these Babylonian predecessors,
Then they said, “Come, let us build ourselves a city and a tower with it’s top in the heavens, and let us make a name for ourselves, lest we be dispersed over the face of the whole earth.”Genesis 11:4, ESV.
I’m going to suggest that Nimrod and company had a distinct two-fold purpose for building this city-tower: Reject God and Resist God. Let’s look at those two motivations individually.
Reject God. I think that is what is ultimatley on the minds of the tower-builders at Babel. I think that because they clearly say that one of their motivations is let us make a name for ourselves. Now, what does that mean? And, why does that cause me to say that the ultimate sin of Babel was rejecting God.
When these tower-builders chant, ‘let us make a name for ourselves‘ I think what they are saying is let us do something worthy of applause. Let us do something that will cause people, when they hear about it, to say ‘Wow! These people are amazing!’ Let us do something that makes us look great, grand, and glorious. That’s the point behind making a name for yourself, to have people applaud you. So, that’s what they want. Ultimately, these people who are building this tower led by Nimrod the mighty man who has a widely known slogan attached to his name, they want to be made much of. However, this hope of the Tower of Babel comes up short, for human praise will not fulfill the craving within you. That is to say that Babel’s hope of making a name for yourself will never satisfy your heart, because that is not the greatest desire of your heart. The entire world could give you a standing ovation and your heart would still be wanting. The reason is simple: you were not made to get praise, but to give praise to The Lord. You were created to prasie the One True God by applauding and rejoicing and celebrating over Him and His works, not your own. The tower-builders at Babel have rejected thier created purpose and sought to make their own purpose, or put simply—-they have rejected the glory of God, with the hope of seeking glory for their self.
Resist God. This is the second motivation listed. Moses frames the resistance this way: lest we be dispersed over the face of the whole earth. Not only have they rejected God’s Glorious Name to attempt making their own name; but they have also resisted God’s Glorious Goal. Twice in the account of Genesis we are told that God blessed humanity by telling them to be fruitful and multiply and fill the earth bringing order to every corner so that God’s Glory, which is the divine image we bear, would fill the earth. He gave this mandate to Adam and Eve in Eden (1:28), and again to Noah and his family when the flood subsided (9:1-7). And yet, here at Babel we see the people building a city, instead of filling the earth. Working to make much of mankind, instead of looking to glorify the Creator. They are resisting God, rather than obeying Him. They are living up to the name of their founder, Nimrod–we shall rebel, instead of bearing the name of the All Mighty God.
That’s what I think is the two fold purpose here at Babel: Reject God and Resist God. Of course, those two concepts are so closely related, I only used alternative terms just for our sake of gaining clarity. And so, despite us talking about these two purposes–let me bring them together and say there is really just one hope of Babel. It’s the hope that being your own god will satisfy you. That’s the same hope expressed in being like God knowing good and evil (3:5) that Adam and Eve were tempted to pursue. It didn’t satisfy them, it only shamed them. It was the same hope of the murderous Cain who, instead of doing well and being accepted (4:7) decided killing Abel was the better route. It didn’t work, he spent the rest of his life as an unholy fugitive. And, it’s the same hope being chanted here at Babel. Instead of finding glory in The Name of God, they have sought to make a name for their self. Instead of doing life God’s way, they have decided that they have a better way of life. That’s the hope of Babel, the hope of being our own god–and now let me say this plainly about that hope: The hope of Babel falls short of the glory we were made for.
We were not made to make our own name, but to marvel at His Name. We were not made to seek our own glory, but to seek, know, reflect, and enjoy His glory. We were not made to live like rebels against God, but to obey and enjoy Him. The hope of Babel comes up short, because simply put it will never satisfy your thirsty heart.
Now, in light of all of that, I think perhaps we can see the Glory of God in what He does at Babel.
God makes them Babel.
So, what will God do? That’s a good Bible study question. We have labored to see what the Babelites were doing in Shinar. Now we need to study what God does. And, the first thing He does is belittling to the massive edifice being constructed on the plain of Shinar. the Bible says it very plainly in verse 5, And The Lord came down to see the city and the tower, which the children of man had built. Ha! So much for building a tower that invades the space of God’s Holy Heaven! A good point to note that what the world pridefully thinks is worthy of heaven is invisible to the residents in heaven. Babel, which no doubt appeared so large and great to man, is so far from reaching heaven that God has to come down to see it. Now, in verse six, God begins to speak about this rebellious act and then declares what He is going to do about it.
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. Come, let us go down and there confuse their language, so that they may not understand one another’s speech.” So the LORD dispersed them from there over the face of all the earth, and they left off building the city.Genesis 11:6-8, ESV.
Two things really shine in this text to me. The first is what The Lord says about humanity. The second is what He says that He is going to do about humanity, which He does do in verse 8. Let’s look at those two angles individually.
God says something fascinating, I think, about humanity in verse 6, “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.” The Lord makes three distinct observations here: 1) Humanity is united 2) This unity is made possible by a universal language 3) This unity, made possible by a universal language, will enable humanity to do much more than build a big city-tower.
I think this is probably the confusing part for us reading this story today. We read what God says in verse six and we ask, “Yeah, what’s the big deal with that God?” Doesn’t God want humanity to be unified? I mean look at what is happening across America right now because of racial disunity, surely Babel wasn’t such a terrible place. We read the part about unified language and question if God knows what it feels like to be in a foreign country where you can’t communicate, not even enough to find a bathroom because you don’t even know how to ask. Is a universal language such a bad idea? Those are legitimate questions, and I get the strangeness you perhaps feel when reading this story. We might even read what God says in verse seven and think, “Well, God that was just a little mean, don’t you think?” But, I assure you it is not God acting mean. What God does in verses seven through eight is consistent with what God does on every page of the Bible–acting in an intentional way to make His great glory known. It is God acting to show us the Supreme value of Himself, His excellent reputation. However, if we are going to see the glory of God through the window at Babel, we need to readjust our viewpoint on the last part of verse six. I really think that is the key to us seeing this text in the way that God wants us to see it.
The part I am talking about reads, ‘and this is only the beginning of what they will do. And nothing that the propose to do will now be impossible for them.‘ Now I am going to make a clear interpretation about that sentence that I think is consistent with the entire teaching of Scripture. Man’s proposals are NEVER good. Consider, for a moment, what the world may look like if God had allowed the rebellious pride of Babel to go unchecked. Maybe I can say it better this way: If the beginning of Babel is a rebellious tower, can you imagine what Babel would have looked like thousands of years later? Can you just imagine the evil. The filth. The wickedness. You know, country folk are never the nasty ones in the story line of world history. When you see big unified cities like Rome, Corinth, Babylon, Nineveh–it’s never in a positive light. I think the same is still true today. The height of evil seems to grow higher in large populated cities. I’m not saying that small cities are more holy, I’m just making a simple observation in order to get you to see how verse six, if left unchecked by God, would have played out.
But God didn’t let it go unchecked, did He? He came down. He saw. He spoke. He scattered them, all over the face of the earth. And, to prevent them from just migrating back to Shinar, God does something to guarantee His dispersion is permanent: God makes them babel. Literally, that’s what the Hebrew verb used in verse seven says, let us go down and balal (mix or confuse) their language. And, He does this with a very specific purpose, so that they may not understand one another’s speech.
Can you just imagine this scene in your mind? You are 25 stories up working on some type of scaffold with your partner, and then in the blink of an eye he sounds like he is chanting a bunch of garbled words. It’s amazing isn’t it? In one sweeping act of judgement, the Lord stops the prideful building of Babel and sovereignly causes the peoples of the earth to be scattered–as He had commanded them to do from the beginning.
Now, here’s what comes as a result of this scattering. Cultures arise that are as diverse as the tongues being spoken. Dialects form, even among the same language people. Nations eventually rise up and vie for dominance. The people get scattered–and world history begis unfolding in a new way. Their rebellious unity ceases. Now, Babel doesn’t eradicate the problem of sin, but it does place restraints on it. When you have an evil man like Hitler or Stalin or Mussolini rise up and try to fill the world with their evil agenda, another nation, or nations, rise up and restrains them. It’s important for you to see that I think. God didn’t save humanity from sinful rebellion through the judgment at Babel, but He did put a sovereign seatbelt on it.
So, that’s what God does. The people of Babel, united by their universal language, show an act of defiance for all the world to see by rejecting and resisting God. God sees it. God speaks about it. And, God twists their tongues and forces them to scatter across the earth in order to put a restraint on man so that they cannot understand each others speech, which consequently, prevents them from doing all that they would propose to do, and that is a great thing we should all be very thankful for.
Now, you ought to know by now that I believe every page of the Bible is a window through which we look to see our great God. Tonight is no different. So, here’s my last question I asked while studying this passage this week–How does scattering the people show God to be the supreme satisfaction of my heart? The hope of Babel falls short of attaining the glory of God, but how does God scattering the peoples show His glory?
The Glory of God in the face of Jesus Christ shining through the window at Babel.
The Old Testament is just leaning on its tip-toes to revelation of the glory of God in the face of Jesus Christ. That’s why I don’t get Andy Stanley suggesting that we unhitch from the Old Testament. For me that’s the equivalent of taking out half of the windows of my house and replacing it with drywall. Oh, the glories I would miss! The Old Testament is sufficiently and effectively glorious in pointing to Jesus. Don’t unhitch it from it, but press into it and feel its currents dragging you to Calvary.
So, here’s my question. How does God causing them to babel, and thus scattering them over the face of the whole earth, show Him to be all satisfying?
Here’s what I think, and I believe this is consistent with the whole of Scripture. God sovereignly makes them babel, so that He can sovereingly scatter them. God does this so that one day the peoples of the earth would no longer be united under the name of Nimrod (we shall rebel), but by His redeeming grace God would unite a people under The Name of His Son, Jesus Christ. I can say it this way: God sovereingly scatters the peoples, so that He would one day soveriengly regather a people. The difference is that instead of united in rebelling against God, we are united in our worship and service to God. You see, Babel is where God put a seatbelt on our depraved nature, but in Jesus Christ He puts a new heart within us. A new nature. A new mind. A new song in the heart for us to chant forever, for rebellious depravity is no longer our banner, but we sing because of the redeeming grace of our God.
God does what He does at Babel, so that Jesus is shown to be all satisfying, all sufficient, all saving. Where the hope of Babel came up short, Jesus is shown to be supreme. There’s so much more we could learn about God’s delight over diversity, yes; of God’s joy of reversing Babel at Pentecost, yes; of God’s victory of pride, yes! But this week, as I read this old story once again, I couldn’t evade the glory of God in the face of Jesus Christ shining through the window looking towards Babel.