“As men moved eastward, they found a plain in Shinar and settled there. . . . Then they said, ‘Come, let us build ourselves a city.’” It sounds so innocuous, such a harmless thing; but it really isn’t. In Genesis 4, after God drove Cain from the land, he went east and settled there, and founded a city. Now here, following the flood, we’re told that people en masse have done the same thing; the human community is repeating the behavior of Cain. And in Genesis 9, God repeated to Noah and his family the command he had given to Adam and Eve: “Be fruitful and increase in number and fill the earth.” Spread out, be attentive to all the various regions of the world, and care for them as God’s servants. But they didn’t want to do that; they had their own agenda which they were determined to pursue instead.
We see here, I think, a couple aspects to that agenda. The first is the desire for security—they were afraid of being scattered; they wanted control over their circumstances. If they had split up and spread out into different parts of the world, they would have had to trust God to provide for them and protect them; if they stuck together, they could look out for themselves more effectively, and they wouldn’t need to rely on God. What we have here, I think, is the first case in recorded history of the fortress mentality, as humanity is seeking to unify against the outside world—and, ultimately, against God. The root of this, I think, is the unwillingness to trust him, which produces the desire to keep him out.
Connected to that, I believe, is pride. I said a few weeks ago that the founding sin is the desire to be like God, and we see that rearing its head here. “Let us build a tower that reaches to the heavens, so that we may make a name for ourselves,” they said. Now, in the West, we read that and we think, “OK, they wanted to build the world’s first skyscraper,” that the point of the tower is that it would be impossibly high; this painting from the Dutch Renaissance painter Pieter Brueghel the Elder captures our mental image nicely. In truth, though, while I imagine they were indeed planning a tower bigger than anything that had ever been built to that point, they probably didn’t have that kind of height in mind.
You see, in Mesopotamia, in what would become Assyria and Babylon, and is now Iraq, the central feature of each city was the ziggurat, which was sort of a pyramid-shaped temple, except that its levels were terraced, so that the sides formed a sort of giant staircase. The very top level was the shrine, which was painted blue to make it blend in with the daytime sky, with the heavenly home of the gods. That shrine was understood as, symbolically speaking, the gateway to the heavens; it gave humanity access to the realm of the gods, while the ziggurat provided a great stairway for the gods to come down out of heaven into the city. Thus the name of the city of Babylon meant “gate of the gods,” and the great ziggurat in that city was named “The House of the Foundation of Heaven and Earth.” The point of this tower, then, is not merely “Let’s build something really tall so that it will impress everyone”; rather, it is, “Let’s build a great tower that will give us access to God on our terms.” God lives in heaven and people live on earth, and there’s a division there; the builders of Babel want to go beyond their limits and cross that division. They want to compete with God.
And note what they want: “to make a name for ourselves.” God had offered them a name, as his people; he had offered them significance in life, giving them important and meaningful work to do. The thing is, they didn’t want the name he offered them, they wanted to make their own. They didn’t want to find meaning in life by doing what God called them to do, and they didn’t want to be significant on his terms. They didn’t want to be remembered as faithful servants of God. Instead, they wanted fame and importance for doing their own thing. They wanted to make a name for themselves by asserting their independence, rebelling against God and charting their own course. They were, in short, much like Satan in John Milton’s epic Paradise Lost: “Better to reign in Hell than to serve in Heaven.” It’s been a common theme in human history ever since.
In their pride and their desire for security, then, they defy God and build a city for themselves. The French theologian Jacques Ellul has written a fair bit about the significance of this, calling the city “our primary human creation”; it is, as he says, “a uniquely human world.” If you’re not living in the city—of whatever size—you’re out in the country, surrounded mostly by things God made; granted, we shape nature around us, none of it is as it would be if we’d never done anything to it, but we’re still looking out at a world that we did not make and could not make. In the city, though, we’re surrounded by human creations, and the greater the city, the truer this is. Friends of ours are moving down to Reseda, in northwestern LA; he described it as “like Iowa, except that instead of corn as far as the eye can see, it’s houses.” This is why the city is the symbol we have chosen for human culture—think of a society, either present or past, and you think first of its great city or cities; and it’s why Ellul goes further to declare that the city is “the place that human beings have chosen in opposition to God.” This is not to say that all cities are bad, or that no one should live in cities; in due time, God will choose a city for himself, and when the heavens and earth are made new, they will center on a city, the new Jerusalem. But it is to say that the city people decide to found here on the plain of Shinar is an act of rebellion formed in brick.
Of course, while the builders of Babel might want to challenge God, they aren’t up to the challenge; but he will not let it go unanswered. The irony threaded through this passage is wonderful. They’re building a tower to reach the heavens, but God has to go down to see it; their little building is far less impressive than they think it is. As he looks at what they’re doing, he sees their refusal to accept and live within the boundaries he has set for them; with one language and one city, they are at the mercy of one ruler or group of rulers, and that ruling class, in their pride, is resolute in their rebellion against God. For any part of humanity to break free from that collective rebellion, their political and cultural unity must be disrupted. Rather than being unified in the worship of God, as he created human beings to be, the people of Babel were unified against him. As with the situation before the flood, this could not be allowed to stand; and so, once more, God acts.
In this case, of course, he strikes at their language, since a shared language is a necessary common denominator for any coherent culture or subculture; he confuses their language so that they can no longer hear and understand each other, and the city breaks up. They can no longer listen to each other, so they are no longer one nation—which means they can no longer be dominated by one ruler or group of rulers, and thus cannot be unified in rebellion against God. As such, the project breaks up, the city breaks up, and the people disperse across the face of the earth. They’re obeying God’s command to fill the earth, but not the way they should have, and so it won’t be as fruitful as God had planned. His desire had been that they be spread out to fill the earth, but unified in serving and worshiping him; in his plan, they would still have been a single people under one ruler—God—even though they lived in many different places. It’s much like the church, which is supposed to understand itself as one body, the one body of Christ, following God in many different smaller communities in many different places.
Now, however, they have been separated by force, alienated from each other by the division of their language; there are walls of confusion and misunderstanding keeping them apart, and their single society has been fractured into many. The result is the scattering they feared, only worse, for now they will not only be separated by distance, they will be divided by their inability to listen to each other. Because of this, as they were unwilling to trust God, so they will be unable to trust each other; and where their pride had been turned in a unified fashion against God, now in their division it will be turned against each other. Instead of seeking to compete with God, to take the place that properly only belongs to him, they will compete with each other, and seek to take what the other has by force; and so we have the beginning of war, of conflict between families, and ultimately between nations.
Our passage this morning sits at a transition point in the book of Genesis, which we can see clearly from looking at the context in which it sits: it is an interruption in a larger passage known as the Table of the Nations. Genesis 10 lists the descendants of the sons of Noah and tells us the places they settled and the nations they founded; it’s sort of a geography of the earliest human societies after the great flood. The interesting thing about it, as numerous commentators have pointed out, is that it treats all these descendants equally—it shows no particular concern for any one branch of Noah’s family or any one nation over any other. As such, what we see in Genesis 10 is God’s concern for the whole world, and for all nations. But then after the story of the Tower of Babel, the focus abruptly narrows, and we get the genealogy from Shem to Terah, and the beginning of the story of Terah’s family—which of course focuses on one of his child¬ren, his son Abram, whom God would later rename Abraham. Humanity was unified, but unified under rulers who were resolutely opposed to God, and so God disrupted that unity; thus, since humanity as a whole would not bow the knee to him, he would raise up a family, and through them a nation, who would, through whom he would carry out his plan to save the world.
To fully understand the significance of this passage, then, we need to look ahead; and while we usually focus on Abraham, take a look at the very end of chapter 11, at verse 31: Terah took his family, and they left Ur of the Chaldeans to go to Canaan—but they stopped at Haran and settled there instead. The Bible doesn’t make it explicit, but it sure looks to me like Abram wasn’t the first one to get the call to go to the Promised Land—his father Terah was; but Terah got part of the way and stopped. He got to Haran, and that was okay; Haran was the last big city before the border, it was still part of his own culture, and like his home city of Ur, it was a city where the people worshiped the moon. He got that far, and things were still comfortable—but after Haran came the frontier, and different people who talked and thought and believed differently than what he knew; after Haran, it was out of his comfort zone and into real wandering, trading something that felt like home for true homelessness. And he took a look at that, and he decided it wasn’t for him, and he stopped. He stayed in Haran until he died.
But where Terah stopped, his son Abram goes on, taking his wife and his nephew and all their servants and heading out to Canaan. It’s the exact opposite of what Cain did and what the builders of Babel did—he heads west, not east, and he founds no city; though his faith wavers once or twice, in general, he doesn’t take action to make a name for himself, but trusts in the promise of God to make a name for him. And because of his faith, God founds a nation through him—a nation which he teaches to identify itself this way, in Deuteronomy 26: “A wandering Aramean was my father.” That, you see, is the key: Abraham was the one who was willing to live by faith in the promise of God as a wanderer in a foreign land. Rather than seeking to found a city for himself, Hebrews says, “he was looking forward to the city that has foundations, whose designer and builder is God.”