March 21, 2021 Speaker: Pastor Bob Davis
Passage: Genesis 11:1–11:9
Today we wrap up the prefatory material in Genesis. Remember: Genesis is the first book of the Pentateuch; that is, the first five books of the Bible – Genesis, Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers, and Deuteronomy. We need to keep in mind that Genesis does not exist separate and distinct from those other books. They are a set. Taken as a whole, the most important theme in this five-book set is the movement of God to rescue his people, to covenant with them, and to deliver them to the Promised land. What we read in Genesis Chapters 1-11 are a preface to that story. They set the stage. From there, the rest of the Bible is the revelation of God’s redemption, reconciliation, and restoration through the promise, fulfillment, and hope of Jesus Christ.
The Tower of Babel is a familiar story to most people – at least the basics of it. We are not going to try to answer all the questions you may have had or heard regarding these verses. For our purposes here, we are going to look within the text to see what is being revealed to us about the nature, character, and purpose of God? Who is this God who has revealed himself to us? What has God revealed? What does God’s revelation mean for how we understand who we are and how we are to live?
As we turn to our text, we see the author did a little bit of a backtrack from the descendants of Shem that we read about in Genesis 10. There, each of the descendants were described “by their families, their languages, their lands, and their nations.” In Chapter 11, the author began by declaring that the whole earth (or, perhaps a more precise translation, “the whole land”) had one language and the same words. This would makes sense if they were all Noah’s descendants.
This was a family on the move. They migrated from the east and settled in a place called Shinar. Where was that? The clue we have is verse 3, where it says “’Let us make bricks, and burn them thoroughly.’ And they had brick for stone, and bitumen for mortar.” The words and the construction strategy both signal that the author was referring to Babylon – long before that conclusion was revealed in verse 9.
What we miss in English is all the wordplay taking place – words that use the same consonants and would sound a lot like Babylon. In Hebrew, many words are constructed around three consonants. In these verses in Hebrew, there are multiple key words using the consonants b, l, and n. To the native listener’s ear, the way the story was structured would highlight those consonants and would be foreshadowing the ultimate revelation of Babylon as the location.
Further, the construction methods also were distinctive of the area that would be known to the first readers as Babylon:
Mesopotamian building materials differed greatly from those in Egypt and Israel, so the author explains them to us in verse 3. The ready availability of stone in Palestine meant that it could be used by even common folks for building. Houses in Israel typically used stone for the foundation and mud brick for the superstructure. Burnt-brick technology was never developed because it was unnecessary.
In contrast, the alluvial plains of southern Mesopotamia had no stone available. Anyone using stones had to transport them many miles, an expensive proposition. As a result, as early as … the end of the fourth millennium B.C., we see the development of kiln-fired brick.7
Furthermore, as the text indicates, the usual mortar used with kiln-fired brick was a bitumen-based mastic. This combination of baked brick and bitumen mastic made for waterproof buildings as sturdy as stone. The time required to fire the bricks and to procure the bitumen made this an expensive procedure. As a result, only the most important buildings were constructed with these materials. That leads us to a consideration of what precisely was being built.
Word play and construction strategy were important because the author was doing two things: first, explaining why there were different nations and religions; and, second, revealing God’s sovereignty – God’s power – over the other known religions of the day. Here, the author was specifically targeting Mesopotamian religion. The tower described matches the ziggurat which was emblematic of Mesopotamian religion.
The ziggurat looked like a pyramid, but was understood very differently. Ziggurats were not temples per se. Temples usually were adjacent or close to the ziggurat but were separate from them. The ziggurat was designed as a supporting structure for a staircase to be used by deities to transition between realms – that is, to go between heaven and earth. At the top would be a rest area. Think of that like a studio apartment or bed and breakfast. It was designed for the ease and refreshment of the deity. It was a rest stop for the gods, just like human travelers enjoyed.
And therein lay the root of the issue in Genesis 11: the builders had begun to think of God in human terms. They were treating God as if God were like them. They lost sight of the fear and awe of God.
It is important that we see the comparison with the Garden from Chapter 3. The temptation of the serpent was that by eating the forbidden fruit, humans would be like God; they would be elevated to God’s status. The immediate result of their disobedience was that the man and woman were afraid of their condition – their nakedness – and the consequence was their expulsion from God’s immediate presence. They were banished from the Garden.
Here, the temptation was to treat God as if God were human. By doing so, they were acting as if they could diminish God to human status. Their great fear was being scattered; losing the fellowship that God had given and restored through the flood. The consequence of their hubris was to be expelled from each other’s presence.
As we look at this chapter, we cannot help but see how the basic error continues in our world today. Treating God as if God were diminished to human status is not a uniquely American phenomenon; but it certainly is something we see in our midst. We see it in the elevation of the state as a moral authority greater than Scripture; as if God’s Word were subject to a vote or a majority opinion of the Supreme Court. We see it in the elevation of human reason over God’s call to obedience, worship, and service. A few weeks ago, I complained about the PC(USA) and its abandoning the orthodox faith we have received – but here I want to point out something positive from our history there – one of the Historic Principles of Church Order used to be:
That truth is in order to goodness; and the great touchstone of truth, its tendency to promote holiness, according to our Savior’s rule, “By their fruits ye shall know them.” And that no opinion can be either more pernicious or more absurd than that which brings truth and falsehood upon a level, and represents it as of no consequence what a man’s opinions are. On the contrary, we are persuaded that there is an inseparable connection between faith and practice, truth and duty. Otherwise, it would be of no consequence either to discover truth or to embrace it. (G-1.0304, Book of Order, 05-07)
When we talk about people speaking “their truth” – as if “your truth” and “my truth” are not to be conformed to “the truth” – we see the outworking of the pernicious and absurd consequences of a society detached from God’s word. Friends, the babble we hear, the chaos we see, the devastation that we are witnessing will not be resolved by a government program. It will not be relieved by money. It will not be defeated by a military or police force. It will not go away by ignoring it or pretending that all is well. When we think of God in diminished terms, when we lose sight of the fear and awesome nature of God being God, we find ourselves on a slippery slope towards confusion and disaster.
The other thing to note in Genesis 11 is that God was not diminished. Verse 5 is about as snarky as it gets in Scripture, “The LORD came down to see the city and the tower, which mortals had built.” Why is that snarky? It says that God – who created the heavens and the earth and everything in it from the most expansive galaxy to the most miniature sub-atomic particle – had to come down to see the city and the tower. What the humans thought was so massive and magnificent, God had to come down just to see because it was so small and insignificant. This tower which man thought reached to heaven, God can hardly see!
Even though I have said this previously, it bears repeating here: God is God whether or not we believe. God is not waiting for us to believe in order to effect his will or his plan for his creation. God is not waiting for us to worship in order for him to be holy. God is not waiting for our approval in order to pursue his righteousness and justice. God is not withholding judgment because we want to do what we want or because we demand He allow us to do what we want because of grace and mercy. We need to see God as God has revealed himself to be. We need to move to conform to God, not the other way around.
“This is only the beginning of what they will do; nothing that they propose to do will now be impossible for them.” This was not a statement of human capabilities; rather, it was a statement of how men will not recognize or respect the limits God has placed on humankind for its own good. If they think they can storm heaven and take over, they will think it is possible.
How do we go boldly where angels fear to tread? Every time we celebrate the breaking down of barriers and taboos; every time we celebrate what God calls sin; every time we worship idols and disparage God, we are declaring ourselves eligible and capable of exercising what is really divine right and prerogative. That attempted usurpation never ends well.
In contrast to Genesis 11, the Acts 2 account of Pentecost is God’s revelation of what happens when God’s power is expressed. When the Holy Spirit descended upon the disciples, “tongues as if of fire” were seen but did not destroy. Instead, the disciples were filled with words declaring the wonders of God – only they were filled with the words declaring the wonder of God in languages that were not native to them, but were native to their listeners. What they built was not a tower to make a name for themselves; rather, it was a community established for the name of God. What the disciples discovered was this: when the glory of God and the joy of the LORD is the focus of attention and the purpose of our conversation, it is remarkable how smooth and easy communication becomes.
Ask anyone who has been on a mission trip. When you are commissioned and sent as an ambassador for Christ to be a blessing, God opens up the lines of communication and bridges the gap between cultures. Pay attention to people coming back from mission efforts – local, national, or international. It is so wonderful when they have seen God move in the lives of the people they served. There is a an excitement and an energy. They are just inspired (by the way, note how that means “spirit in them”) and enthusiastic. They have a hunger to tell others of how God worked – right there, all of a sudden, in the most amazing way! It is like there is this glow within them…or perhaps this flame of fire touching their soul?
Starting Good Friday, we are going to be posting a podcast called, “I Have A Story” by Dan Skinkis. We have recorded three full episodes thus far and the stories Dan tells bear out this point: the power of God revealed transforms situations from divided and broken to unified and healed. The power of God is not expressed according to our plans or our efforts. It is the work of God through the power of the Holy Spirit. Awe and wonder of God being God is our appropriate worship.
The modern divide
So, what do we do with Genesis 11? Does this apply to us or does it have anything to say to us?
As we look around our world today, right now does seem more like the end of Genesis 11 than it does the end of Acts 2. It does seem like we have more confusion, more division, more tension, and more hostility among the races than the unified believers of Pentecost.
This past week we saw the horror of Asian American women in massage parlors gunned down. The Asian American community is shocked, angry, and calling for protective reforms to deter further violence. This past week we also saw the beginning of the trial of Derek Chauvin, the police officer in the video kneeling on the neck of George Floyd; the video which sparked the Black Lives Matter protests and riots last summer. This week, USA TODAY reported, “As COVID-19 vaccine rollout continues, hesitancy among vulnerable communities, including Hispanic people, is piqued – and history is unearthed. Experts and those within the communities say the skepticism partly stems from unethical medical practices that targeted people of color. Unwanted sterilizations didn’t occur just in California among Mexican women but among Black women in the South, as well as Native American women.”
There is tension, hostility, and outright brokenness between the races. That tension, hostility, and brokenness is historical and it is present.
What is the solution?
On Friday, there was a report online entitled, “Chicago suburb’s reparations proposal divides Black community.” I just want to share with you some of the key paragraphs to give you a flavor of what is happening:
Under the proposed Restorative Housing Reparations program, the city of Evanston would distribute $10 million over the next 10 years to Black residents or their descendants who lived in the city between 1919 and 1969 who suffered from anti-Black housing practices put in place by local government or banks.
The first installment of $400,000 would be dispersed in $25,000 allotments for residents to use towards home improvements or mortgage assistance, meaning a maximum of 16 Black families could participate in the first round. The money for the plan would be raised from a fund established from a 3 percent tax on recreational marijuana sales.
While local leadership praises the plan, many Black residents across the city, who make up just over 18 percent of the population, are divided on how the final program has taken shape.
“I love reparations, but I do not love this version that Evanston is trying to pass as reparations,” Rose Cannon, a life-long Evanston resident, told Yahoo News. “Somewhere along the line it changed from, [city officials saying] ‘I want cash money’ to ‘We're going to offer you this housing program.’ … It’s broken the community apart.”
[Later in the article] Simmons knows the measure isn’t a perfect solution, but bristles at the criticism. “No one believes that this alone is full repair [nor] that this alone is sufficient or it’s adequate or it is justice, but it is the first step and a first step must be taken.”
“We have an opportunity to bring repair and justice to the Black community, and in my opinion it is an emergency,” she said. Ultimately, Simmons, herself, added that while Evanston’s plan won’t work for every city, it can certainly work as a model. …[It] is my belief that this should be an inspiration,” she said. “There is no blueprint because every city and history is going to be different.”
Ok. Now, I do not want you to get lost in the illustration – I want you to catch my larger point. Reparations funded by a tax on recreational marijuana is the local government’s solution to remedy historical racial injustice. How might God from heaven look on that tower?
Hear me clearly: yes, we need government to be an instrument of justice, but it will never – never – be the mechanism or means by which justice is ultimately achieved. The last line of that article is the key: “Every city and history is going to be different.” Broad based legislation trying to effect racial balance or to redress historical racial wrongs is functionally and humanly impossible. Instead of curing, it will perpetuate racial problems.
As those who have been saved by grace through faith in Jesus Christ, we can and must heed God’s call to pursue justice and righteousness for His names’ sake. “All have sinned and fallen short of the glory of God.” (Romans 3:23) All. Not just white, not just black, not just Asian, not just Indigenous; all. “They are now justified by his grace as a gift, through the redemption that is in Christ Jesus, whom God put forward as a sacrifice of atonement by his blood, effective through faith.” (Romans 3-24-25) That is where and how real justice has been effected: Jesus “appeared once for all at the end of the age to remove sin by the sacrifice of himself.” (Hebrews 9:26) Once. For all. Now as it always has been, it is folly to think that we can accomplish reconciliation and righteousness without reference to God. If we think we can make a name for ourselves by redeeming history from sin and redressing injustice without God, we are building a tower that will not reach heaven.
Friends, the point of the tower of Babel is the futility of our trying to pull God down to human level. Everything that follows Genesis 11 is the revelation of how God chose to step in to save us from sin and death – how God saved us from ourselves. Pentecost showed how the kingdom of heaven would reverse of the scattering of Babel: diverse people were brought together through hearing proclaimed the mighty acts of God. The only unifying, the only cleansing, the only curative answer for our brokenness is what God has done for us in the life, death, resurrection, and ascension of Jesus Christ.
That is the truth. All the rest is babble.
 John Walton, NIVAC Old Testament, Genesis, p. 372.