Teaching series from Genesis

The Tower of Babel

Genesis 11:1-9

Teaching t07304

Introduction

Read 11:1-9. This well-known passage raises two important questions . . . 

Is this event mythical or historical?

Most people in our culture have been trained to view this as a myth--a story that someone created to explain something (in this case, how the different ethnic-linguistic groups came to be) rather than the report of an actual event. But there are two reasons why we should view it as history.

The Bible tells us it is history.

Like all the events of Genesis, it is narrated as a historical event. There is no textual indication that it is a story. It is the same narrative for as other events that are clearly historical (Gen. 10:18-30; Gen. 14 BATTLE OF KINGS, etc.)

The New Testament refers to it as a historical event (Acts 17:26), and it speaks of a future kingdom with reference to this kingdom (Rev. 17,18).

In addition, there is some extra-biblical attestation to this event.

Many of the cities mentioned in association with Babel in 10:10-12 have been excavated. Scholars used to say that Calah, for example (10:12) was a mythical city--but it has been excavated along with a tablet that speaks of it as the city of "Nimrud."1

The Sumerians had an account of the whole human race having one language, and the Mesopotamians had an account of the dividing of those languages.2

Neo-Babylonian ziggurats (which have been excavated) were evidently built on the model of this tower.3

Why was God so upset?

Is God anti-city and anti-skyscraper? Anti-civilization? It sounds like God was intimated and threatened by their progress: "If I don’t do something, they'll pass me up and no one will need me." No, God was upset because this whole project was an act of rebellion against him.

It was founded by Nimrod (read 10:8-10a). Nimrod is from a root that means "to rebel." The language here also indicates that he was a mighty hunter of people, and that he did this "in defiance of the Lord's" command in 9:6.4 In other words, Nimrod was like Lamech of 4:23,24--only worse. He was the first tyrannical emperor, who the Babylonians later deified as Marduk.5

They built the city in direct defiance of God's command to spread out and "fill the earth" (contrast 9:1 to 11:4b " . . . lest we be scattered abroad over the face of the whole earth.").

Their purpose in building the city was to "make a name for ourselves" (11:4). This is the direct opposite of "calling on the name of the Lord" (4:26), and means their intent was to build a society that exalted them and kept God out.

The tower was not just a skyscraper that served as a cultural icon; it was evidently a center for astrological worship.6 This is evidently why they called their city Bab-ilani, "gate of the gods." God condemns astrology (Lev. 19:31; Deut. 18:9-14) not only because its assumptions are false (the heavenly bodies are not gods whose activities influence human events), but also because it is ultimately occultic and demonic.

So God's concern is 11:6 is not that they will progress beyond his knowledge, but that they will progress in rebellion and evil to such an extent that the human race would degenerate to a level like the days of Noah (6:6). So God intervenes to prevent this

Read 11:7,8. You can imagine what it must have been like to ask someone to haul up another load of bricks, and to have them answer you with gibberish. Then you say, "I can't understand a word you're saying"--and they hear your words as complete gibberish.

Without the ability to communicate, they had to scrap their project. They would have naturally gravitated toward those whom they could understand, and these people spread out in linguistic groups to fulfill (in spite of themselves) God's command to fill the earth. An incomplete record of those "families" follows in 11:10-32.

There is another irony here. Read 11:9. They evidently called their city Bab-ilani, which means "gate of the gods." But the Hebrew version of that word is balbel from balal, "to confuse." The idea here is that "God made Babel a babble."

But this is not the end of the story. God divided humanity into ethnic groups, but he did not reject those groups. He had a plan for their salvation, and this is why the very next event Moses narrates is God's next step in this redemptive plan. He called from one of these "families" a man from the Babylonian region named Abram and made a promise to him that is a deliberate contrast to the judgment at Babel. Read 12:1-3. This is called the Abrahamic Covenant, and it is so important that we'll spend next week looking at it in detail. For now, I want you to notice two things:

They were intent on making a name for themselves--but God promised he would make Abram's name great and make him a great nation (12:2).

Their activity brought God's judgment of dividing them into different ethnic "families"--but God promised that through Abram's seed he would bless all these "families" by giving his Word and our Savior, Jesus Christ.

Lessons

1: God affirms ethnic diversity, but he opposes spiritual diversity. It is clear from this passage that God is behind ethnic diversity because he set it in motion by confusing their language at Babel. But in our culture, to affirm ethnic diversity usually means to affirm that all religions are valid as simply cultural expressions. The God of the Bible rejects this view, because he alone is God and he alone defines our spiritual dilemma and provides our solution. Religions and spiritual systems that contradict his revelation (like Babel's astrology) are false and wrong.

QUALIFICATION: I am not saying that Christians should try to restrict freedom of religion. In this age, it is God's will to grant people the freedom to choose their own beliefs. God will hold us responsible for how we choose, but he opposes any form of religious compulsion.

From Gen. 12:3 we learn something similar: God's salvation is inclusive in its scope, but exclusive in its means. In other words, God's concern has always been for all people and all cultures. He has never been merely the God of Israel. He chose Abraham and the nation Israel, but this was always in order to provide his Word and his Savior through them to the whole world. But salvation is exclusive in the sense that it is only through Jesus Christ because only he lived a perfect life and therefore qualified to pay for our sins (Jn. 3:16; 14:6?). This is why if you want to know God, you have to come to Christ and put your trust in him as your personal Savior (GOSPEL).

2: Babel foreshadows a world-wide empire that God will judge at the end of the age. God's judgment on Babel demonstrated his sovereignty over human plans. He permits humans to go their own way--but within limits. He will allow humans to try to unite in this way, but then he will intervene in judgment because he knows how destructive this plan is.

Last time we learned about prophetic types. Certain events (like Noah and the Flood) foreshadow later events that have even greater significance in God' plan for humanity. In the same way, Nimrod and Babel foreshadow the culmination of rebellious humanity's attempt to unite the whole world at the end of the age. For a short time, the whole world will have one ruler (the antichrist), one economy, and one religion (except for persecuted Christians). God calls this "mystery Babylon" because it is the fulfillment of Babel that will be hidden until the end. This kingdom is described as a harlot because it seduces people away from God and into spiritual adultery. Rev. 17,18 describes God's judgment on mystery Babylon just before Christ returns to set up God's kingdom on the earth.

3: God's solution to the confusion of languages is to send us to communicate the gospel in all languages. In this age, God's plan is not to reunite the world through a common language or human government. His plan is to spread the good news of his Son's free gift so that people from every ethnic group can hear this good news in their own language.

Read Lk. 24:46,47 for the commission.

Have you ever wondered by God started the church by enabling the first Christians to speak in tongues on Pentecost (Acts 2)? This wasn't some ecstatic experience for their personal benefit; it was God demonstrating how he intended to reverse to curse of Babel. On that day, people from all over the known world heard these Galilean Christians speak of what God had done through Christ "in their own native languages."

This is why we're serious about missions . . . 

Read Rev. 7:9,10 for the fulfillment.

Next: "Abraham's Role in God's Rescue Plan"

Footnotes

1 Cuneiform writing identifies this city as "Kalchu." See H. C. Leupold, Exposition of Genesis, Vol. 1 (Grand Rapids: Baker Book House, 1942), p. 370. "Calah is 'Kalchu,' modern Nimrud situated twenty miles south (of Niniveh)." Allen P. Ross, "Studies in the Table of Nations in Genesis 10 - Part III" Bibliotheca Sacra, January - March, 1981, p. 26.

2 "In fact traditions from Mesopotamia recorded the ancient division of the languages as well. The Sumerians had recorded that there was originally one language since everyone came to worship Enlil with one tongue (Enmerkar Epic, lines 141-146)." Allan P. Ross, , "Studies in the Table of Nations in Genesis 10 - Part IV" Bibliotheca Sacra, April - June, 1981, p. 126. Ross references S. N. Kramer, "The 'Babel of Tongues': A Sumerian Version," in Essays in Memory of E. A. Speiser, ed. W. W. Hallo (New Haven, CT: American Oriental Society, 1968), pp. 108-11; George Smith, The Chaldean Account of Genesis (New York: Scribner, Armstrong & Co., 1876), p. 160.

3 See James M. Boice, Two Cities, Two Loves (Downers Grove: InterVarsity Press, 1996), pp. 94,95. See also Allen P. Ross, "Studies in the Table of Nations in Genesis 10 - Part IV" Bibliotheca Sacra, April - June, 1981, p. 123.

4 Allan P. Ross, , "Studies in the Table of Nations in Genesis 10 - Part IV" Bibliotheca Sacra, April - June, 1981, p. 126.

5 James M. Boice, Two Cities, Two Loves (Downers Grove: InterVarsity Press, 1996), p. 95.

6 James M. Boice, Two Cities, Two Loves (Downers Grove: InterVarsity Press, 1996), pp. 95,96.