Bible Studies on Genesis 1–11 – Lesson 18: Babel and Beyond

READ GENESIS 11

After the flood there was only one family on earth. It reminds us of the situation in early Genesis after God expelled Adam and Eve from the Garden of Eden. But in the “generations/account” of Noah’s three sons, this one family expands to many families. It becomes evident that God’s blessing enables mankind to be fruitful, so that it might multiply, so that it might fill the earth. God’s blessings come by His kindness so that we might live by faith and in obedience. But in Genesis 11:1–9 we encounter another “epilogue of shame” in the “generations/account” of Noah’s three sons Shem, Ham and Japheth.

Textual arrangements

We should point out several things about how the text of Genesis 10 and 11 is arranged, in order to see how Moses, under the guidance of the Holy Spirit, tells the reader this story. As we noted in Lesson 17, the genealogy (“generations/account”) of Noah’s three sons actually begins in Genesis 10 and continues through 11:9. Then in Genesis 11:10 begins the genealogy of Shem. It is in the account of the three sons that we read of the division of the world (see Gen. 10:25). Furthermore, Genesis 10:5,20,31,32, tell us that the “table of nations” is given already presupposing the division that came about because God had confused the languages of mankind. Then comes the story of Babel in Genesis 11! Why is this the arrangement in the text? 

Here again we see an example of telling the redemptive story in such a way that it does not always follow strict chronology. First, God seeks to point out how His blessing of fruitfulness in the covenant with Noah is fulfilled. Noah’s three sons are the source of the nations of the whole world! But, then having shown this to the reader, the Holy Spirit then turns our attention to a story that reveals from where the divisions within humanity come. Then the text picks out one family, that of Shem, because from this particular son of Noah will come Abraham, Israel. David, and finally, the Lord Jesus Christ. In other words, Scripture gives us the “big picture,” before zooming in for a redemptive close-up, one that continues the forward movement of the redemption story.

Unity in fear (11:1–4)

The number of people alive on the earth when chapter 11 opens is unknown to us, and that fact is, in the end, relatively unimportant. Whatever the population size was, the people that lived at that time still had a dominion mandate from the LORD to fill the whole earth, diversify their locations, and use all their God-given talents for the glory of the divine Maker. But they did not do it. They were afraid. These people were territied of stepping out in faith and obedience for God's glory. They devised a plan to stay together and build a giant city and tower, a human community, “so that we may make a name for ourselves and not be scattered over the face of the whole earth” (11:4). Two contradictory thoughts filled their hearts: fear and pride. They were frightened and intimidated by God’s calling of service in His creation-kingdom, but they were emboldened to build the towering city of man. When man no longer fears God, he then fears everything else.

There are some faint echoes here of the fear of our first parents in the Garden of Eden in Genesis 3. When God came to them in the Garden, they hid from Him. They abandoned their service posts of caring for the Garden and guarding it. They did not want to face God because they were united in fear. Fear is a strange motive in how it brings people together against a common foe or danger, but it does not really unite them in a positive way. For example, during World War II, the Allied nations of Great Britain, the United States, and the Soviet Union stood together against the Axis powers of Germany and Japan, but the Allies were not really united to each other. Hardly had the hostilities of World War II ceased before the Cold War set in. At Babel, mankind was afraid-of obeying God. But that did not—it could not—unite them positively.

The Babel builders remind the reader of a most powerful drive that characterizes many in history but also in today's world who wander away from faith in God's Word. Man is incurably religious; we all carry within us the “seed of religion.” If the true God is not worshiped and obeyed, then a false god is given homage and honor. The creature is then deified. This false god (deity) can take on many forms, of course, because there are many creatures in this world. But a most convenient god is humanity itself. “I am the Master of my fate; I am the Captain of my soul” boasts the person who, in reality, knows not his own end. 

Unity in pride (11:1-4)

A second motive for building this monument to human ability is that these people wanted to make a name for themselves (11:4). The original language suggests something of a play on words and names. Genesis 10:31 noted the end of the genealogy of Shem as part of the account of all three sons of Noah. In the Biblical text this is just before the Babel story. The name Shem means "name"! Then following the Babel account there is the account (“generation”) of Shem given special attention in the Bible (11:10ff). Surrounding the Bible story of Babel are the lists of Shem, the man whose name is “name.” But the Babel community wants to make a name for themselves!

This expression, “to make a name for themselves,” is another way of saying how they want to create their own reputation and decide for themselves how they are to live. Man seeks to control his own destiny. This is humanism, bold and brazen. To bestow a name is often suggestive of exercising dominion and leadership. For example, in Genesis 2 man names (studies and classifies) the animals of God’s creation-kingdom. Furthermore, God is the great name-giver when He creates man (Adam in the original language). Before the Lord Jesus Christ left this world, He commanded us to exercise redemptive dominion among all the nations of the world by making them all disciples of the Triune God. This includes teaching all nations to obey everything God has commanded and by baptizing them into the Name of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit. In other words, in redemption God defines who we are by giving us His Triune Name. In redemption we are now named “Christians.”

Since God alone is the One who bestows to us our name (identity, reputation), it becomes clear that the Babel project is an open, not-so-subtle rejection of God and His Lordship. The fear and pride of Cain and his descendant Lamech have now multiplied to characterize the whole of mankind. Cain had stopped his wandering to build a city (Gen. 4:17), and Lamech had boasted of his greatness in how much vengeance he was entitled to (Gen. 4:23–24). There is a real danger of a pre-flood situation arising again. Depravity again bears poisonous fruits in the descendants of Noah and his sons.

Divine investigation of the Babel project (9:5–7)

The central statement of this whole story (11:1–9) actually comes in verse 5 when we read of what the LORD’s actions are. The Bible again speaks anthropomorphically (i.e., in the manner of a man) when it says that “the LORD came down to see the city and the tower that they were building.” Here is a divine investigation, and now everything will turn around. The LORD comes down to see man try to come up to heaven. 

In the divine statement of evaluation of what is happening God knows that disaster is impending if this proud project of fear is not stopped. Mankind will mntinue to amass power, and he will stop at nothing in doing whatever his heart imagines. Genesis 11:6 reminds us of God's words of anxiety and concern at the end of Genesis 3. The picture also recalls Genesis 6:1ff, the wicked situation that became the reason for the judgment of the flood. To destroy the world through a flood now would violate God’s covenant Word, but to do nothing is also out of the question here. God’s wisdom shows itself greater than all the proud boasts of sinful man. He confuses their language, and thus He shatters the factor that helped to unite them.

Confusion, then dispersion (9:8–9)

If people cannot understand each other's speech, they cannot work together. The confusion of language stopped the Babel project. The original language contains another play on words. The word Babel means “gate of god” or “gateway to a god.” But the word for confusion sounds like Babel (think of the English word “babble”). Since they could not work together, they began to move away from each other until they dispersed across the earth.

The Bible says twice in 9:8–9, “The LORD scattered them over the face of the whole earth.” This is in reality an act of grace. God’s sovereign action is to shut the human gateway to heaven so that the divine gateway may be opened up in God's timing and in His own way. Mankind has no right to storm heaven on his terms. Mankind has no right to shortcut the dominion mandate nor abandon the call to crush the serpent’s head.

Jesus’ words in John 14:6 (d. Acts 4:12) are so very significant in the light of what God did at Babel. Jesus Christ is the Way, the Truth, and the Life. No one comes back to our Heavenly Father except through Him. He is the Door to the sheepfold. God’s judgment against the proud cowards at Babel is thus for the Christ and the elect. His actions here are to continue to pave the road that will lead to Bethlehem and Calvary. Thus Genesis 11 is genuinely good news!

Pentecost: God’s answer to Babel

At Babel mankind craved to be united and not scattered. They sought a name through their vigorous efforts to build a great society. But the LORD out of His rich mercy confused them in order to scatter them so that His designs to have mankind fill the earth might be achieved.

But this divine action, a judgment against humanity, should not lead us to conclude that God is uninterested in the unity of mankind. After the “generations account” of Terah begins in Genesis 11:27, we hear God call Abram and his barren wife Sarai out of Ur and then out of Haran to go to the land of God’s special choice. This call to Abram is to restore blessing to the creation-kingdom that had been lost to sin. Through Abram (and his seed) all nations will be blessed.

Matthew 1:1 tells us that Jesus Christ is the son of David, the son of Abraham. This is the opening notice of the Gospel record. But when the Gospel of Abraham ends, we hear the Lord directing the disciples (and thus the church) to go back into all nations and disciple them for the Lord Jesus Christ. This is made possible by the powerful action of the Holy Spirit of Jesus Christ (d. Acts 1:8). On Pentecost morning that same Spirit is poured out on the assembled church, and the sermon of Peter that day exalt the Lord Jesus Christ (Acts 2). What is noteworthy is that Jerusalem is filled with people from many lands of the Roman world. They hear the Gospel message being preached in their language. Though dispersed in homeland and different in tongue, they became united when the Lord Jesus Christ is lifted up in the preaching of the Gospel. On Pentecost there are 3000 people who respond with faith and obedience, and they receive the one baptism of the Christian church. Out of many nations, they are made one in Christ Jesus.

A new man, a new temple

Read Ephesians 2:11–22. In this exceedingly rich passage, Paul brings together both creation language and temple-building language as he describes the marvelous things that God is doing “now in Christ” (2:13). God dispersed the nations when they tried to unify on apostate, humanistic terms at Babel. But Christ, the second Adam, the new Man, is the blessing from Abraham given for all the nations of the world. Israel had such a rich heritage in God's Word (the “oracles”) and the covenants of promise. With the first coming of Christ, the “faraway” people might be united with the common-wealth of Israel. Gentiles were barred (even physically!) in the past. but Christ has shattered that older Mosaic “dividing wall of hostility” (2:14). God’s purpose in Christ was “to create in Himself one new man out of the two, thus making peace” (2:15).

Notice that Paul does not say that Christ creates two new men, one a physical seed and the other a spiritual seed. The creation language is such that the church may be described as “one new man.” Gentile believers and Jewish believers are the several bricks and timbers that the divine Builder, the Holy Spirit, is bringing together, established on the foundation of the apostles and the prophets, Christ Jesus Himself as the chief cornerstone (2:20ff). True unity is thus found today by submission to the Prince of Peace, Jesus Christ. It cannot be found in the noblest intentions of international organizations such as the United Nations. It cannot be based upon the lowest common denominator of so-called faith as attempted by falsely ecumenical organizations such as the World Council of Churches. Christ and His kingdom are the true home of all believers from every tribe, language and culture in this world.

Shem to Terah: another ten generations (11:10ff)

Bible readers may be puzzled whywe take up the genealogy account of Shem here, if the text already spoke of Shem’s descendants earlier (see 10:21–30). The dif~ ferences in the purposes of the two lists may be noted. In the earlier passage, we see Shem revealed as one of Noah’s sons who helped to repopulate the entire world. The Semitic peoples also constitute a major factor in the roll call of the nations. But in Genesis 11:10–26 the account has the purpose of showing us the covenant connections that move us to another man with three sons, namely, Terah (d. Adam, Noah). This account almost certainly is a summary of the key figures in order to move the story line to Terah, the father of Abram, Nahor and Haran. In the line of Shem, God maintained His covenant faithfulness, even though when His call came to Abram to leave home, that call came to people who worshiped other gods (see Joshua 24:2; Ur was a center of moon-worship).

With that call to Abram and his family, the Biblical story is going to take a narrative leave away from the nations. But that leave is not a permanent one. Before Abraham was, Jesus Christ is. With Jesus Christ, His Word and Spirit, God will go back to the nations. That covenant path back to the nations will be difficult. After all, Terah’s son Abram has married a half-sister who is barren! But the God revealed in the text to this point is the God who is rich in mercy and who is able to call into being what is not. He pours out that mercy even today so that He might gather all His elect in from every nation on earth. In Christ-the Son of Abraham, of Shem, of Noah, of Seth, of Adam-the Son of God, we may again enjoy full union and communion with the living God, just as it was in the beginning and someday will be fully restored again.

POINTS TO PONDER AND DISCUSS
1. What are the people involved in the Babel project afraid of? What really is fear. andwhat are its causes? Below the surface of our society today. what are younger people afraid of? What do older folks fear? The future? Finances? Health? Their family? What does the Bible say about our fears? (See Matthew 6:25ff; 28:20; Hebrews 13:5.6; I Peter 5:6.7.)

2. What are the sources of a nation’s unity? Common language? Common radal background? Subjection to common ideals, “traditional values”? Common respect for laws? Or what? What is meant by “civil religion”? Is it a danger or not? How is it possible for Christians in the United States or in Canada (or any country for that matter) to be taken in by our national “civil religion”?

3. In what ways does ourWestern society show the kind of pride that rejects God’s Word and His laws? What role do leaders (espedally political ones) have in setting a tone and atmosphere that shows submission and reverence for the Lord? Or, is that not possible or proper in this day and age?

4. Using a Bible concordance or Bible dictionary. describe how the New Testament speaks of “Babylon.” What is going to be the destiny of every “Babylon” that rises against God and His people? (See Isaiah 13:1ff; 14:3ff; Revelation 18.)

5. God stopped the Babel project dead in its tracks. In the Bible are there other instances of God stopping people or nations from carrying out their intentions? Do you know of instances in the history of the church, or even in your own life, where God altered, or maybe even stopped your plans? Looking back, are you able to see God’s wisdom and His own plan more clearly? Why doesn’t God always answer our prayers as we want, when we have tried to do something we thinks is obedient to His Word?

6. Read Romans 11. From the Semites come Israel and the Jewish people. Jesus told the Samaritan woman in John 4:22 that salvation is of the Jews (for from them came the Messiah and through them came the Old Testament Scriptures). Is there any special place today for the Jews (or national Israel) in God’s redemptive plan? Or, are the Jeewish peopel merely another nation on the face of the earth? What kind of approach must the church use to bring Jewish people to see that Jesus is the Messiah (the Christ), also for the Jewish people, in light of many centuries of persecution of Jews by so-called Christians?

7. In John 17 our Lord prayed for unity among His followers. What is the foundation for true Christian unity? How hard should Christians strive for true spiritual and confessional unity today with other believers? What is your church doing to build up unity in truth and in love?

Mark D. Vander Hart

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