What the Tower of Babel says about us – and what God’s response warns us about and gives us hope in.
After a global flood wiped out almost all of the earth’s population – except for righteous Noah and his family – humanity was to spread from Mount Ararat into the world. Stepping from the ark on to a mountain, God cut a covenant with Noah that God would never again Flood the earth. This act of mercy was the means by which Noah’s family would worship Yahweh and bring his rule to the entire planet. Unfortunately, as we might expect, things don’t go exactly to plan. Noah’s three sons split into seventy nations, all speaking different tongues and worshiping other gods (Genesis 10). How did this happen – how did everything go off base so quickly?
Genesis 11 brings us, chronologically, back in time before the Table of Nations is formed. Noah’s grandchildren and younger migrated a little bit to the east and erected a tower. At this time, everybody spoke the same language (Gen 11:1). This allowed a great many people to come together, devise plots together, and go about their business in a grand, perverse, unity. They came together, creating bricks and mortar for themselves, in order to make a tower tall enough to reach the heavens and create a name for themselves (11:2-3).
Why? The Tower was formed out of fear of death. They explicitly confirm: they do this “lest they be spread out across the globe”. Already in human history, humans are learning what the apostles would say explicitly (Romans 5:2-3; James 5:10-13): to follow Yahweh is to invite suffering in this fallen world. Abel was murdered when Cain was jealous that Abel acted out of faith (Heb 11:4). Noah was mocked and ridiculed as a preacher of righteousness (2 Peter 3:20; 2 Peter 2:5). There wasn’t just suffering for the righteous, either, seeing as the entirety of human population was killed not too long ago. Due to the violence in human hearts (Genesis 6:1-4) and the fall of man (Gen 3:1-10), death was all around.
So, humanity sought to artificially extend their lives in two ways: religiously and sociologically (Gen 11:4). First, they sought to build a tower that would reach to the heavens without needing to sacrifice anything. Instead, they would come on their own merit. Israel would learn later that to ascend to God, an animal would have to die and ascend as smoke after being burnt. Jesus would not ascend to God until he had died and been resurrected by the Spirit (Romans 1:4-5). By building a tower for themselves that reached the heavens by climbing, rather than dying, man could circumvent the atonement necessary for their sins.
By building a tower for themselves that reached the heavens by climbing, rather than dying, man could circumvent the atonement necessary for their sins.
The second way they tried to extend their lives was by making a name for themselves. In making a name for themselves, they would be remembered through all of time. They would not necessarily be alive, but their memories would. Their legacies would stand through the tower, and through their families. It is not wrong to want to leave a legacy: the Proverbs extol the right kind of legacy (Proverbs 13:22). It is wrong to leave a legacy that is focused on you rather than on God, though.
In a lot of ways, this speaks to our condition today. Almost everything that we do is motivated by the fear of death. We want to be comfortable, live in financial security, etc. in order to ward off the inevitable death. We seek ways to be right with God without sacrifice (either sacrificing our wealth, our comfort, our alone time, or a number of things) and hope that we can find our own way to God that costs us much less than he demands of us. We hope to avoid death by creating a perfect world for our children and leaving a legacy in and through them.
As it stands, though, they were being disobedient. Yahweh speaks among Himself and to his council (cf. Job 1-2; Matthew 28), noting that humanity, when banded together like this, can do whatever they set their collective minds on (Gen 11:5-6). (We miss an important point to this story, and to Genesis 3, when we fail to note that God affirms both that humanity did become like God in taking the fruit and that they would be able to accomplish much in this instance.) Yahweh notes that this is only the beginning of what they would do. Quickly, Yahweh sees that humanity is rushing headlong into another situation like the one that precipitated God sending the Flood.
Yahweh sees that humanity is rushing headlong into another situation like the one that precipitated God sending the Flood.
So, Yahweh “comes down” to see what the humans are doing. Of course, God could have seen the Tower and their work without moving at all. When humans want to approach God, we “draw near” (Lev 9:7) and offer “ascension” offerings (Leviticus 2). When we want to approach God, we have to come closer and higher. When Yahweh wanted to reach the tower, he had to go down. There is a deep irony here as this tower was ostensibly designed to be tall enough to reach heaven, yet God still has to go down to get to it and see what it is.
When Yahweh gets to the tower, he immediately takes action. Any action of man, either this ancient action of building a tower or our modern ways of circumventing death and reaching God on our own terms, will be utterly destroyed by God. He will not stand to see us taking life into our own hands in flagrant disobedience to him. And, because he commanded them to disperse but they disobeyed, he forced their dispersal (Genesis 11:9). Let us take warning of this: our ways of reaching God and prolonging our lives will fail. Only in losing our lives will we truly gain them (Matt 10:39//Mark 8:35//Luke (9:24).
Thankfully, the Creator God is not content to leave humanity, or us, in dispersion and confused languages. The next half of chapter 11 focuses on God’s solution for our fear of death: the family of Abraham. Running from Shem to Terah, father of Abraham, we get a fast-forwarded picture of God’s plan to save humanity through one man. In Genesis 12, Yahweh calls Abram to leave his home (Gen 11:31-32) and his idols (Josh 24:2) and go to a land that he had never seen before. But in this, God would give Abram what the builders of Babel had sought. Abram would be given a great name (12:2) and would be given access to God (15:1).
Though God (in his mercy) destroys our pathetic attempts to prolong our lives, he does not leave us hopeless. Instead, he gives us access to the family of Abraham, too, through faith in Jesus through the power of the Spirit. God preached the gospel to Abraham (Galatians 3:8) that he might be prepared for us, the Gentile children of God, to come into his family. Through the Spirit, we have adoption into this family (Galatians 4:5; Romans 8:15, 23). This adoption was planned from before time (Ephesians 1:5) that we might have a place for us in the family of God in Abraham’s line. By being a part of this line, we are no longer slaves to the fear of death (Hebrews 2:14-15), but can walk in step with the Spirit of life (Galatians 5:16-26). This frees us from our personal towers, our small disobediences designed to prolong our lives, allowing us the freedom to live in the life God promises us abundantly (John 10:10).
So, the Tower remains an ever-present warning to us. It holds up a mirror to the ways we try and avoid death and avoid obeying God, thus paying the price he demands. It shows us the lengths (great and small) God goes to break down our attempts, how easily he can and will do it. But it also prepares us to meet our family, our brothers and sisters in the Spirit in the family of Abraham through the gospel.