There is a funny joke I heard from a small African man a few years ago. With seriousness in his voice and face he asked, “What do you call a man who speaks three languages?” I responded, “Tri-lingual.” Then he asked, “What do you call a man who speaks two languages?” I was quick to respond, “Bi-lingual.” And then he asked, “What do you call a man who speaks one language?” I began to say, “mono…,” but he chirped in with a smile on his face and laugh in his gut, “No, no, my friend, a person who speaks one language is called an American.” We both laughed. Now the African man sharing with me this joke could speak over five languages fluently.
Today, in our world, there are between 3,000 to 10,000 different spoken languages. According to Wycliffe Bible Translators there are over 6,800 language groups. Where did all these languages originate? Why so many languages? Why so many boundaries on the map? Why so many conflicts between culture and races? Why not one language, nation, culture, or dictionary? Wouldn’t life and communication be easier? We will tackle these questions and more important questions from Genesis 10-11.
How does The Tower of Babel fit within the story of the Bible, God and humanity? [Genesis 10:1-11:1]
Genesis 10 opens with another lengthy genealogy [cf. Genesis 5; 11:10-26; Adam to Abraham], which breaking down into the descendants of Noah’s three sons, Japheth, Shem, and Ham. This is more than a biblical phonebook, but a tracking of the godly and ungodly patriarchs [male headship] from whom all people groups, languages, and nations descended. These are people like us who inhabit the earth. These people were sinful even after the flood. There was the example of Noah’s sin [9:20-29] and now, the example of corporate sin [11:1-9]. The story of Babel calls us to long for redemption.
Genesis 11:1-2 says, “Now the whole earth had one language and the same words. And as people migrated east, they found a plain in the lad of Shinar and settled there.” In these verses are two important items to note. First, the world became monolingual. Everybody spoke the same language, the same framework of communication, the same dictionary definitions, and a unified identity. Language is important to God. He spoke first, He speaks through His Son the Word made flesh, and He gives His creation the ability to speak, communicate and relate.
Second, the concept of going east corresponded with going farther and farther from God. For example, when Adam and Eve were cast out of the garden they went eastward [3:24]. When Cain sinned he wandered east of Eden [4:7]. People move east. When people who go eastward in Genesis tthey run away from God [i.e. Eden; paradise] and into ruin [i.e. Sodom and Ninevah; eastward cities].
What is sinful about building a tower in the city of Babel? [Genesis 11:2-4]
There is nothing wrong with building a tower, a city, or a tall structure in a city. Babel [aka: Babylon] is described as an advanced intellectual and architectural city not unlike most in our own day where regular people simply seek to build a secular society apart from God [i.e. NYC, Dubai, London, Rio, etc.]. The story does not mention any particularly heinous sins that the Babylonians committed, but what is sinful is their motivation for building the city and tower. In these view short verses we see the sinful hearts of people:
First, it is sinful for people to crave to make their name great [11:4]. The people of Babel desire to spread the fame of their name rather than spreading God’s name. This was the same problem for Adam and Eve in the Garden [3:5-6], and it is the same problem you have [James 3:16]. Followers of Christ make their Masters look good. Make great the name of God! To give glory to God is to make Him look good!
Second, it is sinful for people to crave to live against the creation mandate [11:4, cf. 1:26-31; 9:1,7]. God commands His people in the Creation and the Covenant with Noah to be fruitful, to multiply, to have dominion, and to scatter across the earth. However, in direct opposition to those commands the people here purpose to stay put, gather together, and move up. This may be the first great city in the history of the world, but its purpose was to stand against all other people and God as a sort of secular seat of authority on the earth. They were proud and self-centered. God humbles the proud.
Third, it is also sinful for people to crave to get to Heaven without God. The people seek to build a tower in the heavens [i.e. heaven/kingdom on earth]. This is the same wicked logic beneath every false religion and cult [cf. Acts 4:12]—man works really hard to gain acceptance with God. The Bible is clear it is not by man’s work, but through the gracious work of Christ you go to heaven [Ephesians 2:8-10].
What is God’s response to man’s plan? [Genesis 11:5-9]
In the climax of the narrative God “comes down” [11:5, 7] to see the tower the “children of man are making.” These people think they are gigantic, but God thinks they are minuscule [cf. Psalm 2:1-6]. God is not impressed and judges their small insignificant project. You see, God made the universe, time, man, and all things. Man can create because God taught him how. God lets them build for a little bit. However, God confuses their language [11:7, 9] and scatters them over the face of the earth [11:8].
Ironically, the scattering of the people and confusing of the languages were two of the primary things these people were seeking to prevent from happening in the first place. The name Babel is humorously parallel to our English word babble, which is exactly what their communication sounded like once God confused their language [i.e. babbling on and on]. They could no longer understand one another, so they walk away from the job. Babel wanted a name, heavenly glory, and absolute power, which corrupt absolutely. God made sure that they got none of it. God loves; therefore, He saves them from themselves.
How do I get from Babel to Jesus?
First, the genealogy leads directly to Jesus Christ [11:10ff, cf. Luke 3:23-38]. Second, God disorders the language of the people to stop them from glorifying themselves, but reorders the language of the people so he can glorify his Son [Acts 2:1-13; John 16:14]. Third, the combination of judgment and mercy at Babel points to the fulfillment of judgment and mercy at the cross [Isaiah 53:6]. Fourth, the divine response at Babel solves a behavior problem, but we need the work of Jesus Christ to fix our heart problem [Ezekiel 36:26-27].
Like the fall of Adam and drunken-fall of Noah, Babel is yet another fall of man. To overcome the sin problem people do not turn to God, rather they rely on one another and place their hope in military might, technological advancement, and the building of a good and decent society. What man longs for is eternity, which cannot be had on this earth now. Man needs redemption to remedy man’s sin problem. Jesus is the Redeemer and solution for man eternal need. His kingdom one day will come down to earth and Jesus will be the King of Great Zion. Jesus will sit on His high throne. Around Him will be gather people from every nation and language praising His glorious name with one voice. Do you know Him?
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