Good morning everyone. My goal for the next 15 mins or so is to try to get you to feel very small. Doesn’t that sound nice? The builders of Babel thought themselves very big. And because of this, they thought God very small. They thought they could build a tower reaching to the heavens, as if God were within their grasp. They thought – “let us get together and create”, let us reach the heavens like God. Let us make a name for ourselves. But God came down and proved them very small indeed. It’s when we rightly feel and see ourselves as very small, that we can see God as great and glorious and big. And as I studied this passage this week, it made me feel small.
Though small, I am not insignificant to God. And neither are you. He has made you in His image, numbered the hairs on your head; he cares for you. In Him you live and move and have your being. If you are a Christian, he has sent His own beloved Son to die for you. At great cost to Himself he separated your sin as far as the east is from the west. And as I hope to show this morning, it was God’s plan from the beginning to go to the ends of the earth to save you. Oh Christians, we are small before an incomprehensibly big God, but we are not of little value to Him. We are small and weak, but we need not fear. And we need not anxiously protect ourselves or make a name for ourselves for the name of the Lord is a strong tower. The righteous man runs into it and is safe (Prov 18:10).
The story of Babel begins with the unrighteous seeking to build their own tower, to be their own security and own God. This story and the surrounding genealogies show us a world determined to be God and a God determined to save the world. Those are my two points.
Point 1: A world determined to be God.
The tower of Babel story is the culmination of chapters 1-11. In some ways, sin has come full circle. Adam and Eve ate of the tree in order to become like God, knowing good and evil. The men of Noah’s day wanted to be God, too, and just like Adam and Eve they wanted to act autonomously. They completely disregarded God and His desire for them to image and imitate Him and were only evil continually from childhood. Now at Babel we have mankind again wanting to reach God by their own efforts, to usurp His authority, to defy Him by defying His command to fill the earth with His image. Instead, they concentrate in the plain of Shinar at Babel.
In a way, it’s hard to imagine mankind being so utterly rebellious after they have so recently experienced the punishment for their rebellion. In 10:25, it says it was during Peleg’s time that the earth was divided; that’s when God scattered mankind from Babel. Peleg was Noah’s great-great grandson. And since people were living much longer in those days (Noah lived 950 years, see Genesis 9:29) Noah and Shem and probably other family members on the boat were still alive at the time Babel was being constructed. Certainly there were people building that tower and city who remembered the look of the devastated world that had just emerged from the flood. The flood was such a clear picture of God’s judgment against the evil of mankind. How could they just explain that away? Maybe they thought it was global warming! You’d think they’d give up on trying to be God and instead worship and obey Him. I guess I can relate, though – I have seen some terrible effects of sin in my life, so you’d think I’d just stop sinning.
Anyway, here we are again, mankind rebelling against God, trying to make a name for themselves, seeking to commend themselves either to Him or each other, and God knows it will result in great evil. God says in 11:6 “Behold, they are one people, and they have all one language, and this is only the beginning of what they will do. And nothing that they propose to do will now be impossible for them.” What is God saying there? Well, He isn’t up there afraid, biting his nails that the tower is going to reach him and then he’ll be doomed! Nowhere in scripture do we ever get the notion that God is threatened by man in any way. In fact, we overwhelmingly hear the opposite. Instead, it’s as if God’s saying something like “this is only the beginning of the evil they will do. If they embark on this pride-filled, rebellious plan, what evil will be impossible for them? If it only took one generation for Adam and Eve’s rebellion against God to progress to murder, what will be the terrible result of this? If we ever thought that the world is simply indifferent to God, in these short 11 chapters of Genesis we have seen over and over again that we have a world bent on being God. Not a people interested in imaging Him but interested in making a name for themselves, receiving glory and not in giving glory to God.
Now, does that seem to you like something that only happened in ancient history? We don’t see this in the world today, do we? Do we even see this in our own hearts?
If I weren’t sure I had an issue with this, God revealed this attitude in my life in an unmistakable way last month. It was a few weeks before I even started thinking about Babel or writing this lesson. For a time, I had been feeling really insignificant. It was like I was having a mini-mid-life crisis, which I have from time to time. My emotions all came to a head one night and I blurted out to my husband – “what is the point of my life? I want to do something big for God. I don’t know what I do all day. I just cook and clean and work and do all this stuff even unbelievers do.” His counsel to me was so helpful. He reminded me of all the ways I am busy about serving the Lord and serving others. And that actually it’s not about what I do, but whose name I do these things. It’s about whether I am imaging Him and His character as I live and act. And then he injected a little humor saying, “Well, what do you want to be doing, ushering in the kingdom? Who do you think you are, Jesus Christ?” Funny, but right. My attitude revealed that I wasn’t content to do simply the good works God has called me to do, but I wanted to make a name for myself. To feel significant before God and before others because of my works.
Going back to our passage, there’s a play on words in chapter 11 with the word “name”. The name Shem sounds a lot like the Hebrew word for “name”. Going back even further, recall that God named Adam. These people wanted to make a name for themselves, but God had already given them a name. He had made them in His image and given them significance because they are connected to Him. Especially the descendants of Shem because they were to become the people of God. They would become the Israelites, whom God chose as His people and who were supposed to be a light to all peoples of the earth.
Notice the genealogies in chapters 10 and 11. If you were good at counting and a scholar, you would notice that out of these genealogies come 70 nations, all descended from Noah. Some translations have 72 – it doesn’t really matter. The point is that these 70 nations encompass the known world at the time. The known world rebelled against God at the tower of Babel. Just like the known world – man and woman rebelled against God in the garden and again the world rebelled at the flood and faced God’s just wrath. Then and now we all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God.
What a hopeless picture. Even after their scattering, there isn’t much evidence that any of these 70 nations feared God. You read the idolatry and evil deeds of the Canaanites in your homework. Wanting to be independent of God’s rule, they decide to worship the creation rather than the creator and do terribly evil things. What hope is there? Only God. Their only hope is that he would not leave them alone in their sin. He comes down. Which brings us to point 2: A God determined to save the world.
Just a few verses after our section (Spoiler alert!) in 12:3, God is going to appoint Abraham, and through him all the nations of the earth will be blessed. God is going to save them from their sin. God is going to save the known world from its sin – from the Semites (descendants of Shem) to the Canaanites. Lest we forget that God’s plan all along was to save people from ever tribe and people and language and nation, God turns our attention to these 70 nations throughout scripture. And if you are a descendant of Noah in this room, you are a part of these nations:
- During the exodus and the wandering in the desert, Israel had 70 elders, representing all the nations that would be blessed through Israel and Israel’s promised son, Jesus Christ. (Ex 24:9 and Num 11:24)
- Then when Jesus comes, in Luke 10 he sends out the 70 (or 72) to preach the good news that God has not left all peoples in their sin but has come down again to save. Before this, I didn’t understand the purpose of Jesus’s action in sending out the 70. Commentators agree that these 70 are representative of the 70 nations in our passage today. Jesus, a descendant of Abraham through whom all nations of the earth would be blessed, is now going out and sending others to do that very thing – to save sinners of all nations.
- Then in Acts 2 on Pentecost, we have a kind of reversal of the curse of Babel. People who have been scattered and separated into different languages are now all hearing the Gospel in their own language, being united to one another in Christian faith. In Acts 2:9 we actually have the opposite of Babel. Zephaniah (3:9) prophesied about Pentecost. There God says: “For at that time I will change the speech of the peoples to a pure speech, that all of them may call upon the name of the Lord and serve him with one accord.” Serving Him with one accord, rather than a united rebellion against Him.
- Finally, most gloriously, we are told man does reach the heavens, but not by His own efforts. In Revelation 7 it famously says, “After this I looked, and behold,a great multitude that no one could number, from every nation, from all tribes and peoples and languages, standing before the throne and before the Lamb, clothed in white robes, with palm branches in their hands, 10 and crying out with a loud voice, “Salvation belongs to our God who sits on the throne, and to the Lamb!” 11 And all the angels were standing around the throne and around the elders and the four living creatures, and they fell on their faces before the throne and worshiped God, 12 saying, “Amen! Blessing and glory and wisdom and thanksgiving and honor and power and might be to our God forever and ever! Amen.”
These nations who were once scattered, far off, have now been brought near by the blood of Christ (Eph 2:13). You and I, who were once far off from God, have now been brought near through the blood of Christ. God came down at Babel to restrain sin. God also came down in the person of Jesus to forgive sin. That was his plan since before even Genesis. Compared to God’s plan and timeline, our lives are like flowers that come up and quickly fade. What does it matter if the world esteems us or even if we esteem ourselves? Let’s spend our short lives making a name for our great and eternal God.
1We are following the curriculum “Women’s Bible Study: GENESIS: In the Beginning. A Study of Genesis 1-11”. Jen Wilkin. 2010. http://jenwilkin.blogspot.com/
2 Hamilton, Victor P. (2010-08-04). The Book of Genesis, Chapters 1-17 (New International Commentary on the Old Testament) (Kindle). Eerdmans Publishing Co – A. Kindle Edition.
3Mathews, Kenneth; Mathews, K. A. (1996-01-10). The New American Commentary Volume 1 – Genesis 1-11. B&H Publishing. Kindle Edition.