Genesis 11 - Back to Babel! The same old story
It was quite a headline in the local newspaper last year: "Woman who played God". It was the story of how Leslie Martin had taken it into her own hands to end the life of her mother. An action which has many supporters. For they think it should be the choice of individuals what they do with their lives.
In The New Zealand Herald' Martin was quoted, "I'm actually anti-abortion and pro-voluntary euthanasia because my personal belief is that once life is conceived, it belongs unto that life."
An interesting quote. But then you need to ask the question: Who is actually making the choice? With the attempted death of Joy Martin it was Lesley who made that choice. Because it became quite clear in the court case that neither of her siblings had been consulted in any part of that process. In fact, in the newspaper and television interviews she is quite disparaging of her sister's ability, in particular, to constructively be involved in such a process. While she doesn't say it, it's quite clear she regards her sister as one of life's losers – one of those who just hasn't made anything of her life, someone who depended too much on the psychological and material resources of her mother. That comes from a woman, by the way, who has had a multiple number of relationships, is into her second marriage, and has two sons out of previous relationships, commenting on someone still with her husband and three children.
But don't let any of that get in your way! Being a modern made-for-media drama, it has all the emotions. Lesley Martin is photographed wiping away the tears off her face. She appeals to the anguish of many who have gone through a similar crisis in their lives. She was, she claimed, trapped between legislation and love, like those thousands of others; the dying who want a painless end, and the friends and families desperate to help them. Meanwhile her sister is described as a chain smoking, whining woman, desperate to tell all-and-sundry her side of the story.
The heart of the struggle
Martin's case goes far beyond her, though. It even goes further than those around this world who are promoting euthanasia. What we have here is heart of the struggle between man and God. A great struggle that goes back to the beginning of the Bible. Because there too we meet people who were playing God.
That's what the story of Babel is all about. In fact, this great battle of the ages is shown in the name 'Babel'.
Now, you might wonder about this. Because as Christians we are familiar with how the word has become used in our language. When people talk about a 'babble' they mean a confusing speech. That's what the word 'babel' has become a synonym for. It was at that place that God confused the one language into many languages. But what the word 'babel' meant for those people then was 'gate of the gods'. It was made to be the way through which man himself would have access to god and indeed be able to be as god.
This story shows the extent to which mankind will go to try and show that he's not really what he is after all.
The same old story
This is the truth of what is in Ecclesiastes 1:9. There it says that there is nothing new under sun. So what mankind is going through now is what he has been through before.
It's an important point to note. Because there is an idea about that the people who lived a long time ago were quite primitive. In a world full of evolutionary teaching people think of the technological advances that have happened and think that equates to people personally, too. That's quite untrue! In fact, to study the lives and times of people from the past is to realise a depth of culture and knowledge which many people don't have today. It's also to realise that man's nature is still exactly the same.
It is this misunderstanding about people from ancient history which has shown up in two key aspects of the 'Tower of Babel' story:
The tower going all the way up to God
A common perception that many have about 'The Tower of Babel' is that here is a group of people demonstrating an innocent, scientifically-naive, primitive effort to reach the highest heavens. They point to verse 4, that statement about making a tower that reaches to the heavens and they say that just simply couldn't have happened.
This thought was shared by many of the artists throughout church history. Take, for instance, the example from the medieval age shown with this article.
But what happens when the Hebrew wording is translated literally? We then have "a tower whose top (is) into heaven." And this is exactly what ancient Mesopotamian ziggurat temple-towers were for! The top compartment represented heaven.
All the people in the world joining in making this tower
In the world-wide migration occurring after Genesis 9:1 this was a major movement towards the east under Nimrod, a grandson of Ham. But it was not the only movement. Major migration had also gone north and south-west from the final resting place of the ark, which was around Mt. Ararat.
Why this story?
But answering these two questions could very well bring out another. And that question is this: Why then is this story brought out of all the possible stories from that time?
Chapter 10 of Genesis is essentially the table of the Nations. It outlines, as we see in this map, where Noah's descendants went to. So we can see that the word of God to Noah in Genesis 9 verse 1 is being fulfilled. For mankind was being fruitful and increasing in number and filling the earth.
There are two footnotes that occur in chapter 10 and 11. There are two passages which appear in amongst these family lines and which at first we may think are simply interesting interludes along the way. Just as a footnote may be used to specially focus on an example which supports what is in the text itself so we think that the stories concerning Nimrod in chapter 10 the verses 8 till 12 and Babel in chapter 11 the verses 1 till 9 are examples of what's happening throughout mankind.
But I would like to put forward a different view. For while this is reflecting what's happening within mankind it actually demonstrates what happens when mankind specifically goes against what God has commanded for them. What we see here, in an early form, is the spirit of the antichrist himself!
The first of these footnotes is Genesis 10, the verses 8 till 12. There we read what we is essentially the story of Nimrod.
The kingdom of Nimrod
So what is significant about Nimrod? Well, he is said to have established cities and built a kingdom. But there is something else. For how does this passage describe Nimrod? Which adjective appears three times in two verses? It's the word "mighty". Why "mighty"? Is it a positive or negative attribute? The NIV seems to put it in a good way. It says "He was a mighty hunter before the LORD." But looking a little deeper shows that in fact this attribute is used because his empire is an affront to God and man. The word "hunter" isn't primarily speaking of his being someone who like hunting down animals but rather he's a hunter of men. So the NIV is quite right to use the word "warrior" in verse 8. As Martin Luther comments, it was through Nimrod's ability to fight and kill and rule ruthlessly that his kingdom of Euphrates valley city states was consolidated.
It is said of Nimrod's kingdom, at the end of verse 12, that it "is the great city". Now the word "city" is not new. It has appeared in Scripture before. It is this earlier passage which makes the description of what Nimrod was doing very clearly set against the LORD God. For that previous occasion is in Genesis 4 verse 17. There we read of when Cain built a city. It is there that the mention of a city, with its structure being a protection from a threatening environment, brings in the theme of kingship. Cain called his son, Enoch. This means "consecration". But consecrated for what? It's clear in that context it's a passion to establish man's own name on the earth.
Going against God's command
So Nimrod's setting up of this chain of cities under his direct command is a clear stand against God's command to Noah to go and spread out across the earth. He is actually gathering in and entrenching his power in certain places. In some places it seems he's even conquering other peoples.
Of all these places Babel seems to be the focus point. This is where he began. This is his capital. This is where he stamps down his claim to fame!
The wider context
This is the immediate context to the story about 'The Tower of Babel'. And we have to add to this the wider background. This brings out the lineage Nimrod is descended from. For that is the line of Ham.
Now we have a further reason for believing that here is someone who has an axe to grind, because here we remember how God cursed Ham. His disgracing of his father Noah while he was naked resulted in the LORD's curse against Ham's oldest son, Canaan. By implication that is a mark against the whole family of Ham.
The details in this story
With this setting let's now consider the details in the story of the 'Tower of Babel'. Details which we'll consider in two parts; two parts which are tied in with the two times that the word "come" appears in this story:
When people make it for themselves
The first part I shall place under the heading 'When people make it for themselves.' This covers the verses 1 till 4.
These verses begin by stating what was common across the face of the earth at that time. For verse 1 notes that there was one language and a common speech. They were the word Noah would have spoken.
But then let's note what happens here...
A discontented crowd
Here we have the perspective from the people with Nimrod.
Verse 2 tells of how the people are "settling" there. So there is an underlying unhappiness with the way of the Lord. Thus we come to the first "come" in verse 3. For here this whole group is joined together in taking it up against God.
Use of new technology
Verse 3 notes that they made bricks and baked them thoroughly. So they used bricks instead of stone and tar instead of mortar. Interestingly, while they may have been impressed that they had found new building materials – materials which they could produce on the spot and make into a fine looking structure – they were actually materials that would not last as long and be as strong as stone and mortar. It's one of those times in human history where a supposedly great discovery has ended up taking us a step backwards.
Many of us will recall that in the late 1950's and early 1960's there was the wonder drug thalidomide. It was the drug to significantly reduce nausea in pregnant women. But we know what the end result was! Interestingly, it took a British journalist, Harold Evans, several years and an appeal to the European Court of Human Rights against the House of Lords before the truth was revealed about that!
Henry Morris comments that in his desire to build a great empire Nimrod realised that the people needed a religious motivation strong enough to overcome their knowledge that God had commanded them to scatter across the earth. This would explain why in verse 4 this tower is described as being in the heavens, because that's what it was dedicated to.
James Montgomery Boice believes this upper level had a representation of the heavens upon it. In other words, it has zodiac pictured there. So the inner walls would have been probably decorated with blue glazed tile, with the sun, the moon, and the five known planets (Mercury, Venus, Mars, Jupiter and Saturn) lined up along the plane of the zodiac. In the centre of the room would be their 'god' seated upon a throne!
How can we know this? Well, Nebuchadnezzar later rebuilt such a tower in Babylon. A tower the Sumerians had called 'e-temen-an-ki', which translated is the building of the foundation-platform of heaven and earth. So historically it can be shown that there is a line of such ziggurat towers which goes back to this time. The ziggurat I have shown, for example, is from the reign of Ur-Nammu, king of Ur in 2100 B.C.
Notice what David Atkinson says about what's happening at Babel: "When God, the Lord, disappears from the centre of community life, then the seeds of everything which breaks down relationships are sown. There is no unity of fellowship in human community endeavours, unless they are bound together around a centre outside of themselves. Human societies which organise themselves without reference to God, and build up power structures of their own in place of God, are always prey to the demonic."
So we have a situation with every potential for real breakdown. In fact, if it continues like this things will fall apart - and they'll fall apart in a terrible way.
Then God will make them wear it
We turn now to the second part of the story of Babel. This is God's response shown in the verses 5 till 9. Here we find the 2nd "come" in Genesis 11:7. This is where it is the LORD Himself speaking. While before it had been the people together using this word for "come" now God uses the word as He assembles His heavenly council and moves to confuse their language.
Things in divine perspective
In verses 5 and 6 we see it from a different perspective. For here it's looking down upon it. And so we note that the LORD has to come down to it. That's important to remember, because when we move into verse 6 we can get to thinking that perhaps God is feeling threatened by what's going on.
That's not true at all. In fact, it's the opposite. What God does here is actually to save these people – from themselves. Verse 6 is the LORD recognising what they will do to themselves.
God moves in a miraculous way here to have people do His will and so continue to receive His care. For what does the confusion of their language do? It scatters them! It shatters to pieces Nimrod's selfish dream of world-wide domination.
Here, though, we might wonder how their linguistic unity could provide the possibility and potential for immense iniquity? John Whitcomb says, "Perhaps we can find the answer by looking at the vast English-speaking world today. Almost instantly, demonic perversions and poisons can penetrate and permeate the minds of millions through the Internet, as well as via avalanches of morally hideous films, videos, books and magazines." "Now," he goes on, "what would happen to this Satanic sewerage if the more than 300 million people who speak English suddenly discovered that their linguistic unity was shattered? The blow to Satan and sinful men would be staggering. God's intervention at Babel, dividing and separating people from each other, had a holy and loving purpose."
Those who pray to God!
Babel showed the ultimate futility of man making a name for himself. It stands as a stark reminder of what happens whenever mankind makes a god out of who he is or what he does. That's why we often go 'Back to Babel'!
So Lesley Martin and those with her – the Philip Nietschke's and Jack Kevorkians of this world – are putting up the monuments to themselves. Their ego's are up there for everyone to see! Their disregard for God's law is blatant. Like those in Babel they think they are the enlightened ones whereas they are living a terrible lie. In fact, their whole presentation is a lie because there is a better way than murder – the way of lovingly caring for the dying with modern medication, equipment and human care.
And it's no surprise really, is it? Their father is the father of lies. Satan is at back of it all – he will continue to building his Babels until the truth finally wins in the coming again of our Lord Jesus Christ.
So while it may seem at times that Satan is winning the day that will only be for a day. The Lord Jesus Christ has won the greatest battle of them all. And so there is a great and coming day when judgment will come. As it came for those Babylonians when the LORD turned them into a blithering mess so it will be much, much worse for Satan and those with him on that Day. But until that day the Lord is also preserving. His rain is falling on the righteous and the unrighteous, as Jesus says in Matthew 5 verse 45. This is so that He proclaims the Gospel still.
The warning is not to play at God. Instead, we must be those who pray to God! In all you do work that those who seek their salvation in themselves may be humbled to see that it's only when they realise they don't have in themselves that they are saved.