Genesis 11: 1 - 9
v. 4 - Think of it! A tower that reaches to the heavens. We thought that we had big ambitions. This one takes the cake. “Great idea. Let’s use bricks instead of stones. That way it will last forever.” “I’ll call the bank and set up the financing. We’ll borrow most of the money at prime plus one. We’ll rent out the lower floor for retail, put families in the middle, and reserve the top floors for multi-national corporations that need a prime location.” “I love it. This tower will stand forever. We’ll be the envy of every city in Mesopotamia. They don’t have anything like this in Nineveh.” “It’s a great idea. People will come from everywhere to see the tower. We can make money leading tours to the top.”
This was the greatest building programme of the ancient world. But the tower they started was stopped by God. They started the tower, God stopped it, and along the way, he confused their language and scattered the people across the face of the earth.
1. Crucial Background Facts
A. Occurred just a few generations after Noah’s flood. It may have happened 100 - 150 years later. By this time the population had expanded considerably from just 8 people to a much larger number - more than 30 000 people living on earth at the time.
B. Everyone spoke the same language. The human race was united in a way that has never been repeated since. Chronologically, the Tower of Babel story comes before the scattering of the nations in Genesis 10. Moses reversed the order to emphasize the high cost of rebelling against God. We are supposed to come to the end of Genesis 10 and ask, “How did the world become so hopelessly divided?” Genesis 11 answers that question.
C. Most people lived in the Middle East – Babylonia - modern-day Iraq. As the post-flood generations migrated east from Ararat, they settled in the region we now call the “fertile crescent,” a well-watered plain near the Tigris and Euphrates rivers.
D. The tower they built was religious in nature. In Sunday School it is sometimes implied that the people were trying to build a tower all the way to heaven. That’s probably not accurate. It seems more likely that they were building a tower that would bring heaven down to earth. Some say that the tower was tied to the early development of astrology. This seems likely since we know that astrology originated in ancient Babylon.
At first glance, the religious nature of the tower they built may seem to make it quite different from modern skyscrapers, but perhaps there really isn’t much difference after all. After the collapse of the World Trade Center in New York City, the Twin Towers were described as temples of modern commerce and shrines to the ingenuity and prowess of American technology.
So it was a tower but it was more than a tower. It was a massive, united effort to bring humanity together apart from God. Is it any wonder that the Lord would not let the tower stand?
2. Two Implications
This is a mirror of the modern world. It reveals to us what we might call the power game. The builders of the Tower of Babel had 2 purposes in mind – v. 4 – 1. That we may make a name for ourselves 2. That we may not be scattered over the face of the earth. The tower was meant to make a statement: “Don’t mess with us. We’re the greatest city on earth. No one is like us. No one can touch us.” How modern that sounds. We live in a world that exalts the big, bigger, biggest. Good, better, best. Fast, faster, fastest. Smart, smarter, smartest. Tall, taller, tallest. Rich, richer, richest. We all want to be the “est.” Why be the “er” if you can be the “est"? That’s why we compete, that’s why we keep score.
Architecture is theology. Show me what you build or show me where you live (or where you wish you lived) and I’ll know something about your values. The Tower of Babel was an ancient power game for people who felt the inner need to be Number One. They wanted a name, they wanted security and they thought the tower would give them both things.
A. The compulsive drive for power and prestige stems from our deep-seated fear of dependence on someone else. We want to be the “est” in our field—biggest, strongest, smartest, loudest, richest, fastest—because if we are the “est” then others will have to depend on us, but we won’t have to depend on anyone or anything. As the poet said “I am the master of my fate, the captain of my soul.”
Is there anything wrong with building a tower? No. Is there anything wrong with working together to build a tower? No. Is there anything wrong with building the tallest tower on earth? No. Is it wrong to advertise that your tower is the tallest tower on earth? No, but at this point we’re drifting into a danger zone, one that is so subtle that we hardly see it until it captures us completely. Human pride is a tricky thing. Pride is what made Lucifer rebel against God in the first place. Pride was the original sin of the universe. Ambition is not wrong, competition is not wrong, winning isn’t wrong, celebrating your victories is not wrong, being the best is not wrong but it is never entirely innocent either. Sin always lurks somewhere not too far away. Jesus declared - it is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for a rich man to go to heaven. When you’ve got money or power or prestige or fame or friends in high places, you think you don’t need God. But when you’re flat broke and your power is gone and friends won’t return your calls, you’re on your knees crying out for mercy.
Jesus showed us the antidote when he said, “Blessed are the poor in spirit for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.” Matthew 5: 3 Blessed are the losers for they shall win in the end. Blessed are they who mourn for they shall be comforted. Blessed are the meek. The meek! Who wants to be meek? Meekness is weakness and the weak get crushed. Or do they? “They shall inherit the earth.”
B. The compulsive drive for power and security leads to the moral degeneration of the soul. Our desperate search for significance leads us to compromise our values time and again in the name of independence, freedom and the need to control our own destiny. Like Frank Sinatra, “I did it my way” - expresses the spirit of Babel. So we cut corners, break the rules, lie to our parents - our spouses - our friends and we end up lying to ourselves. We use people and then discard them when they don’t fit into our plans anymore.
What seems to be noble turns out to be sinister. There is nothing wrong with a tower and nothing wrong with a good reputation and nothing wrong with working as a team to accomplish a great goal. But when those things are fueled by arrogance, the end result is grotesque and outright evil. The tower becomes a symbol of man’s independence from God. It is humanism in its full flower.
Life is hard without God. You end up doing desperate things, like building towers that reach into the heavens. Arrogance makes men think they are invincible. But no one is invincible. “All men are like grass, and all their glory is like the flowers of the field. The grass withers and the flowers fall, because the breath of the LORD blows on them. Surely the people are grass.” Isaiah 40: 6, 7 Here today, gone tomorrow. We don’t like to hear that we are weak and mortal, but we are. We desperately need to take these words to heart because we live in a world that encourages us to think we can do it all. Believe it and achieve it. Dream it and do it. No limits on human potential. But remember this. The next time you feel the need to brag, pay attention to that faint cracking sound. It’s the thin ice beneath your feet that is about to give way.
That’s why God stopped the building program. If he let them continue with the tower, they would think they could do anything. So God confounded their language. The pipe fitters couldn’t understand the electricians, who couldn’t understand the truck drivers, who didn’t have a clue what the bricklayers were talking about. That drove the carpenters nuts. Everyone started talking gibberish, no one understood a thing the others were saying, and soon the massive building program ground to a halt. Then the Lord scattered them across the face of the earth. Do you know what they called the name of that city - “Babel” - means “confusion.” They called it “Confusion City.” Everyone was babbling at the same time, and it drove everyone nuts so they moved away to get some peace and quiet. That’s how we got so many different languages.
Here is the ultimate irony: They built the Tower so they wouldn’t be scattered but they ended up scattered anyway. God judges all human efforts that leave him out. He brings down the high and mighty with a great big thud. “Unless the Lord builds the house, they labour in vain who build it.” Psalm 127: 1
3. Three Questions
A. To what extent do I embody the attitude of Babel? Remember, the problem of the tower was not the tower itself but the attitude that built it in the first place. Anything good can become like the Tower of Babel when we are motivated by pride or arrogance or paranoia or a need to establish our own independence from God and from others. There is a mighty thin line between healthy ambition and sinful pride and any of us can cross it without even knowing it. It’s the compulsive need to be in control of every aspect of life, including those around us. It’s the spirit of Babel that causes us to say, “He’s God in heaven but I’m the God of my own little world.”
B. In what areas have I experienced the judgment of Babel? God judged the people by throwing them into confusion and ruining their massive building program. God does the same thing to us today. We suffer confusion and fear and incredible loneliness in our drive to be the “est” at whatever we do. Some of us have suffered incredibly because we’re still trying to live according to our own rules. So we push God out to the edges of life and then do our own thing. But you can’t push God to the side and succeed for very long. Your tower will come crashing down sooner or later, and when it does, the shaky foundation of your life will be destroyed with it.
C. Have I embraced the alternative to Babel? There is only one alternative—the Lord Jesus Christ.
“The name of the Lord is a strong tower; the righteous run to it and are safe.” Proverbs 18: 10.
What shall it profit a man - a woman - a company - a team - a family - a leader - a city - a nation - What shall it profit you, if you build a mighty tower with your life and lose your own soul in the process? You can have Babel with all its power games, its moral degeneration, its paranoia, loneliness, despair, and deceptive pleasure. Or you can have Jesus Christ. Those are the choices of life.
At this point the gospel message becomes incredibly relevant to our generation because we too are massive Tower-Builders. We’re ladder-climbers, control freaks, estate-builders, and compulsive overcommitters. We’re looking for love and pleasure and power and purpose and meaning in all the wrong places. We build towers that crumble before our eyes and we wonder what went wrong. We’re too busy building our kingdoms to seek first the Kingdom of God. No wonder we’re frazzled, tired, nervous, uptight, jumpy, irritable, easily distracted, and easily seduced by money, sex and power.
The Spirit of Babel is not just out there, it’s inside all of us all the time. We need to feel uneasy about our ‘towers.’ That’s a good thing. They are heavy burdens. We need the wisdom to recognise that it is very easy to start building “towers” in our own strength and for our own glory. The tricky part is this. You can’t tell by looking at the tower why it was built. Only the Lord knows the thoughts of the heart. So while we may appear to have everything in order because we are happy and busy and successful, God may know that our towers need to come crumbling to the ground.
The people said, “Come, let’s build.”
Jesus said, “Come to me, all you who are weary and burdened, and I will give you rest.” Matthew 11: 28. If you are tired of building castles in the sand only to see them washed away by the tides of life, come to Jesus. If you are weary of trying (and failing) to be the master of your circumstances, come to Jesus. If you are burdened with the pressure of trying to be all things to all people all the time and if you fail to meet your own expectations, much less anyone else’s, come to Jesus. If you are worn out from the fruitless search for power and prestige, come to Jesus. Here is a word for frustrated tower-builders everywhere. If you are tired of your life and want something better, come to Jesus. All that hungry hearts seek is found in him. By his death on the cross our sins are forgiven. By his resurrection we gain new life. Do you know him? Has your heart been changed by his mighty power? If you are tired of building towers that fall to the ground, come to Jesus. He’s the firm foundation, the cornerstone that can never be shaken. Build your life on Jesus Christ and you will never be disappointed. Amen.