Living in Babel
Last week Pastor Jonathan unpacked for us the significance of the Table of 70 Nations in Genesis 10. Genesis 10 explains how all of the nations of the world trace their origins back to Noah and his three sons. He also noted that Genesis 10 sets up and points toward the tower of Babel, which is briefly alluded to in 10:25 with the division of the earth in the days of Peleg, son of Eber. One way to think about the relationship between Genesis 10 and Genesis 11 is to compare it to Genesis 1 and 2. In both cases, you have a big picture overview given first (Creation and Origin of Nations), which then narrows in on a significant event within the big picture (the creation of man and the tower of Babel). Or again, in Genesis 4, we’re given the genealogy of Cain and his descendants, and then Genesis 5 gives the detailed, chronological genealogy of Seth’s family up to Noah (by “detailed chronology,” I mean that we’re told how old the father was when the son was born, and how long the father lived after the son, so that, I believe, it’s possible to trace an unbroken line of succession from Adam to Noah, and then from Noah to Abram). The Genesis 4 genealogies climax with the sin and boast of Lamech, while the Genesis 10 genealogies climax with the pride and ambition of Babel.
Let me note another parallel that comes to fruition with the story of Babel. In one of our first sermons, I noted the geographical descriptions in Genesis 2. The garden of Eden is close to the top of a mountain; there’s a river that flows down to water the garden, and then splits to form four rivers that run to the ends of the earth. So we have Garden, Land, World. Now I want you to think about the progression of sin in Genesis 3-6. First we have a sin in the Garden: eating the forbidden fruit. Next we have a sin in the Land outside the Garden: Cain murders his brother. Then, we have escalating sin up through Lamech with his polygamy and brutality, culminating in world-wide violence and evil, fueled by the intermarriage and mingling of the godly line of Seth (the sons of God) and the ungodly line of Cain (the daughters of men). In other words, what happened in the Garden with Adam and Eve spreads and escalates out from the Garden to the Land and the World until it becomes so heinous that God must act to curb evil with the flood. In the beginning, sin appears like such a small thing; when Milton describes it, he says simply, “she pluck’d; she ate.” It’s hard for us to feel the monumental calamity of Sin in Genesis 3. But Genesis 3 is like the small snowball at the top of the mountain that rolls down hill, and gets larger in the Land, until it’s an absolute avalanche of evil in the world, which provokes God’s total judgment.
Now why do I highlight that escalation and progression? Because after the Flood, we see the same avalanche. Noah is a new Adam, who leaves the ark and is given the same commission as Adam and Eve (“Be fruitful, multiply, and fill the earth”). He becomes a gardener, plants a vineyard, but then has his own fall with fruit: he becomes drunk. And as a result of his drunkenness, his youngest son Ham also falls into sin, attempting to dishonor his father in some way. The Fall in the vineyard by the father leads to the sin of the son, which then escalates and spreads out, culminating in the great sin of Babel. With that as the big picture, I want to ask four questions about the passage:
- Who builds Babel?
- Why do they build Babel?
- What is Babel?
- How does God respond to Babel?
After answering those questions, we’ll press the relevance of this passage into our own day.
1. Who Builds Babel?
The first reference to Babel is actually not in Genesis 11. It’s in Genesis 10:8-10 with the great warrior king Nimrod.
Cush fathered Nimrod; he began to be a mighty man (gibborim = warrior) on earth. He was a mighty hunter before the LORD (or “in the face of the LORD”; this is language of opposition and sin). Therefore it is said, “Like Nimrod a mighty hunter before the LORD.” The beginning of his kingdom was Babel, Erech, Accad, and Calneh, in the land of Shinar. From that land he went into Assyria and built Nineveh, Rehoboth-Ir, Calah, and Resen between Nineveh and Calah; that is the great city.
Nimrod, like Cain and Lamech, is a great city-builder and civilization-starter. He is the founder of two great ancient civilizations: the Babylonians and Assyrians. He is a mighty man, like the Nephilim of Genesis 6. Now of course, Nimrod didn’t build Babel by himself; he had help. And if we’re right to connect the dispersion at Babel to the lifetime of Peleg, and if we can use the genealogy in Genesis 11 to measure time, then we can attempt to estimate the population of the world as they journeyed eastward. Peleg is born 101 years after the flood. He dies 340 years after the flood. Babel happens somewhere in that time period. If we begin with 8 people and operate with a 5% population growth rate (I did some research on this last night), then at Peleg’s birth the population would have been about 1100 people. Halfway through his life, the population would have been 370,000 (a large portion of those kids), and at the end of his life 128 million. Using a 4% growth rate, we find 420 at his birth, 45,000 at midpoint, and 5 million at his death. Now I don’t know which number is accurate (though I doubt Babel happened at Peleg’s birth). More likely, it occurred in the middle of his life or toward the end. But based on the way that Genesis 11 follows 10, it seems likely that most of the people in the Genesis 10 genealogy up through Peleg and Joktan are living close together and at this point journeying east with a mighty warrior named Nimrod as their king.
2. Why Do they Build Babel?
Two reasons. First, they want to make a name for themselves. They are motivated by pride, ambition, glory, and renown. Second, they don’t want to be scattered over the face of the earth. In other words, they are motivated by fear. Here’s what I mean. If we place the tower of Babel at the midpoint of Peleg’s life, then the flood only happened 220 years earlier. The flood is this cataclysmic event that left its mark on all of the people of the earth. Noah and his sons no doubt told and retold the story again and again. Their descendants no doubt feel very vulnerable in the face of the God who can drown everyone. So what they do? They cluster together under the leadership of a mighty warrior; they refuse to spread and fill the earth. They try to build a tower to the heavens in order to make themselves secure and safe in the face of possible judgment. Maybe they even think that, if they build the tower high enough, then God won’t be able to drown them again (which would show just how little they believed the rainbow in the sky). Suffice it to say that pride and ambition (make a name for ourselves) and fear and anxiety (lest we be scattered) animate this building project.
3. What Is Babel
Notice that they build two things: a city and a tower. Building a city significes political power, stability, and glory. The tower is likely a ziggurat, a pyramid, and it represents religious devotion. A pyramid or ziggurat with its head in the heavens is effectively a new garden at the top of a man-made mountain (just like the Garden of Eden was at the top of a God-made mountain). It’s the place where heaven and earth meet, where the gods commune with man. Babel is both a political and religious project, and this sheds light on the first line of the chapter. “The whole earth had one language and the same words.” This sounds repetitive until we realize that it literally reads “one lip and the same words.” In the Bible, the use of “lips” is often connected to a religious confession. “I am a man of unclean lips” (Isaiah 6:5). “Open my lips and I will declare your praise” (Psalm 51:15). “These people honor me with their lips, but their hearts are far from me” (Isaiah 29:13). In other words, the “one lip” of Genesis 11 is not mainly a reference to a common language; that’s what is meant by “the same words.” The one lip refers to the common religious confession that was present at the time. And given that Nimrod is opposed to God and that the people are disobeying God by not filling the earth and that they are trying to make a name for themselves, I don’t think that Yahweh is King is their confession. So what is Babel? Babel is a political and religious project that aspires to global glory and dominance apart from trust in and obedience to the living God. Babel seeks security and stability through centralization (“We won’t be scattered”) and uniformity (“We have one religious confession”). That’s Babel.
4. What Is God’s Response to Babel?
First, note what it’s not. If Babel is the counterpart to the violence and wickedness of the flood generation, it’s significant that God keeps his rainbow promise. He doesn’t wipe out the people at Babel. Instead, we see God’s subtle mockery of the pretensions of Babel. They wanted to build a tower to heaven; God has to “come down” to even see it. Next, God confuses their language or lip. Normally, we think of this mainly as a confusion of languages. But if it was just a confusion of languages, it would still be possible to collaborate. All you have is a problem of translation. Instead, the confusion of “lip” here is more a confusion of religious confession and ideology. In other words, God’s answer to the totalizing and centralizing impulse of a united, uniform, and idolatrous Babel is multicultural chaos and ideological conflict. Without a common religious and political confession, without the same “lip,” you cannot build a city, and you cannot gain an enduring glory. Put another way, worship is at the heart of culture; if worship is confused and fragmented, then culture and society will be confused, conflicted, and fragmented. Third, because of the conflict and chaos of the religious and ideological confusion, the people are scattered over the face of the earth, and then, as a result of that, develop their distinct cultures and languages. So again, God 1) comes down (he stoops to see their toy tower), 2) confuses their religious confession and ideology so that they can’t work together to build their city, with the result that 3) they are scattered throughout the earth, resulting in many peoples, many cultures, and many languages (the Table of Nations in Genesis 10). What’s more, God adopts a new approach to deal with the sin problem that has again become an avalanche: out of all of these scattered nations, he calls out one man and his family—Abram—and promises to bless him and make his name great so that Abram will be a blessing. Other nations will be blessed or cursed based on their treatment of Abram’s family, and in the end, God will through Abram bless all the scattered families of the earth. That’s how God will address the sin problem. Abram’s family will multiply and grow into a great nation. Then God will select one tribe from Abram’s people, and one royal line from within that tribe. And from that royal line, he will bring forth a king who will crush the serpent through his own sacrifice, and in so doing decisively deal with sin and death and the powers of darkness. And that man is Jesus.
Babel and World Religions
Let me say a word about those many cultures, languages, and many religions. I think that Babel provides a fruitful explanation for a puzzle about the cultures and religions of the world. Ancient mythologies have a number of remarkable similarities. I’m talking about Greek, Babylonian, Egyptian, Assyrian, Norse, Indian, Chinese. I’m no expert on all of these mythologies, but from what I’ve read, no matter where you go in the ancient world, you find the following:
- Creation stories with similar features
- A story of young gods (like the Olympians) overthrowing the old gods (like the Titans)
- A story of a flood that destroyed civilization
- Similar pantheons (a storm god who throws thunderbolts: Zeus, Odin, Jupiter, Marduk)
- A belief in Fate, a power above the gods that cannot be altered or changed
- A belief in some sort of supreme god who has cut off contact with humanity.
I think that Babel helps to explain these commonalities (and the resulting differences). At the time of Babel, there was one religious confession. Demons, playing on the anxieties and fears of men, usurped the place of the Supreme God. Perhaps they twisted the creation story and claimed credit for God’s work. These demons told stories about how they had rebelled against their tyrannical father or mother and seized power. Perhaps there were 12 major deities in Babel’s pantheon, which accounts for the similarities in the Olympians and Egyptian gods and Norse gods. Despite their claims to absolute power, they were forced to acknowledge some power above them, which they made impersonal (and thus not to be worshiped) and called Fate. Such are my impressions. Thus, Babel’s religion is a combination of 1) ancient true traditions passed down from Adam through Noah; 2) Demonic usurpations of God’s name and glory; and 3) human pride, corruption, and error. It was a religion that urged men to make a name for themselves and to seek security in uniformity. It was this common confession that was confused at Babel, resulting in the different mythologies and religions in the ancient world as people scattered to the four winds. In addition to highlighting the explanatory power of the Babel story, I also want to highlight its relevance today.
Babel and Idolatry
First, Babel gives us another lens through which to view idolatry. We often talk about idolatry as what we place our hope in, or where we find our greatest and deepest satisfaction. Idolatry is seeking the satisfaction that we ought to find in God in created things. And that’s true. But Babel also poses other questions about how to discern idols.
- Where do we place our greatest allegiance and loyalty?
- To whom do we look to give us security and to save us from death?
- To whom or what to do we look to give us a lasting and enduring name?
We Live in Babel
Second, as Pastor Jonathan said last week, we live in Babel. America is a nation consumed with its own greatness and glory. We love to make a name for ourselves. What’s more, like all Babels, America wants to build its civilization on a uniform religious confession. Like the Babels of the ancient world, the American Babel can tolerate many gods, provided that the centrality of the self and the glory of America are pursued with ultimate and total commitment. The American Babel, as a corruption of the Christian faith, views America as a new promised land, as a city on a hill. Americans are a chosen people, committed to liberty, equality, democracy, and diversity (at least, certain kinds of diversity).
When a nation is a Babel, it inevitably seeks to impose a linguistic, cultural, and religious uniformity on its citizens. This is why Christians who dissent from the creed of America’s sexual revolution must be fined out of business and hounded out of polite society. Everyone must be made to participate. Whatever differences are tolerated within the system, Babels will not tolerate any rivals to the system. Which means that the church of Jesus Christ is on a collision course with every Babel, including the American one.
God Judges Babel
Third, we can take comfort in God’s judgment of Babel. When the people’s pretensions gets too high, when they fill up the cup of God’s anger, God pours it out, he drops a hammer, he scatters the proud. This is judgment, and it’s mercy. It is a mercy that God refuses to let Babels attain their full power. Before they can achieve their full strength, God acts to disrupt the unified religious and political ideology that undergirds Babel. Which means that the deep, intractable divisions that mark American society today are both judgment from God and mercy from God. God is confusing the American lip. Conservatives and progressives and nationalists and libertarians have fundamental disagreements about the nature of human beings, about the nature of the good, about the relationship between the individual and society, about the nature of state power, about the authority and wisdom of the past, and many other things. At the same time, like the similarities in the ancient pantheons and mythologies, there are deep similarities between ideologies that are so opposed to one another: the value of individual choice, the centrality of consumer capitalism, and so forth. Often it feels like we can barely talk to each other; our first principles and modes of thought are so different, and our discourse is so reactionary. These fundamental differences are a judgment on this nation and a mercy to God’s church. This means that we can both lament these differences and seek to persuade each other, while also thanking God that he is humbling us and preventing the total consolidation of power in a self-exalting, totalitarian empire.
The Church and Babel
A moment ago, I mentioned that God’s solution to the sin problem from Genesis 11 on is this: God chose Abram and his family to bless the nations. God calls out the family of Abram. Eventually that family produces Jesus the Messiah, who lives, dies for sinners, and is raised from the dead to become Lord and Savior of the world. And now the true sons of Abraham are the followers of Jesus. We are the people of God.
Living in Babel, our task is to pursue the ultimate good of Babel, or as we put it, to seek the good of the cities. This means that we live here; we build our houses here. We marry and have children here. We work and labor here. And we also preach repentance and the forgiveness of sins here. We pray here that the American Babel would turn from its self-exaltation and glory-seeking and bow the knee to King Jesus.
In that light, let me say a word as a follow-up to last week’s exhortation and extended prayer of repentance. The pastors deliberately set aside that time for repentance before the election. We wanted to make clear that the need for repentance was not based on the election of a particular presidential candidate. Instead, it was based on the choice between those candidates and what that choice reveals about the current state of our nation.
Like many of you, I was surprised by the results on Tuesday. I did not expect Donald Trump to become the forty-fifth president. But I’ll tell you my fear. My fear is that many Christians will view the surprising election of Trump as a form of deliverance. They’ll think, “Whew, I thought God was about to judge us with Hillary. But then he surprised us with a miracle.” So let me say this clearly: Whatever gratitude we may feel over the fact that Hillary Clinton will not appoint Scalia’s replacement to the Supreme Court, whatever relief and hope we may have that some of the aggressive assaults on religious liberty will be stayed, the election of Donald Trump changes nothing about the fundamental character of this nation. Whatever Tuesday was, it was not a turning to Jesus in humble faith on the part of this nation. The fact that God has not completely and totally judged us is simply owing to the fact that the iniquity of the Americans is not yet complete. And therefore the prayers of repentance that we offered last week for our sexual immorality, violence against the unborn, racial animosity, anxiety, envy, dishonesty, and pride are as needed now as they were then. Nothing fundamental has changed. And the household of God must lead the way in turning from our sins and trusting in Jesus alone to forgive them.
Of course, we must also pray for our leaders. We should pray that God would give President Trump, and the governors, congressmen, and Senators who were elected, wisdom and discernment in governing this country. We should pray that they would do justice, love mercy, and walk humbly before God. The call to pray for the wisdom of our leaders and the call to pray for their repentance and ours are not at odds. They are both crucial in the present moment.
More than that, we should be prepared to sacrifice for the good of others. If the American Babel attempts to make a name for itself and build its greatness through persecuting and doing injustice and harm to vulnerable people, whether they are Latinos, African Americans, Muslims, white working class, or gays and lesbians, the church of Jesus Christ must be prepared to get in the way.
Let me round out this discussion of living in the American Babel this way: As far as your pastors are concerned, the election this week changes nothing whatsoever about the fundamental calling of this church and this people. We are still committed, under the authority of the risen Lord Jesus, to make disciples of all nations, including the American Babel, by preaching the good news of the kingdom of Jesus, calling for people to turn from their self-exaltation and sin, baptizing them in the name of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, and then teaching them to observe everything that Jesus commanded, as he empowers us with his permanent presence.
Bringing Babel Home
Most of this application has focused on the big picture of living in a Babel-like society that seeks to make a name for itself. And there is a place for trying to get up high enough to get some perspective on the world-shaping and culture-shaping forces at work today. But there’s also a danger in it. In attempting to discern the hand of God in relation to the American Babel, we too can fall into the Babel-trap. We begin to try to coordinate heavenly troop movements, treating the culture war like it’s a game of Risk and we’re perched on one of Saturn’s moons. In short, it’s easy to try and usurp Christ’s place as the reigning King who is subduing his enemies under his feet (and ours). But the burden of running the cosmos does not fall on my shoulders. The burden of managing my household well does. The crying need of the hour is for millions of Christians to realize that their primary contribution in humbling the American Babel may be reading bedtime stories to their children, dating their spouse, and looking for opportunities to cheerfully, sacrificially, and practically love their neighbors. It’s almost impossible to quantify the potency of simple faith and obedience, but let’s just say that it was that sort of thing that has brought more than one godless culture to its knees.
That’s why when confronted with the lofty pride, fragmentation, and brokenness that is endemic and multiplying in our nation, the main question that you should ask is this: what is God requiring of me now? What is right in front of my face that God is calling me to do? So we must bring the message of Babel home to each of us. At Babel, the living God confused the lips and scattered the self-exalting peoples of the earth. Advent, when God came down to tabernacle with us, is almost upon us. In Luke 1, Mary prays a prayer that seems to me to have all kinds of resonance with Babel. She prays:
“My soul magnifies the Lord,
and my spirit rejoices in God my Savior,
for he has looked on the humble estate of his servant.
For behold, from now on all generations will call me blessed;
for he who is mighty has done great things for me,
and holy is his name.
And his mercy is for those who fear him
from generation to generation.
He has shown strength with his arm;
he has scattered the proud in the thoughts of their hearts;
he has brought down the mighty from their thrones
and exalted those of humble estate;
he has filled the hungry with good things,
and the rich he has sent away empty.
He has helped his servant Israel,
in remembrance of his mercy,
as he spoke to our fathers,
to Abraham and to his offspring forever.”
God doesn’t just scatter proud nations over the face of the earth; he scatters the proud in the thoughts of their hearts. That’s the call for each of us: to humble ourselves before his mighty hand, to turn from making a name for ourselves, to refuse to place our ultimate security and stability in earthly things. And when we do, at the proper time God will exalt us.
And this brings us to the table. This table is from the humble, for those who have rejected the way of Babel, who refuse to make a name for themselves. It is for those of humble estate, who have a received the name of Jesus as a gift. If you are hungry, come. There are good things at this table, and God will fill you. In his mercy, he will help you.