The Tower of Babel (1)

By | August 3, 2014

A Meditation on Genesis 11:1-9

I like to refer to the Lord’s Prayer as a daily, eschatological prayer.

First, it’s an appropriate pattern to use in prayer every day. “Give us this day our daily bread.”

Second, it’s an eschatological prayer, which means “last things,” or “end times.” It’s eschatological, since the petitions in the prayer reveal what God is doing in the world, and where He is taking the world. In praying according to the Lord’s Prayer, we join with God in asking that His agenda for the world comes to fruition—His agenda to see His name hallowed, to see His kingdom come, and have His will done on earth as it is in heaven. And we can be confident that God will answer our prayers, for Jesus wouldn’t have told us to pray for these things if God didn’t intend to answer them.

How does this relate to the tower of Babel? These builders of Babel weren’t hallowing God’s name, building His kingdom nor doing His will. What name were these rebels preoccupied with? God’s name or their own? “Then they said, ‘Come, let us build ourselves a city and a tower with its top in the heavens, and let us make a name for ourselves” (Gen. 11:4). In essence, the prayer of the Babelites is, “Hallowed be our name.” God’s people shutter at such a thought. “Not to us, O LORD, not to us, but to your name give glory, for the sake of your steadfast love and your faithfulness” (Ps. 115:1).

Who are these people at Babel? Remember that the original Hebrew didn’t have chapter divisions, so the story in chapter 10 continues non-stop right through chapter 11. In Genesis 10:26-30, Joktan’s descendants are mentioned and they travel east. Genesis 11:2 picks up on this move to the east: “men moved eastward” (NIV) in “the land of Shinar and settled there.” “The land of Shinar” is where Nimrod began his kingdom (10:10). These are the sons of Joktan, and they intermarry with the ungodly descendants of Nimrod. This is a recapitulation of the “fall” of the sons of God, who married the ungodly, although attractive daughters of man (6:2).

The people of Babel stand toe to toe with God. The description of “a tower with its top in the heavens,” (11:4) probably isn’t so much a physical reference as it is a spiritual reference. This tower was designed to connect heaven and earth. It would be “the gate of God.” In fact, in the language of ancient Akkadian, Babel means “the gate of God.” Therefore, this tower represents a false religion, a false mediator, and a false savior. And all that these idolaters do is for their own name and fame.

The people of Babel also pray, “Our kingdom come.” The first mention of kingdom in the Bible is found in Genesis 10:10, where we’re told that “the beginning of [Nimrod’s] kingdom is Babel…in the land of Shinar.” But this is not God’s kingdom; rather it’s a rival kingdom, which will always be opposed to God’s kingdom. The two cannot harmoniously co-exist. While it’s common place to refer to this passage as “The Tower of Babel,” they are building much more than a tower or monument or pyramid. They are building a city, an empire, a kingdom (11:4, 5, 8).

These arrogant builders think their kingdom will tower above all kingdoms and reach heaven itself. In verse five we have a humorous response: “And the LORD came down to see the city and the tower, which the children of man had built.” First, notice that the builders are the “children of man,” and not the “children of God.” But then observe that their grand, exalted kingdom is so puny in God’s sight that He had to descend from His throne in heaven just to see it. “Oh, yeah,” God says, “now I see it.” However, this verse isn’t meant to be humorous, it is intended to sober us. When God comes down to see what man is doing, the end result will be one of blessing or cursing. Later in Genesis 18, when the outcry against Sodom and Gomorrah reaches the LORD, He says, “I will go down to see whether they have done altogether according to the outcry that has come to me. And if not, I will know” (vs. 21). The consequence of that descent was judgment; this coming down will also lead to judgment.

At the same time, God acknowledges their work in glowing (hyperbolic?) terms. “And the LORD said, ‘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” (11:6). At the very least this tells us about the power of unity—for good or evil. But the unity that they enjoy will be short-lived, for God will divide and conquer, thus bringing an abrupt end to their consolidated kingdom.