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United for All the Wrong Reasons

United for All the Wrong Reasons

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Human cooperation, when it is fueled by autonomy and directed toward self-interest, is shown by the story to be shallow, impotent hubris.
— Kenneth A. Matthews

The story of the Tower of Babel provides clear picture of the difference between the human opinion of its self-achievements and God's view of these endeavors.

Connections with previous stories

On this, our last post of this series on Genesis, we will be looking at the narrative of the Tower of Babel. The last story of this first section of the book of Genesis. Genesis 10 and 11 review the themes discussed so far while setting the stage for everything else that will follow. There are several ways that the narrative of the Tower of Babel reflects themes and events previously discussed in Genesis.

One of them is that Genesis 11 has similarities with the human attempt in the Garden of Eden to achieve power independently of God. This is clearly seen in the divine concern over the potential havoc that humans may bring about (Genesis 3:22; 11:6).

When we think of this story geographically, we remember the mention of the Tigris and Euphrates Rivers (Genesis 2:10-14) as originating in the Garden of Eden. Now we are talking broadly here. The plain of Shinar (Genesis 11:2) is in the same region as those rivers. You don't need to own a Bible Atlas, you can search the web for "Shinar map." (I could not find any high quality maps but here is one.)

You could argue, in general terms, that we have come full circle, from Eden to Babel. Two places known for the expulsion of their residents. You can even tie in the story of Cain and Abel where it involves Cain journeying eastward to build a city (Genesis 4:16-17; 11:2,4). 

We can also see a connection with the flood story interpreting the tower as a human way of escaping possible future flood/divine judgment, and also as a way to frustrate God's plan to have humans fill the whole earth (Genesis 9:1) by concentrating the population in one area.

How Ironic

Perhaps the major irony of this story is that we see this massive human effort to reach the heavens. Meanwhile, we witness God coming down from heaven to see the the arrogance of the tiny humans.

Let's take a look at some of the other ironies found in this story.

  1. Babelite unity opened the doors to an ambitious project. But it was their coalition that brought about their dispersal. What they feared, the loss of power and security that would result from being scattered, came about because of their effort to build an empire for themselves.
  2.  Their goal of reaching the heavens, as a symbol of their might and autonomy was frustrated by God who came down. Even though you could argue that God did not stop them, rather they themselves stopped building once God confused their language. The chaos that followed the breakdown in communication was such that people left that place and spread all over the globe. What was meant to symbolize their power became a symbol or their frailty.
  3. They wanted to make a name for themselves and ended up with a humiliating name meaning confusion or "babble."

Genealogies

The story of the Tower of Babel is also closely linked to the genealogies that precede it. Genesis 10 is often referred to as the Table of Nations, because it gives the reader a glimpse of how the ancient world looked, it is the equivalent of a political map. There are many literary connections between the genealogical table found on Genesis 10:1-32 and the narrative of the Tower of Babel on Genesis 11:1-9, indicating that the two are meant to be read together.

For example, Genesis 10:5 mentions how "the coastland peoples of the Gentiles were separated into their lands, everyone according to his language..." (bold added)

Genesis 10:20 similarly mentions "according to their languages," (bold added). The division of the nations throughout the earth as well as the multiplicity of languages is highlighted in the final verses of Geneses 10.

These were the sons of Shem, according to their families, according to their languages, in their lands, according to their nations. These were the families of the sons of Noah, according to their generations, in their nations; and from these the nations were divided on the earth after the flood. (bold added)

Nimrod is introduced as the founder of Babylon (Genesis 10:8-12), or his kingdom which began with Babel. Except we won't know anything else about Babel until Genesis 11:1-9.

The commonalities among the genealogical table of Genesis 10 and the narrative of the tower of Genesis 11 include mentions of

When you see these accounts as one you get a lot more out of the text. For example, look at how Nimrod is set up as the father of the great Mesopotamian cities in Genesis 10:8-12. Notice also how his actions are described as being "before the LORD" (Genesis 10:9), and how "the LORD came down to see the city" (Genesis 11:5).

A careful reading reveals to us that even though the story of the Tower of Babel follows the table of nations in the literary arrangement, the events described in the tower narrative precede the dispersing of nations chronologically.

Speaking of Shem

Notice also how the story of the Tower of Babel separates two genealogies of Shem, one found on Genesis 10:21-31; and the other on 11:10-26. The genealogy following the tower narrative gives us Abraham who will be a key player in restoring God's blessing to the dispersed nations.

Remember that Shem received a special blessing form Noah in Genesis 9:26. The lineage of Shem is special, it is blessed, but it also takes two diverging roads. First we follow the line of Joktan which is described along with all the other nations in chapter 10. After the story of the Tower of Babel we have the other genealogy of Shem this time following the line of Peleg and tracing it down to the sons of Terah and ultimately Abram.

So we have Shem -> Joktan -> Babel.

Followed by Shem -> Peleg -> Abram.

One line ends in the mess that was the tower of Babel, a rebellious line. The other family line ends in Abraham who loves God and will ultimately be used by God to bring a blessing upon all the nations of the earth (Genesis 12:3). 

What do we learn from all this?

Takeaway

God's covenant blessing with Noah (Genesis 9:1, 17) who is a new Adam, was threatened by sinful pride (Genesis 11:4). We see that God's blessing for people to be fruitful and multiply and fill the earth finally takes place, but only because God intervened and dispersed humanity. Sadly God had to intervene because as long as sin reigns human unity has selfish aims. The diversity among the nations then is required to restrain the wickedness that a unified humanity might achieve. 

These genealogies also remind us that despite all our differences we are interconnected and related.

Also, God is a universal God who rules over the affairs of all nations. God holds all people accountable for their sins, but also always provides for, and maintains a remnant. A person, a family, a nation, whom He calls to a special mission and also pours out special blessings through which all may be saved.

Genesis 1-11 helps us understand God's relationship to humans before the establishment of Abraham or the children of Israel. Genesis 1-11 keeps the reader from referring to the Old Testament as a story of the God of Israel, but rather a story about the God of the world and how He relates to all humans. In light of this Abram (Abraham) is introduced.

Notice the absence of Israel in the table of nations?

Israel

The absence of the people of Israel from the Table of Nations highlights how God cares for all nations. The God of the Jews is also the God of the gentiles, even if/when the gentiles do not worship Him. Think of Pharaoh who refused to recognized the God of Moses as the true God. Some reject God regardless of the amount of evidence of His will and His power, but God remains God regardless of how things go and He protects and provides for His people. Even before we hear about Abraham, we have a description of all these nations scattered all over the world, who need a blessing that will come through Abraham.

In essence we have here a story about the mission field. All these people who need to hear about God, the true God. And how God had to spread them all across the globe to slow down their ability to do great evil.

This is a map of people who God cares about and wants to save, and out of a desire to save them He calls Abraham. Abraham is called for the sake of those around him.

"in you all the families of the earth shall be blessed" (Genesis 12:3b

Babel

Finally I would like to return to the name Babel. I believe it is worth mentioning that the Babylonians understood the name of their city Babylon (Babili) to mean the "Gate of the gods." Meanwhile the Hebrew "Babel" (translated Babylon) means "confusion." The wordplay needs to be appreciated here, it is like an ongoing joke that continues until the book of Revelation. Where the best this world has to offer is confusion and frustration and conflict, while God remains in control calling people out of Babylon (Revelation 18), away from their human attempts to make a name for themselves, away from their attempts to reach the gate of the gods or the heavens but to realize that we don't need to go up to God, rather He comes down to us. What this world holds up as symbols of its power and achievements God refers to as confusion.

The story of the Tower of Babel provides clear picture of the difference between the human opinion of its self-achievements and God's view of these endeavors.

The dispersion that God creates in Genesis 11 in order to bring about His original plan for humans to "be fruitful and multiply and fill the earth" (Genesis 9:1b) and to slow down the evil that takes place due to human selfish ambition is eventually reversed in Acts 2, when the Holy Spirit is poured out and the apostles begin to speak different languages. The unity that seemed impossible in Genesis 11 is now made possible through the work of the Holy Spirit. The unity of the early Christian church in Acts 2 is not in order to reach the heavens or make a great name for the people, but rather to bring honor and glory to God.

In Acts 2 we have a united church.

"Now all who believed were together, and had all things in common," Acts 2:44

True unity, that is not focused on selfish gain and political power, can only be experienced by the power of God. At one point God had to spread humans all over the world, now He is sending us, His people, everywhere, to unite according to His will, following His plans, and for His honor and glory.

Since we have reflected on the beginning (Genesis 1-11) and how it all comes together, I would like to close by taking us to the end and seeing how it all fits together beautifully.

Revelation

On Revelation 14:6-11 we have the three angels' messages. The first angel talks about preaching the everlasting gospel throughout the earth in the context of judgment. He talks about worship and creation as the key identifier of the true God.

The second angel's message is about Babylon not having the answers and having been the source of a lot of evil.

The third angel's message is about worship. About how you live your life. Your thoughts and your actions. Are they for God or against God? 

God is calling us, to live and proclaim these truths in these last days in which we are living. To every nation, to every tongue, to every people.

How?

In the power of Jesus, full of the Holy Spirit.

Call to Action

And Jesus came and spoke to them, saying, “All authority has been given to Me in heaven and on earth. Go therefore and make disciples of all the nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, teaching them to observe all things that I have commanded you; and lo, I am with you always, even to the end of the age.” Amen.

 

 

 

One of my key resources (besides my Bible) for this post has been

Mathews, Kenneth A. Genesis 1-11:26. Nashville Ten.: Broadman & Holman, 1996. Print.

 

God be merciful to us and bless us,

God be merciful to us and bless us,

Mabbuwl - The Great Flood

Mabbuwl - The Great Flood