It’s post-flood and Noah has three sons; Shem, Ham, and Japheth. They’ve been blessed by God and have fulfilled their higher calling to be fruitful, multiply, and repopulate the earth.
Everyone speaks the same language because they are all descendants of Noah’s family. Imagine, there’s no foreign language requirement in school, no need for google translate. Seems like an ideal world because there is complete unity.
And now, there’s new technology that makes new things possible, like baking bricks in a kiln which means they can build higher, bigger, and stronger. With this new brick technology, they begin to envision a city with a tower that reaches into the heavens.
So, they begin to build a ziggurat; a massive staircase structure, trying to open a channel between heaven and earth, and they talk like it’s the ultimate achievement, as we do today, enamored with our achievements and ourselves.
Their Motivation has two parts . . .
First, “Let us make a name for ourselves”. That has the same meaning as today, wanting to know you’re valuable and distinct, and that you matter.
Second, “lest we be dispersed over the face of the earth”. They believed that this would unify them because everything would be centralized, and thus they could control their own fates.
So, driving this entire building project is pride, insecurity and fear.
Pride says: “Look at what we can do. People will notice. We’ll make a name for ourselves and generations to come will be in awe at what we accomplished.”
Insecurity and fear say, “If we don’t do this, we don’t have a name; and if we don’t have a name we don’t have control and if we don’t have control, we don’t have security.”
So, the weeks, months and years go by. The people bake their bricks. They haul their bricks. They build their tower taller and taller. They build their city. They build a name for themselves. They’re impressed with themselves. Everything is going exactly as planned, but then . . . something happens.
“The Lord Came Down to see”
Let’s just pause here to recognize both the humor and the irony of this verse. These guys are so impressed with their achievements, building a tower that reaches into the heavens, but God can’t see it; it’s not even on His radar so he has to come down to take a closer peek. And I can’t help but imagine that God was thinking to Himself, “Really, that’s your great achievement? It’s so puny!”
But the fundamental problem with this entire building project is that God is not in the blueprints. It’s simply a power grab; building a secular city, a kingdom, a life, and a name with no room for God.
So, built into the foundation of their greatest achievement is its own ruin.
Trying to build a city, a life, a name without God always ends in ruin, it won’t last. If God’s not in the cement, not the center brick, it won’t last.
So Ironically, the very thing they feared the most happens.
These guys set out to make a name for themselves because they were afraid and insecure and they wanted to unify the people in order to control their own destiny, “lest we be dispersed over the face of the whole earth.” There was a fear of being scattered and Human logics says, “If we don’t ______, then ________ will happen.”
They think that if they build this tower will it protect them from their biggest fear.
But God comes down and says, “These people are working together because they all speak the same language. This is just the beginning. Soon they will be able to do anything they want. Come on! Let’s go down and confuse them by making them speak different languages—then they won’t be able to understand each other.”
So, the people had to stop building the city, stop building the tower, because the Lord confused their language and scattered them all over the earth. The very thing they were trying to avoid.
A human word started the construction project; now a divine word starts the demolition project. The way God disrupts this whole thing is by confusing human words. God comes down to deal with the tower because this is the wrong kind of unity; it’s dangerous and destructive and leave God out.
If we attempt to make a name for ourselves, if we try to unify ourselves, if we try to do things to protect ourselves but leave God out of the equation, what we fear the most will eventually catch up to us. And ultimately, the name you make for yourself you won’t like.
The word “Babel” means “confused.”
It’s a fitting name when you’re trying to find significance apart from God.
You see, this whole story is about the giving and meaning of this name. The Babelites indeed made a name for themselves, but they didn’t like the name.
And if we’re honest, we can see ourselves all over these nine verses. Pride, insecurity, and fear drive us to build towers that we hope will impress other people, protect us, and give us a name, but so often, the names we make for ourselves, we end up hating: controlling, self-focused, prideful and insecure.
God didn’t create us to live like this. We were not created to make a name for ourselves, we were not created to huddle in masses and build towers to proclaim our greatness or control our own destinies. We were created to go out into all the world to make a name for God. This is why God blessed Noah’s family . . . be fruitful, multiply and repopulate the earth . . . for His glory!
So, what’s the remedy? How do we fix this?
The answer is found in the same verse that started this whole thing: “And the Lord came down.”
That’s the solution. That’s the remedy: The Lord must come down. We have our directions all wrong. We think the way to get a name is to build a tower from earth to heaven. This is a story of prideful, insecure people building a tower up to God.
But Genesis 11:5 on through the rest of the Bible is the story of God building a tower down to us. “And the Lord came down.” This is the gospel!
One of my favorite authors, Os Guinness said: “We cannot find God without God. We cannot reach God without God. We cannot satisfy God without God . . . all our seeking will fall short unless God starts and finishes the search. The decisive part of our seeking is not our human ascent to God, but his descent to us. Without God’s descent there is no human ascent. The secret of the quest lies not in our brilliance but in his grace.”
The first thing God does when he comes down, what He must do, is deal with your tower. The tower that you’re building, the name that you’re making for yourself, it’s destroying you.
You might not see it, but it is.
God comes down and He deals with your tower: He confuses and babels your life because He loves you, so that you can be free, so that you can know Him and trust Him, so that you can get a name that you’ll actually like.
Some of us are in the center of this right now and I know that when you’re in that place it’s easy to think that God has abandoned you.
He hasn’t! He’s protecting you, naming you, and rebuilding your life.
As we wrap up, I can’t help but think of another story in scripture; the story of Pentecost. It’s found in the book of Acts, but it begins in the Gospels when God came down to earth.
God came down, he sent his son, Jesus, into another city: Jerusalem.
On a plain overlooking the city, a cross was erected between heaven and earth and there Jesus died to forgive us for the sin of not making God the center brick of our lives.
About two weeks later . . . something amazing happens. The city of Jerusalem was jam packed with people from all over the world celebrating the Jewish holiday; Shavuot – a celebration to give thanks to God for the harvest he had provided and to celebrate the giving of God’s law to Moses.
This season speaks of God’s plan to harvest a holy people; You are my people, and I am your God.
But unlike that day for this Babelites where they were confused by language and scattered throughout the world, on this day, God comes down to gather his people to create unity through diversity, where what sounds at first like chaos and confusion is woven together to create a revolutionary human community where everyone can hear a message of love and grace and truth and justice, and where the lively Spirit of God beckons us to join God’s work in the world and to bring him glory.
Not everybody there on that day was Jewish; merchants, and travelers joined the regular population of Jerusalem to celebrate the holiday. And right along with them were the disciples, waiting like Jesus said, for power from on high.
And then it came.
The overpowering sound of a rushing wind blowing around so hard that they had to cover their ears. And fire came down and rested on each one of them. And they were filled with the Spirit, and everybody started talking in other languages.
Suddenly, what they’d been waiting for had arrived, and everybody there, all the people visiting the city, all of the foreigners providing services, all of them heard a message of transformational power in their very own languages.
And once again, God came down to remind us that conformity and structure, huddling together in masses, trying to create a name for ourselves for protection are not the way of God in the world.
If we learn anything at Babel or on Pentecost, we learn that God perpetually invites us, not to conform, not to huddle in masses, not to build a name for ourselves, not to try to control our own destinies but to listen and to trust and to welcome the work of God’s Spirit and then to live out the lively diversity that God envisioned when God first spun the world into being.
Our human structures of order and self-protection can’t possibly express the holy, uncontained, creative presence of God’s Spirit in the world…and it is our work as the Church, to learn to listen for God in the beautiful, holy expression all around us as God comes down.
Learn to listen, Church. Because when we do, we will bring Glory to God.