Genesis chapter 11 opens up with the extraordinary claim “the whole earth had one language and the same words.” The meaning in Hebrew is very clear: literally “one language” and “one set of words,” “one way of talking.”
God told Noah and his family to be fruitful, to multiply, to increase in number and to fill the earth. As the family increased, they began to spread south and east from the mountains of Ararat, in Armenia, towards Shinar, an alluvial plain lying between two rivers, the Tigris and the Euphrates, the fertile crescent, where God had planted the Garden of Eden, and which was now still rich, lush and beautiful.
Since they were all one big family, having not only the same language, but the same culture, they were not eager to move apart from each other.
They must have felt invincible in that beautiful, untrammeled world. There was no other people to oppose them, to persecute them, to compete with for resources.
Without rock to quarry they turned to making bricks out of dirt and clay. Eventually they discovered the process of firing them, first in the sun, and then in a furnace. They also lacked the right materials for mortar, but being inventive and creative, they discovered a tar pit, common throughout the mideast. Noticing the tar was sticky, they used this natural bitumen, this asphalt, for mortar.
You know how it is with new technology! They wanted to build.
They began to talk excitedly about building a city and a tower.
Remember when Cain went out and built a city? He had walked away from his godly community, cutting off all ties, and immediately set about making his own community. In Revelation, which is a companion book to Genesis, God describes the magnificent city waiting for all those who will go to live with God, more lovely than anything that could possibly be made here on earth, and God has designed into us a desire for that beautiful city.
The people in Shinar must have felt it too, wanting to build a city that would satisfy the desires of body and soul. But without God, their city, with its tower, would be just as wicked as Cain’s city.
The writer of Genesis recorded the three reasons the people in Shinar had for building:
1. Top in the heavens
Years ago, digging in the plains of Shinar, archaeologists discovered the remains of great towers, called ziggurats, built by the early Babylonians. Erech, in Genesis 10:10, is one place such a ziggurat has been excavated.
These ziggurats, or towers like the one in Babel, were built in a circular fashion with an ascending staircase that ended in a shrine at the top, around which were written the signs of the zodiac. They believed God’s heaven could be penetrated and they could enter it on their own terms, not through faith expressed in obedience, but through human creativity and ingenuity, through great deeds.
2. Make a name for ourselves
The fact that this was a religious tower and yet built to make a name for humankind reveals the master motive behind religion. It is a means by which people attempt to share the glory of God, which is rightfully God’s alone. This tower was a grandiose structure, but it was not really for the glory of God; it was a way of controlling God, a way of channeling God by using Him for humankind’s glory.
“Let us make a name for ourselves,” is a fundamental urge of a fallen race. It reveals one of the basic philosophies of humanism: “Glory to me in the highest, for I am the master of all things.”
Revelation reveals that God -does- intend for us to have a name, in Jesus Christ. In the first three chapters Jesus says this about those who believe in Him: “I will give them a new name…I will confess their name before My Father and before His angels…I will write on them the name of My God and the name of the city of My God…and My own new name”
3. Lest we be dispersed over the face of the earth
The people in Shinar wanted to all stay together, against God’s command. Yet, if God is not in the center of the unity of a group, it is not true community. Forced unity demands conformity to an outward sameness, not unity of mind and heart which is achieved only by having one spirit – the Holy Spirit. Without the Holy Spirit even conformity will not hold a group together for long.
What gave them this confidence to defy the command of the all-powerful, all-knowing, sovereign of the universe?
God’s sovereign permission of human wrongdoing is not His ignorance of human behavior, or His moral approval of transgression. God is not surprised by evil, God does not approve of evil.
God has sovereignly decreed that people exercise their ability to make moral choices – choosing between good and evil. This was all a process, that took place over a long course of time, of discovery, creativity, and invention.
At first, the invention of bricks, the discovery of bitumen, and the building of structures was all perfectly acceptable human activity. Nevertheless, as fallen individuals, people can’t help but have mixed motives, some part of us wanting to do what’s right and some other part wanting really to benefit our own selves, even if that involves what is wrong.
Human wrongdoing is proof God doesn’t control people the way you and I would control a puppet. God is all knowing and all powerful. God is able to work in, around, and through people to insure the outworking of His purposes. If God were any less sovereign, He wouldn’t be able to give people moral freedom because He would not be able to guarantee His will would be done.
God gives real choices and works out His will within them from the infinite possibilities that are raised.
From what I read in the Bible, from cover to cover, God is described—and even portrays Himself—as in complete control of His universe. I am not saying God is controlling in the way you and I wrinkle up when we hear some person characterized in that way.
God, for being sovereign, allows astonishing freedoms to His creation.
Nevertheless, I believe God determines the outcome of all things according to His own wise purpose. God positions Himself as having absolute authority and rule over His creation. He proclaims there is nothing outside the scope of His reign.
That being the case, I see God guiding all events for His glory and indeed for the good of those whom He loves, and who love Him.
It means God is always on Plan A, and nothing can derail that plan.
So the descendants of Noah’s plan to build a colossal ziggurat in order to storm the gates of heaven and take over was not a surprise for God, and it didn’t force Him to scramble for some sort of Plan B to rescue His purposes for the cosmos, or for humankind.
It did, however, require His divine intervention.
[Tower of Babel |Hans Bol [Public domain]