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Genesis 11 – The Tower of Babel

The story of the Tower of Babel begins with people moving eastward. In the book of Genesis moving east is narrative indicator of moving away from God’s presence e.g., Adam and Eve left Eden through the east gate, Cain moved eastward to the land of Nod, Lot and Ishmael will later move east etc.

The people decide that they do not want to be “scattered over the face of the whole earth” filling the earth as God’s image bearers. Instead, they want to make “a great name” for themselves. In other words, they want to become prosperous in wealth and power.

The first step is to build a city and a tower. It was recognized that material prosperity came from God’s blessing. The question is how does one acquire God’s blessing? The tower was their answer. In the plain of Shinar, they build an artificial mountain called a ziggurat. The idea was that as God moved across the heavens his gaze would be captured by mankind’s impressive artificial mountain/tower and come down to them. Ziggurats were constructed to have a stairway so that the god could travel down to the temple at the base of the tower. The stairway would have a room containing a bed and some food so the god could rest on his journey. At the temple gifts offered by the people would induce the deity to bless the people materially. The two problems with this set up were: (1) the idolatry involved in making God to be after man’s image in having needs (2) the attempt to manipulate God into giving them what they wanted. The Tower of Babel is the Bible’s first case of idolatry.

They had spoken of “a tower with its top in the heavens” but ironically God comes down to see their puny tower. God does indeed come down to observe their tower but not in the way they had anticipated – he brings judgment on their idolatry rather than blessing. Judgment is in the form of confusing their language and scattering the people over the face of the earth – frustrating their desire to not be scattered but graciously fulfilling his purpose for humanity to fill the earth i.e., judgment intermingled with mercy.

The builders of the city would have called it ‘Babylon’ meaning ‘gate of god’ but in the Hebrew language it was called ‘Babel’ meaning ‘confusion’. Babylon as the anti-God city is introduced early in the Bible. Nothing good will ever come from Babylon – the theme of Babylon’s idolatry will run throughout the Bible all the way to Revelation.

After the city-building and sexual immorality of Cain’s family, the hope for a restored Eden was found in a genealogy that led from Seth to Noah. After the city-building and idolatry of Babel, a new hope is once again found in a genealogy where the continued line of the seed is traced from Noah to Terah, the father of a man called Abram.