Scripture: 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. Come, let us go down and there confuse their language, so that they may not understand one another’s speech.” Genesis 11:6-7 ESV
Observation: Following the account of the flood and God reestablishing his mandate to Noah and his children to be fruitful and multiply, chapter 10 presents a long list of Noah’s descendants and their tribes. We next roll into the story of the Tower of Babel, where these descendants of Noah demonstrate that they have learned nothing from their history and heritage. United by a common language, they migrated to the land of Shinar (located in a fertile region between the Tigris and Euphrates Rivers). There, they developed a structural technique of baking clay bricks (to strengthen them) and bitumen (a waterproofing substance made from crude oil) to hold the bricks in place (11:3). As such, they began to build a highrise tower to reach the heavens and to make a name for themselves to ensure that they remained a cohesive force (11:4). God, observing their determined and arrogant endeavor, confused their once unified language and dispersed them over the face of the earth (11:8-9). Later generations called this abandoned city Babel (meaning “confusion” in Hebrew).
Takeaway: This is a perplexing narrative. At first glance, it appears that Moses is telling us that humans once could achieve whatever they desired without limitations. Of course, brick and mortar could not reach the heights of heaven, given that a masonry building cannot support more than about seven stories and that heaven is not a physical location in our material universe. We can better understand that the text uses hyperbole to emphasize a lesson about our human nature: we easily succumb to the temptation to seek equality with God—starting with the Fall in the Garden of Eden. And it reveals God’s nature: that he will not let anything get in the way of his relationship with us—even if he has to cause confusion and scatter us from those who would lead us astray.
Thankfully, even though Babel resulted in humankind’s disbursement across the globe with the diversification of language creating further social barriers, at Pentecost, the Holy Spirit reversed the curse. In Chapter 2 of Acts, we read that the disciples spoke in the tongues of those nations scattered from Babel. A remnant from each of these ethnic groups (who were God-fearers) gathered in Jerusalem to celebrate the Jewish feast. To their surprise, they heard uneducated Galileans proclaiming praise to God under the power of the Holy Spirit in their languages and would subsequently hear Peter preach a unifying gospel message.
So what does this mean for you and me? Pride divides, but our Gospel of grace unites. And there’s no room for constructing church empires of brick and mortar in God’s kingdom. Jesus has called us to build disciples of all nations.
Prayer: Father God, we thank you for your unifying Gospel founded in the life, death, and resurrection of your Son. Would you please help us cooperate with your Holy Spirit to focus on ministry opportunities that build up lives rather than worldly empires? Amen.
Rev. Gordon Green, M.Div., M.A. Counseling