One reason Pastor Steve and I have launched this joint venture in blogging is that we see it as a means to expand upon our teaching ministry, supplementing and adding to things we are sharing through sermons and Bible studies. It’s been great to receive affirmation through readers who have shared how various blog articles have blessed and encouraged them.
Before we are too distant from last Sunday, I’d like to share a few additional thoughts to the sermon I preached on the Tower of Babel. If you missed it, you can listen online here. While I hope I was able to capture the essence of Man’s problem and God’s solution in the rebellion at Babel, here are a few final reflections that I hope will further aid our understanding of this important Bible story.
The literary structure of Genesis 11:1-9
In the story of Babel, Moses uses a literary style known as antithetical parallelism. Allen Ross gives a helpful definition of this type of writing and how it is used in Genesis 11.
“In the antithetical parallelism of the narrative, ideas are balanced against their counterparts. The story begins with the report of the unified situation at the beginning (11:1) and ends with a reminder of that unity and its resultant confusion for the scattering (v.9). This beginning and ending picture is reflected in the contrast of the dialogues and actions: verses 2-4 describe what humans proceeded to do; verses 5-8, beginning with the contrastive “But the Lord…,” describe how the Lord turned their work aside.”
Here is a helpful visual breakdown of how Moses contrasts Man and God in this story through his parallelism. Notice how “top A” corresponds to “bottom A” and so on…
A The whole earth had one language (11:1)
B …they found a plain in the land of Shinar and settled there. (11:2)
C And they said to one another, “Come, let us make bricks…”(11:3)
D …a city and a tower… (11:4)
E And the Lord came down to see (11:5)
D …the city and the tower (11:5)
C And the Lord said,”Come let us… confuse their language…” (11:6-7)
B They were scattered from the plain of Shinar (11:8)
A The Lord confused the language of the whole world (11:9)
This type of antithetical parallelism further underscores the point that I made in the sermon, that what we have at Babel is Man and God completely at odds with one another. The very structure of the passage demonstrates Man’s battle against God. Notice also the center of this parallelism. Letter E is in the middle and is meant to mark the turning point of the story. The central focus is God. Despite Man’s attempt to be at the center of all things, what matters most is the Lord’s response to all that is happening.
The literary theme of “journeying eastward.”
In Genesis, Moses employs reoccurring themes and motifs that will reappear throughout the book. Such themes help to underscore and emphasize what he is teaching and the points he wants to make. Themes such as blessing and curses, the expectation of the offspring of the woman, and salvation through judgment weave their way in and out of Genesis. One such theme that makes a reappearance in the Tower of Babel story is “journeying eastward.”
The ESV translation is a bit unclear. It says the people migrated “from the East.” (11:2) However, consulting with a number of other translations such as the NLT, the NIV, and the NASB (the latter tending to be the most literal of our English translations), one finds agreement that what is being communicated here is that the people are going in an easterly direction.
This mention of moving to the east could be simply a mere geographical point of little significance, if not for the fact that there appears to be a pattern in Genesis of connecting the move eastward with something negative.
Adam and Eve, exiled from God, are driven out of the garden, settling eastward from Eden (Gen 3:24)
As the murderer Cain goes out from the presence of God, he dwells in a land “east of Eden.” (Gen 4:16)
When Abram and Lot separate, selfish Lot journeys east, unable to resist the land there which appeared to be like the “garden of the Lord.” (Gen 13:11) Of course the chief cities in that direction were Sodom and Gomorrah.
And in Genesis 11, of course, we see the people moving eastward, settling in what will become known as Babylon.
Moses appears to have a “theology of geography” in Genesis.
Movement to the east suggests a moving away from the enjoyment of the presence and blessing of God. Old Testament scholar John Sailhamer suggests that such a literary device, “…contrasts God’s way of blessing (e.g., Eden and the Promised Land) with humanity’s own attempt to find the “good.” In the Genesis narratives, when people go “east,” they leave the land of blessing (Eden and the Promised Land) and go to a land where their greatest hopes will turn to ruin (Babylon and Sodom).”
Therefore, the movement of the people eastward, in Genesis 11, already provides us with a clue to their spiritual condition even before they begin constructing Babel.
Comparison and Contrast
Read in it’s context, it is helpful to recognize that the story of Babel in Genesis 11 immediately precedes the story of Abraham in Genesis 12. (This may be one reason that Moses put the Table of Nations in chapter 10 before giving us the story of Babel. Even though chronologically, Babel should come before the Table of Nations, thematically speaking, the story of Babel works as a great foil to the story of Abraham, and their positioning back to back makes it easier for the stories to be compared and contrasted.)
There are three particularly interesting and instructive points of contrast in these two stories.
First, the Babylonians start in the west and move in an easterly direction, which, if we are to accept the idea of Moses’ “Theology of Geography”, indicates a spiritual movement away from God. On the other hand, Abraham starts out in the east, in the land of Ur as a pagan, but comes to know the One True God. And he begins to journey into the West towards the Land of Promise.
Secondly, the Babylonians, out of fear of dispersion, want to settle and remain at Babel, refusing God’s call to fill the earth. Abraham, however, has faith in God, and “…went, as the LORD had told him.” (Gen 12:4)
Thirdly, the Babylonians are seeking to make a name for themselves but in the end are humiliated. Abraham was seeking no such thing, but as a result of his obedience to God, the Lord promises to him, “I will make your name great.” (Gen 12:2)
The Rise and Fall of Babylon
Genesis 11 isn’t the last we see of Babylon in the Bible. Like a reoccurring nightmare, Babylon, in all of it’s prideful anti-God “splendor” continues to rear it’s head throughout the Bible, and serves as a representation of Man in general, in his arrogant yet futile insurrection against God. From the tower of Babel onward, we see man’s foolish attempts at exaltation overthrown by God. Isaiah 14 addresses one of Babylon’s arrogant kings, saying,
“How you are fallen from heaven, O Day Star, son of Dawn!
How you are cut down to the ground,
you who laid the nations low!
You said in your heart,
‘I will ascend to heaven;
above the stars of God
I will set my throne on high;
I will sit on the mount of assembly
in the far reaches of the north;
I will ascend above the heights of the clouds;
I will make myself like the Most High.’
But you are brought down to Sheol,
to the far reaches of the pit. (Isa 14:13-15)
Like the original Babylonians who would seek to build a tower to reach the heavens, this king arrogantly seeks to exalt himself to the heights of deity, but like the people of Babel, this king is humiliated. Indeed,he is “brought down to Sheol, to the far reaches of the pit.”
Or consider King Nebuchadnezzar, who arrogantly boasted, “Is not this great Babylon, which I have built by my mighty power as a royal residence and for the glory of my majesty?” (Dan 4:30). And yet as with Babel, God responds, and humiliates Nebuchadnezzar, laying him low by afflicting him with insanity to the degree that he acted like a beast for a period of time.
And Babylon appears also in the book of Revelation, in Man’s final attempt at rebellion against God. But again, Babylon, described as a “dwelling place for demons” (Rev 18:2) goes down in shame and defeat.
Then a mighty angel took up a stone like a great millstone and threw it into the sea, saying,“So will Babylon the great city be thrown down with violence, and will be found no more… (Rev 18:21)
Seeking a true home
We all long for home. A place where we can dwell in safety, security, peace, and prosperity. In Genesis, we see people like Cain, those of Babel, and later on Lot, banking their hopes and dreams on the things of this world. Since Genesis 11, people have, either literally or figuratively, sought to find their home in Babylon, “east of Eden”, hoping to find life in their own autonomy away from the presence and rule of God.
In Genesis 12, God calls Abraham out of his home and sets him on a journey to find a new home. The Promised Land that God promises to give to Abraham and his descendants was a good land, a land flowing with “milk and honey” (Lev 20:24). But by the time Abraham dies, all he has in this land is a field and a cave which is a burial plot for him and his family. (Gen 23:20)
But Abraham wasn’t disappointed. He knew that the ultimate fulfillment of God’s promises was yet to come.
By faith Abraham obeyed when he was called to go out to a place that he was to receive as an inheritance. And he went out, not knowing where he was going. By faith he went to live in the land of promise, as in a foreign land, living in tents with Isaac and Jacob, heirs with him of the same promise. For he was looking forward to the city that has foundations, whose designer and builder is God. (Heb 11:8-10)
Eventually Abraham’s descendants conquer Canaan at long last, but life in the land ends up being a disappointment and falls far short of the paradise of Eden. That’s because Canaan was never meant to be the final destination for the People of God. It was but a type, a shadow, a downpayment of something better to come.
The Patriarchs of Israel, Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, knew this better perhaps than their descendants. We are told that,
These all died in faith, not having received the things promised, but having seen them and greeted them from afar, and having acknowledged that they were strangers and exiles on the earth…But as it is, they desire a better country, that is, a heavenly one. Therefore God is not ashamed to be called their God, for he has prepared for them a city. (Heb 11:13-16)
For those of us who repent of our Babylonian ways, trusting in Jesus Christ to deliver us from our sinful pride and from a dying world, we, with Abraham, await with hopeful expectation for the city to come.
And at the end of the Bible, we see that the corrupt, failed city of Babylon is replaced by the glorious heavenly city in Revelation 21. We don’t have to build a tower up to the heavens. Instead, a day is coming when heaven will come down to earth.
And I saw the holy city, new Jerusalem, coming down out of heaven from God, prepared as a bride adorned for her husband. And I heard a loud voice from the throne saying, “Behold, the dwelling place of God is with man. He will dwell with them, and they will be his people, and God himself will be with them as their God. He will wipe away every tear from their eyes, and death shall be no more, neither shall there be mourning, nor crying, nor pain anymore, for the former things have passed away.” (Rev 21:2-4)
And those who will inherit this city are not the proud and arrogant. Instead the people of this city are a people who are forsaking the ways of Babel by humbling themselves and embracing their need for a savior and forgiveness of sins through the cross of Christ. Those who will enter into this city will be a people not interested in making their own name great, but instead a people who will enjoy making His name great forever.
May that day come soon!
Grace and Peace,