The Tower of Babel

One of Flannery O’Connor’s short stories is about a grandfather who takes his grandson, Nelson, to Atlanta to show him by comparison how good it is in the country. A visit to the city will cure him of his boredom with rural Georgia. Arriving on the train, they begin to walk and are soon lost. For the whole day they try to find their way back to the station but walk around in circles confused and no closer to the station. The grandfather’s “moral mission” to show the boy how evil, dark and unwelcoming the city is takes an unexpected turn but in the end they find the train home – miles away from where they arrived. “Their train glided into the suburb stop just as they reached the station and they boarded it together, and ten minutes before it was due to arrive at the junction, they went to the door and stood ready to jump off if it did not stop; but it did, just as the moon, restored to its full splendor, sprang from a cloud and flooded the clearing with light. As they stepped off, the sage grass was shivering gently in shades of silver and the clinkers under their feet glittered with a fresh black light. The treetops, fencing the junction like the protecting walls of a garden, were darker than the sky which was hung with gigantic white clouds illuminated like lanterns. Nelson, composing his expression under the shadow of his hat brim, watched him with a mixture of fatigue and suspicion, but as the train glided past them and disappeared like a frightened serpent into the woods, even his face lightened and he muttered, “I’m glad I’ve went once, but I’ll never go back again!”

That’s a good description of how a nomadic people – the Israelites – felt about cities and people who lived in them. They were dark, confusing and dangerous places. People were intended to live in tents out in the open – not closed up behind walls. Cities were not natural. Why is that? Bad things happen in cities and the sooner you leave them the better. Sodom was a city. Cain, the murderer, named the first city after his son, Enoch. Nothing good could come from living in the city. 

Genesis 11:1-9: 

Now the whole world had one language and a common speech. 2 As people moved eastward, they found a plain in Shinar and settled there. 3 They said to each other, “Come, let’s make bricks and bake them thoroughly.” They used brick instead of stone, and tar for mortar. 4 Then they said, “Come, let us build ourselves a city, with a tower that reaches to the heavens, so that we may make a name for ourselves; otherwise we will be scattered over the face of the whole earth.” 5 But the Lord came down to see the city and the tower the people were building. 6 The Lord said, “If as one people speaking the same language they have begun to do this, then nothing they plan to do will be impossible for them. 7 Come, let us go down and confuse their language so they will not understand each other. 8 So the Lord scattered them from there over all the earth, and they stopped building the city. 9 That is why it was called Babel —because there the Lord confused the language of the whole world. From there the Lord scattered them over the face of the whole earth.

  1. They begin in unanimous disobedience. God’s command was to be fruitful and multiply and fill the earth. They were to spread out in the earth – not settle. They were to explore and enjoy the creation. Instead, what do they do? They interpret God’s invitation as a threat. Like Adam, they are now afraid of Him and read into His motives. “We know what you really mean behind those words. You want to scatter us so we will be more easily controlled. You want to keep us from being together. They may have been of one language and understood each other but they cannot understand the simplest word of God. They had lost that ability as a result of the Fall. Ever since the Fall we have been afraid of God and interpret his opportunities to grow as threats. And there is no one in the city to correct them. So, even with one language there is already confusion about the most basic thing. What has God said? We’re all on the same page with each other and headed in the wrong direction. There is no confusion about what we want to do. We are all speaking the same language and have a common purpose – but no word from God. We’ve all heard the phrase “without a vision the people perish”. It’s been used many times to inspire congregations to be motivated by building campaigns. new programs and to follow the lead of a charismatic and visionary pastor. It has been used by politicians, corporate leaders and motivational speakers to underscore the importance of giving people a great vision to follow. However, it’s a misreading of the word “vision”. What that word means is “word of God” and not grand idea of one person or group of people. What it means is “without the word of God the people do what they please because they have no law outside themselves.” That is what was happening on the plain of Shinar. There was a grand vision but no word of God. There was a common purpose but no discernment of God.
  1. Let’s make bricks and build ourselves a tower.

On one level, the use of bricks instead of stone illustrates their ingenuity and determination. The old technology would have been stone and mortar but they were building for permanence and making a statement about their decision to stay instead of spread out. They were building for the future. They were building a symbol – not just a city. Of course, cities are symbols aren’t they? Why were the Twin Towers and the Pentagon attacked? Because they were symbols of something greater than themselves. They personified the people who built them. 

“The creation of symbols seems to be hard-wired into human brains and human personalities,” said Christopher Simpson, professor of communications at American University in Washington, D.C. “People build symbols to try and express themselves, and these expressions reflect their culture. Political and religious movements wrap their ideology and goals in symbols—crucifix, hammer and sickle, swastika—or buildings or monuments. These symbols make a statement and evoke potent emotions. For something to be accepted as a symbol, it must translate the visions and goals of the people that surround it. The World Trade Towers and the Pentagon did just that.”

I read an article on the tallest buildings in the world and came across this from one of the architects of world class buildings. “Expedience, transcendence, ambition, and dominance: these are the principal reasons why tall buildings emerged and why they continue to be built”, says architect Scott Johnson.

Yes, the architects of the city on the plain were building a symbol of innovation and technological achievement that was far more advanced than any other but bricks instead of stones carries its own message in Scripture. For some reason, bricks are always symbols of idolatry, oppression, cruelty and pride. Exodus 1:14: “They made their lives bitter with hard labor in brick and mortar.” Stones, on the other hand, are symbols of remembrance and worship. Joshua’s command to leave 12 stones in the river Jordan to remind the children of God’s faithfulness.

They built a tower intended to reach to heaven instead of an altar and that was the beginning of the end.

Is the impulse to build wrong in and of itself? Is the desire to create something innovative wrong? Is the desire to do great things wrong? No, but it is the motives behind these things that matter. Their motive was prominence, fame, power, permanence and to centralize instead of spreading out. They were afraid of God and fear is the friend of tyranny.

Our impulses to build are not wrong but we forget what God said about us after the Flood. “Every inclination of his heart is evil from childhood.” Even when we intend to do something great, our tendency is to turn it into something harmful.

What we build must begin with stones – not bricks. It must begin with an altar – a recognition that the glory of God is at the very heart of it. Otherwise, we are building a tower.

  1. Why did they do this? “So that we may make a name for ourselves.”

Again, there is nothing inherently evil about wanting to make a name if by that we mean to distinguish ourselves – to be known for something – to have our name represent integrity and quality. That is the whole purpose of a brand, isn’t it. The name should represent something people trust. It should be the same with us. Our name should carry weight and substance and trust. But that is not what they wanted.

There is something clearly unhealthy and unnatural about what they wanted. They did not want a name to represent something good, but a name for its own sake. A name that would set them apart – even from God. It was to be a name above all names. 

“The hatred of anonymity drives men to heroic feats of valour or long hours of drudgery; or it urges them to spectacular acts of shame or of unscrupulous self-preferment. In the worse forms it attempts to give the honour and the glory to themselves which properly belong to the name of God.”  Alan Richardson

Does God not want great names? Yes, but in a particular way.

Genesis 12:2-3:

The Lord had said to Abram, “Go from your country, your people and your father’s

household to the land I will show you.

 “I will make you into a great nation,

and I will bless you;

I will make your name great,

and you will be a blessing.

 I will bless those who bless you,

and whoever curses you I will curse;

and all peoples on earth

will be blessed through you.”

I will make your name great….and you will be a blessing. That is the difference between those who desire great names on their own and those who wait for God to give them great names. It is the difference between grasping a great name and being given a great name. It is the difference between desiring to be like God instead of being the best kind of men.

It is like the passages in Luke where the disciples are early on discussing what it means to be great. It’s the right discussion because it is important early on to decide what it means to be great. Later, after three years of being with Jesus and receiving the acclaim and association with him, they are literally arguing about it. Except this time it says they were arguing about what it means to appear to be great. That’s a totally different question. The builders of the tower were more interested in the appearance of greatness.

  1. The tower is not destroyed. The people are scattered but carry with them the virus of Babylon:

To make a name instead of being given a name or be under the name of someone greater than themselves.

To defy God

To build towers and not altars.

Every age has a different Babylon but the spirit is the same – pride, glory, arrogance, excessive luxury, wealth, global dominance, corrupters of the earth. It is what men do with concentrated power. That is straight from Revelation 18 and the description of Babylon’s fall. 

After this I saw another angel coming down from heaven. He had great authority,

and the earth was illuminated by his splendor. With a mighty voice he shouted:

“‘Fallen! Fallen is Babylon the Great!’

She has become a dwelling for demons

and a haunt for every impure spirit,

a haunt for every unclean bird,

a haunt for every unclean and detestable animal.

 For all the nations have drunk

the maddening wine of her adulteries.

The kings of the earth committed adultery with her,

and the merchants of the earth grew rich from her excessive luxuries.”

Warning to Escape Babylon’s Judgment 

Then I heard another voice from heaven say:

“‘Come out of her, my people,’

so that you will not share in her sins,

so that you will not receive any of her plagues;

 for her sins are piled up to heaven,

and God has remembered her crimes.

What is it that has finally reached as high as heaven? Her sin – and that’s the irony, isn’t it? That which they desired so much has destroyed them.  The question always in my mind is, “How much hubris will God tolerate?”

  1. In our own lives we need to constantly be asking ourselves if we are building towers or altars. We need to ask if we are desiring great names and visions or we are looking to live for another name? The Jews had a phrase for martyrs. They are those who die for “the name” of God – not their own names.

I read this from John Piper this week: 

“Behind the facade of achievement, accomplishment, bravado and self-assurance is the haunting spectra of leaving this life with no certainty of what is to follow. That, in my estimation, is the real reason for the building of the city of Babel and its tower. The people of that day were willing to make nearly any sacrifice to have some hope of immortality. They saw this in the name they could make for themselves. Have you ever stopped to think about the role insecurity may play in the things you devote time and energy to? Christians who do not fathom the grace of God and His sovereign control are plagued by the insecurity of supposing that God’s work and will is conditioned by our faithfulness, rather than by His. Our insecurity may be the motive for much of our Christian service. If only we can do more for the Lord, we shall feel more secure and certain of His blessing. Such activity is little different than that of those who lived on the plain of Shinar. We preachers must learn a very important lesson here also. We want to see results from our work. We may be insecure in what God has called us to do. Because of our own insecurity, we may urge others to work harder in Christian activity, and we may motivate this activity by playing upon the wrong motives of guilt and insecurity. These motives are always wrong reasons for Christian service. Service should be based upon gratitude, not guilt or fear.”

What are the marks of those who build altars instead of towers?

Obedience and not arrogance

Trust and not fear

Faith and not self-sufficiency

Substance and not size

Blessing and not self-importance

What are you building with your life? A tower that points toward the greatness of what you have built – or an altar that points future generations to the name above all names and the one who gives greatness to be a blessing?

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