“Come, let us build ourselves a city, and a tower whose top is in the heavens; let us make a name for ourselves, lest we be scattered abroad over the face of the whole earth.” - Genesis 11:4
In the well known account of the Tower of Babel, in Genesis 11:1-9, the people of Babel sought to build a tower to reach heaven, to make a name for themselves, and to protect themselves from being scattered over the face of the earth. God comes down and confuses the language of the people so that the building project ceases and their efforts are thwarted. Most of us are familiar with this story as a rationale for why the human race has different languages and cultures. What we may miss is that this account is about so much more.
The Tower of Babel is about sin and its consequences and the continuation of the fallen nature of humankind in the world after The Garden of Eden, and after Noah and the flood. When we read about Babel, we see humankind in the same condition as they are after the fall, and as we continue to be today. Many of us look at Babel with the same confusion that defines the name “Babel” itself. We think, “What’s the big deal? What is God’s problem? What is wrong with wanting to be in heaven? What is wrong with unity? Why can’t I have a decent name for myself?” Okay, we may concede, on a good day, that making a name for ourselves may be vain and arrogant, but what about the rest of this?
Here are three lessons we can learn from Babel:
- A heaven without God is no heaven at all.
- There is only one name we should be concerned with, and it is not our own.
- Unity without connection to God is unity not worth having.
Let us look at this quest for heaven first. Notice the people of Babel do not say that they are attempting to get to God. Genesis 11:1-9 does not mention any concern by the people of Babel for God. In fact, they never mention God at all. We get the impression that this tower is to be “giant” and impressive and reach into the sky, not that it will “achieve God,” or reach God’s “Heaven.” The Hebrew word used for heaven here, (H8064) shamayim, has the root meaning, “to be lofty.” It is most likely the first definition of (H8064) shamayim, “heaven, or heavens, the sky; the visible heavens, as abode of the stars, as the visible universe, the sky, or the atmosphere (Strong).” The heaven here is one of “their own making.” This is a Godless heaven, if you will, and a heaven without God is no heaven at all.
Next, let us look at what is in a name. The quest for a name for ourselves is a quest of identity, belonging, and trust. It can also be a quest for adoration. This was the issue with Adam and Eve trusting God in the Garden paradise. Adam and Eve did not trust their identity in God. Adam and eve wanted to “be like God,” knowing good from evil. They felt they could love themselves better than God could. They did not trust that God had their best in mind and they sought out their own best. They sought their identity and existence outside of God, out on their own. They did not trust God. Adam and Eve sought to love themselves over and beyond loving God in obedience. Their love for self left no love for God. In effect, they made themselves their own gods.
There were people in ancient Biblical times named Nephilim. The Nephilim were giants that lived in the land before Noah and the flood. These giants were notorious and the people of Babel wanted to be just like them, “Giant.” The people of Babel arrogantly wanted to make a name for themselves. The irony is that the land of Shinar that the people of Babel were settling in to build their tower is also thought to be the same location of the Garden of Eden where Adam and Eve sought to be “Giant” as well; all alone, and without their God.
Adam, Eve, and the people of Babel’s names became more important than the name which is above every name. As Paul said, “At the name of Jesus every knee should bow, of those in heaven, and of those on earth, and that every tongue should confess that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father (Philippians 2: 10-11).” This focus on our own names and ourselves leads us to destruction. It led to Adam and Eve’s deaths and the world being fallen, it led to the destruction of Babel, and it will lead to our own demise. There is only one name we should be concerned with, and it is not our own.
The last thing the people of Babel sought was security and comfort in their unity. This was “safety in numbers” taken to the extreme. Instead of seeking unity, security, and comfort with and in their creator and worshiping God, they sought unity with each other. The people of Babel began to worship one another in essence. They were worshiping the creation, and they worshipped at the altar of humanity instead of worshiping the creator who made them and in whom we have all things (Romans 1:24-25, all).
Timothy Keller talks about the way we make idols out of others and ourselves when he says, “Our need for worth is so powerful that whatever we base our identity and value on we essentially 'deify.' We will look to it with all the passion and intensity of worship and devotion, even if we think ourselves as highly irreligious (Timothy Keller).” When our unity becomes our security, our unity becomes our god. When other people and our unified relationships with them become our comfort, or our identity, then God is not our comforter or our identity, and our comfort and our identity do not come from God. We in effect create idols out of one another and ourselves. This unity we should never seek out. Unity without connection to God is unity not worth having.
The confusion of Babel is not over. We are still tempted to be Nephilim, “giants.” We seek heaven on our own terms; we seek to make a name for ourselves; and we seek security and comfort in unity, all apart from the God who is Nephilim. It is God who is Giant! May we seek God and worship God alone realizing a heaven without God is no heaven at all, that there is only one name we should be concerned with, and it is not our own, and a unity without connection to God is unity not worth having.
Strong, James: The Exhaustive Concordance of the Bible : Showing Every Word of the Text of the Common English Version of the Canonical Books, and Every Occurrence of Each Word in Regular Order. electronic ed. Ontario : Woodside Bible Fellowship., 1996, S. H8064
The New King James Version. Nashville : Thomas Nelson, 1982, S. Ge 11:1-9