1 Now the whole earth had one language and the same words. 2 And as people migrated from the east, they found a plain in the land of Shinar and settled there. 3 And they said to one another, “Come, let us make bricks, and burn them thoroughly.” And they had brick for stone, and bitumen for mortar. 4 Then they said, “Come, let us build ourselves a city and a tower with its top in the heavens, and let us make a name for ourselves, lest we be dispersed over the face of the whole earth.” 5 And the Lord came down to see the city and the tower, which the children of man had built. 6 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. 7 Come, let us go down and there confuse their language, so that they may not understand one another’s speech.” 8 So the Lord dispersed them from there over the face of all the earth, and they left off building the city. 9 Therefore its name was called Babel, because there the Lord confused the language of all the earth. And from there the Lord dispersed them over the face of all the earth.
Kent Hughes has passed along the fascinating and sad story of Gordon Hall. Listen:
A few years ago the Arizona Republiccarried this local profile by columnist E.J. Montini:
It is dusk. Gordon Hall stands at an overlook on his 55,000-square-foot mansion in Paradise Valley, a structure built by Pittsburgh industrialist Walker McCune and now owned and being renovated by Hall. He is 32 years old and a millionaire many times over. He stares at the range of lights stretching before him from horizon to horizon and breathes a deep, relaxed sigh.
The lights of the city are like the campfires of a great army to Hall, who sees himself as its benevolent general. They are like the flashlights of the world’s fortune seekers, and Hall is their beacon to riches. They are, for Hall, like the stars of the firmament. And he is above them.
He is worth more than $100 million, he says, because it was his goal to be worth more than $100 million before the age of 33…There are other goals. By the time he is 38, he will be a billionaire. By the time his earthly body expires—and he is convinced he can live to be 120 years old—he will assume what he believes to be his just heavenly aware: Gordon Hall will be a god.
“We have always existed as intelligences, as spirits,” he says. “We are down here to gain a body. As man now is, God once was. And as God is now, man can become. If you believe it, then your genetic makeup is to be a god. And I believe it. That is why I believe I can do anything. My genetic makeup is to be a god. My God in heaven creates worlds and universes. I believe I can do anything, too.”
He looks to the horizon, and then he looks behind him, where his great dark house seems to drift like a ship in the night sky.
What an amazing picture: a huge structure, seeming to drift like a ship in the night sky, that stands as a symbol of the astonishing ego of its owner. A man believing that he can be a god, that he can grab and secure greatness and a lasting name by his own prowess and strength. If ever there was a modern illustration of the Tower of Babel, this is it! Yes, we have been here before. This is well-worn ground. And the results are always the same.
The offspring of prosperity and self-reliance is pride. The offspring of pride and ego is fragmentation.
The primary lesson of the Babel narrative is the danger and self-destructive potential of unfettered pride. We might depict this in terms of unions and offspring: The offspring of prosperity and self-reliance is pride. The offspring of pride and ego is fragmentation. Consider our text in Genesis 11:
1 Now the whole earth had one language and the same words. 2 And as people migrated from the east, they found a plain in the land of Shinar and settled there. 3 And they said to one another, “Come, let us make bricks, and burn them thoroughly.” And they had brick for stone, and bitumen for mortar. 4 Then they said, “Come, let us build ourselves a city and a tower with its top in the heavens, and let us make a name for ourselves, lest we be dispersed over the face of the whole earth.”
Let us begin with a fundamental question. What exactly wasthe Tower of Babel? What kind of structure was it. While we cannot say for certain, there are a number of clues pointing to this tower being a ziggurat. The Zondervan Illustrated Bible Backgrounds Commentary elucidates the connection points well:
One single architectural feature dominated the landscape of early Mesopotamian cities: towers known as ziggurats…What do we know about ziggurats? (1) Though they may resemble pyramids in appearance, they are nothing like them in function. Ziggurats have no inside. The structure was framed in mudbrick, and then the core was packed with fill dirt. The façade was then completed with kiln-fired brick. (2) Ziggurats were dedicated to particular deities…(3) Archaeologists have discovered nearly thirty ziggurats in the general region, and texts mention several others. The main architectural feature is the stairway or ramp that leads to the top where a bed was made and a table set for the deity. Ziggurats ranged in size from sixty feet per side to almost two hundred feet per side…The best indication of the function of the ziggurats comes from the names that are given to them. For instance, the name of the ziggurat at Babylon, Etemenanki, means “temple of the foundation of heaven and earth.” One at Larsa means “temple that links heaven and earth.” Most significant is the name of the ziggurat at Sippar, “temple of the stairway to pure heaven.”…As a result of these data, we can conclude that the ziggurat was a structure built to support the stairway. This stairway was a visual representation of that which was believed to be used by the gods to travel from one realm to another.
…Throughout Mesopotamian literature, almost every occurrence of the expression describing a building “with its head in the heavens” refers to a temple with a ziggurat. As a sample, here is the description by Warad-Sin, king of Larsa, who build the temple E-es-ki-te:
He made it as high as a mountain and made its head touch heaven. On account of this deed the gods Nanna and Ningal rejoiced. May they grant him a destiny of life a long reign, and a firm foundation.
…the reader of Genesis will find a few of the omens in the Summa Aluseries remarkable: “If a city lifts its head to the midst of heaven, that city will be abandoned”…and “If a city rises like a mountain peak to the midst of heaven, that city will be turned to ruin.”
The connection points are obvious and compelling. Ziggurats were often described as stairways to heaven and as reaching the heavens. This is very similar to what we find in verse 4 of our text: “a tower with its top in the heavens.” What is more, ziggurats were seen as the places where the gods would come down to earth and then ascend again to the heavens. Was then Moses perhaps writing mockingly in awareness of this fact when he wrote in verse 5, “And the Lord came down to see the city and the tower, which the children of man had built.” Finally, there was an awareness even among the pagan peoples that ziggurats might tempt their creators to pride (“If a city lifts its head to the midst of heaven, that city will be abandoned”). This pride is mirrored in the words “let us make a name for ourselves” from verse 4.
Yes, the circumstantial evidence for this being a ziggurat is strong, but, in truth, the exact nature of the structure is less important than the conditions of the minds and hearts behind it as reflected in our text. These people were prosperous, as evidenced by the fact that they had the means to build such a massive structure. They were able to do that, in part, because of the technological advancement in construction materials, namely, the creation of kiln-burned bricks which were stronger than mud bricks. You can feel the prosperity and self-reliance in their building project. Furthermore, you can hear the strong presence of pride and ego. They want a name. These are a people concerned with their own advancement, their own success. They feel strong. They feel that they can build this tower with its top in the heavens. If this is not an act of self-deification, it is close to it. Perhaps they might not go as far as Gordon Hall and say that they can become gods…but that may very well be what is at the root of their efforts.
Interestingly, St. Augustine saw a more common-sense and sinister motive in their designs. Augustine wrote:
…certain proud men built a tower, ostensibly so that they might not be destroyed by a flood if one came later. For they had heard and recalled that all iniquity had been destroyed by the flood. They were unwilling to abstain from iniquity. They sought the height of a tower against a flood: they built a lofty tower. God saw their pride, and he cause this disorder to be sent upon them, that they might speak but not understand one another, and tongues became different through pride.
Ah! Was it because of the flood? Were they creating a safe-place for them should their behavior invite the wrathful judgment of God? Was the tower a way of saying, “We will do what we want without consequence!” Was it their way of saying that they could not be touched even by God?
See the arrogance of man! See the haughtiness of self-reliance unrestrained by humility before the Lord God! See mankind’s fixation on self!
Yes, the offspring of prosperity and self-reliance is pride. And the offspring of pride and ego is fragmentation. All of their plans for security, for a name, for strength, and for unified advancement in the world inevitably ended in fragmentation.
5 And the Lord came down to see the city and the tower, which the children of man had built. 6 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. 7 Come, let us go down and there confuse their language, so that they may not understand one another’s speech.” 8 So the Lord dispersed them from there over the face of all the earth, and they left off building the city. 9 Therefore its name was called Babel, because there the Lord confused the language of all the earth. And from there the Lord dispersed them over the face of all the earth.
The Lord confounded and dispersed these haughty people. He primarily did so by confusing their language. Ephrem the Syrian argued that God must have completely confused their languages leaving no trace of the original language behind:
It is likely that they lost their common language when they received these new languages. For if their original language had not perished their first deed would not have come to nothing. It was when they lost their original language, which was lost by all the nations, with one exception, that their first building came to nought.
This is a valid point. Had the original language survived among a group of these folks they ostensibly could have continued their work, albeit on a small and slower scale. Yet God confounded their language and did so in a complete manner. Think of how the immediate confusion of languages would have brought all of their designs and schemes to a screeching halt! Think of the pandemonium when suddenly nobody could understand anybody else!
Unchecked pride and ego inevitably collapse in confused fragmentation. Babel inevitably falls. God is really good at busting stuff up!
Consider the opening story of Gordon Hall, the rich man who planned to be a god. I was curious to know what had happened to him so I dropped his name into Google. Like clockwork, here was the 2015 headline that popped up: “Gordon Hall: The would-be god becomes a convict.” Ah! The would-be god is now in jail after a failed ponzi scheme.
Hear me: Babel always falls. God is a jealous God who will not suffer our foolish attempts at self-deification forever.
Maybe you are hearing this and you are experiencing this fragmentation: the dissolution of your relationships with family and friends and, most tragically, with God. Perhaps you are now reaping the bitter rewards of unchecked ego and self-reliance. Perhaps it is all falling apart around you. Perhaps your mental and physical and emotional and spiritual health has been decimated, scattered, fragmented as a result of your own unhealthy fixation on self. Here is where good news is needed most!
Wholeness and a lasting name are found in humbly embracing Jesus Christ.
When we really get a grasp of what is happening in Genesis 11 we are able to better understand what is happening in Acts 2. In fact, I would propose that if you played Genesis 11 backwards you would end up with Acts 2. Genesis 11 shows haughty humanity confounded by confusing tongues and scattered to the nations. But consider the picture that emerges from Acts 2 and the events of the day of Pentecost:
1 When the day of Pentecost arrived, they were all together in one place. 2 And suddenly there came from heaven a sound like a mighty rushing wind, and it filled the entire house where they were sitting. 3 And divided tongues as of fire appeared to them and rested on each one of them. 4 And they were all filled with the Holy Spirit and began to speak in other tongues as the Spirit gave them utterance. 5 Now there were dwelling in Jerusalem Jews, devout men from every nation under heaven. 6 And at this sound the multitude came together, and they were bewildered, because each one was hearing them speak in his own language.7 And they were amazed and astonished, saying, “Are not all these who are speaking Galileans? 8 And how is it that we hear, each of us in his own native language? 9 Parthians and Medes and Elamites and residents of Mesopotamia, Judea and Cappadocia, Pontus and Asia, 10 Phrygia and Pamphylia, Egypt and the parts of Libya belonging to Cyrene, and visitors from Rome, 11 both Jews and proselytes, Cretans and Arabians—we hear them telling in our own tongues the mighty works of God.”
If Genesis 11 shows the people scattered outward, Acts 2 shows the people drawing in near to hear. If Genesis 11 shows conflict as a result of confused speech, Acts 2 shows unified amazement at everybody hearing the same message. If Genesis 11 shows a word of judgment bringing fragmentation, Acts 2 shows a word of hope bring wholeness.
In Acts 2 tongues of fire fall on the apostles and they speak the gospel to the nations represented. Miraculously, this audience each is able to hear the gospel in their own tongues! The languages are different, but the message and understanding is the same. Confusion dissipates. Clarity enters the scene. And what is this message that the nations hear? Why, they hear about “the mighty works of God.”
It is not the only time the New Testament couches the gospel in terms of speech and understanding. In Philippians 2 Paul writes:
9 Therefore God has highly exalted him and bestowed on him the name that is above every name, 10 so that at the name of Jesus every knee should bow, in heaven and on earth and under the earth, 11 and every tongue confess that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father.
Here again we hear echoes of Babel in reverse: at the end of all things, “every tongue” will “confess that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father.”
Ego leads to confusion and scattering.
The gospel leads to cohesion and a unified profession.
It is often said that “you can’t unscramble eggs.” Do you want to know something though? Jesus can! Jesus can scramble eggs when the eggs need to be scrambled, like at Babel, but He can also unscramble eggs when we humbly kneel at His feet.
Our God can confound and He can bring clarity.
Our God can scatter and He can bring us all back together.
Our God can speak devastating judgment and He can speak sweet mercy and forgiveness.
At Babel will fell into panic-stricken confusion and despair.
At the cross we meet glory-revealing forgiveness and hope!
Ah! Do not play at Babel. It will leave you broken and divided. Rather, come humbly to Jesus. Come to Jesus and live!
R. Kent Hughes, Genesis. (Wheaton, IL: Crossway Books, 2004), p.168.
John H. Walton, “Genesis.” Zondervan Illustrated Bible Backgrounds Commentary. Vol. 1 (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 2009), p.61-63.
Andrew Louth, ed. Genesis 1-11. Ancient Christian Commentary on Scripture. Gen. Ed., Thomas C. Oden. Old Testament I (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 2001), p.167.
Andrew Louth, ed., p.169.