Babel: Let's Do Away With God (Gen 11:1-9)


"Come, let us build ourselves a city and a tower with its top in the heavens, and let us make a name for ourselves" (Gen 11:4).

The onslaught of atheism against God is not a modern invention, nor a recent 20th century occurrence. It already happened ions ago when man built the tower of Babel to do away with God, and to regard God as irrelevant, redundant or non-existent. Yet there is still a need to affirmatively declare their own independent autonomy and self-rule. They indeed lay claim to a heaven without God, while the world continues to pine away amidst the constant din of ongoing and escalating unrest.

But don't we all build our own towers of Babel? Biblically, Babel reflects every man's utmost longing for significance and security. Before I became a Christian in 1980, what drove and motivated me was my intense desire to become a doctor. It was not that I really wanted to be a doctor. (All my 4 kids sensed that, and my life as a doctor did not inspire any of them to want to be a doctor!) What motivated me? It was the praise and recognition by others if I became a doctor. It was also my longing for financial security by being a doctor. So, I built my "tower of Babel" through 5 years of medical school, and after that by coming to the U.S. to solidify my status and security and significance as a doctor. Surely, all human beings are building their own "towers of Babel" in their own unique ways. For a time, they may seem triumphant. But the song that reflects the sentiment of the last century still cries out even among the affluent, "I Can't Get No Satisfaction!" Or in the ancient words of Solomon, it would be, "Vanity of vanities! All is vanity." (Eccl 1:1)

In Gen 11:1-9, let's examine why God was so displeased with those who built the tower of Babel that he confused their languages? What was so wrong about building the tower of Babel?

The ESV Study Bible says, "The Babel enterprise is all about human independence and self-sufficiency apart from God. The builders believe that they have no need of God. It presents a unified humanity using all its resources to establish a city that is the antithesis of what God intended when he created the world. The tower is a symbol of human autonomy, and the city builders see themselves as determining and establishing their own destiny without any reference to the Lord." Thus, "this episode is significantly more important than its length suggests."

Previous/related posts: Sin, Faith and Salvation (Gen 6:1-14); Divine Judgment (Gen 6:5-13); Am I Really That Bad? (Gen 6:5).

Gen 10-11 is the bridge between the story of Noah (Gen 6-9) and Abraham (Gen 12ff). Gen 11:1-9 is the last picture of what the world is like prior to Abraham. The rest of Genesis will concentrate on the line of Sham, especially the line of Abraham and Sarah. Gen 11:1-9 divides easily into 2 parts:

  1. Rebellion: What Man Does in Rebellion (Gen 11:1-4).
    • 4 expressions
    • 2 sins
    • Root sin
    • Quest for a name without God
  2. Response: What God Does to Fulfill His Will (Gen 11:5-9).
I. Rebellion (Gen 11:1-4): 4 Expressions of Rebellion: What was the motivation for building Babel? They expressed 4 things quite explicitly in Gen 11:4:
  1. To build a city.
  2. To build a tower that reaches to the heavens.
  3. To make a name for themselves.
  4. To not be scattered over the face of the whole earth. This is contrary to God's plan that people fill the earth (Gen 1:22,28; 9:1,7).
2 Underlying Sins. The 1st 2 correspond to the 2nd 2: #1 is related to #4; #2 is related to #3. To build a city (#1) is to avoid being scattered over the whole earth (#4); to build a tower to the heavens (#2) is to make a name for themselves (#3). The city and the tower (#1 & #2) are outward expressions of 2 inward sins:
  1. The love of praise (make a name for yourself; exalt or glorify self).
  2. The love of security (build a city and not risk going out to fill the earth).
The root of sin. God's will for man is that He made man in God's image (Gen 1:26-27) not to find joy in being praised, but to find joy in knowing, praising and glorifying God (Jn 17:3; 1 Cor 10:31). God's will is also not that we find security in cities, but in God whom we love, trust and obey (Prov 3:5-6; John 14:1,15,21). Thus, they were determined not to build the "City of God" that glorifies God, but the "city of Man" that exalts the achievements of man. Even the severe judgment and warning against sin by the Flood did not change man's heart (Gen 6:5, 8:21). His heart was like it was with Adam and Eve: We decide for ourselves what is best. By default we do away with God. This is the story of all mankind to this very day apart from the redeeming grace of God.

Our name is our identity. In the Bible, to get a name is to have our identify. When God names a person, He refers to what He has already done or what He is going to do in their lives. In God, through his undeserved grace, we find our security, priority, sense of worth and uniqueness, which is based on what God has done for us and in us. If we do not have a "name" we cannot but live in vague insecurity, as a restless wanderer (Gen 4:12,14) still in search of who we are. Thus the people of Babel sought their identity ("name") in 2 ways:

  1. in the greatness of their personal accomplishment. They wanted to build "a tower that reaches to the heavens" (Gen 11:4). They are assigning value to their work and attaching significance in their accomplishment. It is their subconscious attempt to "save themselves" through their work and trying to "get to heaven" without God. They are boldly declaring, "I don't need God to face the world with confidence and joy. Look at the skyscraper I've built!"
  2. in the size and power of their group. Their sense of power is derived from the size and wealth of their city and of their people. In #1 they make an idol out of their accomplishments. Here they make an idol out of their group. They feel they have a name if their group is great and powerful. This leads too various forms of imperialism, colonialism, racism, intellectualism, etc. We look at the world and we can sense how much one group despises another group, regardless of whether the groups are religious or irreligious.
II. Response (Gen 11:5-9)
  1. God knows them (Gen 11:5).
  2. God laments at them (Gen 11:6).
  3. God confuses them (Gen 11:7).
  4. God scatters them (Gen 11:8).
The narrative shows the utter folly of man in rebelling against God's ordinances. "Babel" (Gen 11:9) in Hebrew occurs over 200 times in the OT and is translated Babylon in all but a few. Babylon perhaps might strike us today as something ancient. But in Moses' day and in OT times, Babylon was the city of cities, the ultimate city, a symbol of power, wealth and pleasure, like London, Paris, Tokyo, New York, etc. Yet this great city which was the epitome of man in all his ability and sophistication, was easily humbled and decimated by the slightest action of God, without God even “breaking a sweat,” so to speak. Today, Babylon is no more. Similarly, all the Babylons of the world, through presently impressive, will one day come to naught (Rev 18:1-10).

Finally: Babel can also represent man's attempt to reach God and find "salvation," which is the way of all religions in the world. We are rewarded according to our effort. But the Gospel is God's initiative to reach and save man only by His grace alone through His Son's death and resurrection. When we live religiously, we never quite know how much is enough. We cannot but be nervous and uncertain. When we think we do well, we are confident. But when we think we do poorly, we are humble. But only the Gospel of Grace that is not depended on our performance frees us to receive his grace and live a life of thanksgiving and joy.

"Babel." Ligon Duncan
"City of Man; City of God." Tim Keller, What Were We Put in the World To Do?, 81-90.
"Gen 11:1-9." A sermon by Scott Lindsay
ESV Study Bible, 2008.
"The Pride of Babel and the Praise of Christ." John Piper, Spectacular Sins, 65-73.

John Piper shares 5 ways how even the blatant rebellion of Babel magnifies the glory of Christ:

  1. Christians guarded. (We humans are far too evil to be allowed to unite in 1 language or 1 government.)
  2. Pride destroyed (2 Thess 2:8).
  3. Every group claimed (Mt 28:18-19).
  4. The gospel glorified (from every language) (Rom 1:16).
  5. Jesus praised (from all the different languages).

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