Genesis 11:1-9


If you have your Bibles with you tonight, I'd invite you to turn with me to Genesis, chapter 11. The last time we were in the book of Genesis together, a couple of weeks ago, we entered into a new section of Genesis looking at Genesis, chapter 10, with the list of the sons: Shem and Ham and Japheth. And that new section of Genesis is one that Moses himself marked out and distinguishes from the sections before and after. He calls it the ‘Toledoth of the sons of Noah’ – the record of the generations of the sons of Noah, Shem, Ham and Japheth, or the book of the generations of the sons of Noah, Shem, Ham and Japheth. And that passage, as we said then, is an expansion on a passing comment that he had made all the way back in Genesis, chapter 9. If you’ll look at chapter 9, verses 18 and 19, you’ll notice his comment about his sons and especially in verse 19 that from his sons the whole earth was populated. That is recorded in detail in Genesis, chapter 10. But this passage beginning in Genesis, chapter 10, verse 1 and running all the way to Genesis chapter 11, verse 9 is a distinct passage. As has been well said, soon the revelation of the Lord was to be restricted to the line of Abraham and his descendants. But before the revelation of the Lord bids the nations farewell, all of them pass once more in review. And that's exactly what happens in Genesis 10.

Genesis 10 serves to set the line of Shem in its broader international context by speaking of the line of Japheth and Ham as well, and to prepare the way for the story of Abraham. Genesis 10 and Genesis 11 are the bridge between the world in the time of Noah and the world in the time of Abraham. And so, of course, a bridge between the stories and the lessons of the life of Noah, and the stories and the lessons of the life of Abram. Not every nation known to the Old Testament people was enrolled here in Genesis 10, but enough were lifted to make the point that mankind in all its diversity descends from one family, one line and is under one creator. And we said even that the 70 names that are mentioned there may well have been influential in our Lord Jesus’ choosing to send out seventy missionaries in the gospel as is recorded in Luke, chapter 10, verse 1. But even in that long list of names, and you wouldn't expect a great deal of truth to be propounded in those lists of names, that genealogical tree that we read in Genesis 10, we learned a number of lessons. And I'd like to review those just briefly before we look at Genesis 11 tonight.

First of all when you look back at verse 1, you see God's people being set among the nations as a light and a blessing. And we said as we reviewed that that God's people can never forget the nations. It's never acceptable for us to say okay, we're just going to care for our own, and we're going to forget the nations out there. One of the temptations of God's people is to try and find a cozy, comfortable place for themselves, and for their descendants, their spiritual descendants as well as their physical descendants and forget all the bad things that are going on out there. It's a great temptation isn't it? If it was a temptation in the middle ages in the monastic movement, how does a person retain purity in the midst of a very wicked world? Well, you just pull back to the monastery, and you live a separated life. And you try and influence the community as you can from the monastery, but you stay away from the peoples and the nations and mixing with those who are opposed or not part of God's plan. And yet here in Genesis 10, we see God setting these people amongst the nations. We can't forget them. It's our job to bless them, to be a light to them, to be a blessing to them.

In verses 2 through 5, we were reviewing the line of Japheth, the descendants of Japheth in Genesis, chapter 10. And we saw there that God even cares about the nations who are most remote to Israel. The nations there are far away from the land of Israel and from the nation of Israel, and yet God shows a concern for the line of Japheth. In Genesis 6 through 20, we have a recounting of the line of Ham. And in that passage we again saw a great deal of earthly prosperity in that line, a great deal of earthly accomplishment. In fact, it's very similar to the line of Cain, isn't it? When we go to Genesis, chapter 4, Cain's line was extraordinarily accomplished in the things of this world. They were builders of cities. And lo and behold, we get to the line of Ham, and we have Nimrod, this great, this mighty hunter who is a conqueror and a builder of civilization. He's out of the line of Ham. And yet we see in that very picture that heavenly prosperity is not the same thing as earthly prosperity. Ham may have been accomplished in the things of this world, but that is not the same as being blessed by God. In fact, the line of Shem recorded in verses 21 through 32 reminds us that goodness is better than greatness in the eyes of the world. Goodness in the eyes of the Lord is much better than greatness. God's unmerited favor is better than the riches and the power that the world can offer.

So, when we come to Genesis, chapter 11, verses 1 through 9, we're coming to the climatic picture of all the non-Shemite civilizations prior to the time of Abraham. Genesis 10 and 11 take us down to the time of Abraham, and the picture that Moses leaves us with here in verses 1 through 9 is your last picture of what the world is like prior to Abraham, but not amongst the line of Shem. And the rest of the book of Genesis will concentrate on the line of Shem and especially the line of Sarah and of Abraham. That one small family. And we learn many great principles here. So, let's turn to Genesis 11, verses 1 through 9, and hear God's word for us.

Genesis 11:1-9

Our Father, we thank You for the truth of Your word. Teach us, we pray tonight, that truth. And help us, O Lord, not simply to see how it applies to others, but how it applies to ourselves, that we might live before you with integrity by the grace of the Holy Spirit. We ask this in Jesus' name, Amen.

The elements of the picture that is painted in this passage are as fresh as today's newspaper and as ancient as the history of the fallen world. They are so readily identifiable. We see here a picture of the impotent but pretentious, self-glorifying, God-denying attempt of man to do things his own way. Derek Kidner puts it beautifully, he says: “The primeval history reaches its fruitless climax as man, conscious of his new abilities, prepares to glorify and fortify himself by collective effort. The elements of the story are timelessly characteristic of the spirit of the world. The project is typically grandiose; men describe it excitedly to one another as if it were the ultimate achievement – very much as modern man glories in his space projects. At the same time they betray their insecurity as they crowd together to preserve their identity and control their fortunes.”

As we look at this passage tonight, I want to point your attention to two specific things. It divides relatively easily into two parts, this passage. From verse 1 to verse 4 we see the rebellion of man against God's creation ordinances. And in verses 5 through 9 we see God's response, his response of judgment and his response that restrains sin in the world. So look with me now at verses 1 through 4.

I. Self-glorification is always self-defeating.

There we see man rebelling against God's creation mandate, and we learn this lesson among many. That self-glorification is always self-defeating. When man sets out to make a name for himself apart from God and apart from the grace of God, it is always an exercise in futility because self-glorification is always self-defeating. Verse 1 sets the table for us to understand the judgment that God later brings. Moses is speaking to a people that are already very experienced in international languages. The children of Israel knew exactly what it was to converse with people in other languages. They had been dwelling in a society which spoke a very different language from them. So they were accustomed to a world in which many languages were spoken. And so Moses tells them, ‘Let me tell you that the world before Abraham did not have many languages like the world that you've grown up in.’ ‘The world before Abraham,’ he says, ‘had one language. In fact, men used a very similar vocabulary and dialect. We could all communicate with one another.’ He was saying to them that the things that were very common to them, the things that they were used to, conversing with people who spoke an entirely different language, whether it be Egyptian, or whether it be some other form of near eastern language. He's saying to them that's not the way it always was. He's setting them up to know that the way things now are with language are not the way they used to be. And that's important for them to know, with regard to what God is going to do at Babel in response to the designs of these people.

Now Moses’ language throughout this passage is figurative. It contains figurative elements. It also contains ironic elements, and elements which are anthropomorphic where God is described in human terms. And if you will understand the figurative and the ironic elements of this passage, it will help you understand some of the seeming or prima facie problems in this passage. For instance, one of the keys to understanding this whole passage is verse 3. Look at it with me. “They said to one another, ‘Come, let us make bricks and burn them thoroughly. And they used brick for stone and they used tar for mortar.’” Now bear that in mind, and then look at verse 4: “They said, ‘Come, let us build for ourselves a city and a tower whose top will reach into heaven, and let us make for ourselves a name; otherwise we will be scattered abroad over the face of the whole earth.’” Now that language at first sounds like these people are actually going to build a tower that is going to reach into heaven and allow them to storm the gates of glory itself. But it is very clear, at least it would have been very clear to Moses’ readers who first heard it, that that was impossibility. And the first tip that Moses gives you that that's impossibility is verse 3. Why? Because Moses knew just a little bit about bricks, you remember. He was involved in a detail that did a little bit of brick making when he was in Egypt, and he knew that bricks were inferior building materials in those days to stone. If you wanted to build a really big monument, you built it with stone. And so the very fact that he tells you that they used bricks and tar in the building of this city, in the building of this tower, is ironic. Moses is laughing out of one side of his mouth as he tells you about the grandiose plans of these men of Shinar to build this great city which is going to be talked about through all the earth and to make a name for themselves. They’re not even using the best materials available. Now, of course, it made perfect sense for them because stone was not readily available in the basin of Shinar and there was plenty of clay. And people had learned how to burn bricks and make bricks, so it made plenty of sense that they would use them, but those were inferior building materials, and so Moses wants you to know from the outset that even though their language is grandiose, its hyperbolic. There's no way that they can accomplish even a scaled-down version of what they are talking about using the kinds of building material. If you have a King James Version, I love the way it translates this passage. It says that, “They used bricks for stone and slime for mortar.” Now that's a graphic picture of the irony that Moses is bringing forward to you here. They’re using this tar-like bitumen material to try and hold these bricks together and they’re going to build a great city out of that? This is crazy. And all of Moses’ hearers would have thought how crazy that was because they were experienced in hauling stones in building the great cities of the Pharaohs. And so this is Moses tipping you off that the designs of these people are absolutely out of their reach.

Furthermore, when we get to verse 4, it is very likely that what is meant is that this tower is not literally going to reach into heaven, but rather it is going to reach into the clouds. It's going to be a great monument. It's going to be something that inspires all. It's going to be something like a wonder of the world. It's going to be something like one of the great monuments that men try to build from time to time. And yet it is done, and this is Moses’ main point, for two wrong reasons. And if you’ll look at the end of verse 4, you’ll see them.

First, they do it in order to make for themselves a name. “Let us make for ourselves a name,” we see at the end of verse 4. Now if you’ll flip over to Chapter 12 and look at verse 2, you will see the contrast between the people of Shinar and this man Abram that God seeks out. God says to Abram in Genesis 12, verse 2: “I will make you a great nation, and I will bless you and make your name great.” They were going to make their own name great. God was going to make Abram's name great. And so we see a contrast between the heart attitude and spirit of Abram and of the people of Shinar.

Secondly, if you’ll look at verse 4 in Genesis, chapter 11, we see that they say we are going to building this city, we're going to build this tower. Otherwise, we will be scattered over the face of the whole earth. In other words, verse 4 is in direct opposition to the creation ordinance of Genesis, chapter 1. Turn back to Genesis, chapter 1. This ordinance had been repeated to Noah, but we read in Genesis, chapter 1, verse 28: “God blessed them and God said to them be fruitful and multiply and fill the earth and subdue it.” So these people had decided that directly against the mandate of God in Genesis 1:28 which everyone would have known in the world, these families having immediately descended from Noah to whom this command had been repeated, these people are deciding no, we're not going to fill the earth. No, we're not going to subdue the earth; we're going to pull together. We are going to collectively protect ourselves from the predatory peoples out there. We’re going to make a great name for ourselves. We’re going to build a great culture for ourselves; we are going to resist what God has told us to do.

And that reminds us, my friends, that apart from God's initiative and grace, men do not naturally seek Him in this fallen world. Over and over we are told, we are bombarded with people who tell us that “People are basically good. And if they just didn't have a bad environment, they would just naturally love God and be wonderful people. But they are put into this really bad environment, and it really twists them, and they turn out to bitter and warped and opposed to God.” But the picture of human kind here in Genesis 1 through 11, persistently since the fall, if left to his own devices, man will oppose God. He is not naturally inclined to love God, to worship the true God. It is only when God reaches out to Him in initiative and in grace that man manifests the goodness for which God originally made him.

And this is going to provide a beautiful contrast to the life of Abram, because you remember when God finds Abram in Ur of the Chaldees, he, too, is a pagan. He is an idolater. But God in His grace and His initiative reaches out to him. And so the difference between Abram and these idolaters in Shinar ultimately boils down to the fact that God sets His electing love on him and draws him out of the world and so works in him faith and trust in God so that he becomes an example of all the faithful after him, instead of simply just another pagan idolater as are frequently listed on the pages of Genesis 3 through 11. It's really an amazing contrast. And so even in this story, verses 1 through 4, God is preparing us to hear about this line that culminates with Abram.

II. God is the sovereign Lord of nations/providence.

Now, look at verses 5 through 9, because there we see God's response to man's plans in Genesis 11:1-4. Here we see God responds with judgment on their wickedness. But He also responds with a plan that is designed to restrain sin. If, as we've already seen from verses 1 through 4, man's natural inclination is to resist God and to follow in the way of idolatry, what will happen if man is unified in that quest? That is precisely the concern that God voices here in Genesis, chapter 11, verse 6. That is what they began to do and, now nothing which they purpose to do will be impossible for them.

Understand it, that is not God fearing that He has found adequate rivals in the people of Shinar. That is God as the Father and Creator and Ruler of the world saying that the sin and the habits that they will reap on My created order that I've just purged in the flood of Noah will be exponential unless I do something to restrain it. And so God is not out of control in this passage at all. You have to understand the language which is being used. If you understand the irony of verse 3, that there is no possibility that these people can actually accomplish the physical things that they are attempting to accomplish, you’ll understand that God's concern throughout this passage is not the ability of them to do anything they want, physically speaking. It is the ability that they have to really muck things up spiritually by their actions and by their united opposition to God.

And so the Lord, the Sovereign, comes down, and that's language that you’re going to see elsewhere in Genesis 2. You remember in the story of Sodom. What does the Lord do? He comes down in the form of the men to visit and survey and determine what it is that is going on in the land of Sodom and Gomorrah. That is language to indicate that though these men think that the God of heaven and earth is not cognizant of what they are up to, the fact of the matter is that God knows exactly what they are up to. He knows exactly what is in their hearts, and He is watching it. He's going to look into this matter more closely.

But it's very interesting. Moses indicates that He delays. “The Lord came down to see the city,” verse 5, “and the tower which the son of men had built. The Lord said, ‘Behold they are one people and they all have the same language and this is what they began to do, and now nothing which they purpose to do will be impossible for them. Come, let us go down and there confuse their language, so that they will not understand one another's speech.’” So the Lord waits for a time. He lets them get a little ways into their project and then, and only then, does he come down and immediately frustrate their plans. Of course, God is totally sovereign in the scene. He does not have to come up with some complicated program to frustrate what these men are doing. He is so sovereign that he scatters them, not only in their languages but he drives them out amongst the face of the earth, and we're told ironically that these men who had just a few verses before been speaking so confidently, they left off building their city. Their city was unfinished.

Now I think that just about every country, and maybe even every state has something that someone began to build and didn't finish it. When I was in Scotland, there were two prominent monuments like that. There was one in Oban which was sometimes referred to as Oban's Folly as sometimes as McLeod's Folly. It was this great – it looked almost like an incomplete Roman coliseum from the outside, and the man got into the building of it, and he ran out of money in the middle of it, and he was never able to complete it. And there it sits above the hillside looking down upon Oban and people laughed at it for years. There's another thing like that in Edinburgh. If you go to Edinburgh, Scotland, you’ll see up on one of the hills, Calton's Hill, this monument that looks like a quarter of the acropolis. And what happened was after the Napoleonic wars, some people got together and decided they would build a monument to all the Scottish soldiers who had fought in the Napoleonic wars, and they got a quarter of the way through the project, and they ran out of money. And so it's just sitting up there, just like it was when they ran out of money on the very last day. A quarter of an acropolis on the top of Calton Hill in Edinburgh. And people refer to it as Edinburgh's Folly. Over and over and everywhere we see, we see men who have begun to make a name for themselves, and they didn't count the cost at the beginning and they've gotten half-way through of their grand designs, and they've fallen.

And again, we see in verses 5 through 9 that true religion, God-honoring religion does not naturally flourish in the hearts of men. Naturally we are idol makers and idol worshipers and idol builders. We’re not even very good at it because a lot of times we get halfway into the building of the idol, and we can't finish. But we are not naturally worshipers of the one true God. If we can find a way to worship anything else than the one true God, we’ll do it.

These verses remind us of the end of man's life without God, and they are grim in their content. What a lesson for us today. In the midst of a world determined to find a way to meaning but apart from God, and in opposition to the principles that He has woven into the fabric of the universe and revealed in His word. They want meaning, they want happiness. They want contentment. They want satisfaction. But they don't want to bow the knee to God.

And Genesis 11, verses 1 through 9, is the picture of what always happens when men take that sin. God will not be mocked. He who sits in the heavens, will laugh them to scorn. And all the irony of Moses pales in comparison to the mocking laughter of the Sovereign head of heaven and earth when mankind attempts to make his way in this world without reference to Him, without honoring Him. And so this passage shows us the final picture of life before Abraham in the non-Shemite world and sets the stage for God now to seek out His man who will begin a godly line that will culminate in the coming of the one true Seed, Emanuel. Let us look to the Lord in prayer.

Our Heavenly Father, we thank You for this passage, and we pray that we ourselves would remember its truth. Lord, each of us is tempted from time to time to make our way and to establish our meaning in this life, apart from You. Remind us of the folly of that, and remind us that all the goodness that exists in us is the result of Your grace and Your initiative. We’ll give You the praise and the glory, for we ask it in Jesus' name, Amen.