Sunday, March 13, 2016

Genesis 11:1-9 "The Origin of Languages"

Last time we considered the consequences of Noah’s prophecy in Gen. 9:25-28,  as he prophetically outlines the futures of his three sons  Shem, Ham and  Japheth. 
We are  not going to deal with  Genesis 10 in any detail  since it consists  of a long list of  the descendants of Japheth (10:2-5), Ham  (10:6-20) and Shem (10:21-32). The final verse in Chapter 10 essentially summarizes  the chapter: “these are the  clans of the sons of Noah , according to their genealogies, in their nations, and from these the nations spread abroad on the earth after the flood.”
The Bible teaches us that mankind  originated from one  couple, Adam and Eve. As a result of their  disobedience the terrible curse of sin was introduced into the world. That sin  which has affected every member of the human race  caused  God  to  put an end to that  by  causing   a  worldwide flood to swallow up  mankind and all that moves,  all except Noah and his three  sons and their families – and that simply  because of grace.  After the flood, the   world was repopulated  once more  by  three couples  who  descended from Noah.
The perfect chance given by God to Noah  and his family  to get  it right was missed when Noah got drunk. Sin  always has knock- on effects. So, Noah’s sin is followed by Ham’s sin.  This has an intriguing effect  upon  the future   of Canaan, the fourth of the sons of Ham. The Canaanites became a   proverbial  stench in  the nostrils of God, for they  became an utterly depraved people.
And so, in short,  we  have observed   that man’s basic sin problem, originating from  the fall  of Adam,  was not washed away by the universal flood.  The problem  was  that Noah, though He was chosen by God[1],  was a sinner himself. And so we  should not be surprised  that as  Genesis 11 follows,  that it doesn’t get  any better. Donald  Gowan[2] sees a progression in terms of an increased alienation of  relationships in these first 11 chapters: husband from wife (Ch. 3), brother from brother (Ch. 4), children from parents (Ch. 9) and now people from other people (Ch. 11).  Why do we grow apart?  In each of these accounts, alienation at the human level is caused  and accompanied by alienation of humans from their God. This is  seen most  clearly  in chapters 3 &4.

Chapter 11 :  All these  different languages  are actually  a curse !
Ethnologists, estimate  that  there  are  well over  7000 languages in the world. This clearly  makes communication  a great challenge.  But  where  did   all these different languages start, since the Bible maintains that we had a common beginning? The Bible has a plain explanation for the origins of all languages.

In Genesis 11:5-7  we read: 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 they may not understand one another’s speech.”
We are told in no uncertain terms that the origin of  these many languages is  ultimately a matter  of God’s  judgement. If mankind can co –operate by means of a common language, then the real danger exists that  their wicked hearts will unite to plan evil.  So,  language becomes another  judgement from God . Within the span of the first 11 chapter of Genesis  we have now seen that there have been three great judgements upon  the whole of humanity: (i) The fall (ii)The flood (iii) flawed communication

We shall now consider the judgement at Babel  before we conclude with some vital lessons which  from this  story.   We  shall find here  an introduction (11:1) and   5  brief  scenes  and a conclusion.

Introduction : (11:1)

Genesis 11 introduces us to the fact that the world after the flood once only had one language , after all  people who have a common origin should have a common language. It is significant  that at Pentecost the  many languages present were made intelligible (decoded)  by the one gospel – pointing to the great  reverse that comes through Jesus Christ. One day in heaven  people from every tongue , tribe and nation shall praise God again   by means of one tongue. This is what the prophet Zephaniah anticipates: “For at that time l will change  the speech of the peoples to a pure speech, that all of them may call upon the name of the LORD  and serve him with one accord.”  (Zeph. 3:9)   
Scene 1 (11:2)
People were  on the move, moving eastward. If the ark came to rest in Ararat (northern Turkey), and if they moved eastwards they would have arrived at the plain of Shinar  (in Mesopotamia/ modern day Iraq).  

Scene 2  (11:3-4)

The sign of a godless society is that it makes plans without reference to God:
q  They said to  one another, “Come and  let us make bricks…”
q  Come let us build ourselves a city, and a tower…ley us  make a name for ourselves. Building techniques in southern  Mesopotamia were very different to Egypt or Canaan. According to D.E.Gowan[3], “Mesopotamia is a place  where no stone is available for building”. Bitumen is found plentiful in  the Gulf region which is rich in oil deposits. Bitumen is tar,  and this they used  to cement the bricks together.

These people had big plans! They wanted  to build a tower  that connected  earth with heaven. They naively  wanted  to bridge the gulf between God and man,  and in the end  they wanted to be like God. This was the original temptation in the garden of Eden – to be like God, and to take over the place that belongs to Him alone! Archaeology confirms   that towers (or ziggurats) became very popular in this region. The great temple tower of the Babylonian god  Marduk was discovered at the end of the 19th century. It was aproximately 100 metres high.  The highest tower today is the Burj Khalifa in  Dubai (at 830 metres, completed in  2010)  followed by the Tokyo skytree (at 634 metres, completed in 2012)  Man still tries  to build towers for his own glory today.  But  back to the tower of Babel. The purpose  for building this tower was that  the  people in that day wanted  to make a name for themselves.  They wanted  glory for  themselves. This is nothing but usurping the glory of God. It is idolatry, and it is strictly forbidden in God’s moral law.  What God said to Baruch, through the prophet  Jeremiah, should also be our motto : “And do  you seek great things for yourself? Seek them not… “  (Jer. 45:5) The important issue in life is that God gets the honour. He, in turn will reward those who put him first.
Also note: the reason they wanted to build this tower, was not just to make a name for themselves, but  they  wanted a unifying ‘something’  so that they would not be dispersed  over the face of the whole earth. This is also contrary to God’s will, for the divine will was that they should subdue and fill the whole earth (9:1). Ironically they were condemned to suffer what they tried to prevent.  The God whom they opposed, scattered them.
Scene 3  (11:5)

This is the turning point in the whole story. We move from the way men think and plan  about their future to the way God thinks about  things. The tower, which they tried to build was in reality so  tiny  that God had to come down (see the irony!)  to see what they were doing ( the language is  anthropomorphic). Here is some perspective :
q  Psalm 2:1,4 :  Why do the nations rage and the peoples plot in vain? … 4.  He who sits in the heavens laughs; the Lord holds them in derision.
q   Isaiah 40:22: “ It is he  who  sits  above the circle of the earth, and its inhabitants  are like grasshoppers; who  stretches out the heavens like a curtain, and spreads them out like a tent to live in. “
Scene 4  (11:6-7)

We need to understand that God is dealing primarily with people’s motives. Building in itself  is not evil. The problem lies in the motive.  And so building the tower becomes a prelude to something worse. Understand then that human beings, precisely  because they are created in God’s image, they are capable of planning incredible projects. But because they are fallen beings, they  easily  turn their gifts from God into  idols.  They will glorify their own gifts, rather than the Giver of their great gifts . So what will God do?
Remember  that  God  will not destroy the earth again until Christ’s second return. So He has to intervene to restrain evil.  Incidentally, from the Scriptures  we learn that  before Christ return God will remove  all restraints  so that man’s unspeakable capacity for evil  may take its course. (2 Thess. 2:6-8) .
And so we learn that,  for the time being ,God does not give people unlimited freedom to do their own thing. And so  God  restrained them from plotting further evil by confusing their communications.

Scene 5  (11:8)

In Scene 1 we saw people on the move, coming to congregate in one place  in the land of Shinar. Now they were scattered by God. Without the ability to communicate in the same language it was  impossible for them to co-operate.  

Conclusion (11:9)

This concludes the results of God’s judgement. The city they aimed to build lies unfinished. Its name is Babel – the Hebrew form of the Greek, Babylon. Even though the  Babylonians understood  the name to mean “the gate of God”,  by a play on words, the Bible reinterprets  it as “confused”, and hence the word “babble” – to be  incoherent!)
The  real comfort is that the city   which the anti- Christ seeks to build in opposition to the heavenly Jerusalem , will never see its finishing touches. Jesus will overthrow  it.


1. Babel is about lack of communication, and it is seen as a divine judgement. Languages are ultimately  God’s judgement. They are at the centre of ethnic quarrels.  We see how much ink is spilled on this subject. Communication is much spoken about, and many seminars are held, because it clearly isn’t happening! Good communication  aims  to break down barriers and prevents misunderstanding and isolationism.  Fallen man will never be capable  to communicate well, since  sin and its cousins (pride, selfishness) will always drive us apart.

2. In the Bible,  Babel or Babylon represents  the world power in opposition to God. Nimrod (10:8) an early king of Babylon was a symbol of rebellion against God. Isaiah describes another king of Babylon in  satanic terms (Isa. 14:13-15). The book of Revelation uses  Babylon as  a synonym of worldly  opposition to God and His people (Rev. 17 – 19) . In contrast to Babylon the great harlot who is  left naked and destroyed, we have the picture of the new Jerusalem , the bride of Christ , clothed with dignity and His majesty.
3. In the third place we learn, what alone can effectively deal with this great judgement: On  Pentecost Sunday when the promised Holy Spirit filled those first believers, there was  a great reversal of  Babel. Instead of confusion and scattering, the language barrier was broken down, and people from different parts of the world heard the word of God in their own language – every nation was there – descendants of Shem, Ham & Japheth. The gospel of Jesus Christ was the decoder! And instead of division and separation, these believers were brought together (Acts 2: 1 – 47). This is of course  a foretaste of that great day, when in heaven, with one mouth, we  shall glorify God in perfect harmony, and all  who can sing now, will sing then ,  in the words of  Psalm 87:1-7:  
He has set his foundation on the holy mountain; 2 the LORD loves the gates of Zion more than all the dwellings of Jacob. 3 Glorious things are said of you, O city of God:  Selah
4 “I will record Rahab and Babylon among those who acknowledge me— Philistia too, and Tyre, along with Cush— and will say, ‘This one was born in Zion.’”  5 Indeed, of Zion it will be said, “This one and that one were born in her, and the Most High himself will establish her.” 6 The LORD will write in the register of the peoples: “This one was born in Zion.” Selah 7 As they make music they will sing, “All my fountains are in you.”

There will be no confusion then, and  no lack of understanding,  and no communication gaps! The problem  and enigma of Babel, which affects us to this very day , will have been solved forever and ever. 
We now draw near to the table which  God has prepared for us, as we remember with thankful remembrance that Christ has died to make us one. The miracle of unity is already at work with in us. It shall be completed on the day of Christ’s return.

[1] Noah’s salvation here as elsewhere in the Scripture is always by grace through faith !
[2] D.E. Gowan : From Eden to Babel, p.116
[3] D.E.Gowan , From Eden to Babel , p.117

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