(An Excerpt from Portraits of Christ (from the Epistle to the Hebrews), a Bible Study by Connie Cook)
After the flood of Noah’s day, the next big event in the history of the world as told by Genesis is a happening called “the tower of Babel.” We’ll need to touch down on this story before we can land on Abraham’s because the story of the tower of Babel sets the stage for the story of the beginning of the nation of Israel (which story was the story of Abraham’s life). The tower of Babel comes in at the start of Genesis 11, right before Abraham comes in.
The “tower of Babel” was more than a tower. It was a city and a tower (Gen. 11:4-5). That’s an important fact to know because the reincarnation of the city of “Babel” becomes very important again later on in biblical history. In fact, it becomes iconic. And I believe the reason for its “iconic-ness” was the reason for the building of the tower and the city.
The people of Babel desired to build a tower “whose top may reach unto heaven” in order, a) to make a name for themselves and in order, b) to keep from being “scattered” all over the earth.
Funny thing! As to their second motive, God had commanded them to scatter. He issued this command to Noah and his descendants in Genesis 9:1: “Be fruitful and multiply, and replenish the earth.” Humanity was meant to spread out and fill the earth. Pretty hard to fill the earth if all of earth’s population has decided to cluster in one spot and to build a city large enough for that purpose.
Genesis 11:8 comments that God “scattered” the people abroad over the face of the whole earth. When humanity disobeyed His command to fill the earth, He made sure they “scattered” one way or another. We’ll discuss His means of “scattering” briefly in a moment.
It’s the a) motive I’d like us to concentrate most of our attention on today. The builders of Babel wanted to make a name for themselves. In other words, they were interested in self-glorification.
When I was much younger and learning this story in Sunday School, I had the idea that the goal of the builders was to build a tower tall enough to reach heaven — as in, God’s perfect home. Even as a child, I thought it was a ridiculous idea. (I suppose I’d had a little education on the immensity of outer space.) Wherever God’s heaven happens to be, no one could build a tower that tall, I reasoned.
Reading the story as an adult, I now have a better understanding of the “heaven” in Genesis 11:4. It’s an old English word which simply means “sky” in this context. The builders of Babel wanted to build the first skyscraper. In their tower-building, they weren’t thinking about God and His heaven at all.
The motives behind the building of Babel were ones of self-glorification and disobedience. The motives behind Babel were the same motives behind eating the fruit of the tree that became the tree of death. That fruit was the fruit of independence from God. Self-first. The fruit of the tree of life was the fruit of dependence on God. Faith. And here, in Genesis 11:1-9, is humanity, galloping down the same, old, well-trodden pathway of “flesh.”
Because of the motives for its building, Babel became a Scriptural icon of the way of the “flesh.” It became iconic as the city, the nation, and the people of pride. Self-worship. Independence from God. The city of Babel was eventually reborn as the city and nation of Babylon.
As I was thinking about writing today about the tower of Babel and the iconic city of Babylon, my thoughts turned instantly to Isaiah 14 — a passage descriptive of Satan’s fall through pride and self-glorification. Isaiah 14 is addressed to “the king of Babylon” (v. 4). That title as applied to Satan makes good sense when we understand what Babylon came to represent in the Bible.
My thoughts also simultaneously turned to the book of Revelation and “Babylon the Great” (at least, “Babylon” thought it was) (Rev. 17-18). Again, I believe a major reason the name “Babylon” is given to the city and regime of the “man of sin” is because of Babylon’s representation of the pathway of pride.
When it comes to the city/tower of Babel as iconic of spiritual truth, I was not far off the mark in my childhood understanding, thinking the builders of Babel were attempting to reach heaven all on their own. Contrary to the desire to build a tower to God’s heaven, though, I believe the desire behind the tower of Babel was the desire for total independence from God. Humanity thought it could be its own god and make its own heaven. That is the still the direction most take who attempt towers of Babel. There are still those (astonishingly! Given the facts of human history!) who believe that we can create our own utopias on earth; that being our own gods will make a utopia of this earth. Like Satan learned, that kind of effort is only building a skyscraper to hell. Any striving to unseat God from His throne would turn into the foulest nightmare if it could be realized. Thank God it never can! He proved it in Genesis 11.
There are fewer and fewer who believe in God’s heaven at all, but there are still some, believing in God’s heaven, who take the route of thinking they can make it to God’s heaven by their own efforts of goodness. This is another form of the tower of Babel. We have to understand that any attempt to reach heaven that exalts self, thereby debasing God, can never lead to heaven.
Can you see the foolishness of trying to reach God while ignoring what He has to say on the subject of how He can be reached? In fact, He does want to be reached. But He can only be reached on His own initiative. Unless heaven reached down to us, we could never reach up to heaven.
Back to the literal Babel, if God had let humanity go on in its natural course, the world would shortly have found its way back to the state it was in in the days of Noah. With their unity of language, God saw that, “…nothing will be restrained from them…” (Gen. 11:6). Whatever they chose to do they would do. But God had promised Noah never to destroy the earth again (by water). At Babel, God found a gentler, less extreme, but equally effective method of stopping humanity in its wayward tracks.
From Genesis 11:7, it seems that God created the seeds of all the nations of the world by creating the seeds of all the different languages. Then, He supernaturally separated people into language groups and so “scattered” them, dividing them through language.
The next thing we see from Genesis is God, busy doing His creating work of separating out for Himself a special nation; calling one of those nations created at the tower of Babel to be His own people. And that nation would also be iconic — iconic of the people of faith.
He had (and has) an inheritance for that nation, Hebrews 11:8 and Genesis 12:1-7 tell us. But that inheritance is claimed only through faith. We’ll see more of it a little later on.
The end of Genesis 11 may look like verse after verse of irrelevant detail. Not so! What I’d like us to notice today from the end of Genesis 11 is something that struck me just recently — the method God used to guide Abram. A method He often employs in His guidance of me.
“Terah took his son Abram, his grandson Lot (the son of Haran), and his daughter-in-law Sarai, wife of his son Abram. They set out together from Ur of the Chaldeans to go to Canaan. When they came as far as Haran, they stayed there” (Gen. 11:31).
Compare this verse with Hebrews 11:8: “Faith enabled Abraham to obey when God called him to go to a place that he would receive as an inheritance. Abraham left his own country without knowing where he was going.”
When I first noticed Genesis 11:31 — really noticed it, possibly for the first time ever — I recognized God’s method of guidance instantly from my own experience. God led Abram without telling him exactly where he was going. Hebrews 11:8 is very clear on that point. Boy, do I recognize that method!
The meaning I find in Genesis 11:31 is this: Abram and his family were already on their way to Canaan. We’re not told why. But it was the direction in which they had been moving. In Genesis 12:1-3, when God spoke to Abram to call him to a land that He would show him, Abram’s family had already been travelling toward it. Putting together Genesis 11:31 with Hebrews 11:8 and the information that Abram had no idea where he was going when he set out gives me this picture of God’s guidance:
God: “Abram, get moving, and I’ll bring you to a land I’m going to give you.”
Abram: “Uh, okay. Which way?”
Abram: “Hmm! Well, Dad was taking us off to Canaan. The only thing I know is that I’m not supposed to go back to Ur. Canaan’s in the opposite direction. Uh, God? Should I just keep moving forward in the direction of Canaan, then?”
I suppose I visualize Abram’s calling in this way, having experienced this method of God’s guidance so regularly myself. Here’s a little sampling of the way God often guides me:
Me: “Lord, You know I want to do Your will in this situation. Just not sure what it is. Any thoughts on the matter?”
Me: “Okay, then. Well, I was thinking of doing such-and-such. It was kind of the direction I was heading already. Any thoughts on the matter?”
Me: “Okay, Lord. I guess I’ll go ahead with such-and-such, then. You’ll stop me if it’s the wrong way, right?”
He is the God who speaks. It’s one of the first characteristics of His that we need to know. All the same, He doesn’t talk just to fill airtime. He speaks when He has something to say that we need to hear.
Terah was already leading Abram and co. off to Canaan-land. God had already been guiding Terah, probably unbeknownst to Terah. All God needed to do was get Abram on the hoof again. He didn’t need to change his direction.
In Genesis 12:6-7, we read of God speaking to Abram again — this time in Shechem in Canaan. God says (in effect), “Look around! This is it! You’re here.” I looked up Shechem on a map. It’s pretty much right smack-dab in the middle of the land of Israel. How long had Abram been wandering around in his promised inheritance before God let him know he was in the right place? Probably for some little time.
To finish off my scenario of God’s guidance in my life, I’ll sometimes find myself in a situation that resulted from a decision made weeks, months, or years earlier, after seeking God’s leading and hearing only His silence. But in the middle of the later situation, then I’ll hear God’s voice. “Look around! This is it! You’re here. I didn’t need to speak to you earlier. I knew you’d go the way I had planned all along. Whether you can see it or not, I will always guide the one seeking to go My way.”
Why does God seem to delight in leading us through the midst of uncertainty and silence? I think there can only be one answer: He leads us on the pathway of faith. And what is faith?
Here are three definitions for you, hinted at in the book of Hebrews: Faith is the sight that sees the unseen. Faith is believing that God is who He is and that He rewards the diligent seeker. Faith is dependence on God.
It’s that last definition particularly that I see through God’s method of guidance in Abram’s life (and mine). He delights in leading us through uncertainty, in the midst of silence, because He delights in growing our faith. It is of vital importance to Him that we learn total dependence on Him. (“For we walk by faith, not sight,” (2 Cor. 5:7) is a verse we’re going to see acted out a lot in the Christian life.)
Yet faith in God is never gullibility. It’s never blind faith. It’s the lack of faith that is blindness. But there is certainly an aspect to the walk of faith that feels to us as though we’re stumbling along blindly. Faith is not blind, but the walk of faith often leads us through dark places. We can’t see where we’re going; all we can see is the One leading us, step-by-step. And He often seems to be veiled in a thick fog.
Now. I want to tie God’s leading in Abram’s life back into the city/tower of Babel. We walk by faith, not sight. We walk by the sight that sees the unseen. The way of faith is the way of dependence on God. Conversely, then, the way of the flesh is the way of dependence on the visible and dependence on self.
Israel started off as a tiny, invisible nation. Very invisible. The people of Babel were all about the visible. The very visible.
The children of Abraham go out, not seeing where they’re going. The Babel-ites build cities so they don’t have to go anywhere. Certainly not anywhere they can’t see or understand.
When God started forming His little, fledgling nation — iconic of the faith-pathway — He began with Abram “…not knowing whither he went…” Perhaps it was the only way God could start off a faith-nation. All this has great relevance to us. We must know that God’s people will and must encounter a whole lot of walking by faith, not sight. God’s leading will often mean a great deal of uncertainty that teaches us dependence on Him. The only way to claim our inheritance is by faith. Not sight.
One more thought, and then we’re done. I need to get Psalm 127:1 in here somewhere because it seems to me that, “Except the LORD build the house, they labor in vain that build it…” has to come somewhere into a post about the city and tower of Babel.
True enough! If God doesn’t want a house (or tower) built, it just, plain doesn’t get built. (God is the Builder of everything, as we learn from Hebrews 3:4.) If God doesn’t keep a city, the watchmen can’t keep it. But if God does build a house, it stays built. Even the gates of hell have no power against it (Matthew 16:18). Hasn’t the little nation of Israel proven the truth of it time and again?
The way of the flesh and the visible looks safe and sound. The way of faith looks scary and uncertain. But the visible gives poor security for our deposit. Faith is the only way of safety and security.