We start a new mini-series tonight in the month of October called, “The Beginnings of Abraham.” And our first story in the series is from Genesis chapter 11, verses 1 to 9, which is the tower of Babel, which actually tells the story of the beginning of Abraham’s family. But we’re not going to talk about that this week; we’re going to spend two weeks on the tower of Babel - this week and two weeks from now. This week, instead of focusing on the beginnings of Abraham’s background and the genealogies that surround the text you might notice when you look at it, I want to just talk with you today about this city of Babel itself before we get to Abraham’s family next time. This is an ancient story and when you read it you feel that. It’s an ancient story in a very ancient book and I think what you’re going to see tonight is that while it’s so ancient, it’s so old, it is so incredibly modern. It’s so incredibly relevant; it’s so incredibly contemporary. So let’s pray and read it.
God, we come and ask now that You would send Your Spirit to come and open the eyes of our hearts and help us to hear You speak through the book of Genesis. And we ask this in Jesus’ name, amen.
So this is the Word of the Lord from Genesis chapter 11, verses 1 to 9:
"Now the whole earth had one language and the same words. And as people migrated from the east, they found a plain in the land of Shinar and settled there. 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. 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.' And the Lord came down to see the city and the tower, which the children of man had built. 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. Come, let us go down and there confuse their language, so that they may not understand one another's speech.' So the Lord dispersed them from there over the face of all the earth, and they left off building the city. 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 Problem of Every City
Now if you look down at verse 4 in this passage you will see that this story is about building a city, about a city. And in the ancient world, in the ancient Near East in the book of Genesis, a city is not something measured according to population, so there's no distinction between village, town, and city like we have today. Cities in the ancient world are merely human communities, no matter how small or how big. They are a basic society; it's anywhere where humans gather together and there's a culture and a common purpose - there you have a city. And so in the ancient sense of the idea of a city, well, Yazoo City has just as much right to call itself "city" as does New York City or Tokyo or Paris or any of those great ones. Or even all the way down to that group of friends that you hang out with on whatever night of the week every week or go on walks within northeast Jackson or go to lunch with a group of people that you work with every week on a Tuesday. That, in the ancient sense of the term, is a city; it's a basic society with a culture and a purpose. And here in this passage what we learn are lessons about the problems of every human city and the hope for every human city.
The Problem of Humans
So first, the problems we read about here of every human city. And Genesis is really clear that the problems of every city, of every human community, is that human communities are full of humans. And humans, we've already read in Genesis 3, just a few chapters back, are full of sin. They're corrupted, they're broken, they're bent. And part of what Genesis is doing is highlighting for you after the Fall different communities or cities that gather together and focusing on a different sin that is accented in each of those cities. The very first city after the Fall that gets built is, of course, the city of Cain. And the city of Cain is given over to his grandson, Lamech, and it's a city where the text tells us is full of murderers. Cain was a murderer and Lamech killed seventy-seven times what Cain had set out to do. It was a city of murderers. The city after Babel that you're going to read about in the book of Genesis is the city of Sodom and Gomorrah and it's a city of deep sexual deviance, of all kinds of sexual violence. And Genesis takes multiple looks at human communities after the Fall and shows how sin has corrupted basic society.
And here, this city, the city of Babel that they’re building in verse 4, Augustine, in the 5th century after Rome was sacked by the Visigoths, the great theologian Augustine wrote a very famous book called, The City of God. And in it, he said that Babel, Genesis 11, Babel is the archetype, the prototype, the, what he called, “the city of man,” which is set over against the city of God. This is the city of man, the archetype of all cities of man. And what is a city of man? And this is what Augustine said. “It is a community that comes together and defines itself by opposing God from the core of its being in all of its functions.” And this is what we read. The city of man; it’s right here. Genesis 11.
Now there are three ways in this passage that this city of man stands against God, stands in rebellion against God. And I just want to focus on those with you for a few minutes. The first one is the problem of culture. The problem of culture. And you see it in verse 3. They say to one another, "Come, let us make bricks." And there it is - the problem of culture. "Come, let us make bricks." How is it that this little phrase is a problem? Well, it's not a problem. In Genesis chapter 1, God made the first human beings, Adam and Eve, and it says He made them "in His image" and then told them to "be fruitful," to have children and multiply and spread across the land and to "subdue the earth" or take dominion over the earth. And theologians call that command the cultural mandate. And the cultural mandate is the basic call that every single human being comes underneath after Genesis 1 to be what Andy Crouch calls a "culture maker" - to make something of the world.
The term “culture” comes from the Latin word, “cultivarae,” which was used in the Latin translation of the Old Testament around the time of Augustine. And from there we get the English word “culture.” And “culture” means “to take the raw materials, the creation that God has given us, and to take the skills, the brainpower, the ingenuity, the creativity that every human has been given to some degree, and to make something, to go to work, to be like God, to be in His image, to work six days and rest one, to be a “sub-Creator” as J.R.R. Tolkien called it when he was writing. To be a sub-Creator. That’s everybody’s call.
Now after the flood in Genesis 9, God told Noah the same two commands again, Noah and his sons - “Be fruitful and multiply; subdue the earth. Be a culture maker. Disperse across the world and work.” And when we pick up here in Genesis 11, and we’ll focus more on this next time, Babel was built by Noah’s grandsons. They were there; they know the command. And you see what’s happening here. They are obeying God on the one hand. They’re building; they’re making bricks. This is a revolutionary moment in human history because what we’re reading about here at this moment is technological advancement on a whole new scale - figuring out how to make a brick. And that’s a big deal. That’s what we’re enclosed in right now is a big place of bricks. And this is it! This is when it happened. And that means that on the one hand they’re obeying God, they’re doing work, they’re making culture, which is exactly what they were called to do. But the question is here, “What did they do with it?”
And in the very next verse, verse 4, it says "they built a tower into the heavens." And when they build a tower into the heavens this is a religious structure. They're trying to break the Creator-creature divide of heaven, go into heaven and banish God, usurp His authority and take over His throne. That's their hope. We're going to come back to it in just a moment. And all I want to say is what that means for us is that the command that we go to work, that we do work, that we are culture-makers, that we make something out of the things God has given us in this world is good, but our work can be bad. In other words, our work is never ethically neutral. It's always either good or bad. It always stands "coram Deo" - "before the face of God." The making of bricks is nothing that's morally neutral.
Everything you do at work is filled up with ethical components. And you might not be struggling with making towers to usurp God’s authority in the blue sky like they were, I mean, I don’t think so. But maybe you are struggling with maximizing profits at the expense of the human good. Maybe you’re struggling with stealing time. All the things we do at work and the way we work is not ethically neutral. It’s either good or bad. That’s what this teaches us here. And at the heart of Babel, at the heart of the city of man, the heart of the city of man is to put self-centeredness when we work before God and before others in how we work; to put ourselves first.
The Problem of Identity
Now the second thing, the second problem here of three, is the problem of identity. The problem of identity. And this explains exactly why they were trying to build a tower into the heavens. This is in verse 4 and it says in verse 4 that they wanted to build a tower with its top in the heavens in order “to make a name for themselves, lest they be dispersed across the earth.” Okay, so they know that they’re not supposed to all be coming together, all of Noah’s grandsons in this one location. They were commanded to be fruitful, multiply, and spread; to make cities not in one place but all over the world. And so their solution in rebellion against God, because they want to do this, is to say, “Well, let’s go to the heavens, build a temple, and make a name for themselves so that we won’t be dispersed across all the earth.”
Okay, so what is making a name for yourself in order to not be dispersed over all the earth, what is the logic in that? What does that have to do with each other at all? And the answer is found in what it means to make a name for yourself. And this morning, David Strain said that it’s an exegetical fallacy to take a Hebrew or Greek word, translate it to English, and then read the English meaning back into the text. And then he said, “But I’m going to do it anyway,” remember? And I’m tonight not going to do it! No, he actually didn’t do it if you listen; he didn’t do it at all! But we could do that with this little phrase, “go make a name for yourself,” because in the modern world to make a name for yourself means what? It means, “I don’t care what mom and dad say, I’m getting up and moving to L.A. this year and I’m going to become an actor no matter what it takes.” It’s to make a name for yourself; it’s to make it. It’s to become famous; it’s to be valuable in the public eye. It’s to be worth something; it’s to win in life.
That is not really the sense of the Hebrew idiom, “to make a name for yourself.” That’s not really what it means. Herman Bavinck, one Dutch theologian, helps us here. This is what he says. “It always feels more or less unpleasant when others misspell or garble our names. It stands for our honor, our worth, our person, our individuality. But that linkage was much more vital in earlier times when names still had transparent meaning and actually revealed the identity of a person or a thing. This is how it is in Scripture. Adam had to name the animals according to the very nature they are.” Okay, in other words, in the ancient world, your name is a revelation of the core of your identity so that you’re supposed to become the thing that you have been named. Abraham, “the father of nations.” He had to grow into that; that was his calling, his vocation, his nature. And that’s what in the ancient world a name does.
Now we don’t do this today really. Some people do every once in a while, but my name is Cory; my name is Cory if I haven’t said that already. My parents named me. I don’t remember it but that’s what I’m told. And in Irish Gaelic, my name means “a deep, empty cavern.” And in Scots-Gaelic, my name means “an empty, dark hollow.” And so if we were in the ancient world, my parents would have expected me to grow up into a pit of emptiness, hollow from the inside out! That’s how an ancient name works. But hold on a second! In Old English, the word “Corey,” spelled differently but we’ll keep it anyway, it means “the chosen one.” So there you go! Now I know I’m not the latter and I hope I’m not either of the former.
But in the city of Babel, what it means to “make a name for yourself” is this. It literally means that they want to go up into the heavens. They think that God lives spatially up above the blue sky. They’re confused about that. But that’s what they think they’re doing. If they build high enough they can break the divine barrier which is just above us spatially in the sky, they want to go into God’s courtroom and smite Him; they want to kill Him. That’s their goal here. And that means, what it means to make a name for yourself is to say, “I don’t want to be identified, I don’t want my nature to be determined by any authority outside of me. I don’t want God or my parents or any authority external to my own heart to be able to name me, to tell me what I am and what I should be or how I should live.” You see?
Now does this sound familiar? So ancient, yet so incredibly modern. This is a very old sin with a very modern, relevant contemporary expression. Robert Bellah calls the same issue in our contemporary culture, “the problem of expressive individualism.” And he describes it like this. “Expressive individualism in the 21st century means authority cannot tell you from the outside anymore who you are. Instead, you must turn inside. You must climb every mountain and ford every stream and follow every rainbow until you reach your dreams.” That’s the modern expressive individualist way of finding your identity. And at base, it’s the same exact issue at the tower of Babel. You say, “I don’t want to be named, defined by my parents or by God, but only by the way I feel about myself.”
And here at Babel, the text is here to tell you it doesn’t work. And we all know it doesn’t work because God isn’t going anywhere. They couldn’t make it to the heavens and take down the absolute authority. For the second reason, it won’t work because when identity is grounded fundamentally in the way a person feels about themselves and isn’t defined primarily from an outside authority, from God Himself, the problem is that human feelings are always changing and bumping into one another and disagreeing with one another. Ed Hartman, last week, quoted the famous line from Lewis Smedes - “My wife has been married to five men and I am all of them.” Right? Meaning that I am constantly changing. I don’t know what I want. I can’t figure out my identity. See, what this is saying is that it’s always been in the human heart. Modern sins are not new. They’re very, very old and it’s always been part of our heart to say, “I don’t want to be told who I am or how I should live.” And what this is saying is that God is saying to us that He is the Lord of every part of who we are and what we do - both our work and our identity here.
The Problem of Religion
Alright, the third and final problem is the problem of religion. And we’ve already read about it about this tower. This tower, the Biblical archeologists tell us, is called a ziggurat. And ziggurats are - we found about thirty of these in Mesopotamia, this region here - and ziggurats are circular towers that go as high as man can possibly make them. And the point is that the closer you can get your temple to the gods, the easier it is for the gods to come down to you and respond. And that’s the typical hope. There’s more going on here than that.
And all I want to say is the fact that this is a temple, this is a religious structure, a temple, is that the problem of the city of man, of every single city, any basic society, anywhere where a human being comes together with another in a community is never, never fundamentally atheism. Never. It’s always been the problem of religion; not atheism, but religion. Every single city, every single society, every single human culture that has ever lived has always been on a spiritual search, has always been on a spiritual hunt. And atheism, we all know probably, is even itself a form of religion, and that’s become pretty clear in the last decade or so. The heart of the city of man is that the city of man is on the spiritual search, is out there building temples trying to find salvation in some way, shape or form, but the very problem is that they’re always religion - what does it do? It builds towers. It builds temples. It tries to reach the heavens through its own self-made religion, through its own buildings, through its own works.
And sometimes, sometimes you see this happening through the very obvious works righteousness problem that’s a temptation to every single human - to build a tower unto the heavens made out of your moral decency. But sometimes we disguise our towers by building towers that aren’t meant to get to the heavens but to protect us from the heavens - towers of security, earthly security, built by the bricks of sex and money and power in the hopes of this early life. And that’s another form of worship, another form of religion. Herman Bavinck says this. “In every single religion, the emphasis always falls on my human actions. What can I build to save myself? All religions other than the Christian religion,” he says, “are auto-soteric - self-saving.”
David Foster Wallace, the literary genius of my generation, just a little bit older than me, who committed suicide about a decade ago now - he was not a Christian. This is old hat for many of you, but he gave an address at Kenyon College and he said something incredible. And I’m not sure what three years later drove him to commit suicide, what hopelessness, because you’ll hear in this quote what wisdom he had. But this is what he said about religion, about man-made religion:
"In the day to day trenches of adult life, there is actually no such thing as atheism. There is no such thing as not worshipping. Everybody worships. The only choice we get is what to worship. And an outstanding reason for choosing to worship God is that pretty much anything else you worship will eat you alive. If you worship money and things, if they are where you tap real meaning in life, then you will never have enough; you will never feel like you have enough. It's the truth. Worship your own body and your beauty and your sexual allure and you will always feel ugly. And when time and age start showing, you will die a million deaths before they finally plant you. On one level, we all know this to be true already. It's been codified in every proverb as a cliche, in epigrams, parables, and holy Scripture, the skeleton of every great story. The trick is keeping this truth up front in my daily consciousness."
Every city of man, anywhere where the human heart gathers with other human hearts, we seek to build towers of religiosity and towers of idols that are always self-seeking, auto-soteric, self-saving, trying to be in charge of our own lives on our own terms. That’s the city of man. It’s ancient and it’s incredibly modern.
The Hope for The City of Man
Now let’s just close briefly by asking, “What’s the hope for the city of man, for the city of Babel?” What is it? We learn here one thing - we learn here more than one thing but we’re going to do those other things next time because I don’t have time to do those other things now - but we’re going to learn here just one thing.
And the hope for the city of man is not human ascension, tower building, but only divine condescension. There is no hope in human ascension, but only in divine condescension. And you see that very clearly in verse 5. And the response of God is, “The Lord came down to see.” The Lord came down. God comes down here in the midst of this mess that is the city of man. And you’re meant to read verse 5 actually as a joke. It’s supposed to be ironic. It’s supposed to be humor because the logic, the city of man builds its towers to the heaven to kill God, but when they’re finished, God, He comes all the way down to try to see the tower they’ve built. In other words, it’s way too small; it wasn’t even close. He has to stoop down. Calvin says that when he reads this it’s like God is taking a knee as if He’s dealing with a toddler to come down and see the city that they’ve tried to build. Calvin calls this condescension that God always does for us in Scripture, “God’s baby talk.” It’s His stooping all the way down into the mess of Babel, over and over again, to take a knee, to speak to the little children that are in rebellion against Him.
And what we learn here - we’ve already said this - that there’s no amount of human building, there’s no amount of human striving that will get any man or woman up into the heavenlies. None. It’s not a spatial problem; it’s a holiness problem. Now you are all familiar probably, most of you, with the fact that this place in modern northwest Iraq, Mesopotamia, between the Tigris and Euphrates, is called, translated here at “babel” but the term “babel” in Hebrew can be translated either as “babel” or as “Babylon.” It’s the same word throughout the whole Bible. This is the beginnings of the ancient city of Babylon. And if you read through the whole Bible, you know that Babylon is the great anti-city of God throughout the whole Bible. It is the utter archetype of opposition to everything that is good, the city of Babylon, this city, this city of man here. The Bible calls it “the prostitute,” “the beast,” and a roundabout way, “the anti-Jerusalem.” And Jerusalem translates to “the city of peace,” meaning this is the city of death. This is Babylon.
Now listen to Isaiah's prophecy to the King of Babylon in Isaiah 14 verse 13. This is Isaiah a long time after this talking to the King of Babylon as the mouthpiece of God Himself. And this is what he says. "You said in your heart, ‘I will ascend to heaven. Above the stars of God, I will set my throne on high. I will sit on the mount of assembly in the far north. I will ascend above the heights of the clouds. I will make myself like the Most High.' But you will be brought low. You will be brought down to Sheol. You will be brought down to the depths of the pit, O king." And you see this point. This has never stopped. This is a thousand or more years later and the King of Babylon is saying the exact same thing. He will build to the heavens and stand above the Most High in the heavenly places. This is why the Bible highlights this great city Babylon, which is an ancient and historic city, but is a motif throughout the whole Bible.
The Great Dilemma
And it’s saying that the true Babylon is in the heart of every single person post Genesis 3. The city of Babylon, the city of man is here, it’s in all of us. And that’s what the book of Revelation teaches about the battle between Jerusalem and Babylon, the good and the evil. It’s here. We are the city of man, every single one of us. And the great conundrum, the great problem is that every single one of us has this great desire to usurp the authority of God, to be defined and named only in and of ourselves. And what we deserve is exactly what Isaiah said in Isaiah chapter 14. “But you will be brought low. You will be cast down to the depths of Sheol.” And that’s the great dilemma of the human life, you see.
But what does God do here? He comes down into the mess of Babylon and He doesn’t destroy it. He condescends, but not to destroy; He actually condescends in order to disperse them in order to save them. And we’ll focus on that next week, next time. What is the hope for the Babylonian heart, the city of man, basic human society, anywhere a person is? What is the hope? And it’s that God would come down into our mess. But it’s even more specific than that. Think about it. These people wanted to go build a tower all the way into God’s heavenly throne room, to walk into the throne room and to cut Him down. They wanted to kill Him! That’s the whole point of it. They wanted to smite the living God. They didn’t want to be under His authority. They wanted to slice Him, to cut Him, to kill Him. And what does God do? He says, “Look, you can’t reach me, so I’m going to come down to you and give you exactly what you want.” You see? And this is a shadow, a foreshadow. God would come down to the midst of that Babylonian city and give that Babylonian heart exactly what it wanted.
In Acts chapter 2, Peter is preaching in Jerusalem and there are all sorts of people from all the different nations gathered there for that week. And this is at the Feast of Pentecost. And none of them, most of them had not been present for the crucifixion of Jesus Christ, the Son of God. But Peter looks out at them and says, in the plural, “You” - we represent this here at “y’all” - “Y’all crucified Him, every one of you did, and me.” He says that to people who weren’t physically present for the crucifixion. But what is he saying? “You, you with the Babylonian heart, He came down and He gave you what you wanted. You crucified Him.” And it’s even more than that. Second Corinthians 5:21, “He who knew no sin became” - He put your heart into His. He became the heart of Babel Himself so that we could be citizens of a city of shalom, of peace. And in Revelation 19 to 21, looking out over the horizon and the power of that moment of Jesus Christ’s crucifixion, John sees Babylon cast into the abyss, you remember, and then he looks up and he sees a holy city, not a city of man, a holy city, a new Jerusalem, coming down out of the heavens, prepared as a bride adorned for her husband, and he hears a voice. And it says, “Behold, the dwelling place of the Most High God is now with man.”
Witness to the City of God
If you believe this, your job is to witness to that city of God today in the modern 21st century in the midst of all the problems of the city of man that still plague us. By telling this good news, by working, by working without self-centeredness, "coram Deo - before the face of God," by finding your identity in who God says you are, not in who you want to be, by practicing true religion by killing your idols. I just want to close with an example of this.
In the 2nd century, there was a letter written from an anonymous person in the Roman Empire to a man named Dionysus. And some people have called this the most beautiful text about the Christian witness that’s ever been written. It was in the Roman Empire and this man is recording for Dionysus what he sees sociologically about Christians changed by the power of the cross living in the city of man, that Roman Empire, that human society. And I just want to leave you with what he says about these Christians, your brothers and sisters in the midst of that very difficult season of the early Church. It’s a little long, but not too long, so just stick with me for a second and we’ll be finished.
"Christians," he says, "are not separate or distinguished from other men by country, by language, nor by the customs that they observe. They do not inhabit cities of their own or use a particular way of speaking or lead a life marked out by any curiosity. And it is while following the customs of the people in these cities in the clothing, the food they eat, and the rest of their ordinary life, at the same time, while they are ordinary, they display to us a wonderful and admittedly striking way of life. As citizens, they participate in everything with others in the public life of the city. Yet, they endure suffering in every city as if they were foreigners. Every land is like a home to them and every land is also like a land of strangers for them. They marry, just like everyone else. They have children, but they do not kill their children. They share a common table, but will not share a common bed. They exist in the flesh but they do not live by the flesh. They pass their days on earth but they are citizens of heaven. They obey the prescribed laws, all the while surpassing the laws by the example of their lives. They love all people and they're persecuted by all people. They're put to death but they act as though they have been restored to life. They're poor, yet they make many rich. They are dishonored, yet they live in the very dishonor as if they are glorified. They are insulted and repay insults only with honor. They do good, yet they're punished as evildoers. When they're punished, they rejoice as if they've been raised from the dead. Those who hate them are unable to give a reason for hating them. They are the best citizens in the empire. To sum it all up in one word, what the soul is to the human body, that is what the Christian is in this world."
That was our brothers and sisters in Jesus in the 2nd century witnessing to the city of God in the midst of the city of man. And it can be our witness too, here.
God, we ask that You would help us to first believe that Jesus Christ has come to deal with our Babylonian hearts and now that we would go out of this place on mission as witnesses to a city of God where there are no tears, where there is real hope in the midst of a hopeless city of man, many, many hearts that can’t find salvation. We pray that You would do this work in Jesus’ name, amen.
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