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The Tower of Babel

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. (Genesis 11:1-9 ESV)

Heres how I would pitch the movie: the camera pans across a wide plain, and mankind says, “Come, let us make bricks...” And then, “Come, let us build a city and a tower into the heavens . . . let us make a name for ourselves...” And then God says, “Come, let us go down and confuse their language...” So when Babel is calling together the nations and saying let’s go up!, God calls together His legions and says let’s go down! It’s like a battle scene, where two sides rush the field toward one another. Except in this case, the field is vertical. It’s heaven versus earth. Earth is attempting an invasion into heaven. But God, with his army of angels, falls upon the city, infiltrates the tower, and confuses the frequency of their radios. The people don’t know what to do, so they scatter. The defeat is great for mankind is no match for the Heavenly Host! God and His angels return to Heaven, victorious. The credits roll and Psalm 89 plays...

Let the heavens praise your wonders, O Lord,
    your faithfulness in the assembly of the holy ones!
For who in the skies can be compared to the Lord?
    Who among the heavenly beings is like the Lord,
God greatly to be feared in the council of the holy ones,
    and awesome above all who are around him?
O Lord God of hosts,
    who is mighty as you are, O Lord,
    with your faithfulness all around you?
The heavens are yours; the earth also is yours;
    the world and all that is in it, you have founded them.

I must say though, in Genesis 11, mankind has come up with something unique. They have devised a plan in which they would effectively recreate Adam. With all of humanity concentrated into a single structure, under one name, with one language, in theory mankind would wield as much power as Adam had. Nothing would be impossible for them. But as the people migrated and gathered together for the first time, the first thought that occurred to them was not “Let us glorify God as Adam did; let us serve Him with our united energies” –– but “Let us make a name for ourselves.” 

Hearing this phrase, we realize that “we are standing at the threshold of world history, Rabbi Hirsch writes. “Mankind gathered in a plain where they sought to manufacture the needed materials by their own strength and ingenuity. They came to recognize the great power of a community: If all join forces and work together, man can overcome and master nature. They decided to create a structure that would be an everlasting monument to the power of the community and its preeminence over the individual

“Here lies the danger. An individual will ultimately realize by himself that his powers are limited. Not so the community. For the community is indeed strong, and so it may easily come to regard itself as the highest goal––as though the individual has value only through the community. The individual is thus nullified by the collective. 

“If the community declares: We want to join forces so that we may establish ourselvesif the individual is called upon to be a servant of the community but not to serve God; if the community presents itself as an end, instead of a means to an end––then mankind’s whole moral future is lost. The result is that man discovers his own power and becomes proud of the artificial means at his disposal. The idol of hollow aims is created, aims that bring about no blessing. For the sake of these aims, the individual is expected to sacrifice his life, and the community renounces its allegiance to the individual. Individuals, of course, weep at the loss of a loved one, but when the community builds its edifice of glory the toll in human life is of no importance. The community says: “Let us burn whatever there is, never mind what we destroy, as long as it will aid in building the edifice of our fame, renown, and glory.” Millions may die, yet the community is easily comforted and adds new layers onto the edifice of glory. Thus, the community becomes an end in itself. The community no longer exists for the sake of the individual. Instead, individual members are compelled, or enticed by artificial means, to submit and to sacrifice themselves for the whole.

“Tradition has it that this project was undertaken under the leadership of Nimrod. [The Torah supports this idea, as it says in Genesis 10:8-10: Cush fathered Nimrod. Nimrod was the first on earth to be a mighty man . . . The beginning of his kingdom was Babel . . . in the land of Shinar.] Indeed, only a mighty man like Nimrod can sway people to make such a sacrifice. Not even he will succeed if he doesn’t know how to kindle their enthusiasm for his aims, if he does not know how to identify his own glory with that of the masses who sacrifice themselves for him. A Napoleon or an Alexander knows how to charm the masses and win their devotion not with promises of gold and riches, but merely with a bit of ribbon in the lapel of a jacket.

“The event in Genesis 11 is not the only instance in history where lust for glory prompted the building of a “tower” and the indiscriminate consumption of all else. This event is a reoccurring phenomenon in world history. History, for the most part, tells only about towers of imaginary glory, which Nimrod and his successors enticed, or forced, their nations to build. But simple human values, a person’s conduct in the privacy of his own home––about such things history books do not tell. Such things are recorded only by Elijah and the Messiah, the heralds and agents of mankind’s ultimate redemption, and signed by God as witness.” (Rabbi Samson Raphael Hirsch, The Hirsch Chumash, Bereshis, pg. 266-269.)

Suffice to say, Genesis 11 is an ancient warning given to all citizens throughout history. The tower represents the State, and its suppression of the individual. But God values the individual more than He does the State. After all, with the exception of Israel, no State is saved. There will be no Rome in Heaven. The flag of Greece will not fly behind the Pearly Gates. The United States Congress will not convene in God’s Kingdom. God is not interested in spending eternity with a global superpower. Rather, He wants to spend eternity with you, an individual. 1 Peter 2:5 tells us what God is accomplishing with individuals: “You also, like living stones, are being built into a spiritual house...” Stones, like people, are each unique; there are no two exactly alike. God––a master stone mason––skillfully handles our differences and patiently works with them. Using love as His mortar, He brings us together to accomplish His great work. But the State would seek to accomplish something else: to turn stones into bricks. Bricks are manufactured to be exactly the same. They are interchangeable, easily stacked, and easily replaced. The State, if given absolute power, would margin off our differences and mold us into a thing that can be used to prop itself up. It would do this to you, your son, your grandson, and his son, because you see the State is never big enough. Construction seemingly goes on and on and on. The Tower of Babel went unfinished in Genesis 11 because the State is always unfinished. It requires more and more bricks to satisfy its endless desire to rise. And what does the State use for mortar? What is the slime holding the bricks in place? Materialism. Materialism is the tar that entraps the bricks. At least that is the case in 21st Century America.

It seems like Americans are being made into bricks, set to the form of political correctness. Notice, we are increasingly limited in what we’re allowed to talk about publicly. What is deemed “acceptable social dialogue” is a packaged language, uniform in many ways. Tolerance and diversity are proclaimed in the streets, but only if you agree with the terms of those declaring it. You see, if your beliefs differ from popular science and secularism, then you best keep quiet. Leave your religion at church––don’t bring it to the voting booth! Don’t talk about it in public. Don’t express it in writing. “Fit into this shape and be part of what we’re building here, understand? If you find it hard to accept, here’s a new house, a new car, a new trip, a new TV, a new TV show. Whatever it takes to get you quiet and get you comfortable.” Certainly the materialistic hold on us makes for a sticky situation. But it’s the kind of thing Christians are up against today in our country. Indeed, the spirit of the tower remains alive and well. It was never finished.

Again, the tower represents the State and its suppression of the individual. As we think about this, I want to compare two structures that are not far apart in the Bible: the tower constructed by the people in the plain of Shinar and the altar constructed by Noah in the mountains of Ararat. Both of these structures were built (banah, בנה) by man, and in both cases, a large portion of humanity was involved. (Noah was an eighth of the world’s population when he built that altar.) However, there are some key differences: Babel’s structure was made of bricks; Noah’s was made of stone. Babel’s was a collective work; Noah’s was a personal work. Babel’s was dedicated to man’s glory; Noah’s was dedicated to God’s glory. Babel’s elevated Babel; Noah’s elevated all the earth (as it is said, his altar of stone was a continuum of the earth, lifting it heavenward). Babel’s sent up a spirit of pride; Noah’s sent up a spirit of humility. Babel’s tower rose high into the sky; Noah’s “tower” was only a few feet tall, and yet, his ascended far higher. Babel’s tower merely wanted to reach the heavens, but Noah’s actually did! For we read that Noah’s made it all the way up to the Lord as a pleasing aroma. But for Babel, God had to go down and see it. He had to step down from Heaven. So we can infer that Noah’s efforts ascended higher than Babel’s. Meaning: the efforts of a single man devoted to God will surpass the efforts of an entire nation devoted to itself.

Let’s conclude with one last comparison. Genesis 11:6-7 reads: “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.’”

We compare this to an earlier passage from Genesis: “Then the Lord God said, ‘Behold, the man has become like one of us in knowing good and evil. Now, lest he reach out his hand and take also of the tree of life and eat, and live forever—’ therefore the Lord God sent him out from the garden of Eden to work the ground from which he was taken” (Genesis 3:22-24). 

In both passages, God reaches into the course of history and intervenes directly. If God hadn’t intervened, man would have lived forever and anything we proposed would have been possible. Now these may seem like good things at first... Living forever? Doing the impossible? Why would God intervene and prevent such things from happening?

Well, the context is important. In the context of Genesis 3, to live forever is to be separated from God perpetually. In the context of Genesis 11, to accomplish anything we propose is to accomplish nothing that you propose. God separates us from the Tree of Life (temporarily) so that we may break free from our fallen state. God separates us from one language (temporarily) so that we may break free from a fallen State.