Genesis 11:1-9 The Tower of Babel
I’m often asked if I can explain the Holy Trinity. God is three: Father, Son and Holy Spirit. Three totally separate and defined persons, yet also, at the same time, they are perfectly one. How can three be one? How does this work? Can you explain it? No, the truth of the Trinity is too deep, too profound, beyond our understanding. It proves to us that God is beyond our invention. We can’t make something up we don’t understand. We may not be able to understand the complexities, but we can see the Trinity throughout scripture. We can see the application of the Trinity in our prayer life. We come to the Father, by the Son, through the Holy Spirit. Our worship and salvation is Trinitarian. We know from scripture there is God the Father, God the Son and God, the Holy Spirit, united perfectly in their diversity. We are all wonderfully unique, yet we gather as one. We come with our differences, yet one voice. We are honouring Him as we celebrate 199 years of worship at Penuel.
Our God is three in one and this is expressed in the wonderful diversity of His Church. Together, in love, God the Father, the Son and Holy Spirit created everything. They are Triune. God made us in His image and His image is Triune. As image bearers of a Triune God, we, as human beings, can do amazing things when we unite. We can invent vaccines in record time in a pandemic, we can send people into space. When we unite in God, we can do amazing things.
Genesis 11 is a very famous Bible story, although it is a story that is often taught negatively. But it is a story filled with positive lessons regarding our human potential. We can do amazing things when we come together and unite in one voice. For 199 years Penuel has stood firm for the gospel – one common purpose – to reach the heavens. Nothing is impossible. “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.” (Genesis 11:6). These are God’s words. Amazing! What an accolade from God’s mouth.
“Behold, how good and pleasant it is when brothers dwell in unity!” (Psalm 133:1).
But as we know, we see here the great Tower of Babel ends up failing. God divides the people through their language and scatters them. God can humble us at any moment. He will humble us if we get carried away. The big question for us is why did God humble the people building the Tower of Babel if they were doing such a good job? Their motive was wrong.
In verse 1 we see the people were moving eastward. Going East is very significant in Biblical narrative. It represents moving away from the presence of God. In chapter 10 we have a table of the nations, the offspring of Noah. This runs chronologically with chapter 11. The people listed in chapter 10 lived during the building of the Tower of Babel. Nimrod, a great builder of cities, was likely to have been involved in the building of the Tower; he lived at the same time and place. Nimrod’s name in Hebrew is ‘rebel.’ It is possible to assume the people were not following God and were following a rebel.
But there are other clues regarding the wrong reasons for building the tower, “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.” (Genesis 11:4). This reason to build the tower goes totally against God’s reason for humanity. In Genesis 1:28 we read that God told Adam and Eve to multiply and scatter, “And God blessed them. And God said to them, “Be fruitful and multiply and fill the earth and subdue it.” This command was also given to Noah and his sons, “And you, be fruitful and multiply, increase greatly on the earth and multiply in it.” (Genesis 9:7).
God tells the people to scatter, but what do they do? The consolidate and build a tower. They were ignoring God’s command to scatter, therefore, they were going against God’s wishes. So, God rightly and justly undid their work.
Why were they not listening to God and spreading out across the globe? I argue that is was because of fear. If they had scattered, they thought they would be weak and vulnerable, totally reliable on God. They were scared of possibly another flood. God had judged the Earth and flooded it. Catastrophic judgement. A flood happening again was a genuine concern for the people of the Bible. They built the tower with bitumen (v3). God told Noah to use bitumen to waterproof the boat. In their fear and rebellion, the people didn’t want to scatter and so they attempted to protect themselves against God’s judgement, so they waterproofed the tower. They were not trusting God’s covenant promise, they were not trusting in God’s grace.
Friends, the tower of Babel showed what humanity could achieve as image bearers of our Triune God. They build a huge tower to the heavens but God destroyed it and scattered them. Why? Well because, one, arguably, they were following a rebel, Nimrod. Two, definitely, because they were disobedient to God’s command to scatter. Three, they didn’t trust in God’s covenant grace. They were waterproofing. They trusted in themselves instead of going to a God of grace. They were scared and feared another judgement, another flood because they were going against God. They centralised their operations. They tried to get to heaven on their own terms. They should have submitted to His grace, trusting in His provision, looking to the rainbow and live free, abiding His love.
As a church today, right across Wales, we are guilty of doing the same thing. The Church in Wales is in massive decline because of it. We have ageing congregations, we are weak, we are low on numbers and low on resources. As a result, we fear closure, so we have stopped taking risks. We don’t want to scatter, we don’t want to spread ourselves too thin. In our desperation, we have forgotten God’s covenant promise. We really should be trusting in God in our weakness. In our fear we create holy huddles, trying in vain to protect ourselves. We are content to stay in our little chapels, worshipping how we want to. We stay and waterproof. What should we do instead? We should trust in His voice, trust in our weakness that God is gracious. The tower of Babel reminds us of what we can achieve when we work together. “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.” (Genesis 11:6).
God did not save your soul to build a tower to heaven, to come to God your way. He saved you to go out and take risks, to scatter the gospel, in one voice, in unity, to the community He has called you to serve. Friends, the good news of the gospel, the good news we cherish, is we don’t have to build towers to reach heaven to meet with God. We come to a God who comes down to us, “And the Lord came down to see the city and the tower, which the children of man had built.” (Genesis 11:5). As Christians, we have Immanuel, God with us. Jesus Christ came down, so we don’t have to build up. It is by His grace, not by our works, that we are saved, so that no man might boast.
Jesus came down and showed us, in utter weakness on the cross, that all sin and death can be obliterated. He rose again, and promises to be with us until the end of the age. He gave us that promise so that we can do church as God intended – which is to spread ourselves thin, to take risks for the gospel. God prefers that way, doesn’t He? His power is made perfect in our weakness.
Penuel Church, I love you. You are a small congregation in the middle of nowhere, yet you are utterly untied in your faith to keep going. When I come here, I meet with Jesus. He is here. Your faith to keep going, your faith to reach out into the community in your weakness, is a lesson for the church right across Wales. I pray that you will continue to spread yourself thin for the gospel, trusting in God’s ways.