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“Man's Way and God's Way”

Genesis 11:1-26
Bob DeGray
November 27, 2005

Key Sentence

God scatters men in their pride but gathers men whom he chooses.


I. Scattered (Genesis 11:1-9)
II. Gathered (Genesis 11:10-26)


        Did you know a hurricane disrupted Thanksgiving at Trinity? You all remember Hurricane Rita, which caused the largest ever evacuation of Houston, scattering us in painful slow motion across the face of southeast Texas. The hurricane came ashore near Sabine Pass on September 24th, and though we had no damage in Friendswood, very few of us were in Friendswood for church the next day. Still, we had a good service; it just wasn’t the one we’d planned. So we shifted our studies in Genesis. We were supposed to finish the series last week, which would have given us this week for a Thanksgiving focused message. As it is, we’re studying Genesis 11. But that’s no reason not to be thankful. The text reminds of something to be thankful for, that though we can’t step up to become like God in our own strength, God does reach down and chooses people to rescue and redeem and bring into fellowship with himself. That’s the beauty of Genesis 11: it begins with Babel and ends with Abraham - God scatters men in their pride but gathers men whom he chooses.

I. Scattered (Genesis 11:1-9)

        The first part of Genesis 11 is the Tower of Babel, the confusion of tongues and scattering of the nations. Genesis 11:1-9 Now the whole world had one language and a common speech. 2As men moved eastward, they found a plain in Shinar and settled there. 3They said to each other, "Come, let's make bricks and bake them thoroughly." They used brick instead of stone, and tar for mortar. 4Then they said, "Come, let us build ourselves a city, with a tower that reaches to the heavens, so that we may make a name for ourselves and not be scattered over the face of the whole earth." 5But the Lord came down to see the city and the tower that the men were building. 6The Lord said, "If as one people speaking the same language they have begun to do this, then nothing they plan to do will be impossible for them. 7Come, let us go down and confuse their language so they will not understand each other." 8So the Lord scattered them from there over all the earth, and they stopped building the city. 9That is why it was called Babel--because there the Lord confused the language of the whole world. From there the Lord scattered them over the face of the whole earth.

        We actually saw the beginning of this episode back in chapter 10. Noah’s son Ham had a son named Cush who had a descendant named Nimrod. Genesis 10:8 told us that Nimrod, grew to be a mighty hunter on the earth, and that ‘the first centers of his kingdom were Babylon, Erech, Akkad and Calneh, in Shinar. 11From that land he went to Assyria, where he built Nineveh, Rehoboth Ir, Calah 12and Resen.’ We concluded that Nimrod was not just a mighty hunter, but a mighty tyrant, the first king over the empires of Babylon and Assyria. So it would be reasonable to think it was Nimrod who spearheaded this plan to literally raise Babylon to new heights.

        The timing is reasonable. Noah, Ham, Cush, Nimrod. He’s at least the third generation after the flood, and it’s quite possible he was a more remote descendant of Cush. He’s named separately from Cush’s other sons and we know that in genealogies the phrase ‘was the father of’ is sometimes used to mean ‘was the ancestor of’. We use it this way when we say ‘Jesus is the son of David’. But it happens even in detailed genealogies: in Matthew 1:8, we read that Jehoram was the father of Uzziah; three generations are omitted between them. In I Chronicles 26:24, we are told that Shuebuel, King David’s treasurer was ‘the son of Gershom, the son of Moses.’ Four hundred years were passed over between Shebuel and Gershom. Obviously this isn’t true in every case, but it could be true between Cush and Nimrod.

        Now Nimrod isn’t mentioned in Genesis 11, but it seems clear these are his people: “The whole world had one language and a common speech. 2As men moved east, they found a plain in Shinar and settled there.” These settlers, moving east from the regions occupied after the flood, come to the Tigris-Euphrates valley - probably named after the rivers of Eden rather than being the rivers of Eden - and begin to build a city. Verse 3 tells us they decided together to make this a more permanent city than others. Rather than use stones and clay, which were hard to get on the plains, and rather than using sun-dried bricks, as in Egypt and Assyria, they would use much stronger kiln fired bricks and asphalt as mortar. Archaeology has revealed that this type of construction was common in ancient Babylon.

        Now up to this point, nothing they’ve done has gone against God’s plan or shown anything more than a rapidly developing culture - but when they begin to build their tower, their hearts are revealed. Verse 4 Then they said, "Come, let us build ourselves a city, with a tower that reaches to the heavens, so that we may make a name for ourselves and not be scattered over the face of the whole earth." They began to dream of greater human accomplishment than had yet been seen on the earth. And they did this out of pride and rebellion against God, probably mixed with growing idolatry and Satanic influence. The desire not to be scattered over the face of the whole earth was defiance of God’s command to be fruitful and multiply and fill the earth. These men had chosen to set aside that command in favor of their own schemes. This, rather than the tower itself, may be the key thing that brought God’s judgment. When God confused their languages, he forced them to scatter and involuntarily fulfill what they had been commanded to do voluntarily.

        Moses reveals further motivation for this defiance: ‘let us make a name for ourselves.’ These people no longer wanted to glorify God, if they ever had. They wanted to glorify themselves, lift themselves up and have their name be honored rather than God’s name. Here is evidence of Satan at work, for his own first sin was to try to elevate himself to the place of God, and his first temptation of Eve had the same purpose: “You will not surely die," the serpent said to the woman. 5"For God knows that when you eat of it your eyes will be opened, and you will be like God.”

        The constant temptation for creatures made in God’s image is to set themselves up in the place of their creator. And this is always accelerated in the presence of tyranny. The despot, the dictator, always demands that the hearts of his people be turned to him. I can think of many examples in which absolute rulers were either deified by their people or declared themselves deity. It was true in Egypt of the Pharoahs. It was true in Greece, as evidenced by the Maccabean rebellion of the Jews against Antiochus Epiphanes - Epiphanes means ‘God Made Manifest’. It was true in Rome, as the Caesars required the whole world to deify them with the phrase ‘Caesar is Lord’. It was true of the Chinese and Japanese emperors. It was true more recently of both Stalin and Hitler - tyrants to be worshiped and feared.

        So if Nimrod or one of his descendants was the tyrant behind this project, we can rightly expect that the tower was built not to worship God but to worship the gods, among whom the king did not fear to include himself. There is some evidence that the early god Marduk was linked to the person of Nimrod, and that the early goddess Ishtar was associated with Semiramis, the famous queen of the Assyrians. So the worship of these earliest Babylonians may have been tyrant worship which in the following generation became ancestor worship and finally idol worship. History shows that these cultures also invented astrology and many occult practices, probably including human sacrifice. Do we not see the hand of Satan in this? And is it not proper for God to show his hand in response to it?

        So it was defiance of God’s commands and a desire for their name rather than God’s to be pre-eminent that led to the tower. Some have said the tower itself is not significant in this text and shouldn’t be the focus. I disagree; the tower, much more than the city, was the visible expression of defiance: ‘What God can do man can do!’ The artist’s images of the tower of Babel are based on the ruins of Babylonian ziggurats, which all have a spiral ramp or stair around the outside. The largest surviving ziggurat ruin, at Ur, is about 170 feet on each side. The ziggurat at Babylon itself is reported by ancient historians to have been by far the largest and tallest in the world. There is no doubt in my mind they were building this tower to make a statement: man is stepping up to be like God or the gods.

        So for all these reasons, God needs to judge these tower builders. Verse 5: “But the Lord came down to see the city and the tower that the men were building. 6The Lord said, "If as one people speaking the same language they have begun to do this, then nothing they plan to do will be impossible for them.” I am sure God doesn’t feel threatened: the God who created Everest and the Grand Canyon is not daunted by human construction projects. But God does see the huge negative implications: these people ‘all speaking the same language’ are doing all these things under a dictator, a tyrant who is probably in the process of creating the first world empire and the first repressive police state. And they are doing these things with a definite trend toward the deification of humans, ancestor worship and idol worship.

        If you put that all together, and combine it with a diabolical plan of Satan, you get the distinct impression they were close to establishing an anti-god world order. Not just some darkness, some light, as we talked about last week, but a darkness which would fall over the whole race of men. This is Satan’s first post-flood attempt at world domination. He thinks he’s got a tool in the political and military power of Nimrod and in the uniformity of the culture and language. And God sees that it’s going to take divine intervention to prevent this from becoming a culture as depraved that one before the flood. The book of Revelation reveals that it is just such a one world government that Satan will strive to establish in the end times through the anti-Christ. In fact, Satan’s methods are predicable. I think Hitler was his latest attempt to establish this world dominion, and that God intervened in that case too to prevent it. And I suspect Satan is working right now, trying again to raise up a world dictator who will take advantage of the world’s growing monoculturalism to impose an anti-God belief system.

        So God needed to intervene, but he had sworn not to judge the world again by a flood, and he was mindful of the seed of promise and the line of the Savior by whom he had sworn to rescue men. So he took the least action he could take to derail Satan’s plan. Verse 7: Come, let us go down and confuse their language so they will not understand each other." 8So the Lord scattered them from there over all the earth, and they stopped building the city.” If they would not themselves multiply and fill the earth, God would make them do so by dividing them into distinct language groups. One supposes that families or clans were given the same language, and thus clinging to each other went off to found a tribe or a nation. Notice that this must have happened part way through chapter 10, because the nations listed there are already separated into language groups.

        So Satan’s scheme, Nimrod’s dynasty and man’s pride are broken by this one non-violent intervention. Personally I think it’s one of God’s best; I love to think of the confusion when every man and his neighbor started speaking to each other in wildly different tongues. In fact the very word ‘babel’ becomes a play on words. In the Assyrian tongue ‘bab-el’ means ‘the gate of God’ but in Hebrew it sounds very much like the word for confusion, and that’s what the Hebrews associated with this Babel event. Our English word is ‘babble’, which we use to describe someone making a meaningless series of sounds or going on and on with nonsense.

        This isn’t the only case where God has intervened to scatter people, often for their own good. The Babylonian exile was a scattering of his people that God used to rid them of the evil of their kings and their addiction to idolatry. When he re-gathered them they were a nation waiting for the coming of the Messiah. But after Jesus, he again scattered those who did not embrace Messiah, and though he preserved the Jewish people, he is only now re-gathering them for the final chapter in world history.

        There are other examples. My favorite is when Jesus told his followers to go and make disciples in all nations, and after the resurrection they sat and made disciples in Jerusalem. It took persecution to scatter the believers into the nations with the good news. Sometimes God scatters his people for their own good, just as the farmer scatters the seed, so that it falls into the ground and dies, in order it might sprout and grow and yield a great harvest. And the same thing was happening in the days of the tower. God scattered the people, but he had a plan, a very long term plan for a harvest. His plan involved preserving the line of the Messiah, and then creating a nation who would be his own people.

II. Gathered (Genesis 11:10-26)

        Genesis 11:10-26 shows that line of promise: This is the account of Shem. Two years after the flood, when Shem was 100 years old, he became the father of Arphaxad. 11And after he became the father of Arphaxad, Shem lived 500 years and had other sons and daughters. 12When Arphaxad had lived 35 years, he became the father of Shelah. 13And after he became the father of Shelah, Arphaxad lived 403 years and had other sons and daughters.
         14When Shelah had lived 30 years, he became the father of Eber. 15And after he became the father of Eber, Shelah lived 403 years and had other sons and daughters.
         16When Eber had lived 34 years, he became the father of Peleg. 17And after he became the father of Peleg, Eber lived 430 years and had other sons and daughters.
         18When Peleg had lived 30 years, he became the father of Reu. 19And after he became the father of Reu, Peleg lived 209 years and had other sons and daughters.
         20When Reu had lived 32 years, he became the father of Serug. 21And after he became the father of Serug, Reu lived 207 years and had other sons and daughters.
         22When Serug had lived 30 years, he became the father of Nahor. 23And after he became the father of Nahor, Serug lived 200 years and had other sons and daughters.
         24When Nahor had lived 29 years, he became the father of Terah. 25And after he became the father of Terah, Nahor lived 119 years and had other sons and daughters. 26After Terah had lived 70 years, he became the father of Abram, Nahor and Haran.

        When we studied Genesis 5 we came to the conclusion that that genealogy, which looked a whole lot like this one, recorded an unbroken line from Adam to Noah. We did however allow for the possibility that there might be short gaps in the genealogy; it just didn’t look very likely. This genealogy, on the other hand, does probably have gaps in it. Why do I say that? Let’s look first of all at what this genealogy would be saying if there were no gaps. It would be saying that all these people would have still been living when Abram was fifty years old; one of Noah’s sons, Shem, would actually outlive Abram by 35 years. This just doesn’t seem to fit with the rest of Scripture. Joshua twice says that Abram's 'fathers,' including Terah, were idolaters when they dwelt 'of old time beyond the River'. If all the postdiluvian patriarchs, including Noah and Shem, were still living in Abram's day, this statement implies they had all fallen into idolatry, which doesn’t fit. So we’re forced by the Scriptures themselves to consider the introduction of gaps. We’re not bowing to any particular scientific theory.

        But is there any other support for this? I think so. There is at least one place in Scripture where this chronology is disputed. In the Gospel of Luke a man named Cainan appears between Arphaxad and Selah. And it’s not just Luke - the Greek version of the Old Testament and some of the Dead Sea Scrolls also list Cainan and give his birth year and the length of his life. Furthermore, if you add Cainan to the list, it becomes much more parallel to the genealogy of Genesis 5. Each would then have ten entries, and would end with a person having three important sons. It may be that this desire to parallel Genesis 5 controlled the structure of this list more than anything else. Luke did this in his genealogy - 14 names in each of three sections.

        In addition to this I see two more potential places where gaps could occur. Between Eber and Peleg the average life span of these people seems to drop dramatically, possibly because a number of generations had passed between the two. The same thing could be said about the drop in life span between Sereg and Nahor. So those are two less well supported points where a gap could be inserted. Now how long could these gaps be? Not millions of years; I’m not postulating a place for evolution to happen. But they could be as much as a thousand years or even two thousand total, a space in time where the scattering described in chapter 10 could happen and where the memory of those things could become as remote as it appears to be in Genesis 12, and where the mature civilization described in Abraham’s wanderings could grow up. I’m pretty convinced there are gaps here, and that the actual age of the earth rather than being the six thousand years of ‘no-gap’ chronology should rather be thought of as seven, eight or even nine thousand years.

        But the really important point of this genealogy is to notice how God preserved the line of promise from Noah to Abraham right through this scattering. This is our last week in Genesis for a while - my current plan is not to start chapter 12 until next fall. But we can’t leave without pointing ourselves toward the rest of the story, and that’s what these verses do. Genesis is only the start of God’s great romance, the story we celebrate every week, the story for which we give thanks. Genesis 11 leads straight to Genesis 12 and the call of Abram, to whom God announced his covenant of promise and through whom he set apart Israel to be his people and receive his word. It leads to his son Isaac, who would have been offered as a sacrifice if God had not provided a lamb in his place. It leads to Egypt and to slavery. It leads to the Exodus, in which God showed his power, brought forth his people, and established in the Passover that people escape judgment by blood of the lamb.

        And it goes on. Because of what happened in Genesis, in the fall of man, God’s people would continually fall to temptation, fall into sin, disobey God’s precepts and worship the idols that these scattered nations had taken with them from Babylon. But God in his mercy would preserve the nation. No matter how many times they were attacked, no matter how many times they fell away, God would be faithful to gather the remnant and renew his promises.

        Thus it was in the wilderness, when the nation grumbled and when they turned to idols; thus it was in the promised land when the nation failed to drive out the idolators before them; thus it was in the days of the judges, when God faithfully raised up deliverers to rescue Israel; thus it was in the days of the kings, when God allowed Israel to achieve international stature. It was in those days that God intensified the anticipation of a messiah through his promises to David that one of his own sons would sit on his throne forever, ruling in justice and righteousness.

        And God never forgot that promise, though evil king after evil king ruled over his people and idolatry after idolatry consumed them. He preserved the line of David, and though he scattered Israel among the nations, and sent Judea into exile, he always promised to call them back and restore them. To some extent that happened, though Israel was very much under the domination of the Greeks or the Romans. They rebuilt the temple, but they never regained the glory they had under David and Solomon; they longed for a messiah to fulfill God’s promises. And still the line of promise was preserved - hidden, but preserved - the line that had started with Seth and continued through Noah and Shem and Abram and Jacob and Judah and David was preserved after the kings of Israel were no more, until one virgin of that line conceived a son by the Holy Spirit and gave birth to the Savior.

        In Jesus the promise is fulfilled that God will gather his scattered people; despite their sin, God has now made a way for them to return to him. The price of sin has been paid in the death of Christ and the firstfruits of the harvest have been seen in his resurrection so that now all who trust in him can be saved, all those who believe that what he has done is the only thing that can rescue and redeem receive new life and eternal life and the promise of resurrection. All those who have been scattered over the face of the earth for all these centuries are now being gathered by his Holy Spirit and awaiting his return, that moment where the wheat is gathered in and the chaff is scattered and the firstfruits of his salvation, you and me, are offered to God as an offering in righteousness.

        And then finally the effects of the fall will be reversed and there will be a new heaven and a new earth in which ‘all will be well and all will be well and all manner of things will be well’. The scattering of men in Genesis 11 is for the good of those who in their pride defied God, and the gathering that is finally seen in Revelation is God’s own harvest of his chosen. The thanksgiving we offer today is thanksgiving for having been chosen by grace and experiencing even among ourselves the firstfruits of a blessed eternity. The Lord scatters the proud who seek a name for themselves. The Lord chooses the harvest. May the name of the Lord be thanked and praised.