The Tower of Babel

Scripture: Genesis 11:1-9 (also Acts 2:1-12)


Title: The Tower of Babel



  • Introduction
  • A stairway to heaven
  • God’s judgment is salvation
  • Conclusion – Pentecost



The New Zealand short story writer, Owen Marshall, has a poem called The Divided World

–         It’s quite long so I won’t read you the whole thing but here’s a few lines,


The world is divided between those who blame Lucifer, and those who blame a lack of dietary fibre – between the superstitious, and the unimaginative


The world is divided between those who say they adore the country and never go there, and those who say they hate the city and never leave it 


The world is divided between those who try themselves, and those who seek a less corrupt judge.


The world is divided between those who are tolerant and wise, and their husbands. Between the people we always suspected, and the butlers who did it.


The world is divided between those who have shifted to the North Island, and those passed over for promotion;


Between those who face the world with a religion, and those who wish to but have only irony in its place. 


The world is divided between those who boast of their climate, and those who rejoice in secret that a cold wind isolates a landscape; between the few now, and the great majority on the other side.


The world is divided between those who are proud, and those who have lost their self-respect and so become the most dangerous of men;


When we look around the world today we see a great deal of division

–         The U.K. is divided over the Brixit issue

–         The U.S. is divided over Donald Trump’s nationalism

–         Syria is divided by Assad’s regime

–         The Middle East is divided by the Israeli / Palestinian conflict

–         While East Africa is divided by war and famine

–         Closer to home, families are divided by divorce


Today our message focuses on the story of the Tower of Babel – this is one of the traditional readings for Pentecost

–         It speaks to a divided world

–         From Genesis 11, verses 1-9 we read…


Now the whole world had one language and a common speech. As people moved eastward, they found a plain in Shinar and settled there.

They said to each other, “Come, let’s make bricks and bake them thoroughly.” They used brick instead of stone, and tar for mortar. 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.”

But the Lord came down to see the city and the tower the people were building. The 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. Come, let us go down and confuse their language so they will not understand each other.”

So the Lord scattered them from there over all the earth, and they stopped building the city. That 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.


May the Spirit of Jesus illuminate this Scripture for us


A stairway to heaven:

In 1971 Jimmy Page and Robert Plant wrote a song called Stairway to Heaven

–         It became a rock classic & was later criticised (in the 80’s) by people who said that when you play it backwards one of the lines talks about Satan

–         If that’s true then I suggest you don’t play it backwards

–         It sounds better if you play it forwards anyway


The first verse goes something like this…

There’s a lady who’s sure all that glitters is gold And she’s buying a stairway to heaven. When she gets there she knows, if the stores are all closed With a word she can get what she came for. Ooh, ooh, and she’s buying a stairway to heaven.


When asked what the song was about Robert Plant said it was “about a woman getting everything she wanted all the time without giving back any thought or consideration…”  [1]


In other words, it’s about someone who is a bit spoilt in that they always get their own way, while taking others for granted

–         The song criticizes those who think they are entitled to special treatment because they have lots of money or because of who they know

–         This verse in particular is saying you can’t buy happiness – you can’t expect money to make life perfect, you can’t buy a stairway to heaven

–         You are not entitled to special treatment – life doesn’t owe you anything


Now, I’m not here to defend Led Zeppelin – I have no interest in condoning them or condemning them (and I can’t speak for the rest of the song either)

–         It’s simply an illustration to help us better understand Genesis 11

–         The people who built the Tower of Babel were a little bit like the woman in the song who thought she could buy a stairway to heaven


Genesis 11 is set sometime between Noah and Abraham when everyone still spoke the same language

–         Language is a great unifier – being able to reach a common understanding connects us and helps us to work together cooperatively

–         As the descendants of Noah repopulated the earth a group of them migrated east and settled on the plains of Mesopotamia where they decided to build a city with a tower reaching to the heavens

–         They were essentially trying to build a stairway to heaven


According to archaeologists and historians the tower of Babel was most probably an ancient ziggurat. It would have looked a bit like a pyramid with a staircase to the top. Unlike a pyramid though it wasn’t hollow inside and it wasn’t used as a tomb.

In those times people didn’t actually live in the city like we do today – the city was more of a temple complex

–         The purpose of the tower was to provide a gateway and a staircase for the gods to come down from their heavenly realm and bless the people

–         People didn’t walk up and down the staircase themselves – it was sacred space for the gods to use

–         Therefore, the ziggurat or the Tower of Babel was very much a symbol of pagan religion


Now when we hear the word ‘pagan’ we tend to think of someone who has no religion, when in actual fact a pagan is very religious

–         Pagans seek to placate and manipulate the gods for their own benefit

–         Pagans view the gods as having needs

–         They think, “If I take care of the gods, by making sacrifices and offerings, then they will take care of me”

–         It is a quid pro quo arrangement: you scratch my back, I’ll scratch yours

–         Pagans basically think they can pay the gods off and buy their way into heaven


In contrast to paganism, Christians believe there is only one God and He doesn’t have needs – He is Holy – meaning (among other things) that He is morally good and He doesn’t need us to take care of Him

–         God is not short of cash or any other resource

–         He doesn’t need anyone to build him a staircase to come down from heaven and He doesn’t need anyone to feed him with offerings of food

–         In fact it is the other way around – we need God to provide for us


Now, because God has no needs he cannot be manipulated – He is free – and the idea of a free God who won’t be manipulated is quite scary for some

–         What might the most powerful being in the universe to do us?


Given that we need God to provide for our needs and given that we can’t control God then it logically follows the only way we can relate with God is by faith – by trusting in His goodness & grace to provide for us


Faith in God’s grace, as opposed to buying a stairway to heaven – this is what makes Christian religion different from pagan religions


Verse 4 of Genesis 11 reveals the pagan nature of the building project

–         The people were building a city and a staircase for the gods so they could make a name for themselves and not be scattered over the whole earth

–         They were seeking to harness the power of the gods to leave a legacy – to make themselves famous and secure

–         We need to be careful what we wish for – the people of Babel did become infamous for all the wrong reasons


The builders of Babel’s stairway to heaven stand in stark contrast to Abram – the wandering Aramean who doesn’t settle in one place for too long, but walks by faith, trusting in God’s promises


You know, sometimes paganism can creep into Christianity

–         In its most obvious form paganism is known as ‘cargo cult’ or ‘prosperity doctrine’

–         The idea that if I give a lot of money to God he will bless me with health and prosperity and my life will go well – this is false

–         God does not promise us health and prosperity – these things are not entitlements. Nor are they for sale. They are gifts, pure and simple

–         We give back to God out of gratitude for what he has already given us

–         We give without strings

–         We practice generosity because God is generous


Sometimes though our paganism can be more subtle

–         Maybe we live a good clean life,

–         We meet our obligations and pay our taxes,

–         We take care of our family,

–         We serve in the life of the church (perhaps sacrificially),

–         We do everything right and yet we still have this abiding feeling of resentment, simmering away just beneath the surface

–         If that’s the case for us then perhaps on some sub conscious level our paganism is at work so that we think we are being short changed and that God owes us for all we’ve done for him

–         Like the lady in the song (deep down) we think we are entitled


One way to counter the dormant paganism which resides in each of us is to stay in touch with our vices – be honest with ourselves about our sin

–         If we turn a blind eye to the darkness in us and if try too hard to be good all the time, it usually comes back to bite us on the bum

–         We end up thinking that our good behaviour entitles us to special treatment, so that we shouldn’t suffer injustice or misfortune

–         We are not entitled to any special treatment in this life

–         God doesn’t promise that we won’t suffer.

–         To be sustainable our good behaviour needs to be born out of gratitude for God’s grace, not out of fear of calamity


The elder brother, in the parable of the prodigal son, shows us the ugly face of paganism when he refuses to come in and celebrate his younger brother’s return

–         The elder son thinks his long service and good behaviour entitles him to certain benefits which his reckless undeserving brother is now enjoying

–         He resents the Father’s grace toward the younger son


In the parable of the labourers we see an attitude of entitlement (and paganism) by those who worked all day and were paid the same as those who worked less time


These are negative examples – let me give you a more positive one…

–         You may remember Steve Askin, the helicopter pilot who died while fighting fires in Canterbury earlier this year

–         Well Steve’s dad is a Baptist pastor – Paul Askin

–         I shared a ride from the airport to a pastors’ conference with Paul Askin a few years ago – he’s a genuine soul


Anyway, after his son Steve had died fighting the fire, Paul was interviewed by the news media and he said…

–         ‘I got to spend 38 years with Steve’

–         What struck me here is that Paul said this with gratitude

–         Although he had suffered a terrible loss Paul was thankful for the time he had been given with his son

–         He didn’t deny his loss but nor did he deny the gift of Steve’s life


Paul is an outstanding pastor – he has served God faithfully for many years

–         If anyone might deserve a break its him

–         But Paul didn’t think his service to the Lord entitled him to special benefits – despite the pain he was in there was no resentment


Now I’m not saying it’s bad to feel angry when we suffer loss

–         Resentment is not always a sign of paganism

–         Grief is an unpredictable critter and we all handle our grief in different ways the best we can

–         All I’m saying is: in that moment, when Paul was at his most vulnerable, I saw Christ who didn’t think he was entitled to special favours because he was God’s Son but rather accepted the cross he was given


God’s judgment is salvation:

In verse 5 the Lord comes down to see the not yet completed city and tower

–         Clearly the Lord didn’t need the people to build him a stairway – he was quite capable of managing the journey to earth without their help


The fact that God came down to investigate shows us that God is fair & just

–         He doesn’t react rashly or flippantly – the Lord’s response is measured and considered – taking into account the facts


When God sees what they are doing he says to the heavenly council (which is presumably the other members of the Trinity and the angels in heaven)…


“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. Come, let us go down and confuse their language so they will not understand each other.”


God can see the people have embarked on a bad path – one which would ultimately be destructive to the builders’ themselves and to others

–         So God intervenes to prevent a disaster


Now we might ask ourselves, ‘What is the offense here? Why does God deem it necessary to intervene?’

–         Well, it’s not that cities or towers or other forms of technology are bad and it’s not that working together is bad either

–         Nor is it bad to want to leave a legacy

–         As we heard last week God chose a city (Jerusalem) as a dwelling for his footstool – the Ark

–         Not only that but he promised to make David’s name great and give David an everlasting legacy


Most likely the problem is with the people’s perception of God – their pagan theology sucks [2]

–         They have seriously misunderstood God by thinking he has needs and can be manipulated like a man

–         Paganism is fundamentally bad because it is based on a lie and eventually leads to all sorts of evil including human sacrifice

–         As a consequence God prevents them from doing further harm by taking away the key to their success – he confuses their language


Imagine for a moment that you’ve had some friends over to watch the rugby

–         Although you have been a responsible host one of your mates has had a bit too much to drink

–         You invite him to stay for the night but he refuses. So you offer to drive him home yourself but he won’t let you do that either

–         In the end you have no choice but to take his keys off him and wait for him to pass out on your living room floor

–         He isn’t too happy with you but that’s better than letting him drive drunk at the risk of causing an accident


By deeming your mate unfit to drive and taking his keys away you have passed judgment on him – but it’s a merciful judgment – a judgment which saves him


By confusing the languages God was taking the keys away from the builders and passing judgment on them – but it was a merciful judgment

–         In fact God’s judgment (in this context) is also His salvation


By scattering the people over all the earth the Lord was actually giving them a second chance – He wasn’t destroying them

–         But nor was he enabling their fantasy – he wasn’t colluding with their lie

–         He was putting them in a position of vulnerability where they would have a better chance of learning to trust Him


Verse 9 explains why the abandoned building site was called “Babel”

–         Babel is a parody on the Akkadian word Babilu from which we get the name Babylon – meaning ‘gate of god’ [3]

–         I say that Babel is a parody of Babilu because Babel is the Hebrew word for confusion and as providence would have it Babel also sounds very close to the English word babble


Babylon (or Babel as the Jews called it) was of course a city of exile for the Hebrew people – so you could imagine the delight the Jewish exiles had in reading this story of Babel – the city of their enemies

–         The narrator of Genesis is essentially criticising Babylonian theology

–         He’s basically saying, you think that Babylon is the ‘gate of the gods’ but you are confused – completely deluded in fact.

–         You can’t build or buy a stairway to heaven.

–         Right relationship with God is by faith, not manipulation.



Today we celebrate Pentecost and the gift of God’s Spirit

–         At Pentecost we catch a glimpse of God’s plan of salvation for the world

–         The Holy Spirit translates the truth about Jesus for us

–         Not only that but the Holy Spirit resides in our hearts

–         And when the Spirit of Jesus is in our heart we don’t need to build a stairway to heaven because God is right there inside us already

–         Like an antidote to our hidden paganism the Spirit gently shows us our vices (He convicts us of our sin) and reassures us of God’s grace & forgiveness


When we look at what happened next (after Acts 2) we find that Jesus’ followers didn’t gather in Jerusalem for long

–         Rather God scattered the believers outward from Jerusalem to Samaria and to the ends of the earth,

–         And as they went the believers spread the good news of salvation by faith in Jesus


[2] Refer John Walton’s (NIVAC) on Genesis, pages 371-377 and 379-382.

[3] Refer Bruce Waltke’s commentary on Genesis, page 181.