Genesis 11:1-9: The Tower of Babel
But sadness comes again in the story as we read. Noah planted a vineyard and he drank wine and became drunken. You will know that this means that the people did not stay good; but again, like the people before the flood, they began to be selfish and to do wrong. There is a special story to tell us how the people grew selfish and tried to have their own way, and to rule over each other. They quarreled among themselves, and the world was not the happy place that it had been. Read the story, Gen. 11:1-9.
The story opens with a picture of people at work in the great open plain, which stretches for miles about the river Euphrates. Long afterward there was a city in this land of Shinar called Babylon (Dan. 1:2), with enormous walls and palaces. Here the great proud king Nebuchadnezzar lived, and Daniel and the children of Israel were captives. You remember the golden image that Nebuchadnezzar set up in the plain, and the fiery furnace and the den of lions. The people in the story were working to build a great tower. There are no stones in these meadows, but they were making bricks of clay and burning them hard in the fire and laying them in bitumen. Bitumen is like the asphalt which is now used for paving; it comes up in some places from the ground. You have seen pictures of the great pyramids built in Egypt in old days. Great temples also were built in Babylon and other cities by the Euphrates in steps rising one upon another to the shrine on the top. We picture such a tower and the people busily working, making bricks and carrying and laying them, determined that they would build to heaven and be great and famous. But how is it when people are proud and selfish? They begin to disagree and to quarrel with each other. So it was with the people who were building the tower; they began to speak strange languages and not to understand each other, and they were scattered abroad over the earth. Let us read the story. (Verses 1-9) This part of the chapter is a story given to teach a lesson; it is a kind of parable. The next story that we read, about Abram and his journey, really happened as it is told.
Notice how the days of the decline of the Most Ancient Church are described in a brief genealogy, a mere list of names. (Gen. 5) The names are not the names of people, but of churches, or varieties of religious life and worship. The ages given mean not length of time, but the quality of each church. They grew less and less heavenly. It seems as if the Lord wished in His Word to make the record of the evil days as brief as possible, reducing it to a mere list of names. And again the declining days of this Church of Noah are described in the same brief way. (Gen. 10 and 11)
We are coming near to the point where real history begins. Heber, written sometimes Eber, without the "H," is the first name which means a person, a man of that name. He was the head of a family and tribe in Syria. From his name, the name Hebrew is derived. He was the ancestor of Abraham and of other Hebrew tribes.
You know the story of the tower of Babel, but read it again. (Gen. 11:1-9) The word "babel" has from this story come to mean a confusion of sounds. "And ever o'er its babel sounds the blessed angels sing." The tower of Babel means more spiritually the development of pride and desire to be great and to rule over others, using the church and its holy things in this evil way. This thought of pride and ruling over others goes with the name Babel and Babylon all through the Scriptures. How plainly it stands out in the Book of Daniel, in Nebuchadnezzar's words: "Is not this great Babylon that I have built for the house of the kingdom by the might of my power and for the honor of my majesty?" (Dan. 4:28-33) How fiercely the anger of such selfishness when it is thwarted is pictured in the den of lions and the fiery furnace! And still again we find Babylon in the Revelation in chapters 17 and 18, ruling and corrupting the peoples of the earth, until by the Lord's power the city is overthrown. What does it mean that Babylon (like the serpent) appears so early in the Bible and persists till almost the end? We have here the picture of a very deep-rooted enemy of human life. It is an enemy to be shunned. This story of Babel is given by the Lord to warn us of it and to put us on our guard against it.
There was a very old city by the river Euphrates, called Ur. Perhaps you can find it on your maps near the mouth of the river; in the old days it was nearer to the mouth of the river, for the sea reached higher up than now. There were wide green meadows all about it, and canals from the river watered the gardens and the palms. It was a large city. There were libraries of books, and some of the books are still left, for they were not printed on paper but on earthen tablets that last a long time. There were temples too, but not for the worship of the Lord, for the people worshiped idols. This city of Ur by the Euphrates was the first home of Abram, the father of the children of Israel. Abram had two brothers, Nahor and Haran, and their father was Terah. Haran had died, but he had left a son named Lot. We shall learn how the Lord led Abram away from Ur to a new home in the land of Canaan. All the family started and journeyed on together, as the tribes of Arabs journey with their tents and camels and flocks of sheep and goats. They would go slowly, stopping a short time in one place and a long time in another. They traveled up the river a long way and stopped at a place which they called Haran for the brother who had died. It was a rich pasture country for their flocks. (Gen. 24; 29) We shall learn next time more about the journey to the land of Canaan.
1. What was the name of the tower that people tried to build to heaven? What city had almost the same name?
2. In building the tower what did they use for stones? What did they use for mortar?
3. What were they building the tower for? What happened to those who were building it?
4. Where was the land of Shinar? Where was Abram's first home?
5. What journey did Abram and his family take?
Spiritual states and qualities are represented in the Bible and by countries; what is represented by Babel and Babylon? Read Nebuchadnezzar's proud words and the "proverb against the King of Babylon" (Dan. 4:29, 30): "Thou hast said in thine heart, I will ascend into heaven, I will exalt my throne above the stars of God. . . . I will ascend above the heights of the clouds; I will be like the most High." (Isa. 14:13, 14) Babel is a type of supreme self-love; the development of this love in the world is represented by the building of the tower. (A. 1326; J. 54; E. 1029; R. 717)
"Of one lip." Not that they all had the same forms of faith and worship, for in these there was great variety, but they were of one lip and essentially of one doctrine because with them all charity was the central and important thing. Note a similar picture of unity possible in the Christian Church in T. 763; R. 73; P. 259. "I have heard that churches which are in different goods and truths, provided their goods have relation to love to the Lord and their truths to faith in Him, are like so many jewels in the king's crown."
"From the east." The Hebrew idiom is peculiar. The literal thought seems to be of journeying from the east of Canaan to the plain of Shinar by the Euphrates. Spiritually the thought is clear. They left the state of nearness to the Lord, in which Eden was planted, for a low-lying external life. (A. 101, 1250, 1292)
In building the tower, they used brick for stone. What is represented by stones used in building? Sure fixed truths which will not change. Remember the precious stones of which the wall of the Holy City is built. Remember the stones used in building the temple. (1 Kings 6:7) In regard to these stones it was commanded that no tool should be used upon them while the house was building; it was also commanded that stones for an altar should not be hewn. (Exod. 20:25) It means that in religion and worship we must build with genuine truths as the Lord gives them to us in His Word, and must not distort and fashion them to suit ourselves. This suggests the meaning of the bricks; they are artificial and represent not genuine truths but fictions of humanity’s own making. (A. 1296, 1298)
The bricks were burned. What is spiritual fire? Of what quality was the fire in those who built the tower of Babel? The bitumen also which held the bricks together is inflammable and represents the selfish love which prompted and sustained the false thought. Remember the bitumen in the land of Sodom and the fire which destroyed the city. (Gen. 14:10; 19:28; A. 1297, 1299)
Speech is the expression of thought. When we read that the people were of one speech, it means that their thoughts in regard to the Lord and heavenly things were in agreement. There was variety according to the kinds of people, but it was like the harmonious variety in heaven. When self-love grew strong and people cared only for themselves, then began disputes and disagreements; this was the confusion of tongues. (A. 1285, 1316, 1322)
In chapters 10 and 11, we find a transition from the first chapters, which are parables, to the following chapters which are true history, but which also represent heavenly things. In regard to Noah and others, we read that there were no such people, but that the names represent churches and kinds of worship. (A. 1140) The names in this chapter are the names of people, but at the same time of tribes and churches. (A. 1362) With the next chapter, which tells of the call of Abram, true history begins. (A. 1401)