Summary: We learn from the story of the Tower of Babel the futility of trying to make a name for ourselves.
I. Making a name
We see in the first chapters of Genesis that people basically chose one of two paths. A few of them humbled themselves and followed God, trusting in him and his protection. Such were the descendents of Seth.
The other group was principally the descendents of Cain. These men rejected God and sought power and fame. We see that Cain was the first to build a city, naming it after his son. And those who followed his path dedicated themselves to doing the same, banding together and building cities for protection, instead of trusting in the protection of God. And more often than not they would name these cities after someone in their family, so that their family would be remembered.
We also see in these chapters the “men of renown,” those whose names were known far and wide... in their day. Seemingly these were powerful warlords, who gathered to themselves many wives to insure that their name would last.
This was the situation before the great flood. Did things get any better afterwards? Let’s take a look.
In Genesis 11:1-9, we have the account of those who settled in the plain of Shinar, in what would be present day Iraq. These people had received a directive from God to multiply and fill the earth. But what did they do?
First off, they focused on improving their building techniques. While God’s people lived in tents, these men worked at making stronger, safer buildings. What’s wrong with that? It shows a desire to rely on one’s own strength, rather than God. And when they had made some advances, they set out to build a great tower.
Now you may have heard that they were building this tower to get to heaven. I remember hearing that when I was young, being repeated scornfully by my atheistic high school biology teacher. Yet if you read the story, it says nothing of the kind. They wanted to build a great tower for two reasons:
(1) They didn’t want to be scattered (even though that is exactly what God wanted them to do!).
(2) They wanted to make a name for themselves.
So much of what men do is done for this purpose: to make a name for ourselves. Here this people sought out to build this great tower to make a name for themselves.
II. God reacts
Notice how the Bible describes the moment when God reacted to the tower. “He came down and saw...” Is the writer saying that God is way up in heaven and can’t see what goes on on earth? No, of course not. He is showing the insignificance of this tower when compared to God. It may have been man’s crowning achievement, a technological wonder of its day, but for God, it was something that he had to stoop to see! A child’s plaything, a mere toy when compared to God.
Notice also that God’s plans will be carried out. Man has free will and may choose to go along with those plans voluntarily. If he does not, he will suffer the consequences of his actions. And God’s will will be done. In this case, men lost the ability to communicate with one another. Think of how much greater their achievements might have been if they had done things God’s way! As it was, they merely suffered setback and shame. And God’s plan was carried out.
III. Building towers
Built any towers lately? I’m afraid I have from time to time. I think preachers are some of the worst about that. What a temptation it is to want to make people know our names! We want to preach at the biggest churches and speak at the lectureships and be published in all the right magazines. We want flocks of people hanging on our every word. And while these things are not bad in and of themselves, they are not things to be sought after. They become towers. Towers of futility.
Churches do it. We want more and more people attending our services so that we can brag about how many people come worship with us. “We have to have 5 services now. We’re the biggest church in town.” And God says, “Stop building towers and get about the work of my kingdom.” It is all right to seek people, but we must do it for the right reasons.
And what about each of us? How do we decide which car to drive? What house to live in? What job to have? What life we want for our children? Is it about making a name for ourselves? Is it about being recognized and remembered, a “respected pillar of our community”? Are we building towers?
IV. The cure for tower-builders
I don’t think it’s a coincidence that Chapter 12 opens the way it does. Look with me at these verses.