GENESIS 11:1-9

JULY 6, 2008


 I am sure you have noticed that English is a crazy language.  For example, there is no egg in eggplant nor ham in hamburger; neither apple nor pine in pineapple.  We often take English for granted, but if we explore its paradoxes, we find that quicksand works slowly, boxing rings are square and a guinea pig is neither from Guinea or a pig.  And why is it in English that writers write, but fingers don’t fing, grocers don’t groce, and hammers don’t ham?  And if the plural of tooth is teeth, why isn’t the plural of booth beeth?  One goose, two geese.  So one moose, two meese?  And if a vegetarian eats vegetables, what does a humanitarian eat?  And in what language, but English, do people recite at a play and play at a recital or ship by truck and send cargo by ship?  In English we have noses that run and feet that smell.  We park on driveways and drive on parkways.  Where did all this nonsense originate?  Well, if you take your Bible literally God was the cause of it all.  Humans were getting along fine and dandy until God stirred up the pot.  In fact, listen to the exact quote.  I’m reading from verse 7,


Come, let us go down, and confuse their language there, so that they will not understand one another’s speech.  And skipping to verse 9, Therefore it was called Babel, because there the Lord confused the language of all the earth ...


At first blush, then, this story answers the question, “How did people end up speaking so many languages?”   According to the author of Genesis, it all began with a tower.  God is the reason people speak German and French and English and Russian and Swahili and Portuguese and Spanish and Hebrew and Arabic and Italian.  After the great flood, everyone spoke the same language, and they moved to Shinar, which was an ancient name for Babylonia, and the Babylonians built sacred towers called, ziggurats.   These structures were huge.  For example, one unearthed ziggurat had a base the size of a football field, and these ziggurats were usually square, consisting of several stories, with the size of each story being smaller than the one below it.  Then staircases or ramps were attached to the sides for access up and down.  At the top was a temple where only the priest could enter, while the rest of the people worshiped outside in the courtyard.  And the thought behind the typical ziggurat was not so much as a means by which Babylonians could take themselves nearer to their god, but as a means by which god’s route to earth and to them was made easier, with the temple or shrine on the top being a kind of “staging-post” or “half-way house” for god.  And we know that the Tower of Babel was likely a Babylonian ziggurat due to the building materials mentioned in verse 3.  Note those materials,  

And they said to one another, “Come, let us make bricks, and burn them thoroughly.” And they made brick for stone, and bitumen for mortar.


Now, backed bricks and bitumen for mortar were not Palestinian building materials, they were Babylonian building materials.  Sort of like here in the States where you will see stucco houses in California and Florida, and not in Nebraska, well bitumen and baked bricks were big in Babylonia and not Palestine. 

So this is clearly a Babylonian ziggurat, and at its simplest level, the Tower of Babel story offers an explanation of the origin of human language.  The variety of tongues spoken today has its roots in the Tower of Babel, but this morning I want to focus our attention on two things about these folk that particularly got under God’s skin.  You see, it bothered God greatly that the people wanted to rise up and that people wanted to settle down.

Let’s begin with rising up.  The people 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...


Listen to the words once again – “Let us build ourselves a city ... let us make a name for ourselves.”  Folks, what was the purpose of the tower?[1]  To glorify God?  No.  To try to find God?  No.  To call people to look upward to God?  Try again.  To provide a heavenly haven of prayer?  Still wrong.  The tower was built for 100% pure selfishness.  The bricks were made of inflated egos and the mortar was made of pride.  Read the minutes of the “Tower Planning Committee Meeting” one more time ...


“Come, let us build ourselves a city, and a tower with its top in the heavens, and let us make a name for ourselves.”


They built it so someone’s name might be remembered – theirs!  We have a name for that: blind ambition.  Success at all cost.  Becoming a legend in one’s own time.  Climbing to the top of the ladder.  King of the mountain.  Queen of the domain.  Top of the heap.  “I did it my way.”We make heroes out of people who are ambitious.  We hold them up as models for our kids and put their pictures on the covers of our magazines.  And rightly so.  This world would be in sad shape without people who dream of touching the heavens.  Ambition is the grit in the soul which creates disenchantment with the ordinary.  But left unchecked it becomes an insatiable addiction to power and prestige; left unchecked it becomes a roaring hunger for achievement that devours people as a lion devours an animal, leaving behind only the skeletal remains of relationships.  Some classic examples of nearsighted tower builders come to mind quickly.


For example, the husband who feeds his career with twelve hour days, flight schedules, and apologies for being gone so much.  He says, “But it is only a matter of time, and I’ll get my feet on the ground.”  Or the salesperson who says, “I’ll only need to do this once,” as he lies about his product.  Anything to get to the top of the tower and make a name for himself or herself.  Or the pastor who leaves one church for another church, a bigger church, and says, “I heard God’s call.”  Blind ambition.  Distorted values and God doesn’t tolerate it.  God didn’t then and God doesn’t now.   Are we building any towers?  I hope not.   As the Psalmist said,  “Unless the Lord builds the house, those who build it labor in vain.” (Psalm 127:1)   


But God not only had a problem with people rising up, but also God had a problem with people settling down.   A key word in this passage is the word “scatter.”  It’s mentioned three times – in verse 4, in verse 8 and in verse 9 and the problem has to do with the fact that the people fear scattering and they take action to prevent it.  They build a city and they settle down.  Then, against their will, God scatters them.  Now to understand why this bothered God so much,  take a quick walk with me through Genesis.  Turn with me to Genesis 1:28.  Do you have that in front of you?  Genesis 1:28.  It reads,


God blessed them, and God said to them, “Be fruitful and multiply, and fill the earth and subdue it ...”


God says, “Spread out, scatter,  fill the earth,” and that’s what humankind proceeds to do.  They multiply and they spread.  Then jump with me to chapter 10, verse 32.  Listen to what happens immediately after the flood.  Genesis 10:32.


These are the families of Noah’s sons, according to their genealogies, in their nations; and from these the nations spread abroad on the earth after the flood.


This spreading is blessed, sanctioned, and willed by God.  But then, these people decide to do otherwise.  Instead of spreading, instead of scattering, they decide to settle down. 

Contrast that to Jesus’ last words.  His last word was not “Settle” it was  “Go.”  He said, “Go, therefore, and make disciples.”  Go into Jerusalem, go into Judah, go into Samaria, go to the ends of the earth after people who don’t know me.  Go after people who need to experience my grace and love.  Go.  Don’t get too comfortable.  Go. Don’t settle down.  Go.  And let me tell you a little about Jesus’ command to “go.”  It is a present participle which literally means, “As you are going.”  In other words, as you are going to the barber shop, as you are going to the grocery story, as you are going to the gym, as you are going to work, as you are going to the restaurant, as you are going to get your nails done, as you are going to pick up the dry cleaning ... make disciples.”

I read these words and I think of Jimmy Carter’s visit to an Amish worship service.  Have you ever been to an Amish worship service?  Me either, and listen to our former President’s experience,


No one knows in advance who will preach the morning sermon; again, this leader is chosen by a lot or by last minute consensus.  I asked the bishop how people could prepare for a sermon if they didn’t know when they would be called, and he replied with a genuinely modest attitude, “We always have to be prepared.”


Can you imagine driving to church each Sunday with the real possibility that you may be the preacher that day?  If we did that here, how many of you would likely skip church?  Well, that’s exactly the reason most of us do not “Go” when Jesus calls us to “Go.”  We fear if we go, we might be called on to speak.  We might be called on to share what Christ means to us, so we settle in on a pew on Sunday morning and don’t “Go.”

In fact, that may be why you chose to be Presbyterian, because generally speaking, Presbyterians don’t go.   Just look at the statistics.  Nationally, from 1970 to 1990, while the population of the United States increased by 22%, Presbyterian church membership decreased by 29%.  The net result is that Presbyterian membership decreased from 2% of the national population to 1% of the national population in the space of the past 20 years.  Presbyterians don’t go.  We sit.  We settle down and do things decently and in order, and that’s bad news.  If we don’t get going soon, if we continue to settle in as the people at Babel settled in, waiting for people to come to us, we will face a similar future.  God’s Spirit will move on to those who do go, and this building will lie in ruins just as the Tower of Babel lies in ruins.

 Remember the words of the prophet Isaiah?  He said, “How beautiful are the feet of those who brings good news,” unfortunately we Presbyterians heard it wrong.  We thought he said, “How beautiful are the seats of those who bring good news,” but let me tell you the part of your body that God likes the most is not your seat.  It’s not your behind.  The part of your body God likes the most are your feet.  Go.  Go.  Go.

Folks, I hope we never settle down here.  I hope we always go after people who are not here.  I hope we never feel like we have arrived because God does not do well with people who settle down into old patterns and old ways and miss the new thing God is doing.  Just ask the folk associated with the Tower of Babel.

And let me say one last thing.  You have a sermon to preach.  It’s a unique sermon.  It’s a powerful sermon.  It’s the story of the difference Christ has made and is making in your life.  Preach that sermon and you will be amazed at the results.








[1]Much of the material under this point taken from Max Lucado, God Came Near (Portland: Multnomah Press, 1987), 119-120.