Man proposes, but God disposes." That familiar statement is almost a religious cliche. Many people who use it don't even know what it means. It was written by the Augustinian monk Thomas a Kempis (ca. 1380-1471) in his classic book On the Imitation of Christ. An expanded version is the proverb, "Man does what he can, God does what He will." Solomon used more words but said it best: 'There are many plans in a man's heart, nevertheless the Lord's counsel—that will stand" (Prov. 19:21, nkjv).
Few chapters in the Bible illustrate this truth better than Genesis 11. When you read the narrative about Babel and then read the genealogies that follow, your immediate impression is that God is at work in His world and is accomplishing His purposes in spite of the plans and projects of sinful people.
Four great events are recorded in Genesis 1-11: the creation of the universe, the fall of man, the Flood, and the attempted construction of the Tower of Babel. These chapters reveal that where mankind disobeys God, the Lord judges sin, and then in His grace makes a new beginning.
Adam and Eve sinned, but God clothed them and promised to send the world a Redeemer. Cain killed Abel, but God sent Seth to carry on the godly line. The Sethites intermarried with the godless Cainites, and God had to wipe the earth clean with a flood; but Noah and his family believed God's Word and were spared. After the Flood, the descendants of Noah's three sons repopulated the earth. But the new beginning with Noah eventually led to one of the most arrogant revolts against God recorded anywhere in Scripture.
Rebellion (vv. 1-4). It's likely that the events in chapter 11 occurred prior to those in chapter 10 and that the scattering described in chapter 10 was the consequence of God's judgment at Babel. Perhaps the story was placed here in Genesis so it could lead into the genealogy of Shem which leads into the genealogy of Abraham, the founder of the Hebrew nation. The arrangement, then, is literary and not chronological.
God had commanded the peoples to be fruitful and multiply and to scatter across the earth, but they decided to move to Nimrod's city of Babylon and settle there (11:8-12). This move was blatant rebellion against God's command that the people scatter. Apparently Nimrod wanted them in his cities and under his control.
The "tower" that they built at Babel was what is known as a "ziggurat." Archaeologists have excavated several of these large structures which were built primarily for religious purposes. A ziggurat was like a pyramid except that the successive levels were recessed so that you could walk to the top on "steps." At the top was a special shrine dedicated to a god or goddess. In building the structure, the people weren't trying to climb up to heaven to dethrone God; rather, they hoped that the god or goddess they worshiped would come down from heaven to meet them. The structure and the city were called "Babel," which means "the gate of the gods."
This infamous project was an arrogant declaration of war against the Lord, not unlike the revolt described in Psalm 2:1-3. To begin with, the people were resisting God's edict to scatter and repopulate the earth. Motivated perhaps by fear as well as pride, they decided to build a city and a great ziggurat and stay together. But even more, they wanted to make a name for themselves so that others would admire them and perhaps come and join them. Their purpose statement was the devil's lie in Eden: "You will be like God" (Gen. 3:4, niv).
The people had several things in their favor. They were truly a "united nations," one people (11:6) speaking one language and using one vocabulary and dictionary. They were motivated by one spirit of pride and one compelling desire to make a name for themselves. The only thing missing was the approval of God.
God's response (vv. 5-9). "Whom the gods would destroy," wrote historian Charles Beard, "they first make drunk with power."From Babel to Belshazzar (Dan. 5), and from Herod (Acts 12:20-25) to Hitler, God has demonstrated repeatedly that it doesn't pay to rebel against His will. "Pride goes before destruction, and a haughty spirit before a fall" (Prov. 16:18, nkjv), and Jesus warned that those who exalt themselves will be abased (Matt. 23:12).
God in heaven is never perplexed or paralyzed by what people do on earth. Babel's conceited "Let's go up!" was answered by heaven's calm "Let's go down!" "He who sits in the heavens shall laugh; the Lord shall hold them in derision" (Ps. 2:4, nkjv). Of course, God doesn't have to investigate to know what's going on in His universe; the language is used only to dramatize God's intervention.
As with Adam and Eve in the Garden (Gen. 3:22-24), God's judgment at Babel not only dealt with the immediate sins but also helped to prevent future problems. The unity of mankind would only give people a false sense of power that would lead them into even greater rebellion against God. By confusing their language and scattering them over all the earth, God graciously spared their lives and gave them opportunity to return to Him. He could have destroyed the builders, their city, and their tower; but He chose to let them live.
The word "babel" sounds like the Hebrew word balal which means "confusion." Because of God's judgment, the "gate of the gods" became the "the door to confusion." Instead of making a name for themselves, God gave the project a new name! In His church, "God is not the author of confusion" (1 Cor. 14:33); but in the world, God sometimes uses confusion to humble people and keep them from uniting against His will.
The word "Shem" means "name" in Hebrew; and Abraham, a descendant of Shem, was promised that God would make his name great (Gen. 12:2). The people of the world depend on their own wisdom and efforts, and yet they fail to achieve lasting fame. Who knows the name of anybody who worked on the famous Tower of Babel? Yet the name of Abraham is known around the world and revered by Jews, Muslims, and Christians. There's a vast difference between mankind's "We will make our name great!" and God's "I will make your name great!"
The Book of Genesis emphasizes names; and in this book, God changes several names. For example, Abram becomes Abraham, Sarai becomes Sarah, Esau becomes Edom, Jacob becomes Israel, and so on. What God calls a thing is far more important than what we call it. When He was creating the world, God gave names to things; and He even asked Adam to name the animals. The word "babel" would convey "gates of the gods" to very few people today; most of them would think "confusion."
Our reply. The story of Babel isn't just a part of ancient history, because Babel and Babylon present a spiritual challenge to every believer today.
Babylon eventually became a great city and a great empire. In 606-586 B.C., the Babylonian armies attacked and captured the kingdom of Judah, burned the temple and the city of Jerusalem, and took thousands of Jews captive to Babylon for seventy years. God used the cruel and idolatrous Babylonians to chasten His own disobedient people.
But in Scripture, Babylon symbolizes worldly pride, moral corruption, and defiance against God. The biblical contrast is between the earthly city of Babylon that rebels against God, and the heavenly city of Jerusalem that brings glory to God. You will want to read Jeremiah 50-51 and Revelation 17-19 to appreciate the contrasts between these two cities. Babylon represents the world system that opposes God, hates Jesus Christ, and appeals to the baser appetites of human nature. Babylon is the opposite of the heavenly Jerusalem which is the city of the saints (Heb. 12:18ff).
In the original Babel, the people wanted to build a tower that reached up to heaven; but in the Babylon of Revelation 17-18, Babylon's sins reach up to heaven (18:5). The original worldwide unity that Nimrod desired for the Genesis Babylon will one day be achieved by Satan's godless world system (vv. 3, 9, 11, 23). Earthly Babylon is called a prostitute, while the holy city from heaven is called bride of Christ (17:1; 21:9ff).
"Every generation builds its own towers," writes psychotherapist Naomi H. Rosenblatt, and she is right. Whether these are actual skyscrapers (the Sears Tower and Tribune Tower in Chicago, the Eiffel Tower in Paris, the Trump Tower in New York City), or mega-corporations that circle the globe, the idea is the same: "We will make a name for ourselves." God's people can't escape being in the world, because it's in the world that we have our ministry; but we must avoid being of the world. We're not here to build the arrogant towers of men; we're here to help build the church of Jesus Christ.
What humanity can't achieve by means of its "proud towers," Jesus Christ has achieved by dying on a humiliating cross. All who trust Jesus Christ are one in Him (Gal. 3:27) and will share heaven together, regardless of race, nation, language, or tribe (Rev. 7:9). While the world system is outwardly producing uniformity, inwardly it's tearing things apart. What social scientists are now calling "technopoly" is controlling people's lives.
But the Holy Spirit is using the church as an agent of reconciliation to bring things together in Jesus Christ (Eph. 1:10; 2 Cor. 5:14-21). In one sense, Pentecost was a reversal of Babel, for the people present in Jerusalem at Pentecost heard the praises of God in their own languages (Acts 2:1-12). The day will come when people from every tribe and nation will worship Jesus Christ (Rev. 15:4) and the judgment of Babel will be done away (Zeph. 3:9).
Each person must make a choice. Will we identify with. Babylon or Jerusalem, the worldly prostitute or the heavenly bride?
God had promised that He would send a Redeemer, "the seed of the woman" (3:15), who would defeat Satan and bring salvation. Noah's prophecy revealed that God would bless the world through the line of Shem, the "Semites" who were the ancestors of the Hebrew people (9:26-27). "Shem was the ancestor of all the sons of Eber" (10:21, niv), and it's likely that the word "Hebrew" comes from the name "Eber."
Genesis gives us two genealogies of Shem, in 10:21-29 and in 11:10-26. The first genealogy lists all five of his sons and five of his grandsons, but then it focuses on the descendants of Arphaxad: Shelah, Eber, and Eber's two sons Peleg and Joktan. It lists Joktan's many sons but ignores Peleg's descendants. But the genealogy in chapter 11 picks up Peleg's side of the family and takes us through to Abraham. The genealogy in Genesis 5 takes us from Adam to Noah, and the one in Genesis 11 goes from Noah's son Shem to Terah and his son Abraham.
Except that both lists have ten generations, the listing in 11:10-26 is different from the genealogy in Genesis 5. For one thing, it doesn't contain the repeated phrase "and he died." The emphasis is on how old the man was at the birth of his firstborn son. The people named in 11:10-26 didn't live as long as the men named in Genesis 5. The list begins with Noah's 950 years and dwindles down to Nahor's 148 years. The post-Flood generations were starting to feel the physical consequences of sin in the human body.
The important thing about this genealogy is that it records the faithfulness of God in watching over His people and fulfilling His promises. What to us is only a list of names was to God a "bridge" from the appointment of Shem to the call of Abraham. God has deigned to use people to help accomplish His will on earth, and people are fragile and not always obedient. But the "bridge" was built and the covenant promises sustained.
If Genesis 1-11 is a record of four key events—Creation, the Fall, the Flood, and the judgment at Babel—then Genesis 12-50 is the record of the lives of four key men: Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, and Joseph. In this paragraph, five persons stand out: Abraham and his wife Sarah; Terah, Abraham's father; and Nahor and Haran, Abraham's brothers. Haran died and left his son Lot behind.
It was God's purpose to call a man and his wife and from them build a family. From that family He would build a nation, and from that nation, God would bless all the nations of the earth (12:1-3; 18:18). From start to finish, it was a work of God's grace; for when God called Abraham and Sarah, they belonged to a family that worshiped idols (Josh. 24:2). In both Ur of the Chaldees and Haran, the people worshiped the moon god.
According to Stephen (Acts 7:2), "the God of glory" appeared to Abraham and called him to go to Canaan. Abraham must have shared this amazing message with his family and told them that he and Sarah were leaving. He was supposed to take only Sarah and depart, leaving his family behind (Gen. 12:1); but everybody went with him except his brother Nahor and, of course, his brother Haran who had died. Nahor and his wife Milcah will show up again later in the story (22:20), but Nahor was the man who stayed. Even though he remained in idolatrous Ur of the Chaldees, did Nahor believe the message his brother gave him about the true God of glory? We hope he did.
It appears that Terah did believe and took charge of the family and their travels (11:31), but Terah was the man who stopped. He traveled 500 miles, as far as the city of Haran, and there he settled down and there he died. Perhaps the journey was too great for him, but it was God's plan that Abraham and Sarah follow Him without their family. The death of Terah left them only with Lot, the son of Haran who had died back in Ur. Lot became the man who strayed, because he finally left Abraham and settled down in the wicked city of Sodom (13:10-13; 14:12; 19:1ff).
The remarkable thing about God's call of Abraham and Sarah was that they were childless. Abram means "exalted father," but he wasn't a father at all! They were the least likely candidates to have a family and build a great nation. But God's ways are not our ways (Isa. 55:8-9), and by calling and blessing a barren couple, the Lord revealed the greatness of His power and His glory. Abram would be named "Abraham," which means "father of many nations."
There's quite a contrast between man's ways at Babel and God's ways in calling Abraham and Sarah. The world depends on large numbers of powerful people in order to accomplish things, but God chose two weak people and started a new nation. The people at Babel wanted to make a name for themselves, but God promised to make Abraham's name great. The workers at Babel followed the wisdom of this world, but Abraham and Sarah trusted the Word of God (Heb. 11:11-12). Babel was built by the energy of the flesh and the motivation of pride, but the nation of Israel was built by the grace and power of God and in spite of human weakness.
We live in a confused world and Babel is still with us. But God still has His faithful remnant that follows Him by faith and keeps their eyes on the heavenly city (vv. 13-16).
Are you a part of that remnant?