WHAT HOPE FOR SOCIETY?

 

Week of January 28, 2007

 

Bible Passages:  Genesis 11:1-9; Proverbs 28:2-5; 29:2-4.

 

Biblical Truth: People please God and strengthen their society when they put God and His ways at the center of their community life.

 

Pursue the Right Reputation: Genesis 11:1-4.

 

[1]  Now the whole earth used the same language and the same words. [2]  It came about as they journeyed east, that they found a plain in the land of Shinar and settled there. [3]  They said to one another, "Come, let us make bricks and burn them thoroughly." And they used brick for stone, and they used tar for mortar. [4]  They said, "Come, let us build for ourselves a city, and a tower whose top will reach into heaven, and let us make for ourselves a name, otherwise we will be scattered abroad over the face of the whole earth."  [NASU]

 

The tenth and eleventh chapters of Genesis are composed of genealogies of nations and peoples designed to link the story of Noah and the flood with the story of Abraham and his descendants, which fills the remainder of the book. The genealogies begin with Noah’s three sons and move eventually to Terah from whom Abraham is born. At two points there are parentheses dealing with the founding of the first world empire under Nimrod. The first parenthesis is 10:8-12. The second is 11:1-9. These two go together. The first tells of Nimrod’s exploits. The second does not mention Nimrod but speaks rather of an attempt to build the city of Babel or Babylon, a central feature of which was to be a great tower. In 10:10 we learn that Babylon was the initial city of Nimrod’s city-building empire. Thus chapter 11 is an elaboration of the earlier narrative. In the first we have an emphasis on Nimrod: what he was like, what he did, what his goals were. In the second we have a treatment of the same theme but from the perspective of the people who worked with him. In each case there is a desire to build a civilization without God.

 

Genesis 11:1-9 mirrors the attempt of humanity in the garden to achieve power independently of God. The attempt of the Babelites to transgress human limits is reminiscent of Eve’s ambition. There are a number of verbal similarities between 11:1-9 and the garden events of chapters 2-3. As in the tower story, the divine plural also appears in the garden account, and both indicate the divine distress over the potential havoc that the new knowledge achieved by mankind may bring about. The story presents a number of interpretive problems. Why was the tower an offense against God? What was it about the people’s unity that God rejected? Also, how are we to understand “scattering” as a motif of judgment when dispersal was presented positively as God’s blessing in the creation and flood accounts [1:28; 9:1-3]? Why would God be against humanity enjoying a unity of purpose, enterprise, and language?

 

Indeed, there was a unity desired by God, but it was one bestowed by God, not one founded on a social state. This community resisted the divine command to be fruitful and multiply, and fill the earth. In their eyes their security rested on their homogeneity, and thus they set about to preserve their union by building the city as a haven with its symbolic tower of corporate achievement. This act of arrogant defiance resulted in disbandment. By their own measure the Babelites would have reckoned their dissolution as punishment, but in the larger scheme of God’s purposes it was an act of gracious intervention to insure that humanity would eventually attain the promissory blessing. In this case God opposed unity and favored disunity, the very thing the Babelites feared. God’s purposes included the diversity that a dispersal of Noah’s family would have ultimately meant, but the wicked aims of the Noahic offspring required God to intervene to save them from themselves. This has its parallel in the garden where the couple are driven from the tree of life, which not only meant their punishment but ironically also their rescue from perpetual life in shameful misery. We may remember that the same irony occurs in the scattering of the church in Acts 8, where persecution propelled the church into the Diaspora, so that by taking the gospel they accomplished the charge of the resurrected Lord [Acts 1:8].

 

The important point concerning this city was that it was man’s city, not God’s city. It was constructed by man for man’s glory. This is seen in their desire to make a name for themselves. This indicates their desire for independence from God. The reputation they sought was to be earned by man apart from God. They did not want God to give them their name but wanted to establish their own reputation and eliminate God entirely. The tower reaching into heaven was to serve a religious purpose for the city. Since the citizens of Babylon had rejected the knowledge of the true God, we should expect the creation of a false religion. It is possible that the tower had something to do with astrology, which focuses on a study of the zodiac, since astrology originated in Babylon. The Bible continually warns against astrology since it is identified with demonism in the sense that Satan was actually being worshiped in the guise of the signs or planets [Lev. 19:31; Deut. 18].

 

Focus on God’s Purposes: Genesis 11:5-9.

 

[5]  The LORD came down to see the city and the tower which the sons of men had built. [6]  The LORD said, "Behold, they are one people, and they all have the same language. And this is what they began to do, and now nothing which they purpose to do will be impossible for them. [7]  Come, let Us go down and there confuse their language, so that they will not understand one another's speech." [8]  So the LORD scattered them abroad from there over the face of the whole earth; and they stopped building the city. [9]  Therefore its name was called Babel, because there the LORD confused the language of the whole earth; and from there the LORD scattered them abroad over the face of the whole earth.  [NASU]

 

There are several interesting features of this part of the story. The first is a second use of the word come. Earlier the builders had used this word for the calling of their council [3-4]. But now God uses the word as He assembles His heavenly council and moves to confuse their language: Come, let Us go down and there confuse their language [7]. It is a way of saying that God always has the last word. We can assemble our councils; but God will assemble His council, and the decree of God’s council will prevail. It follows that those who choose to go their own way will always end up frustrated. The prize so earnestly sought after becomes a bubble that bursts at the first touch. We may chafe against this, but it will always be this way because we live in God’s world, not our own, and because God has determined to make bitter anything that is prized above Himself.

 

The second interesting feature of this part of the story is that God came down to see the tower the men of Babylon were building. This is an anthropomorphism, that is, God being described as if He were a man. But it is used here with effect. Here were men attempting to build a great tower. The top was to reach to the heavens. It was to be so great that it and the religion and defiance of God it represented would make a reputation for these citizens of Shinar. There it stood, lofty in its unequaled grandeur. But when God wants to look at it He comes down. He has to stoop low to see this puny extravagance. It is always thus. The greatest is nothing compared to the immensity of the universe, not to mention the universe’s Creator. The only truly significant accomplishments are God’s, for only these partake of the nature of God and endure forever, as God does.

 

[9]  The narrative comes full circle with this verse, which presents the consequences of the tower event (therefore). Now the people of Shinar are depicted in disarray. The irony of the story is depicted in the two uses of the word name. The people came together wanting to make a name for themselves. But, in the end, it is God who gives them a name. God calls the place Babel which is related to the Hebrew word for confusion which was God’s purpose for coming down in verse 7. Thus God shows His sovereign control over the affairs of sinful man.

 

Help Establish Godly Standards: Proverbs 28:2-5; 29:2-4.

 

[28:2]  By the transgression of a land many are its princes, but by a man of understanding and knowledge, so it endures. [3]  A poor man who oppresses the lowly is like a driving rain which leaves no food. [4]  Those who forsake the law praise the wicked, but those who keep the law strive with them. [5]  Evil men do not understand justice, but those who seek the LORD understand all things.  [29:2]  When the righteous increase, the people rejoice, but when a wicked man rules, people groan.

[3]  A man who loves wisdom makes his father glad, but he who keeps company with harlots wastes his wealth. [4] The king gives stability to the land by justice, but a man who takes bribes overthrows it.

[NASU]

 

[2]  All of these verses contain a series of contrasts indicated by the use of the word but. The purpose of the contrasts is to bring out the difference between the ways of the world and the ways of the people of God. When God intends us to do great things, He makes us feel that without Him we can do nothing. Thus pride receives its deathblow, and God receives all the glory to Himself. God is concerned about the control of kingdoms. When a country sins against God, it is punished with political and military unrest, with many would-be rulers pitted one against another. Verse 2 tells us that stability is ensured in a country when those in power are willing to hear and heed the counsel of wise and experienced men. Joseph was a clear example of this truth.

 

[3]  It has been supposed by many commentators that the situation envisaged in this verse is an impossible one: the poor do not oppress the poor. It has therefore been proposed to emend the first word for poor to “ruler” or “wicked person”. But this is to misunderstand the range of meanings of the verb oppresses. Although this verb is frequently used of the tyranny of the rich and powerful over the poor and defenseless, it can also denote robbery of one’s neighbor or the cheating of customers by a tradesman. Here for a poor man to steal food from his equally poor neighbor is singled out as particularly disastrous. It is compared to torrential rain which devastates the standing crops and thus causes famine. Thus unrestrained power is often an engine of oppression, no matter who holds the power.

 

[4]  Whether or not the law here refers specifically to divine law, there is certainly a thematic connection between this verse and verse 5 in that to keep the law, even if law means the teaching of the wise, is to fight against the wicked. Thus one’s attitude toward the law will determine one’s evaluation of people and one’s choice of companions.

 

[5]  Evil men means men who have completely devoted themselves to evil. In this verse devotion to Yahweh is expressed in terms of wisdom or understanding and wickedness is defined as a lack of this. Evil men do not know the true standard of right and wrong, the true way to God, or the end of God’s dealings with them. Their ignorance is deliberate. Unless he is humbled in the consciousness of his ignorance and seeks light from above, he will perish in gross darkness. Those who seek the Lord, even though they are but babes in intellect and ignorant in worldly things, will understand justice, in a way that an unspiritual person will never be able to. Many things, dark to human reason, are simplified by humility. The harmony of the divine attributes staggers reason and can only be understood by humble faith.

 

[29:2-4]  What but righteousness can truly bless either an individual, a family, or a nation? He is wise not only who has arrived at a complete habit of wisdom, but who does love it or desire it and listen to it. The equitable administration of justice gives stability to the land. But the best laws are of little use when they are badly administered. Partiality and injustice make them null and void. And yet it requires great integrity and moral courage to withstand the temptations of worldly policy and self-interest.

 

 

 

Questions for Discussion:

 

1.      Why was the tower an offense against God? What was it about the people’s unity that God rejected?

 

2.      What lessons is God teaching us from the story of the tower of Babel? What is the irony depicted in the two uses of the word “name”?

 

3.      What lessons can we learn from the series of contrasts in the section of proverbs included here?

 

 

References:

Genesis, James Boice, Baker Books.

Genesis 1-11:26, Kenneth Mathews, NAC, Broadman Publishers.

Proverbs, Duane Garrett, NAC, Broadman Press.