A Monument to Man’s Futility

1 Now the whole earth had one language and the same words. And as people migrated from the east, they found a plain in the land of Shinar and settled there. And they said to one another, “Come, let us make bricks, and burn them thoroughly.” And they had brick for stone, and bitumen for mortar. Then they 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, lest we be dispersed over the face of the whole earth.” And the Lord came down to see the city and the tower, which the children of man had built. And the Lord said, “Behold, they are one people, and they have all one language, and this is only the beginning of what they will do. And nothing that they propose to do will now be impossible for them. Come, let us go down and there confuse their language, so that they may not understand one another’s speech.” So the Lord dispersed them from there over the face of all the earth, and they left off building the city. Therefore its name was called Babel, because there the Lord confused the language of all the earth. And from there the Lord dispersed them over the face of all the earth. Genesis 11:1-9 ESV

With the opening verses of chapter 11, Moses provides an explanation of an earlier comment he made regarding Peleg, a descendant of Shem.

To Eber were born two sons: the name of the one was Peleg, for in his days the earth was divided – Genesis 10:25 ESV

The genealogy of Shem found in chapter 10 contains no lineage for Peleg. It simply mentions his name, then moves on to his brother Joktan. But Moses had a good reason for leaving out Peleg. He wanted to emphasize another major turning point in mankind’s story of expansion and moral degeneration. The sons of Noah were filling the earth, just as God had commanded. But as the genealogy of Ham revealed, the spread of mankind was accompanied by a rising number of people groups who would later be characterized as idolatrous, licentious, and evil. The existence of nations like Egypt, Assyria, and Babylon was the direct result of Noah’s sons fulfilling God’s mandate to be fruitful, multiply, and fill the earth. Their efforts had been successful.

the nations spread abroad on the earth after the flood. – Genesis 10:32 ESV

And Moses opens chapter 11 with a stunning revelation. There had been a time when all the nations of the earth shared a common language. This never-disclosed-before insight would have come as a shock to Moses’ Jewish audience. They were already having to deal with the fact that all mankind shared the same lineage. Their enemies, the Egyptians, Assyrians, Canaanites, and Babylonians, were actually their long-lost brothers. And now, they were learning for the first time, that there had been a point in time when all these disparate people groups had shared the same language.

One of the underlying and often overlooked themes in the book of Genesis is mankind’s reticence to obey God’s command to fill the earth. After the fall, the two sons of Adam and Eve chose domestication over migration and expansion.

Abel was a keeper of sheep, and Cain a worker of the ground. – Genesis 4:2 ESV

There is nothing inherently wrong with either of these professions. But it is apparent from the context that the two sons had both chosen to remain close to home. They had settled down not far from their mother and father. And their close proximity proved to be deadly. It was not long before “Cain rose up against his brother Abel and killed him” (Genesis 4:8 ESV). And, as a result, God cursed Cain.

“When you work the ground, it shall no longer yield to you its strength. You shall be a fugitive and a wanderer on the earth.” – Genesis 4:12 ESV

As part of his divine punishment, Cain was cast out of the comfort of his familial surroundings. He was forced to leave home. And his ban from his homeland is reminiscent of Adam and Eve’s expulsion from the garden.

Then the Lord God said, “Behold, the man has become like one of us in knowing good and evil. Now, lest he reach out his hand and take also of the tree of life and eat, and live forever—” therefore the Lord God sent him out from the garden of Eden to work the ground from which he was taken. He drove out the man, and at the east of the garden of Eden he placed the cherubim and a flaming sword that turned every way to guard the way to the tree of life. – Genesis 3:22-24 ESV

Adam and Eve had been cast out of Eden, but the divine mandate remained intact. They were to fill the earth. Ever since the fall, the trajectory of mankind was always intended to be away from Eden and into the world. But it seems that Adam and Eve didn’t wander far from the border of Eden. And their two sons chose to remain nearby as well. But after his sin, Cain was cursed to live the life of a wanderer – a nomad.

Yet, Cain ignored God’s edict and “settled in the land of Nod, east of Eden” (Genesis 4:16 ESV). He blatantly refused to live under God’s curse, choosing instead to settle down.

Cain knew his wife, and she conceived and bore Enoch. When he built a city, he called the name of the city after the name of his son, Enoch. – Genesis 4:17 ESV

Rather than wander, Cain settled down once again. And this same predisposition to ignore God’s mandate can be seen in Noah. When the floodwaters had receded and Noah was able to exit the ark, he and his three sons were assigned the task of fulfilling the divine mandate to fill the earth. But Noah decided to settle down instead.

Noah began to be a man of the soil, and he planted a vineyard. – Genesis 9:20 ESV

And Noah’s seemingly innocuous decision had devasting consequences. It resulted in the cursing of his own grandson and a growing division among all his progeny.

As each new generation came into existence, they continued the slow but steady movement away from Eden. Moses indicates that “as people migrated from the east, they found a plain in the land of Shinar and settled there” (Genesis 11:2 ESV). Whether they realized it or now, they were filling the earth. But, once again, mankind’s inherent desire for autonomy and self-determination raised its ugly head.

During Peleg’s lifetime, some of his relatives made the same fateful decision that Cain and Noah had made. They chose to settle down.

Then they 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, lest we be dispersed over the face of the whole earth.” – Genesis 11: 4 ESV

These industrious individuals decided to make bricks and build a tower to the sky – intended as a monument to their own ingenuity and industry. Their ambitious building project was motivated by a desire to “be like God, knowing good and evil” (Genesis 3:5). They wanted to be the determiners of their own fate and to control their collective destiny. Nowhere in this passage does Moses relate a command issued from God that they should construct a city. This had been their decision and it was purely self-centered and aimed at self-glorification. They wanted to make a name for themselves. Rather than choosing to glorify God, they attempted to glorify themselves. That same attitude is reflected in the words of one of their descendants, a powerful man who would build a great city and then one day proclaim:

“Look at this great city of Babylon! By my own mighty power, I have built this beautiful city as my royal residence to display my majestic splendor.” – Daniel 4:30 NLT

Nebuchadnezzar, the great king of Babylon, would attempt to rob glory from God and suffer the consequences. He gloried in his greatness as a self-made man. But God would give this egotistical king a painful lesson in humility and divine sovereignty.  Nebuchadnezzar would have to learn “that the Most High rules over the kingdoms of the world and gives them to anyone he chooses” (Daniel 4:32 NLT).

And the overly ambitious and egotistical builders of the tower would learn a similar lesson about God’s sovereignty. When the Almighty saw what they were doing, He reacted immediately.

“Look!” he said. “The people are united, and they all speak the same language. After this, nothing they set out to do will be impossible for them! Come, let’s go down and confuse the people with different languages. Then they won’t be able to understand each other.” – Genesis 11:6-7 NLT

There are some who believe that these people were attempting to build a tower that would allow them to access God. But up until this point in the story, mankind had always considered Eden to be the home of God. It’s interesting to note that Adam and Eve had been banned from the garden, the place where they had enjoyed unbroken fellowship with God. And when their son, Cain, had been cursed by God, he “went away from the presence of the Lord and settled in the land of Nod, east of Eden” (Genesis 4:16 ESV).

The story of mankind is characterized by a constant movement away from God. Made in His image and designed to reflect His glory, humanity has made a habit out of distancing itself from God. And the apostle Paul paints a rather bleak portrait of the fallen state of mankind.

Since they thought it foolish to acknowledge God, he abandoned them to their foolish thinking and let them do things that should never be done. Their lives became full of every kind of wickedness, sin, greed, hate, envy, murder, quarreling, deception, malicious behavior, and gossip. They are backstabbers, haters of God, insolent, proud, and boastful. They invent new ways of sinning, and they disobey their parents. They refuse to understand, break their promises, are heartless, and have no mercy. They know God’s justice requires that those who do these things deserve to die, yet they do them anyway. Worse yet, they encourage others to do them, too. – Romans 1:28-32 NLT

In order to disrupt the self-aggrandizing efforts of the tower builders, God created an instant source of confusion by confounding their ability to communicate. In an instant, God turned their call to make a name for themselves into a cacophony of disparate languages. They could no longer understand one another. And with no common language, their ability to conspire against God evaporated.

Moses indicates that “the Lord scattered them all over the world, and they stopped building the city” (Genesis 11:8 NLT). This was a divine punishment that had sovereign consequences. God knew what He was doing. He was forcing humanity to obey His kingdom mandate and fill the earth. It was only in the fulfillment of that command that humanity could act as His image-bearers and bring glory to His name. His will would be done, whether they wanted to participate or not. And Moses states that “in this way, he scattered them all over the world” (Genesis 11:9 NLT).

But while the people dispersed, the tower and the city remained. The site became known as Babel. There is a powerful sense of irony in this story because the name Babel would become synonymous with the future nation of Babylon. In their language, Babel came to mean “the gate of God.” But in Hebrew, the word meant “confusion.” The site of Babel would become the future home of the mighty city of Babylon, the resplendent capital of Nebuchadnezzar’s vast domain. The very city over which he gazed and pridefully proclaimed, “Look at this great city of Babylon! By my own mighty power, I have built this beautiful city as my royal residence to display my majestic splendor.”

Man’s incessant pride is nothing more than misplaced glory that always results in confusion and conflict. Man’s consistent attempts to dethrone God have always produced nothing but chaos. The psalmist provides a sobering assessment of humanity’s ill-fated and futile attempts to replace God.

Why are the nations so angry?
    Why do they waste their time with futile plans?
The kings of the earth prepare for battle;
    the rulers plot together
against the Lord
    and against his anointed one.
“Let us break their chains,” they cry,
    “and free ourselves from slavery to God.”

But the one who rules in heaven laughs.
    The Lord scoffs at them.
Then in anger he rebukes them,
    terrifying them with his fierce fury. – Psalm 2:1-5 NLT

English Standard Version (ESV) The Holy Bible, English Standard Version. ESV® Permanent Text Edition® (2016). Copyright © 2001 by Crossway Bibles, a publishing ministry of Good News Publishers.

New Living Translation (NLT) Holy Bible, New Living Translation, copyright © 1996, 2004, 2015 by Tyndale House Foundation. Used by permission of Tyndale House Publishers Inc., Carol Stream, Illinois 60188. All rights reserved.

New English Translation (NET)NET Bible® copyright ©1996-2017 by Biblical Studies Press, L.L.C. http://netbible.com All rights reserved.

The Hidden Hope of Salvation

21 To Shem also, the father of all the children of Eber, the elder brother of Japheth, children were born. 22 The sons of Shem: Elam, Asshur, Arpachshad, Lud, and Aram. 23 The sons of Aram: Uz, Hul, Gether, and Mash. 24 Arpachshad fathered Shelah; and Shelah fathered Eber. 25 To Eber were born two sons: the name of the one was Peleg, for in his days the earth was divided, and his brother’s name was Joktan. 26 Joktan fathered Almodad, Sheleph, Hazarmaveth, Jerah, 27 Hadoram, Uzal, Diklah, 28 Obal, Abimael, Sheba, 29 Ophir, Havilah, and Jobab; all these were the sons of Joktan. 30 The territory in which they lived extended from Mesha in the direction of Sephar to the hill country of the east. 31 These are the sons of Shem, by their clans, their languages, their lands, and their nations.

32 These are the clans of the sons of Noah, according to their genealogies, in their nations, and from these the nations spread abroad on the earth after the flood.  Genesis 10:21-32 ESV

Compared to his younger brother’s genealogy, Shem’s lineage is far more pedestrian in nature. It contains no names that might raise eyebrows or elicit a sense of shock. And yet, within this list of obscure and difficult to pronounce names Moses provided a subtle, yet powerful, reminder of God’s sovereign authority over the affairs of mankind.

For most modern readers, this list of names seems rather superfluous. The individuals listed are unknown to us and, therefore, carry little weight. Yet, for the Jewish audience to whom Moses penned the book of Genesis, these names would have had a great deal of significance. At the mention of Arpachshad, Shelah, Eber, and Peleg, Moses would have had his reader’s undistracted attention, because these men were part of the family tree of Abraham, the father of the Hebrew nation. In fact, Moses will provide a more detailed and complete genealogy of Abraham in the very next chapter. He will go on to trace the lineage of Shem through the line of Peleg, all the way to the man who would become the patriarch of the Jewish people.

But in chapter nine, Moses chose to ignore the line of Peleg and traced the lineage of his brother, Joktan instead. Moses provides a rather strange aside when describing these two brothers.

To Eber were born two sons: the name of the one was Peleg, for in his days the earth was divided, and his brother’s name was Joktan. – Genesis 10:25 ESV

There has been much debate regarding the meaning of the phrase, “the earth was divided.” The Hebrew word is פָּלַג (pālaḡ), and it means “to split, cleave, or divide.” Based on the context of chapter 11, the most logical explanation is that Moses is referring to God’s dividing of the nations by the creation of languages. It seems that the events recorded in Genesis 11:1-9 occurred during the lifetime of Peleg. It was in Peleg’s lifetime that God decided to “divide or split” the earth by confusing the languages of the people. And Moses provides a detailed description of God’s momentous decision.

“Behold, they are one people, and they have all one language, and this is only the beginning of what they will do. And nothing that they propose to do will now be impossible for them. Come, let us go down and there confuse their language, so that they may not understand one another’s speech.” – Genesis 11:6-7 ESV

And Moses goes on to describe how God “dispersed them from there over the face of all the earth” (Genesis 11:8 ESV). God literally “divided” or “split” the earth by creating new people groups with different languages. Their inability to communicate with one another caused an immediate parting of the ways, indirectly fulfilling God’s command that mankind “fill the earth.” In “dispersing” them, God was breaking humanity in pieces and scattering them abroad. That is the literal meaning of the Hebrew word, פּוּץ (pûṣ).

It would appear that Moses split the genealogy found in chapter 10 at the juncture of Peleg and Joktan because he was going to provide further details about Peleg’s lineage in the following chapter. During the lives of these two brothers, something significant and earth-shattering took place. And Moses will provide further insights into that momentous occasion. But it seems safe to conclude that when Moses states “in his days the earth was divided,” he is referring to the events surrounding the tower of Babel, as described in the opening verses of chapter 11. Another reason for reaching this conclusion is found in a psalm written by David. In it, he uses the very same word, (pālaḡ), to describe the dividing and confusion of languages.

Destroy, O Lord, divide (pālaḡ) their tongues;
    for I see violence and strife in the city. – Psalm 55:9 ESV

So, hidden within this somewhat meaningless and uninteresting genealogy is a subtle reminder of God’s sovereign will. As the sons of Noah procreate and populate the planet, God is operating behind the scene, sovereignly orchestrating His divine will. With the birth of each new son, another branch in the human family tree begins. Peleg and Joktan, while brothers, would produce two distinctively different progeny.  From Joktan would come the various Arabic tribes, the Yemenites, Assyrians, Lydians, and Aramaens. These “clans of the sons of Noah, according to their genealogies, in their nations, and from these the nations spread abroad on the earth after the flood” (Genesis 10:32 ESV).

God was orchestrating the creation of all those nations that were destined to play vital roles in His future plans for the world. By sovereignly forming such diverse groups as the Egyptians, Assyrians, Babylonians, and Canaanites, God was putting in place all the pieces to His divine plan for mankind’s redemption. There was a method to the seeming madness. God had a reason for creating each of these distinct people groups. And Moses wanted his readers to understand that the existence of each of these nations had been decreed by God’s will. They didn’t just happen. They were planned by God Almighty. And while each of them would eventually become an enemy of Israel, God had a divinely ordained role for them to play.

There is no cosmic karma in the universe. Nothing happens by chance. Nations rise and fall by the sovereign will of God. The existence of languages was part of God’s plan. The birth of great nation-states was His idea. Each of the men listed in the genealogy of chapter 10 would go on to father a multitude of descendants. And these people would eventually form various nations, representing a diverse mix of ethnicities with each speaking their own unique language and displaying their own cultural distinctiveness. And it would be into this diverse and divisive milieu that God would sovereignly raise up a single man who would become the next “Adam” in the story of mankind’s eventual redemption from the fall.

This all takes us back to the protoevangelium (first gospel) found in Genesis 3:15. In pronouncing His curse against the serpent, God provided the promise of an offspring or seed, that would come from the woman.

“I will put enmity between you and the woman,
    and between your offspring and her offspring;
he shall bruise your head,
    and you shall bruise his heel.” – Genesis 3:15 ESV

There is far more to this statement than the prediction of mutual hatred between mankind and snakes. This was a divinely decreed promise of payback for Satan’s role in Adam and Eve’s rebellion against God. There would one day come a descendant of Eve who would restore fallen mankind to a right relationship with God. Jesus Christ, as outlined in the gospel of Luke, would be born a descendant of Adam (Luke 3:23-38). But as Matthew records in his gospel account, Jesus would also be the descendant of Abraham, who would be born from the line of Peleg.

…Jesus Christ, the son of David, the son of Abraham. – Matthew 1:1 ESV

Hidden within these somewhat obscure genealogical lists is the message of God’s sovereign plan to restore what Satan had attempted to destroy. When God sent the flood as a form of judgment against the wickedness of humanity, He could have destroyed Noah and his sons, and been completely just and right in doing so. While Noah found favor with God, he was not sinless. While Moses describes him as righteous and blameless “in his generation” (Genesis 6:9 ESV), this was intended as a statement of comparison, not commendation. In other words, Noah had not earned his salvation from God. God did not spare Noah because he was righteous. No, according to the book of Hebrews, God spared Noah because he believed and obeyed. He took God at His word and heeded the warning that judgment was coming.

By faith Noah, being warned by God concerning events as yet unseen, in reverent fear constructed an ark for the saving of his household. By this he condemned the world and became an heir of the righteousness that comes by faith. – Hebrews 11:7 ESV

Noah’s faith was in the salvation of God. Despite the fact that none of God’s commands made much sense or the likelihood of a worldwide flood seemed remote at best, Noah believed and obeyed. He put his faith in God’s promise of deliverance. But in stepping on the ark he had helped to construct, Noah was foreshadowing a greater deliverance to come. And the author of Hebrews ends chapter 11, his great “Hall of Faith,” with the following words of encouragement and insight.

All these people earned a good reputation because of their faith, yet none of them received all that God had promised. For God had something better in mind for us, so that they would not reach perfection without us. – Hebrews 11:39-40 NLT

Out of all the offspring born to Adam and Noah, there would eventually come one “seed” that would provide a means of restoring broken humanity to a right relationship with its Creator.

English Standard Version (ESV) The Holy Bible, English Standard Version. ESV® Permanent Text Edition® (2016). Copyright © 2001 by Crossway Bibles, a publishing ministry of Good News Publishers.

New Living Translation (NLT) Holy Bible, New Living Translation, copyright © 1996, 2004, 2015 by Tyndale House Foundation. Used by permission of Tyndale House Publishers Inc., Carol Stream, Illinois 60188. All rights reserved.

New English Translation (NET)NET Bible® copyright ©1996-2017 by Biblical Studies Press, L.L.C. http://netbible.com All rights reserved.

Edification, Not Emotion.

Therefore, one who speaks in a tongue should pray that he may interpret. For if I pray in a tongue, my spirit prays but my mind is unfruitful. What am I to do? I will pray with my spirit, but I will pray with my mind also; I will sing praise with my spirit, but I will sing with my mind also. Otherwise, if you give thanks with your spirit, how can anyone in the position of an outsider say “Amen” to your thanksgiving when he does not know what you are saying? For you may be giving thanks well enough, but the other person is not being built up. I thank God that I speak in tongues more than all of you. Nevertheless, in church I would rather speak five words with my mind in order to instruct others, than ten thousand words in a tongue. – 1 Corinthians 14:13-19 ESV

Once again, Paul emphasizes the importance of the spiritual gifts as tools given by God for the mutual edification of the body of Christ. He indicates that a person who prays during worship using an unknown language may be giving thanks to God, but the rest of the congregation will not be built up. They will not understand what is being said, so they will be unable to join in thanksgiving. In fact, Paul says that someone praying in a tongue has no idea what they are saying as well. “For if I pray in tongues, my spirit is praying, but I don’t understand what I am saying” (1 Corinthians 14:14 NLT). That’s why Paul encourages those who say they have the gift of tongues to pray that they might also be given the ability to interpret what they are saying. The spiritual part of a believer’s life was not to be viewed as separate or distinct from their intellectual or cognitive capacities. God puts a high priority on knowledge. He wants us to know Him. He desires for us to know truth. He wants us to “know the love of Christ that surpasses knowledge, that you may be filled with all the fullness of God” (Ephesians 3:19 ESV). Even Paul said, “I want to know Christ and experience the mighty power that raised him from the dead. I want to suffer with him, sharing in his death” (Philippians 3:10 NLT).

Earlier in this same letter, Paul spoke of the Spirit’s role in helping believers understand and comprehend the mind of God.

For the Spirit searches everything, even the depths of God. For who knows a person’s thoughts except the spirit of that person, which is in him? So also no one comprehends the thoughts of God except the Spirit of God. Now we have received not the spirit of the world, but the Spirit who is from God, that we might understand the things freely given us by God. And we impart this in words not taught by human wisdom but taught by the Spirit, interpreting spiritual truths to those who are spiritual. – 1 Corinthians 2:10-13 NLT

The Spirit of God exists to make God known. He helps us understand those things given to us by God. Without the Spirit living within us, we would still be natural and not spiritual. And the “natural person does not accept the things of the Spirit of God, for they are folly to him, and he is not able to understand them because they are spiritually discerned” (1 Corinthians 2:14 ESV).

So the Spirit within us is there to help us understand. And when the Spirit speaks through us by means of our gift, others should be able to understand as well. They should be drawn closer to God. But Paul indicates that the gift of tongues, without interpretation, is of no use to anyone. It may make the one speaking feel spiritual, but there is no benefit to their understanding. Underlying all of this is Paul’s emphasis on the content of the message. What is being said is far more important than the means or the method of delivery. That’s why he makes the very bold statement: “But in a church meeting I would rather speak five understandable words to help others than ten thousand words in an unknown language” (1 Corinthians 14:19 NLT). He is discounting the validity of tongues as a gift, but he is elevating the priority of communication and edification.

One of the more difficult portions of this passage to understand is Paul’s claim, “I thank God that I speak in tongues more than all of you” (1 Corinthians 14:18 ESV). Many in the charismatic movement who view tongues as ecstatic utterances and not actual languages, use this verse as proof that Paul used the gift of tongues in secret. But in every case where tongues is mentioned in the New Testament, it is in a corporate context. And it always involves unbelievers, such as on the day of Pentecost. Paul will even go on to clarify that “tongues are a sign not for believers but for unbelievers” (1 Corinthians 14:22 ESV). So what does Paul mean when he says that he speaks in tongues more than any of them. I think Paul is using sarcasm. He is actually saying that what they are claiming to be the gift of tongues is not tongues at all. Paul had evidently spoken in tongues before. And more than likely he did so in keeping with the New Testament criteria that it be done for the benefit of non-believers. More than likely Paul was given the use of tongues when he spoke in the synagogues in the towns he visited. There would have been non-Jews present who had become followers of Yahweh. They would have spoken other languages and it is likely that it was on those occasions that Paul spoke in tongues, using languages that would be understood by those present.

But the bottom line for Paul was using the gifts properly and in keeping with God’s design for them. If they did not benefit others, either the lost or other believers, they were being misused, even abused. Paul will go on to use an absurd example intended to show the danger of the Corinthian’s improper view of gifts. If one Sunday the entire congregation broke out in the gift of tongues and an unbeliever walked in the door, they would probably conclude that everyone had lost their minds. The disciples of Jesus got a similar response when they spoke in tongues at Pentecost. Some were amazed, others were perplexed, and then there were those who just accused them of being drunk. But Peter used the opportunity to share the gospel. The gift of tongues had a divine purpose. Any gift that does not edify is being misused. Any view of the gifts that emphasizes the emotions over spiritual edification is misguided and dangerous. There must be a benefit to the entire congregation. Which is why Paul said, “if I come to you speaking in tongues, how will I benefit you unless I bring you some revelation or knowledge or prophecy or teaching?” (1 Corinthians 14:6 ESV). When we are operating in the power of the Spirit, it is for the benefit of all. It is for the building up of the body of Christ, not the individual.