God Humbles Man's Pride - Genesis 11:1-9
I set out to tell you about the Tower of Babel, and what it can teach us. However, in a time when there is so much confusion about the early chapters of Genesis, where the story is found, I think it wise to say something about the truthfulness of this whole section of the Bible.
There is no final conflict between the actual words of the Bible and the findings of good science. In the one book, the Bible, God reveals Himself in Words. In His other book, the Cosmos, He reveals Himself in His Works. How then could these two ever be in real conflict?
The Old Cavendish Laboratory (for experimental physics) at Cambridge University
The first director was James Maxwell, one of the giants of physics in the 19th century, and called the father of electro-magnetism. Albert Einstein called him the greatest physicist since Isaac Newton. Maxwell saw no conflict between his bible and his science, and had these words inscribed above the door of the then new laboratory -
"Great are the works of the LORD, studied by all who delight in them" Psalm 111:2
Why then are there conflicts?
I think the answer is that there is a lot of poor bible-study and a lot of poor science. We must read what the Bible actually says, and not read into it our own ideas. It must shape our ideas. Likewise in science we must read what the Cosmos says in its facts. We must not read into it our own theories. Good bible-study and good science are both ready to abandon a theory if it does not match up to the facts.
Perhaps the greatest conflict zone is the first 11 chapters of the (BTW, the chapters are later conveniences added by editors, and have no meaning as such). This is the part that begins with the creation and ends with the birth of Abraham. The battle cries are "Its all literal!" on one side, and "Its myth and legend!" on the other. Most accept that we have true history from Abraham onwards.
Why should we care?
Either it is true that Someone created the cosmos, including mankind, or it just happened. If God made all, then there is a true foundation for meaning, grounded in the character of God. If we just happened, if we are just cosmic accidents, the result of the random collisions of atoms, then we have no foundation for any of the things we all cherish - love, beauty, right and justice. These are all just chemistry in action. We know nothing about why we are here, why man is man, and why we ought to behave in any acceptable way. We have no basis for saying that even paedophilia is evil behaviour. What is is, and might is right! Even eastern Pantheism (ie, "the cosmos is God, so you are also God") cannot help, for one man's "god-ness" is shown in cruelty and another's in charity, and who is to say that one is evil and the other good?
Some clues to the nature of Genesis 1-11
- Christianity is rooted in history and there is a continuity of history from Adam to Jesus. If Jesus did not live, speak and work as the Bible says, then Christianity is hopeless. It cannot live as a bare philosophy (nor can any other system of belief). The record of the New Testament, inc. Jesus' own words, makes no sense if there is not in fact a continuity of true history from Adam to the present day. The examples are a multitude, but just 3 must do:-
- Matt. 19:4.. "Have you not read that He who created them from the beginning made them male and female, and said 'Therefore a man shall leave his father and mother and hold fast to his wife, and they shall become one flesh'?"
- Luke 3:38, in the genealogy of Christ, we have "who was the son of Enos, who was the son of Seth, who was the son of Adam, who was the son of God." This makes no sense of Adam was not a living man, if he was just a convenient myth.
- Paul to the Corinthian Christians, 15:21 "For since by man came death, by man came also the resurrection of the dead."
- Bible genealogies are not complete (true, yes, exhaustive, no).
- We moderns, if we build family trees at all, want every last aunt, uncle, and 2nd cousin thrice removed, included. Completeness is what matters.
- Not so for the ancients. They were not concerned with completeness, but with ancestral lines - who is in which tribe, who can serve as a priest (being descended from Aaron, Moses' brother and God's first appointed High Priest), or in some other special role? We tend to read our ideas back into these ancient records, forgetting that they were only interested in the key persons.
- Telescoping the genealogies was normal, and was thoroughly truthful when we realise that in Hebrew there were no words for grandfather nor grandson. The same words for father (ab) and son (ben) were used for all these. The most pointed example is Matt. 1:1 "The book of the genealogy of Jesus Christ, the son of David, the son of Abraham." It cannot be complete, yet it is true 'Jesus descended from David, who descended from Abraham', though there were about 1000 years between David and Jesus. Matthew immediately goes on to give us a fuller genealogy of 42 generations, but it is not complete either, for Luke gives us 56 for the same period.
- Telescoping down to less than 50%, or even to 10%, is quite likely on the basis of the internal evidence we have from comparing the many genealogies [ see web article for a very detailed analysis ]
- Luke also gives us, in the section from Adam to Abraham, one more name than Moses gives us in Gen. 5.
- We cannot use these genealogies to count back to Creation happening at 4004 BC, (6000 years ago) as Bishop Ussher did in 1650. That is not what they were meant for. A friend who was a University lecturer in ancient history suggested the period from Adam to the present could be up to 20,000 years.
- Does Genesis chapter 1 really say that the Universe was made in 6 literal days of 24 hours?
- Many Christians insist it must be read that way. But many others, who also believe Genesis 1 is God-inspired and totally true, see plenty of scope for different interpretations.
- So, what does "day" mean in Genesis 1? Scholars who believe the whole Bible to be God's inspired word come to different conclusions. Here is some food for thought:-
- in Genesis 1 and 2 "day" is used for:-
- daylight contrasted with night, Gen. 1:5,14,16
- the days of Creation, each with its refrain of "evening and morning"
- a period of time covering the whole Creation, Gen. 2:4 "These are the generations of the heavens and the earth when they were created, in the day that the LORD God made the earth and the heavens.(English Standard Version keeps the word day, but not New International Version, which correctly translates the meaning (ie, "when") but drops the actual word "day".
- Does "And there was evening and there was morning, the first day." in Genesis 1:5 include Genesis 1:1-2? Or does it refer only to verses 3 to 5? If you read the chapter you will see that the events of the 2nd through to 6th days all begin with "And/Then God said" and end with the refrain "And there was evening and there was morning, the XXXXX day." Why not then the first day, beginning with verse 3 "And God said..."? That leaves the possibility that verses 1 and 2 refer to an earlier period of un-stated duration.
The Creation of the World
1 In the beginning, God created the heavens and the earth. 2 The earth was without form and void, and darkness was over the face of the deep. And the Spirit of God was hovering over the face of the waters.
3 And God said, “Let there be light”, and there was light. 4 And God saw that the light was good. And God separated the light from the darkness. 5 God called the light Day, and the darkness he called Night. And there was evening and there was morning, the first day.
The Holy Bible, English Standard Version Copyright © 2001 by Crossway Bibles, a division of Good News Publishers.
What about poor science?
Just as poor assumptions (e.g. genealogies are all complete) can lead us to mistakes in understanding the bible, so they can lead us to mistakes in understanding the cosmos.
- For many years the majority of astronomers believed the Universe to be infinite and eternal. Even Albert Einstein believed this and inserted a "fudge factor" into his equations of relativity rather than accept the equations' conclusion that the Universe had a beginning. He later said this was his greatest mistake.
- The almost universal assumption that biological evolution from the molecule to Man is a proven fact, and that it somehow proves there is no God. That idea that all living things are related fits just as well with belief that a wise God planned and directed the process (whatever that process is). "Molecule to Man" evolution remains a theory dependent on enough evidence, and not a universal law. Good science lets the evidence shape the theory, and not the other way around.
- In good science theories come and go - Copernicus Sun-centred solar system replaced the flawed Earth-centred theory of Aristotle and Ptolemy - Isaac Newton's static universe was replaced by Einstein's relativity - Hoyle's stable universe by Hubble's expanding universe. All these changes came as scientists looked closely at the evidence revealed by new technology.
The Genesis Account of the Tower of Babel - Genesis 11:1-9
|by Pieter Bruegel the Elder, 1525-1569
- Noah's descendants - now many after several hundred years
- V1 All one language
- V2 travelling - decide to settle in Shinar
- V3 decide to build there, permanently, even out of earth (brick and pitch) - what enthusiasm ("Come on!") Some think Nimrod, a mighty king of that period (10:8-12) was the strong-man behind the city and tower of Babel. see 10:10 "the beginning of his kingdom was Babel,....". There is many legends about him, but no other facts in the Bible, except Micah 5:6, which speaks of the "land of Nimrod" in connection with Assyria (Nimrod built Nineveh too)
- V4 A city - strength in numbers (& people for Nimrod to rule!) - profit, art, science, splendour
- A tower, with its top in heavens (false religion; "gate of god" - that is what Babel means in the ancient Akkadian language)
Etemenanki - "temple of the foundation of heaven and earth" was the name of a ziggurat built in Babylon later on, maybe on the site and model of the first tower
- A name
- Why? - lest we be scattered (no scope for pride); distrust of God's rule & promise (high tower?)
- V5 "But God" came down to see
- V6 God's reasons for action - 1 speech, great beginning, there'll be no stopping them now
- V7,8 God acts, stops the work & scatters them, by confusing their language - this is the origin of our world's many languages.
- V9 named Babel ("confusion" in the Hebrew language)
What does this teach us about Man?
- Man is Great -(made in God's image therefore must be; "what is man that you are mindful of him..." Ps 8:4,5) v6 - "now nothing they propose to do will be withheld them" - our generation shows this.
(with apologies to Pieter Bruegel the Elder; fact is we have no idea what technology they had - it is an illustration of our own modern pride that we think the ancients must have been primitive, despite the stupendous works they have left behind. Pyramids, and the Mayan calendar.
- Man is Broken, not knowing nor fearing God - flood of judgment in Noah's day still a close memory but forgotten (or denied & ignored) what God had done, and promised (judgment on evil, mercy to faithful)
- Man is Religious - even the rebel must have something - ziggaruts, pyramids, temples - feeble attempts
- Man Wants His Own Name - "What's in a name?" - ie, it's the real thing that counts; yet denied daily ("Coke!", sunglasses, clothes). Reputation (what others think...) - fastest, prettiest, funniest, worst, most outrageous, famous - last word, own trumpet, "my image", Top job/spot/dog/gun. "I'm better than you!" (Note: not wrong to excel; but few can handle it without pride, & with thanks to God, & only by grace)
- "But we're not all like that!" - yes - Adam's choice "You will be like God" & likeness. Child's tantrum same spirit as Hitler (by grace restrained). "He's a good boy at heart" - no, he's not, his heart is tainted, as we all are, with evil. Rom 3:10, 18 (there is no fear of God before their eyes"). Not just a loose thread on the fabric of life, but woven all through it.
- Origin - Lucifer (Isa 14:12-14) - "you are of your father the Devil" John 8:44; "I will be my own centre, independent of God" - PRIDE IS AT THE ROOT.
- Man Ends up Scattered Anyway, & in Confusion - inevitable if you act as if you are independent of God, who is your only proper centre. We only have meaning (hence peace, hope, joy, rest) as far as we are rightly related to Him.
- Man Ends Up without a Name - Isa 14:20 "the brood of evil-doers shall never be named" - no name remembered except Nimrod's.
- Man Ends up utterly ruined at the last - Babel > Babylon > Great Babylon > is fallen, fallen (Rev. 18). Shinar is Babylon's land (Da 1:2). Isa 14: 9-11, 15-17
What does this teach us about God?
- God Sees (Knows) - v5,6 - what fools we are to ever think we can hide anything from Him. He knows all about you! The fool has said in his heart 'there is no God' - wishful thinking (utterly wrong, and utterly hopeless if it were right!)
- God is Holy - He will not tolerate evil
- God Acts -He does things in this world - v7 (confounds then with a quiet stoke of His pen)
- Not what He had done before (a flood)
- Not what He might have done (fire, earthquake, plague,...)
- In wisdom & mercy He just scatters their language, and thus themselves.
- God Rules - v8 - they are scattered, and they do stop their boastful building (having removed the foundation of common speech)
- He is always in control
- God Judges - they won't get away with it (drug barons, big-time swindlers, child molesters, crooked leaders) He will judge, sooner or later, as pleases Him (He knows the right time for everything)
- All man's proud attempts will be swept away in a moment (Isa 14:23b, Rev. 18)
- You won't get away with it either! - pride, lies, meanness, bitterness, hatred
- God Saves Sinners - He acted then in mercy. Thanks be to His name, for He still acts in mercy. The real Ark's door is still open ("I am the Door"). There is a Name free to all ("Nor is there salvation in any other, for there is no other name under heaven given among men by which we must be saved" Acts 4:12).
(Original document 15 May 2012)
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Last updated: 11 Aug 2021
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