And the whole earth was of one language, and of one speech. And it came to pass, as they journeyed from the east, that they found a plain in the land of Shinar; and they dwelt there. And they said one to another, Go to, let us make brick, and burn them thoroughly. And they had brick for stone, and slime had they for morter. And they said, Go to, let us build us a city and a tower, whose top may reach unto heaven; and let us make us a name, lest we be scattered abroad upon the face of the whole earth. (Genesis 11:1-4)
Genesis 11 takes a closer look at events alluded to in the previous chapter, ie the references to the rise of the tyrant Nimrod, (whose name means, “Let us rebel”), and to Peleg, of whom it was said that in his time the earth was divided. The cause and nature of that division is the subject of chapter 11.
At this time the tribes of Shem, Ham and Japheth had not yet spread out over the earth, as God had commanded them to do, rather it seems that they banded themselves together in the city named “Babel”, which is interpreted as “gate of the gods”, in the land of Shinar, in southern Mesopotamia. The word ‘Shinar ‘ means ‘casting down’.
The apostasy, which involved virtually the entire population of the world, centered around three things,
*A city- The city was already built, of course, Babel, Nimrod’s capital. It became the focal point for the universal rebellion against the God who told them to go out and to subdue and fill the earth. They would not spread out, nor would they pioneer to subdue the earth. Rather, they would collectivize, joining hand in hand to live on their own terms without God.
Like their ancestor Cain, who founded a city after slaying his brother, naming it Enoch, ie “inauguration”, the city Babel became the “new beginning” of life for the united world away from the God of Shem.
* A tower- Central to the new, world uniting city, was a tower, “Whose top would reach unto heaven”. There are several plausible theories about the meaning of the tower. Some say it was a safeguard against the possibility of another flood. As if the priests of Babel were saying, “This time some of us,(the elite) will survive, by seeking refuge on top of the tower. We can’t ever allow the God of the flood to wipe us out again!”.
Another theory, one that I find most plausible, is that the tower was a pyramid or ziggurat, which elevated a platform for priests to better observe the planets in order that they might practice astrology.
There is a third theory, that the Tower represented heaven. The Ancients would create their own symbolic cosmological ‘heaven’ on high platforms, so that through ritual performance, man would be in control of what happens in heaven and subsequently, on earth.
The truth could be any one of these or any combination of them. The effect was that man would be in control of his own life, and to be the one to define and create his own destiny. Shem’s God wouldn’t be needed anymore, nor would he have to be feared, now that they had the unity and technology to make their own way.
* A name-Underlying the tower and city building project, was the deepest reason for the apostasy, for they would ‘…make a name…’ for themselves. This is another way of saying that they wanted to be independent of God.They wanted to re-define themselves in terms of their humanity, and to divorce themselves from the God of heaven, Shem and the flood.
The fact that God named Adam, and calls men by their names, implies His dominion over them. The object named belongs to the one who named it. There is accountability also, for the namer defines the named. When God allowed Adam to name the animals, He was giving man dominion over them.
The city and Tower building project was a revolt against God, a rejection of accountability to, and definition by the Creator of the universe. At that time man was absolutely united, in rebellion and repudiation of God. All spoke the same language and virtually all had adopted the rebellious mindset.
In order to accomplish their goals, the leaders set out to utilize technology and to organize labor, to mass produce bricks, and to harvest bitumen for mortar for the project. Nothing would be spared in this monumental undertaking, all men worked together in a remarkable spirit of unity.
The making of bricks, ie artificial stones, all uniform, to the same standards, sizes and weights has a symbolic meaning in scripture. A Stone represents truth, thus the Ten Commandments are etched into stone tablets. Bricks are man made, and represent falsity. The Temple was made of stone, not brick. Pharoah forced the children of Israel to make bricks.
Bricks represent man’s technology to make his own world. The conformity of bricks as opposed to stone seems to be a good metaphor for the man made unity, the one size fits all, no distinctions, multi-cultural world we are constructing, in which no one is “right” or “wrong”, nothing is distinct, All is one.
Isn’t this what we in the modern world desperately want? Isn’t the idea of all men communicating, and working together in one common cause, one of our highest ideals? How many popular modern songs have pined for an ideal world in which we all ‘love one another’, and work for the common good, and in which there are no separate nations, no wars, no barriers, nothing to keep men apart?
Haven’t we always wanted to “teach the world to sing in perfect harmony“? To Imagine a world “As one”, in which there is “nothing to live for, or to die for'”? How different are God’s ideals from man’s! Our Saviour has told us “…that which is highly esteemed among men is abomination in the sight of God…”.
At the height of the idyllic world unity project, God himself “…came down…” out of concern for man, to see for himself this project and to determine the best course of action to utterly destroy it.