Genesis 11:1-9 - Why can’t we understand each other?


Let us pray


Our failure to communicate properly with each other is one of the best grounds for humour around.


Consider this, probably fictitious story about a conversation between the US navy and Canadian authorities:


Believe it or not...this is the transcript of an actual radio conversation between a US naval ship and Canadian authorities off the coast of Newfoundland in October 1995. The Radio conversation was released by the Chief of Naval Operations on Oct. 10, 1995.

#1: Please change your direction 15 degrees to the North to avoid a collision.

#2: Recommend you divert YOUR course 15 degrees to South to avoid a collision.

#1: This is the Captain of a US Navy ship. I say again, divert YOUR course.

#2: No. I say again, you divert YOUR course.


#2. This is a lighthouse. Your call.

There is a lot of humour our failure to communicate – and in our frequent misunderstandings!  But at the same time, we know that our failure to understand each other as human beings causes us problems.


Our misunderstandings affect our relationships with each other – our failures to understand each other cause us problems – as individuals, and as nations.  Wouldn’t it be easier if we all spoke the same language – and could understand each other properly – surely if we did that, the world would be a better place. 


So as we read through Genesis 11 this evening – surely one of our questions was – why?  Why did God create division and different languages?  Would it not have been better to help people communicate, rather than make it more difficult?


Let’s look at Genesis 11 now – it’s on page 12 of the bibles in the chairs – and see what God’s word has to say to us on this.


Why can’t we understand each other?


We begin in v1 with a time when we could understand each other’s language:


Genesis 11:1 Now the whole world had one language and a common speech.


This is the setting for Genesis 11, and therefore it is an appropriate place for us to try to answer this question – what happened so that we could not understand each other’s language?


After that introduction in verse 1, we hear from two characters – first we hear about and from mankind – from ‘men’ as a whole – and then from verse 5 we see the Lord acting and speaking.  Tonight as we seek to understand what happened at the Tower of Babel and why, we’ll look first at Mankind’s actions, then at what God does.


1. Man’s plan (v1-4)


After the flood, human beings are again spreading out over the whole earth.  Remember what God said to Noah back at the start of chapter 9:


Genesis 9:1 Then God blessed Noah and his sons, saying to them, "Be fruitful and increase in number and fill the earth.


As they spread, they find a place to settle, verse 2, and then they have a plan.  Look at verses 3 and 4:

Genesis 11:3 They said to each other, "Come, let's make bricks and bake them thoroughly." They used brick instead of stone, and tar for mortar.  4 Then they said, "Come, let us build ourselves a city, with a tower that reaches to the heavens, so that we may make a name for ourselves and not be scattered over the face of the whole earth."


At one level this is all very sensible isn’t it?


Make a city – civilisation being re-established – and build a tall tower – for defence.  A great example of human beings working together.  But if we look more closely, we see that there are three things that should set alarm bells ringing here, three ways in which what they were doing was wrong.


Let’s look at them in turn – they’re all in verse 4:


a. "Come, let us build ourselves a city, with a tower that reaches to the heavens, 


Why did the people want to build a tower up to the heavens?


The people wanted to build a tower that stretched to heaven, to show how powerful they were – to show that they were like God.  To show that they were independent of God.


Remember the Garden of Eden?


Genesis 3:4 "You will not surely die," the serpent said to the woman. 5 "For God knows that when you eat of it your eyes will be opened, and you will be like God, knowing good and evil."


The desire to be like God was there in the Garden of Eden – and was still there when Babel was built, and is still around today.


The desire to be like God – knowing good and evil – having absolute control over our own lives.   The desire for knowledge and wisdom which frees us from having to rely on anybody else – or on God.


As created beings we have a sinful desire to disregard our creator – and to seek to live our lives ignoring him.  And we can get away with it for a time – we can live under the illusion that we are absolute masters of our destiny.  But there will always be things in our lives that remind us that we do not have total control – bereavement, illness, job loss, disputes with friends, marriage breakups – and it is no coincidence that at times like these people recognise their need and turn to God – the only one who knows the future.


Wanting to have absolute control over our lives is not only foolish – it is also sinful.  The people at Babel wanted to build a tower that reached up to the heavens so that they could control their destiny.  They wanted to live without reference to God.


We have to recognise who is sovereign – and it is not you or me.  God is in control – and we need to rely on him, and trust him, not seek live independently of him, not to put our trust in false security


b.  so that we may make a name for ourselves


Genesis 1 to 11 tells us all about the work of God – how he created the universe, and created man and woman to look after the earth.  How he judged mankind – but how he also saved them through Noah.  Genesis 1 to 11 tells us about the great name of the Lord.


But here, in their Pride, these people are seeking not to recognise who God is and worship him, but to make a name for themselves.


They want to be secure without God – and they wanted to be known for their own deeds, not having to recognise the work of their creator.


In the context of Genesis 1 to 11 it is so obviously wrong, like the Pot saying to the Potter – you did not make me, and I will create my own destiny – I will make a name for myself.


But is it so obviously wrong when it happens in our own hearts?  Let me ask you a question – How do you want to be remembered?


What might you like to have written on your gravestone?


Might I commend these words to you:


'Well done, good and faithful servant! You have been faithful with a few things; I will put you in charge of many things. Come and share your master's happiness!'


They are the words of Jesus to the man with five talents in Matthew 25.  That is what I’d like on my gravestone – to be remembered as a faithful servant of the Lord Jesus Christ.


We are not here to be proud and make a name for ourselves.  We’re here to serve our Lord and Master, Jesus Christ.


c. and not be scattered over the face of the whole earth.


The people were arrogant, trusting in themselves, a false security.  The people were proud, wanting to make a name for themselves.  And finally, the people were disobedient.


God told them to fill the earth – but they didn’t want to.  And of course they weren’t being perverse – they just knew best.


They wanted to stick together and remain united.  They wanted to be able to communicate effectively with one another.  They wanted strength in numbers.


But however they dissembled, they were being disobedient to God’s direct command.


And however we dissemble it, when we are disobedient to God’s command, we sin.  God’s word is clear that marriage is for a man and a woman, and that adultery is wrong. 


Exodus 20: 14 "You shall not commit adultery.


It’s one of the ten commandments.  It’s not unclear.  Nor is its scope or application:


Matthew 5:27 "You have heard that it was said, 'Do not commit adultery.'  28 But I tell you that anyone who looks at a woman lustfully has already committed adultery with her in his heart.


And yet when we give a young lady a second, or a third, or a fourth glance that is not adultery, so much as admiring the female form. 


And when we spend more and more time with that gentlemen because he is more understanding, because he understands us, because he listens when others do not – it’s only friendship – only a friendly hug, only a platonic goodbye kiss.


We are rational beings – and we can rationalise anything.  But that does not make it right.  We must seek to remove disobedience from our lives – and the first step is to recognise it, and repent.


We must repent of our disobedience, of our pride, of all our false securities, and come before God in humility.


For God sees, and God acts.


2. God sees and God acts v5-9


Don’t miss the heavy irony in verse 5:

Genesis 11:5 But the LORD came down to see the city and the tower that the men were building.


The people have been building a city up to the sky – but the Lord has to come down to see it – because it is so small and insignificant in his sight!


But there is not only humour here.  This verse, right at the centre of the narrative, underlines the central truth here – God is not like men.  And we see this in verses 6 to 9.


The Lord looks at the city, and says:


Genesis 11:6 The LORD said, "If as one people speaking the same language they have begun to do this, then nothing they plan to do will be impossible for them. 7 Come, let us go down and confuse their language so they will not understand each other."


God saw that if he left man to his own devices, he would continue to sin, continue to disregard God, continue to disobey.  So God acted to stop that. 


Verse 7 – he planned to confuse their language.  And then look at verses 8 and 9:


Genesis 11:8 So the LORD scattered them from there over all the earth, and they stopped building the city.  9 That is why it was called Babel--because there the LORD confused the language of the whole world. From there the LORD scattered them over the face of the whole earth.


God plans to do something – and it happens – this is a sharp contrast to man, who plans a tower, but is unable to finish building it.


God confuses the language of the people – forcing them to do what they were commanded to do – to scatter over the whole earth, to fill the whole earth as they were commanded.


God is not like men.


a. God achieves his purpose – despite the efforts of man.


God’s purpose was to fill the earth, and he does these, even though men did not want to do his will.  He does not allow man to dwell together in Shinar, rather he scatters them. 


God has a plan and a purpose, and he will achieve it.


I think we have a choice here.  Do we want God to fulfil his purposes through us – or despite us?


God invites us to be part of his plans.  He invites us to participate in his will through prayer, through faithful discipleship, through telling others about the Love of Christ.  Just as God gave Noah a commission and a role to play, just as God planned that Adam would steward the whole earth, so God gives us a role to play. 


Think of the parable of the sower.  What kind of seeds do we want to be?  Those that fall on the rocks or the road – or those that fall into the soil and produce a hundredfold?


Think of the parable of the talents – do we want to be a good and faithful servant – or to hide our talents and resist using them?


God will achieve his purposes.  He invites us to be part of his plans – but he also warns us that we should not resist his will.


b. God achieves his purposes – through his Son


God wills diversity, and humanity in every corner of the globe.  But does he will that we will always misunderstand each other?  No – God has a greater purpose.  Look at verse 17 of Acts 2:


Acts 2:17 "'In the last days, God says, I will pour out my Spirit on all people. Your sons and daughters will prophesy, your young men will see visions, your old men will dream dreams. 18 Even on my servants, both men and women, I will pour out my Spirit in those days, and they will prophesy.


The last days that this prophesy refers to are now – the last days in the bible is the time between Jesus’ first and second coming.  The prophet Joel who Peter quotes here looked forward to a time when everyone would be able to prophesy – sons and daughters, young men and old men. 


What is prophesying?  Well, Peter uses this quote to explain the day of Pentecost – to explain the fact that everyone was able to hear God’s word in their own language – a clear and deliberate reversal of the tower of Babel.


The good news of Jesus Christ goes beyond racial and social barriers, and is a message for the whole world.  As soon as he has finished quoting from Joel, Peter goes on to say:


Acts 2:22 "Men of Israel, listen to this: Jesus of Nazareth was a man accredited by God to you by miracles, wonders and signs, which God did among you through him, as you yourselves know. 23 This man was handed over to you by God's set purpose and foreknowledge; and you, with the help of wicked men, put him to death by nailing him to the cross. 24 But God raised him from the dead, freeing him from the agony of death, because it was impossible for death to keep its hold on him.


The content of Peter’s prophesy is the good news of Jesus Christ.  Like the Old Testament prophets, the role of a prophet in the New testament was not to predict the future, so much as to apply God’s word to the present, and here Peter does that be explaining the good news of Jesus Christ.


Pentecost brings a new situation.  Jesus Christ send his spirit so that we would be able to tell others the good news of Jesus Christ – that we would all be able to tell others the good news of Jesus Christ, and that as people come to call on the name of the Lord, as people repent and are baptized as followers of Christ, they enter a new community which transcends language and race and ethnic background.


Some of us here are British citizens, some of us citizens of other countries.  But if we know and Love the Lord Jesus, first and foremost we are citizens of heaven.


And on the last day, as Acts 2:21 reminds us:


21 everyone who calls on the name of the Lord will be saved.'


We can look forward to the time – as we do each year in Advent – to the time when Jesus returns, and when the effects of the fall, and the effects of Babel, and the effects of human sin throughout history will finally be reverses.  When the universe will no longer groan, when we will all be able to speak to one another and understand each other, as brothers and sisters.


But we can also now seek to make that a reality, as we

Live in the light of Jesus’ return.  We will understand each other better when we are humble, not proud, when we are dependent on God, not seeking false security, and when are obedient to God’s will, not disobedient and sinful.


James Hughes

28th November 2004