Tower of Babel

May 27, 2007


Genesis 11:1-9

1 Now the whole earth had one language and the same words. 2And as they migrated from the east,* they came upon a plain in the land of Shinar and settled there. 3And they said to one another, ‘Come, let us make bricks, and burn them thoroughly.’ And they had brick for stone, and bitumen for mortar. 4Then 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; otherwise we shall be scattered abroad upon the face of the whole earth.’ 5The Lord came down to see the city and the tower, which mortals had built. 6And the Lord said, ‘Look, they are one people, and they have all one language; and this is only the beginning of what they will do; nothing that they propose to do will now be impossible for them. 7Come, let us go down, and confuse their language there, so that they will not understand one another’s speech.’ 8So the Lord scattered them abroad from there over the face of all the earth, and they left off building the city. 9Therefore it was called Babel, because there the Lord confused* the language of all the earth; and from there the Lord scattered them abroad over the face of all the earth.


Connect five football fields end to end, and stand them up vertically, and they will not be quite as tall as the tallest building in the world. The Taipei 101 Skyscraper in Taiwan stands 101 stories and 1,667 feet high. The developers of this monument designed it with the expressed intent of eclipsing all other buildings in the world.

Not to be outdone, the Burj Dubai skyscraper is already being built in Dubai, and when it is completed in 2008 it will surpass Taipei 101 by more than 500 feet.

But that is not all. A Danish firm is attempting to shatter the soon-to-be record of the soon-to-be Burj Dubai with plans for the Murjan Tower. This behemoth on the tiny island of Bahrain will be a 200-story, 3,350-foot skyscraper. That is double the height of today’s tallest building!

However, controversy swirls around this tallest building stuff. Chicago’s Sears Tower was the undisputed tallest building. When the twin Petronas towers were built in Malaysia in 1998, they stood 20 stories shorter than the Sears Tower, but architectural spires were added to the Petronas towers which made them 33 feet taller than the Sears Tower.

Skyscraper affecionados retorted, You don’t count spires or antennas or stuff like that. If spires count, why not give the title to the tallest TV antenna in the world, standing over 2,000 feet tall in Blanchard, North Dakota?

So much controversy arose over tower-bragging rights that a regulatory board known as the Council on Tall Buildings and Urban Habitat developed several “tallest building” categories (with antennae, without antennae, highest occupied floor, etc.), and the Council differentiated between habitable “buildings” and mere “structures”. That the Council would establish such categories at all indicates that building tall stuff is probably more about human pride than anything else. People love to say, “We built the tallest or the biggest or the greatest.”

Andrew Lawrence is a financial analyst, and he has a word of warning about building large. After crunching a century of financial data, Andrew Lawrence has developed the “Skyscraper Index,” and the message for Dubai and Bahrain is bleak. Constructing the world’s tallest building is a sure-fire predictor of economic disaster.

This is known as “the skyscraper curse.” Journalist William Pesek says: “The desire to erect the tallest building seems to have much to do with sudden capital inflows that pump up credit creation and confidence. It’s often periods of over-investment and financial speculation, fueled by excessive monetary expansion that drive developers and politicians to architectural one-upmanship.” This financial boom, Pesek describes, is often followed by a bust; hence skyrocketing economies that build lavishly into the stratosphere, soon dive dramatically into the doldrums.

The Skyscraper Index” was invented by Andrew Lawrence, but “the skyscraper curse” comes from Genesis 11. The story is about the Tower of Babel; and the lesson is about Pride.

The Tower of Babel was the first skyscraper — “a tower with its top in the heavens” (Genesis 11:4). We read two notable things about that mammoth building effort. First, it was part of a major urbanization effort that was intended to “make a name” for the people. Second, the city and the tower would give them a permanent residence in Mesopotamia — “otherwise we shall be scattered abroad upon the face of the whole earth.”

A previously migratory people would now have a geographic and cultural center. It would establish and legitimize them. Other people would see their great tower in their great city and Babel would have recognition and respect.

Now you might say, “What is wrong with that?” Is not that the same thing Solomon did so many centuries later when he built the temple in Jerusalem. Solomon wanted to establish his capital as the religious and cultural center of the Middle East. Well, if you read the whole story of Solomon, that did not end well either, but right now we are talking about Babel.

The tower was a monument of self-reliance. The phrase “let us” shows up three times in this passage and sets a tone of independence and egocentrism. I know that in America those qualities are counted as virtues. We say, “Pull yourself up by your bootstraps.” We say, “you want it done right, you have to do it yourself.” But God is not in any of this at all. All this talk about self-reliance is just atheism by another name. And the basic lesson here is that when you leave God out, you stumble toward self-destruction.

For all visionary leaders, aspiring entrepreneurs, hopeful family planners, and others who take God out of life’s equations, James 4 offers a sobering reality check: “Yet you do not even know what tomorrow will bring. What is your life? For you are a mist that appears for a little while and then vanishes. Instead you ought to say, ‘If the Lord wishes, we will live and do this or that’” (vv. 14-15).

But that attitude of submission to God is not at all the attitude of Babel. The tower would make a name for them. Their purpose is life was not God but themselves.

The first question of the Westminster Shorter Catechism asks: “What is the chief end of man?” What is the purpose of life? Babel says that the chief end of man is to glorify and worship man. It’s about us, that is what they said. However, that is not the answer of the catechism. “The chief end of man is to glorify God and enjoy him forever.” It is not about me. It is about God. The sin of Babel was that they were supposed to reflect God’s image in the world, but they looked into mirrors and worshipped themselves.

God’s people have a different attitude. They are God centered. Everything we have accomplished and everything that we have are the products of, and instruments of God’s blessing, and are intended to be a blessing to others. We do not do things to make ourselves a name. We do not do things to make us respected and envied by our peers. Whatever we do, we do for God.

Further, the tower was a symbol of permanence in Babel. They raised a monument to themselves that would last forever. That is what they thought. It was a vain hope. Babel was the name the author of Genesis gave to ancient Babylon. Babylon is today a ruin in the deserts of Iraq, protected, to some extent, by American soldiers from looters. The tower builders wanted something, enduring, but nothing in this life endures. All human works disentigrate and vanish. Even life itself is like a bubble which is quickly blown.

I remember the first time I came face to face with that basic truth. I was still in high school. There was a bad wreck one night and a friend of mine was killed. He was not a close friend, but I knew him. I played on the football team with him. We had some classes together. He was suddenly not there anymore. This was the first experience I had with the death of a person my own age. I realized that it could have been me. You might say well that is not profound. Everybody knows that everybody dies. And they do, but as a 16 year old kid, you do not really believe you are going to die until another 16 year old dies. Then it hits you. It could happen to you. It will happen to you. And the sad thing is that as I recalled this week that old incident from my high school years, I could not remember the name of that kid that died in that wreck. It is as if he is a part of a memory has mostly vanished into the mists of time.

Job 8:9 “For we are but of yesterday, and know nothing, because our days upon earth are a shadow.” That is hard. That is true. Thus, if we focus on things human, we are focusing upon smoke and shadows. The Shorter Catechism is absolutely right. The purpose of our lives is God.

In Genesis God came down “to see the city and the tower.” Now I know that this causes some folks to get all bent out of shape. If we take this literally, it raises a lot of questions about God. Did not he know what was going on? Well, of course God knew. God is present at every event. God knew at every step what they were thinking, what they were planning, what they were doing. God did not have to go down to earth to figure out what these people were up to. The author of Genesis is writing figuratively. He is just saying, God knew what was happening.

Maybe he is making a little joke. This is man’s great tower, man’s greatest achievement, but God has to come down to see it. We imagine God bending down, hand over his eyes, and saying, “What is that? Oh, it’s a tiny tower, how cute.”

I am joking of course. God did not think it was cute, because God knew it was a tower of pride. They had harmony of purpose at Babel; they had harmony of thinking and language, but they had no harmony with God. They were not seeking to glorify God, they did not want God’s will to be done. But God’s will was done anyway. They were scattered across the face of the planet.

The lesson is that God will accomplish his purpose, even if we oppose and resist God. And our resistance may lead to some very unpleasant consequences for us.

Come forward in time. In the New Testament, in Acts 1:8. Jesus tells the church that after Pentecost, they will be his witnesses “in Jerusalem, in all Judea and Samaria, and to the ends of the earth.” But seven chapters later, in Acts 8:1, the church hasn’t left Jerusalem yet. So God takes action: “That day a severe persecution began against the church in Jerusalem, and all except the apostles were scattered throughout the countryside of Judea and Samaria.” They were persecuted into doing God’s will. The gospel is intended to be spread out, so God caused that to happen.

We celebrate Pentecost today, the birthday of the church. God’s holy spirit came upon his people and inspired them to proclaim the gospel of love. God came down again. God is always coming down to us. He came down to Adam and Eve in the garden of creation. He came down at Babel, He came down in Christ, and he came down as the Holy Spirit in Acts 2.

Pentecost is Babel reversed. Language barriers are removed, and people are reunified by the Holy Spirit

We worship a Christ who broke all curses. He broke the skyscraper curse of Genesis. He broke the curse of sin that had dominated our lives. At Pentecost, the Holy Spirit proclaimed Christ, the curse-breaker. Today we make that same proclamation. Let the Holy Spirit bring Christ to you. Give up on self-centered Babel. Turn instead to the Son of God who is the love and forgiveness of God. Believe in Jesus Christ. That is the only way to live. All else is just smoke and shadows.



On the Skyscraper Index:

World’s Tallest Buildings:



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