Was the Skyscraper of Babel a Threat to God?

Reading for Sunday, January 4th, 2009 (Genesis 10-11)


The fact that God’s power is endless and cannot be challenged is the theme for these two chapters.  We enter the scene with the literal re-making of the human race through the mighty hand of God.  One thing that is very apparent and appears to be very deliberate by the author is that the life spans of human beings were suddenly and dramatically shortened after the great flood.  Some argue that this would have been the necessary consequence of a weakened genetic pool after this great flood wiped out the human race with the exception, of course, of Noah and his family.  While this is a whole topic of conversation, in and of itself, there is a tremendous quality of theological depth to these two chapters that cannot be ignored.


For today’s reading, I would like to look at chapter eleven before ten.  I know that there are many who are interested in genealogies, but those who are not as interested may not press through and read about the very significant lesson found in Genesis 11. For that reason, I would like to begin there and move our way back to the important lessons of the genealogies of chapter 10.


Genesis 11

In this modern era of space travel, etc., it has always seemed to me very strange that God seemed to be so threatened by this project of building a huge skyscraper.  In other words, if God knows everything and is everywhere and all-powerful then he would know that this building would be nothing more than a building to nowhere.  A little background information, it seems, will help us understand this chapter a little better.



The Babylonians were famous for building their ziggurats.  The ziggurats were immense temples of worship and this is probably the same type of massive building that is described in the text.  A friend of mine, who received his PhD in Persian Studies at the Center for Middle Eastern Studies at Harvard has mentioned to me that when Alexander the Great conquered the Babylonians, his men raised one great ziggurat to the ground.  He said that the weight of that ziggurat was so immense that archaeologists have been able to go back 2,300 years later and measure the dimensions of the ziggurat’s area as there is still to this day a depression in the ground where the ziggurat once stood.  Only a structure of the greatest weight and size could create such a depression in the ground that is still noticeable after more than two millennia. 


The Babylonians believed that their ziggurats, places of worship, had their foundations in the underworld and their tops in the heavens (Carson, New Bible Commentary).  The word Babel meant in their language “gate of God” (Carson) and they believed that they were represented a great religious achievement because of their great size and stature.  We notice in the text that such a perspective is mocked by the Biblical writer as the ziggurat was so minuscule that God had to “go down” to see it.  In other words, if this project was so high and reaching into the heavens, then why was it that God could not see it?  Instead of Babel meaning “gate of God,” the word was changed to “confusion.”  In other words, the god that the Babylonians was no God at all and the only true God was YHWH, the God of the Bible.  So, in this episode, we do not have the picture of God feeling threatened by people building a skyscraper to heaven, but we have a God who mocks anyone who would believe that it is possible for human beings to make their way to God on their own merits.


The reality is that the way to “reaching” or knowing God cannot take place through the work of our hands but only through relationship.  This is exactly what we will learn when we begin to look at the life of Abraham, the one who would step out in faith and trusted God which began a realtionship that would eventually lead to this man becoming the spiritual father of all who believe. 


Genesis 10

First of all, for Those Interested in genealogies: Keil and Delitzsch, two of the greatest commentators of their era have done fantastic and extensive work on this subject.  If you sign up in the comment box, I would be glad to pass along their work to you as I have their work in a computer format.


Scholars tell us that the table of nations listed in chapter ten work out to the number seventy.  One thing that is important to bear in mind is that in the ancient world it was common for writers to only record those aspects of genealogies that were pertinent to their particular point.  So, it is would be important to say that there may have been many more nations in existence at the time of writing then there happened to be listed in this text, but those nations that were listed in the text were most significant to Israel and, as a result the, author (typical of the meticulous work of the Hebrews) broke these relevant nations down into a framework of seventy. The number “seventy,” symbolized “completeness,” and as a result, we notice that these nations were all relevant to the Israelites in during the days of Moses. Kenneth Matthews in the New American Commentary gives us a nice summary of the nations that are mentioned:


“The geographical breadth of the table is remarkable. It ranges to the north as far as the Caucasus mountains, south into the Arabian peninsula, east as far as the Iranian plateau, and west at least as far as the Aegean, if not Spain (Tarshish?). So diverse are the locations within a given branch that it is difficult to assign a branch to a locale, except in the broadest sense. The ancient cartographer arranged the “map” of peoples from the perspective of Israel’s Canaan (later “Palestine”) as the point of departure. The three geographical arcs of the branches intersect at the center—that is, Canaan, Israel’s future homeland. The Japhethitesare primarily associated with northern and western sites (Asia Minor and Europe); the Hamites with Egypt, Mesopotamia, and some of Arabia; and the Shemites with the areas of northern Mesopotamia, Syria, and Arabia.”


One last note about the genealogies: You will notice that the Account begins with the sons of Japheth, then to ham and finally to Shem, the father of the Israelites. Why would the author begin this way rather than give priority to the sons of Shem since this was the line that would eventually be followed throughout the rest of the narrative? The reason is that the author of Genesis regularly would mention the chosen sons last.  The genealogy of Ismail is before Isaac and the genealogy of Esau is before Jacob.  The approach in this account is consistent with what we will read throughout the book (Carson, New Bible Commentary). 



6 Responses to “Was the Skyscraper of Babel a Threat to God?”

  1. Sophia Says:

    Pastor Bruce, the Bible story that you taught today about the babylonian’s skyscraper, was a very interesting story and the way you put it in your blog helped me understand it even better. In the part of the story when the people tried to build a skyscraper to get to heaven I think they should have known that it is impossible to do. It is funny that they thought they were doing a good job and making a “skyscraper and a tall one” that to God it was really small. FYI You are a very good Bible teacher and hope to have you as our Bible teacher next year. Thank You for the message!
    In Christ, Sophia

  2. Michelle Says:

    Pastor Bruce, People actually thought skyscrapers were the way to
    God. They’re not, you have to build a relationship with God. Abraham
    is the perfect example of having a great relationship with the Lord.
    Faith is believing without seeing and thats what Abraham did. He loved the Lord with all his might. Just like I am a believer too. I know you shared this message in class and this is one of my favorite messages. You learn a lot! Thank you for telling this message to us!
    In Christ,

  3. Bruce Smith Says:

    You are both very welcomed. There is nothing more important in all the world than building a relationship with Jesus Christ. We human beings always have a tendency to want to work our way to what we have but working our way to God has never been what He has intended for us. Thanks for checking in.

  4. Ray Says:

    Good morning Pastor Bruce. I just learned of your blog today, and am sooo very happy to have found you. (FYI, Ray Pritchard linked to you in one of his blog entries.) At any rate, I am interested in the genealogy work you referenced. Would you please send that to me? Thank you.

  5. alex youngberg Says:

    Sofia and Michelle,
    Hi!! how was school today?
    Alex Y.

  6. Bruce Smith Says:

    Ray, I hope that you found the genealogy material helpful. Thanks for requesting it.

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