Genesis 1-11 is a really interesting part of the Bible because, essentially, what we’re reading is a story that gets replayed time and again in different contexts and on larger scales. It’s almost as if the author just keeps hitting the same point from different angles of human history to show us just how important it is that we hold on to the foundational truths he communicates about humans and our relationship with the Creator.
Think about how the story plays out:
The book of Genesis opens with God creating the heavens, the earth and all life--and what's the crowning achievement of his creative work? Making humanity! God creates humans in his own image, declares his creation very good as a result, and rests in all the goodness of what he has created.
The first humans end up in the garden of Eden--a place that's depicted as a space where God and humanity are united and in partnership together. And in that partnership, God calls humans to be his representatives (that's the image of God) and gives them a commission to be fruitful and multiply and to fill the earth and continue the work that began at creation.
As God's partners and representatives who have been given this mission to carry out, the humans are faced with a choice: we can trust in God's wisdom and choose to live and carry out our purpose in the world in a way that he has defined as good; or, we can choose to reject God's partnership and do things our own way. The first humans--Adam and Eve--choose the latter. Instead of trusting in the wisdom of God, humans take choosing what's good and bad into their own hands. It begins this destructive cycle that brings chaos and evil into the world that God intended to be full of life and goodness.
The next humans--Cain and Abel--replay this same choice. When Cain is confronted with a moral dilemma, God says that he knows what's good and can choose to do it. But instead of trusting in God's wisdom, Cain takes things into his own hands and brings about the death of his brother and the founding of a city whose descendants are characterized by evil and death. It's a story that's intended to show us that every human is confronted with the decision to trust God or to do things their own way, and when we choose the latter, evil and death are the result.
So, the very next thing we find out is that evil has spread across the whole earth, and God decides to give humans a fresh start--a new chance at carrying out their mission and trusting in the wisdom of God through Noah and his family. God reinstates his commission and covenant with Noah, but Noah and his family also end up failing to follow the wisdom of God and reject him again in a garden.
You should be sensing a pretty clear pattern here! God continually gives humans the chance to partner with him in creation, but humans continue to choose their own way. And if you had any doubts up to this point in the story, Genesis 11 serves to solidify that fact--it's a story that might be familiar to you about what's called the Tower of Babel. What we find out as we read the story is that instead of carrying out our commission to fill the earth and represent God to the world, humanity does the opposite--choosing to stay together in one place and build a tower to exalt themselves.
Start with verse 4 of chapter 11--it's a sort of self-declared purpose statement for the people's decisions in this passage, and you're intended to read it with the purpose that God gave to humanity in mind.
Here's what God tells humanity to do in Genesis 9:1:
"Be fruitful and multiply and fill the earth."
And here's what humanity chooses to do in Genesis 11:4:
"Come, let us build ourselves a city and a tower with its top in the heavens, and let us make a name for ourselves, lest we be dispersed over the face of the whole earth."
Red flags should be popping up right away! God commanded humanity to spread our and fill the earth, but humans immediately start building a city in one location to make sure that doesn't happen. Are they trusting in the wisdom of the Lord, or choosing to take things into their own hands?
Taking things into their own hands--even when God gives humanity a fresh start, we still choose to reject him. It's the claim that the author of Genesis is making about the human condition: that when we rely on ourselves, we always fall into evil--and ultimately, he wants us to understand our deep need for God.
Now, there are a few other red flags that should be popping up as we read verse 4. Where are they trying to get to as they build the tower? They want its top to be in the heavens! They're trying to ascend to God's space their own way. If they're trying to get to God's space, then rejecting God's partnership and not trusting in his wisdom is probably not the route to take--but the people are relying on themselves and their own abilities rather than looking to the Lord.
Remember what first tempted Adam and Eve to reject God--they thought they could be like him on their own. But to truly be like God, we have to seek his wisdom and trust how he has designed us to live in this world. Here, on the global scale, the people are trying to be like God on their own again.
One last red flag--what are the people trying to do? What's their end goal? To make a name for themselves--for all of creation to look at their tower and see how awesome humans are. But we're designed to be the image of God--for all of creation to look at us and see how awesome God is! In this moment we're seeing all of humanity completely reject their design and purpose, and ultimately reject the wisdom of God.
Verse 5 is one of the most ironic statements in the Bible:
"And the Lord came down to see the city and the tower, which the children of man had built."
God had to come down to see their tower--the tower that was supposed to reach to the heavens where God is! It's as if he's saying that no matter how hard we try or how awesome we think we are, God is always greater. And in this case, the people are looking in the complete wrong direction to get to him.
The Tower of Babel story actually becomes this important commentary on the state of humanity throughout Jewish and Christian history--authors refer to this moment time and again to make important observations about the people of their time. Think about it! How often, even in our time, are people looking in the completely wrong direction and doing the completely wrong things to get to God? How often do people take the completely wrong steps to living and being who they were designed to be?
This story is meant to help us recognize that there's something about the human condition that when we lean onto our own wisdom, we always go the wrong way. We need God and his wisdom to restore us to our good design. And that's exactly why God does what he does in verses 7-8:
"Come, let us go down and confuse their language, so that they may not understand one another's speech. So the Lord dispersed them from there over the face of all the earth, and they left off building the city."
When the people were left on their own, they rejected their purpose--to be fruitful and multiply and fill the earth. So, God had to come to the earth and make it happen for us--his divine action is what makes humanity carry out its purpose and fill the earth.
Genesis 1-11 ends in a way that's designed to help us understand what's coming in the rest of the Bible, and the rest of human history. God created us and gave us a purpose, but we can't carry it out on our own. When we try, we constantly fail and make a bigger mess of things.
In the very next chapter, God sets in motion a plan that will make it possible for us to fulfill our purpose on the earth and be who God designed us to be that culminates in the work of Jesus--but it's all because of what he does for us, and not what we do on our own.
"Trust in the Lord with all your heart, and do not lean on your own understanding. In all your ways acknowledge him, and he will make straight your paths. Be not wise in your own eyes; feat the Lord and turn away from evil. It will be healing to your flesh and refreshment to your bones."
Middle School Pastor