The Tower of Babel

Question: What’s the significance of the Tower of Babel?

Answer: People sometimes speak of the “Tower of Babel,” but Genesis never calls it by that name. Genesis chapter 11 speaks of a city and its tower, which was in a plain in Shinar. 

“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 mortar. 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” (Genesis 11:3-4).

We know from archaeology that the people of Mesopotamia built quite a few towers that are known as “ziggurats.” There was a spectacular ziggurat at Ur and just like Genesis tells us, it was made of baked bricks. Each brick weighed as much as 33 pounds. The lower portion of the ziggurat, which supported the first terrace, would have used some 720,000 baked bricks, laid with bitumen, a naturally occurring tar most likely obtained from the banks of the river Euphrates. The resources needed to build the ziggurat at Ur would have been immense and it was a long-term building project. Ur-Nammu it is said, “was a prodigious builder. The most impressive monuments of his reign were ziggurats.”

He wished to build the greatest ziggurat yet built at the city of Ur.

Ur-Nammu started the project but died before it was finished. His son Shugli took the project over; it was being built around the time that Terah, Abraham’s father, lived there.

The works of proud sinful men stand in opposition to the work of God. The men in the land of Shinar decided to build a tower—A tower that we can view as standing in opposition to the temple of God. The builders in Shinar used brick and slime, (or as we would say these days “clay bricks” and “bitumen”).

Solomon built the temple, but he did not use bricks, he used stone. “The temple was constructed using finished stones cut at the quarry” (1 Kings 6-7). 

The Lord watches men’s schemes closely. “Then the LORD came down to see the city and the tower that the sons of men were building. And the LORD said, ‘If they have begun to do this as one people speaking the same language, then nothing they devise will be beyond them. Come, let Us go down and confuse their language, so that they will not understand one another’s speech’” (Gen 11:5–7).

The men of Shinar had gone to a lot of work making the bricks and gathering the bitumen. But as Solomon said, “Unless the LORD builds the house, the builders labor in vain” (Ps 127:1). 

We see the parallel that the Scriptures proclaim—“Stone” is the preferred substance for building God’s kingdom not brick. But alas men want to build their own edifices, hence, “The stone the builders rejected has become the cornerstone” (Ps 118:22). 

But the master builder has not forgotten the chief cornerstone. And those who follow Christ are stones too: “As you come to him, the living Stone—rejected by humans but chosen by God and precious to him— you also, like living stones, are being built into a spiritual house” (1 Pet 2:4–5).

This is God’s building that stands in opposition to the works of men. For men do what they can to build a tower that reaches the heavens. They want to become their own god. This is the lie whispered in the garden, “God knows that when you eat from it your eyes will be opened, and you will be like God” (Gen 3:5).

“So the LORD scattered them abroad from thence upon the face of all the earth: and they left off to build the city. Therefore is the name of it called Babel” (Gen 11:8–9). 

The Akkadians called the land Shumer and it looks like Shinar is the Hebrew equivalent, today we call it Sumer in Mesopotamia. We know that there were a lot of towers built at that time; Genesis picks one of them to make its point. The pursuits and pride of the people was not pleasing to God. Pride in our own abilities and standing do not comprise of the humility that God requires from us, so God took action: he confused “their lip.”

But time has gone on and men have found ways of understanding each other despite differing languages and they continue building Babel by their own ingenuity. The Lord said of the ancient builders of the city and tower, “now nothing will be restrained from them, which they have imagined to do” (Gen 11:6). And we currently find ourselves in a similar position, and that’s where the book of Revelation picks up the story: “the great city that rules over the kings of the earth” (Rev 17:18). 

Events did not end well for the tower and city built 4,000 years ago, neither will they end well for the hubris and self-confidence of modern Babylon, which also tries to reach heaven’s heights.

“‘Fallen! Fallen is Babylon the Great!’ She has become a dwelling for demons and a haunt for every impure spirit, a haunt for every unclean bird, a haunt for every unclean and detestable animal. For all the nations have drunk the maddening wine of her adulteries. The kings of the earth committed adultery with her, and the merchants of the earth grew rich from her excessive luxuries.” Then I heard another voice from heaven say: ‘Come out of her, my people,’ so that you will not share in her sins, so that you will not receive any of her plagues; for her sins are piled up to heaven, and God has remembered her crimes” (Rev 18:2–5).

The men of Sumer, after the Flood, epitomised the anti-God mentality that is in the world. “A people who continually provoke me to my very face, offering sacrifices in gardens and burning incense on altars of brick” (Isa 65:3).

The man-made bricks stand in opposition to the stones made by God. God specifically told the children of Israel that altars dedicated to him should be made of stones not bricks.

“Build there an altar to the LORD your God, an altar of stones” (Deut 27:5). 

We are the living stones dedicated to God’s service. “For we are co-workers in God’s service… God’s building” (1 Cor 3:9).

Furthermore, the stone used in the building of the temple was shaped away from the temple site. As we, the living stones, are shaped here on earth for a higher eternal calling. We read that “No hammer, chisel or any other iron tool was heard at the temple site while it was being built” (1 Kings 6:7). 

The temple rose to its height silently and stood as an edifice to God’s glory and a sign of his presence with the people. “The priests could not perform their service because of the cloud, for the glory of the LORD filled the temple of God” (2 Chron 5:14).

The people and King Solomon had great reverence for the Lord, so they designed the temple in a way in which a strong magnificent building could be erected with no tool being used on the building site. Normally building sites are noisy places, with many a crash, bang and wallop, but not this one.

This design could not have been easy, it’s much easier to build in situ, but skilled men got to work and produced a work of art for God’s glory with silence as it grew. Like a palm tree grows strong but silently so does God’s temple in the hearts of people. “This is what the kingdom of God is like. A man scatters seed on the ground. Night and day, whether he sleeps or gets up, the seed sprouts and grows, though he does not know how” (Mark 4:26-27).

God’s temple in us, the living stones, grows to its height with no large clattering, cracks or clanging. But God’s efforts get to work on our hearts in a silent but effective manner. “When he was demanded of the Pharisees, when the kingdom of God should come, he answered them and said, The kingdom of God cometh not with observation” (Luke 17:20).. Therefore we remember the saying that empty vessels make most noise, or perhaps as the Scripture puts it, if I “do not have love, I am only a resounding gong or a clanging cymbal” (1 Cor 13:1).

We can see a lesson here not to mistake noise and notoriety for spiritual growth. In these days of noisy advertisements, the loudness of the advert does not ensure the quality of the goods being advertised. But God’s work in the heart of men will have quality and be effective work. 

Once the temple was ready there were times, of course, when praise rang out loudly from the temple, and that was right and fitting. The trumpeters and musicians joined in unison to give praise and thanks to the LORD. Accompanied by trumpets, cymbals and other instruments, the singers raised their voices in praise to the LORD and sang: “He is good; his love endures forever” (2 Chron 5:13).

Giving praise to God is the right thing to do, we praise him for his work in our hearts, changing us to become more like Jesus. But the stones of the temple were assembled without noise, and so is the true church of God—constructed without friction or clamour. “By this everyone will know that you are my disciples, if you love one another” (John 13:35).

 The living stones of God’s temple help and serve each other in the same goal and aim. “You know that the rulers of the Gentiles lord it over them, and their high officials exercise authority over them. Not so with you. Instead, whoever wants to become great among you must be your servant” (Matt 20:25–26).

Satan’s demolition work can be very noisy indeed, but God’s holy construction continues its work with a still small voice in the heart of men and women. 

“A great and strong wind rent the mountains, and brake in pieces the rocks before the LORD; but the LORD was not in the wind: and after the wind an earthquake; but the LORD was not in the earthquake: And after the earthquake a fire; but the LORD was not in the fire: and after the fire a still small voice” (1 Kings 19:11-12).