The City of Man (Genesis 11:1-9)

When Adam and Eve left the garden of Eden, Moses was very careful to point out that they were driven out through the eastern gate of the garden, and that guardian angels were place there to keep mankind from re-entering and eating from the Tree of Life and living forever in misery.

And by doing this, Moses was creating an association for us between the concept of “the east” and the concept of “exile”.

Then, as the story continued, we were introduced to Cain and Abel, the sons of Adam and Eve. Now, Cain murdered his brother — as we all know — and then Moses was very careful to point out that Cain moved even further eastward and built a city there for his own protection.

And by doing this, Moses was adding to that association: now the concept of “the east” is not just connected to “exile”, it is also connected to active disobedience and city building.

And as the story went on we discovered that Cain gave birth to a line of corrupt and violent men, men who were obsessed with power. And over the generations these men grew more and more power-mad until we were introduced to King Lamech, who boasted about how he was 11 times more vengeful and violent than his ancestor Cain: “If Cain is avenged seven times, then Lamech seventy-seven times!”

And then we were introduced to another son of Adam: a man named Seth who did not move eastward, who did not build cities. And Seth gave birth to a line of godly men who remained faithful through all the generations until finally they produced a Messiah — a Saviour — for mankind: Noah himself.

Well, it turns out that all of that early history has actually set us up to understand this event that we are going to look at today.

And this should not be a surprise to us because all the way through the story of Noah’s flood we have been noticing that Moses has been repeating history. He used that first story cycle about Adam and Cain and Seth to give us some basic foundational concepts. Now, through this second story cycle about Noah and Ham and Shem, he has been repeating and developing those concepts.

And so, as the story has continued after the flood, we have been introduced in more detail to Shem and Ham and Japheth, the sons of Noah, just like we were introduced to Cain and Abel and Seth. And then Ham essentially tried to murder his father, just as Cain did his brother.

Now, Ham did not run away from judgement like Cain did. However, as the story went on, we discovered that Ham gave birth to a line of corrupt and violent men, men who were obsessed with power. And over the generations these men grew more and more power-mad until — just last week — we were introduced to King Nimrod, who became a mighty warrior on the earth. And this King Nimrod was so famous for his violence that there was actually a proverb associated with his name: that is why it is said, “Like Nimrod, a mighty hunter before the Lord.”

— apparently this proverb was still common even in Moses’ time, thousands of years later. Nimrod was the ultimate example of an evil king, sort of like how Hitler is to us.

But anyway: when Moses introduced King Nimrod to us he was very careful to point out that this ultra-violent king moved to the land of Shinar and built cities there.

Now, to us, the land of Shinar doesn’t mean anything. But after I tell you that Shinar was a land in the far east of Moses’ world — now we all say, “Ohhhhhh! I get it!” This is the story of a group of people who moved eastward and built cities for their own protection. History is repeating itself — in more depth, with more detail, so that we can understand even better what exactly went wrong before the flood, and so we can understand even better what tends to go wrong even today!

And as a literature nerd I can tell you that this is pretty cool!

And now that I’m finished geeking out, we can proceed.

So, last week, during Moses’ info-video about human migration, he hinted more than once at some catastrophic event in the far east:

While he was tracing the travels of the Canaanite nations, Moses told us that later the Canaanite clans scattered.

And then, while he was tracing the development of the Shemite nations, he focused in on the Eberew people, who ended up dividing because of some crisis. And half of that family ended up living in the eastern hill country.

And we were left wondering: what exactly happened?

Moses is about to tell us: [1] Now the whole world had one language and a common speech.

And this makes sense because — obviously — the sons of Noah all spoke the same language, and that language would have been passed on to their children and grandchildren and great-grandchildren.

But — if you remember from the video last week — even as they were passing this language down through the generations they were also migrating: spreading out, filling up the world as their populations grew. And linguists tell us that languages change over time and distance. So after the first three hundred years, when these different people groups bumped into each other, they would have thought that the others talked with a funny accent. Three hundred years after that they would have a really hard time understanding each other at all. And three hundred years after that every people group in the world would have sounded like they were all speaking completely different languages.

And we know this was happening because that’s what Moses told us last week. Three times he said that the people groups were spreading out into their various territories, each with its own language.

So that is the setting of this particular story: we are finding ourselves in the middle of the massive, centuries-long migrations of those 70 nations that Moses outlined for us last week. They all began with one language, but those languages are morphing as the people move and spread further and further apart.

So now, [2] as people moved eastward, they found a plain in Shinar and settled there.

Ah: so now we are zooming in on the land of Shinar in the east. So who must these people be?

Well, they must be related somehow to that famous city-building King Nimrod that we met last week. And they must also be related to the Canaanite clans, because Moses has already hinted that they were somehow involved in this crisis. And they must also be related to the Eberew people, because they were also involved somehow.

Going on: [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.

Apparently, they are tired of wandering. They are tired of migrating. It seems as if they want to settle down and build something more permanent.

And sure enough: [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; otherwise we will be scattered over the face of the whole earth.”

And here we find all of our theories confirmed. This is the story of King Nimrod’s people: a race of city-builders, a race of mighty warriors. They have joined up with the Canaanite peoples and the Shemite peoples — including the Eberew family. And they have a proposal: let us build ourselves a city.

But not just any kind of city: this is to be a city with a tower that reaches to the heavens.

Now, when we look at classical paintings of this tower, it’s always this tall, narrow thing, like a lighthouse or a modern skyscraper. But actually what they are wanting to build is a mountain — a man-made mountain.

Why a mountain? Because these descendants of Adam have ancestral memories of a time when God lived with mankind in a sacred garden, in a sacred valley, on a sacred mountain.

In other words, these people are not wanting to build a city as a trade center or a political center: they are wanting to build a worship center, where they will be able to meet God. They are wanting to re-create — with their own hands — the original mountain of God, the original garden of Eden.

And I should point out that archaologists have uncovered a number of these towers in the east, in the land of Shinar. And they do look like stylized mountains: they are shaped like pyramids, they have stairs for people to climb, and at the top there is a little house, a little temple. And apparently the people of Shinar believed that by building this little house on the top of the mountain, and then by putting food and drink there, they would be able to lure God down from the heavens and persuade him to live in that little house — just like he used to live with Adam and Eve.

Now: why do they want to do this? Why do they want God to come down and live at the top of this mountain? Is it because they are grieved over their sin and rebellion? Are they trying to repair their relationship with God?

Uhhhh…no.

This is the reason they give: so that we may make a name for ourselves!

They want to be famous! They want to have a strong reputation. And what better way to build a strong reputation than by building your own mountain and then installing your own pet god at the top?

I mean: would you want to attack a nation that has a pet god?

Neither would I!

And that way, instead of their people being scattered over the face of the whole earth, they will actually become a gathering point for the rest of mankind. In other words: they are hoping to put a stop to the these patterns of migration.

See, King Nimrod’s people have been paying attention. They have been noticing that, more and more, they cannot understand their neighbors. They have been noticing that, the more people can’t understand one another, the more they tend to separate. And they have been noticing that, the more people tend to separate…the weaker they become.

Or — to put it another way — King Nimrod’s people have noticed that there is strength in unity. And they have figured out that in order to bring unity to mankind, people need a sacred center.

And as we discussed last week…they are correct. Ever since mankind lost the garden of Eden there has a been a hole at the center of humanity. Without God’s presence there to unify mankind, mankind breaks up, scatters. Mankind needs a sacred center; Nimrod’s people are quite right about that.

Where they go wrong…is in thinking that this is a DIY project. And not only that: imagine the arrogance of thinking that you can build a stairway to heaven! Remember, these are a people who believe the earth is flat, with four mountains — north, south, east, west — holding up a solid sky-roof, which is also the solid floor of heaven. And they are thinking they are going to build a 5th mountain that reaches up to the floor of heaven. They are thinking they’re going to climb it, cut their way through somehow and find themselves in God’s throne-room. “Hey, man. Nice place! Is this floor lapis lazuli? That’s amazing! You have got to give me the name of your contractor! But hey, listen: we’ve left some snacks over here on the top of our mountain, so any time you wanna come and hang out that would be great, I think we could really benefit each other here…!”

Crazy, right?

Well…their plan actually works. God does come down for a visit. Of course, that first step down is a big one for him, because the mountain is not nearly as tall as they think it is. And then [6] the Lord said — and he’s sort of talking to himself here — “Hmmm. 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.”

Now — correct me if I’m wrong here — that does not sound like a positive review.

But what exactly is God concerned about here: is he really afraid that they might actually manage to build a stairway to heaven?

No.

But he is concerned that this false unity — centered around the false worship of a pet god — will end up re-creating the same terrible, human-crushing tyranny that existed before the flood. We already know — from our experience with King Lamech and his three sons — that when men reject the true sacred center and turn aside to build their own religions, the result is always a system that forces everyone into slavery. Because if society’s job is to attract God down from heaven by providing religious snacks for him so that he will protect us from bad things, then anyone who refuses to help provide snacks is actually an enemy of the people.

So when God says, “Nothing they plan to do will be impossible for them!” he is not saying that their plan to reach heaven is actually possible, he is saying that their plan for violent world domination is possible. After all, it has happened before!

And God, in his mercy on mankind, is not going to let it happen again.

So he goes on: [7] “Come, let us go down and confuse their language so they will not understand each other.”

Last time this happened, God used a flood to put an end to the tyranny of false worship.

This time he does not…because he promised he would not.

So instead, he descends with his heavenly army of angels — notice how he said “let us go down”? — and he puts his army to work. They do not kill. They do not knock down the tower. They do not destroy the city. Instead, they go right to the heart of the matter: the problem here is unity. So, to counteract this, they confuse the language of the builders.

And what is the effect?

[8] So the Lord scattered them from there over all the earth, and they stopped building the city.

Now, in the Sunday School version of this story this happened overnight: people woke up and suddenly could not understand each other. But Moses does not attach a time limit to this process — that is not his point. His point is to show that God is personally involved in the events of human history, God is personally invested in making sure mankind grows in the proper direction.

And so what we are seeing here is God’s deliberate interference in the process of human migration. Nimrod’s people tried to put a stop to movement, they tried to suppress change. Like some governments in our world today, they tried to lock down the language of their society, because they knew that if you control the language you control the people.

But God did not allow them to keep that control. His angels went to work, and ensured that nature would take its proper course. Despite the best efforts of Nimrod’s rulers, the languages of the people continued to morph over time, and eventually the Canaanite clans and the Sethite clans drifted away to the west and settled in Palestine, leaving the people of Nimrod without enough manpower to complete their project.

[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.

And this last bit here is really Moses making a bit of a dad-joke. Last week he mentioned that King Nimrod built the city of Babylon in the land of Shinar, and so this week he is suggesting that the name of that city actually means “City of Confusion”.

It doesn’t, actually. In Nimrod’s language Babylon means “Gate of the Gods” — which makes sense. But in Hebrew the word Babylon sounds like the word for “confusion”.

It really is kind of lame. Like if I told you, “and that’s why they named the city Los Angeles — because it’s full of lost angels!” But it’s okay to say that Moses’ joke is a bit lame, because it’s supposed to be a bit lame. We’re supposed to go, “Ohhhhhh, Moses, that was bad!”

In fact, this whole story has been full of lame humor. I haven’t emphasized this because wordplay never translates very well, and jokes aren’t funny if they have to be explained. But seriously, this whole story is meant to be funny in a groaning, pathetic kind of way — sort of like watching Mr. Bean. It’s socially awkward and mortifying but he is so confident that you can’t stop watching…and that’s what makes it funny.

And the final punchline of this story is that these people actually got what they wanted. They wanted a great name! — they got one. They wanted to be famous! — well, here we are, 5000 years later, still talking about them.

Of course…that’s not quite what they meant, is it?

And the moral of the story is: be careful what you wish for. You might just get it.

No, that’s not really the moral of the story. That was not Moses’ main point.

So…what was Moses’ main point? How is this episode — this crisis in the east — supposed to apply to our lives?

Well, last week we noticed that, without a sacred center, mankind divides and scatters and becomes more and more diverse. Moses wanted to make sure his people understood that all people — even people from other races, other religions — are made in the image of God. He wanted his people to understand that one day people from every nation would be drawn together in worship of the one true God. So last week we focused on God’s plan to bring unity out of diversity.

This week is focused more on God’s plan to maintain diversity in the midst of unity.

See, the people of Israel were called to become a holy people in a holy land. They were called to be a nation of priests who would lead all the other nations into worship. And this is how it was going to work:

They were going to enter the land, and install God’s tabernacle — his temple — on the top of a sacred mountain that he would show them. And the idea was that, by living according to the law God had given them, they would be loving God and loving one another so well that all the other nations would recognize the wisdom and the beauty of worshiping Israel’s God, and they would come and join in that worship. So the temple was going to be the absolute center of worship for the land, and would become the center of worship for the whole world.

That is all very good. But…it can go very wrong. The temptation for the people of Israel in the coming years will be this: they could start to believe that they are in control of this process. They could start to believe that, by following God’s law perfectly, they are actually luring God down to live in their temple on the top of their sacred mountain.

And there are two main problems with this. The first one is pretty obvious: once you start thinking you can control God by worshiping him in certain specific ways, now you’ve just created a pet god. A false god. The second problem is this: once you start thinking you can control God by worshiping him in certain specific ways, then anyone who refuses to worship in exactly the same way is actually an enemy of your people — because they’re going to scare God away by worshiping wrongly.

In other words: once people start thinking they can control God, very shortly afterwards they start thinking that they must control other people as well. This is why false worship and tyranny always go together. This is why false worship and slavery always go together. One of the marks of false worship is that it crushes diversity; it forces everyone to fit into the same mold.

And that is why Moses — inspired by the Spirit of God — followed last week’s story of the 70 nations with this cautionary tale about a nation that thought they could make a great name for themselves by controlling God and becoming the center of mankind. He wants his people to remember that there is unity in all this diversity: all people are made in the image of God. But he also wants them to remember there is also diversity in all this unity: being made in the image of God does not mean that we all end up looking exactly the same. We cannot force God or people into a box of our own design and keep them there.

That is Moses’ main point.

Well, over the centuries that followed, the people of Israel did build God’s temple on the top of the Lord’s sacred mountain in Jerusalem. It did become the center of worship in the land — and, briefly, the whole world — and that was all good.

But then, as the years went by, some Israelite tribes began to speak with funny accents: their languages were changing with time and distance. Their cultures began to drift in different directions. Divisions set in, followed by false worship — which resulted in God giving away their land to Babylon, the City of Confusion!

And so, after God brought them back, the leaders of Israel began to believe that the only way to keep God in his temple on their sacred mountain was by enforcing perfect worship. Which means enforcing perfect unity, making sure everyone speaks the perfect language. They tried to suppress all change. Like many movements in our world today, they tried to lock everything down so that everyone would look and act exactly the same.

Now, we have to be fair and recognize that this did not happen because the people of Israel were especially wicked or stupid or something. The reason this ancient history has been preserved for us is so we can also take warning. Because really, what happened in ancient Israel is a natural process — almost inevitable.

See, the problem with having one particular sacred center in one particular part of the world is this: that sacred center needs one particular language, usually the language of that particular part of the world. Anyone who comes to worship at that sacred center needs to learn that language in order to worship properly. That makes sense! That is…natural. It cannot be avoided.

But what this means, very practically speaking, is that centralization always crushes diversity. And the stronger the centralization, the stronger the crushing effect.

We talked briefly last week about how — despite centuries of trying — Buddhism and Hinduism and Islam and every other religion in the world has failed to bring unity out of the diversity of mankind. The reason why is because all those other faiths are centered around particular sacred shrines that are set in particular places of the world, where those who want to worship must come and worship using particular languages and particular cultural forms. To put it another way: in order to join those religions, you have to learn their language, adopt their cultural identity, and give up your own. And nobody wants to do that! That is why, historically, the only way those religions grow is through biological reproduction, forced conversions, or economic incentives. And that is why, historically, the only way those religions can maintain their hold on people is by suppressing change and enforcing sameness.

And as we discussed last week, this is true even of modern secular religions, especially certain social movements: they have proven very willing to suppress and control those who try to think outside their particular box.

Which means that Moses’ warning is not just for ancient Israel, it is also for us — for all of us, not just for Christians or religious people.

So…what is the solution then?

Well, as we noticed last week, this concept of Jerusalem as the sacred center of the earth was actually just a sign-post along the road leading to Jesus Christ, the Messiah, the true living center of all worship. In a way, the holy land of Israel was only there to serve as the soil for the seed that God had promised. The sacred city of Jerusalem was only there to serve as a cradle for the Tree of Life that would grow out of that seed. The seed came. He died, and was planted in that sacred soil.

— and if he had remained buried there, then our faith would be centered around his grave, and Christianity would be just like every other religion in the world.

But he did not remain dead. Just like a seed, his death and burial were actually what he needed to explode into a whole new kind of life, a kind of life that cannot be restricted to just one land, just one nation, just one race. And so, just as Jesus himself predicted, he became the central trunk of a tree that has branches everywhere: his living Church.

Which means that Jerusalem today is like an empty husk, spiritually speaking. It did its job; now its job is done. Now it is no more sacred — or less sacred — than another city in the world. The land of Israel is no more “holy” — or less holy — than any other land. The language of Hebrew, the language of Moses and the Old Testament is no more “spiritual” — or less spiritual — than any other language.

And God made this very clear on the Day of Pentecost when he poured out his Spirit upon his people and transformed them into his living Church, his living body on this earth. The record of that event can be found in the New Testament, Book of Acts, Chapter 2: the Holy Spirit descends and reverses the damage that was done at the tower of Babel. But — and this is very important — he does not reverse it exactly.

Remember, at the beginning of the Babel story the whole world had one language. But on the day of Pentecost the Holy Spirit does not reverse it so that the whole world speaks one language again.

Why not?

Well, for one thing: what language would he choose? Hebrew, the Jewish language? But that would suggest that God only speaks Hebrew; it would suggest that we all need to become Jews in order to worship God. Could he have chosen Mandarin, or Malay, or Tamil, or English, or Arabic? Sure! — same problem, though!

Besides, as we have discovered here: having “one language” can become a very powerful tool for tyranny and oppression. So even if the Holy Spirit had chosen a heavenly, angelic language for all of us to speak…very quickly certain power-hungry people would have set up a “dewan bahasa” to protect the purity of the sacred language, to suppress all change, to make sure that everyone worships exactly right!

The Holy Spirit did not arrange for the disciples to all speak the same language. Instead, he arranged it so that the disciples would speak all the languages — and yet still understand one another.

And friends, what this means is that, in Christ, it doesn’t matter what language you speak…your language is God’s language. It doesn’t matter what city you live in — Jerusalem, Shanghai, Mecca, Kuala Lumpur — your city is God’s city. It doesn’t matter what nation you come from…your nation is God’s nation. The earth is the Lord’s, and everything in it!

And as we discussed last week, this is what makes Christianity absolutely unique. Our sacred center is not a place — or even a language! — our sacred center is a living person who is present in the Spirit wherever a church is planted. Our sacred center is everywhere! — and nowhere, physically speaking. This is what makes Christianity so strong and yet so flexible. This is why Christianity has proven so effective at drawing all kinds of different nations together into one people while still allowing them to keep their unique cultural and linguistic identities.

So the solution that Moses is offering the people of the modern world is the same solution he was offering ancient Israel: the chance to join a living people, a living nation, centered around the presence of God himself. He is giving us all the opportunity to give up our obsessions with ethnic purity, linguistic purity, ideological purity. He is giving us all the opportunity to accept the only king who knows how to bring unity without crushing diversity.

So if you’re here today and you have not yet joined Christ’s living people, his Church, then this is Christ’s offer to you: come, listen, believe, be baptized, and begin a new life of freedom. The Church has been going for 2000 years now, and — while the history of our faith is far from perfect! — I think you can tell just by looking around at the sheer diversity of our congregations and denominations around the world that Christ’s Church is the only place where people from every kind of background can truly find a home together.

Now, if you’re here today and you are already joined to Christ…then you know that we still have a problem. Because we Christians still tend to have a soft spot for…physical sacred centers, don’t we?

In fact, it could be argued that the most horrible parts of our history have happened because we are still obsessed with physical sacred centers. For instance, the crusades happened because Islamic armies had captured the “holy places” of Jerusalem, and were not allowing Christian pilgrims to travel there anymore. How different our history would be if those European Christians had remembered that Christ is our center, not Jerusalem! Pilgrimage no need la!

But still — even today — there are Christians who believe that Jerusalem is a “holy city”. And if it’s not Jerusalem we’re obsessed with, it’s the Vatican, where the Pope lives. And if it’s not the Vatican, it’s Canterbury Cathedral in UK, or Hillsong Church in Australia, or Redeemer Church in New York. And if it’s not some special church somewhere, then it’s some special doctrine, or some special style of worship, or some special language…

In other words, friends: we all have a weakness for centralization.

Why? Why are we like this?

Because centralization is the key to controlling people. And controlling people is important to us. Because, just like Nimrod’s people, we have this instinctive belief that if we can control enough people to put together a sacred center, then that sacred center will become our key to controlling God. And if the price of controlling God is the crushing of all diversity — then we are willing to pay that price.

Friends, we are Christians, but we are also human beings. So we struggle with the same tensions as everyone else. Unity is good! — but too much unity crushes diversity. Diversity is good! — but too much diversity destroys unity. Our societies are always swinging back and forth between these two poles, trying desperately to find the right balance…but it’s never going to happen! because we are the source of our own sickness. And the painful truth is that the churches of our world also tend to swing back and forth between these two poles.

So…what does this mean, then? If Christ and his Church is the solution to this problem, but our churches still struggle with this problem…does this mean that Christ’s Church is not actually the solution to this problem?

Well, no. Because, again, when we zoom out and look at the big picture, history shows us — and modern statistics show us — that Christ’s Church is, so far, the only religion or philosophy that has managed to unite people from every nation while also allowing them to keep their languages and their unique cultural identities. So this is our Good News: true diversity in the midst of true unity is happening in the Church even though we are not very good at doing it ourselves.

What this means is that God is the one building this sacred mountain, this sacred center called the Church. Our sacred mountain is definitely not a DIY project. And that is very good news for us!

But it is also humbling news for us. Because it means that we cannot build a stairway to heaven by enforcing unity or even by enforcing diversity. In fact, in some ways it seems like the more we try the more we get in the way of God’s work.

So what are we Christians supposed to do then: nothing at all?

No. Actually, the opposite: in Christ, we have the freedom to do everything…confidently.

So, guided by God’s Word, we are not going to enforce diversity in our churches: that is tyranny. But we are going to protect diversity by resisting over-centralization. We do this by having elders and deacons — multiple shepherds, so that authority doesn’t become centralized in just one person. We do this by making sure we are connected to other local churches, so we can be held accountable and corrected.

And, guided by God’s Word, we are not going to enforce unity in our churches: that is also tyranny. But we are going to protect unity by resisting over-diversification. We do this by making sure we remain centered on Christ, centered around God’s Word.

And the reason we can do these things confidently is because we already know we are not going to get it exactly right — and that this is okay. In Christ it is okay to fail because Christ is the one who builds his Church, and he even uses our failures to do it.

So what this Good News means for us, very practically speaking, is that when others point out our failures as a church, when the Holy Spirit shows us that we have started building our own DIY sacred center — then we are going to admit it, and we are going to repent. And we are going to try again. Confidently. And humbly. Because we know that, despite our tendency toward centralization, somehow the Spirit of God is still at work among us, teaching his Church how to speak every language, preserving the diversity and beauty of the body of Christ.

Amen!

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