Boot Camp: “Building Futility” – Genesis 10-11

When I was in High School I developed an interest in photography. I set up a dark room, shot and developed my pictures for a number of years. I carried that hobby to Israel when I went, and shot some 16,000 slides, only to later give them away to Friends of Israel in New Jersey. What can you do with thousands of slides of Israel?

I found particular enjoyment in shooting “black and white” pictures, because they could more easily lend themselves to a dramatic look. One of the best places to pull off drama with black and white film is, believe it or not, an old graveyard. Have you ever wandered in a grave yard and looked at the stones? Some of them are funny.

Gloria Russell’s gravestone said: “Don’t worry, I am just resting my eyes!”
• Robert Clay Allison’s said: “Never killed a man who didn’t need killing!”
• Computer geek Peter Andersen had on his: “Final log out.”
• One business man had on his stone: “I made some good deals and I made some bad ones, but I really went in the hole with this one.”
• One old curmudgeon had, “You’ve seen it, now go home!” on his stone.
• B.P. Roberts famously had: “I told you I was sick!”
• Merv Griffin had: “I will NOT be right back after this message!”
• The man famous for the voices in the Bugs Bunny cartoons, Mel Blanc, had “That’s all folks!” on his.

Have you ever wandered through a cemetery and wondered about the people who had their names etched on the stones. What were their lives like? Who loved them? I have.

At some funerals I read the words of the “Dash between the dates.” The reading reminds me that our lives are more than names and dates. Let me remind you of that writing by Lucille Britt:

Memorial Day was over now,
All had left and I was alone.
I began to read the names and dates
Chiseled there on every stone.
The dates which showed whether it
was Mom or Dad or daughter or baby son.
The dates were different but the amount the same,
There were two on every one.
It was then I noticed something,
It was but a simple line;
It was the dash between the dates
Placed there it stood for time.
All at once it dawned on me
How important that little line.
The dates placed there belonged to God
But that line is yours and mine.
It’s God who gives this precious life
And God who takes away;
But that line He gives to us
To do with what we may.
We know God’s written the first date down
Of each and every one,
And we know those hands will write again,
For the last date has to come.
We know He’ll write the last date down,
And soon, we know, for some,
But upon the line between my dates
I hope He’ll write “Well done!”.

The truth the writer wanted us to recall is this: All of us are building something with our lives. Some are accumulating debts. Some are adding love and joy to others.

Today’s lesson is about what happened to people when they decided to build something as a memorial to themselves as they ignored the God that made them. God crushed their project and scattered the people.

It wasn’t so much WHAT they built that God was concerned with, but WHY. The truth is, the same thing can be said of your life. You can build good things, but not GOD THINGS. You can build for your glory and not for the glory of your Creator. Every such work will be destroyed. A self-purpose nullifies the work. The accomplishment will perish in this life. It will end with this world. Only that which is done for His glory will be remembered long after.

Let’s think of it this way: We have a choice what we build. We are not victims of life, we are participants…Here is the critical truth from the Tower of Babel story we want to explore…

Key Principle: Our lives were given to us so that we can build a monument of what we hold most dear.

As a believer, I want that monument to be about the Savior, not self.

Go back in your mind’s eye to the time after the Flood. This was a time when every man and woman who left the Ark did so with a keen knowledge of God. The only living people on the earth stood at a worship service and honored God for all that happened. Collectively, the family of Noah offered a sacrifice. We can read about it in Genesis 8:

Genesis 8:20 Then Noah built an altar to the Lord, and took of every clean animal and of every clean bird and offered burnt offerings on the altar.

God responded to their worship with a pleased sense of satisfaction (meaning their hearts were tuned to what they did) and He offered a grand promise:

Genesis 8:21 The Lord smelled the soothing aroma; and the Lord said to Himself, “I will never again curse the ground on account of man, for the intent of man’s heart is evil from his youth; and I will never again destroy every living thing, as I have done. 22 While the earth remains, seedtime and harvest, and cold and heat, and summer and winter, and day and night shall not cease.”

The Bible is clear; there was NO OTHER GROUP of people on the Earth from which the populace of the nations was drawn:

Genesis 9:18 Now the sons of Noah who came out of the ark were Shem and Ham and Japheth; and Ham was the father of Canaan. 19 These three were the sons of Noah, and from these the whole earth was populated.

Think of it! That was the only day in the historical record after the Fall of man where everyone pleased God, believed God, knew God and surrendered to His purposes. The sad truth, though, is that it simply didn’t last. The sin nature within us is too strong to remain trapped within. Evil overcame men and popped out yet again.

In short order, the whole tribe of the Earth fell from a worshipful place to a selfish and pagan one. It only took a few generations to lose that sense of God’s presence. How did that happen?

It began, as in most every time since, with followers of God who focused life on themselves (their comforts and desires) and not on the glory of the God they worshipped.

I suspect a cooling of heart, and starving of fervency preceded an open rejection of God’s standards. I suspect when people like Noah didn’t take the pain of his life to God, he tried to “cope” with it by other means. That led to real problems. Look in Genesis 9 at what followed:

Genesis 9:20 Then Noah began farming and planted a vineyard. 21 He drank of the wine and became drunk, and uncovered himself inside his tent.

Here in a world that knew God, a follower focused on building for SELF. That pattern appears in Scripture as the beginning of a group that FALLS AWAY from following. It isn’t unique to Noah…

Consider the pilgrim and Puritan heritage of our own nation. About one hundred people who were seeking religious freedom in the New World, left England on the Mayflower in September of the year 1620. In the cold of November, the ship reached land by the shore of Cape Cod, in present-day Massachusetts. By December, the group began to form the first permanent settlement of Europeans in New England. The settlers of Plymouth Colony are known as the Pilgrims.

That journey and safe arrival to the “New World” gave them a place to live out their faith free of persecution. In all of recorded human history, nobody offers such a story of the freedom to form a society directly from the Bible in a wilderness without a king pressing them. They came, in part, to the New World to implement religious freedom and to walk with Him according to the dictates of one’s own personal conscience. William Bradford and others kept record of why they did what they did.

Turning from the idea of the “Divine right of Kings” they turned to the Bible to set the structure of their society and governing principles. They studied scripture for what God’s opinion was on governmental structure, both in the state and the church and they found that God didn’t always confer power to just one individual but, at times, gave it to representatives who were elected. They enshrined that in the “Mayflower Compact,” and began to form a free society also built around free markets and rugged individualism. They expected their leaders not to be lords over the people, but to be their servants.

Go to that area of Massachusetts today. See if you can find more than a handful of people who have such a heart for God!

My point is that when people who know God refuse to live for God, the next generations openly live for self. Reverence fades and eventually shame of selfishness does as well.

In Noah’s day it took some time, but the story that followed in the successive generations made clear how the operation of paganization took solid hold in mankind. The story that followed Genesis 6-9 (Noah’s story) is NOT in Genesis 10, but rather in Genesis 11. God offered the table of the Nations in Genesis 10 to set up the story of how the nations came to be scattered and divided by Him in Genesis 11. The order of the events is actually reversed. We would probably tell the story with the cause (found in Genesis 11) followed by the effect (found in Genesis 10). A more typical Hebrew way of telling the story is in a “flashback mode” offering the EFFECT before the CAUSE. Jump to Genesis 11…

The Setting (Genesis 11:1-4)

After the profound move of God in the flood, the actions of the men of a few generations removed from the event devastated the world in a NEW WAY. They left the world cut off from truth. Every time you read of the Tower of Babel story, don’t rush through and dump the details. This story is the answer to every missionaries heart cry when they have entered a land where the God of the Bible IS NOT KNOWN.

How often have they faced the pain of knowing that literally millions are lost and hell-bound because of what happened in the generations after the Flood! The simple truth is that at one time everyone came off the Ark following God, and someone didn’t pass truth to their children.

Babel was about a people dedicating a monument to themselves, without any regard for God.

In the wake of that decision, the scattering of the people by God without the truth left them to devise their own cultures, their own religions, their own ways of understanding the origin of man, his purpose and his destiny. The hunger of man to elevate himself ended with man in confusion. They attempted to fulfill their needs in collective dedication to SELF, not in SERVICE to the Lord Who made them. The Bible is clear: We were made to know, love and serve our Creator. Look at how the account unfolded:

The story started with common communication.

Genesis 11:1 Now the whole earth used the same language and the same words. 2 It came about as they journeyed east, that they found a plain in the land of Shinar and settled there.

LANGUAGE and COMMUNICATION was at the heart of what built the unity of the early society. The settling of lands and building of civil society worked far more easily than we have ever known it, simply because they could effectively communicate with one another. There is power in shared communication. Without the barriers of language and culture, shared beliefs and core values can be universally communicated. The singular language and homogenous culture was the beginning point of unity. It wasn’t the color of their skin; it was the ability to share common values and common experiences. Common values drive a unified society.

Contrary to what you have been told by many in our time, diversity of views is not always a strength. I am not speaking of race, I am speaking of core values. When a society can no longer share a common “right” or “wrong” it imperils the whole society from growing together. It becomes a litany of causes and a scary collection of special interests. What pulls it together? A society thrives on an agreed standard of right and wrong! For our founding fathers it was Biblical truth, assumed to be both TRUE and GOOD.

Let’s be absolutely clear here: If half of the University is teaching that absolutes exist – as in math and some science departments – and the other half of the university is teaching that “there are no absolutes” and “all truth is relative” – the house of education will not hold together. The truth is that I don’t want to live in a home built by an architect’s plan that did not believe in absolute and consistent physical principles. I don’t even want to sit in a chair made by someone who doesn’t believe in consistent physical principles. Weight loads of physics need to be absolute, unbending and consistent. How the architect feels about the physical laws isn’t relevant to me. Let’s move on…

The story grew around common technology.

Genesis 11:3 They said to one another, “Come, let us make bricks and burn them thoroughly.” And they used brick for stone, and they used tar for mortar.

The story centered on a common goal: a celebration of man.

Genesis 11:4 They said, “Come, let us build for ourselves a city, and a tower whose top will reach into heaven, and let us make for ourselves a name

It was expressed in terms of UNITY.

Genesis 11:4b “…otherwise we will be scattered abroad over the face of the whole earth.

The people saw the need to produce something. That wasn’t a bad thing in and of itself. Community projects are good. The advance of technology to the benefit of the community is valuable. It sounds wonderful to read that communication led to community, and community led to advancement.

We must understand that for a society to move forward, there must be implanted a constant desire to accomplish something that presses others to get ahead. This is the tragedy of a type of compassion that hands out reward without work. I am not against the growing welfare society because they take money from ME – I am against it because it demeans THE PEOPLE IT WAS MEANT TO HELP.

I believe in productivity. God started man off in the garden with duties. We need to DO something – not just get benefits from those who have done something. People of every race, color and creed need to accomplish something – it is inherent in our human nature. Too much given too easily produces unhappy, yes, ANGRY children. Work is GOOD. Work is GODLY. 1 Thessalonians 4 and 5 reminds us that three things characterize a godly man or woman – sexual purity, a real work ethic, and a distinct view of life and death that shows the time outside of this body as the more “real” experience.

The verse says not only that they wanted to accomplish something, but that they wanted to benefit each other. Companies in our modern society must see more than profits. They have to be able to see that there is a benefit to giving help back to the society upon whom their profits were built. Employees need to be thankful to have jobs, and companies need to be deliberate in helping their workers have good lives – not just using them as machines for the profits of the investors. We have to SEE each other, and be deliberate about a society. When we cheat to “get over on the man,” we take from our brothers, our sisters, our communities, our nation. We are America, and we cannot afford to cheat our neighbor without cheating our own children.

The primary issue of the passage was that men wanted to elevate themselves. There was no thought to reverence. There was no wisdom, because the fear of the Lord was not present. It was because of that God interrupted their vision and work.

The Interruption: At the point where the goal was clear, God stepped in (11:5-9).

Genesis 11 offers a rare look at how God felt about what they were doing. The record offers:

Genesis 11:5 The Lord came down to see the city and the tower which the sons of men had built. 6 The Lord said, “Behold, they are one people, and they all have the same language. And this is what they began to do, and now nothing which they purpose to do will be impossible for them. 7 Come, let Us go down and there confuse their language, so that they will not understand one another’s speech.” 8 So the Lord scattered them abroad from there over the face of the whole earth; and they stopped building the city. 9 Therefore its name was called Babel, because there the Lord confused the language of the whole earth; and from there the Lord scattered them abroad over the face of the whole earth.

In order to understand how God dealt with the people of the plain and their tower, it is necessary to ask some questions that set the story in context.

First, where did the Babel project have its origins?

The Bible says the community was started by a powerful central leader.

Genesis 10:8 Now Cush became the father of Nimrod; he became a mighty one on the earth.

The community became attractive because of its reputation for security.

Genesis 10:9 He was a mighty hunter before the Lord; therefore it is said, “Like Nimrod a mighty hunter before the Lord.”10 The beginning of his kingdom was Babel and Erech and Accad and Calneh, in the land of Shinar. 11 From that land he went forth into Assyria, and built Nineveh and Rehoboth-Ir and Calah, 12 and Resen between Nineveh and Calah; that is the great city.

Beyond its origins, what does the Bible say was the OUTCOME of a world built to celebrate men without reverence of the Creator?

Genesis 11 reminded us:

Genesis 11:8 So the Lord scattered them abroad from there over the face of the whole earth; and they stopped building the city. 9 Therefore its name was called Babel, because there the Lord confused the language of the whole earth; and from there the Lord scattered them abroad over the face of the whole earth.

• The project was STOPPED. God knew that men who had no barrier to communication were effectively erasing reverence from man’s collective record. This isn’t the only time such a thing has been tried, but it was easily spread in a homogenous culture.

• The people were SCATTERED. When communication was disrupted, people couldn’t stay together.

• The very “ground zero” of the place to build a UNITED HUMANITY without God because the very place of the CENTRAL CONFUSION, and the beginning of diversity. Unity at the expense of truth isn’t healthy, it is tragic.

Let’s say it clearly: In all the efforts of humanity to use UNITY to EXALT HUMANITY, God will stand opposed. He will thwart man’s torquing of truth. The “fear of the Lord” is the beginning of knowledge. You can’t get to truth without the God Who established the truth.

Unity at the expense of truth isn’t healthy, it is tragic.

Our lives were given to us so that we can build a monument of what we hold most dear. For the believer, that sobering truth helps us make daily choices.

After the profound move of God in the flood, the actions of these men left the world cut off from truth. The scattering without the truth left them to devise their own culture, their own religion, their own way of understanding origins, purpose and destiny. The hunger of man left man with confusion, because they attempted to fulfill the need in SELF, not in SERVICE to the Lord Who made them.

For most of us, we know what it means to work hard to build something. Much of what we build helps us feel significant, and that is one of the dangers in our building projects. In this story, the people all wanted to accomplish something that would show how significant they were. They wanted to mark their time on this earth with a symbol of power. They wanted THEIR STORY to be the story of history.

Herein is the problem: People who are desperate for SIGNIFICANCE become obsessed with it.

Joe Stowell said it right: “We were built for significance. Our problem is not that we search for it, but that we search for it in all the wrong places. We think it is what WE DO. What we LEAVE BEHIND. It isn’t… it is in what we allow God to do IN and THROUGH us. It is in how we walk with Him in the quiet places, after the lights are off… after no one is watching and the accolades are all given out.

God wasn’t going to be second in the story of history at the plain of Shinar, and He won’t be second in YOUR STORY EITHER.

He is the highest and He is always truthful. Any other god is a false hope. Any other pursuit is a DEAD END.

So He confounded them, broke up their union and sent them packing… It was the best thing He could do to stop them from all perishing together on the FOOL’S ERRAND OF BUILDING A MONUMENT TO THEMSELVES WITHOUT HIM.

Many people are afraid of death, but far fewer appear to be afraid of wasting life. They build nothing for others. They serve God only when it fits into a convenient place and time.

We must remember we never “find time” for things; we “make time” by allocating it. If we delay using time well, we show we don’t understand its true value. If we fail to serve Christ well, we show we don’t understand HIS true value.