I admit it. It's out there. The most non-newsworthy confession that every reader silently affirms. They are boring. They are tedious (especially when they're written in other languages--so for all of our sake, here is the helpful audio of this passage).
(As a quick aside, here are my top-5 nominations for the least likely name I will give my future son from Genesis 10-11. #5 It's a tie! Hazarmaveth and Togarmah. Too many syllables and both sound a little violent. #4 Peleg. Unless, of course, this hypothetical son needed a peg leg and had aspirations of pirate-hood in his future, then it would fit. #3 Joktan. I hear Joktan and picture a really tan and toned David Hasselhoff in Baywatch. #2 Asshur. Seems too obvious to explain. And the least likely name I will give my son from Genesis 10-11 is...#1 Nimrod. How you go from the founder of Babylon and the king of Shinar to a word in English that just means, "idiot, jerk," I don't know. In either case, I do not want to label my future hypothetical son a godless jerk, even if he might be a great warrior and/or a really great Green Day album.)
But even as I despise (Is that an overstatement? I'm still not sure. Let's go with it.) genealogies, I love stories. Stories capture my attention with their plot twists, character development, and drama from the early rising action to the denouement. I enjoy trying to trace their trajectories, analyze the events and characters, and rewrite better endings in my head (looking at you, LOST). They are fascinating. They are engaging (and, perhaps it's needless to say, my poor wife doesn't always enjoy watching plays, movies, or discussing books with me as a constant critic).
I'm a little conflicted, then, when Genesis starts mixing up my categories of love and hate. One of the story-telling techniques Genesis uses is the genealogy. When you come across a Genesis genealogy, don't pass over too quickly or you could miss real excitement and drama.
Genealogies in Genesis connect Israel's present with the past. They also propel the story forward, sometimes even thousands of years at a time. We can get from one place and character to another very quickly with these aerial overviews of families (Seth to Noah; Shem to Abraham). And families are incredibly important, especially in that culture. So it's necessary to trace who in the family God is going to work with. Often times it isn't who you'd expect (i.e. the oldest son overlooked is a repeating theme). The first genealogy shows the readers in Israel that God doesn't work through Cain's family because of his curse, using Seth's line instead (Gen 5). You'll remember that Noah's family members were the sole survivors of a catastrophic flood. The next genealogy shows that God doesn't work through Ham's family because of his curse, using Shem's instead (Gen 10-11).
But something very confusing happens right in the middle of all of the names and lists in Genesis 10-11. The author breaks from his genealogies to reverse course and sprinkle in a little narrative drama. As soon as we are told that the descendants of Noah's sons each had their own languages and lands (10:5, 20, 31), we are told that "the whole earth had one language and the same words" (11:1). What's going on here? The narrative is back-tracking to the time of 10:8-11, the building of a kingdom in the land of Shinar.
It's important to notice that Genesis isn't big on kingdoms and cities. So far the city-builders are Cain and Nimrod, with the next city to show up being Sodom (13:12). That's company you don't want to keep. To the audience of Genesis, cities were breeding grounds for wickedness and idolatry. In that day, cities were built in honor of gods, and in them were pagan temples, shrines, and other cult practices and buildings. For example, in the literature of Sumeria, following the great flood the god orders the surviving humans to build a city so he can dwell there comfortably saying, "Let them build many cities so that I can refresh myself in their shade. Let them lay the bricks of many cities in pure places, let them establish places of divination in pure places, and...I will establish well-being there" (1). In Genesis, on the other hand, building cities and kingdoms flies against God's command to multiply and fill the earth. They're supposed to "spread abroad" (10:32), not build cities.
Just what was happening in Shinar (Gen 11:2-9)? There we find Babel. Babel is the Hebrew word for Babylon, used 250+ times throughout the OT to refer to the enemy city (unfortunately, it goes untranslated in Gen 11 in English translations). In Babel, the people said, "Come let us build ourselves a city and a tower." The Babylonians were trying to build towers to the gods of heaven, for their own glory and self-promotion (much like this quote from Nebuchadnezzar). In fact, many of these Babylonian towers (or ziggurats) have been discovered in many of their ancient cities, including in Babylon and Ur (made out of bricks, of course. Cf. Gen 11:3). It's even likely that Israelite exiles would have helped construct these towers.
But just as the people of Babylon try to go up to the gods, God says "Come, let us go down" to see their little project and confuse their language. This is condescension in the most literal and ironic sense. God's punishment is to scatter them and confuse their language--balal (confusion) is a Hebrew pun with babel (Babylon), one more parting shot at Israel's oppressors. The Sumerian gods wanted to unite human language (2), but the true God, YHWH, shows that nothing and no one can stand in opposition to him. He alone is God.
So, what's the big point? Instead of humans building their way to the gods, Israel maintained (and Christians since perhaps even more so) that YHWH is the God who comes down to us. He comes down to confuse and punish when necessary, but more importantly he comes down to dwell with his people. Israel doesn't need a ziggurat--God comes down to their tent and into their camp. Later their temple doesn't need stairs or tiers to heaven because it is God who comes to them. And in a profound display of humility, love, and faithfulness to his creation, God came down to humanity in Jesus Christ. To use the language of John 1:14, God came and tabernacled among us, making his home with us (1 Cor 6:19).
Whether by building towers or by self-righteous moralism, every attempt of man to reach up to God ends in gods made in our own image. Thanks be to the God who comes down! There is no other God than YHWH!
You are not a God dependent on any mortal man.
You are not a God in need of anything we can give.
By Your plan, that's just the way it is!
You are God alone, from before time began,
You were on Your throne, You are God alone!
And right now, in the good times and bad,
You are on Your throne, You are God alone!
(Check out Zoe Group's acapella version of this Phillips, Craig, and Dean song.)