The Idol Forge
The Idol Forge
This morning brings us to a major milestone in our study of Genesis. We’ll be looking at the tenth and eleventh chapters, which conclude the first part of the book. Genesis is neatly divided into two parts. Chapters 1-11 are what we often call the “Primeval History”; these chapters are the “pre-history” that establish our worldview and set the stage for the unfolding of redemptive history. Chapters 12-50 are the history of the patriarchs: the story of Abraham and his descendants up to their sojourn in Egypt. Most of Chapters 10 and 11 is taken up with genealogical information: more “begats”. These genealogies get us from Noah to Abraham, but, right in the middle, the story of the Tower of Babel brings the progression of humanity’s sin problem to a head. God blesses; humanity responds with sin and rebellion. God dealt with sin once by wiping it out so that just one righteous man remained. And yet we saw that before the story of Noah was even over, sin was back. God promised never again to destroy the earth with a flood. So how is he going to deal with sin this time? This is the question leads us to the story of Abraham.
But first, Chapter 10 is what’s often called the “Table of Nations”. It tells us about Noah’s descendants and describes them spreading out over the earth. It begins in verse 1, telling us:
These are the generations of the sons of Noah, Shem, Ham, and Japheth. Sons were born to them after the flood.
The text then goes on to tell us that the descendants of Japheth generally went north and west into central Asia, Turkey, and Europe. It tells us that the descendants of Ham gradually went south and west to Egypt, north Africa, Crete, and the Mediterranean coast—what we know today as Palestine, Lebanon, and Syria.
The text pauses briefly to tell us in particular about one of Ham’s descendants: a man named Nimrod. In verses 8-12 we read:
[He] was the first on earth to be a mighty man. He was a mighty hunter before the Lord. Therefore it is said, “Like Nimrod a mighty hunter before the Lord.” The beginning of his kingdom was Babel, Erech, Accad, and Calneh, in the land of Shinar. From that land he went into Assyria and built Nineveh, Rehoboth-ir, Calah, and Resen between Nineveh and Calah; that is the great city.
Finally, then we’re told that Shem’s descendants settled to the east and in Mesopotamia; some of them went south into the Arabian Peninsula. Now, to us this may seem like a boring list of difficult-to-pronounce names, but for the Israelites it made sense of the world, the nations, and the peoples they knew. We can see this in the fact that the list isn’t comprehensive. There’s nothing in here about the Germanic tribes, the ancient Chinese or Indians, or peoples that populated the Americas or Sub-Saharan Africa. The people here are the peoples of the Near East and the eastern Mediterranean. And we can see that it’s not a genealogy in strict terms. Some of the names are personal names and some of them are the names of cities and people groups. It describes the world as the Israelites knew it and then traces the ancestry of the peoples and nations they knew back to Noah. Most importantly, the list reminds us that everyone—all these different nations and peoples—are living out God’s blessing. God had blessed Noah, telling him to be fruitful, to multiply, and to fill the earth. And we see here that this is exactly what Noah and his sons did. Despite the sinfulness of humanity, God never retracted his blessing. He may work through this person or that person; he may choose for a time to work through a single nation or people group, but his goal is for the restoration of the whole human race. As St. Paul wrote to the Galatian churches:
There is neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither slave nor free, there is no male and female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus. (Galatians 3:28)
And, of course, Jesus is where the Old Testament story is taking us. All of us have this same sin problem in our hearts: Jew and Greek, slave and free, male and female.
Chapter 11 drives home our desperate state one last time as it wraps up the pre-history of redemption. The table of nations shows us all humanity living out the blessing that God gave to Adam and to Noah. People are being fruitful and multiplying. And yet in the middle of all this we’re now told about one particular group of people who settled in a place called Shinar and decided to build a tower.
Now the whole earth had one language and the same words. And as people migrated from the east, they found a plain in the land of Shinar and settled there. (Genesis 11:1-2)
Shinar refers to a place we know of as Sumer in Mesopotamia. The Old Testament associates it with Babylon. Because of the Babylonian connection, there has been a long tradition that it was Nimrod, the fellow we saw singled out in Chapter 10, who brought these people together. If Nimrod was their leader is might help us put a date on the story. Bible scholars disagree on who he might have been, but the identification that seems to make the most sense is with Hammurabi, one of the most famous kings of the Old Babylonian empire, who lived about 1,800 years before Christ. Whatever the case, these people got together and began building a city. Look at verse 3:
And they said to one another, “Come, let us make bricks, and burn them thoroughly.” And they had brick for stone, and bitumen for mortar.
So far this parallels precisely with what we know of ancient Mesopotamian peoples and their cities. Mesopotamia didn’t have an abundance of stone, so the people there came up with a substitute: they made mud bricks and then baked them until they were rock-hard. They set them together with bitumen mastic to create waterproof buildings. But the people don’t just stop with building houses and shops and granaries.
Then they said, “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.” (Genesis 11:4)
A place to live wasn’t enough. They wanted to build a tower too. And not just any old tower. Again, this is where archaeology helps us to understand what’s going on here. And, again, what we read here fits in perfectly with what we know of Mesopotamian cities. At the core of all the major cities was a tower; more specifically, it was something call a ziggurat. It was something like a step-sided pyramid. The people would build walls out of these kiln-fired bricks and then fill the space inside the walls with earth, then they would build another tier the same way on top of that. Up and up they’d build it, three or four tiers, with a stairway leading to the top. And then at the top would be a small shrine of sorts meant to entice whatever god the people of the city were trying to persuade to come down to them. At the base of the ziggurat was a temple. So the ziggurat was supposed to be the earth-side anchor of a ladder or stairway to the heavens and to the gods who would then come down to the temple to receive the offerings and worship of the people.
Needless to say, God was not pleased with what was going on. Look at verses 5-9:
And the Lord came down to see the city and the tower, which the children of man had built. And the Lord said, “Behold, they are one people, and they have all one language, and this is only the beginning of what they will do. And nothing that they propose to do will now be impossible for them. Come, let us go down and there 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. Therefore its name was called Babel, because there the Lord confused the language of all the earth. And from there the Lord dispersed them over the face of all the earth.
God’s solution to the sin of the people was to scatter them by confusing their language. But what actually was their sin? This is an important question to ask, because the answer is what explains the rest of the story in Genesis, and not only Genesis, but the rest of Scripture.
The traditional explanation, and one I’m sure many of you have heard, is that the people sinned either in their pride (they wanted to make a name for themselves and to be remembered by posterity) or that they were sinning by gathering in one place and trying to stay there after God had told Noah to fill the earth.
While pride may certainly have been a factor in the desire of these people to build the biggest and the best ziggurat ever, the desire to be remembered by posterity isn’t inherently sinful. It’s also hard to argue that the people were disobeying God’s command to “fill the earth”. First, this was not so much a command as a blessing. The natural result of being fruitful and multiplying is that your descendants will eventually fill the earth. God didn’t tell Noah to break up his family and to send his sons off in different directions. That sort of thing simply happens as the population expands. There’s no indication anywhere else in the Old Testament that urbanisation or building cities into which large numbers of people gather is somehow sinful or a rejection of God’s blessing to Noah.
No, to understand the sin of the people we need to look at what they were building and what its purpose was. A ziggurat was the epitome of pagan worship. It was a stairway to the heavens built to lure and entice a god down to earth. And that reflects a very dramatic shift in humanity’s understanding of deity. The God who created the cosmos is a god in need of nothing. He created the world and he created human beings so that he could show us his love and manifest his glory to us. There is nothing in the cosmos that the God of Holy Scripture needs. Just the opposite in fact, it is his Creation that needs him.
But we want gods we can control and so human beings are perpetually recasting god as we want him to be instead of worshiping him as his really is. John Calvin was precisely right when he wrote that “the human mind is…a perpetual forge of idols.” We dilute God into someone who needs us and as we give him what he needs, we then think that he’s obligated to give us the things we want. This is what the people did at Babel. They turned God into a puppet. They could pamper him and make him obligated to use his power for their benefit.
This is the heart of paganism: humanity’s losing sight of the Creator. It’s what St. Paul writes about in Romans 1:
For although they knew God, they did not honor him as God or give thanks to him, but they became futile in their thinking, and their foolish hearts were darkened. Claiming to be wise, they became fools, and exchanged the glory of the immortal God for images resembling mortal man and birds and animals and creeping things.
Therefore God gave them up in the lusts of their hearts to impurity, to the dishonoring of their bodies among themselves, because they exchanged the truth about God for a lie and worshiped and served the creature rather than the Creator. (Romans 1:21-25)
Calvin called this idolatry; John Walton calls it “God abuse”. So far in Genesis we’ve seen sin grow and grow from Adam and Eve’s eating forbidden fruit to Cain’s murder of his own brother. We’ve seen the entire human race descend into violence. But at Babel humanity takes a step further. Cain might have been a murderer, but he still knew God and he still knew who God was. Here at Babel we see human beings abandon their Creator and take up the worship of new gods created in their own image. The God who created the Cosmos is a god to be worshiped and obeyed for his holiness and for his righteousness, for his blessing and for his gracious provision. These new gods were gods who could be controlled and manipulated by their worshipers.
Brothers and sisters, “God abuse” continues to be our problem. Even as Christians we’re often guilty of recasting God as an idol of our own making. When we think that God is obligated to answer our prayers because we tack on “in Jesus name”, our paganism is showing. When we think we can make God do what we want by “claiming promises”, our paganism is showing. When we think God owes us something because we tithe or because come to church every Sunday, our paganism is showing. When we treat God like a divine vending machine, thinking that by “sowing seeds” in his kingdom he’s obligated to bless us with health and wealth, our paganism is showing. When we bargain with God saying: “God, I’ll do this for you if you’ll only do this for me,” our paganism is showing. When we do these things we’re creating an idol; we’re making a false god whom we can control and manipulate.
Let me give you three ways we’re often guilty of diluting God:
First, we dilute God when we redistribute his power. The ancient Israelites were guilty of this. They continued to worship God in his temple, but they built “high places” to worship Baal so that their harvests would be good; they setup shrines to Ishtar so that they could pray to her for fertility for their families and their livestock. They worshiped God in his temple, but they hedged their bets and made political alliances with their pagan neighbours to keep themselves safe. They claimed to trust in God, but their actions said something very different. Again, they hedged their bets. Sure, they trusted God, but they didn’t trust him fully. They made sure backups were available should he fail to pull through.
You and I redistribute God’s power the same way when we fail to trust him fully. Just look at the things we truly rely on for peace and security. I’m convinced that the biggest threat to real faith today is Statism: the idea that the State is our saviour, our caretaker, and the solution to all our problems. When we vote for the government to confiscate another’s property in order to make ourselves secure, we’re trusting the State, not God. The State’s closest rival for our faith is our own selves: our hard work and our own ingenuity. Too often we trust what we can do for ourselves more than we trust God. The Israelites hedged their bets with horses and chariots, we do the same, but our horses and chariots have become jobs and bank accounts, politicians and social programmes.
Brothers and sisters, the consequence of redistributing God’s power is that we never truly step out in faith. We stay at home and play it safe; we give meagrely from our time and talent and treasure; we don’t do big things for the kingdom of God because we don’t truly trust God to make big things happen. We need to remember the words of Psalm 37:5: “Commit your way to the Lord; trust in him, and he will act.”
Second, we dilute God when we restrict his autonomy. In the ancient world the purpose of an idol was to serve as a focal point for the people to meet the needs of the god it represented. They would give it the best food, the best clothes, the best house, all in an attempt to make the god happy so that he or she would then bless the worshipers and make them happy and prosperous. They gave to their gods so that their gods would be obligated to give something back.
You and I don’t use idols in our worship, but any time we start thinking that God is obligated to us because we put money in the plate, come to worship him on Sunday, or do things for him during the week, we’re worshiping an idol of our own making just as much as the people of Babel were. We need to remember that God owes us nothing and that there’s nothing we can do to put him in our debt. Remember, he is the one who gave us life in the first place; we’re the ones who rebelled against him. Anything that we can give to him is nothing more than the smallest payback in return for the life he has given and the grace he has shown.
Finally, we dilute God when we try to control his power. We do this when we try to access God’s power not for his benefit but for our own. God graciously involves us in his work; he gives us gifts so that we can serve him; he even does amazing and sometimes miraculous things in our lives, but he does all these things to manifest his own glory. We forget this when we claim his power in our lives, but don’t allow his power to guide and direct us or to cleanse and purify us. We pray and ask God to heal our infirmities, but we don’t want him to change our attitude. We ask God to bless us with a new job, a promotion, or a raise, but we plug our ears as he calls us to change our ungodly work ethics and habits. We pray and ask him for miraculous spiritual gifts to use in the Church, but we reject the fruit of the Spirit and uncharitably gossip about our brothers and sisters and sow dissension in the Body.
Jesus warns us in the Sermon on the Mount: “On that day many will say to me, ‘Lord, Lord, did we not prophesy in your name, and cast out demons in your name, and do many mighty works in your name?’ And then will I declare to them, ‘I never knew you; depart from me, you workers of lawlessness.’” (Matthew 7:22-23).
The solution is for us to refocus on the sovereignty, transcendence, and power of God. In the first three of the Ten Commandments, God addresses all three of these areas in which human beings are so prone to diluting him. In response to our readiness to dilute his power, he commands: “Thou shalt have no other gods me.” In response to our thinking that we can give him something he doesn’t have and through that obligate him to us he commands: “Thou shalt not make unto thee any graven image.” In response to our thinking that we can channel his power for our benefit we commands, “Thou shalt not take the name of the Lord they God in vain.”
God gave these commandments at Mt. Sinai, where he revealed himself to the Israelites—to a people who had all but forgotten who he was during their 400 years in pagan Egypt. He revealed his Word through Moses that his people might once again know him, worship him, and trust him. And that brings us back to Chapter 11 and to Babel and it leads us to God’s revelation to Abraham. The story of the Tower of Babel shows us the natural cycle of humanity’s rejection of God. Sin began with a rejection of God’s commands, but it culminates here at Babel with a loss of the knowledge of God himself. There is always hope for sinners who still know God. Sadly, there’s no hope for sinners who no longer even know whom it is they’ve rejected and whom they’ve disobeyed. What are we to do when we’ve walked so far away from God that we no longer even know he exists? Where’s our hope? Does God simply abandon us? It’s our fault. It’s the result of our own rebellion. God has every right to cut us loose. But that’s not what he does. When his people forget who he is; when they forget he even exists, God comes to them and reveals himself anew.
The rest of Chapter 12 takes us back to Noah’s son, Shem, and traces his descendants down through ten generations to a man named Terah. In verse 26 we read:
When Terah had lived 70 years, he fathered Abram, Nahor, and Haran.
It’s his son, Abram, whose story we’ll pickup next time, but it’s through Abram that we see hope. Even as humanity has forgotten God himself, God has not forgotten humanity. Through Seth the line progresses to Abram and to Abram we’ll see God once again reveal himself to human beings—revealing himself that we might once again know him and become part of the story of redemption.
Let me close by saying that this story arc from Noah to Babel to Abraham tells us something about the reason that God steps into human history to reveal himself and to speak his Word. He does so that we might know him and that in knowing him we might trust and obey him. The people of Abraham’s day had lost the knowledge of God, and so he came to Abraham that they might know him again. The Israelite, too, had lost the knowledge of God, so God met them at Sinai and revealed himself and gave the law through Moses that they might know him again. This says something about the purpose of the Bible. It underscores how important it is that we steep ourselves in God’s Word. But why? That we might know God. We read it that we might know about him and know his character. As we read about his mighty and saving acts in history, it ought to help us to plumb ever more deeply the great depth of his love for us—love so great that he gave his only Son to die for our sins. And, brother and sisters, the more we plumb the depths of God’s love and the better we come to know his character, the more the Scriptures will purge us of our paganism and grow our faith and our obedience, our thankfulness and our praise.
Let us pray: Gracious Father, we give you thanks and praise that even as we have rebelled against you and even as we have replaced you with idols of our own making, you continue to speak to us, you continue to reveal yourself to us in your Word. Open our eyes that we might read there and know you better. Open our hearts that we might be renewed by deeper knowledge of you and of your love for us. We ask this through Jesus Christ, our Saviour and Lord. Amen.