Babylon at Both Ends

As I worked through the book of Genesis with my Old Testament Survey students this year, I noticed, for the first time, something quite profound.

Are you ready? You might want to get out pen and paper and write this down.

Genesis 12 is preceded by Genesis 11.

Neat huh? No? Well…let me unpack it a little.

Genesis 12 is that great moment when God makes his unconditional covenant with Abraham and his descendants.

Now the Lord had said to Abram:

Get out of your country,
From your family
And from your father’s house,
To a land that I will show you.

I will make you a great nation;
I will bless you
And make your name great;
And you shall be a blessing.

I will bless those who bless you,
And I will curse him who curses you;
And in you all the families of the earth shall be blessed.

It marks the beginning of the nation of Israel, and is full of christological overtones.

But let’s take a look at the narrative contained immediately preceding, shall we?

Now the whole earth had one language and one speech. And it came to pass, as they journeyed from the east, that they found a plain in the land of Shinar, and they dwelt there. Then they said to one another, “Come, let us make bricks and bake them thoroughly.” They had brick for stone, and they had asphalt for mortar. And they said, “Come, let us build ourselves a city, and a tower whose top is in the heavens; let us make a name for ourselves, lest we be scattered abroad over the face of the whole earth.”

Here we have an interesting contrast, to be sure. Here we see man coming together in an attempt to reach the Divine. In the next chapter, God comes to one man and separates him from the others. But what I want to focus on here is what happens next…and specifically, where it happens.

But the Lord came down to see the city and the tower which the sons of men had built. And the Lord said, “Indeed the people are one and they all have one language, and this is what they begin to do; now nothing that they propose to do will be withheld from them. Come, let Us go down and there confuse their language, that they may not understand one another’s speech.” So the Lord scattered them abroad from there over the face of all the earth, and they ceased building the city. Therefore its name is called Babel, because there the Lord confused the language of all the earth; and from there the Lord scattered them abroad over the face of all the earth.

It is important to note that the place where God confused the language of the people, Babel, is the same place called later in our English translations “Babylon”. The Hebrew word – בָּבֶ֔ל – is the same. After the events of the Tower of Babel, the city became the capital of a people called the Chaldeans. And it is from among these self-same Chaldeans that God calls Abraham.

Now, we will fast-forward a couple millennia. Abraham’s descendants have multiplied, and after 400 years in Egypt God has delivered them, given them His law, given them a prime piece of real estate, and made them a great nation. Israel has reached unequaled heights under the reigns of David and Solomon, followed by a division and a general but steady decline.

And there is one constant during this entire time: idolatry. It is present in the lives of Abraham’s immediate descendants, it rears its ugly head the moment the people are freed from Egypt, and can be seen time and time again throughout the history of the chosen people. In fact, a careful study shows that Israel as a nation can be seen as essentially pagan, with brief moments of repentance and obedience.

Finally, God has had enough. In roughly 597 BC the nation of Israel has been reduced to basically the city of Jerusalem and a few outlying communities in the territory of Judah. But even this obvious judgment from God does not cause a general repentance. So God sends a nation to destroy Jerusalem and take the people captive.

And what nation is that?

You guessed it: Babel.

And in the fifth month, on the seventh day of the month (which was the nineteenth year of King Nebuchadnezzar king of Babylon), Nebuzaradan the captain of the guard, a servant of the king of Babylon, came to Jerusalem. He burned the house of the Lord and the king’s house; all the houses of Jerusalem, that is, all the houses of the great, he burned with fire. And all the army of the Chaldeans who were with the captain of the guard broke down the walls of Jerusalem all around. Then Nebuzaradan the captain of the guard carried away captive the rest of the people who remained in the city and the defectors who had deserted to the king of Babylon, with the rest of the multitude.

So God called Abraham out of the confusion of Babel, and then judged his descendants by sending them back.

And there’s a powerful lesson in this, I think, for believers.

God has called us out of darkness, into his marvelous light, and he expects us to walk in that light. But it is, tragically, possible for believers to become enamored with the darkness we were supposed to have left behind.

The apostle Paul was dealing with one such case in his first letter to the Corinthians, when he gave the following instruction:

In the name of our Lord Jesus Christ, when you are gathered together, along with my spirit, with the power of our Lord Jesus Christ, deliver such a one to Satan for the destruction of the flesh, that his spirit may be saved in the day of the Lord Jesus.

Or, put another way, send him back to the Babel from which he came.

What a tragic end. Having seen the light, having been saved from the darkness and confusion, only to be sent back due to rebellion and idolatry.

But there are two encouraging notes here:

1) The reason for the delivering to Satan is not for permanent condemnation, but “so that his spirit may be saved in the day of the Lord Jesus.” It’s the opposite of condemnation, really.

2) The history of Israel tells us that, after a time of exile, God restored them to their land, where they rebuilt their city and once again worshiped in their temple. Things were not the same as, say, during the days of David and Solomon, but there was restoration.

But how good to never have been sent into exile! How much better to not return to Babel! What a difference would it have made had the idols been rejected out of hand, with no need for the captivity.

The lesson for believers, in case it has not been obvious, is this: we have been brought out of Babel. Let’s not go back.


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And be sure to read the action-packed adventures of Missionary Max: Missionary Max and the Jungle Princess and Missionary Max and the Lost City.

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