I want to take Genesis 10 & 11 together this morning.
Genesis 10 is the “book” describing Noah’s descendants: the lines of his 3 sons, Japheth, Ham, and Shem. Japheth’s line receives the least attention (10:2-5), Ham’s the most space (10:6-20), and Shem’s the prominence of place as the chapter’s climax and bridge to the line of Abram (10:21-31).
Ham’s line is the line under the Lord’s curse (9:24-27), and Moses is careful to explain that Ham’s line ultimately produces 3 of Israel’s historical antagonists: Egypt (10:6), Canaan (10:6), and the Philistines (10:14). This kind of historical detail would have helped the Exodus generation (the original audience for the book of Genesis) better understand the deeper roots of the conflicts in which they found themselves engaged, assuring them of their relevance to God’s larger purposes in history.
Genesis 11 is the (in)famous chapter describing the Tower of Babel. You could say that, while Genesis 10 describes the formation of the nations after the Flood, Genesis 11 describes their malfunction. Nothing has been learned from the Flood. Men aren’t getting smarter, and they certainly (as Chapter 11 records) aren’t improving morally or spiritually. The ambition driving the construction of the Tower is man-centered, not God-centered. Its starting point is the assumption that man is the master of his own future, and can build that future from the ground up–even that man is capable of reaching heaven through his efforts: “They 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.'” (11:4).
This “mission statement” is a tragically ironic echo of God’s original mission statement for His image-bearers in Genesis 1:26-28. There, man was blessed with the design to fill the entire earth, bearing God’s image, extending His name and His glory to the farthest reaches of His creation. Here, on this side of the Fall and Flood, man’s ambition is the polar opposite: man’s mission has become the exaltation of man. His purpose is to make a name for himself, rather than to serve the Lord. Man’s vision of his future has been reduced to the construction of an elaborate mirror within which he’ll be able to admire himself, instead of a window through which he’ll be able to see the greatness of God more clearly.
I would love to be able to dismiss the folly of this anti-God ambition in Genesis 11 and regard myself at a commendably pious remove from it, but the fact is that Genesis 11 is a mirror that shows me things about my own heart that I’d rather not see. I am constantly forgetting that, unlike every other religion, Christianity is about glory coming down, as a gift, to people and a world that hasn’t and can’t ever earn it. Not as a reward, but to rescue us. The direction of Babel is wrong: it’s bottom up. The direction of the Gospel is Top-down.
Every other religion, every philosophy, every approach to life (besides the Gospel) shows us a “ladder” at the heart of reality and then proposes to give us climbing lessons of one sort or another. Not Christianity. Christianity does show us there’s a “ladder” connecting heaven (God’s dwelling) and earth (man’s dwelling), but it’s a ladder only God could make (contra: the Babelian Builders), bridging an infinite distance only God Himself could cross—a ladder that only God Himself could climb. If we’re to know God and be reconciled to Him, it is He who must move toward us, He who must come to us: this is the true direction of the universe. Theologians have a name for this “direction,” this true grain of the universe: grace.
Genesis 11 has taught me once again this morning to rejoice that the Good News of the Gospel is that “the Word became flesh,” (John 1:14), and not the other way around.
p.s. For those who make it this far (!), here’s a quote from Herman Bavinck (my favorite theologian), on the Bible’s vision of the universe’s true direction. It’s a bit long, but well worth the effort. Enjoy!
“…[C]ovenant is the essence of true religion. Why should this be? First of all, because God is the Creator, man a creature; and with that statement an infinite distance between the two is a given. No fellowship, no religion between the two seems possible; there is only difference, distance, endless distinctness. If God remains elevated above humanity in His sovereign exaltedness and majesty, then no religion is possible, at least no religion in the sense of fellowship. Then the relation between the two is exhaustively described in the terms ‘master’ and ‘servant.’ Then the image of the potter and the clay is still much too weak to describe that relation because clay has existence—and hence rights—independently of, and over against, the potter, but human beings have nothing and are nothing apart from God. Accordingly, if there is truly to be religion, if there is to be fellowship between God and man, if the relation between the two is to be also (but not exclusively) that of a master to his servant, of a potter to clay, as well as that of a king to his people, of a father to his son, of a mother to her child, of an eagle to her young, of a hen to her chicks, and so forth; that is, if not just one relation but all relations and all sorts of relations of dependence, submission, obedience, friendship, love, and so forth among humans find their model and achieve their fulfillment in religion, then religion must be the character of a covenant. For then God has to come down from His lofty position, condescend to His creatures, impart, reveal, and give Himself away to human beings; then He who inhabits eternity and dwells in a high and holy place must also dwell with those who are of a humble spirit (Isaiah 57:15). But this set of conditions is nothing other than the description of a covenant. If religion is called a covenant, it is thereby described as the true and genuine religion. This is what no religion has ever understood; all peoples either pantheistically pull God down into what is creaturely, or deistically elevate Him endlessly above it. In neither case does one arrive at true fellowship, at covenant, at genuine religion. But Scripture insists on both: God is infinitely great and condescendingly good; He is Sovereign but also Father; He is Creator but also Prototype. In a word, He is the God of the covenant.” (Herman Bavinck, Reformed Dogmatics, 2:569—570).