The Lord Scattered Them
Scripture: Genesis 11:1–32
Today we are arriving at the end of our journey through the first 11 chapters of Genesis. I have found it to be a very challenging series for me personally in terms of preparation. But I have also found it very invigorating and thought provoking to be reminded of how many very basic building blocks of our theology and a Biblical world view are laid down in these opening chapters of Genesis.
We left off last week in Genesis 9 and the covenant God made with Noah. There are a couple of interpretive and background issues that I want to deal with briefly to finish up Genesis 9 and also the genealogical list in chapter 10. Following the incident in Genesis 9 of Noah’s drunkenness and the disrespect shown by Noah’s son Ham, we read these words beginning in verse 24:
When Noah awoke from his wine and found out what his youngest son had done to him, 25 he said, “Cursed be Canaan! The lowest of slaves will he be to his brothers.” 26 He also said, “Blessed be the Lord, the God of Shem! May Canaan be the slave of Shem.27May God extend the territory of Japheth; may Japheth live in the tents of Shem, and may Canaan be his slave.”
The first question that comes to our mind is, “What is going on here, and why is Canaan being cursed and not Ham who actually committed the offense?” They are good questions, and I am not sure I have the final answer. As far as what is going on, I believe we must understand that there is more going on here than simply a fit of pique and personal temper on the part of Noah. The Bible makes clear that ultimately only God can bless and curse in any effective way. When Noah speaks, he is actually speaking in the role of a prophet and speaking the words which God put into his mouth.
So why does God pronounce this gloomy future on Canaan and not on Ham? In part, it is an example of a later statement of God in which he promises to visit the sins of the fathers on the children to the third and fourth generation. But I think it is also important to point out that the sins of the fathers are often reproduced in the children and the judgment of God follows the sin. We can assume that God, in his perfect foreknowledge, knew the character of Canaan and his descendants and that their destiny is tied to their character. We will explore that further in a few moments.
I realize that this answer may not satisfy some of us. Many of us live and operate in societies and within a world view that stresses the individual over the family or the community. We fail to grasp what seems almost instinctive in communal societies, that the family and the community are responsible for the acts of the individual and do bear blame, shame and consequences along with the offending person.
I would also point out a strong element of God’s grace here. If this prophecy had been against Ham and his descendants, Ham had three other sons besides Canaan. Such a broad pronouncement would have affected all of his sons, not just one.
I would also make reference to what must surely be one of the saddest chapters in Bible misinterpretation and misapplication, at least in America. That was the attempt by preachers and churches to use this text as a justification for slavery and the subjugation of the African peoples; a justification that rested on the identification of the population of Africa as being descendants of Ham and therefore concluded that their enslavement was the will of God. This was both bad theology and bad exegesis. Yes, the peoples of Africa did descend from Ham, but they did not descend from Canaan. They came from another branch of Ham’s descendants, the Cushites, an ancient name often associated with upper Egypt and Ethiopia.
Who were the descendants of Canaan, of whom Noah prophesied such a dark future? Simply put, they were the inhabitants of the land that became known by the same name: Canaan. Take a look at the listing in Genesis 10:15:
Canaan was the father of Sidon his firstborn, and of the Hittites, 16 Jebusites, Amorites, Girgashites, 17 Hivites, Arkites, Sinites, 18 Arvadites, Zemarites and Hamathites.
Those names may not mean much to you until you compare it with Genesis 15:15-16. In this verse, God is elaborating on his covenant with Abraham and his intention to give the land of Canaan to his descendants. This is what he says:
You, however, will go to your fathers in peace and be buried at a good old age. 16 In the fourth generation your descendants will come back here, for the sin of the Amorites has not yet reached its full measure.”
Did you recognize the tribe of “Amorites” from the earlier list? Yet the reason given for their being dispossessed is their sin which is yet to “reach its full measure.”
Consider also the list of tribes and nations in Genesis 15:21:
On that day the Lord made a covenant with Abram and said, “To your descendants I give this land, from the river of Egypt to the great river, the Euphrates— 19 the land of the Kenites, Kenizzites, Kadmonites, 20 Hittites, Perizzites, Rephaites, 21 Amorites, Canaanites, Girgashites and Jebusites.”
God’s prophesies about the descendants of Canaan had nothing to do with the peoples of Africa or the legitimacy of slavery. Remember the context, both geologically and historically. Genesis was written by Moses. Moses was leading his people where? To Canaan; a land that God had promised to give to Abraham’s descendants. Why? Because of the sin of the Amorites and the other nations of the land. And both the Bible and archaeology support the corruption of the nations of Canaan, starting with Sodom and Gomorrah during Abraham’s own life time.
Genesis 10, then, was an important document for Moses to record, delineating the distribution of Noah’s descendants and providing ethnographic information about the world of Moses’ time, and the nations which would play a role throughout the rest of the Pentateuch (the first five books of the Bible).
That brings us to Genesis 11 and the final event we will be looking at in this sermon series; the story of the Tower of Babel. I would first point out that this is another example of the Hebrew narrative style doubling back on itself. Chapter 10 describes the distribution of the descendants of Noah. Look at the conclusion of that chapter in verse 32: These are the clans of Noah’s sons, according to their lines of descent, within their nations. From these the nations spread out over the earth after the flood.
But how did they get that way? For this explanation, God leads Moses back to an important turning point event in human history. Let me reread the opening of the account:
Now the whole world had one language and a common speech. 2 As men moved eastward, they found a plain in Shinar and settled there. 3 They said to each other, “Come, let’s make bricks and bake them thoroughly.” They used brick instead of stone, and tar for mortar. 4 Then they said, “Come,let us build ourselves a city, with a tower that reaches to the heavens, so that we may make a name for ourselves and not be scattered over the face of the whole earth.”
What was the problem with their plan? I would point out three and possibly four things that were wrong. The first is that they left God out of their plan. There is no reference to God in their planning or their thinking. There is no evidence that they considered him at all. “Come, let us…” is the frame of reference for their discussion.
The second problem is that their plan was driven by human pride and focused on earthly fame. “So that we may make a name for ourselves...” It is pretty clear what was driving them, isn’t it? Pride and the desire for earthly fame is closely bound into the sinful heart of man. Genesis 1 makes it clear that man was made in the image of God. “Made of dirt, but destined for glory.” “Made to rule over the earth.” Those phrases should carry you back to our study of Genesis 1. But these statements must be balanced with the reality that we also stressed in that sermon. Man’s glory is a derived glory, and man’s authority is a delegated authority. The world and the universe is God-centered, not man centered. Any attempt to usurp the place of God and to operate independently of him is ultimately an act of rebellion.
That brings us to the third problem in their plan. Their plan was rooted in disobedience to God’s commands. Their stated desired outcome of their plan was that they might not be “scattered over the face of the whole earth.” Yet, what was God’s clear command to Noah in Genesis 9:1? Be fruitful and increase in number and fill the earth. “Fill the earth!” To fill the earth, they had to spread out. They had to scatter.
I want to just touch on a possible fourth problem in their plan. The evidence on this one is not conclusive, so I mention it rather tentatively. Many scholars see this tower they were building with its “top toward heaven” as an early type of ziggurat. Ziggurats were towers, or “step pyramids” which the Babylonians built, based on false worship and in many cases representing the signs of the zodiac and the use of astrology. A number of examples of these towers have been discovered by archaeologists in the region where the tower of Babel was most likely built. So, while we cannot be sure, there is at least the possibility that their plan was based on idolatry and the worship of false gods; false religion.
So, how did God respond? Verse 5 tells us:
But the Lord came down to see the city and the tower that the men were building. 6 The Lord said, “If as one people speaking the same language they have begun to do this, then nothing they plan to do will be impossible for them.
We learn several things in these verses. First is that God is actively engaged with the world which he has made. He is not a disinterested observer. “The Lord came down…” This statement should not lead us to conclude that God can’t see from heaven, or to question the truth of God’s omnipresence. God is everywhere and knows everything all the time. The phrase is used to communicate his active engagement with the world, and his attention to what is happening on the earth.
The other thing we learn in this passage is the danger of unity. That may sound strange. We often praise the benefits of unity and work hard to achieve unity. But we learn here that unity that is built on a wrong foundation or focused on an erroneous goal is a curse and not a blessing. Human unity is indeed a powerful force. God acknowledges that. “Nothing they plan to do will be impossible for them.” But if the plan leaves God out and is focused on human pride and human glory, then human unity becomes a force for evil and not for good.
And so God acted.
Come, let us go down and confuse their language so they will not understand each other.” 8 So the Lord scattered them from there over all the earth, and they stopped building the city. 9 That is why it was called Babel—because there the Lord confused the language of the whole world. From there the Lord scattered them over the face of the whole earth.
I would just make a couple of observations here. This was an act of judgment. The confusion of languages has been and remains a source of confusion and frustration for the human race. Anyone who has learned another language knows the challenge it provides. Anyone of us who has ever been stranded or stuck in a situation where no one speaks a language we know recognizes the frustration the diversity of language can cause.
I would also point out that this was an act of grace. Man was headed down a very dangerous path; the path of false unity, a unity that left God out. It was a path that would have quickly led to the same avalanche of evil which characterized the earth before the Flood. By confusing the languages and scattering the tribes and clans over the earth, God arrested and retarded the spread of evil and of concentrated human rebellion.
Thirdly, I would suggest that this was an act of sovereign power. God, as Creator and King over all he has made, is exercising his sovereign power over his creatures. It is a clear example of what the psalmist wrote in Psalm 33:8-11:
Let all the earth fear the Lord; let all the people of the world revere him. 9 For he spoke, and it came to be; he commanded, and it stood firm. 10 The Lord foils the plans of the nations; he thwarts the purposes of the peoples. 11 But the plans of the Lord stand firm forever, the purposes of his heart through all generations.
The Book of Proverbs says it this way in Proverbs 21:30: There is no wisdom, no insight, no plan that can succeed against the Lord.
God commanded the people to scatter and fill the earth. When they refused to obey, he simply and sovereignly scattered them over the face of the earth in spite of themselves, in this single sovereign display of his power.
That brings us to the end of our series in Genesis. Let me just very briefly hit the high points; the broad outline of what we have covered. God made the world and everything in it. God made mankind; male and female, in his image, to be his vice regents over the earth. Man sinned and rebelled against God’s command and against his rule. In the aftermath of Adam and Eve’s sin, God made a promise that a seed or descendant of the woman would one day crush the head of the serpent who had led Adam and Eve into sin.
Driven from the Garden, the corruption of sin quickly spread until man is described as “only evil all the time.” This led God to the drastic action of destroying the earth with the Flood. But even in the deluge of evil and the deluge of God’s judgment that followed, God was working to carry out his plan and to fulfill his promise through the seed of the woman. There was a godly line of Adam’s descendants, beginning with Seth and including the godly Enoch on Genesis 5. There was also God’s grace extended to Noah and his family; a grace which they received by faith and by which they were reckoned righteous in God’s sight. Through Noah, the seed of the woman was kept alive. Following the Flood, man again fell into his sinful, rebellious ways. To retard the multiplication of sin and the amplification of sin’s effects, God scattered the nation through the confusion of their language. But God was not finished. Now, out of those scattered nations, God was about to choose and call a man; another man of faith; the man called Abraham, and through Abraham’s seed, all the nations of the earth would be blessed. And that is the “rest of the story” which picks up in Genesis 12.
In closing this message, I want to come back to a specific application for those of you who stood a little earlier in the service; those who will be leaving over the summer months and will not be returning. You are moving into a new chapter in your life; some of you back home, some to assignments and jobs in other countries, some to a new stage in life after graduating from school. Life spreads out before you with a host of challenges and new opportunities. No doubt you have plans, goals, aspirations and dreams. I want to urge you to take away a very simple message from Genesis 11. Put God at the center of all you do. Leaving God out of your plans always leads to confusion and frustration.
Let me say it again. Leaving God out of your plans always leads to confusion and frustration. So I ask you; Is your plan God centered? Has prayer and the pursuit of God’s will been a part of your planning process? Is God’s glory and the growth of his kingdom an integral part of your plans, your dreams, your aspirations? If your plan is based on human pride and your own glory and your own ambitions, beware! There is heartache and confusion ahead. If your plans involve disobedience to God’s commands and moral absolutes, you are headed for trouble. If your vision of your future is based on human strength and a life that is independent of God, be careful lest your dream become a nightmare. Remember the simple law of sowing and reaping. “God is not mocked. Whatsoever a man sows, that shall he also reap.” He who sows the wind will reap the whirlwind of confusion and broken dreams.
Choose a different way. Choose the path of Abel, of Enoch and of Noah. Choose the path of faith which leads to obedience. Make God the center of your plans and you will reap the fulfillment of all God’s promises. “Seek ye first the kingdom of God and his righteousness and all these things shall be added unto you.”
QUESTIONS FOR THOUGHT AND DISCUSSION
- Share a highlight from the series of messages on Genesis.
- Pastor Cam mentioned 3 (possibly 4) problems with the people’s plan in Genesis 11:2-4. What are they?
- Can you give examples of how people make the same mistakes today?
- In the message, Pastor Cam makes reference to the “dangers of unity.” When is unity dangerous and how? Can you give any examples from history or from your own experience or life?
- Is anyone in your home fellowship leaving Abu Dhabi for good? If so, ask him/her to share their plans for the future and how they plan to keep God central in their lives and their future?