Summary thus far: According to Acts 17:16-34, humanity consists of one race of people, descended from one man, Adam. However, God separated that one race into different ethnic groups. The word for these groups, often translated “nation,” is the Greek ethnos, from which we get the English “ethnicity.” This refers to a distinct people who share a culture. But most ethnicities form cultures that refuse to honor and glorify God.
In Acts 17:16-34, the apostle Paul declares that it is God who separated mankind into distinct nations, determined where they would live and for how long. God Himself is responsible for the different ethnic groups in the world.
Why did He do this? If the human race is descended from Adam and is a unified whole, why did the Lord break it into distinct ethnicities? Fortunately, the Bible gives us the answer in Genesis 11 – in the events surrounding the Tower of Babel.
In the attempt to build the tower, we see a perfect picture of prideful, humanistic, and worldly endeavor. It is man seeking to exalt himself to heaven, but not for the purpose of reaching God (as if that could even be done by human effort) but to usurp authority, rule in His place, and steal His glory.
When the people began to consider building, they said: “Come, let us build for ourselves a city, and a tower whose top will reach into heaven, and let us make for ourselves a name, otherwise we will be scattered abroad over the face of the whole earth” (Gen. 11:4).
This provides for us the very first characteristics of sinful humanistic endeavor. When they say, “Come let us,” we find that there is agreement of purpose and joint effort in the accomplishment of goals pursued apart from divine approval.
Of course, cooperation among people is neither rare nor wrong in and of itself. Nehemiah calls for such cooperation among the returning exiles, for example. However, one must be very careful about serving the “common good” when that cooperation is for rebellious purposes. So when they say, “Come let us build,” it is not for any goal approved by God.
We see this in the remainder of their declaration. They planned to build “for ourselves” both a city and a tower. Of course, this impulse to congregate and cooperate flows from the fact that man was created in God’s image. This is the origin of the human desire for community and shared creative purpose. However, this legitimate and God-honoring characteristic was perverted into something wicked. The city and tower were part of a plan to keep mankind unified in order to facilitate the accomplishment of all their self-centered goals.
The desire for self-exaltation is clear. They wanted to build a tower “whose top will reach into heaven.” This can signify one of two things: (1) a naïve and futile attempt to reach to the abode of God, or (2) merely a desire to build something so tall it would literally “tower” over everything else built by man. Either way, building the city and the tower would be for the purpose of making “for ourselves a name.” They wanted honor for themselves.
There is another motivation that is spelled out: “otherwise we will be scattered abroad over the face of the whole earth.” It is interesting that they understood that life in a fallen world tends to erode and break apart that which is created by man, just as Jesus said human treasures are subject to moths and rust (Matthew 6:19). These people were desperately trying to forestall that inevitability.
So the city and tower they were wanting to build would be for the purposes of gathering mankind together into a unified whole, creating a community in their own image, and preserving this creation against the effects of a fallen world.
Thus, we see that their self-centered efforts contained these elements: (1) community, (2) common purpose (or ideology) to bind together the group, (3) a leader or leaders and (4) servants (to build). Here we have the core elements of not only every successful human endeavor but also – when this model is perverted – every oppressive movement, regime, nation or empire in human history. The devil leads some person (or persons) astray and they begin to build something – infused by some wicked dream – and nothing is allowed to stand in the way. This is how a malignant ethnos is formed and perpetuated.
The divine response
God’s answer to the humanistic enterprise in Genesis 11 was to “confuse their language so that they will not understand one another’s speech” (vs. 7). The result was as we would expect: separation. Mankind broke apart into separate ethnic groups, based initially on distinct languages. (We can surmise that, as they parted ways and moved into their own “corners” of the world, physical distinctions also developed.)
Moreover, it says “they stopped building the city.” Their effort to unify and perpetuate their rebellion against God was foiled. Mankind “scattered…abroad from there over the face of the whole earth.” It was God’s doing: In vs. 8, it says “the Lord scattered them abroad.”
Thus, the confusion of languages was a form of punishment for human pride, but it was also an instrument with a divine purpose. God separated the people so they would never again coalesce into a single group and unite the power of human beings for sinful purposes.
Naturally, each individual ethnos could replicate the original sin for which Babel was the punishment, but then the judgment would be repeated as the occasion arose. Throughout human history, we see the hand of God actively resisting such wicked activities, frustrating human planning and breaking apart their attempts to foment a permanent rebellion on His earth.
Lessons from Babel
So, we can draw the following conclusions from Genesis 11:
(1) The existence of each ethnos is divinely ordered. Differences among us, like language, facial and body differences, skin color, etc., are part of God’s plan.
(2) The separation that has occurred is not permanent (eternal), but temporary. It was not part of the original divine purpose for creating a single race but was a judgment for sinful rebellion. As we will see, Jesus Christ will gather all the broken pieces into one people, unified around Him.
(3) These distinct ethnicities will exist in this age as long as the temptation for worldwide rebellion remains. In fact, we see this clearly in passages about the end of the age. For example, in Matthew 24:7, Jesus says “nation will rise against nation.” The words here are a variation of ethnos – ethne will rise against ethne.
(4) While the coming of Jesus Christ into the world did not change the arrangement of mankind into distinct ethnos groups, the preaching of the gospel made something entirely new possible. As we’ll see in the next blog, God brings good out of all things – even this judgment upon a rebellious race.