Through Adam and Cain man became both homeless and disconnected from community. With no fixed address, man has become a wanderer in search of a city. He has two choices. The city of Man or the city of God.
In the early chapters of Genesis, we read of three events that render man utterly homeless. First, Adam begins life in a garden home, with food and in fellowship with God.
There he is subjected to a food test and through a temptation to make his own name great he tumbles down the mountain. Cain succumbs to envy and falls into conflict with his brother and so, leaving Eden behind, he heads east to establish the city of man (Genesis 4:17).
Soon after, the sons of God spread out into the whole earth but do not resist the daughters of men and through these unholy alliances, they pollute the whole world with violence and sin.
And so, God in His mercy removed the world that was, saving only Noah and his family. When we next catch up with Noah we find him perched on top of a mountain, planting a garden and overlooking a new world with his sons, Shem, Ham and Japheth.
The family of Japheth head west towards the coast. The family of Ham heads east (never a good sign). The family of Shem heads south.
The genealogies of these families come to a sudden stop in Genesis 10 with the birth of two brothers: Peleg and Joktan.
It’s almost as if mentioning Joktan and Peleg brings to mind some event. Which it does.
To Eber were born two sons: the name of the one was Peleg, for in his days the earth was divided, and his brother’s name was Joktan. (Genesis 10:25)
Something happened in those days that brought about a division. And so the author pauses in his genealogy to tell the short story of the tower of Babel.
Though Shems descendants started out by heading south along the bank of the Jordan, some of them – Joktans house – decide to continue journeying east (never a good sign).
The people of Genesis 11:1 are the people the author has just been talking about, the Shemite clan of Joktan. Joktan meets up with the Canaanite house (Ham’s clan) during the days of Nimrod (Genesis 10:8-11).
So the picture here resembles Genesis 6, that of Seth’s clan hooking up with the daughters of Cain.
And here is what happens. Like Cain, they want to build a great house, they want to build the city of Man, in order to make a great name for themselves and to prevent themselves from becoming wanderers over the whole earth.
Heights represent meeting places with God. They represent the household of God. Mount Moriah, Sinai, Zion, Ararat, The Mount of Olives: These are all places where man stands before the government of God.
Now, and this is quite funny, God hears about this building project and we read,
And the Lord came down to see the city and the tower, which the children of man had built. (Genesis11:5)
So far from reaching the heavens, God had to come down in order to even see this little house of man!
God responds to their defiance to fill the earth by throwing them into confusion and so from Babel the people begin to spread out.
When the author of Genesis resumes his genealogy, he doesn’t continue the unfinished genealogy of Joktan, instead, he moves on to finish Peleg’s genealogy, through to Abraham.
This matters. The fallen house of Joktan along with Nimrods goons, like Adam and Cain, want to make a name for themselves and become a great nation. But the Lord tells Abraham that He will make his name great and that his house will become a great nation (Genesis 12:2).
Abraham tithes to Melchizedek and looks to God, not the king of Sodom, for his prosperity (Genesis 14:23).
For he was looking for a city which has foundations, whose builder and maker is God. (Hebrews11:10)
To Abraham is born a son of the promise named Isaac. Like Adam, Isaac is confronted with a food test. Isaac fails to keep covenant and attempts to bless Esau though God had already promised the covenant blessing to Jacob.
This sets up a conflict between brothers which reminds us of Cain and Abel.
Thankfully, Isaac has a godly wife. Where Isaac and Esau are both deceived by food, Rebekah uses food to keep the covenant and preserve the seed of the promise.
Having sold his birthright for food, Esau now envies Jacob and, like Cain, plans to kill him. While fleeing from his brother, Jacob stops at a certain place and falls asleep.
In his dream, he sees a ladder. Like the tower of Babel, its design is to join heaven and earth. Jacob believes God and trusts that God Himself will build a house for his descendants.
One of those descendants is a man called Joseph.
Potiphar’s wife might be a woman of power and influence in Egypt, but before God, she is among the daughters of men and represents forbidden fruit for Joseph. Fruit which Joseph resists. His brother’s judged him worthless, but God considered him with love and made his name great throughout all Egypt.
All these patriarchs are found walking the earth, building altars (symbolic houses) and knowing that, unless the Lord builds the house, those who labour, labour in vain. Though imperfect, these men show us what it means to trust God for His promises as we travel the earth looking for a place to call home.
But more importantly, they show us that greatness before men matters not. All that matters is who and what a man is before God.
For what a man is before God, that he is and nothing more.
Your neighbour, your son or daughter, might be a polite and friendly person with a good job – but what are they before the throne of grace? Who are you before God? This is the only judgement that matters.
For whatever else we may be before men: Weak, strong, witty, intelligent, simple, handsome, dull – whoever we might think we are – what we are before the Lord Jesus, by grace, that we are, and nothing more.