This passage has always struck me as rather odd. What in the Genesis story could have led the author of Hebrews to assert that Abraham was waiting for a permanent city constructed by God? I realized yesterday that the author must have been remembering Genesis chapter 11. In that chapter, we read that the men of the earth decided to build a city:
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.” - Genesis 11.4
At this point, God steps into the narrative and foils their plans by confusing their languages. We refer to this story as The Tower of Babel, but perhaps it would be more accurate to refer to it as The City of Babel. The emphasis of the story seems to be on the city rather than the tower:
They ceased building the city. Therefore its name is called Babel, because there the Lord confused the language of all the earth. - Genesis 11.8-9
Why did God do this? Why did he screw these guys over? Was it because he did not want mankind to be happy? The answer is found in the very next story: the call of Abraham.
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.” - Genesis 12.1-3
Notice the connection between this story and the previous. The men of Babel decided to come together and pool their own strength in order that they might “make a name for ourselves.” God, however, tells Abraham to go off by himself to an unknown land, and “I will…make your name great.”
In the ancient world, towers had cultic significance. The attempt to build a tower “whose top is in the heavens” should probably be seen as an attempt to restore a lost connection with the divine. In other words, the men of Babel were attempting to reverse the effects of the Fall. God stopped them, but not because he hated “all the families of the earth.” He stopped them because he had a better plan. Compare the story in Genesis 11 with the vision of Revelation 21:
Then I, John, saw the holy city, New Jerusalem, coming down out of heaven from God, prepared as a bride adorned for her husband. And I heard a loud voice from heaven saying, “Behold, the tabernacle of God is with men, and He will dwell with them, and they shall be His people. God Himself will be with them and be their God. And God will wipe away every tear from their eyes; there shall be no more death, nor sorrow, nor crying. There shall be no more pain, for the former things have passed away.” - Revelation 21.2-4
Men tried to build a city up to God, but God had a better plan. He would come down to man. Through the seed of Abraham, God took care of sin. As the author of Hebrews explains, Jesus “appeared to take away sin by the sacrifice of himself” (9.26). Now the intimacy with God lost in the garden can at last be restored. One day God’s presence will return to earth.
Now how much of this Abraham understood, we do not know. However, the author of Hebrews sees Abraham’s obedience as evidence that he was trusting in God to make his name great. Instead of struggling to build his own city, Abraham relied on God to take care of him. Therefore, whether or not he shared the vision of John in Revelation 21, Abraham was journeying toward that heavenly city, the eternal home of all who believe.