GENESIS 9-12. THE CONTEXT
The story of the Tower of Babel is a story of rebellion (the people of Babel) set within the context of two stories of faithful obedience (Noah and Abram). To see the wider context, we need to look back to the story of Noah and the flood (Genesis 7-9) — another story of rebellion (Noah’s neighbors) set within the context of a story of faithful obedience (Noah). We also need to look forward to the story of Abram (chapter 12) — the great obedience story of the Old Testament.
In Noah’s story, when the waters of the flood had “prevailed on the earth one hundred fifty days” (7:24), “God remembered Noah” (8:1). “God blessed Noah and his sons, and said them, ‘Be fruitful, and multiply, and replenish the earth’ ” (9:1). God gave Noah and his sons certain assurances and limitations (9:2-6), and then restated the command of 9:1, saying, “Be fruitful and multiply. Increase abundantly in the earth, and multiply in it.” (9:7). The people at Babel try to prevent themselves from being scattered abroad (11:4), disobeying God’s command to “replenish the earth” (9:1) and to “Increase abundantly in the earth, and multiply in it (9:7)
The wider context also includes the story of Abram in chapter 12. God will say to Abram, “Now Yahweh said to Abram, “Get out of your country, and from your relatives, and from your father’s house, to the land that I will show you. I will make of you a great nation. I will bless you and make your name great. You will be a blessing. I will bless those who bless you, and I will curse him who curses you. All of the families of the earth will be blessed in you.” (12:1-3).
And “Abram went, as the LORD had told him; and Lot went with him. Abram was seventy-five years old when he departed from Haran. Abram took his wife Sarai and his brother’s son Lot, and all the possessions that they had gathered, and the persons whom they had acquired in Haran; and they set forth to go to the land of Canaan” (12:4-5a). There is a dramatic contrast, then, between the people of Babel, who try to stay in one place rather than filling the earth, as God has called them to do, and Abram, who willingly goes where God calls him to go.
So first we have God’s command, “Be fruitful, and multiply, and replenish the earth” (9:1). Then we have the rebellion of the people of Babel, who determine not to ” be scattered abroad on the surface of the whole earth.” (11:4). Then Abram obeys God’s command, “Get out of your country, and from your relatives, and from your father’s house, to the land that I will show you ” (12:1).
“The Yahwist, who is responsible for this story, views the history of the race from the first pair in Genesis 2 through this episode, as a history of sin, rebellion against Yahweh. The turning point to a history of salvation will come for him in Genesis 12:1 ff. with the call of Abraham” (Tucker, 274).
GENESIS 11:1-9. LUSTING AFTER MORE
Chrysostom wrote of this story: “Notice how the human race, instead of managing to keep to its own boundaries, always longs for more and reaches out for greater things. This is what the human race has lost in particular, not being prepared to recognize the limitations of its own condition but always lusting after more, entertaining ambitions beyond its capacity. In this regard, too, when people who chase after the things of the world acquire for themselves much wealth and status, they lose sight of their own nature, as it were, and aspire to such heights that they topple into the very depths. You could see this happening every day without others being any the wiser from the sight of it. Instead, they pause for a while but immediately lose all recollection of it and take the same road as the others and fall over the same precipice” (Chrysostom, Homilies on Genesis 30.5, quoted in Louth, 167).
GENESIS 11:1-2. THE WHOLE EARTH WAS OF ONE LANGUAGE
1The whole earth was of one language and of one speech. 2It happened, as they traveled east, that they found a plain in the land of Shinar, and they lived there.
“The whole earth was of one language and of one speech.” (v. 1). This verse follows immediately after The Table of Nations (chapter 10) that portrays divisions and separations among Noah’s descendants (see especially 10:5, 10-12, 18, 20, 25, 31-32). However, in spite of the mention of particular languages in chapter 10, verse 11:1 says that the people still enjoy a common language as they embark on their plan to build a city and a tower. There are two ways to reconcile the different languages of chapter 10 and the one language of chapter 11:
• The first possibility is that chapters 10 and 11 “do not stand in chronological order; rather, (chapter 11) reaches back and complements (chapter 10) from another perspective. In 10:1-32 the author has associated the realities of pluralism with the natural growth of community after the flood. This positive word may have seemed important to state first…. Genesis 11:1-9, however, gives these developments a negative cast in terms of human failure and divine judgment” (Fretheim, 410). Wenham notes that this is the fourth story-pair in Genesis 1-11 where a story with positive character is followed by one with a negative character. The other three story-pairs are: (1) the creation and the fall and the murder of Abel (2) the prosperity of Adam’s descendants and the flood (3) the covenant with Noah and his drunkenness (Wenham, 242). This supports Fretheim’s contention that chapters 10 and 11 don’t stand in chronological order — that literary considerations (the pairing of positive and negative stories) have taken precedence over chronology here.
• The second possibility is that the people had separate languages (as in chapter 10), but also had a common language (as in chapter 11).
Verse 1 establishes themes that are repeated throughout this passage — “the whole earth” or “all the earth” (vv. 1, 4, 8, 9) and “language” or “speech” (vv. 1, 6, 7, 9).
Verses 1 and 9 serve as bookends for the story and reflect the dramatic changes that God initiates in response to the people’s rebellion:
• As the story begins, everyone has the same language and the same words, reflecting the people’s unity (v. 1).
• At the end of the story, language is confused and people are scattered, reflecting their disunity (v. 9) (Roop, 82).
“And as they traveled east” (v. 2a). The word “east” reminds us of the creation story where God “drove out the man; and he placed Cherubs at the east of the garden of Eden, and the flame of a sword which turned every way, to guard the way to the tree of life ” (3:24). It also reminds us that “Cain went out from Yahweh’s presence, and lived in the land of Nod, east of Eden” (3:24). This mention of east “marks events of separation in Genesis. By this spatial term the narrative also conveys a metaphorical sphere, meaning the Babelites are outside God’s blessing” (Mathews, 478).
“They found a plain in the land of Shinar, and they lived there.” (v. 2b). In the previous chapter, we learned that the land of Shinar includes Babel, Erech, and Accad (10:10).
“The Torah says that the people ‘settled’ in Shinar. This expression implies a social criticism. The problem of the people of Babel was their mindless affluence. For whenever the Torah uses the term… yashav (‘settled’), it means that people are overly at ease. Rabbi Helbo said, ‘Wherever you find contented satisfaction, Satan is active” (Midrash, quoted in Plaut, 82).
GENESIS 11:3-4. COME, LET’S BUILD A TOWER
3They said one to another, “Come, let’s make bricks, and burn them thoroughly.” They had brick for stone, and they used tar for mortar. 4They said, “Come, let’s build ourselves a city, and a tower whose top reaches to the sky, and let’s make ourselves a name, lest we be scattered abroad on the surface of the whole earth.”
“They said one to another, “Come, let’s make bricks, and burn them thoroughly.” They had brick for stone, and they used tar for mortar.”(v. 3). The phrase, “Come, let us” is repeated three times in this story — the first two as a part of the people’s rebellion and the third as a part of God’s response. The people say, “Come, let’s make bricks ” (v. 3) and ” Come, let’s build ourselves a city, and a tower ” (v. 4). God says, “Come, let’s go down, and there confuse their language” (v. 7).
While Israelites build with stone, Babylonians build with brick. The Israelites would be familiar with Babylonian ziggurats (large pyramidal stepped towers) constructed of mud brick for the interior and baked brick for the exterior (Encyclopedia Britannica). Baked brick is much more durable than mud brick, and bitumen (asphalt or tar) is a durable mortar. The determination of these people to burn their bricks thoroughly and to use the very best mortar reflects their interest in an enduring architecture — in the kind of security that can be achieved by their own ingenuity and hard work rather than the kind of security that can be found through faith in God.
“Come, let’s build ourselves a city, and a tower whose top reaches to the sky, and let’s make ourselves a name” (v. 4a). The repeated “Come, let’s…” reflects their willful autonomy. They determine to build a city where they can gather together in one place without having to obey God’s command to “replenish the earth” (9:1). While some scholars have interpreted this verse to be a polemic against cities, it seems more likely that the problem here is rebellion — a problem hardly limited to cities.
“and a tower whose top reaches to the sky” (v. 4b). As noted above, Babylonian ziggurats were large pyramidal stepped towers. The ruins of the largest remaining ziggurat are 335 feet (102 meters) square and 80 feet (24 meters) high. This ziggurat is thought to have been more than twice that high originally — the height of a modern sixteen story building (Encyclopedia Britannica).
“whose top reaches the sky” (v.4b). While it would be possible for this phrase to reflect only a tall structure, like our word “skyscraper,” God’s response (vv. 6-8) suggests that this reference to “the heavens” reflects the people’s ambition to breach the gulf between the humanly realm (the earth) and the Godly realm (the heavens). It is a rebellious ambition, much like the ambition of the man and woman in the garden (3:6) and the people of Noah’s day (6:1-4).
“and let’s make ourselves a name” (v. 4c). In the next chapter, God will promise Abraham to make his name great” (12:2), but these people take the matter into their own hands. Rather than depending on God to make their name great, they determine to make a name for themselves. “The ‘name’ they achieve, however, is only ‘Babel’ (‘muddle’)” (Mathews, 482).
“lest we be scattered abroad on the surface of the whole earth“ (v. 4d). As noted above, God has called them to “replenish the earth” (9:1), but they are resisting the call.
GENESIS 11:5-7. COME, LET’S CONFUSE THEIR LANGUAGE
5Yahweh came down to see the city and the tower, which the children of men built. 6Yahweh said, “Behold, they are one people, and they have all one language, and this is what they begin to do. Now nothing will be withheld from them, which they intend to do. 7Come, let’s go down, and there confuse their language, that they may not understand one another’s speech.”
“Yahweh came down to see the city and the tower, which the children of men built”(v. 5). This is no disengaged Lord, but one who comes down from the heavenly to the earthly realm to inspect the city and tower. The irony is that the tower, which the people intended to reach to heaven, is so short that the Lord must come down to inspect it. What seems grand from the people’s standpoint seems insignificant in scale to God. However, God does not think their motive to be insignificant. Their ambition is to reach the heavenly realm by their own strength, and God will not suffer their hubris (pride) lightly.
The phrase, bene ha adam — “children of men” — links the people of Babel with ha adam (the man) of the garden of Eden. The prideful rebellion of the people of Babel is like the prideful rebellion in the garden. Both rebellions seek to rise above human limitations and to assume Godly prerogatives. The Psalmist says:
Why do the nations rage,
and the peoples plot a vain thing?
The kings of the earth take a stand,
and the rulers take counsel together,
against Yahweh, and against his Anointed, saying,
“Let’s break their bonds apart,
and cast their cords from us.” (Psalm 2:1-3)
“Yahweh said, “Behold, they are one people, and they have all one language, and this is what they begin to do. Now nothing will be withheld from them, which they intend to do.”(v. 6). This could be interpreted to mean that God finds the potential power of these people threatening, but that is hardly the case. The Psalmist continues:
He who sits in the heavens will laugh.
The Lord will have them in derision.
The problem is not that the people might storm the heavens and wrest power from God, but that the people, if allowed to succeed in their great sky-tower adventure, might be encouraged to engage in even more serious rebellions.
“Come, let’s go down, and there confuse their language, that they may not understand one another’s speech” (v. 7). “The ‘let’s’ language refers to an image of God as a consultant of other divine beings” (Fretheim, 345). Who are these divine beings? They must include “the heavenly host” (1 Kings 22:19), “the heavenly beings” (Job 1:6), and the seraphs who attend to God (Isaiah 6:2). The Prologue to the Gospel of John also comes to mind here. “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. The same was in the beginning with God. All things were made through him. Without him was not anything made that has been made.” (John 1:1-3a).
GENESIS 11:8-9. SO YAHWEH SCATTERED THEM
8So Yahweh scattered them abroad from there on the surface of all the earth. They stopped building the city.9Therefore its name was called Babel, because there Yahweh confused the language of all the earth. From there, Yahweh scattered them abroad on the surface of all the earth.
“So Yahweh scattered them abroad from there on the surface of all the earth. They stopped building the city.”(v. 8). One of the people’s primary objectives in building a city and a tower was to avoid being “scattered abroad upon the face of the whole earth” (v. 4), but now they are scattered anyway — forced to comply with the command to “replenish the earth” (9:1). Being scattered, they are no longer able to pursue the building of the city.
It is appropriate here to note that sin leads to scatteredness and broken relationships. While sin sometimes brings impressive initial gains (the city and tower of Babel — the power of Nazi Germany in its early years), sin sows the seeds of its own destruction.
“Therefore its name was called Babel, because there Yahweh confused the language of all the earth. From there, Yahweh scattered them abroad on the surface of all the earth.”(v. 9). The people wanted to make a name for themselves, but the name that they achieved is Babel, which came to mean confusion because of what happened there. Babel (bab-li) literally means “gate of God” (Von Rad, 150, Brown, Driver, and Briggs, 93).
The word “Babel” is related to Babylon, the capital city of Babylonia, which was the dominant nation of the second millennium B.C. Nebuchadnezzar conquered Judah in 586 B.C. and forced the Jews into a half-century exile in Babylonia (2 Kings 24-25). This exile would have familiarized the Jews with the Babylonian ziggurats, which surely influenced the telling of the Babel story — a slap by the Jewish storyteller at the Babylonian oppressors.
ACTS 2: PENTECOST
Genesis 11:1-9 is one of the readings for Pentecost, Year C. The Acts 2 reading for that day tells us about a day in the life of the church when the barriers of language, erected at Babel, were breached by the grace of God and the power of the Holy Spirit. “As a preview of a ‘peaceable kingdom,’ it points to the same age at which the prophets pointed when they foresaw a day when destructive alienation between people and with the natural order would cease…. But Acts 2 is not the end of the biblical story…. For the eschatological vision of the full manifestation of the reign of God on earth, we have to go to Revelation 21:22-26,” where the glory of God and the lamp of the Lamb will light the temple and “the nations will walk by its light” (Towner, 114-115).
SCRIPTURE QUOTATIONS are from the World English Bible (WEB), a public domain (no copyright) modern English translation of the Holy Bible. The World English Bible is based on the American Standard Version (ASV) of the Bible, the Biblia Hebraica Stutgartensa Old Testament, and the Greek Majority Text New Testament. The ASV, which is also in the public domain due to expired copyrights, was a very good translation, but included many archaic words (hast, shineth, etc.), which the WEB has updated.
Brueggemann, Walter, Interpretation Commentary: Genesis (Atlanta: John Knox Press, 1982)
Tucker, Gene M., in Craddock, Fred B.; Hayes, John H.; Holladay, Carl R.; Tucker, Gene M., Preaching Through the Christian Year, B (Valley Forge: Trinity Press International, 1993)
Fretheim, Terence E., “The Book of Genesis,” The New Interpreter’s Bible, Volume 1: General Old Testament Articles, Genesis, Exodus, Leviticus (Nashville: Abingdon Press, 1994.
Hamilton, Victor P., The New International Commentary on the Old Testament: The Book of Genesis, Chapters 1-17 (Grand Rapids: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 1990)
Louth, Andrew, Ancient Christian Commentary on Scripture, Old Testament I, Genesis 1-11, (Downer’s Grove, Illinois: InterVarsity Press, 2001)
Mathews, Kenneth A., The New American Commentary: Volume 1a – Genesis 1-11:26 (Nashville: Broadman & Holman Publishers, 1996)
Plaut, W. Gunther, The Torah: A Modern Commentary (Revised Edition) (New York: Union for Reform Judaism, 2005)
Roop, Eugene F., Believers Church Bible Commentaries: Genesis (Scottdale, PA: Herald Press, 1987)
Towner, W. Sibley, Westminster Bible Companion: Genesis (Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 2001)
Von Rad, Gerhard, The Old Testament Library: Genesis, (Philadelphia: The Westminster Press, 1972)
Wenham, Gordon J., Word Biblical Commentary: Genesis 1-15 (Dallas: Word Books, 1987)
DICTIONARIES, ENCYCLOPEDIAS, LEXICONS & ATLASES:
Aharoni, Yohanan and Avi-Yonah, Michael, The Macmillan Bible Atlas (New York: Macmillan, 1993)
Baker, Warren (ed.), The Complete WordStudy Old Testament (Chattanooga; AMG Publishers, 1994)
Baker, Warren and Carpenter, Eugene, The Complete WordStudy Dictionary: Old Testament (Chattanooga: AMG Publishers, 2003)
Bromiley, Geoffrey (General Editor), The International Standard Bible Encyclopedia, Revised, 4 vols. (Grand Rapids: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 1979-1988)
Brown, Francis; Driver, S.R.; and Briggs, Charles A., The Brown-Driver-Briggs Hebrew and English Lexicon (Peabody, Massachusetts: Hendrickson Publishers, 1906, 2004)
Doniach, N.S. and Kahane, Ahuvia, The Oxford English-Hebrew Dictionary (Oxford University Press, 1998)
Fohrer, Georg, Hebrew & Aramaic Dictionary of the Old Testament (SCM Press, 2012)
Freedman, David Noel (ed.), The Anchor Yale Bible Dictionary, 6 vol. (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2007)
Freedman, David Noel (Ed.), Eerdmans Dictionary of the Bible (Grand Rapids: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Co., 2000)
Lockyer, Herbert, Sr. (ed.), Nelson’s Illustrated Bible Dictionary (Nashville: Thomas Nelson Publishers, 1986)
May, Herbert G. (ed.), Oxford Bible Atlas (Third Edition) (New York, Toronto: Oxford University Press, 1984.
Mounce, William D., (ed.), Mounce’s Complete Expository Dictionary of Old and New Testament Words (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2006)
Myers, Allen C. (ed.), The Eerdmans Bible Dictionary (Grand Rapids: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Co., 1987)
Pfeiffer, Charles F., Baker’s Bible Atlas (Grand Rapids: Baker Books, 2003)
Rasmussen, Carl G., Zondervan NIV Atlas of the Bible (Grand Rapids: Zondervan Publishing House, 1989.
Renn, Stephen D., Expository Dictionary of Biblical Words: Word Studies for Key English Bible Words Based on the Hebrew and Greek Texts (Peabody, Massachusetts: Hendrickson Publishers, Inc., 2005)
Richards, Lawrence O., Encyclopedia of Bible Words (Zondervan, 1985, 1991)
Sakenfeld, Katharine Doob (ed.), The New Interpreter’s Dictionary of the Bible, 5 vol. (Nashville: Abingdon Press, 2008)
VanGemeren, Willem A. (General Editor), New International Dictionary of Old Testament Theology & Exegesis, 5 vol., (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1997)
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