The Tower of Babel, 1-9

Ge 11:1 Now the whole world had one language and a common speech.

The whole world – According to Dick Fischer (Tower of Babel: Less Confusing) this expression should be translated ‘the whole land’.  The same word is used in v2 for ‘the land of Shinar’.  Indeed, Fischer says that ‘the true confusion of tongues, surpassing the incident at Babel, is the translation of Hebrew into English.’

‘The traditional interpretation of the flood and the dispersion at Babel has been that the total population of the entire world was confined to the land of Shinar in the post-flood era. They were all related, according to tradition, all spoke a common language, and they became engrossed in building the tower at Babel. The Lord confounded them, and off they went in all directions muttering Aztec, Mandarin, Swahili, and the like. They crossed oceans and reached far distant continents.’ (Fischer)

Ge 11:2 As men moved eastward, they found a plain in Shinar and settled there.

Ge 11:3 They said to each other, “Come, let’s make bricks and bake them thoroughly.” They used brick instead of stone, and bitumen for mortar.

Ge 11:4 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.”

Writing from a perspective of critical scholarship, Jan Christian Gertz says, ‘The people who built the tower of Babel were driven by fundamental human concerns. They preferred settlement to the uncertainties of dispersion, uniformity to diversity, fame and power to obscurity and weakness. But in the account in Gen 11:1-9, God denies their preferences. At the center of the story is humanity’s transition from speaking one language and living in one location to speaking several languages and living in multiple locations across the world.’

Gertz adds: ‘Because the story mentions Babel and is also set in the land of Shinar (Gen 11:2), scholars argue that the text’s author was thinking of the ziggurat Etemenanki, which is located in ancient Babylon. The imagery of a building reaching the heavens supports this suggestion (Gen 11:4). If this is correct, then Gen 11:3 provides further evidence for the time of writing: the oldest ziggurat was originally built with mud bricks. Only at the latest building stage, in the seventh century B.C.E., did it receive a sheathing of fired bricks. It is also possible that the notion of an “unfinished” tower is connected with the extensive damage done by the Persian king Xerxes (518–465 B.C.E.) to religious buildings in Babylon. All things considered, the tower of Babel story is likely a postexilic addition to the primeval history.’

The people desired to build a civilisation without God. This account is linked to Gen 10:8-12, which tells of Nimrod’s exploits. ‘On the surface these seem to be accounts of two quite separate incidents. But this is not the case. The second does indeed tell of the founding of Babylon, but we learn from the first that Babylon was the initial city of Nimrod’s city-building empire. Moreover…the founding of Babylon and the building of the tower of Babel in ch 11 are an elaboration of the earlier narrative. In the first we have an emphasis on Nimrod – what he was like, what he did, what his goals were. In the second we have a treatment of the same theme but from the perspective of the people who worked with him. In each case there is a desire to build a civilisation without God.’ (Boice)

‘The origin of language…is a subject which must have given ancient peoples much food for thought, and there are tales from many parts of the world which like the story in Genesis trace the bewildering diversity of languages back to a decision of the gods to confound an original single language which all the first “men” spoke.’ (John Gibson)

‘The end reveals the decisive hand of God in human affairs. Mutual incomprehension has admittedly its natural causes, such as the very attitudes of pride and fear expressed in v4 (which could be the motto of modern nationalism); but ultimately it is God’s fit discipline of an unruly race.’

‘Pentecost opened a new chapter of the story, in the articulating of one gospel in many tongues. The final reversal is promised in Zep 3:9.’ (Kidner)

‘Yet it is one of the most evocative images in the entire Bible-a spectacle of creaturely aspiration toward deity that finds its counterpart in the mythological story of the Titans who tried to supplant Zeus and were punished by being hurled into Tartarus. Artists have imagined the tower as a physical and architectural phenomenon reaching massively into the sky. More recent biblical commentary entertains the possibility that the tower was a ziggurat-an astronomical observatory for use in divination and occult mastery of the universe.’ (DBI)

The Tower

Ziggurats were structures designed to provide stairways from the heavens (the gate of the gods) to earth so that the gods could come down into their temple and into the town and bring blessing. It was a convenience provided for the deity and his messengers. These stairways were featured in the mythology of the Sumerians and also are portrayed in Jacob’s dream (Gen 28:12). The ziggurats were constructed of a sun-dried brick frame filled with dirt and rubble and finished off with a shell of kiln-baked brick. There were no rooms, chambers or passageways of any sort inside. The structure itself was simply made to hold up the stairway. At the top was a small room for the deity, equipped with a bed and a table supplied regularly with food. In this way the deity could refresh himself during his descent. None of the festivals or ritual acts suggest that people used the ziggurat for any purpose. It was for the gods. The priests certainly would have to go up to provide fresh supplies, but it was holy ground. The ziggurat served as the architectural representation of the pagan religious developments of this period, when deity was transformed into the image of man.’ (IVP Background Commentary)

‘From one perspective, the whole tale is told to lead up to verse 9: “Therefore….” It is intended, that is, to give a meaning to the word “Babel,” and the significance of Babel before God. Now Babylon, as we know, was the centre of civilisation of the ancient world. The “Enuma Elish” refers to the building of Babylon and its temple tower. Von Rad says that “Babylon in ancient times especially in the second millenium BC, was the heart of the ancient world and its centre of power.” The mighty towers of the Babylonian ziggurats were widely known. From the perspectives of human achievement, Babylon was the summit. The word “Babel” for the Babylonians meant “the gate of the gods”.

‘The tower of Babel can only be a “ziggurat,” the name given to the great sacred towers of Mesopotamian religion which were set up near a god’s temple…They were huge structures, usually square but sometimes rectangular, consisting of several storeys, the size of each storey being less than the one below it. Staircases or ramps were attached to the sides for access up and down. It is probable but not certain that a small shrine was built on top.

A cuneiform tablet from Uruk (the Erech of Gen 10:10) and dating from the 3rd century BC probably describes the “ziggurat” of Babylon, although dating from a later period than the story in Gen 11. The remains of this ziggurat have been uncovered next to the temple of Marduk. The temple itself ‘was called “Esagil,” meaning “the great house,” and its ziggurat was called “Etemenanki,” meaning “the house of the foundation of heaven and earth.” Like the Temple at Jerusalem “Esagil” was primarily regarded as the home of the deity, where he dwelt on earth and where he could be approached. Unlike our modern church buildings, only the priests entered it, the people worshipping outside in the courtyard.’ (Atkinson)

The tower was repaired in the 7th century BC by Nabopolassar (father of Nebuchadnezzar). “The lord Marduk commanded me concerning ‘Etemenanki’, the staged tower of Babylon, which before my time had become dilapidated and ruinous, that I should make its foundation secure in the bosom of the nether world, and makes its summit like the heavens…I caused baked bricks to be made…I caused stream of bitumen to be brought…I myself measured the dimensions…For my lord Marduk I bowed my neck, I took off my robe, the sign of my royal blood, and on my head I bore bricks and earth. As for Nebuchadnezzar, my firstborn son, the beloved of my heart, I made him bear the mortar, the offerings of wine and oil, in company with my subjects.” Note the baked bricks and the bitumen for mortar as in Gen 11 (these were not Palestinian building materials), and above all note the idea of making the summit as high as the heavens. Note too the king’s personal involvement in the proceedings. It is as if he were presiding at a re-enactment of the first solemn construction of the great tower as handed down in his people’s legends.’ (John Gibson)

‘Other Mesopotamian ziggurats were given names demonstrating that they, too, were meant to serve as staircases from earth to heaven: “The House of the Link between Heaven and Earth” (at Larsa), “The House of the Seven Guides of Heaven and Earth” (at Borsippa), “The House of the Foundation-Platform of Heaven and Earth” (at Babylon), “The House of the Mountain of the Universe” (at Asshur).’ (NIV Study Bible)

‘The building of the tower “unto heaven,” had undoubtedly a religious meaning. What name they were to make, what gods they intended to worship in connection with the tower, – whether the heavenly bodies, or dead saints, or living heroes such as Nimrod himself, – or all the three combined, – it may be difficult to say. That their scheme was the consummation of their departure from the living God, too plainly appears, both from the spirit in which it was undertaken, and from the object which it was meant to serve.’ (Candlish)

The original does not actually specify that the tower was intended to “reach” to the heavens. It could mean that the top was dedicated “to” the heavens as a place of worship, ie, as a shrine. Boice suggests that it could even have had a representation “of” the heavens upon it, ie, a zodiac. ‘I think this…is the real meaning, for the reason that astrology, which focuses on a study of the zodiac, originated in Babylon…It was the Chaldeans (another name for the inhabitants of Babylon) who first developed the zodiac by dividing the sky into sections and giving meanings to each on the basis of the stars that are found there…From Babylon, astrology passed to the empire of ancient Egypt where it mingled with the native animism and polytheism of the Nile. The pyramids were constructed with certain mathematical relationships to the stars. The Sphinx had astrological significance. It has the head of a woman, symbolising Virgo, the virgin, and the body of a lion, symbolising Leo. Virgo is the first sign of the zodiac, Leo the last. So the Sphinx (which incidently means “joining” in Greek) is the meeting-point of the zodiac, indicating that the Egyptian priests believed the starting point of the earth in relation to the zodiac lay in Egypt, on the banks of the Nile.

‘By the time the Jews left Egypt for Canaan, astrology had infected the population there. Hence, some of the strictest warnings in the Bible against astrology date from this period. (Le 19:31 Deut 8) Still later, astrology entered the religious life of Rome.

‘The interesting thing about these biblical denunciations of astrology is that astrology is identified with demonism or Satanism in the sense that Satan and his hosts were actually being worshiped in the guise of the signs or planets. This is the reason for the Bible’s stern denunciation of these practices…The religion of the tower was actually a satanic attempt to direct the worship of the human race to himself and those former angels who, having rebelled against God, were now already demons.’ (Boice)

‘This project was originally presented to the people in the guise of true spirituality. The tower in its lofty grandeur would symbolise the might and majesty of the true God of heaven. A great temple at its apex would would provide a centre and an altar where men could offer their sacrifices and worship God. The signs of the zodiac would be emblazoned on the ornate ceiling and walls of the temple, signifying the great story of creation and redemption, as told by the antediluvian patriarchs…From some such beginning soon emerged the entire complex of human “religion” – an evolutionary pantheism, promulgated via a system of astrology and idolatrous polytheism, empowered by occultic spiritism and demonism.’ (Henry Morris)

‘How ironic, then, this story in Gen 11! For a Hebrew word sounding like “babel” means “mix up;” and to the narrator of Gen 11:9, the significance of “Babel” – the significance of the great Babylon from the perspective of God’s heavenly court – is merely “mixed up:” “confusion”.’ (David Atkinson)

‘It was not God’s city, as Jerusalem was. It was man’s city, the secular city. As such it was constructed by man for man’s glory.’ (Boice)

In the Bible Babylon ‘increasingly came to symbolise the godless society, with its pretensions (Gen 11), persecutions (Dan 3), pleasures, sins and superstitions, (Isa 47:8-13) its riches and eventual doom.’ (Rev 17,18) (Kidner)

The tower evidently had a religious purpose. ‘The Bible traces all false religions to Babylon.’ (Boice) Cf Rev 17:5. Note that when true religion is forsaken, it is inevitably replaced by idolatry, Rom 1:23.

‘The picture is of the coming-together of a nomadic group from the east into a settlement. Here, in a continuation of Gen 4:17, are the beginnings of what we call “civilisation.” The other marks of civilisation are there also – the development of technical skills, presumably of sufficient architectural and mathematical knowledge for the building of a tower, and of a ctiy, and the political will needed for such a corporate endeavour. As Westermann puts it, “Gen 11:2-9 in essence anticipates the possibility of a development that would be realised only in the technical age in a way that would affect the whole of humanity.” Here there are hints of political power and technological achievement. Allied with both, and motivated also by a sense of corporate insecurity (“lest we be scattered”) is a striving for fame: “Let us build ourselves…Let us make a name for ourselves” (11:4).’

‘But as we have learned ealier in Gen 1-11, the prerogative of “making a name” belongs with God. (cf Isa 63:12) And…”heaven” is God’s place and not that of human beings. Here, once again, as in the Garden of Eden, as with Cain and with Lamech, as with the marriage of the sons of God and the daughters of men, God-given boundaries are being crossed; human beings are trying to grasp at what does not belong to them and to assert that no longer are they bound by the limits which God has set. Here is a communal rejection of the necessary separation between the heavenly and the earthly. Our human sin is that we fail to recognise that God is God, and we try, both individually and corporately, to take God’s place.

‘How easy it is to fall into the temptation to grasp at divinity. The root of sin is rebellion – rebellion against God’s lordship; and assertion of human autonomy with God; a refusal to live in dependence on the Creator who is the Covenant Lord, Yahweh.

‘This tower is a sort of architectural symbol of humankind’s asserted greatness.’ But see Isa 14:13-15 Lk 1:51-52. (David Atkinson)

“A name for ourselves” – i.e., a reputation.

Ge 11:5 But the LORD came down to see the city and the tower that the men were building.

God observes all the deeds of the ungodly. ‘Moses intimates that God, for a little while, seemed to take no notice of them, in order that, suddenly breaking off their work at its commencement, by the confusion of their tongues, he might give the more decisive evidence of his judgement. For he frequently bears with the wicked, to such an extent, that he not only suffers them to contrive many nefarious things, as if he were unconcerned, or were taking repose; but even furthers their impious and perverse designs with animating success, in order that he may at length cast them down to a lower depth.’ (Calvin)

It is said that the Lord “came down” to see the city and the tower. This is, of course, an anthropomorphism. But it indicates that the tower, however lofty, is in fact a puny act of defiance. ‘When you stand on the ground and look up at the great pyramids of Egypt they seem immense. But when you fly over them in an airplane, even at a low altitude, they seem like pimples on the surface of the earth…So also with our intellectual or spiritual achievements. The greatest is nothing compared to the immensity of the universe, not the mention the universe’s Creator.’ (Boice)

Ge 11:6 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.

Ge 11:7 “Come, let us go down and confuse their language so they will not understand each other.”

God always has the last word. The people had said, “Come, let’s make bricks,” (v3) and, “Come, let us build ourselves a city,” (v4). But God says, “Come, let us go down and confuse their language” (v7). ‘It is a way of saying that God always has the last word. Like Jonah, we can say, “but” to God, (Jon 1:3) although God always has the last “but”.’ (Jon 1:4, AV) (Boice)

The word “come” was used by man to man against God. It was used again by God to God against man. Note, however, a third scriptural use of the word: as an invitation from God to man for man’s blessing. See Isa 1:18 Mt 11:28 Rev 22:17. The blessing brings cleansing from sins; the lifting of burdens; the quenching of thirst. Moreover, it reverses the curse. Pentecost is the guarantee and first instalment of an eternal age when the nations will worship together with one heart and with voice.

‘This example of of Divine vengeance belongs to all ages: for men are always inflamed with the desire of daring to attempt what is unlawful. And this history shows that God will ever be adverse to such counsels and designs…Unless the blessing of God be present, from which alone we may expect a prosperous issue, all that we attempt will necessarily perish.’ (Calvin)

‘Behold what they gained by their foolish ambition to acquire a name! They hoped that an everlasting memorial of their origin would be engraven on the tower; God not only frustrates their vain ambitions, but brands them with eternal disgrace…They gain, indeed, a name, but not such as they would have chosen.’ (Calvin)

Cf. Zep 3:9

Ge 11:8 So the LORD scattered them from there over all the earth, and they stopped building the city.

Ge 11:9 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.

‘The tower itself…is a minor motif—something mentioned twice and only in passing (see Gen 11:4-5). The narrative’s conclusion focuses on the real issue at hand: God’s dissolution of humanity’s linguistic unity, an act that results in dispersion and that reflects the historical experience of the Israelites in the exilic and postexilic periods..’ (Jan Christian Gertz)

Eden has become a Babel. ‘With this little parable the wheel of Genesis; first eleven chapters has come round full circle…With their “knowledge of good and evil” human beings have indeed got hold of “godlike” power, and as a result they can put down to their credit many “godlike” achievements. But their trouble is that they do not know when to call a halt. Their desire for more and more knowledge is insatiable, their lust for more and more power never assuaged. And here finally they are storming the heights of heaven itself and seeking to drive God from his throne. In thus overreaching themselves they have condemned the world to discord and grief as now not only individual opposed individual, but nation opposes nation and race opposed race, and peace and brotherhood have fled the earth. Their greatest act of united zeal has been typically a bid to free themselves from God. Typically it has ended with a humanity more split and fractured than ever.

Eden has changed into Babel. The “delight” of the world God created has become the “confusion” of the world “man” has created for himself.’ (John Gibson)

‘Men had already been spread abroad; and this ought not to be regarded as a punishment, seeing it rather flowed from the benediction and grace of God. But those whom the Lord had before distributed with honour in various abodes, he now ignominiously scatters, driving them hither and thither like the members of a lacerated body. This, therefore, was not a simple”] dispersion for the replenishing of the earth, that it might everywhere have cultivators and inhabitants; but a violent rout, because the principal bond of conjecture between them was cut asunder.’ (Calvin)

Technological Pride

‘In his book “Begotten or Made?,” concerned with the medical ethics of in-vitro fertilisation, Oliver O’Donovan discusses a theme that Jaques Ellul, Hans Jonas and others have explored, namely, the way in our culture is to a very large extent a “technological” culture. What he means is not only that we have developed technical skills in many areas of life, but that the way we think of ourselves is affected by technology, that study of science governed by and restricted to its practical and industrial uses. ‘We tend to understand ourselves as constructionists, as makers, as interveners, as those whose relationship to the world is primarily one of technical intrusion: as those whose relationship to what is not ourselves is described in terms of what the Jewish philosopher Martin Buber calls “I-It.” ‘Now, of course, there are many technological interventions for which we can thank God…What is troubling is technological pride. To think of ourselves primarily as “constructionists,” as “technical interveners,” can lead us to believe that what we can do (rather than what we may do) is the touchstone of what we will do. If we see the world outside of ourselves simply as something we make, it then becomes subject to our will and at our disposal. (This is sometimes happening in connection with work on human embryos and fertilisation techniques. It is this which has led Oliver O’Donovan to urge us to think again about the importance of seeing children as “begotten” – with part of the story including all the wonder, contingence and unpredictability of God’s life-giving providence – rather than as “made” by our human will, and so at our human disposal.)…If technological pride takes over, personal and social values can be forgotten.’

‘Notice the contrast between the humility of the writer in Gen 1, and the proud story in Gen 11. There, in Gen 1, we were offered a picture of an ordered, contingent world – the sort of world which science has to assume in order to be science at all. There we had a picture of men and women granted the task of being stewardly estate managers in God’s world. In that light, the scientist can see her or his role as a sort of “priest” of nature: standing before the silent world of God’s creation and bringing “its mute rationalities into such articulation” (Torrance) that they with us may sing the praise of the Creator. In that light, the technologist is God’s servant, harnessing the resources of the world for mankind’s good and God’s glory. ‘In Gen 11, however, the tower in the land of Shinar is a monument to ambitious technological man who has lost touch with the ways of God. The bricks and the bitumen are there for us to build up power structures of our own. It reminds us that when technology ceases to be our servant, it very quickly becomes our master, and human communities and human values are all to often the casualties.’ (David Atkinson)

‘The Babylonians wanted a city. Their city could not stand. But God provides his people with a city with foundations that will endure forever. Nimrod’s people wanted a name. But to those who stand with God and who overcome, God promises: “Him who overcomes I will make a pillar in the temple of my God. Never again will he leave it. I will write on him the name of my God and the name of the city of my God, the new Jerusalem which is coming down out of heaven from my God; and I will also write on him my new name. He who has an ear, let him hear what the Spirit says to the churches”.’ (Rev 3:12f) (Boice)

From Shem to Abram, 10-32

Ge 11:10 This is the account of Shem. Two years after the flood, when Shem was 100 years old, he became the father of Arphaxad.

Ge 11:11 And after he became the father of Arphaxad, Shem lived 500 years and had other sons and daughters.

Ge 11:12 When Arphaxad had lived 35 years, he became the father of Shelah.

Ge 11:13 And after he became the father of Shelah, Arphaxad lived 403 years and had other sons and daughters.

Ge 11:14 When Shelah had lived 30 years, he became the father of Eber.

Ge 11:15 And after he became the father of Eber, Shelah lived 403 years and had other sons and daughters.

Ge 11:16 When Eber had lived 34 years, he became the father of Peleg.

Ge 11:17 And after he became the father of Peleg, Eber lived 430 years and had other sons and daughters.

Ge 11:18 When Peleg had lived 30 years, he became the father of Reu.

Ge 11:19 And after he became the father of Reu, Peleg lived 209 years and had other sons and daughters.

Ge 11:20 When Reu had lived 32 years, he became the father of Serug.

Ge 11:21 And after he became the father of Serug, Reu lived 207 years and had other sons and daughters.

Ge 11:22 When Serug had lived 30 years, he became the father of Nahor.

Ge 11:23 And after he became the father of Nahor, Serug lived 200 years and had other sons and daughters.

Ge 11:24 When Nahor had lived 29 years, he became the father of Terah.

Ge 11:25 And after he became the father of Terah, Nahor lived 119 years and had other sons and daughters.

Gen 11:26 After Terah had lived 70 years, he became the father of Abram, Nahor and Haran.

Abraham was born in Ur, a rich and splendid city on the banks of the Euphrates. He moved from there to Harran, Gen 11:26-32, with his father Terah, brother Nahor, nephew Lot and wife Sarah. Upon his father’s death, and when himself aged 75, Abraham moved on to Palestine (Canaan). Wherever he stayed – Bethel, Mamre, Beersheba – he set up an altar.

Abram’s name was changed to Abraham (father of nations) when God promised to make him the founder of the Hebrew nation. Abraham’s original home was the rich and splendid city of Ur on the River Euphrates. He lived there for many years with his father Terah and his three brothers. He married Sarah, his half-sister.

Terah and all his family moved from Ur to Harran several hundred miles to the north-west. Terah died there, and God called Abraham to move on to Canaan. Abraham obeyed. He lived as a nomad, moving from place to place with his flocks and herds. Wherever he camped, he built an altar and worshipped God. Famine drove him south to Egypt. But God told him to go back to Canaan. This was the land God promised to give the new nation. Abraham grew old, and still Sarah had no children. Following the custom of his time he had a son by Sarah’s servant-woman, Hagar. But this son, Ishmael, was not the child God had promised.

When Abraham and Sarah were both old, God gave them a son – Isaac. The new nation was to come through him. Isaac was still only a boy when God tested Abraham’s faith as never before. He was told to take Isaac to a distant mountain and sacrifice him there. With a heavy heart Abraham obeyed, trusting God to keep his promise about his son. Isaac was bound on the altar. The knife was raised ready to strike. Then God’s angel called out, ‘Do not harm the lad… Now I know you will obey God whatever the cost.’ A ram, caught in a bush, was offered instead. Then God repeated all his promises to Abraham. ‘Your descendants will be as many as the stars in the sky. And all the nations of the earth will be blessed, because you obeyed me.’

After Sarah’s death, Abraham sent his trusted servant Eliezer to choose a wife for Isaac from his own family in Harran. Abraham is one of the really outstanding men of the Bible. His faith in God has made him an example for all time.

The earliest date that can be fixed with any certainty within the Bible is a date of around 2100 BC for the birth of Abram.

Ge 11:27 This is the account of Terah. Terah became the father of Abram, Nahor and Haran. And Haran became the father of Lot.

Ge 11:28 While his father Terah was still alive, Haran died in Ur of the Chaldeans, in the land of his birth.

Ge 11:29 Abram and Nahor both married. The name of Abram’s wife was Sarai, and the name of Nahor’s wife was Milcah; she was the daughter of Haran, the father of both Milcah and Iscah.

Ge 11:30 Now Sarai was barren; she had no children.

Ge 11:31 Terah took his son Abram, his grandson Lot son of Haran, and his daughter-in-law Sarai, the wife of his son Abram, and together they set out from Ur of the Chaldeans to go to Canaan. But when they came to Haran, they settled there.

Ur of the Chaldeans – In ancient Babylonia; modern Iraq.

Ge 11:32 Terah lived 205 years, and he died in Haran.