Commentary on Genesis 11:1-9

Last updated: May 25, 2009

English Translation (ESV)

1Now the whole earth had one language and the same words. 2And as people migrated from the east, they found a plain in the land of Shinar and settled there. 3And they said to one another, “Come, let us make bricks, and burn them thoroughly.” And they had brick for stone, and bitumen for mortar. 4Then they said, “Come, let us build ourselves a city and a tower with its top in the heavens, and let us make a name for ourselves, lest we be dispersed over the face of the whole earth.” 5And the LORD came down to see the city and the tower, which the children of man had built. 6And the LORD said, “Behold, they are one people, and they have all one language, and this is only the beginning of what they will do. And nothing that they propose to do will now be impossible for them. 7Come, let us go down and there confuse their language, so that they may not understand one another’s speech.” 8So the LORD dispersed them from there over the face of all the earth, and they left off building the city. 9Therefore its name was called Babel, because there the LORD confused the language of all the earth. And from there the LORD dispersed them over the face of all the earth.

Notes

1 Now the whole earth had one language and the same words.

The genealogy of chapter 10 states that the nations had their own languages (vv 5, 20, 31). How can 11:1 state that the earth had one language? There are two options. The first option is that chapter 11 is describing an event that is chronologically earlier than the dispersal of the nations in chapter 10. This is not to say that chapter 11 once preceded chapter 10 in a now lost version of Genesis, for the early chapters of Genesis make a habit of bracketing a narrative block between two genealogies1. The second option is that each nation had their own local language but there was one language, a lingua franca, which allowed everyone to communicate with each other.

2 And as people migrated from the east, they found a plain in the land of Shinar and settled there.

The Hebrew word sham (“there”) is repeated five times in this passage and “directs our attention to the central importance of the particular site chosen; at the same time, its sound evokes an association with shamayim, ‘heavens,’ with which the site is supposed to be physically connected, as well as with shem, ‘a name,’ in verse 4”2.

3 And they said to one another, “Come, let us make bricks, and burn them thoroughly.” And they had brick for stone, and bitumen for mortar.

The phrase “Come, let us” is repeated in verses 4 and 7.

The Narrator, clearly writing from the perspective of a foreign observer, displays an accurate and detailed knowledge of Mesopotamian construction techniques. The rarity of stone in the plain of Lower Mesopotamia necessitated the use of molded, sun-dried clay as the common building material, an invention that ushered in the epoch of monumental temple architecture. The discovery of the technique of firing the brick in a kiln enhanced its solidarity and durability and made possible the erection of multistoried buildings. The use of bitumen for mortar further added to the strength, cohesion, and impermeability of the brick.

Bitumen is early attested in Mesopotamia. It was found in abundance at Hit on the Euphrates, about 140 miles (225 km.) upstream from Babylon. By contrast, stone was plentiful in Canaan and was widely used for monumental architecture, though sun-dried brick was the norm for common construction. Kiln-fired brick was not used in that region before Roman times; nor was bitumen used as mortar, despite its abundant presence in the Dead Sea.3

The differences in building materials between Canaan and Mesopotamia explains why the narrator must tell his readers that “they had brick for stone, and bitumen for mortar”.

4 Then they said, “Come, let us build ourselves a city and a tower with its top in the heavens, and let us make a name for ourselves, lest we be dispersed over the face of the whole earth.”

The tower is certainly a ziggurat.

[The expression “with its top in the heavens”] is actually a cliché in Mesopotamian building inscriptions, particularly with reference to ziggurats. The Sumerian king, Gudea (ca. 2140 B.C.E.), says of the temple Eninnu that “it lies in heaven.” A text from Nippur addresses a tower “whose peak reaches the sky.” Hammurabi (ca. 1728-1686 B.C.E.) gives himself the epithet “raiser of the top of Eanna,” and it is related of him that he built a temple tower “whose top is sky high.” Esarhaddon (680-669 B.C.E.) says that he “raised to heaven the head” of the temple of Asshur and that he “made high its top up to heaven.” The phrase is most persistently used in respect of the temple of Marduk in Babylon, which was known as the esagila, meaning “the House of the Lifting Up of the Head.”4

Mesopotamian ziggurats were given names indicating that they were meant to be connections between earth and 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 Mountain” (at Nippur), “The House of the Foundation-Platform of Heaven and Earth” (at Babylon), and “The House of the Mountain of the Universe” (at Asshur)5. “At the top of the ziggurat was the gate of the gods, the entrance into their heavenly abode. At the bottom was the temple, where hopefully the god would descend to receive the gifts and worship of his people”6. In other words, the structure constituted “the physical means by which man and god might enter into direct contact with one another”7.

What offense are the builders committing? Most commentators believe that the builders are prideful because they want to make a name for themselves or disobedient because they do not want to fill the earth as God intended (1:28; 9:1). John H. Walton finds problems with both of these interpretations. First, wanting to make a name for oneself is not always a bad thing. One of the attractive parts of God’s offer to Abram is the promise that Abram’s name will be made great (12:2). Second, when God told man to fill the earth it was a blessing, not a command. Furthermore, reproduction, not dispersion, was the means by which mankind would fill the earth. Walton believes that the offense of the builders was that they were no longer trying to serve God and were instead trying to bring God down to the level of sinful humanity.

The needs and nature of the deities who would make use of a ziggurat stairway and be served in such ways reflect the weakness and distortion of deity brought about by the Babylonian anthropomorphization of the gods. It is this system of religion that was an outgrowth of the urbanization process as it unfolded in Mesopotamia, and it is this system that had as its chief symbol the towering ziggurat. The offense in this passage, then, is to be found in the beliefs that resulted in the project and what it stood for in the minds of the builders. It went beyond mere idolatry; it degraded the nature of God by portraying him as having needs.8

5 And the LORD came down to see the city and the tower, which the children of man had built.

God does not act capriciously, he investigates man’s doings. The identical anthropomorphism, or depicting of God in human terms, appears again in 18:21 in connection with the divine scrutiny of the situation at Sodom and Gomorrah. This figurative usage implies no limitation on God’s omnipotence, for the divine “descent” presupposes prior knowledge of human affairs from on high, and God’s subsequent counteraction unqualifiedly exhibits His absolute sovereignty. Rather, there is subtle irony here. Man builds a tower “with its top in the sky,” where God is popularly thought to dwell. Scripture emphasizes God’s infinite transcendence and incomparable supereminence by having God “go down” in order to scrutinize the scene.9

The note that the children of men built the tower is a nullification of Mesopotamian beliefs. Mesopotamians believed that the temple to Marduk in Babylon was erected by the gods at the creation of the world. Genesis stresses that the tower was the work of men in the postdiluvian age10.

6 And the LORD said, “Behold, they are one people, and they have all one language, and this is only the beginning of what they will do. And nothing that they propose to do will now be impossible for them.

God’s actions are a punishment and a preventative measure. This recalls 3:22 where God prevents Adam and Eve from eating from the tree of life (prevention) after they are expelled from the Garden of Eden (punishment). “In both instances it can hardly be that the heavens trembled because the ‘advancement’ of mankind in any way threatened celestial rule. But, on the contrary, God was troubled over the injurious consequences that would fall upon the human family if left unchecked”11.

7 Come, let us go down and there confuse their language, so that they may not understand one another’s speech.”

God’s “Come, let us” counters man’s “Come, let us” (vv. 3-4). The Hebrew word for “confuse” (balal) is a wordplay on “Babel”12.

8 So the LORD dispersed them from there over the face of all the earth, and they left off building the city.

Ironically, mankind’s decision to build a city and tower so as not to be dispersed (v 4) prompts God to disperse them.

9 Therefore its name was called Babel, because there the LORD confused the language of all the earth. And from there the LORD dispersed them over the face of all the earth.

Mankind set out to make a name for itself (v 4) but only ended up attaching the name “confusion” to their work13.

The word play babel-balal, approximating “Babel-babble,” in English, hides a subtle satirizing of Mesopotamian notions. Not the “gate of god” as the inhabitants of Babylon interpreted the name, not the navel of the earth, as they conceived their city to be, but a site of meaningless gibberish, the center from which human divisiveness radiated, and the cause of disastrous alienation from God.14

Bibliography

HCSB: Wayne A. Meeks, HarperCollins Study Bible: New Revised Standard Version, with the Apocryphal/Deuterocanonical Books, 1993

JPSTCGen: Nahum M. Sarna, The JPS Torah Commentary: Genesis, 1989

NACGen1: Kenneth A. Matthews, The New American Commentary: Genesis 1-11:26, 1996

NIVACGen: John H. Walton, Genesis: The NIV Application Commentary, 2001

NIVSB: Kenneth Barker, NIV Study Bible, 1995

16:1-8 is bracketed by 5:32 and 6:9-10; 6:11-9:17 is bracketed by 6:9-10 and 9:18-19; 11:1-9 is bracketed by 10:21-31 and 11:10-32

2[JPSTCGen] 81

3[JPSTCGen] 82

4[JPSTCGen] 82-83

5[JPSTCGen] 82; [NIVSB] 23

6[NIVACGen] 374

7[JPSTCGen] 82

8[NIVACGen] 377

9[JPSTCGen] 83

10[JPSTCGen] 83

11[NACGen1] 484

12[HCSB] 18

13[JPSTCGen] 84

14[JPSTCGen] 84

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2 Replies to “Commentary on Genesis 11:1-9”

  1. Am very grateful for your extensive research on this difficult chapter. you have enlighten my study how to hundle this verses .therefore if is there articles relating to any bible research please inform me,am am a student in bible college but our college has un adquate stuff and library for deep research, therefore if is thre any room in your college I will be happy to join .am also a pastor and I will appreciate if you will accept my invitation to teach in one of our conference.thank u.
    pastor Fwamba Benard
    Kenya

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