The Tower of Babel
Genesis 11. The previous chapter is a parenthesis between chapters 9 and 11. In chapter 9 we saw the commandment of God was to swarm and cover the earth. In ch.11 we find man’s rebellion at work to congregate in the plain of Shinar, and the governmental judgment on man, resulting in their scattering. Genesis 10 gives us the divisions of nations, and Genesis 11 the moral cause of the division. No specific individuals are mentioned in vv.1-9, because the subject in this portion is what mankind endeavored to do as a universal republic, and what the Lord did in response.
The Tower of Babel (11:1-9)
1 And the whole earth had one language, and the same words. v.1 A Common Proto-Language. The universal state of mankind before the flood, and up until the tower of Babel, was of one language. Those who have studied languages can show that, of the 6,500 languages spoken in the world today, they are related in several families of languages, and that those families descend from some common root. However, the Word of God settles the issue: at one time “the whole earth had one language, and the same words”.
2 And it came to pass as they journeyed from the east, that they found a plain in the land of Shinar [‘two rivers’], and dwelt there. v.2 The Plain of Shinar. The name “Shinar” comes from the Hebrew Shene neharot, or “two rivers”. It refers to the land between the Tigris and the Euphrates, the eastern part of the fertile crescent, known as Mesopotamia, and “the cradle of civilization”. This is confirmed by Joshua 7:21, Isaiah 11:11, Daniel 1:2, and Zechariah 5:11 that Shinar as a synonym for Babylonia. In ch.10 we find that there were a number of cities in this region; “Babel, and Erech, and Akkad, and Calneh, in the land of Shinar” (Gen. 10:9). Men congregated in this region, having traveled from the east. We find that Nimrod was chiefly responsible for the civilization that emerged in this area (Gen. 10:8-10), and it is probably what historians refer to as Sumer, the first great human civilization.
3 And they said one to another, Come on, let us make bricks, and burn them thoroughly. And they had brick for stone, and they had asphalt for mortar. 4 And they said, Come on, let us build ourselves a city and a tower, the top of which may reach to the heavens; and let us make ourselves a name, lest we be scattered over the face of the whole earth. vv.3-4 The City and Tower. The reason for the city and tower was twofold: (1) self-glorification, “let us make ourselves a name”, and (2) rebellion against God, “lest we be scattered over the face of the whole earth”. This is really the second beginning of the world-system that was started by Cain. We see the character of the world in its origins. Man wants to make something great for his own glory, and the admiration of others. We see this today with all of man’s great institutions; buildings, bridges, universities, societies, and governments. It is what Peter calls “the glory of man” which is as the flower of grass (1 Pet. 1:24). It wasn’t a temple to Jehovah, but a name for themselves. Man is always seeking a gathering center, but he places himself at the center. God has only one true gathering center, and that is around Himself (e.g. Matt. 18:20). Also, mankind was defying the express command of God in Gen. 9:7 to “be fruitful and multiply: swarm on the earth, and multiply on it.” Man sets up a system in independence of God, where all his needs are satisfied through human means; “Come on, let us make bricks, etc.” Their building materials were manufactured from mud, “bricks for stone”. To hold the bricks together, they used asphalt (Gen. 14:10, Ex. 2:3) for mortar. Some have mistakenly thought that “a tower, the top of which may reach to the heavens” means they planned to make a structure higher than another flood. Why then would they build it in the lowlands instead of on a mountain top? It simply is an expression that means very tall, as in Deut. 1:28. It is similar to the modern expression “skyscraper”.
Contrast between Babel and Pentecost. While the tower was being built man spoke a common language. They said, “let us make us a name” (Genesis 11:4), and so God confounded their language. On the Day of Pentecost (Acts 2:4), God found a name which He could proclaim, and then He gave a display of power (tongues) in overcoming the barrier He had previously created! At Babel God scattered men across the face of the earth, but in the Church believers from all over the earth are united into one body. To this day, whenever mankind gathers itself together, it is idolatry. There is some object at the center that is not God. But in Christ we have God’s true gathering center (Gen. 49:10; John 12:32).
5 And Jehovah came down to see the city and the tower which the children of men built. 6 And Jehovah said, Behold, the people is one, and have all one language; and this have they begun to do. And now will they be hindered in nothing that they meditate doing. vv.5-6 Jehovah Comes Down. Jehovah is God’s name in relationship with men, especially in moral issues. Jehovah comes down to see the city and tower, as He came down to the garden in the cool of the day. The Lord saw that the people were unified, and this was make possible by a unified language. Mankind united together in rebellion would be capable of tremendous evil; “now will they be hindered in nothing that they meditate doing”. This is what a confederacy is; a union among men without God.
7 Come, let us go down, and there confound their language, that they may not understand one another’s speech. 8 And Jehovah scattered them thence over the face of the whole earth. And they left off building the city. 9 Therefore was its name called Babel [‘confusion’]; because Jehovah there confounded the language of the whole earth. And Jehovah scattered them thence over the face of the whole earth. vv.7-9 The Languages Confounded. The secret of collective strength is communication, and this is what the Lord interrupted. In Godhead counsel (“let us”, plural), Jehovah determined to confound the language of mankind, so that the various families mentioned in ch.10 would be forced to separate. Not only did they have to abandon the building project, but they were also scattered “over the face of the whole earth”. It was from Babel that the families migrated their various directions. It was merciful of God to stop them from the evil they intended. The Lord did not kill any of them, as He had done in the flood. Nor did He cause division within families. Instead God divided them and dispersed them by family, according to His plan.
DATE: Approximately 2200 B.C.1
The Generations of Shem (11:10-26)
The Genealogy of Genesis 11 vs. Genesis 5. It is interesting to see that the genealogies in ch.11 and ch.5 consist of ten generations each. Both lists are given directly after the character of the world has been manifested (ch.4, ch.10:1-9). The two genealogies have been so designed as to fit together with no gap! This is great gift to the study of Bible chronology. One great difference is that the solemn epitaph “and he died” is found in Genesis 5, but is absent in Genesis 11. Perhaps this is because the purpose of God is coming into view in the end of ch.11, ending with Abram, and the gracious call of God. Furthermore, it could be that the Spirit of God wished to show that, no matter how long man lives (the human lifespan in ch.5 being greatest) that death is inevitable. Also, it was a contrast to Enoch who did not die.
The Diminishing of Human Lifespan. Noah lived 900 years, but we find Shem only living 600. This is a reduction of one third. Then, when we come to Arphaxad, we have the lifespan reduced to around 400; also a reduction of one third. With Peleg, the lifespan is further reduced to roughly 200 years by Terah’s day; which is a factor of one half. God was providentially diminishing the lifespan of man, by incremental steps, to the ordinary length of three-score and ten, as in the prayer of Moses (Psa. 90:10).
10 These are the generations of Shem. Shem was a hundred years old, and begot Arphaxad [‘healer’] two years after the flood. 11 And Shem lived after he had begotten Arphaxad five hundred years, and begot sons and daughters. 12 And Arphaxad lived thirty-five years, and begot Shelah [‘missile’ or ‘sent forth’]. 13 And Arphaxad lived after he had begotten Shelah four hundred and three years, and begot sons and daughters. 14 And Shelah lived thirty years, and begot Eber [‘beyond’ or ‘the other side’]. 15 And Shelah lived after he had begotten Eber four hundred and three years, and begot sons and daughters. vv.10-15 Shem to Eber. This is one of ten generations mentioned in Genesis, all beginning with the words “the generations of”, etc. Read more… We have another beginning in v.27. Eber was the seventh generation removed from Abraham, and yet Abraham is called “Abram the Hebrew” (Gen 14:13). Eber is especially connected with the chosen people, and with the Messiah. It is interesting to note (see chart) that Eber outlived Abraham, being the last of the patriarchs before the one-half reduction of lifespan.
16 And Eber lived thirty-four years, and begot Peleg [‘division’]. 17 And Eber lived after he had begotten Peleg four hundred and thirty years, and begot sons and daughters. 18 And Peleg lived thirty years, and begot Reu [‘friend’ or ‘fellowship’]. 19 And Peleg lived after he had begotten Reu two hundred and nine years, and begot sons and daughters. 20 And Reu lived thirty-two years, and begot Serug [‘tendril’ or ‘intertwined’]. 21 And Reu lived after he had begotten Serug two hundred and seven years, and begot sons and daughters. vv.16-21 Peleg to Serug. With Peleg we have a sharp reduction in human lifespan, from upwards of 400 years to around 200. We also learn that “in his days was the earth divided” (Gen. 10:25), meaning that the Tower of Babel occurred within his lifetime.
22 And Serug lived thirty years, and begot Nahor [‘snorer’]. 23 And Serug lived after he had begotten Nahor two hundred years, and begot sons and daughters. 24 And Nahor lived twenty-nine years, and begot Terah [‘breathe’]. 25 And Nahor lived after he had begotten Terah a hundred and nineteen years, and begot sons and daughters. 26 And Terah lived seventy years, and begot Abram [‘exalted father’], Nahor, and Haran [‘mountain’]. vv.22-26 Here we find that Terah began to have children when he was seventy. Yet the order of names listed here is not the birth order. Just as with Noah’s sons, the first name listed is not the eldest, but the first according to the counsels of God. In ch.12 we find that Abraham was 75 when he left Haran, and in ch.11 we find it was when Terah died at 205 years old. That makes Terah 130 when Abraham was born.
The Generations of Terah (11:27-32)
27 And these are the generations of Terah: Terah begot Abram, Nahor, and Haran; and Haran begot Lot [‘a wrapping’]. 28 And Haran died before the face of his father Terah in the land of his nativity at Ur of the Chaldeans. 29 And Abram and Nahor took wives: the name of Abram’s wife was Sarai [‘a princess’]; and the name of Nahor’s wife, Milcah [‘a queen’], a daughter of Haran, the father of Milcah and the father of Iscah [‘a covering’]. 30 And Sarai was barren: she had no child. vv.27-30 It would also seem that Haran was the eldest son of Terah, born when he was 70 (v.26), which explains how he could die before his father in the land of his nativity, and how his daughter Milcah could marry his brother Nahor. We find out in Gen. 20:12 that Sarai was also a daughter of Terah, but through a different wife than Abram’s mother; “And yet indeed she is my sister; she is the daughter of my father, but not the daughter of my mother; and she became my wife.” Jewish tradition holds that Sarai is the same person as Iscah, making her the granddaughter of Terah. It could be that Haran was born to Terah and his first wife, and that Abram and Nahor were born to the second wife. Nahor took his niece Milcah to wife, and Abram his half-sister or half-niece. The theory of a half-niece seems more probable because Sarai was ten years younger than Abram. Why would it speak of Sarah as Abram’s sister if she was his niece? It is in the same way that Lot is spoken of as Abram’s brother (Gen. 14:16), though he was really his nephew (Gen. 11:31; Gen. 12:5). It doesn’t really matter, only that Sarah was a descendant of Terah, like Abraham, only through a different mother. If she was directly the daughter of Terah, it would have been through a younger wife than the mother of Abram. Haran died “before the face of his father Terah in the land of his nativity”. We are not told how or why he died, although it does seem unnatural.
31 And Terah took Abram his son, and Lot the son of Haran his son’s son, and Sarai his daughter-in-law, his son Abram’s wife; and they went forth together out of Ur of the Chaldeans, to go into the land of Canaan, and came as far as Haran, and dwelt there. 32 And the days of Terah were two hundred and five years; and Terah died in Haran. vv.31-32 The call of Abraham took place before v.31, but it is left out here, and recorded in ch.12. Acts 7:2-3 makes it clear that “The God of glory appeared unto our father Abraham, when he was in Mesopotamia, before he dwelt in Charran, and said unto him, Get thee out… etc.” Apparently, Abram’s father went with him, and this became a hindrance to Abram. They “came as far as Haran, and dwelt there”. Haran or Charran was a city on the Euphrates river in Syria (Aram). It was half-way on the path to Canaan. They remained in Haran until Terah died, and only then did Abram continue to the land of Canaan. It is a lesson for us, that we need to be careful not to let family ties hinder us from responding to the call of God. While Abram tried to answer both the call of nature and the call of God, progress stalled. He obeyed only in part. Terah seemed to take the lead (he “took” Abram his son), which meant that Abram was not really answering the call of God. Terah may have tried to apply the call to himself, but it was for Abram. The call of God (Gen. 12:1-3) involved leaving his kindred and his father’s house. This he did not do, until Terah died. Abram’s brother Nahor did not leave Ur of the Chaldees until much later, and he settled in Haran for good. The name of the province became known as Padan-Aram (Haran of Syria). This became the home of Bethuel, Laban, Rebecca, Leah, and Rachel. But Abram’s brother Haran had died in Ur, and apparently Abram took Haran’s son Lot under his wing, so to speak, although Lot may have been the same age as Abram due to the sixty-year difference between Haran and Abram. Terah dies, and Abram is free to move again.
Terah Family Tree
Joshua 24. It is striking that this special family ended up steeped in idolatry like the nations around them. It isn’t because Terah’s family was faithful that Abraham was chosen, but rather it was God’s sovereign grace. “Thus saith the LORD God of Israel, Your fathers dwelt on the other side of the flood in old time, even Terah, the father of Abraham, and the father of Nachor: and they served other gods” (Josh. 24:2). The danger that was set before the children of Israel was that they might go back to what Abram was called out of. They children of Israel were to remember Abraham’s history; “And thou shalt speak and say before Jehovah thy God, A perishing Aramean was my father, etc.” (Deut. 26:5). As to who brought in the idolatry, scripture is silent. Terah was involved in it. Secular history credits Nimrod with the introduction of it , but scripture simply says man’s unthankfulness to God (Rom. 1) and Satanic power (1 Cor. 10) are responsible for bringing in the great plague of idolatry.