Genesis 11

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Tower of Babel

Verse 1: Now the whole earth had one language and the same words. (NRSV)

  • This type of account is termed an “origin narrative” as it describes how something came about that is important to the world. All cultures have accounts like this, but they all vary on the how.
    • The main purpose of this passage is to tell how we all came to speak different languages.
    • Sumerian put the time of one language as the greatest time of peace ever (Matthews, 467.) In Genesis, having fallen people with one language was a horrible thing. With sinful people together it only made matters worse.
      • They needed to be apart to think they needed God. Because true unity and peace can only be found in God.
      • God next brought out Abraham as a new calling and unity that could come to the Lord.
    • Interestingly, there is no exact parallel to this story (Matthews, 469), unlike the flood which shows up all over the place.
    • This is a very generic story, typical of the type. There aren't any people's names, any specific places (just vague place names) and only the city is mentioned at the very end.
  • This is about as ancient as you can get. Even secular historians think that civilization started around where this story is based. This early culture spread to many great nations.
  • There are some other civilizations around the area, but they didn't really flower. It was once they found the fertile rivers of the Middle East that stuff started to get going. Sumerian culture, Akkadian, Assyrian, etc.


Verse 2: As men moved eastward,a they found a plain in Shinar and settled there. (NIV)

  • ”Moved” is about pulling up tent stakes and migrating. The people are clearly nomadic at the time, perhaps this is about the first city (Reyburn and Fry, 250.)
  • Which direction they went is unclear. They either came from the East or moved to the East. The only clear thing is that compared to Israel, they ended up East.


Verse 3: They said to each other, “Come, let's make bricks and bake them thoroughly.” They used brick instead of stone, and tar for mortar. (NIV)

  • This is a land without many trees or stones. So when they built something they used bricks.
    • The earliest bricks were just sun dried mud with straw, which meant that they melted in the rain and over time.
    • Most of the time sun dried bricks lasted a long time. In Egypt some still are around.
    • But for those things that really mattered to the people, they baked the bricks. It took longer, but they resisted the weather much better. So this was a building they really wanted built to last.
  • ”Come, let us make bricks” is a command form. They are ordering each other to show up and work (Reyburn and Fry, 251.)
  • ”They said to each other” means “they agreed”.
  • There are a lot of similarities between Adam and Eve and this story, both involve getting kicked out because of self-interest and arrogance.


Verse 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. (NIV)

  • It is unlikely this is a leaning tower of Pisa type tower. It is probably a pyramid tower. The term can be used to refer to a tower of defense, a watch-tower, or a high building in general. Here it is probably a temple, and a pyramid was the common shape then.
    • Ziggurats were step pyramids built in early Mesopotamia. Think of them much like Mayan temples. They were temples built up slowly over generations, and rose to dominate the landscape usually.
    • The most famous Ziggurat was in the early city of Ur, where Abraham was from.
    • It seems like every civilization wants to build something that lasts forever. This often is in the form of a pyramid because they are less architecturally difficult to build as the weight over time is distributed easily over a larger base.
  • The first few verses seemed to indicate that people were already moving and dividing. So perhaps this building was more about drawing people to them than it was about keeping people there.
  • Build “for ourselves” is the key in verse four, not just build the tower themselves but build it for themselves.
  • ”Making a name for ourselves” is about being famous all over the world. This indicates that there were other people around already and that this was one group (Reyburn and Fry, 251).
  • The people are afraid of losing who they are. They don't want to be scattered, perhaps they can get everyone together through this city and tower.


Verse 5: But the LORD came down to see the city and the tower that the men were building. (NIV)

  • Verse five is a huge problem verse. If God is just angry because they want to be together, then what sort of God is that? But if it's about people trying to become gods and not needing God himself, then it makes a bit more sense.
  • The talk about “reaching heaven” is an indication that the people were trying to become like God.
    • They are working out of self-interest. They are seeking their own ends under their own power and that is exactly what God doesn't want.
  • There is a large contrast here. The people had built their city and tower, or were almost completed.
    • It was as high as they could get, and God still “came down” to get to it. God was still on high, people down low (Keil and Delitzsch, 173.)
    • God came down both here and in Acts 2, but with very different results and different reasons.


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

  • People see a need for God at least partially because we don't have each other. The problem, though, is that so much damage has come through being divided into race and tongue. Of course, there has been plenty of fights between people of the same ethnicity and language.
  • We don't need to say that God is against creativity here, or that we really can climb to heaven with a big enough ladder. But it definitely was the first step of the people trying to become gods.


Verse 7: Come, let us go down and confuse their language so they will not understand each other.” (NIV)

  • God speaks in the plural here, “let us” go down.
  • Can you imagine how confusing that must have been for everyone? No one had ever tried to learn a second language before.


Verse 8: So the LORD scattered them from there over all the earth, and they stopped building the city. (NIV)

  • God brought division on them. They fell apart and they never finished building the great monument. This was very common in the early world where people started work on something and didn't have the resources, the will, or the leaders to finish the project.


Verse 9: Therefore it was called Babel, because there the LORD confused the language of all the earth; and from there the LORD scattered them abroad over the face of all the earth. (NRSV)

  • It's unclear if spreading out was God's will from the beginning or not. Perhaps the people were in violation of God's will, came together, and he enforced it again. We don't know. But we do know that what they feared (being scattered) happened.
  • Babel in Hebrew is connected with Babylon the city and nation. In Akkadian, Babylon means “gate of the gods” (Matthews, 469.)


Message Ideas/Scripts/Liturgy That Use This Chapter

 VerseDirectionTopicAudienceOccasionCategory
God in the World Around the BibleA look at how we can see God at work, not just in the Bible but in the entire world paving the way.AdultGeneralCurriculum