Why is it plausible to say “the earth was of one language” (Gen 11:1)?

The earth was “of one language” (Gen 11:1) because relatively few generations had passed since the sons of Noah disembarked. If the scattering of the tribes and languages of earth happened with the generation of Peleg, that was merely four generations after Shem. Moreover, the text makes clear that all humanity lived within close proximity of each other. In Peleg’s day “was the earth divided” (Gen 10:25); the people fear being “scattered abroad” (Gen 11:4); but God does so scatter them (Gen 11:8). Besides, the text makes it abundantly clear that all his names ancestors going back to Noah are still alive in the time of Peleg. So this is, essentially, a large tribe.

Why “of one language, and of one speech” (Gen 11:1)?

Is this not redundant? The question is whether this is mere redundancy for emphasis, or if there was meant some distinction between the words translated “language” and “speech.” The NASB usefully renders this “same language” and “same words”—and then the thought becomes clearer. Not only was the language the same, they actually used the same words for things, unlike the situation where those with a similar language used different words for some things in dialects. The Hebrew rendered “speech” or “words” here, דָבָר or dabar, is glossed “speech, word,” and seems to be used for individual words in a language. So perhaps the sense is “the same language and dialect.” The implication is that people understood each other very well indeed, unlike the situation in the time of Moses, when there are countless dialects of many languages, which make peaceful intercourse between the nations difficult.

Who is “they” in Gen 11:2?

Moreover, at what point of the genealogies of Gen 10-11 did “they” make their move (11:2) and begin the city and tower (11:3-4)? Considering the longevity of the post-diluvian patriarchs, who was alive at the time? The pronoun grammatically refers back to “the whole earth” in Gen 11:1, which seems to imply all of humanity. Again, consider that it was in the day of Peleg, the great-grandson of Shem, that “the earth [was] divided” (Gen 10:25). Assuming that this means the division of mankind at the Tower of Babel, some interesting consequences fall out of the text. Noah and his named descendants through Peleg were all alive at the time of the Tower of Babel, as can be seen by comparing Gen 9:28 (“Noah lived after the flood 350 years”) with the ages assigned to his descendants in Gen 11:10-19. Indeed, Noah’s descendants from Shem through Peleg’s father, Eber, all outlived Peleg by a significant number of years; they even outlived Abraham. It is surprising that the text does not mention or report anything about these startling consequences. In any event, “they” therefore very probably means “all of humanity living,” at least, all of humanity acknowledged in the Bible.

Why are “they” said to “journey from the east,” especially considering that that place is already rather far east among the Table of Nations (Gen 11:2)?

First, considering that humanity was not “scattered” yet, and that there was some good reason to believe that they all lived, as it were in an extended family or tribe, near one another, we have a few possibilities. Without reviewing them all, I will say simply that I am inclined to follow the NASB, which says the word (מִקֶּ֑דֶם, miqqedem) is not from the east but rather to the east, or as the NIV puts it, “eastward.” The implication in any event is that the tribe was moving “eastward”—actually, in all probability, south-eastward, following the Euphrates—perhaps in search of better farmland and grazing. Moving eastward toward Babylon, as the Israelite exiles did, would have been highly symbolic and meaningful for later readers; see comments above on 2:8 and 3:24.

What sort of structure was the “tower” (Gen 11:3)?

And what significance is there in the observations that they wished to build with brick and “slime” (Gen 11:3; and what is that)? While this is not entirely clear from the text itself, it is very likely to be a ziggurat, with the identity supported if not confirmed by the description of the materials as being brick and “slime,” i.e., “tar” in the more modern translations, also identified as “asphalt” and “bitumen,” which are both in Strong’s gloss of חֵמָר, chemar. The building materials, even at the time of Moses, might have been known to break down relatively quickly, at least compared to stone, and might have already been thought to exhibit the vanity and ephemerality of the greatest works of man.

What “city” is meant at Gen 11:4?

And why was this of significance both for the current narrative and the rest of the Bible? We are told, in fact, that it was “Babel,” and this understood to mean Babylon. This is significant as being the first city mentioned in the post-Flood world (being first listed at Gen 10:10). Babylon later became the nemesis of Israel and a symbol of decadence. It became if anything an even greater and more proverbial symbol of decadence by New Testament times.

Might Nimrod have had something to do with the building of the city and tower of Babel (Gen 11:3-4)?

Yes, and in fact this is tolerably clear from the text, considering the background on him given in the previous chapter (Gen 10:8-12). In that section, we were told that “the beginning of his kingdom was Babel” (10:10). And here we have the first listed city—and one specially distinguished by being discussed at such length. In the same way that Nimrod is singled out for his earthly accomplishments, Babel is singled out. So it seems likely, even if it is not stated in so many words, that the person behind the building of the Tower and the City of Babel described in Gen 11 was Nimrod. Moreover, given the length of years of lifetimes, it is wholly plausible that Shem’s great-grandson Peleg would have been present, a man in his prime, at the same time that Ham’s grandson Nimrod made a name for himself as a “mighty hunter” and, it seems, not just a king but the founder of Babylon.

What is the ambition and fear described at Gen 11:4 that they wished to build a “tower” with a “top…unto heaven,” to “make a name” in order to prevent being “scattered” over “the whole earth”?

To begin with the ambition. In a few places in the Bible, intimidating cities are described in a way reminiscent of these plans for Babel: for example, the cities of the doomed Amorites “are great and walled up to heaven” (Deut 1:28), while the “high-walled fortress” of Moab “will be brought down” (Isa 26:12). As to making a name for them, this means attaining a measure of earthly glory, similar to those “mighty men which were of old, men of renown” (Gen 6:4), or to David who “gat him a name” after smiting “the Syrians in the valley of salt” (2 Sam 8:13). Here, of course, the monument will be, like the pyramids of Egypt, a supposedly-lasting testimony to the power of the king who builds it. As to being “scattered,” part of the thing to be feared here is the peril of diminished numbers, when different camps might begin to wage war on each other. There is another sense in which being “scattered” would be a curse: God said that if the Israelites follow the gods of the idolatrous Canaanites, “the Lord shall scatter you among the nations” (Deut 4:27), which indeed is precisely what happened later on in the history of Israel.

Aren’t the ambitions described at Gen 11:4 actually laudable?

What is sinful about them—or, if they are not sinful, why did God wish to stymie them? The Babelites’ ambitions are described in a way that sounds reasonable. What is wrong with settling in a fertile plain, building a city and a high tower there, and wanting fame and to remain together, with safety in numbers? The problem is that this is not all there was to the Babelites’ ambitions, as can be seen from the ordinary course of history as well as the actual history of Babylonia. Building a city in those days almost guaranteed brutal tyranny, slavery, and worship of gods that approved of all manner of immorality and injustice, at least when done by those in power. The tower was not merely high, its “top may reach unto heaven,” competing with God. The “name” that the likes of Nimrod might establish would probably be at the expense of many dead, enslaved, and subjugated; the fame he wanted was likely that of a dictator. It is also possible that, when they were instructed to “multiply, and replenish the earth” (Gen 9:1), to “bring forth abundantly in the earth, and multiply therein” (Gen 9:7), God meant them to scatter themselves over the earth; but instead they were staying all in one place. God, clearly, wanted man to spread out across the earth, not all under the rule of a single prideful, impious despot who might cause the people to forget to call upon the name of the Lord, and to walk with the Lord, as Seth’s line did, and as Noah and some of his descendants did.

Is there archaeological evidence for “the Tower of Babel” (Gen 11:4)?

There is some archaeological evidence for a very early ziggurat on what is believed to be the original site of Babylon. A few years ago, a tablet was found that purports to be a picture of a ziggurat at Babylon., although this one was a reconstructed tower built a the behest of Nebuchadnezzar (who lived 2,000 years later). And Titus Kennedy, in Unearthing the Bible, also points to the story of Enmerkar (a name that shares important consonants with “Nimrod”), which shares interesting parallels to the Biblical Babel story, with significant differences. In that regard the epic bears rough likenesses that are themselves roughly similar to likenesses that other Mesopotamian and Egyptian texts have with other Gen 1-11 stories, such as about the creation, Eden, and Noah. As with those stories (see above), the question is whether the Bible story, or its folk ancestor narratives, are the origin of the other narratives, or vice-versa—or if all the stories share a common ancestor. I am inclined to think the latter is the case.

Did God come down to earth personally (Gen 11:5) to observe the work? Was this necessary?

Of course God did not have to come down to earth personally. But just the same, it would be a mistake to suppose that the text was certainly an anthropomorphism. He did, in fact, appear on earth, in various theophanies, beginning with his appearance in the Garden. For another example, he appears to be one of the “three men” (Gen 18:1) who appeared to Abraham, and he declared his intention to “go down now, and see whether [the people of Sodom and Gomorrah] have done altogether according to the cry of it, which is come unto me” (18:21). While this was a theophany, matters were different when, from the burning bush, God declares, “I am come down to deliver them out of the hand of the Egyptians” (Ex 3:8); he did not appear bodily during the ten plagues. But God did appear in some sort of human-like shape when, for example, he “came down upon mount Sinai, on the top of the mount” (Ex 19:20) to give the law to Moses, or perhaps not until he allowed Moses to see him from behind (Ex 33:23). These examples all make perfectly clear that God could have come down in some bodily form. But the text would be satisfied just as well if his spirit were on hand.

God observes that the builders of Babel have one language, that “this they begin to do,” and that “nothing will be restrained from them, which they have imagined to do” (Gen 11:6). What does all this mean?

“This” presumably refers to the building activity. The things the Babelites “imagine” they could do would probably not extend beyond then-present experience; so we should not think that God is ascribing divine or even super-human abilities to the Babelites. He is, rather, concerned that they will further unify all mankind under the yoke of an idolatrous regime. As a famous psalm puts it, “Why do the heathen rage, and the people imagine a vain thing?” (Ps 2:1) As to having one language and dialect, this is a prerequisite of such a universal empire (as the lingua franca of Latin in the Roman Empire, or English in the present British-American Empire).

Does the plural “let us” (Gen 11:7) indicate that God was speaking to some other spiritual beings, or what?

This is not altogether clear, but see comments on Gen 1:1 above for some notions. In this case, a significant possibility is that God was accompanied by assistants around the time that he punished the evildoers to confuse their language, as when two angels were with him before he destroyed Sodom and Gomorrah (Gen 18-19), and when “the destroyer” (Ex 12:23) slew the firstborn of Egypt. This is the sort of detail that the Bible might well leave to implication and inference, because the fact did not merit direct statement.

In confounding human speech (Gen 11:7), is God not doing something he temporarily undid at the Pentecost?

Yes. At the Pentecost, “they were all filled with the Holy Ghost, and began to speak with other tongues.” (Acts 2:4) It was then that “devout men, out of every nation under heaven” (2:5) heard the speech and wondered. In fact, many nations are listed, and people present from those nations did “hear them speak in our tongues the wonderful works of God.” (2:9-11) This was precisely the opposite of what happened at Babel, where God confused languages to prevent the accomplishment of the vain and ultimately (in this case, anyway) evil works of man.

How did God accomplish the scattering abroad from Babel (Gen 11:8-9)?

At least part of the answer is that God confused the language of the inhabitants of Babel. But that just raises the question how he did that, too. How he accomplished these ends, we are not specifically told and there is no way to know for sure. But we should bear in mind that God often accomplishes things through unwitting human agents. It seems to me that, if this was the first city and tower of the post-Flood world, and if they told themselves they would make a name for themselves and reach to heaven, they had grand ambitions, as Moses would have known the Babylonians did have. Different men might well jockey for position as leader; and one might well get the notion of using different words for things, as signs of allegiance and as a secret code indecipherable to enemies. Thus ambition would lead to speaking in competing codes; as a result, trust would evaporate and work would stop. The scattering would come when the people began to view each other as not just rivals, but as dangerous enemies. And that is just what we might expect of Noah, who was still on hand if all of living humanity were united, and his more decent offspring. They certainly would not trust the likes of Ham, Canaan, and especially Nimrod. Moreover, Noah might tell the people that God intended that they split up and go their separate ways. But, of course, this is all purely speculative. Again, we simply do not know.

In what sense does the text strongly imply that were they were “scattered” (Gen 11:8-9)?

Again, we have already been told that in Peleg’s day “was the earth divided” (Gen 10:25), implying that they were not divided into nations before that (see the question about “they” in 11:2, above). If so, this strongly implies that they migrated from Babel to the homelands that came to be associated with each nation, Mizraim going to Egypt, Japheth going to Greece, etc.

How and why did they “leave off to build the city” (Gen 11:8) of Babylon?

Indeed, since the city was Babylon, was the city construction temporarily halted, only to begin again later, or what? Probably what is meant is that the “city” then being planned, because it would include all people then alive, was going to be far greater and more splendid than the one that emerged, which included (perhaps) only Nimrod and his followers.

What is the significance of the name “Babel” (Gen 11:9)?

The name, בָּבֶל or Babel, might well be derived from בָּלַל or balal, which is glossed “mingle, mix, confuse, confound,” since the text explicitly states that the city was called Babel “because there the Lord confused the language of the whole earth”. The implication is that the future Babylon—which would have been well known to Moses—had roots in this city founded on the “confusion” wrought in their defiance of God.

What characterizes the short toledoth at Gen 11:10-26?

Also, what is its function? Was it really necessary? What do the genealogy and years lived imply about the faith of Abram? The toledoth recounts “the generations of Shem”—the originator of the Semites—and we must bear in mind that it is not first and foremost about Shem himself but his family, or descendants. So this connects Shem, Noah’s son, with Abram, the focus of the next great narrative. Noah was blessed, and he passed on that blessing explicitly to Shem (Gen 9:26-27) and his line. The promise of Shem, and by extension the promise of the “seed” (3:15), passed on through this line ultimately to Abram. That is the main point. The genealogy also illustrates two facts, one already announced—that the span of man’s life would be 120 years (6:3)—and one more obscure—that the first five generations from Noah were alive, if not on hand, even into the time of Abram. This further entails that a living memory survived to Abram’s time not only of the Lord, but of the sacrifice and God’s covenant, of the Flood and its reason, and of evil, antediluvian days. Unless the families were utterly separated, which is quite possible, or lost touch with the old faith, which is also possible, the memory of the Lord and of sacrifice would not have to be wholly renewed in Abram.

Is it not remarkable that Gen 5 and 11 show ten generations each? And are there not eleven generations listed in Luke 3?

From Adam to Noah (inclusive) was ten generations, while from Shem to Abram (also inclusive) was ten generations. Does this mean there was some contrivance? Not necessarily; such an isolated detail could easily have been a coincidence, or God could have arranged this as some sort of subtle lesson, though I confess I do not know what that would be. It could also, or instead, mean there was selection by an author or redactor of Genesis; in fact, there are eleven generations listed from Shem to Abraham in the genealogy of Luke 3:34-36. So, one might argue, perhaps there was a deliberate omission, and creating two sets of ten names seems a plausible explanation of the omission. The problem is that the earliest versions of Septuagint lack the name “Cainan” (as Genesis 11 lacks it), while some later versions added it. That would explain how Luke got it in his copy. Still, does this not represent an error in the inerrant text of Luke? Well, no, and here things get even more interesting. As the great Baptist theology John Gill has it, “This Cainan is not mentioned by Moses in Gen 11:12 nor has he ever appeared in any Hebrew copy of the Old Testament, nor in the Samaritan version, nor in the Targum; nor is he mentioned by Josephus, nor in 1 Chron 1:24 where the genealogy is repeated; nor is it in Beza’s most ancient Greek copy of Luke: it indeed stands in the present copies of the Septuagint, but was not originally there”. In other words, the name “Cainan” was added to the text of Luke by copyists who were relying on erroneous copies of the Septuagint to “correct” the text of Luke. So the originals of both Gen 11 and Luke 3 probably had ten names apiece. As to the whole issue of contrivance, see entries above that mention this concept; there is no new challenge here.

Did Terah’s family worship the Lord (Gen 11:26)?

We are told that the family lived in “Ur of the Chaldees,” which might imply that they followed the beliefs of the Chaldeans—i.e., Semitic people who later joined and became interchangeable with Babylonians. Since from an early age the Babylonians were known to worship a pagan pantheon, the implication would be that Terah and Abram did as well, although Yahweh might have been one of the gods they adhered to. The family also is to relocate (perhaps back) to the land of Haran (Gen 11:31), suggesting they might have followed the religion of the Arameans. Outside of the Bible, we might note that ruins of an ancient temple to the Mesopotamian moon god, Sin, can be found at Haran. There are several bits of evidence on this question from other parts of the Bible. In Gen 24, when Abraham’s servant meets Laban, and tells the story giving all the evidence that the meeting with Rebekah was blessed by the Lord, her brother and father repeat back the servant’s frequent endorsement of the Lord: “Then Laban and Bethuel answered and said, The thing proceedeth from the Lord: we cannot speak unto thee bad or good.” (Gen 24:50) In the next generation, we have the story of Rachel, who “had stolen the images that were her father’s” (31:19), i.e., Laban’s. Since Rachel was Laban’s daughter, she was Nahor’s great-granddaughter; as Nahor was Abram’s brother (Gen 11:26), Rachel was Abram’s great-great-niece. The point, in any event, is that Abram’s family in Haran did worship other gods (probably the curiously-named god Sin, as we will see shortly). But, third, later in the same chapter, Laban reaches an important agreement with Jacob, and calls upon God himself to witness it: “The God of Abraham, and the God of Nahor, the God of their father, judge betwixt us.” (Gen 31:53) This makes it sound as there was a shared tradition of worshiping a single God, Elohim, the creator of the universe, which had passed down to Terah, and from him to his sons Abram and Nahor. This might not be correct, however, because the plural verb “judge” (not singular, “judges”), might imply that Laban was referring to a plural number of gods. Also explicit is this declaration in Joshua: “Terah, the father of Abraham, and the father of Nachor…served other gods.” (Josh 24:2) Clearly, the context shows this means other gods in addition to the only true God, Yahweh. Finally, as we will soon see, the Lord seems to require no special introduction to Abram at the beginning of the next chapter. He simply begins commanding Abram, whose obedience is immediate, or reported next in the narrative; this strongly implies that Abram did already know the Lord. So, on the one hand, we see excellent evidence that Terah’s family was familiar with and did worship the Lord; Yahweh was not entirely forgotten from the days of Noah. But, clearly, the faith had been intermixed with paganism, just as it would be later by the backsliding Israelites.