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).