The Tower of Babel (Genesis 11.1-26)

➡ Average Reading Time: 8 minutes
Click and READ ME for explanation of Bible text format.

The following reading of Genesis 1.1-2.3 is formatted ala The Books of the Bible: Covenant History without any chapter or verse marketings. The description below is taken from Preface. It explains the use of line space and format instead of chapters and verses.

Because the biblical books were handwritten, read out loud and then hand-copied long before standardized printing, their authors and compilers needed a way to indicate divisions within the text itself. They often did this by repeating a phrase or expression each time they made a transition from one section to another. We can confirm that particular phrases are significant in this way by observing how their placement reinforces a structure that can already be recognized implicitly from other characteristics of a book, such as changes in topic, movement in place or time, or shifts from one kind of writing to another. Through line spacing, we’ve marked off sections of varying sizes. The smallest are indicated by one blank line, the next largest by two lines, and so on, up to four-line breaks in the largest books. We’ve also indicated key divisions with a large initial capital letter of new sections. Our goal is to encourage meaningful units to be read in their entirety and so with greater appreciation and understanding.

Zondervan. NIV, The Books of the Bible: Covenant History: Discover the Origins of God’s People (Kindle Locations 265-272). Zondervan. Kindle Edition.

Click Here to Read Genesis 11.1-26

Now the whole world had one language and a common speech. As people moved eastward, they found a plain in Shinar and settled there.

They said to each other, “Come, let’s make bricks and bake them thoroughly.” They used brick instead of stone, and tar for mortar. 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; otherwise we will be scattered over the face of the whole earth.”

But the LORD came down to see the city and the tower the people were building. The LORD said, “If as one people speaking the same language they have begun to do this, then nothing they plan to do will be impossible for them. Come, let us go down and confuse their language so they will not understand each other.”

So the LORD scattered them from there over all the earth, and they stopped building the city. That is why it was called Babel—because there the LORD confused the language of the whole world. From there the LORD scattered them over the face of the whole earth.

This is the account of Shem’s family line.

Two years after the flood, when Shem was 100 years old, he became the father of Arphaxad. And after he became the father of Arphaxad, Shem lived 500 years and had other sons and daughters.

When Arphaxad had lived 35 years, he became the father of Shelah. And after he became the father of Shelah, Arphaxad lived 403 years and had other sons and daughters.

When Shelah had lived 30 years, he became the father of Eber. And after he became the father of Eber, Shelah lived 403 years and had other sons and daughters.

When Eber had lived 34 years, he became the father of Peleg. And after he became the father of Peleg, Eber lived 430 years and had other sons and daughters.

When Peleg had lived 30 years, he became the father of Reu. And after he became the father of Reu, Peleg lived 209 years and had other sons and daughters.

When Reu had lived 32 years, he became the father of Serug. And after he became the father of Serug, Reu lived 207 years and had other sons and daughters.

When Serug had lived 30 years, he became the father of Nahor. And after he became the father of Nahor, Serug lived 200 years and had other sons and daughters.

When Nahor had lived 29 years, he became the father of Terah. And after he became the father of Terah, Nahor lived 119 years and had other sons and daughters.

After Terah had lived 70 years, he became the father of Abram, Nahorand Haran.

Observing

 The Tower of Babel We come to the end of the first major section in Genesis 1-11. The world as a whole, the way which the narrator begins chapter 11, has been described in detail in chapter 10. The world had but one language and a common speech. This is strange in that in chapter 10 we find three occasions that the descendants of Noah were divided on the basis of their respective languages (Genesis 10.5,20,31). It is difficult for the modern reader of Scripture to not think that everything written in Genesis, as well as other parts of the First and Second Testaments, is chronological. That is a bias that comes with the Western mindset. In fact, one can see in the Second Testament Gospels how the authors move material around in their narrative to suit the needs of their audience. We must not enforce a modern form of thinking on an ancient document lest we make it say something that it did not intend to say. There is a Chiastic structure in Genesis 1-11 where the artistry of the writer structures his material. We can see this structure three times:
put text here

Genealogy:  Noah’s sons (Gen. 5.32)
Narrative: the sons of God (Gen. 6.1-8)
Genealogy: Noah’s sons (Gen. 6.9-10)

Genealogy: of Noah’s sons (Gen. 6.9-10)
Narrative: the flood (Gen. 6.11-9.17)
Genealogy: Noah’s sons (Gen. 9.18-19)

Genealogy: Shemites (Gen. 10.21-31)
Narrative: Tower: of Babel (Gen. 11.1-9)
Genealogy: Shemites: (Gen. 11.10-32)

The reason that there are different languages mentioned in Genesis 10 is that the author has deliberately taken chronology from the material. This section is almost equally divided between the deeds of man (Genesis 11.1-4) and the measures of God (Genesis 11.5-9). It is in the middle verse in our Bibles that God takes a sudden action of an intervention. An essential expression, which is repeated five times, is “all the earth.” This means that all of humankind is presumed to be sinful. The generations after the flood had not learned anything from history, an ancient and modern phenomenon. So God begins again to bring relationship out of chaos. This Chiastic structure is seen throughout these eleven chapters:

a new beginning (creation),
chaos (fall)
judgment (flood)

a new beginning (Noah)
chaos (growth of nations)
judgment (Babel)

a new beginning (Abraham)

Interpreting

Genesis 11.1-4

There was one language in Genesis 11.1, so the storyteller tells us, and one common speech. Common speech is not just a repetition of one language. The words are related but not interchangeable. The age about which the narrator is writing had a common language (one language) with a conventional vocabulary (common speech). The narrator of the story provides a balance in telling this story. It begins and ends with a reference to a universal language. At the beginning of the story, it flourished. At the conclusion of the story, it was destroyed. There are no named characters in this story. We are told that “they moved, found, and settled.”

The plain of Shinar is what became Babylonia. Genesis 11.3-4 presents the deed of these unnamed men. The tower builders wanted to construct a memorial, which would produce a reputation for them, provide them with security from the outside world, and a lifestyle that was permanent instead of non-migratory. The tower these ancients wanted to build would be equivalent to a modern skyscraper. They wanted it to “reach to the heavens.” This phrase is a First Testament expression to describe an edifice of impressive proportions. In the ancient world of Babylon, a great temple of Marduk (an ancient god) was built, which raised some 300 feet from the ground. It was believed to have been built by the gods. Again, we find the narrator alluding to polytheism. It is possible that these men wanted to become gods themselves by their very actions. The plain on which they met would produce the least amount of security and make them vulnerable. Settling and building, however, flew in the face of God’s command to multiply and fill the earth.

Genesis 11.5-9

There is a bit of humor in Genesis 11.5. These tower builders wanted to build a tower into the heavens that ranked among the gods. However, the result was so far from the heavens that God had to come down to see it. This sentence serves as a bridge between what the men did and what God is going to do. The “men” of Genesis 11.5 are designated in the original language as the “sons of Adam,” which means that they are mere men, not gods. What God saw made him respond. If God did not do something to curb this initiative of humankind to become like gods, no telling what they may accomplish. God decides to confuse their language instead of just toppling the tower. Toppling the tower would have only stopped the endeavor temporarily while confusing the language had a more permanent effect. God did not solve the problem by dealing with the symptom, a rather human condition; he went to the core of the problem.

The narrator tells us the intention of God was to confuse their language and that was accomplished by God (compare Genesis 11.7 and Genesis 11.9). Between the statement of intention and the statement of accomplishment, we are told that the builders were scattered, an opposite effect from what they were trying to accomplish. God not only confused their language but also dispersed them over all the earth, his intention for them from the beginning. We might say that we can choose to do what God commands us to do of our own free will or God will get involved and make sure it happens by his will. The former is a much better choice than the latter. We may also note that this attempt to build a tower that would produce security was to try and gain security apart from God by their own hands.

We suggested that the people of the day wanted to make a reputation for themselves. They did. However, it was not the fame they were seeking. Rather, it was a name that would always be associated with judgment. We should note that both the two post-Flood stories involving sin and disgrace come from Ham and his ancestors. We may also note that the story of Babel is a theological narrative about humankind trying to become something that they are not intended to become, namely a god. It is not a story to help us solve all the problems of language and how there are so many or how we moved from a monoglot to a polyglot world.

Genesis 11.10-26

We now come to the last section of Genesis 1-11. We must note that this section ends with verse 26 and the new section of Genesis begins with verse 27. This is one of those unfortunate breaks that came with the verification of Scripture. By the way, verses are something that any reader of the Bible should not quote to substantiate an argument. The narrator ends with another genealogy section (see structure in the Observation section above). This genealogy is of the Shemites that begins with Shem and moves to Terah who was Abraham’s father. This is a vertical genealogy and is designed to show legitimate ancestry. These types of genealogies were often used in the ancient world to establish the authenticity of a king or a dynasty. The narrator moves the hearers toward the next story to be presented in Genesis, the story of Abraham.

Summary

The Tower of Babel narrative provides a fitting conclusion to the events of primeval times. The families of the earth are hopelessly scattered throughout the known world. There is no record of a mark given for their protection like was given to Cain (Genesis 4.15). There was no rainbow in the clouds as a sign from God that he would not judge (Genesis 9.13). There was no ray of hope or any token of grace on the horizon. The narrator took the hearers to a point of tension that needed a solution. After the connecting genealogy of Genesis 11.10-26, the storyteller provides a solution. From all the many nations that were scattered, God would form one nation, which would become the conduit of his blessings to the whole world. God had not condemned his creation. Far from it. He was preparing a final solution to its sinfulness.

The children of Israel who were the first hearers of these stories, which are told in Genesis 1-11 were called out of Egypt to be God’s people through which he would bring his blessing. In order to accomplish the task ahead, they must learn to obey his direction. If they choose not to follow God but to follow the many gods of the ancient world, they too might find themselves scattered across the face of the earth.

Community Discussion Questions

➡ |CDQ Info|

  • How often do we try to gain security by our hand when God offers it under his roof? How do you see this at work in your life?
  • What was the result in your life when you tried to make a name (reputation) for yourself?
  • How many times have you tried to become something that you really aren’t? What was the result? What did you learn?
  • Remind yourself of times that there seemed to be no rainbow in your life, but you discovered that God was preparing a solution for your problems, although you could not see it occurring.

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Read Me First

 

Throughout these sessions, I have used the word ecclesia (singular) for the usual word church and ecclesiae (plural) to indicate a church in a particular geographic place, i.e., the ecclesiae at Corinth, meaning the whole of the many smaller ecclesia that met in homes in Corinth. This is to distinguish between the Institutional Church model (IC) and ecclesia that meet in cities and towns around the world. The ecclesiae written about by the authors of the Second Testament were not the same as what the “church” has become over the years of its existence. Usually, but not always, folks think of a church as a place where they go to a building and set in rows of pews and listen to music and sometimes sing and listen to sermons by a pastor or senior pastor. The ecclesiae of the Second Testament time did not invoke this model.

 

I have discovered over the years that if you want to try and change minds about something special, you have to venture out and reword it in order to grasp a foothold for a new refreshed understanding of the idea presented by the word. Such is the case between "church" and "ecclesia."

 

Happy Reading!

Read Me Second

 

Referenced verses in the text of this study are not used to prove some point of view. They are merely markers where the subject matter is referenced by other books and authors. To gain a larger view of each quote, a serious student of the Holy Writ would take the time to view the reference and see what the background is. The background provides tracks on which the meaning of a text rides. So knowing the context of a referenced passage would help the reader to gain a more thorough understanding of an author than just the words quoted and marked by a verse number that was not a part of the original author's text, which as you might remember was performed on the text in a random fashion many years later.

 

Happy Reading!

Read Me Third

 

The verses that are referenced in these sessions are not meant to prove a point. They are simply pointers to where the idea being written about may have a correlation. In order to see if they accomplish the thesis presented by the original author, a student should read, at a minimum, the chapter in which the verse is found as well as trying to ascertain what the original author may have meant to say to the original audience.

 

Of course, this is a lot of work but it is beneficial work. If one does not understand what the author meant when it was written and the audience could not have understood by what was written, then the words on the page can mean anything that a present reader may assign as a meaning, thus distorting what God was inspiring for the original writer to write to the original audience to hear.

A great and recent book by N.T. Wright and Michael F. Bird entitled The New Testament in Its World would be a wonderful addition to your reading helps.

 

Happy Reading!

Jesus Followers

 

There are many synonyms to use for the word believer, which is the most common word for a person who has "converted" to follow Jesus. I have chosen "Jesus follower(s) or follower(s) of Jesus instead of the word believer in these presentations to allow the reader an opportunity to move away from the idea of believer which conjures up the possible thought of "ascent" to a set of doctrines that have been assembled by different groups over the centuries and show up in this day and age as a set of statements posted on web sites and other written material. These sets of beliefs are suggested by many as the ones that one should ascent to so that upon death the one who assents can go to heaven, i.e., just believe and you are good to go. Jesus followers/followers of Jesus suggest an action that one should take. Remember, Jesus told his disciples to follow him. Yes, belief is important, but one must move beyond belief to action.

 

(See "Discipleship" Dictionary of Jesus and the Gospels. 182-188.)

Read Me First

 

Throughout these sessions, I have used the word ecclesia (singular) for the usual word church and ecclesiae (plural) to indicate a church in a particular geographic place, i.e., the ecclesiae at Corinth, meaning the whole of the many smaller ecclesia that met in homes in Corinth. This is to distinguish between the Institutional Church model (IC) and ecclesia that meet in cities and towns around the world. The ecclesiae written about by the authors of the Second Testament were not the same as what the “church” has become over the years of its existence. Usually, but not always, folks think of a church as a place where they go to a building and set in rows of pews and listen to music and sometimes sing and listen to sermons by a pastor or senior pastor. The ecclesiae of the Second Testament time did not invoke this model.

 

I have discovered over the years that if you want to try and change minds about something special, you have to venture out and reword it in order to grasp a foothold for a new refreshed understanding of the idea presented by the word. Such is the case between "church" and "ecclesia."

 

Happy Reading!

Read Me Second

 

Referenced verses in the text of this study are not used to prove some point of view. They are merely markers where the subject matter is referenced by other books and authors. To gain a larger view of each quote, a serious student of the Holy Writ would take the time to view the reference and see what the background is. The background provides tracks on which the meaning of a text rides. So knowing the context of a referenced passage would help the reader to gain a more thorough understanding of an author than just the words quoted and marked by a verse number that was not a part of the original author's text, which as you might remember was performed on the text in a random fashion many years later.

 

Happy Reading!

Read Me Third

 

The verses that are referenced in these sessions are not meant to prove a point. They are simply pointers to where the idea being written about may have a correlation. In order to see if they accomplish the thesis presented by the original author, a student should read, at a minimum, the chapter in which the verse is found as well as trying to ascertain what the original author may have meant to say to the original audience.

 

Of course, this is a lot of work but it is beneficial work. If one does not understand what the author meant when it was written and the audience could not have understood by what was written, then the words on the page can mean anything that a present reader may assign as a meaning, thus distorting what God was inspiring for the original writer to write to the original audience to hear.

A great and recent book by N.T. Wright and Michael F. Bird entitled The New Testament in Its World would be a wonderful addition to your reading helps.

 

Happy Reading!

Jesus Followers

 

There are many synonyms to use for the word believer, which is the most common word for a person who has "converted" to follow Jesus. I have chosen "Jesus follower(s) or follower(s) of Jesus instead of the word believer in these presentations to allow the reader an opportunity to move away from the idea of believer which conjures up the possible thought of "ascent" to a set of doctrines that have been assembled by different groups over the centuries and show up in this day and age as a set of statements posted on web sites and other written material. These sets of beliefs are suggested by many as the ones that one should ascent to so that upon death the one who assents can go to heaven, i.e., just believe and you are good to go. Jesus followers/followers of Jesus suggest an action that one should take. Remember, Jesus told his disciples to follow him. Yes, belief is important, but one must move beyond belief to action.

 

(See "Discipleship" Dictionary of Jesus and the Gospels. 182-188.)