Exposition of Genesis 1–11: Genesis 11:1–4

Genesis 11:1–4
The whole earth had a common language and a common vocabulary.  2 When the people moved eastward, they found a plain in Shinar and settled there.  3 Then they said to one another, “Come, let’s make bricks and bake them thoroughly.” (They had brick instead of stone and tar instead of mortar.)  4 Then they said, “Come, let’s build ourselves a city and a tower with its top in the heavens so that we may make a name for ourselves. Otherwise we will be scattered across the face of the entire earth.”
(NET Bible)

Gather for God or don’t gather at all!

Some people have given up on life by surrendering to various addictions, distractions, and pleasures that the world offers. Others are fighting to survive. Those of us who remain want to do something that counts, to lead a life of significance.

Who will define what our significant accomplishments might be? How should we live to make connection with God? Are we to compete with him, depend upon him, replace him, or what?

Many Americans know a few words of Spanish, but hearing one phrase of Chinese, Hebrew or Basque will send most of us home for a rest. So, if all humanity came from Noah’s family, how is it that we cannot now understand each other? The answer involves another instance of human sin and divine intervention.

Concerning the section we begin today, Mathews says: “Genesis 11:1–9 also mirrors the attempt of humanity in the garden to achieve power independently of God. The attempt of the Babelites to transgress human limits is reminiscent of Eve’s ambition (Gen. 3:5–6).”[1]

In the beginning chapters of Genesis, we the readers simply take for granted that God is able to communicate with humanity and the man is able to speak intelligibly with the woman. In other words, the fluid communication goes on without notice. Separate languages are first mentioned in Genesis 10 but not explained until Genesis 11. The story of humanity after the flood begins at a time and place when all humanity spoke the same language with a common vocabulary (Gen. 11:1).

Ancient Mesopotamia, the so-called “cradle of civilization,” was the home of the Sumerian culture from roughly 5000 B.C. According to the translator of a Sumerian epic, the text of the epic “puts it beyond all doubt that the Sumerians believed there was a time when all mankind spoke one and the same language.”[2] The movement of the unnamed people in Genesis 11:2 stops in Shinar, a reference to Mesopotamia, which lies east of Canaan (Gen. 11:2).

When Noah and his family emerged from the ark, they built an altar to worship God (Gen. 8:20). In contrast, these people emerge from their journey with the intent to build a great monument to themselves; the theme of gradual degradation comes to the fore. Being unified with one language and located in one place, the people plan a great construction project (Gen. 11:3–4). Mathews tells us that unlike Israelite building practices: “Production of brickware for construction was a common feature in early Mesopotamia. Its technology was invented in Babylonia during the fourth millennium [B.C.] and later exported to other countries.”[3]

The two instances of the command “Come” (Gen. 11:3, 4) initiate frantic activity. (Similar frantic activity by a group occurs in Genesis 19, the depravity of Sodom.) The people pursue the construction of tower and city with unusual intensity, a fact the English translation does not convey.[4] Mathews points out the irony of the story by saying, “What they most feared, namely, the loss of security and power by ‘scattering’ (v. 4), came to pass as a result of their own doing (v. 8–9).”[5]

The meaning of this tower has special significance in the history of Babylon, the capital of Shinar. Wenham says, “It was a commonplace of Babylonian thought that temples had their roots in the netherworld and their tops reached up to heaven.”[6] But this is not the way to approach God.

All of us want to do something that counts, to lead a life of significance. The moral here is to gather for the glory of God and not our own!

Copyright © 2011 by Barry Applewhite. All rights reserved worldwide. Derived from material created for Christ Fellowship, McKinney, Texas. Used by permission.



[1] Kenneth A. Mathews, Genesis 1–11:26, The New American Commentary (Nashville: Broadman & Holman, 1996) 467.

[2] Gordon J. Wenham, Genesis 1–15, Word Biblical Commentary (Nashville: Word Incorporated, 1987) 236, quoting S.N. Kramer.

[3] Mathews, Genesis 1-11:26, 481.

[4] NET Bible Notes for Genesis 11:3.

[5] Mathews, Genesis 1-11:26, 469.

[6] Wenham, Genesis 1-15, 237.

Do you have an opinion or a different interpretation? Let me know!