Exposition of Genesis 1–11: Genesis 11:5–7

Genesis 11:5–7
But the LORD came down to see the city and the tower that the people had started building.  6 And the LORD said, “If as one people all sharing a common language they have begun to do this, then nothing they plan to do will be beyond them.  7 Come, let’s go down and confuse their language so they won’t be able to understand each other.”
(NET Bible)

 A communications glitch

Eve and Noah proved the tendency toward sin by isolated humans, and the gathering on the plain of Shinar shows the aggressive will of a combined group to rival God.

Why does rebellion find a home in the human heart? What leads willful humanity to ignore what God wants while grasping for its own flawed goals? How can humanity believe that God will not assert his power in reply?

All commentators identify Genesis 11:5 as the crux of the story. Careful analysis of Genesis 11:1–9 reveals the underlying literary structure, pairing scenes 1 & 5, 2 & 4, and the Introduction & Conclusion:

Verse 1                        Introduction

Verse 2                                    Scene 1: The travels of mankind

Verses 3–4                                    Scene 2: Human plans to build a city and tower

Verse 5                                                            Scene 3: Divine inspection visit

Verses 6–7                                    Scene 4: Divine plans to frustrate mankind

Verse 8                                    Scene 5: Mankind is scattered: building stopped

Verse 9                        Conclusion: What Babel means[1]

Gordon Wenham points out the dark humor of the climax in Genesis 11:5 when he says:

This tower which man thought reached to heaven, God can hardly see! From the height of heaven it seems insignificant, so the Lord must come down to look at it. . . . It is simply a brilliant and dramatic way of expressing the puniness of man’s greatest achievements, when set alongside the creator’s omnipotence.[2]

Genesis 11:5  But the LORD came down to see the city and the tower that the people had started building.

The NET translation explains that the people had only “started building” (Gen. 11:5) the tower and city. That view may be correct, but other translations do not follow this path. Contrary to the NET Bible view, the mockery works best if the tower had previously been completed, which the verbal form normally suggests, and the city is still under construction. In the latter case, the city construction is what stops in Genesis 11:8.

Genesis 11:6  And the LORD said, “If as one people all sharing a common language they have begun to do this, then nothing they plan to do will be beyond them.”

You will recall that the joining of the “sons of God” with the “daughters of humankind” (Gen. 6:2) resulted in a world filled with violence (Gen. 6:11). Now the people join in a frantic effort to achieve fame without regard to God. Such arrogance, if unchecked, will prove more and more dangerous to the survival of humanity.

The words “nothing they plan to do” represent a verb that is too dangerous for humankind. Wenham says, “Only God may plan without limit. Man is not supposed to emulate his creator in this way.”[3] Humankind has proven from the start that we are not wise enough to plan without limit.

Wenham observes that the language of Genesis 11:6 is very similar to Genesis 3:22. There God took immediate action to expel the man and woman from the garden to prevent them from taking fruit from the tree of life. Once again, dramatic action is imminent! The pattern is building that divine deliberation results in a decision and immediate implementation.

Genesis 11:7  “Come, let’s go down and confuse their language so they won’t be able to understand each other.”

The Lord’s self-exhortation (“Come”) in verse 7 matches the identical form (“Come”) in verse 4 by the people. Humankind is combining to rival God, and God is moving to thwart cooperation among the people without destroying them again.

But Genesis has already taught us that there is a limit to God’s mercy and patience.

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



[1] Gordon J. Wenham, Genesis 1–15, Word Biblical Commentary (Nashville: Word Incorporated, 1987) 235.

[2] Wenham, Genesis 1-15, 240.

[3] Wenham, Genesis 1-15, 241.

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