Exposition of Genesis 1–11: Genesis 11:8–9

Genesis 11:8–9
So the LORD scattered them from there across the face of the entire earth, and they stopped building the city.  9 That is why its name was called Babel– because there the LORD confused the language of the entire world, and from there the LORD scattered them across the face of the entire earth.
(NET Bible)

 Opposing God leads to confusion

Whose plans are going to prevail? Will it be humankind’s plan to concentrate power and make a mighty name, or will it be God’s plan to populate the world with those who honor his mighty name?

In the language the Bible speaks, scattering is not a favorable outcome. One illustration of this is the statement by Jesus: “Whoever is not with me is against me, and whoever does not gather with me scatters” (Matt. 12:30).

In Genesis 1:28 and 9:1, the original creation and its replacement, God commanded that the people be fruitful, multiply and fill the earth. Contrary to that command, the people gathered on the plain of Shinar in opposition to dispersal.

At times someone will argue that the Hebrew phrase translated as “the entire earth” does not actually mean the whole world. This argument is made, for example, to support a regional flood. But consider how this phrase is used in other locations within Genesis: 1:29; 7:3; 8:9; 9:19; 11:1; 13:9; 13:15; 18:25; 19:31. The only instance that does not mean the entire earth is Genesis 13:15 in which God tells Abraham that he will receive all the land he is looking at. But the norm consists of situations such as God serving as the judge of the entire world (Gen. 18:25) or giving humankind the seed-bearing plants of the entire earth for food (Gen. 1:29).

So, before the people populate the entire world, they pause for rebellion at a city called Babel. When the common language was replaced by as many languages as people, the people stop construction of the city and scatter.

“The Babylonians understood Babel to mean ‘the gate of the god.’ The Hebrews liked to suppose it to mean ‘mixed up, confused.’”[1] Mathews adds, “Our author’s sarcasm bites at the Babelites’ deluded aim of obtaining a ‘name’ through the erection of the city (v. 4).”[2] They got a name—“confused”!

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



[1] Wenham, Genesis 1-17, 241.

[2] Mathews, Genesis 1-11:26, 486.

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, lets go down and confuse their language so they wont 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 mans greatest achievements, when set alongside the creators 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, lets go down and confuse their language so they wont be able to understand each other.

The Lords 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 Gods mercy and patience.

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

 


[1] Gordon J. Wenham, Genesis 115, Word Biblical Commentary (Nashville: Word Incorporated, 1987) 235.

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

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

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.