Coffman Commentaries on the Old and New TestamentGENESIS 11
Toledoth V (Genesis 11:10-26)
Toledoth VI (Genesis 11:27)
It would be impossible to exaggerate the importance of this chapter, since it recounts the Second Hardening of mankind, in which, on the plains of Shinar there flowered the second general rebellion of humanity against the Creator. The same pattern is evident in both. In the first, it began with a single act of disobedience; but it eventually resulted in the total corruption of Adam's race, the First Judicial Hardening of humanity, followed by the judgment of God upon their gross wickedness and the destruction of the whole antediluvian world in the waters of the Deluge.
In this second instance, it also began with the shameful wickedness of Canaan: but the eventual exaltation of man against his God became general in the events associated with the Tower of Babel and once more became so serious that the situation demanded God's direct interference with it. This came immediately in the form of the confusion of tongues and the introduction of the device of the Chosen People, through whom God would yet provide a Saviour and Redeemer for men. Therein lies the significance of the presentation of the family line of Shem, the Messianic line, here recorded in close connection with the events of Babel, and which stand here as an explanatory introduction to the call of Abraham.
The story is basically the same in both cases: "man's defiance of God."F1 The setting, however, is different. The first Fall occurred among the flowers and fruits of Eden; the second one came in the bricks and asphalt of the city. Therefore, we see nothing less in this event than the Second Judicial Hardening of Adam's race, the first resulting in the Flood, this one resulting in the call of Abraham and the commissioning of a "Chosen People," by means of whom God's purpose of Redemption would still be achieved.
Speiser described the account here as "authentic beyond all expectation," F2 and Neff spoke of it as having, "the utmost significance." F3 The extremely abbreviated nature of the sacred record here, however, has obscured the importance of it for some.
Verses 1, 2
And the whole earth was of one language and of one speech. And it came to pass, as they journeyed east, that they found a plain in the land of Shinar; and they dwelt there.
The whole earth. one language ... one speech ..…
Since all people at that time were descendants of Noah, therefore being one family, it could scarcely have been any other way than as stated here.
They journeyed east…
The older versions read from the east (KJV), and when they removed from the east (Douay), etc.; and many current scholars assure us that the original here actually says, from the east.F4 Some insist, however, that, The Hebrew is uncertain here,F5 and that the place should be rendered eastward, since that conforms better with where it is thought that the people lived at that time. We should accept the words as they have come down to us. Men really do not have enough information to justify their adjusting God's Word to say what they think it should have said. Sure, it does seem strange in the light of facts revealed as to where the ark rested and the directions later given for the dispersion of Noah's posterity. Nevertheless, the notion that such migrations could have been in a single direction only is precarious indeed. We are not at all embarrassed by many things in the sacred record that we simply cannot explain or account for at all, but we glory in the grace of God that enables us to believe it anyway. We have great confidence that if we knew all the facts, the perfect understanding of many arcane passages in the Bible would be the result.
Plain in the land of Shinar…
This is the great plain upon which Nimrod built Babylon and other cities. The Septuagint reads Babylonia here for Shinar. It is the land wherein were situated the great cities of Babylon, Erech, and Akkad.F6 In Zechariah (Zechariah 5), there is the vision of the ephah basket with a woman in it (probably the image of a goddess) symbolizing Wickedness (Zechariah 5:8); and when Zechariah asked where she was being taken, an angel revealed to him, that, They bear the ephah to build her a house in the land of Shinar: and when it is prepared, she shall be set there in her own place (Zechariah 5:11). This prophetic revelation shows that it was the establishment and enthronement of wickedness in Shinar that constituted the great error visible in this event at Babel. In all ages to come, Babylon would be the symbol of civilization in its corporate organization opposed to God in pride, arrogance, and defiance. It was literally true that the cancer that began here at the tower of Babel was to form a metastasis in every great city of the earth for all ages to come, making Babylon the Mother of harlots and abominations of the earth, not merely in the religious connotations of the current dispensation, but also in the political developments ever afterward from the foundation of Babylon.
And they said one to another, Come, let us make brick, and burn them thoroughly. And they had brick for stone, and slime had they for mortar.
Brick. slime had they for mortar ..…
The absence of building stone on the plains of Shinar led to the perfection of the brick industry, thus providing materials for the ambitious project contemplated. The word for slime here is [~hemar], that is bitumen or asphalt.F7 This was a different substance from that used in preparing the ark for Moses, or that Noah used to caulk the ark.
How innocent all this seemed, how practical, and commendable! Despite the innocuous appearance, however, wicked forces of the greatest magnitude were behind these proceedings. Man wanted to be God. As Neff put it: "A true son of Adam, man wants to be God Himself. He wants to run the world in his own way. He wants to put himself at the center of his civilization on a pedestal inscribed with his own name: `Glory to MAN in the highest!' F8
And they said, Come, let us build us a city, and a tower, whose top [may reach] unto heaven, and let us make us a name; lest we be scattered abroad upon the face of the whole earth.
Whose top may reach unto heaven…
This expression is viewed by many as merely a rhetorical way of expressing great height, or as a device by which they might avoid disaster of another flood, or as some kind of a fortification, but we cannot accept any understanding of this that leaves out of sight the religious and theological aspect of it.
The Babylonians called such a tower a ziggurat, an immense tower shaped like a pyramid, rising in terraces, and crowned with a temple, which was regarded as an "entrance to heaven." F9
In the light of the nature and use of such towers as subsequently revealed, there can hardly be any doubt that paganism and idolatry were intimately associated with the tower mentioned in this passage, despite the fact of there not being a word in the text concerning it. Many have discerned this. The construction of the tower of Babel was actually the dethronement of God and establishment of paganism as their system of worship. There were extensive collateral developments in connection with the tower. There was the change of government into a military dictatorship with cruel and oppressive power, and also the creation and promulgation of a priesthood which constructed right there in Babylon a pantheon of pagan gods and elaborated paganism into a religious system that was to prevail throughout the world until the Edict of Theodosius outlawed such things in 389 A.D.
That tower (ziggurat) mentioned above has been described as follows: The most conspicuous feature was a huge pyramidal tower, in seven terraces from the temple area. The seven stories represented the seven planetary deities .... The ascent of the tower was a meritorious approach to the gods; and the summit was regarded as the entrance to heaven.F10
The same writer also declared, "That the tower of Gen. 11 is a Babylonian ziggurat is obvious on every ground."F11 We may inquire as to "Who did all this?" But the Scriptures record none of the names of the perpetrators. The traditional account handed down by Josephus carries the stamp of truth in the simplicity that says, "It was Nimrod who excited them to such an affront and contempt of God; he was the grandson of Ham, the son of Noah."F12 Josephus also affirmed that Nimrod had taught that it was cowardice to submit to God, and wrong to praise God for benefits, because it was through the courage and daring of MEN themselves that all blessings and benefits came! Such a doctrine as this has been the bible of evil world rulers in all generations.
Let us build a city. let us ... make us a name ... lest we be scattered ..…
The children of men who wrought this wickedness in God's sight were clearly infected with the US virus -- the pride, arrogance, and conceit of the people standing starkly obvious in this cryptic account of it. Their rebellion against God is inherent in their stated purpose of avoiding their being scattered, a scattering that God had commanded in the original great commission to multiply and replenish the earth. Their self-centeredness and anti-God determination reveal with surgical accuracy the fundamental aspects of paganism. That the Second Judicial Hardening of the human family had not merely begun in this episode but that it had reached a crisis stage is revealed emphatically in Paul's great essay on it in Rom. 1. Of those pre-Christian Gentiles, Paul declared three times that, God gave them up (Romans 1:24,26,28). The rapid increase and degeneration of paganism were also recounted by Paul. It began by man worshipping himself (or, an image of himself), but it swiftly moved downward in cycles until men were worshipping reptiles and creeping things!
Thus, we understand the events of Babel as man's SUBSTITUTION of himself for God as the object of worship and devotion. In all probability the ancient tradition that Nimrod himself was deified and worshiped as Merodach or Marduk in Babylon, and that his wife SemaramisF13 received divine honors would appear to be founded in fact. The deification of Roman emperors in the Christian era and their hatred of God were only the eventual developments of the tragedy at Babel.
And Jehovah came down to see the city and the tower, which the children of men builded.
The fact that no individuals being mentioned in this account and its action being mentioned as something that "the children of men" did, shows that God considered this event as a rebellion of all mankind against Himself. The willingness of mankind, generally, to receive the arrogance, pride and conceit of those people as their chosen way of life, and the perception of God that the cancer that began there would spread continually throughout the whole world fully justified the heavenly interference with it. God would also call Abraham, who was commissioned to be the head of a "chosen race," who would preserve the knowledge of the true God until the revelation of the Messiah.
Came down to see…
This speaking of God in terms that are related to the conduct of men was most natural, there being, in fact, no other way that knowledge of the true God could be conveyed. This is called anthropomorphism; and this passage is loaded with it. Significantly, while man was boasting of his tower to reach heaven, God could not even see it without making a trip down to earth! Despite the fact that God sees everything continually throughout the whole universe, this manner of speech is superlative as an exposure of the foolishness and wickedness of men.
And Jehovah said, Behold, they are one people, and they have all one language; and this is what they begin to do: and now nothing will be withholden from them, which they purpose to do.
If we have properly understood the motives and purpose underlying this evil venture, what God foresaw was that if their wickedness had been left unhindered the true knowledge of God might easily have been totally removed from the earth. The establishment of the people of Israel as a witness of God on the earth also aided effectually in frustrating the devices of Satan which were, at the moment, proving successful. In fact, at that future time when "Satan shall be loosed for a little while," there will then occur exactly what was in the process of occurring here.
The silly notion expressed by some to the effect that God feared mankind as a rival is absolutely unworthy of any believer. Whatever fears God had in this situation, they were those fears for the future of the race of men which God accurately foresaw.
Come, let us go down, and there confound their language, that they may not understand one another's speech.
Come, let us go down…
The plural form here suggests the Trinitarian Godhead more fully apparent in the N.T., but certainly not any kind of a conference with angels, or some kind of a community of gods, as imagined by some. Also, it is the height of superlative naivete that prompts men to bother with trying to reduce all these anthropomorphisms to descriptions of where God was when He said this or that, or to suppose that God had to return to heaven between similar expressions. The thought here is simply that God had a remedy for human arrogance and conceit. He would do two things:
Regarding the wonder of HOW God confounded the languages, we simply have no information whatever. The will of God alone was sufficient to produce the conditions that He desired to appear.
- first, He would thwart the spread of the wicked virus by confounding the languages;
- and He would also call out and separate a people to Himself who would keep themselves from idolatry and who would live as a continuing witness of the true God and His holy Name throughout the long dark ages of pre-Christian Gentile darkness then beginning its awesome descent upon the family of Adam.
Furthermore, we may not suppose that God's displeasure with human developments was in any manner diminished in succeeding ages. This judgment of the confounded tongues would not be the last visitation upon the conceited, lustful, self-worshippers who came after the Babylonians. Ask Tyre, Sidon, Babylon, Nineveh, Sodom, Gomorrah, and Jerusalem! Nor may our own generation claim any exemption from the universal law regarding the worship of the creature rather than the Creator, "For which things' sake cometh the wrath of God upon the sons of disobedience" (Colossians 3:6).
So Jehovah scattered them abroad from thence upon the face of all the earth: and they left off building the city.
God's interference with evil was successful. Of course, having endowed humanity with the freedom of the will, God would never compel people to obey Him, but as an inducement to encourage them toward the right decisions, He would forever see to it that, "The way of the transgressor is hard" (Proverbs 13:15).
Therefore was the name of it called Babel; because Jehovah did there confound the language of all the earth: and from thence did Jehovah scatter them abroad upon the face of all the earth.
This is the conclusion of this remarkably important episode. We shall notice, in passing, some of the insinuations against this account, not because of any value in them, but as a notation that evil men are STILL opposed to the will of God. Skinner called this account "a myth,"F14 and Neil spoke of it as "a parable,"F15 but, to us, this is just about the most historic episode that history has ever been handed down to us. The proof of it is right here in the narrative.
Take the word Babylon. Here is the story of how Babylon got its name, a name which has been on the tongue of all generations, and a name that memorializes eternally the dramatic event that produced its name. We do not blame critics for trying to find another explanation for the name of this ancient and wicked city, because, just as long as this Genesis record stands, the proof of the event is in the name itself! Leupold's comment on it is perceptive:
"The word [~balal] means to `confuse'; and from it the form [~balbel] (contracted to Babel) is derived, and here we have the actual origin of the name of this famed city. Thus, we translate part of Gen. 11:9, "Called Babel because there Yahweh made a babble!" Whatever other interpretations the Babylonians themselves may have put upon this name, this Biblical interpretation is the original, and it remains valid."F16
Payne refers to something that must have been an effort of the Babylonians to avoid such a name as that which has been fastened upon them throughout history: "The Akkadian `babili' means `the gate of God'."F17 However, no one could believe that such a name as "the gate of God" could possibly have been accepted for Babylon by all generations and nations. Such a name simply does not fit, nor did it ever fit. The Genesis record has the true account of the name Babylon. As Whitelaw noted, that explanation of the name Babylon is "unsupported by any evidence."F18
Marks referred to this passage as one of the "most important in the O.T., because it is the point where primeval history and sacred history dovetail."F19 Primeval history left open the question of human salvation, but sacred history provides the certain promise of it in the call of Abraham and the announcement that "all the families of the earth" would be blessed through his seed (singular). The actual announcement of this is in Gen. 11:12, and the transition from primeval history to sacred history occurs precisely in Gen. 11:1-3.
The remainder of this chapter presents the Messianic line leading to Abraham. That line is clearly and logically presented, and we shall not concern ourselves with the ages of the various patriarchs listed here, nor with the discrepancies between those as related in LXX and various other ancient versions, simply because such minutae are unimportant. God's message in the following verses relates to the truth that GOD was still in charge. Satan would not be allowed to frustrate the purpose of human redemption; a Messiah was indeed coming, and we should not dwell overly long upon the consideration of those human instruments through whom he would come.
The following ancestors of the Messiah are given: SHEM, ARPACHSHAD, SHELAH, EBER, PELEG, REU, SERUG, NAHOR, TERAH, and ABRAM (ABRAHAM). A check with the genealogy given by Luke (Luke 3:34-36) conforms exactly to this with the exception that Cainan is introduced between Shelah and Arpachshad, suggesting that the whole list may be abbreviated.
Genesis 11:27 provides the additional information that Terah had two other sons besides Abraham, i.e., Nahor (named after his uncle) and Haran, the father of Lot. This was probably given to explain the association of Lot with Abraham in subsequent chapters of Genesis. He apparently became, in fact, a kind of adopted son of Abraham, following the death of Haran in Ur of the Chaldees.
Genesis 11:28-29 relates the marriages of Nahor who married the daughter of Haran, and that of Abraham who married Sarah (Sarai), the daughter of Terah (evidently by a second marriage), making her thus his sister, or half-sister. This explains other subsequent events mentioned in Genesis.
Genesis 11:30 makes mention of the barrenness of Sarah.
Genesis 11:31 says, "And Terah took Abram his son, and Lot the son of Haran, his son's son, and Sarai his daughter-in-law, his son Abram's wife; and they went forth with them from Ur of the Chaldees, to go into the land of Canaan; and they came unto Haran, and dwelt there."
There would appear to be frustration of some kind recorded here: "They went forth to go into the land of Canaan; and they came to Haran and dwelt there! What happened? Why did they not go where they started to go? We have no way of knowing. Some think that Terah, unwilling to leave the pagan culture of Ur completely out of his life, diverted the journey to Haran, where the culture of Ur was likewise entrenched. In any case, Abram was unable to leave Haran until Terah died. The call of God to Abram next to be related in Gen. 12, carried the specific that Abram should "leave his father's house, and his kindred"; and this seems to confirm the view that Terah had been the big hindrance at first. "Even, Terah, the father of Abraham and of Nahor ... they served other gods" (Joshua 24:2). Leupold, following Luther, thought that Terah led the expedition out of Ur, but we see no need to accept this. Terah was an idolater, and his removal from Ur could very well have been for the purpose of frustrating any trip to Canaan whatever. Unger gives the following on the cultural and religious makeup of Ur and Haran:
"When Abraham migrated from Ur, the city was idolatrous, given over to the worship of the moon deity Nannar and his consort Nin-Gal; a sacred area and a ziggurat were devoted to this idolatry ... Nannar was also worshipped at Haran to which Terah migrated."F20
Gen. 11:32 says, "The days of Terah were two hundred and five years, and Terah died in Haran."
We are including a special comment on this verse because of the alleged contradiction regarding the age of Terah and Abram's leaving Haran when he was 75 years of age (Acts 7:4). Gen. 11:26 says that Terah lived seventy years and begat Abram, Nahor, and Haran. Well, here is how you get the "contradiction." This means that Terah was 70 when Abram was born. Does it really say that? No! It merely affirms that all three of Terah's sons were born AFTER he was 70 years of age, and it gives no hint whatever that Abram was even born first, one of the pure assumptions due to the prominence given his name in Genesis, but that prominence might have been the sole reason for naming Abram first. Therefore, he might well have been the YOUNGEST son. Since Terah died at age 205, as this verse says, and, since Abraham was 75 when he left Haran (Acts 7:4), then Terah was 130 years old when Abraham was born. Anyone can add it up. Well, was not that after Terah was 70 years of age? Of course! And the fact of Haran's having died in Ur at an age not specified, the presumption must be that he was the one born some 55 years earlier when Terah was only 70, thus being the oldest son and the first to die. People who like to hunt for "contradictions" will have to find something better than this!
This brings a great division of Genesis to a close. Whereas, the previous chapters have dealt with universal events, or events concerned with the history of all the Adamic race, the following chapters will take up the narrative relative to the deeds and fortunes of the "Chosen Nation," the posterity of Abraham through whom a Messiah to redeem all men was promised.
Footnotes for Genesis 11
1: William Neil, Harper's Bible Commentary (New York: Harper and Row, 1961), p. 38.
2: E. A. Speiser, The Anchor Bible Genesis (Garden City, New York: Doubleday and Company, 1964), p. 75.
3: William Neil, op. cit., p. 38.
4: G. Ch. Aalders, Genesis 1 (Grand Rapids: Zondervan Publishing House, 1981), p. 245.
5: Henry M. Morris, The Genesis Record (Grand Rapids: Baker Book House, 1976), p. 267.
6: The New Bible Dictionary (Grand Rapids: Wm. B. Eerdman Publishing Company, 1962), p. 1178.
7: Merrill F. Unger, Unger's Bible Commentary (Chicago: Moody Press, 1981), p. 51.
8: William Neil, op. cit., p. 38.
9: Arthur S. Peake, Peake's Commentary on the Bible (London: T. C. and E. C. Jack, Ltd, 1924), p. 146.
10: John Skinner, International Critical Commentary, Genesis (Edinburgh: T. and T. Clark, 1910) p. 226.
12: Flavius Josephus, Life and Works of, translated by William Whiston (New York: Holt, Rinehart, and Winston), p. 39.
13: H. M. Morris, op. cit., pp. 264, 272.
14: John Skinner, op. cit., p. 223.
15: William Neff, op. cit., p. 39.
16: H. C. Leupold, Genesis (Grand Rapids: Baker Book House, 1942), p. 391.
17: David F. Payne, The New Layman's Bible Commentary (Grand Rapids: Zondervan Publishing House, 1979), p. 143.
18: Thomas Whitelaw, The Pulpit Commentary, Vol. 1 (Grand Rapids: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 1950, p. 166.
19: Gerhard von Rad, Genesis, a Commentary, translated by John Marks (Philadelphia: The Westminster Press, 1961), p. 149.
20: Merrill F. Unger, op. cit., p. 54.