Genesis 11:1 Now the whole earth had one language and one speech.
Noah, his family, and all the animals were commanded to “multiply on the earth” after they emerged from the ark. Genesis 9:1 includes the instruction given to Noah’s sons to “fill the earth.” Animal life has clearly responded to this call, evidenced by nature expanding territories and filling habitats according to each kind’s instincts. As a result, land-based animal and bird life has spread to every continent.
So what was the story with people, who were also given the calling to “spread out” and populate every region of the earth? Human genetics clearly held the capacity to allow people to adapt to almost every environment present on the earth. People today thrive in the arctic, in the tropics, the deserts, and in high elevations. Populations which have acclimated to specific climate zones have exhibited the physical adaptations which make living in their climate possible, if not even comfortable. Personally, I would struggle in an arctic climate. However, people native to that environment (in other words, who are descended from many generations of ancestors who originally settled there) are not challenged by what would be harsh conditions for me.
I want to point out that this adaptation is not an example of human evolution. Adaptation based on genes already present in a genome happens all the time, in people, and in plants and animals. In order for it to be called evolution, new genes would need to be formed through mutations, representing new information being added to a gene pool. In fact, no evidence for this has ever been produced in any experiment or study, while there is a ton of evidence that shows information is lost from a gene pool over time from mutations. When God created Adam and Eve, their DNA contained all of the information necessary to produce all of the diversity and physical characteristics we see in the human race today.
Back to our verse. It is telling us that at a point in time after the Flood, where enough time had passed for several generations to be born and the population to be increased, all people continued to speak the same language, and in fact, used the same “speech”. The word for speech was dabar, and its meaning (in the context of spoken language) has to do with the words or sayings used. In other words, people spoke the same words, using the same meanings, in the same dialect. The implication of this is that in order for people to speak the same language, but more specifically, the same dialect, people would need to remain in a single community.
Language changes over time. When populations are separated (geographically, culturally, politically, etc.) the differing influences on the population can ultimately result in words and meanings changing. Over time, these changes can result in new dialects and even completely new languages. For example, British and American English has diverged quite a lot in just over 200 years into two distinct dialects having different word spellings. In another example, when the Romans spread over Europe, they took Latin with them. Over the centuries, completely new languages based on Latin developed in different regions where Latin was originally spoken (French, Italian, Spanish, and Portuguese).
People in the post-Flood era did not “spread out” to fill the earth, but instead remained in such close proximity to each other that no new dialects or languages could have developed. Their common dialect is evidence that people did not obey God’s wish for humanity to spread out and fill the earth. At that time, there were no populations that had already branched off or migrated to other places around the world. So where was the entire population of the earth living?
Genesis 11:2 And it came to pass, as they journeyed from the east, that they found a plain in the land of Shinar, and they dwelt there.
People settled in Shinar, which is a word that meant “country of two rivers.” This is probably what they called the land, because it was the area where the Tigris and Euphrates Rivers are located, land later known as Babylonia or Chaldea. This area is part of what is known as the Fertile Crescent, and is often called the cradle of civilization. Archeological studies have shown this region to be where the earliest human civilizations developed, and where many early technological “advancements” (such as writing, glass, the wheel, agriculture, domestication of animals, etc.) are present in the archeological record. If Mount Ararat, where the ark landed, is in the same Ararat Mountain range of modern Turkey, then the Fertile Crescent is a natural location for people to settle because it provided the best local options available for growing food and raising animals, and was an area capable of supporting large populations.
The statement “they journeyed from the east” provides a possible clue as to the migration path of Noah’s family after the Flood. The area east of Shinar was later known as Media and eventually populated by descendents of Madai, son of Japheth. One possible interpretation suggests that Noah and his family migrated out of the area of Ararat, and traveled south through the mountains into what we know of today us northern Iran. As time passed and the population grew, people moved towards the Fertile Crescent as a means of continuing to live together in an area which would support larger populations. Other interpretations of “from the east” suggest that it merely means that this history occurred in the east (east of Israel), and that Noah’s family had an easier migration that led them from the mountains of Ararat down the Tigris and Euphrates river valleys. The Ararat Mountains are almost directly north of the Fertile Crescent. Regardless of how they arrived there, the question is, why would these people insist on remaining together in a single community, rather than settling in multiple regions of the earth? While the Fertile Crescent was a great location to settle, it was not the only place available to Noah’s descendents.
Genesis 11:3-4 Now Then they said to one another, “Come, let us make bricks and bake them thoroughly.” They had brick for stone, and they had asphalt for mortar. 4 And they said, “Come, let us build ourselves a city, and a tower whose top is in the heavens; let us make a name for ourselves, lest we be scattered abroad over the face of the whole earth.”
Their intent is made clear in verse 4. People were striving to avoid, at all costs, God’s command to spread themselves out and fill the earth. Their solution was to remain a single civilization, and then to construct a monument to their own accomplishments: “let us make a name for ourselves”. Instead of honoring God’s name, their goal was to lift themselves to God’s level. This sounds familiar to another example of blasphemy, told in the fall of Lucifer:
“How you are fallen from heaven, O Lucifer, son of the morning! How you are cut down to the ground, You who weakened the nations! 13 For you have said in your heart: ‘I will ascend into heaven, I will exalt my throne above the stars of God; I will also sit on the mount of the congregation on the farthest sides of the north; 14 I will ascend above the heights of the clouds, I will be like the Most High.’”
Building cities, creating monuments, and achieving great accomplishments are all great endeavors. These are not evil practices, nor is any similar human activity sinful, if it is performed for the right reasons. In this case, what made their plans evil were that they were so obviously contrary to God’s plans, and were for the wrong reasons of disobedience and pride. Proverbs 21:4 tells us that a haughty look, a proud heart, and the plowing of the wicked are sin. Acts 5:38 reminds that if a plan or work is of men, it will come to nothing.
What were they building? The tower was probably designed to be similar to the form and function of an ancient Mesopotamian ziggurat.
Ziggurats were pyramid shaped temples which contained a top compartment intended to represent heaven, decorated with symbols of the sun, moon, the five planets (Mercury, Venus, Mars, Jupiter and Saturn) known at that time, and signs of the zodiac. This room would have contained their “god” seated on a throne. In the last chapter we studied the Babylonian pagan religion built around Nimrod (Baal), Semiramis, and Tammuz. The ziggurat designed by the people of Shinar could have been a temple dedicated to Baal and the worship of Semiramis and Tammuz. Nimrod is thought by some commentators to be the individual in charge of the construction of this tower. However, an alternative view is that Nimrod was already dead by this time and the religion based around his mythology was well established. Genesis 10:25 indicates that it was in the time of Peleg that the earth was divided, and most scholars believe that this division is speaking of people being scattered across the earth. Peleg was Noah’s great-great-great-grandson and he lived to the age of 209, while Nimrod was Noah’s great-grandson.
Genesis 11:5-7 But the Lord came down to see the city and the tower which the sons of men had built. 6 And the Lord said, “Indeed the people are one and they all have one language, and this is what they begin to do; now nothing that they propose to do will be withheld from them. 7 Come, let Us go down and there confuse their language, that they may not understand one another’s speech.”
The imagery that is used here to represent God’s response is interesting. The sovereign and omnipotent Creator of the universe is represented as if He needed to come down from heaven to see what people were doing on earth. The Bible often uses anthropomorphisms as a way of explaining God’s actions in a way that people can comprehend. We can’t comprehend that God knows what is going to happen before it actually does happen, and yet God allows things to happen before He steps in and responds. We can understand language that indicates when something happens, God will check it out, and then He acts. This is the intent of using anthropomorphisms as a literary device to explain what we need to know about the story.
While the tower was being built, God chose that time to respond. He obviously knew what they were doing all along, and He knew what would happen before they even thought if it. But He waited (from our temporal perspective) until they were deep into their rebellion before responding. We can learn something about God’s nature from this: He is willing to let people exercise their free will to the fullest extent. God could have easily intervened before they started, perhaps appearing in front of them and reminding them who He was and who they weren’t. He could have stopped the evil before it happened, but He didn’t. It is hard to comprehend that God would allow evil to sprout, grow, and spread without stopping it before someone gets hurt. Instead, evil occurs, and it can even affect us in a harmful way, and we do not see God’s intervention the way we would like (such as, wouldn’t it be better if that bad thing had never have happened in the first place?). But often God waits. 2 Peter 3:9 (NLT) tells us the Lord isn’t really being slow about his promise, as some people think. No, he is being patient for your sake. He does not want anyone to be destroyed, but wants everyone to repent. Even the people starting or perpetuating the evil. Had God intervened in Jesus’ mock trial and sentencing, stopping the evil of crucifying the Son of God, we would not be heirs of salvation: looking unto Jesus, the author and finisher of our faith, who for the joy that was set before Him endured the cross, despising the shame, and has sat down at the right hand of the throne of God Hebrews 12:2. Perhaps God was leaving every opportunity for someone (anyone) to stand up for His plan. At least nobody can accuse God of not giving them their chances.
Back to the text. What was God’s concern? Since the people had one language and were not separating themselves culturally and geographically by family, they would be able to achieve whatever levels of iniquity they set their minds to, which was no surprise consider God already identified this as a problem in Genesis 8:21. There was a limit that was reached at the time of their Tower of Babel. God was saying that if this evil was their purpose at that time, it would only get worse if He did not step in. How could their evil become worse if they could remain in a single culture and language? Maybe we could use present-day America as an example. English is the primary cultural and economic language of today. While there are thousands of languages, it is English which is the most globally influential language of culture and finance. With the global reach of technology, it is now possible for an almost instantaneous spread of cultural ideas around the world. Clearly, Satan is using this global reach to spread a godless and immoral message around the world through America’s cultural influence and the universality of the English language.
So, before the capacity for evil reached the point of no return, God stepped into the picture. If it wasn’t for God restraining man in his capacity for evil, we would destroy ourselves. James 4:6 includes a quote from Proverbs: “God resists the proud, but gives grace to the humble.” 2 Thessalonians 2:1-9 speaks of the Holy Spirit restraining the revealing of the antichrist in the last days, and once this restraint is removed the antichrist will be free to deceive the world. God divinely stepped into human affairs at the Tower of Babel in order to restrain a work of Satan to destroy man using man’s own rebellious nature.
God divided people along the original family and clannish lines established by the sons of Ham, Shem, and Japheth. As mentioned earlier, this division thought to have occurred during the days of Peleg, whose name means “division.” Once God confounded their language, the people of Shinar would no longer be able to work together in their pursuit of their evil, and instead would have congregated in family groups according to their respective languages. Satan probably found it quite easy to influence man while they all spoke the same language and lived in one place. This became quite a bit harder once people groups were no longer cooperating with each other.
Genesis 11:8-9 So the Lord scattered them abroad from there over the face of all the earth, and they ceased building the city. 9 Therefore its name is called Babel, because there the Lord confused the language of all the earth; and from there the Lord scattered them abroad over the face of all the earth.
Babel, as the text tells us, means confusion. It is thought by some scholars that Babel was in the same location of Babylon. Other scholars disagree, suggesting that Babel was north of the future location of Babylon. Their spellings in ancient Hebrew texts are the same, but only because these ancient texts did not use written vowels. So the specific city in ancient texts was always determined by context in order to know if the spelling was indicating Babel or Babylon. In the case of the Tower of Babel, there is not enough information to know if it is actually the same location as Babylon. It doesn’t matter, though, because either way, God had His purpose there: to scatter people over the earth, using language as a divisive tool. God will always accomplish His will. He can move a person or an entire population. The king’s heart is in the hand of the Lord, like the rivers of water; He turns it wherever He wishes. Proverbs 21:1
There are other instances in Scripture where God uses language for His purpose. The gospel message was easily spread throughout the Roman Empire because of the widespread use of Greek by the civilized world. Supernaturally, on the Day of Pentecost, the gospel was spoken in over a dozen languages as the Holy Spirit filled apostles spoke in tongues (Acts 2:5-11). In the future, according to Revelation 7:9-17 during the great tribulation, members of every nation, tribe, people, and tongue [will be] standing before the throne and before the Lamb, clothed with white robes. These will be saints who have heard the gospel in their native languages during the last days.
If the Tower of Babel represented man’s attempt to bridge the gap between heaven and earth, then God confounded this plan and set humanity back on His course to bring about the coming of the Redeemer promised to Eve: Jesus. Therefore God also has highly exalted Him and given Him the name which is above every name, 10 that at the name of Jesus every knee should bow, of those in heaven, and of those on earth, and of those under the earth, 11 and that every tongue should confess that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father. Philippians 2:9–11
God’s plan involved establishing a chosen people who He could use to show the rest of the world His plan of redemption. That brings us to the genealogy of Shem.
Genesis 11:10-26 This is the genealogy of Shem: Shem was one hundred years old, and begot Arphaxad two years after the flood. 11 After he begot Arphaxad, Shem lived five hundred years, and begot sons and daughters.12 Arphaxad lived thirty-five years, and begot Salah. 13 After he begot Salah, Arphaxad lived four hundred and three years, and begot sons and daughters.14 Salah lived thirty years, and begot Eber. 15 After he begot Eber, Salah lived four hundred and three years, and begot sons and daughters.16 Eber lived thirty-four years, and begot Peleg. 17 After he begot Peleg, Eber lived four hundred and thirty years, and begot sons and daughters.18 Peleg lived thirty years, and begot Reu. 19 After he begot Reu, Peleg lived two hundred and nine years, and begot sons and daughters.20 Reu lived thirty-two years, and begot Serug. 21 After he begot Serug, Reu lived two hundred and seven years, and begot sons and daughters.22 Serug lived thirty years, and begot Nahor. 23 After he begot Nahor, Serug lived two hundred years, and begot sons and daughters.24 Nahor lived twenty-nine years, and begot Terah. 25 After he begot Terah, Nahor lived one hundred and nineteen years, and begot sons and daughters.26 Now Terah lived seventy years, and begot Abram, Nahor, and Haran.
The genealogy of Shem lists the patriarchs from Shem to Abram. Taken in sequence literally (i.e., no gaps in the genealogy) it represents a space of about 352 years between the Flood and the birth of Abram. This means that Abram was born pretty close to the time Noah died, and grew up during the last 150 years of Shem’s life. It is very likely that Abram received first-hand testimony (from Shem) of the time before the Flood. These could have been written records or oral testimonies.
Genesis 11:27-30 This is the genealogy of Terah: Terah begot Abram, Nahor, and Haran. Haran begot Lot. 28 And Haran died before his father Terah in his native land, in Ur of the Chaldeans. 29 Then Abram and Nahor took wives: the name of Abram’s wife was Sarai, and the name of Nahor’s wife, Milcah, the daughter of Haran the father of Milcah and the father of Iscah. 30 But Sarai was barren; she had no child.
It is usually taught that Sarai was Abram’s half-sister (based on Genesis 20:12). They shared the same father (Terah), but different mothers. The Jewish Talmud actually identifies Sarai as being the daughter of Iscah who would have been a sister of Lot, and thus Abram’s niece. Either way, it was not unusual for close relatives to marry at that time, and it was not forbidden. God forbid the marrying of close relatives later, in the Law of Moses. But in this text, Nahor married his niece Milcah, and Abram married his half-sister (or niece) Sarai. The result, genealogically, is that both the paternal and maternal lineage of the patriarchs (Isaac and Jacob) passes through the line of Shem and his descendents through Terah. This is shown later in Genesis, where both Isaac and Jacob take wives from the family of Nahor and his wife Milcah.
Genesis 11:31-32 And Terah took his son Abram and his grandson Lot, the son of Haran, and his daughter-in-law Sarai, his son Abram’s wife, and they went out with them from Ur of the Chaldeans to go to the land of Canaan; and they came to Haran and dwelt there. 32 So the days of Terah were two hundred and five years, and Terah died in Haran.
The city of Haran was located in the upper region of the Fertile Crescent and is generally associated with the Assyrian city of Harran located in present-day southern Turkey. Ur is thought by some scholars to have been located in southern region of Mesopotamia, and if so, at the time of Abram, it was probably a coastal city near the mouth of the Euphrates River. The city of Haran probably represented the halfway point between Ur and Canaan. This assumes that travelers would have journeyed along the arc of the Fertile Crescent rather than a more dangerous straight path through the deserts of present-day Jordan. As we will see in the next chapter, it was God who had called Abram to leave Ur and travel to Canaan, and the migration of the entire family to Haran where they settled until Terah’s death ended up being a digression from God’s plan for Abram.