Cambridge Bible for Schools and Colleges
Ch. Genesis 11:1-9. The Story of the Tower of Babel. (J.)
The story of the Tower of Babel, contained in this short passage, preserves the recollection of a strange Israelite piece of folk-lore. No trace of this narrative has with any certainty, up to the present time, been discovered in the cuneiform inscriptions. Nor is this altogether surprising. The story connects the famous capital of Babylonia (Babel = Babylon) with an enterprise which is described as so colossal in its insolent impiety as to necessitate the personal interposition of the Almighty, Jehovah Himself. The success of the enterprise is frustrated by the simple exercise of the Divine Will; and the result is that the human race, which before had possessed one language, became in an instant subdivided into different communities by diversity of speech. The strangeness and the simplicity of the story inevitably seize upon the imagination. That it is devoid of any foundation in history or science hardly requires to be stated. So far as concerns the diversity of languages, science shews no tendency to favour the hypothesis, either of Babylonia having been the point of dispersion for the languages of the world, or, indeed, of the languages of the world having had any single common origin. Even the hopeful attempt in the 19th century to reduce the languages of the world to three great families, or groups of dialects, each characterized by distinctive features of word formation and grammar, has in recent years been abandoned. The recognition of the existence of a far larger number of independent languages than before was supposed possible has shewn that the problem is one of immense complexity. We are led to suspect that the mystery of the origin of distinct languages belongs to the dim obscurity of the infancy of the human race, an infinitely remote and prehistoric age.
With this conclusion the account in the Book of Genesis stands in some measure of agreement. The story of the Tower of Babel is suddenly interposed between the genealogies which lead up to the birth of Abram. Though it supplies a theory which would account for the dispersion of the peoples of the world, it is evident that the Hebrews themselves did not regard the story as satisfying the problem. The tenth chapter of Genesis had already recorded the standard Hebrew tradition. It attributed the peopling of the world and the diversity of languages (Genesis 11:5; Genesis 11:20; Genesis 11:31) to the dispersion of the descendants of the three sons of Noah. This was the working hypothesis, if we may so call it, of Israelite tradition in explaining the origin of the races. The present story by the suddenness of its introduction, the vagueness of its details, and the abruptness with which it breaks off, as well as by its startling anthropomorphic features, reminds us of the parenthesis in Genesis 6:1-4. It reads like a fragment of an independent primitive tradition. It possessed an interest which justified its preservation, even though its details were hardly reconcilable with the narratives in 9 and 10. It preserved a legend which (1) accounted for the diversity of race by the diversity of language; (2) attributed the diversity of language, with its attendant train of evils (misunderstanding, discord, hostility, and war), to the punishment or curse inflicted upon an impious race by a Divine decree; (3) associated with Babylon, the most ancient centre of civilization and town-life, the insolent impiety of a generation that sought to scale Heaven; (4) recorded the impression produced on the minds of the early Hebrews by the sight of the towers, Ziggurats, or temples which rose in many towns of Assyria and Babylonia to an immense height, and of which the meaning was unknown to nomad tribesmen or to wayfaring foreigners.
And the whole earth was of one language, and of one speech.1. the whole earth] i.e. the inhabitants of the whole earth, as in Genesis 10:25.
one language … one speech] An expressive phrase, denoting that the generations of primitive man, being of one stock, continued to speak one common language. The Jewish tradition, which was followed by Christian tradition, as represented by Patristic, mediaeval, and many modern writers, assumed that Hebrew was the primitive language. This, however, was an assumption resting on no more satisfactory foundation than (1) the proper names of the early Genesis narratives, and (2) the supposition that the language of the Chosen People was sacred and therefore aboriginal. The whole theory has been disproved by the scientific comparative study of languages, and of Hebrew and the cognate Semitic languages in particular.
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.2. as they journeyed] We are not told who are here spoken of, nor whence they come. This is an indication that this passage (1–9) is derived from an independent tradition distinct from the thread of the foregoing narrative. Like Genesis 4:17-24, and Genesis 6:1-4, it is probably a fragment of tradition which had no knowledge of the story of the Flood, or of the dispersion of the peoples through the sons of Noah.
journeyed] A word denoting the progress of nomads from one place of encampment to another.
east] Better, as marg., in the east. The Hebrew word means literally “from the east,” as also LXX ἀπὸ ἀνατολῶν, and Lat. de oriente, and here probably signifies “in the east,” i.e. on the east side from the writer’s point of view. Some translate “eastward,” as in Genesis 13:11, where Lot, on leaving Abram, is described as journeying “eastward.” But, as we do not know who are referred to, or where they started from, the uncertainty as to the rendering remains.
a plain in the land of Shinar] For Shinar, probably denoting the ancient Babylonia, “Sumer and Akkad,” see Genesis 10:10. The word “plain” (biḳ‘ah) means the wide open expanse of a river valley. Here it is used of the Euphrates Valley. The expression, “found a plain in the land of Shinar,” does not suggest close knowledge of Babylonia; but rather the general terms of popular and defective information respecting a distant country. Babylonia is one vast plain.
And they said one to another, Go to, let us make brick, and burn them throughly. And they had brick for stone, and slime had they for morter.3. brick for stone, &c.] For a description of building with bricks held together with bitumen in Babylonia, see Herodotus, i. 179. The writer here is evidently more familiar with building in stone and mortar than in brick and bitumen: another indication that the story is Israelite in origin.
slime] That is, bitumen, LXX ἄσφαλτος, Lat. bitumen. The Hebrew word ḥêmar is found here and in Genesis 14:10, Exodus 2:3. The word for bitumen or pitch used in Genesis 6:14 (kopher) resembles the Assyrian; and the fact that it is not used here tells for the Israelite character of the story.
And they said, Go to, 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.4. a city, and a tower] The story seems to suggest that in the abandonment of tent for city life these primitive people were disobeying the Divine command.
whose top may reach unto heaven] Lit. “its top in heaven.”
Probably the words are intended quite literally to suggest the endeavour to “reach unto” Heaven, which was regarded as a solid vault. As the highest stage in an Assyrian or Babylonian pyramid, Ziggurat, was surmounted by a shrine of the deity, there is perhaps more meaning and less fancifulness in these words than has often been suspected.
It is natural to compare the later Greek legend of the giants who sought to scale Olympus and to dethrone Zeus. But there is no indication of warlike defiance.
The famous tower at Borsippa, on the left bank of the Euphrates, whose ruins now go by the name of Birs Nimrud, was a temple dedicated to Bel-Nebo, and rose in seven tiers or stages, representing the seven planets. This building, having fallen into ruins, was restored by Nebuchadnezzar. A similar building, E-sagil, dedicated to Bel Merodach, the patron god of the city, must have been one of the most enormous structures of ancient Babylon. The fame of temple towers or pyramids, Ziggurats, of this description was doubtless widely current throughout Western Asia, and may have given rise to strange legends concerning their erection in primitive times.
let us make us a name] i.e. make ourselves renowned. Cf. Isaiah 63:12, “to make himself an everlasting name”; 2 Samuel 7:23, “to make him a name.” For the Heb. shêm = “name” in the sense of “renown,” cf. Genesis 6:4, “the men of renown”; Isaiah 55:13, “it shall be to the Lord for a name.” Some scholars prefer to render shêm by “monument,” or “memorial,” as possibly in 2 Samuel 8:13. Old Jewish commentators thought it might refer to Shem, or even to the sacred Name of the Almighty!
lest we be scattered abroad] The tower was to be visible to the whole world, and make its builders famous for ever. The tower and the city would be a conspicuous place for purposes of concentration and defence. It was apparently (see Genesis 11:6) the Lord’s will that the people should scatter over the world. The people resolved upon a project which would frustrate the Divine purpose, gratify their own ambition, and protect them as far as possible against punishment. Distance and isolation meant danger.
And the LORD came down to see the city and the tower, which the children of men builded.5. And the lord came down to see] Not a figurative, poetical expression, as in Isaiah 64:1, but a strong and naïve anthropomorphism. The early religious traditions of Israel represent the Almighty in terms which to our minds appear almost profane, but which in the infancy of religious thought presented ideas of the Deity in the simplest and most vivid manner. Here, as in Genesis 18:21, God is described as descending to the earth, in order to see what was not wholly visible to Him in the heavens.
And the LORD said, Behold, the people is one, and they have all one language; and this they begin to do: and now nothing will be restrained from them, which they have imagined to do.6. And the Lord said] The account, in this and the following verse, is evidently condensed. In Genesis 11:5 Jehovah is represented as coming down on earth, in order to see more closely, and on the spot to form a better judgement. This He has done; He has returned to heaven, and now, in Genesis 11:6, announces what He has seen. In Genesis 11:7 He proposes to descend a second time and inflict punishment.
one people … one language] This is evidently contrary to the intention of the Deity who desires the whole earth to be populated.
nothing will be withholden from them] i.e. they will be baulked in no enterprise. If they mount up to heaven, their arrogance will make them endeavour to rival God Himself. It is the same kind of apprehension as in Genesis 3:22.
Go to, let us go down, and there confound their language, that they may not understand one another's speech.7. Go to, let us go down] For 1st pers. plur. see notes on Genesis 1:26, Genesis 3:5; Genesis 3:22. Jehovah is represented probably as enthroned above the heaven, and either as addressing the powers of heaven, “the sons of Elohim,” who attend Him and minister to Him (cf. Job 1:6), or as announcing His purpose in the deliberative 1st pers. plur.
So the LORD scattered them abroad from thence upon the face of all the earth: and they left off to build the city.8. scattered them abroad] The general result is stated; the means by which the sentence was carried out are not related. Josephus records a tradition that the Tower was overthrown by a mighty wind.
Therefore is the name of it called Babel; because the LORD did there confound the language of all the earth: and from thence did the LORD scatter them abroad upon the face of all the earth.9. Therefore was the name of it called Babel] Babel is the regular Hebrew form of the name Babylon, see Genesis 10:10. The etymology here given is popular; cf. Genesis 16:14, Genesis 19:22 (J). Like most popular etymologies, it rests on a resemblance of sound, and has no claim to scientific accuracy. “Babel” is not a Hebrew name from balal = “to confound”; but very probably an Assyrian name meaning the “Gate of God,” Bab-ilu.
confound] Heb. balal = “to confound,” the same word as in Genesis 11:7. To the Hebrew the sound of the name Babel suggested “confusion.” “Babel” is regarded as a contraction from a form Balbêl (which does not exist in Hebrew, but occurs in Aramaic) = “Confusion”: so LXX Σύγχυσις. This derivation, so derogatory to the great Babylonian capital, could hardly have been drawn from any Babylonian source. The story (if, as in Genesis 11:2-4, it shews acquaintance with Babylonia) has clearly come down to us through a channel which regarded Babylon as a foreigner and a foe.
These are the generations of Shem: Shem was an hundred years old, and begat Arphaxad two years after the flood:10–26. The Genealogy of the Patriarchs from Shem to Abram. (P.)
This genealogical table is taken from P. It resembles the table in chap. 5 (1) in the manner of the enumeration of years, (a) at the birth of the firstborn, (b) at the patriarch’s death: (2) in the general length of the list, nine (or, including Cainan, ten) generations: (3) in the last name, Terah, being represented, like Noah, as the father of three sons.
The gradual diminution in the duration of life from Shem (600 years) and Arpachshad (438 years) to Nahor (148 years) should be noticed. See Special Note on the Longevity of the Patriarchs, Genesis 14:17-24.
The period from the Flood to the birth of Abram covers 290 years. In LXX the period is given as 1070, in the Samaritan text as 940. See Note on the Genealogy of Shem, see below.
The names Arpachshad, Shelah, Eber, and Peleg coincide with those in Genesis 10:22; Genesis 10:24-25 (J).
NOTE ON THE GENEALOGY OF SHEM
Name Massoretic Text Samaritan Text Septuagint Text Book of jubilees
Total 1st Son After Total 1st Son After Total 1st Son
1. Shem 100 500 600 100 500 600 100 500 600 102?
2. Arpachshad 35 403 438 135 303 438 135 430 565 66?
[Cainan] 130 330 460 57
3. Shelah 30 403 433 130 303 433 130 330 460 71
4. Eber 34 430 464 134 270 404 134 370 504 64
5. Peleg 30 209 239 130 109 239 130 209 339 61
6. Reu 32 207 239 132 107 239 132 207 339 59
7. Serug 30 200 230 130 100 230 130 200 330 57
8. Nahor 29 119 148 79 69 148 79 129 208 62
9. Terah 70 135 205 70 75 145 70 135 205 70
390 1040 1170 669
From Flood to Birth of Abram 290 940 1070 567
10. These are the generations] The heading of a new section in P: see Genesis 2:4 a.
Arpachshad] See note on Genesis 10:22, where Arpachshad is the third son of Shem. Possibly Babylonia, or a locality in it, was regarded as the primitive home of Abram’s ancestors.
after the flood] Shem (see Genesis 5:32 and Genesis 7:6) was a hundred years old when the Flood began.
And Shem lived after he begat Arphaxad five hundred years, and begat sons and daughters.11. five hundred years] According to this chronology Shem would have outlived Abram.
And Arphaxad lived five and thirty years, and begat Salah:12. Shelah] LXX inserts “Cainan” before “Shelah”; and states that “Cainan lived 130 years, and begat Shelah, and lived after he begat Shelah 330 years.”
The additional name of Cainan equalizes the list of names with that in chap. 5. But it is also omitted in the parallel list of 1 Chronicles 1:24. And it is suspicious that the figures are the same as those of Shelah (in the LXX).
And Arphaxad lived after he begat Salah four hundred and three years, and begat sons and daughters.
And Salah lived thirty years, and begat Eber:14. Eber] See note on Genesis 10:24. Here, as in that passage, the context suggests that a name meaning “the other side” or “across,” is most naturally applicable to a country on the east side of the river Euphrates.
And Salah lived after he begat Eber four hundred and three years, and begat sons and daughters.
And Eber lived four and thirty years, and begat Peleg:16. Peleg] See note on Genesis 10:25.
The geographer Kiepert compares a place Φαλιγά at the junction of the tributary Ḥabor with the river Euphrates.
And Eber lived after he begat Peleg four hundred and thirty years, and begat sons and daughters.
And Peleg lived thirty years, and begat Reu:
And Peleg lived after he begat Reu two hundred and nine years, and begat sons and daughters.19. Reu] Whether this is the name of a place or a tribe seems quite uncertain. Observe the sudden decline in the length of Peleg’s life, and in that of his descendants, as compared with his predecessors. In the approach to historic times the figures become more normal.
And Reu lived two and thirty years, and begat Serug:20. Serug] The name of a town and region near Haran in Mesopotamia in the land of the upper Euphrates.
And Reu lived after he begat Serug two hundred and seven years, and begat sons and daughters.
And Serug lived thirty years, and begat Nahor:22. Nahor] The name here of Abram’s grandfather, as also, in Genesis 11:26, of Abram’s brother (cf. Genesis 22:20, Joshua 24:2). Very similar personal names are found in early Assyrian business documents.
And Serug lived after he begat Nahor two hundred years, and begat sons and daughters.
And Nahor lived nine and twenty years, and begat Terah:24. Terah] The father of Abram. The name has not yet been clearly identified with any locality, or tribe.
And Nahor lived after he begat Terah an hundred and nineteen years, and begat sons and daughters.
And Terah lived seventy years, and begat Abram, Nahor, and Haran.26. seventy years] The birth of Terah’s firstborn is postponed for a period twice as long as in the case of the other patriarchs since Shem. Shem was 100 years old when he begat Arpachshad (Genesis 11:10). This greater duration of time is connected with the features of faith and discipline attaching to the careers of the greater personages in the Israelite ancestry.
Abram] According to the Hebrew tradition, the name means “the father (ab) is exalted (ram).” It might also mean “Ram (= Ramman) is father.” Compare, in the one case, Jehoram (= Jah is exalted); in the other, Abijah (= Jah is father). See note on Genesis 17:5.
Nahor] See on Genesis 11:22.
Haran] This name has by some scholars been derived from the Heb. har = “a mountain,” and explained as meaning “Highlanders.” “Beth-haran” is the name of a town built by the “children of Gad” (Numbers 32:36) and mentioned along with “Beth-Nimrah.” Possibly, therefore, Haran was also the name of a local deity.
Now these are the generations of Terah: Terah begat Abram, Nahor, and Haran; and Haran begat Lot.27–32. The Sons of Terah. (J and P.)
27. Now these are, &c.] The story of Abram commences here with the heading of a section from P. Cf. Genesis 25:19, “And these are the generations of Isaac.”
Haran begat Lot] Lot the nephew of Abram, and the traditional ancestor of the peoples east of the Dead Sea. It is natural to suppose that the name has some affinity with that of “Lotan,” a Horite family or tribe (Genesis 36:20; Genesis 36:29).
And Haran died before his father Terah in the land of his nativity, in Ur of the Chaldees.28. This and the following verse are taken from J, and commence the personal history of the patriarch.
Haran died] This may indicate a tradition that the hill people, or families who joined the main body of the Terahites, lost their separate existence and became completely merged in the house of Terah.
The grave of Haran was shewn in the days of Josephus (Ant. i. 151).
in the presence of his father] i.e. while his father Terah was still alive.
in the land of his nativity] To these words is appended the explanation, “in Ur of the Chaldees,” very possibly added as a gloss by a later hand, as in Genesis 15:7. Abram in Genesis 24:4; Genesis 24:7; Genesis 24:10 refers to Haran, or Aram naharaim, as the land of his nativity; and that region is generally treated as the home of the ancestors of the Israelites. It is clear, however, that, beside the tradition which ascribed the origin of Israel to Mesopotamia, there was also another which derived them ultimately from S. Babylonia. See Genesis 11:31.
And Abram and Nahor took them 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.29. Sarai] Abram’s wife was, according to Genesis 20:12, his half-sister, i.e. a daughter of Terah by another wife. Milcah, Nahor’s wife, is Nahor’s niece. Whether in these marriages we have to deal with the actual details of relationship permitted in nomadic life, or whether we have presented to us, under the imagery of matrimony, the fusion of families or tribes in the main community, is a question which we are not able through lack of evidence to answer. The blending of personal and tribal history produces a result, in which it is impossible to be sure of disentangling the separate elements.
“Sarai” is believed to be an archaic form of “Sarah” = “princess”: cf. Genesis 17:15.
The fact that Sarratu (= “princess”) was a title of the moon-goddess, consort of Sin, and Malkatu (= “queen”), a title of Istar, among the deities worshipped in Harran, raises questions with regard to the origin of the Hebrew proper names, Sarah and Milcah.
For Milcah cf. Genesis 22:20; Genesis 22:23; Genesis 24:15; Genesis 24:24; Genesis 24:47. “Iscah,” otherwise unknown: by some identified with Sarai; by others as Lot’s wife.
But Sarai was barren; she had no child.
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.31, 32. The Migration of Terah to Haran, and his Death. (P.)
31. they went forth with them] The words, as they stand, are meaningless. The Syriac reads “and he went forth with them.” Better as LXX, Sam. and Lat. “and he brought them forth,” which only requires the omission of one letter. Another conjectural emendation is “and they went forth with him.”
No reason for the migration is here assigned. Later tradition attributed it to religious causes. Cf. Jdt 5:6-9, “This people are descended of the Chaldeans. And they departed from the way of their parents, and worshipped the God of heaven, the God whom they knew: and they cast them out from the face of their gods, and they fled into Mesopotamia, and sojourned there many days. And their God commanded them to depart from the place where they sojourned.”
Ur of the Chaldees] Heb. Ur Kasdim. “Ur” is the Uru of the inscriptions denoting a town and region. The town is generally believed to have been discovered in the mounds of the modern El-Muḳayyar in S. Babylonia, on the right bank of the Euphrates, more than 100 miles S. E. of Babylon. It was the principal seat of the worship of the moon-god, Sin, in S. Babylonia. Its position enhanced its importance in early times. It stood on the main route between Arabia and Syria; and the river Euphrates in those days must have flowed close to its walls. “Kasdim” = “of the Chaldees,” has been added (evidently for purposes of distinction from other similar names), here and in Genesis 11:28, Genesis 15:7; Nehemiah 9:7; Jdt 5:6. The Chaldeans, who dwelt in the south of Babylonia, became predominant in the 7th century b.c.; but their name does not appear in the inscriptions until long after the time of Abram.
’Or being the Hebrew word for “light,” the rendering “in the fire of the Chaldees” (Jerome, Quaest., ad loc., in igne Chaldaeorum) gave rise to fantastic legends, which related how Haran perished in, and how Abram was ordered by Nimrod to be cast into, the furnace.
Haran] LXX Χαῤῥάν, Gr. Κάῤῥαι, Lat. Carrhae, where Crassus fell in battle with the Parthians. The name of a town distant 550 miles N., or N.W. from Ur; and one of the principal towns in Mesopotamia, situate on the left bank of the river Belikh, 70 miles N. from its confluence with the Euphrates on its eastern bank. The name is spelt differently from the Haran of Genesis 11:26-27. It would be better to pronounce it “Ḥarran,” like the Assyrian Ḥarranu, meaning “a road.” The name implies its strategical importance as the converging point of the commercial routes from Babylon in the south, Nineveh in the east, and Damascus in the west.
Ḥarran, like Ur, was a centre of the worship of the moon-god, Sin. The two traditions, which derive Abram from Ur and from Haran, unite in connecting his home with a shrine of the moon-god, the one in Babylonia, the other in Mesopotamia.
The journey to Canaan from Ur would describe, by the ordinary caravan route, a great curve passing through Babylon N.W. to Ḥarran; thence 60 miles westward to Carchemish on the Euphrates; from Carchemish S.W. to Damascus, and from Damascus south into the land of Canaan. This curve is necessitated by the great desert which separates the river system of the Tigris and Euphrates from the hill country to the east of the Dead Sea and the Jordan.
And the days of Terah were two hundred and five years: and Terah died in Haran.32. two hundred and five years] For this figure the Samaritan version gives 145, obviously in order to make the year of Abram’s departure from Haran (when Abram was 75 years old; see Genesis 12:4) coincide with the year of Terah’s death, since Abram was born (Genesis 11:26) in Terah’s 70th year. It is this tradition which is followed by Stephen, Acts 7:4.
In this Table it is possible to follow the different chronologies of the Massoretic, Samaritan, and Septuagint Text (L = Lucian).
(a) The Samaritan Text (except in the case of Shem, Nahor, and Terah) adds 100 years to the ages at the birth of the firstborn: in the case of Nahor, it adds 50.
The Septuagint Text does the same.
(b) The Samaritan Text (except in the case of Shem, Eber, Nahor, and Terah) deducts 100 years from the ages subsequent to the birth of the firstborn; in the case of Eber it deducts 160 years; in the case of Nahor it deducts 50 years; in the case of Terah it deducts 60 years.
The Septuagint Text adds in the case of Arpachshad 27 years; and of Nahor 10 years; and deducts in the case of Shelah 73 years, and of Eber 60 years.
(c) In chap. 11 only nine generations are recorded, as against ten in chap. 5. The Septuagint, by inserting Cainan, secures the number ten.
(d) It will be noticed that the ages of the Shemite Patriarchs become greatly diminished in duration after Eber.
(e) The difficulty, occasioned by Genesis 11:32 (Terah’s death in Haran at the age of 205), and by Genesis 12:4 (Abram’s departure from Haran at the age of 75, when Terah was 145 years old (cf. Genesis 11:26)), is obviated in the Samaritan Text, according to which Terah died at the age of 145, the year of Abram’s departure.