Genesis 11:4
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.
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(4) A tower, whose top may reach unto heaven.—The Hebrew is far less hyperbolical: namely, whose head (or top) is in the heavens, or skies, like the walls of the Canaanite cities (Deuteronomy 1:28). The object of the builders was twofold: first, they wished to have some central beacon which might guide them in their return from their wanderings; and secondly, they had a distinctly ambitious object, for by remaining as one nation they would be able to reduce to obedience all the tribes now perpetually wandering away from them, and so would “make them a name.” We may, indeed, dismiss the silly stories of Josephus about their defiance of God and Nimrod’s impiety, and the purpose of escaping a second deluge, for all which there is not the least vestige of authority in the sacred record; but we undoubtedly find a political purpose of preventing that dispersion of mankind which God had commanded (Genesis 1:28), and of using the consequent aggregation of population for the attaining to empire. There was probably some one able and ambitious mind at the bottom of this purpose, and doubtless it had very many advantages: for it is what is now called centralisation, by which the individual sacrifices his rights to the nation, the provinces to the capital, and small nations are bound together in one empire, that the force of the whole body may be brought to bear more rapidly and effectually in carrying out the will of the nation or of the ruler, as the case may be. Nimrod’s efforts at a later date were successful (Genesis 10:10-12); and when we remember the blood-stained course of some of his cities, we may well doubt whether, with all its present advantages, this centralisation really promotes human happiness.

11:1-4 How soon men forget the most tremendous judgments, and go back to their former crimes! Though the desolations of the deluge were before their eyes, though they sprang from the stock of righteous Noah, yet even during his life-time, wickedness increases exceedingly. Nothing but the sanctifying grace of the Holy Spirit can remove the sinful lusts of the human will, and the depravity of the human heart. God's purpose was, that mankind should form many nations, and people all lands. In contempt of the Divine will, and against the counsel of Noah, the bulk of mankind united to build a city and a tower to prevent their separating. Idolatry was begun, and Babel became one of its chief seats. They made one another more daring and resolute. Let us learn to provoke one another to love and to good works, as sinners stir up and encourage one another to wicked works.The purpose of their hearts is now more fully expressed. "Let us build us a city, and a tower whose top may be in the skies." A city is a fortified enclosure or keep for defense against the violence of the brute creation. A tower whose top may be in the skies for escape from the possibility of a periodical deluge. This is the language of pride in man, who wishes to know nothing above himself, and to rise beyond the reach of an over-ruling Providence. "And let us make us a name." A name indicates distinction and pre-eminence. To make us a name, then, is not so much the cry of the multitude as of the few, with Nimrod at their head, who alone could expect what is not common, but distinctive. It is here artfully inserted, however, in the popular exclamation, as the people are prone to imagine the glory even of the despot to be reflected on themselves. This gives the character of a lurking desire for empire and self-aggrandizement to the design of the leaders - a new form of the same selfish spirit which animated the antediluvian men of name Genesis 6:4. But despotism for the few or the one, implies slavery and all its unnumbered ills for the many. "Lest we be scattered abroad upon the face of the whole land." The varied instincts of their common nature here speak forth. The social bond, the tie of kinsmanship, the wish for personal safety, the desire to be independent, perhaps even of God, the thirst for absolute power, all plead for union; but it is union for selfish ends.4. a tower whose top may reach unto heaven—a common figurative expression for great height (De 1:28; 9:1-6).

lest we be scattered—To build a city and a town was no crime; but to do this to defeat the counsels of heaven by attempting to prevent emigration was foolish, wicked, and justly offensive to God.

Whose top may reach unto heaven, i.e. a very high tower; a usual hyperbole, both in Scripture, as Deu 1:28 9:1, and in other authors. This tower and its vast height is noted by Herodotus, Diodorus, and others.

Let us make us a name, i.e. a great name, as the phrase is elsewhere used. Compare also 2 Samuel 7:9, with 1 Chronicles 17:8. See also Isaiah 63:12,14 Da 9:15. They take no care for God’s name, and the defence and propagation of the true religion, as duty bound them, but merely out of pride and vain-glory labour to erect an everlasting monument of their wit, and wealth, and magnificence to all posterity.

Their design was not to secure themselves against a flood, which they well knew brick buildings were no fence against; nor would they then have built this tower in a plain, but upon some high mountain; but rather to prevent a total and irrecoverable dispersion. They sought therefore to bind themselves together in one glorious empire, and to make this glorious city the capital seat of it, and the place of refuge and resort upon any considerable occasion.

And they said, go to, let us build us a city and a tower,.... Some Jewish writers (r) say, these are the words of Nimrod to his people; but it is a question whether he was now born, or if he was, must be too young to be at the head of such a body of people; but they are spoken to one another, or by the principal men among them to the common people, advising and encouraging to such an undertaking. It is generally thought what led them to it was to secure them from another flood, they might be in fear of; but this seems not likely, since they had the covenant and oath of God, that the earth should never be destroyed by water any more; and besides, had this been the thing in view, they would not have chosen a plain to build on, a plain that lay between two of the greatest rivers, Tigris, and Euphrates, but rather one of the highest mountains and hills they could have found: nor could a building of brick be a sufficient defence against such a force of water, as the waters of the flood were; and besides, but few at most could be preserved at the top of the tower, to which, in such a case, they would have betook themselves. The reason of this building is given in a following clause, as will be observed. Some think by "a city and tower" is meant, by the figure "hendyadis", one and the same thing, a city with towers; and, according to Ctesias (s), there were two hundred and fifty towers in Babylon: but no doubt the city and tower were two distinct things; or there was one particular tower proposed to be built besides the city, though it might stand in it, or near it, as an acropolis or citadel to it; as it is not unusual in cities to have such, to betake unto in case of danger:

whose top may reach unto heaven: not that they imagined such a thing could be literally and strictly done, but that it should be raised exceeding high, like the cities in Canaan, said to be walled up to heaven, Deuteronomy 1:28 hyperbolically speaking; and such was the tower of Babel, by all accounts, even of Heathens: the Sibyl in Josephus (t) calls it a most high tower; and so Abydenus (u) reports;"there are (says he) that say, that the first men that rose out of the earth, proud of their strength and largeness (of their bodies), and thinking themselves greater than the gods, erected a tower of a vast height, near to heaven, where Babylon now is.''And the temple of Belus, which some take to be the same with this tower, at least was that perfected, and put to such an use, was, according to Ctesias (w), of an immense height, where the Chaldeans made their observations of the stars: however, the tower that was in the middle of it, and which seems plainly to be the same with this, was exceeding high: the account Herodotus (x) gives of it is,"in the midst of the temple a solid tower is built, of a furlong in length, and of as much in breadth; and upon this tower another tower is placed, and another upon that, and so on to eight towers.'' the word used by Herodotus, translated "length", signifies also "height", and so it is taken here by some; and if so, it looks as if every tower was a furlong high, which makes the whole a mile, which is too extravagant to suppose, though it may denote the height of them all, a furlong, which makes it a very high building. This agrees with Strabo's account of it, who calls it a pyramid, and says it was a furlong high (y): according to Rauwolff (z), the tower of Babel is still in being; this, says he, we saw still (in 1574), and it is half a league in diameter; but it is so mightily ruined, and low, and so full of vermin, that hath bored holes through it, that one may not come near it for half a mile, but only in two months in the winter, when they come not out of their holes. Another traveller (a), that was in those parts at the beginning of the last century, says,"now at this day, that which remaineth is called the remnant of the tower of Babel; there standing as much as is a quarter of a mile in compass, and as high as the stone work of Paul's steeple in London--the bricks are three quarters of a yard in length, and a quarter in thickness, and between every course of bricks there lieth a course of mats, made of canes and palm tree leaves, so fresh as if they had been laid within one year.''Not to take notice of the extravagant account of the eastern writers, who say the tower was 5533 fathoms high (b); and others, beyond all belief, make it 10,000 fathoms, or twelve miles high (c); and they say the builders were forty years in building it: their design in it follows:

and let us make us a name; which some render "a sign" (d), and suppose it to be a signal set upon the top of the tower, which served as a beacon, by the sight of which they might be preserved from straying in the open plains with their flocks, or return again when they had strayed. Others take it to be an idol proposed to be set upon the top of the tower; and the Targums of Jonathan and Jerusalem intimate as if the tower was built for religious worship, paraphrasing the words,"let us build in the midst of it a temple of worship on the top of it, and let us put a sword into his (the idol's) hand.''And it is the conjecture of Dr. Tennison, in his book of idolatry, that this tower was consecrated by the builders of it to the sun, as the cause of drying up the waters of the deluge: but the sense is, that they proposed by erecting such an edifice to spread their fame, and perpetuate their name to the latest posterity, that hereby it might be known, that at such a time, and in such a place, were such a body of people, even all the inhabitants of the world; and all of them the sons of one man, as Ben Gersom observes; so that as long as this tower stood, they would be had in remembrance, it being called after their names; just as the Egyptian kings afterwards built their pyramids, perhaps for a like reason; and in which the end of neither have been answered, it not being known who were by name concerned therein, see Psalm 49:11 though a late learned writer (e) thinks, that by making a name is meant choosing a chief or captain, which was proposed by them; and that the person they pitched upon was Nimrod, in which sense the word he supposes is used, 2 Samuel 23:17 but what has been observed at the beginning of this note may be objected to it; though Berosus (f) says, that Nimrod came with his people into the plain of Sannaar, where be marked out a city, and founded the largest tower, in the year of deliverance from the waters of the flood one hundred and thirty one, and reigned fifty six years; and carried the tower to the height and size of mountains, "for a sign" and "monument", that the people of Babylon were the first in the world, and ought to be called the kingdom of kingdoms; which last clause agrees with the sense given:

lest we be scattered abroad upon the face of the whole earth: which they seemed to have some notion of, and feared would be their case, liking better to be together than to separate, and therefore were careful to avoid a dispersion; it being some way or other signified to them, that it was the will of God they should divide into colonies, and settle in different parts, that so the whole earth might be inhabited; or Noah, or some others, had proposed a division of the earth among them, each to take his part, which they did not care to hearken to; and therefore, to prevent such a separation, proposed the above scheme, and pursued it.

(r) In Pirke Eliezer, c. 24. (s) Apud Diodor. Sicul. Bibliothec, l. 2. p. 96. (t) Antiqu. l. 1. c. 4. sect. 3.((u) Apud Euseb. Evangel. Praepar. l. 9. c. 14. p. 416. (w) Apud Diodor. ut supra, (Sicul. Bibliothec, l. 2.) p. 98. (x) Clio sive, l. 1. c. 181. (y) Geograph. l. 16. p. 508. (z) Travels, ut supra. (pars. 2. ch. 7. p. 138.) (a) Cartwright's Preacher's Travels, p. 99, 100. (b) Elmacinus, p. 14. Patricides, p. 13. apud Hottinger. Smegma, p. 264. (c) Vid. Universal History, vol. 1. p. 331. (d) Perizonius, apud Universal History, ib. p. 325. (e) Dr. Clayton's Chronology of the Hebrew Bible, p. 56. (f) Antiqu. l. 4. p. 28, 29.

And they said, Go to, let us {e} 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.

(e) They were moved with pride and ambition, preferring their own glory to God's honour.

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.

Verse 4. - And they said. Being impelled by their success in making bricks for their dwellings (Lange), though the resolution to be mentioned may have been the cause of their brick-making (Bush). Go to, let us build us a city. Cf. Genesis 4:17, which represents Cain as the first city builder. And a tower. Not as a distinct erection, but as forming a part, as it were the Acre-polls, of the city (Bochart). Whose top may reach unto heaven. Literally, and his head in the heavens, a hyperbolical expression for a tower of great height, as in Deuteronomy 1:28; Deuteronomy 9:1 (cf. Homer, 'Odys,' 5:239, ἐλάτη τ η΅ν οὐρανομήκης). This tower is commonly identified with the temple of Belus, which Herodotus describes (1. 181) as being quadrangular (two stadia each way), and having gates of brass, with a solid tower in the middle, consisting of eight sections, each a stadium in height, placed one above another, ascended by a spiral staircase, and having in the top section a spacious temple with a golden table and a well-furnished bed. Partially destroyed by Xerxes ( B.C. 490), it was attempted unsuccessfully to be rebuilt by Alexander the Great; but the remaining portion of the edifice was known to be in existence five centuries later, and was sufficiently imposing to be recognized as the temple of Belus (Pliny, 6:30). The site of this ancient tower is supposed by George Smith to be covered by the ruin "Babil," a square mound about 200 yards each way, in the north of the city; and that of the tower of Babel to be occupied by the ruin Birs-Nimrod (situated six miles south-west of Hillah, which is about forty miles west of Bagdad), a tower consisting of seven stages, said by inscriptions on cylinders extracted from the ruin to have been "the Temple of the Seven Planets, which had been partially built by a former king of Babylon, and, having fallen into decay, was restored and completed by Nebuchadnezzar" ('Assyrian Discoveries,' 12. p. 59; 'Chaldaean Genesis,' p. 163; cf. Layard's 'Nineveh and Babylon,' chap. 22. p. 496). It is, however, prima facie, unlikely that either Babil or Birs-Nimrod is the exact site of Babel. The original building was never finished, and may not have attained any great dimensions. Perhaps the most that can be said is that these existing mounds enable us to picture what sort of erection the tower of Babel was to be. And let us make a name, שֵׁם; neither an idol temple, ֵשם being = God, which it never is without the article, הַשֵׁם - cf. Leviticus 24:11 (Jewish writers); nor a monument, as in 2 Samuel 8:13 (Clericus); nor a metropolis, reading אֵם instead of שֵׁם, as in 2 Samuel 20:19 (Clericus); nor a tower that might serve as a sign to guide the wandering nomads and guard them against getting lost when spread abroad with their flocks, as in 2 Samuel 8:13; Isaiah 55:13 (Perizonius, Dathe, Ilgen); but a name, a reputation, as in 2 Samuel 8:13; Isaiah 63:12, 14; Jeremiah 32:20; Daniel 9:15 (Luther, Calvin, Rosenmüller, Keil, Lange, Murphy, Wordsworth, Kalisch). This was the first impelling motive to the erection of the city and tower. The offspring of ambition, it was designed to spread abroad their fame usque ad ultimos terrarum fines (Calvin). According to Philo, each man wrote his name upon a brick before he built it in. The second was to establish a rallying point that might serve to maintain their unity. Lest we be scattered abroad. Lest - antequam, πρὸ, before that, as if anticipating that the continuous increase of population would necessitate their dispersion (LXX., Vulgute), or as if determined to distinguish themselves before surrendering to the Divine command to spread themselves abroad (Luther); but the more exact rendering of פֵן is μή, ne, lest, introducing an apodosis expressive of something to be avoided by a preceding action (cf. Gesenius, ' Hebrews Gram.,' § 152, and Furst, 'Lex.,' sub voce. What the builders dreaded was not the recurrence of a flood (Josephus, Lyra), but the execution of the Divine purpose intimated in Genesis 9:1, and perhaps recalled to their remembrance by Noah (Usher), or by Sham (Wordsworth), or by Eber (Candlish); and what the builders aimed at was resistance to the Divine will. Upon the face of the whole earth. Over the entire surface of the globe, and not simply over the land of Shiner (Inglis), or over the immediate region in which they dwelt (Clericus,. Dathe, et alii, ut supra). Genesis 11:4As men multiplied they moved from the land of Ararat "eastward," or more strictly to the south-east, and settled in a plain. בּקעה does not denote a valley between mountain ranges, but a broad plain, πεδίον μέγα, as Herodotus calls the neighbourhood of Babylon. There they resolved to build an immense tower; and for this purpose they made bricks and burned them thoroughly (לשׂרפה "to burning" serves to intensify the verb like the inf. absol.), so that they became stone; whereas in the East ordinary buildings are constructed of bricks of clay, simply dried in the sun. For mortar they used asphalt, in which the neighbourhood of Babylon abounds. From this material, which may still be seen in the ruins of Babylon, they intended to build a city and a tower, whose top should be in heaven, i.e., reach to the sky, to make to themselves a name, that they might not be scattered over the whole earth. שׁם לו עשׂה denotes, here and everywhere else, to establish a name, or reputation, to set up a memorial (Isaiah 63:12, Isaiah 63:14; Jeremiah 32:20, etc.). The real motive therefore was the desire for renown, and the object was to establish a noted central point, which might serve to maintain their unity. The one was just as ungodly as the other. For, according to the divine purpose, men were to fill the earth, i.e., to spread over the whole earth, not indeed to separate, but to maintain their inward unity notwithstanding their dispersion. But the fact that they were afraid of dispersion is a proof that the inward spiritual bond of unity and fellowship, not only "the oneness of their God and their worship," but also the unity of brotherly love, was already broken by sin. Consequently the undertaking, dictated by pride, to preserve and consolidate by outward means the unity which was inwardly lost, could not be successful, but could only bring down the judgment of dispersion.
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