Genesis 11:5
And the LORD came down to see the city and the tower, which the children of men built.
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EXPOSITORY (ENGLISH BIBLE)
(5-7) The Lord came down.—The narrative is given in that simple anthropological manner usual in the Book of Genesis, which so clearly sets before us God’s loving care of man, and here and in Genesis 18:21 the equity of Divine justice. For Jehovah is described as a mighty king, who, hearing in His upper and heavenly dwelling of man’s ambitious purpose, determines to go and inspect the work in person, that having seen, he may deal with the offenders justly. He views, therefore, “the city and the tower;” for the city was as important a portion of their purpose as the tower, or even more so. The tower, which, no doubt, was to be the citadel and protection of the city, was for the latter’s sake to give the people a sense of strength and security. Having, then, inspected the tower and the city nestling round it, the Deity affirms that this centralisation is injurious to man’s best interests, and must be counteracted by an opposite principle, namely, the tendency of mankind to make constant changes in language, and thereby to break up into different communities, kept permanently apart by the use of different tongues. At present “it is one people, and there is one lip to all of them, and this is what they begin to do,” &c. Already there are thoughts among them of universal empire, and if thus the spread of mankind be hindered, and its division into numerous nations, each contributing its share to the progress and welfare of the world, be stopped, man will remain a poor debased creature, and will fail utterly in accomplishing the purpose for which he was placed upon earth. “Go to,” therefore, He says, in irony of their twice repeated phrase, “we will go down, and make their speech unintelligible to one another.” Now, though there is no assertion of a miracle here, yet we may well believe that there was an extraordinary quickening of a natural law which existed from the first. This, however, is but a secondary question, and the main fact is the statement that the Divine means for counteracting man’s ambitious and ever-recurring dream of universal sovereignty is the law of diversity of speech. In ancient times there was little to counteract this tendency, and each city and petty district had its own dialect, and looked with animosity upon its neighbours who differed from it in pronunciation, if not in vocabulary. In the present day there are counteracting influences; and great communities, by the use of the same Bible and the possession of the same classical literature, may long continue to speak the same language. In days also when communication is so easy, not only do men travel much, but newspapers and serials published at the centre are dispersed to the most distant portions of the world. In old time it was not so, and probably Isaiah would not have been easily understood thirty miles from Jerusalem, nor Demosthenes a few leagues; from Athens. Without books or literature, a little-band of families wandering about with their cattle, with no communication with other tribes, would quickly modify both the grammar and the pronunciation of their language; and when, after a year or two, they revisited the tower, they would feel like foreigners in the new city, and quickly depart with the determination never to return. And to this day diversity of language is a powerful factor in keeping nations apart, or in preventing portions of the same kingdom from agreeing heartily together. And thus at Babel the first attempt to bind the human family into one whole came to an ignominious end.

Genesis 11:5. And the Lord came down to see the city — This is an expression after the manner of men; he knew it as clearly as men know that which they come upon the place to view.

Genesis 11:6-9. And the Lord said, Behold, the people is one, &c. — And if they continue one, much of the earth will be left uninhabited. Let us confound their language — This was not spoken to the angels, as if God needed either their advice or their assistance; but God speaks it to himself, or the Father to the Son. That they may not understand one another’s speech — Nor could they well continue to be united in any undertaking when their tongues were divided; so that this was a proper means, both to take them off from their building, and to dispose them to separate; for if they could not understand one another, they could neither help nor enjoy one another. Accordingly, 1st, Their language was confounded. God, who, when he made man, taught him to speak, now made those builders to forget their former language; and to speak a new one, which yet was the same to those of the same tribe or family, but not to others. We all suffer hereby to this day, in all the inconveniences we sustain by the diversity of languages, and all the trouble we are at to learn the languages we have occasion for; nay, and those unhappy controversies, which are strifes of words, and arise from our misunderstanding of one another’s language, are partly owing to this confusion of tongues. The project of some to frame a universal character, in order to a universal language, how desirable soever it may seem, yet is but a vain thing; for it is to strive against a divine sentence, by which the languages of the nations will be divided while the world stands. As the confounding of tongues divided the children of men, and scattered them abroad, so the gift of tongues bestowed upon the apostles, Acts 2., contributed greatly to the gathering together of the children of God which were scattered abroad, and the uniting of them in Christ, that with one mind and mouth they might glorify God, Romans 15:6. 2d, Their building was stopped. The confusion of their tongues not only disabled them from helping one another, but probably struck a damp upon their spirits, since they saw the hand of the Lord was gone out against them. 3d, The builders were scattered abroad from thence upon the face of the whole earth — They departed in companies, after their families and after their tongues, (Genesis 10:5; Genesis 10:20; Genesis 10:31,) to the several countries and places allotted to them in the division that had been made, which, it seems, they knew before, but would not go to take possession of, till now they were forced to it. So that the very thing which they feared came upon them; that dispersion which they thought to avoid. And they left behind them a perpetual memorandum of their reproach in the name given to the place; it was called Babel, confusion. The children of men were now finally scattered, and never will come all together again till the great day when the Son of man shall sit upon the throne of his glory, and all nations shall be gathered before him, Matthew 25:31-32. Reader, how wilt thou then appear?11:5-9 Here is an expression after the manner of men; The Lord came down to see the city. God is just and fair in all he does against sin and sinners, and condemns none unheard. Pious Eber is not found among this ungodly crew; for he and his are called the children of God; their souls joined not themselves to the assembly of these children of men. God suffered them to go on some way, that the works of their hands, from which they promised themselves lasting honour, might turn to their lasting reproach. God has wise and holy ends, in allowing the enemies of his glory to carry on their wicked projects a great way, and to prosper long. Observe the wisdom and mercy of God, in the methods taken for defeating this undertaking. And the mercy of God in not making the penalty equal to the offence; for he deals not with us according to our sins. The wisdom of God, in fixing upon a sure way to stop these proceedings. If they could not understand one another, they could not help one another; this would take them off from their building. God has various means, and effectual ones, to baffle and defeat the projects of proud men that set themselves against him, and particularly he divides them among themselves. Notwithstanding their union and obstinacy God was above them; for who ever hardened his heart against him, and prospered? Their language was confounded. We all suffer by it to this day: in all the pains and trouble used to learn the languages we have occasion for, we suffer for the rebellion of our ancestors at Babel. Nay, and those unhappy disputes, which are strifes of words, and arise from misunderstanding one another's words, for aught we know, are owing to this confusion of tongues. They left off to build the city. The confusion of their tongues not only unfitted them for helping one another, but they saw the hand of the Lord gone out against them. It is wisdom to leave off that which we see God fights against. God is able to blast and bring to nought all the devices and designs of Babel-builders: there is no wisdom nor counsel against the Lord. The builders departed according to their families, and the tongue they spake, to the countries and places allotted to them. The children of men never did, nor ever will, come all together again, till the great day, when the Son of man shall sit upon the throne of his glory, and all nations shall be gathered before him.These verses describe the nature of that change by which this form of human selfishness is to be checked. "The Lord came down." The interposing providence of God is here set forth in a sublime simplicity, suited to the early mind of man. Still there is something here characteristic of the times after the deluge. The presence of the Lord seems not to have been withdrawn from the earth before that event. He walked in the garden when Adam and Eve were there. He placed the ministers and symbols of his presence before it when they were expelled. He expostulated with Cain before and after his awful crime. He said, "My Spirit shall not always strive with man." He saw the wickedness of man; and the land was corrupt before him. He communicated with Noah in various ways, and finally established his covenant with him. In all this he seems to have been present with man on earth. He lingered in the garden as long as his forbearance could be expected to influence man for good. He at length appointed the limit of a hundred and twenty years. And after watching over Noah during the deluge, he seems to have withdrawn his visible and gracious presence from the earth. Hence, the propriety of the phrase, "the Lord came down." He still deals in mercy with a remnant of the human race, and has visited the earth and manifested His presence in a wondrous way. But He has not yet taken up His abode among people as He did in the garden, and as He intimates that He will sometime do on the renovated earth.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.

Not by local descent, for he is every where; but by the manifestation of his presence and the effects of his power in that place.

To see the city and the tower, i.e. to know the truth of the fact, thereby setting a pattern for judges to examine causes before they pass sentence; otherwise God saw this in heaven; but in these expressions he condescends to the capacity of men.

The children of men, so called emphatically,

1. For distinction of them from the sons of God, or the race of Shem, who were not guilty of the sin, and therefore did not partake in the curse, the confusion of their language, but retained their ancient tongue uncorrupted for a good while.

2. To note their rashness and folly, who being but weak and silly men, durst oppose themselves to the infinitely wise and powerful God, who did (as they might easily gather both from his words and works) intend to disperse and separate them, that so by degrees they might possess the whole earth, which God had made for that purpose. And the Lord came down to see the city and the tower,.... Not locally or visibly, being immense, omnipresent, and invisible; nor in order to see and take notice of what he otherwise could not see from heaven, for he is omniscient; but this is spoken after the manner of men, and is to be understood of some effects and displays of his power, which were manifest, and showed him to be present: the Targum is,"and the Lord was revealed to take vengeance on them on account of the business of the city and tower the children of men built.''This shows the patience and longsuffering of God, that he did not immediately proceed against them, and his wisdom and justice in taking cognizance of the affair, and inquiring into it; examining the truth and reality of things before he passed judgment and took measures to hinder them in the execution of their design; all which must be understood agreeably to the divine Majesty, and as accommodated to the capacities of men, and as an instruction to them in judging matters they have a concern in:

which the children of men builded; or were building, for they had not finished their building, at least not the city, as appears from Genesis 11:8. These were either the whole body of the people, under the general appellation of "the children of men": or else a part of them, distinguished by this character from the "sons of God", who were truly religious; by which it seems that Noah, Shem, Arphaxad, Salah, and others, were not concerned in this affair, who though they might come with the rest unto Shinar, yet when they understood their design, refused to join with them in it; so that it was only the carnal and irreligious part of them, who very probably were by far the majority, and therefore there was no overruling their debates, and stopping them in their works, that were the builders; and these might be the posterity of Ham in general, with others of Shem and Japheth mixed with them. Josephus (g) makes Nimrod to be the head of them, which is not likely, as before observed.

(g) Antiqu. l. 1. c. 4. sect. 2, 3.

And the LORD {f} came down to see the city and the tower, which the children of men builded.

(f) Meaning, that he declared by effect, that he knew their wicked enterprise; for God's power is everywhere, and neither ascends nor descends.

EXEGETICAL (ORIGINAL LANGUAGES)
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.Verse 5. - And the Lord came down. Not in visible form, as in Exodus 19:20; Exodus 34:5 (Onkelos), but "effectu ostendens se propin quiorem quem absentem esse judicabant" (Poole), an anthropomorphism (cf. Genesis 18:21; Psalm 144:5). "It is measure for measure (par pari). Let us build up, say they, and scale the heavens. Let us go down, says God, and defeat their impious thought" (Rabbi Schelomo, quoted by T. Lewis). To see (with a view to judicial action) the city and the tower which the children of men - sons of Adam; neither the posterity of Cain, i.e. the Hamites exclusively, as the Sethites were called sons of God, Genesis 6:2 (Augustine), nor wicked men in general (Junius, Piscator), imitators of Adam, i.e. rebellantes Dee (Mode, Lyre), since then the Shemites would not have been participators in the undertaking (Drusius), which some think, to have been their work exclusively (Inglis); but the members of the human race, or at least their leaders - builded. "Jehovah came down to see the city and the tower, which the children of men had built" (the perfect בּנוּ refers to the building as one finished up to a certain point). Jehovah's "coming down" is not the same here as in Exodus 19:20; Exodus 34:5; Numbers 11:25; Numbers 12:5, viz., the descent from heaven of some visible symbol of His presence, but is an anthropomorphic description of God's interposition in the actions of men, primarily a "judicial cognizance of the actual fact," and then, Genesis 11:7, a judicial infliction of punishment. The reason for the judgment is given in the word, i.e., the sentence, which Jehovah pronounces upon the undertaking (Genesis 11:6): "Behold one people (עם lit., union, connected whole, from עמם to bind) and one language have they all, and this (the building of this city and tower) is (only) the beginning of their deeds; and now (sc., when they have finished this) nothing will be impossible to them (מהם יבּצר לא lit., cut off from them, prevented) which they purpose to do" (יזמוּ for יזמּוּ from זמם, see Genesis 9:19). By the firm establishment of an ungodly unity, the wickedness and audacity of men would have led to fearful enterprises. But God determined, by confusing their language, to prevent the heightening of sin through ungodly association, and to frustrate their design. "Up" (הבה "go to," an ironical imitation of the same expression in Genesis 11:3 and Genesis 11:4), "We will go down, and there confound their language (on the plural, see Genesis 1:26; נבלה for נבלּה, Kal from בּלל, like יזמו in Genesis 1:6), that they may not understand one another's speech." The execution of this divine purpose is given in Genesis 11:8, in a description of its consequences: "Jehovah scattered them abroad from thence upon the face of all the earth, and they left off building the city." We must not conclude from this, however, that the differences in language were simply the result of the separation of the various tribes, and that the latter arose from discord and strife; in which case the confusion of tongues would be nothing more than "dissensio animorum, per quam factum sit, ut qui turrem struebant distracti sint in contraria studia et consilia" (Bitringa). Such a view not only does violence to the words "that one may not discern (understand) the lip (language) of the other," but is also at variance with the object of the narrative. When it is stated, first of all, that God resolved to destroy the unity of lips and words by a confusion of the lips, and then that He scattered the men abroad, this act of divine judgment cannot be understood in any other way, than that God deprived them of the ability to comprehend one another, and thus effected their dispersion. The event itself cannot have consisted merely in a change of the organs of speech, produced by the omnipotence of God, whereby speakers were turned into stammerers who were unintelligible to one another. This opinion, which is held by Bitringa and Hoffmann, is neither reconcilable with the text, nor tenable as a matter of fact. The differences, to which this event gave rise, consisted not merely in variations of sound, such as might be attributed to differences in the formation in the organs of speech (the lip or tongue), but had a much deeper foundation in the human mind. If language is the audible expression of emotions, conceptions, and thoughts of the mind, the cause of the confusion or division of the one human language into different national dialects must be sought in an effect produced upon the human mind, by which the original unity of emotion, conception, thought, and will was broken up. This inward unity had no doubt been already disturbed by sin, but the disturbance had not yet amounted to a perfect breach. This happened first of all in the event recorded here, through a direct manifestation of divine power, which caused the disturbance produced by sin in the unity of emotion, thought, and will to issue in a diversity of language, and thus by a miraculous suspension of mutual understanding frustrated the enterprise by which men hoped to render dispersion and estrangement impossible. More we cannot say in explanation of this miracle, which lies before us in the great multiplicity and variety of tongues, since even those languages which are genealogically related - for example, the Semitic and Indo-Germanic - were no longer intelligible to the same people even in the dim primeval age, whilst others are so fundamentally different from one another, that hardly a trace remains of their original unity. With the disappearance of unity the one original language was also lost, so that neither in the Hebrew nor in any other language of history has enough been preserved to enable us to form the least conception of its character.

(Note: The opinion of the Rabbins and earlier theologians, that the Hebrew was the primitive language, has been generally abandoned in consequence of modern philological researches. The fact that the biblical names handed down from the earliest times are of Hebrew extraction proves nothing. With the gradual development and change of language, the traditions with their names were cast into the mould of existing dialects, without thereby affecting the truth of the tradition. For as Drechster has said, "it makes no difference whether I say that Adam's eldest son had a name corresponding to the name Cain from קנה, or to the name Ctesias from κτᾶσθαι; the truth of the Thorah, which presents us with the tradition handed down from the sons of Noah through Shem to Abraham and Israel, is not a verbal, but a living tradition - is not in the letter, but in the spirit.")

The primitive language is extinct, buried in the materials of the languages of the nations, to rise again one day to eternal life in the glorified form of the καιναὶ γλῶσσαι intelligible to all the redeemed, when sin with its consequences is overcome and extinguished by the power of grace. A type of pledge of this hope was given in the gift of tongues on the outpouring of the Holy Spirit upon the Church on the first Christian day of Pentecost, when the apostles, filled with the Holy Ghost, spoke with other or new tongues of "the wonderful works of God," so that the people of every nation under heaven understood in their own language (Acts 2:1-11).

From the confusion of tongues the city received the name Babel (בּבל i.e., confusion, contracted from בּלבּל from בּלל to confuse), according to divine direction, though without any such intention on the part of those who first gave the name, as a standing memorial of the judgment of God which follows all the ungodly enterprises of the power of the world.

(Note: Such explanations of the name as "gate, or house, or fortress of Bel," are all the less worthy of notice, because the derivation ἀπὸ τοῦ Βήλου in the Etymol. magn., and in Persian and Nabatean works, is founded upon the myth, that Bel was the founder of the city. And as this myth is destitute of historical worth, so is also the legend that the city was built by Semiramis, which may possibly have so much of history as its basis, that this half-mythical queen extended and beautified the city, just as Nebuchadnezzar added a new quarter, and a second fortress, and strongly fortified it.)

Of this city considerable ruins still remain, including the remains of an enormous tower, Birs Nimrud, which is regarded by the Arabs as the tower of Babel that was destroyed by fire from heaven. Whether these ruins have any historical connection with the tower of the confusion of tongues, must remain, at least for the present, a matter of uncertainty. With regard to the date of the event, we find from Genesis 11:10 that the division of the human race occurred in the days of Peleg, who was born 100 years after the flood. In 150 or 180 years, with a rapid succession of births, the descendants of the three sons of Noah, who were already 100 years old and married at the time of the flood, might have become quite numerous enough to proceed to the erection of such a building. If we reckon, for example, only four male and four female births as the average number to each marriage, since it is evident from Genesis 11:12. that children were born as early as the 30th or 35th year of their parent's age, the sixth generation would be born by 150 years after the flood, and the human race would number 12,288 males and as many females. Consequently there would be at least about 30,000 people in the world at this time.

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