Genesis 11:7
Go to, let us go down, and there confound their language, that they may not understand one another's speech.
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EXPOSITORY (ENGLISH BIBLE)
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.Here is announced the means by which the defiant spirit of concentration is to be defeated. From this and the previous verse we learn that the lip, and not the stock of words, is the part of language which is to be affected, and hence, perceive the propriety of distinguishing these two in the introductory statement. To confound, is to introduce several kinds, where before there was only one; and so in the present case to introduce several varieties of form, whereas language was before of one form. Hence, it appears that the one primitive tongue was made manifold by diversifying the law of structure, without interfering with the material of which it was composed. The bases or roots of words are furnished by instinctive and evanescent analogies between sounds and things, on which the etymological law then plays its part, and so vocables come into existence. Thus, from the root "fer," we get "fer, ferre, ferens, fert, ferebat, feret, ferat, ferret;" φέρε phere, φέρειν pherein, φέρων pherōn, φέει pherei, ἔφερε ephere, φέρῃ pherē, φέροι pheroi, etc.; ברה perēh, ברה pāroh, פרהo poreh, שפרה pārâh, יפרה yı̂preh, etc., according to the formative law of each language.

It is evident that some roots may become obsolete and so die out, while others, according to the exigencies of communication and the abilities of the speaker, may be called into existence in great abundance. But whatever new words come into the stock, are made to comply with the formative law which regulates the language of the speaker. This law has been fixed as the habitude of his mind, from which he only deviates on learning and imitating some of the formative processes of another tongue. In the absence of any other language, it is not conceivable that he should on any account alter this law. To do so would be to rebel against habit without reason, and to put himself out of relation with the other speakers of the only known tongue.

The sacred writer does not care to distinguish the ordinary from the extraordinary in the procedure of Divine Providence, inasmuch as he ascribes all events to the one creating, superintending, and administering power of God. Yet there is something beyond nature here. We can understand and observe the introduction of new words into the vocabulary of man as often as the necessity of designating a new object or process calls the naming faculty into exercise. But the new word, whether a root or not, if engrafted into the language, invariably obeys the formative law of the speech into which it is admitted. A nation adds new words to its vocabulary, but does not of itself, without external influence, alter the principle on which they are formed. Here, then, the divine interference was necessary, if the uniform was ever to become multiform. And accordingly this is the very point in which the historian marks the interposition of the Almighty.

Philologists have distinguished three or four great types or families of languages. The first of these was the Shemitic or Hebrew family. It is probable that most of the Shemites spoke dialects of this well-defined type of human speech. Aram (the Syrians), Arpakshad, (the Hebrews and Arabs), and Asshur (the Assyrians), certainly did so. Elam (Elymais), succumbed first to the Kushite race (Κίσσιοι Kissioi, Κοσσαῖοι Kossaioi) and afterward to the Persian, and so lost its language and its individuality among the nations. Lud (the Lydians) was also overrun by other nationalities. But this type of language was extended beyond the Shemites to the Kenaanites and perhaps some other Hamites. It includes the language of the Old Testament.

The second family of languages has been variously designated Japhetic, Indo-Germanic, Indo-European and Arian. It is spoken by the great bulk of the descendants of Japheth, and embraces a series of cognate modes of communication, extending from India to the various European colonies of America. It includes Greek, the tongue of the New Testament.

A third class, including the Kushite (Babylonian), Egyptian, and other African languages, has been termed Hamitic. Some of its stocks have affinities both with the Shemitic and Japhetic families.

It is probable that the congeries of unclassed languages (Allophylian, Sporadic, Turanian), including even the Chinese tongues, have relations more or less intimate with one or other of these three tolerably definite families. But the science of comparative philology is only approaching the solution of its final problem, the historical or natural relationship of all the languages of the world. It is evident, however, that the principle of classification is not so much the amount of roots in common, as the absence or presence of a given form. The diversity in the matter may be brought about by assignable natural causes; but the diversity in the form can only arise from a preternatural impulse. Forms may wear off; but they do not pass from one constituent law to another without foreign influence. The speech of a strong and numerous race may gradually overbear and annihilate that of a weak one; and in doing so may adopt many of its words, but by no means its form. So long as a national speech retains any of its forms, they continue to be part of that special type by which it is characterized.

Hence, we perceive that the interposition of Providence in confounding the lip of mankind, is the historical solution of the enigma of philology; the existence of diversity of language at the same time with the natural persistency of form and the historical unity of the human race. The data of philology, indicating that the form is the side of language needing to be touched in order to produce diversity, coincide also with the facts here narrated. The preternatural diversification of the form, moreover, marks the order amid variety which prevailed in this great revolution of mental habitude. It is not necessary to suppose that seventy languages were produced from one at the very crisis of this remarkable change, but only the few generic forms that sufficed to effect the divine purpose, and by their interaction to give origin to all subsequent varieties of language or dialect. Nor are we to imagine that the variant principles of formation went into practical development all at once, but only that they started a process which, in combination with other operative causes, issued in all the diversities of speech which are now exhibited in the human race.

That they may not understand one another's lip. - This is the immediate result of diversifying the formative law of human speech, even though the material elements were to remain much the same as before. Further results will soon appear.

7. confound their language—literally, "their lip"; it was a failure in utterance, occasioning a difference in dialect which was intelligible only to those of the same tribe. Thus easily by God their purpose was defeated, and they were compelled to the dispersion they had combined to prevent. It is only from the Scriptures we learn the true origin of the different nations and languages of the world. By one miracle of tongues men were dispersed and gradually fell from true religion. By another, national barriers were broken down—that all men might be brought back to the family of God. Let us, i.e. the blessed Trinity. See Genesis 1:26.

Confound their language, by making them forget their former language, and by putting into their minds several languages; not a distinct language into each person, but into each family, or rather into each nation; that thereby they may be disenabled from that mutual commerce which was altogether necessary for the carrying on of that work. Go to, let us go down, and there confound their language,.... These words are not spoken to the angels, as the Targum and Aben Ezra; for, as Philo the Jew observes (h), they are said to some as co-workers with God, which angels could not be in this work of confounding the language of men; it being above the power of creatures so to work upon the mind, and on the faculty of speech, as to make such an alteration as was at the confusion of tongues, when men were made to forget their former language, and had another put into their minds, and a faculty of speaking it given; or, however, the first language was so differently inflected and pronounced, that it seemed another, and various; all which could not be done but by him who is almighty, even that Jehovah, Father, Son, and Spirit, said Genesis 11:8 to confound man's language; and the first of these speaks to the other two, with whom he consulted about doing it, and with whom he did it. Not that every man had a new and distinct language given him, for then there could have been no society and converse in the world, but one was given to each family; or rather to as many families as constituted a nation or colony, designed for the same place of habitation; how many there were, cannot be said with any certainty. Euphorus, and many other historians (i), say they were seventy five, according to the number of Jacob's posterity that went down into Egypt; others say seventy two: the Jewish writers generally agree with the Targum of Jonathan in making them seventy, according to the number of the posterity of Noah's sons, recorded in the preceding chapter; but several of them spoke the same language, as Ashur, Arphaxad, and Aram, spoke the Chaldee or Syriac language; the sons of Canaan one and the same language; and the thirteen sons of Joktan the Arabic language; Javari and Elisha the Greek language; so that, as Bochart (k) observes, scarce thirty of the seventy will remain distinct: and it is an observation of Dr. Lightfoot (l) not to be despised, that"the fifteen named in Acts 2:5 were enough to confound the work (at Babel), and they may very well be supposed to have been the whole number.''The end to be answered it was:

that they may not understand one another's speech; or "hear" (m), that is, so as to understand; the words were so changed, and so differently pronounced from what they had used to hear, that though they heard the sound, they could not tell the meaning of them: hence, as Jarchi observes, when one asked for a brick, another brought him clay or slime, on which he rose up against him, and dashed his brains out.

(h) De Confus. Ling. p. 344. (i) Apud Clement. Alexandr. Strom. l. 1. p. 338. (k) Phaleg. l. 1. c. 15. Colossians 55. (l) See his Works, vol. 1. p. 694. (m) "audiant", Pagninus, Montanus, &c.

Go to, {h} let us go down, and {i} there confound their language, that they may not understand one another's speech.

(h) He speaks as though he took counsel with his own wisdom and power: that is, with the Son and holy Spirit: signifying the greatness and certainty of the punishment.

(i) By this great plague of the confusion of tongues appears God's horrible judgment against man's pride and vain glory.

EXEGETICAL (ORIGINAL LANGUAGES)
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.Verse 7. - Go to. An ironical contrast to the "Go to" of the builders (Lange). Let us (cf. Genesis 1:26) go down, and there confound their language (vide infra, ver. 9), that they may not understand (literally, hear; so Genesis 42:23; Isaiah 36:11; 1 Corinthians 14:2) one another's speech. Not referring to individuals (singuli homines), since then society were impossible, but to families or nations (singulae cognationes), which each had its own tongue (Poole). "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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