GENESIS 11:1-26


Throughout our study of the book of Genesis, we have noted the literary style of the book.  This literary style is consistent in that the factors not central to the main theme are quickly dealt with first and then the record returns to the central theme to deal with it at length.


First we see the overall view

Then we return to see the important details


This same pattern is seen in Genesis 10-11.  The genealogy of Genesis 10 is given as a panorama of the nations.  Then Genesis 11 goes back to the Tower of Babel to describe God’s judgment against man’s rebellion.  From there, we trace a single line running from Noah to Abram.





Why is this story included in the Genesis account?  A number of reasons could be cited, each with a certain degree of validity.


1.         To Show the Origin of the Division of Languages.


Secular philology has wrestled with the question of the origin of languages and whether all languages stem from a common ancestor.  We do know that languages change over time and that new languages grow and develop, but this does not tell us where this process began in the first place.  Only in the Bible to we have a definitive answer.


2.         To Show the Origin of the Babylonian Religious System.


Moses is writing this narrative to the Israelites who have recently come out of Egypt.  They will soon be entering the land of Canaan.  It is a land that is filled with idolatry.  The religious system of that land had its roots in the paganism of Babel.  It was from that same paganism from which Abram had been called.  This serves as a warning against returning to those pagan roots.


3.         To Show the Results of Rebellion against God.


The close of the book of Deuteronomy contains a series of blessings and curses for either obedience or disobedience to the covenant.  These are found in Deuteronomy 28.  If Israel will obey the Lord, they will receive great blessings.  But if they rebel against the Lord, they will be cursed with great curses.  In verse 49 of that chapter, the curse culminates when God brings against rebellious Israel a nation against you from afar, from the end of the earth, as the eagle swoops down, a nation whose language you shall not understand.


There is a point here.  It is that the curse brought against Babel will have repercussions against the children of Israel if they also rebel against God.





            1 Now the whole earth used the same language and the same words. 2 And it came about as they journeyed east, that they found a plain in the land of Shinar and settled there. 3 And they said to one another, "Come, let us make bricks and burn them thoroughly." And they used brick for stone, and they used tar for mortar. 4 And they said, "Come, let us build for ourselves a city, and a tower whose top will reach into heaven, and let us make for ourselves a name; lest we be scattered abroad over the face of the whole earth." (Genesis 11:1-4).


When the passage says that the whole earth used the same language, we need to remember that the word for “the earth” is ha-aretz and can refer to “the land.”  On the other hand, if we understand this to be the origin of all major language groups (and that certainly seems to be the case), then it would naturally follow that this universality would have been mirrored in a universal flood.


The area where the ark had landed was a mountainous area to the north of Mesopotamia called Urartu.  The descendants of Noah subsequently migrated southward into the land of Shinar, the land we know as Mesopotamia.


It is no accident that the land of Mesopotamia contains the ruins of a number of ziggurats ‑ large temple towers which served as the religious centers of the city‑states where they were located.


Not only is there confirmation of this account in the existence of such towers, but even the mode of their construction is described.  There is a special mention of the specific building materials.


Instead of stone...

They used brick

Instead of mortar...

They used tar


Why is this significant?  Remember that this is written to the Israelites who have just come out of Egypt.  They have spent their lives making bricks in Egypt.  When they reach Mount Sinai and are given the Law, they are ordered to build an altar to the Lord.  But that altar will not be made of bricks.


            "You shall make an altar of earth for Me, and you shall sacrifice on it your burnt offerings and your peace offerings, your sheep and your oxen; in every place where I cause your name to be remembered, I will come to you and bless you. 25 And if you make an altar of stone for Me, you shall not build it of cut stones, for if you wield your tool on it, you will profane it." (Exodus 20:24‑25).


The altar was not to be a monument to men's architecture, but rather a monument to the Lord.  By contrast, the Tower of Babel was to be a monument to the makers ‑ they were seeking self‑glory.


The tower was to serve as the religious and social focal point of the people.  It was to be their symbol of unity and strength.  In short, it was a symbol of their rebellion against God.


1.         The tower was to have its top oriented toward heaven ‑- literally, “and its head in the heavens.”  Some have suggested the initial idea of a “flood‑proof tower.”  More likely is the idea that it was a tower which was dedicated to astrology and the worship of the heavens.


The Sumerian name for Babylon was Esagila, meaning "the structure with the upraised head."


2.         There was also a cult of egotism at work.  This is seen in the continued use of the personal pronoun:  And they said to one another, "Come, let US make bricks and burn them thoroughly."  And they used brick for stone, and they used tar for mortar.  And they said, "Come, let US build for OURSELVES a city, and a tower whose top will reach into heaven, and let US make for OURSELVES a name; lest WE be scattered abroad over the face of the whole earth." (Genesis 11:3‑4).


Notice that a part of this plan was to make a name for themselves.  Was this in reaction to the promises which had been made to Shem?  It would seem that the plans described here in the building of the city and the tower were the acts of deliberate rebellion against the decree of the Lord.


We fall into this same sort of rebellion when we set out to build our own kingdoms instead of seeking the Lord and His kingdom.  You are building a kingdom.  The only question is what is the nature of that kingdom and for whom are you building?




            5 And the LORD came down to see the city and the tower which the sons of men had built. 6 And the LORD said, "Behold, they are one people, and they all have the same language. And this is what they began to do, and now nothing which they purpose to do will be impossible for them. 7 Come, let Us go down and there confuse their language, that they may not understand one another's speech." (Genesis 11:5-7).


The pivotal point in this narrative takes place in verse 5 when the Lord comes down to see the city and the tower.


People come together; One language (11:1‑2).




People say: “Come let us... build” (11:3‑4).



God came down to see... (11:5).



God says: “Come let us... confuse them” (11:6‑7).


People scattered; Many Languages (11:8‑9).




Warren Gage points out the impact of such a description upon the original recipients of this book: “Moses mocks the colossal self‑assertion of man by exposing his infinitesimal accomplishment.  This great tower, which should pierce the heavens, falls so far short of the divine prominence that the Lord must "come down to see" what man is doing.” [1]


As men had gathered and counseled together over their plans, so we have a picture of the Lord holding a divine council to determine the fate of mankind.  The use of the plural is reminiscent of the same type of usage in Genesis 1:26.  As we noted in that passage, so also here the plural is most likely reflective of a plural of majesty.


We should not take this to mean that every dialect and language spoken today was immediately changed into its present form.  The growth of languages has been a slow, on‑going process.


On the other hand, there are a number of specific language groups that are recognized as being separate and distinct from one another.  Philologists have observed that most languages fall into one of three major groupings.


           Indo-European (corresponds to Japheth): English, Spanish, Greek, German, French, Latin, Italian.

           Semitic (corresponds to Shem): Hebrew, Arabic, Akkadian, Aramaic.

           Hamitic (corresponds to Ham):   Egyptian, Berber, Cushitic, and Chadic.[2]


Of these three groups, the most diverse and scattered is the Hamitic family.  Similarly, philologists today recognize a number of other groupings and are uncertain how they relate to one another.





            8 So the LORD scattered them abroad from there over the face of the whole earth; and they stopped building the city. 9 Therefore its name was called Babel, because there the LORD confused the language of the whole earth; and from there the LORD scattered them abroad over the face of the whole earth. (Genesis 11:5-9).


There is a play on words used here.  It was of a kind that delighted the Jewish mind.


            The name of the city is given as Babel.  Elsewhere this name will be rendered “Babylon,” but that change does not reflect a different Hebrew term.  Babel and Babylon are one and the same.  The Akkadian name for Babylon (Babelu) means “Gate of God.”   This may have been reminiscent of the stairways leading up to the top of the zigurrat that was representative of a stairway to heaven.  The verb “confuse” is balal.


In a very real sense, what happened at Babel was a curse.  The nations were scattered through this confusion of languages.  But the cursing will be turned to blessing in the next chapter when God calls one man - Abram - and promises to make him a blessing to all the NATIONS.


This promise would be fulfilled in Jesus Christ.  Within a few days of Christ's ascension into heaven, the curse of confusion would be seen to be overturned in a dramatic way by the Pentecost Incident - when Jews from all over the world would hear God's word proclaimed in all of the Gentile languages.  Furthermore, there is coming a day when every tongue shall confess that Jesus Christ is Lord (Philippians 2:11).  On that day, the rebellion that began at Babel will give way to a new city whose builder and foundation is the Lord.



The New Jerusalem

Built upon brick and mortar

Built on the foundation of the apostles and prophets

Tries to build a tower to the heavens.

God brings His city down from heaven.


The city that led to the scattering of the nations will one day give way to a city that will unite all the nations.





            10 These are the records of the generations of Shem. Shem was one hundred years old, and became the father of Arpachshad two years after the flood; 11 and Shem lived five hundred years after he became the father of Arpachshad, and he had other sons and daughters.

            12 And Arpachshad lived thirty‑five years, and became the father of Shelah; 13 and Arpachshad lived four hundred and three years after he became the father of Shelah, and he had other sons and daughters.

            14 And Shelah lived thirty years, and became the father of Eber; 15 and Shelah lived four hundred and three years after he became the father of Eber, and he had other sons and daughters.

            16 And Eber lived thirty‑four years, and became the father of Peleg; 17 and Eber lived four hundred and thirty years after he became the father of Peleg, and he had other sons and daughters.

            18 And Peleg lived thirty years, and became the father of Reu; 19 and Peleg lived two hundred and nine years after he became the father of Reu, and he had other sons and daughters.

            20 And Reu lived thirty‑two years, and became the father of Serug; 21 and Reu lived two hundred and seven years after he became the father of Serug, and he had other sons and daughters.

            22 And Serug lived thirty years, and became the father of Nahor; 23 and Serug lived two hundred years after he became the father of Nahor, and he had other sons and daughters.

            24 And Nahor lived twenty‑nine years, and became the father of Terah; 25 and Nahor lived one hundred and nineteen years after he became the father of Terah, and he had other sons and daughters.

            26 And Terah lived seventy years, and became the father of Abram, Nahor and Haran. (Genesis 11:10-26).


Genesis 11 contains a genealogical table that is symmetrical with the one in Genesis 5 (but only when the name “Cainan” is added from the Septuagint ‑ see also Luke 3:36).


Genesis 5


Genesis 11











Shem Ham Japheth





















Abram Nahor Haran


There is a contrast to be seen between the genealogy that is found in Genesis 5 versus the one presented here in Genesis 11.


Genesis 5

Genesis 11

Begins with Adam, but is preceded by a genealogy of the antediluvian world found in Genesis 4.

Begins with Shem, but is preceded by a genealogy of the postdiluvian world found in Genesis 10.

Ten generations are listed.

Ten generations are listed.

The average age at the birth of the firstborn is between 65 to 187 years.

The average age at the birth of the firstborn is between 29 to 35 years.

Ends with the birth of three sons.

• Shem

• Ham

• Japheth

Ends with the birth of three sons.

• Abram

• Nahor



It has been suggested that the genealogy given in Genesis 11 does not necessarily have to be interpreted as a strict chronology.  Several factors combine to suggest the possibility of intentional gaps within this genealogy.


1.         The Number of Years is not Totaled.


If the list of names in Genesis 11 had been given for the purpose of determining the length of time from the flood to Abraham, we would expect the author to give us the total number of years at the end of the account, especially when he gives us the total years of each patriarch’s life when that could easily have been added and totaled by the reader.


2.         The Name and Years of Cainan are Absent from the Hebrew Text.


The genealogy of Jesus as found in Luke 3 contains the additional name of Cainan between Shelah and Arphaxad.  Luke evidently follows the Septuagint reading of this text.


3.         Genesis 5 and Genesis 11 are Symmetrical in Form.


Each has ten generations, culminating in a man who has three sons.  This pattern suggests a deliberate stylization such as is found in Matthew 1 where a pattern is used to provide three groups of fourteen to correspond with the name David which has a numerical value of fourteen when the Hebrew letters that make up his name are added together.


4.         If we take Genesis 11 as being a strict chronology, then ALL of the postdiluvian patriarchs (including Noah) would have still been alive when Abraham was 50 years old.  However, Genesis 10:25 says that the earth was divided in the days of Peleg, not in the days of all of the postdiluvian patriarchs (who would have all been contemporaries if this was a strict chronology).


Furthermore, Genesis 25:8 says that Abraham “died at a good old age” being 175 years old.  This could not be stated if three of his ancestors who outlived him were contemporary and still living when he died.


5.         The ancestral connections between people in Biblical genealogies are often abridged.  This is seen in Matthew 1:1 where Abraham is the father of David who is the father of Jesus.


At the end of the first genealogy, people called on the NAME of the Lord.  After the Flood, man desired to make a NAME for himself.  But eventually, the Lord chooses a man out from the line and gives him a NEW NAME ‑ Abraham.


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[1] Gage, Warren A., The Gospel of Genesis: Studies in Protology and Eschatology. Winona Lake, IN: Carpenter Books, 1984. Page 140.

[2] This latter designation has now been combined with the Semitic languages to make up the Afroasiatic language group.  This represents an effort to depart from the older Biblical references.