{22}   Gen 11:1-32  Tower of Babel


Part G. Tower of Babel and Shemites (11:1-32)

G1.      Tower of Babel (11:1-9)

G2.      Genealogy of Shemites (11:10-32)

        The first 11 chapters of Genesis appear as a complete cycle. At creation, chaos (Gen 1:2) became order (Gen 2:1-3). At Babel, order (Gen 11:1) became chaos (Gen 11:9). At the beginning, it was environmental chaos; at the end, it was moral chaos. Fortunately, human history did not end at this point. God’s plan to bless the world continued with the chosen family of Abraham.


11:1     the whole earth: the known world, not the globe, referring to all the known races.

11:2     migrated from the east: Different versions have either “from the east” or “to the east.” “To the east” is probably more in line with the negative image of going eastward. However, the direction of migration is not an important point.

Shinar: southern Mesopotamia. It has the same meaning as Babylon. Babylon is always symbolically God’s adversary (Zec 5:11; Rev 18:2,4,20).

settled there: permanent settlement, contrary to God’s command of “filling the earth” (Gen 1:28; 9:1).

11:3     come, let us: The phrase occurs 3 times in this passage and is a phonetic play. The making of bricks (“come, let us make bricks”) led to the building of the city (“come, let us build a city”) and then led to the action by God (“come, let us go down and confuse”).

make bricks, and burn them thoroughly: The Mesopotamian plain did not have sufficient rocks and stones for construction. The Hebrew literal translation is “brick bricks and burn for a burning”, perhaps a deliberate play on words that led to the eventual babbling.

11:4     a city: for security and protection, especially in the middle of an indefensible plain.

a tower with its top in the heavens: similar to today’s skyscraper; with great height appearing to reach the heavens (Dt 1:28; 9:1). The tower represented a symbol to reach God’s abode and be equal with God. When man elevate themselves as God, they deserve destruction (Jer 51:53; Dan 8:10). On the other hand, some take this phrase as an attempt to practise astrology in terms of gaining knowledge of the future.

make a name for ourselves: They expressed their objectives: [a] to pursue fame and independence from God, and [b] to avoid being scattered. Only God is worthy of everlasting fame (Isa 63:12) and only God can dispense everlasting fame to His chosen people (Gen 12:2; 2Sa 7:9; 8:13).

lest we be dispersed: With protection of the city, they could stay in the same place. Again, to prevent emigration was contrary to God’s command of “filling the earth” (Gen 1:28; 9:1).

11:5     the Lord came down: God was still higher despite their plan to reach heavens. The descent of God implies judgment, not seeking information.

11:6     the beginning of what they will do: They wanted to be like God and they disobeyed God’s command. If they succeeded, they would have continued to commit other unimaginable sins.

will now be impossible: It does not mean that they would be successful in achieving their plan, but simply means that it would be difficult to restrain them from more conspiracy to sin.

11:7     let us: gathering the angels to complete God’s plan; or possibly expressing the 3 persons of trinity.

confuse their language: The word “confuse” (Heb. balal) can also be translated baffle or babble. It was originally used to describe the mixing of the food in cooking, meaning the components could not be distinguished after mixing.

11:8     dispersed them: The word “disperse” appears 3 times in this chapter (v.4,8,9) and is a main theme. Not dispersed was the main problem and dispersal was the result of God’s action.

Before the Flood, man killed each other and were not at peace and they received God’s judgment. Here, man were in unity and at peace yet they still received God’s judgment. It can be seen that unity of the whole world may not be God’s plan.

Because of the different languages, they could not cooperate so they stopped their construction. It is also possible that their spirit was dampened by the clear signal that God was against their work.

11:9     Babel: Hebrew for Babylonia or Babylon; sounds like the Hebrew (balal) for “confused”.

11:10   generations: a new “toledot” section (the 5th of 10 in Genesis).

Shem: Shem was 100 years old 2 years after the Flood. Shem was born when Noah was 502. However, the number 100 may be a rounded number so Shem might be 102 at that time.

11:26   Terah: The name could be close to the word for “moon”. It is likely that Terah’s family was involved in the worship of moon god which was common in ancient Ur.

o        There will be a logical difficulty if Abram was the eldest son. Consider: [a] Terah was 70 years older than Abram (Gen 11:26). [b] Terah moved from Ur to Haran (Gen 11:31) and he died in Haran at the age of 205 (Gen 11:32). At Terah’s death, Abram should be 135 years old. [c] Abram moved from Haran to Canaan after Terah died (Ac 7:4) so the move happened when Abram was 135 years old or older. [d] Yet, Gen 12:4 recorded that Abram moved from Haran to Canaan when he was 75 years old. Conclusion: [c] and [d] are in contradiction.

o        The proper reading should be: If Abram (age 75) left Haran soon after Terah died (age 205), then Terah was 130 years older than Abram. Since Terah’s eldest son was born when Terah was 70, Abram was at least 60 years younger than his elder brother (Haran or Nahor).

While Abram was named before the other 2 sons of Terah, it does not mean that Abram was the eldest son. It only means that Abram was in the chosen line. As Haran died even before his father, and Nahor (Haran’s brother) married Haran’s daughter; it is probable that Haran was the eldest son.

11:27   generations: a new “toledot” section (the 6th of 10 in Genesis).

Abram: means “exalted father”; later changed to Abraham, meaning “father of many nations”.

Haran: name meaning “holy place”; it was also the name for the settlement where Terah died.

11:29   Sarai: Some believe that she was the same as Iscah, the daughter of Abram’s elder brother Haran. This was hinted later when Abraham said (Gen 20:12) that Sarai was the daughter (descendant) of his father (Terah) but not the daughter of his mother. She was 10 years younger than Abraham.

11:32   Terah died in Haran: The life span decreased gradually from Shem to Abram. The average is 317 years compared with the average of 912 years from Adam to Noah (excluding Enoch).


        The tower of Babel was a great human achievement but it was for man, not for God. We may build monuments for ourselves (expensive clothes, big houses, fancy cars, influential jobs) to call attention to our achievements. These may not be wrong in themselves, but when we use them to give us identity and self-worth, they take God’s place in our lives.

        Arrogance (the extreme form of pride) is a common sin of man. Wanting to be like God is another common (and serious) sin. We need to be cautious to guard ourselves against these temptations.