Time and again in scripture we see what happens to individuals when they fall into sin... and we see the same awful effects today. Their lives can be changed dramatically – see what happened to King David for his adultery: he lost his kingdom. Others were judged immediately and died at the command of God. And, the sin of one man can alter the future of many others – Adam’s sin being the greatest example of this. If that man is a king or someone in a position of influence, his sin can cause grief for an entire family, a nation, or the whole world. See how Eli’s failure to control his sons led to immense damage to God’s name and eventually to the nation.
There are times when a nation can bring disaster upon its own head, which can be seen in this chapter. Sin can increase to such an extent that an entire people can thereby invite corporate judgement upon themselves. In this case, the judgement was to completely disorientate them by fragmenting their ability to communicate.
In my own ministry I continually come across people who, though intelligent, cannot understand simple Bible teaching. It is as if I strike against a brick wall. This wall can only be moral and spiritual blindness. These people persist in adhering to their own idea of God and what He says, and, even when confronted with truth and very clear interpretation, they continue in their own way, which is very disturbing, for God must act at some time against them.
Just as my own teaching will hopefully influence others to do what is good, if I myself teach what God says, so others, whose hearts are not right with God, will influence individuals and even whole nations to reject God. Only recently, I have been communicating with a leader of the Alpha course in the USA. Though I have presented very open and full reasons for my opposition to the course, and to charismaticism, this man is unable to understand even the simplest of scriptural teachings concerning them. He is only one man out of many I have contact with every day… many of whom have no idea what they are talking about. Sadly, sin prevents them from hearing or seeing the truth.
That is why each one of us must repent when we have time. Some think, as did Augustine (who wanted to be changed – but ‘not just yet’), that they can continue in their sin, which they enjoy, and repent later. But, God might visit at any moment, and time then runs out. Do not be caught out by your sin! Cast off your sin and return to the true path and peace.
“And the whole earth was of one language, and of one speech.”
From the beginning, all men had just one language. This opposes what linguists claim, who say that all languages came from several basic ancient languages. From Adam right up to this time in scripture, a span of several thousand years, all people spoke one tongue. We have no reason to doubt this, because the fact is repeated a few times. The “whole earth was of one language, and of one tongue.” (kol is a Hebrew word meaning the whole earth).
As suggested before, as men moved around from the central point of Eden, they probably developed a number of local accents and dialects, but not a new language. Then, when the Flood came, language was deposited in just one family: Noah’s. Whatever language they spoke, it became the only language of all others who followed, again possibly with a variety of accents and dialects.
We all know how vulnerable and lost we feel in a foreign country where no-one speaks our own tongue! In His providence, God gave all people only one language at first, so that they could understand each other easily. At first He also spoke with some men directly, walking with them on the earth. But, the majority rebelled and broke off communion with God. The result was suffering and loss caused by their own stupidity and sin.... as happens today.
“And it came to pass, as they journeyed from the east, that they found a plain in the land of Shinar; and they dwelt there.
And they said one to another, Go to, let us make brick, and burn them throughly. And they had brick for stone, and slime had they for morter.
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.”
We are told that ‘they’ travelled from the east and settled in Shinar. Who are ‘they’? We are not told. They were either the whole people then present on the earth, or a tribe, or several tribes. The number must have been large, otherwise they could not have begun the task of making a massive building.
The people moved ‘from’ the east; we are not told which direction they took – north, south or west. We know that they came across a flat valley or plain, ‘in the land of Shinar’. Shinar (‘country of two rivers’) is the ancient name for Chaldea or Babylonia. Therefore, we know that these people once lived beyond that country. As they had travelled from the east, they probably lived toward India or even China.
They lived in Shinar and had a wonderful idea, so they thought. They decided to make bricks, so that they could construct a city (suggesting that until that time they lived in nomadic tents, or separate small villages). We see clues in this text – that men had the skill and understanding to produce top quality bricks: the reference to burning them thoroughly indicates an advanced knowledge of brick-making.
The second use of the word ‘brick’ is different from the first use. It is more specific, meaning tile or brick, or pavement, so the word implies that all three were meant… everything needed to construct a city of brick, including pavements, walls and roofs.
Thus, they made ‘brick for stone’. This might mean that there was no loose stone available, so bricks were made as a substitute. But, the word for ‘stone’, eben, can also refer to strength and solidity. This latter meaning is the probable one we should use, because it links with the fact that top-quality, strong bricks were to be made in the kiln.
The bricks were joined together firmly with morter made from slime. This ‘slime’, chemar, was bitumen/asphalt/pitch. We know it was pitch and not a form of cement, because the root word, chamar, means to boil and to daub or seal/smear with asphalt. Thus, the bricks were hard and tough, and the joints were water-proof. It might be possible for a geologist to locate Shinar with this information, by discovering ancient asphalt sites in or near a flat valley, in Iran/Iraq.
Building a city was not a problem and was a natural thing to do. What caused a problem was their desire to also build a “tower, whose top may reach unto heaven.” The reference to making themselves a name might be to the huge city and building they had planned, which would give them status. Or, they might have thought about naming themselves as a nation.
At any rate, we know from God’s response, that they were trying to reach heaven or to get themselves closer to God with their tower, with a naive thought that they might then become as gods. How similar all this is to modern day charismaticism, with its massive glass cathedrals, huge memberships, and teachings that obscure scripture, claiming to make mortal men into ‘little gods’! (Interestingly, the word ‘tower’, migdal, can also mean a pulpit, a device used to elevate preachers before the congregation). This was relatively soon after God destroyed all men with the Flood; it shows how memory can be very short, and sin very large! We all suffer this failure.
It is probable that the people meant the tower and city to make their ‘name’, shem. Shem can mean a reputation, fame or glory, or a memorial/monument. It can also simply refer to an actual ‘name’, but as the statement is linked with their desire to reach heaven with a massive tower, it is more likely that by ‘name’ they meant their reputation as owning a huge edifice not seen anywhere else (like a glass cathedral? or fake movement with rich leaders?)
Note that they wished to construct this wonder in order to receive accolades and praise, so that they would be united as a people and not lose a sense of being together, puwts (dispersed, scattered). The word ‘abroad’, parat, is unusual, because it means to chant or to stammer. Was this an unintended prophecy of what was about to happen – being dispersed and unable to speak to each other?
“And the LORD came down to see the city and the tower, which the children of men builded.
And the LORD said, Behold, the people is one, and they have all one language; and this they begin to do: and now nothing will be restrained from them, which they have imagined to do.
Go to, let us go down, and there confound their language, that they may not understand one another's speech.
So the LORD scattered them abroad from thence upon the face of all the earth: and they left off to build the city.
Therefore is the name of it called Babel; because the LORD did there confound the language of all the earth: and from thence did the LORD scatter them abroad upon the face of all the earth.”
God allowed the people to build their city and tower. It is not clear if they were fully built, or if they were part-way through the task. The Lord spoke to Himself (as the Trinity). He said that the people had one language and were one society, due to His provision. And now, look! – they have built a tower to reach heaven! They thought they could reach God, and now they will continue to do whatever they wish. In this, they were as one.
Nothing, said God, will now be denied them: batsar – withheld or inaccessible. This does not mean that the people could have anything they wished, or that their tower had any true substance. God was not talking about their ability to be as gods (which they did not have), but about their ability to dream up many more sinful schemes, thinking they were actually attainable. In every way these ancients were just as wicked in thought as today’s heretics and sinful men.
Again, I refer you back to charismatic thinking, which supposes that men can become as gods and attain to powers not given to ordinary men. It is also true of Romanism, where popes believe they are substitutes for Christ. The same is true in the 20th and 21st centuries, when homosexual sinners gained legal status, and, as a consequence, believe that they can now enjoy every dream of evil as actual fact. By attaining to one sin, they think that all is possible… but AIDS and other means continue to kill them, which are just, divinely-legal, judgements of God upon evil people.
Come now, said God (either to Himself as the trinity or to delegated angels, or both), let us ‘go down’ (a phrase that includes the idea of ‘taking down’ or ‘bringing down’) and “confound their language”. To ‘confound’, balal, is to mix or confuse something. Note that ‘language’, saphah, is singular and not plural.
It is commonly held, even by Christians, that God never judges people to death or to their peril. This is a huge misconception. God’s wrath is depicted many times in scripture. Here, the judgement is not to death but to confusion. The people thought they could reach heaven and so become as gods. They thought they would thereby become great in the eyes of others and that their actions would lead to their unity... very reminiscent of the thinking of Hitler! But, it was not to be. God stopped them from understanding each other, by making them speak languages that prevented understanding.
So, instead of one language, the people suddenly began to speak alien tongues. Everywhere, their language was no longer one, but many. As they stood there, they began to jabber incomprehensibly. They wanted to say something but did not even understand their own words. They heard themselves speak in a language even they did not understand!
Those nearby, who they were talking to, did not understand them either – nor could they say so, for they, too, spoke in a foreign language! Suddenly, nothing made sense. Imagine waking up in a big space occupied by thousands of other people and hearing languages you did not understand. You would be alone in the crowd!
Even this analogy is not sufficient. Remember that until this time everyone had just one language. They had no conception of different languages, because none existed. Everything was based on understanding each other instantly. Now, in the blink of an eye, everything was different and there was nothing to understand. Can you imagine speaking a language that even you had never heard, or could understand (no, not like charismatic ‘tongues’, which are just invented gibberish). It meant that even people in the same family were unable to communicate.
What we had, then, was an unknown number of unrelated languages, with no known meaning. This was confusion on a huge scale! It is likely that whilst everyone was speaking in a tongue they did not understand in others, let alone in themselves, they met up with some who sounded similar. So, they gathered together on the basis of similar sounds. They could not understand each other at all, and could not even understand what they were saying themselves! Thus arose the various nations.
It would have taken a very long time before they could define each word they spoke, and to pass on this knowledge to others who spoke the same language. That is, each different group had to take many years to understand what they were saying. On top of that, each separate group, which became a new nation, could not understand the languages of their neighbouring nations. So, that led to many more years, trying to decipher their neighbours’ languages!
Therefore, even those who spoke the same language were unable to function as communicators. Nothing made sense, and so they had to use other means – pointing, shrugs, drawings, etc. Possible, this is why some nations used pictures on tablets or walls. Try to imagine such a scene. There was total chaos. And this is a type of what happens when men sin against God… there is no unity but only chaos. Again – look to charismaticism for an example of this on a wide scale.
“So the Lord scattered them abroad”. This was inevitable, for those who spoke the same language tended to gather together, even if they had not previously known each other. It might even have been the case that whole families were divided by different tongues. It was a natural progression for them to leave behind those who spoke another language, and to find another place to live, abandoning their epic structures and plans. Remember – this was an instant judgement, not one that took a long period of time. The confusion must have been total and terrifying.
Though it might have been a natural phenomenon, it was prompted by God, and the monument to their glory soon became a monument to their gross stupidity and pride. (Often, when a disaster strikes, we fail to see God’s hand behind it and attribute it to ‘nature’ or ‘circumstances’).
It is, then, a mistake to claim that the world’s variety of languages is colourful and to be commended. It is a lasting punishment from God upon all who would desire to act sinfully. Far from being a cultural wonder, it is a constant reminder of God’s power and man’s evil heart.
Because God confused people with languages, the place became known as Babel (or Babylon), from balal – to mix or to confuse.
“These are the generations of Shem: Shem was an hundred years old, and begat Arphaxad two years after the flood:
And Shem lived after he begat Arphaxad five hundred years, and begat sons and daughters.
And Arphaxad lived five and thirty years, and begat Salah:”
For reasons we are not given (though it might be to move us quickly forward to the time of Abraham) we now go on to a completely separate set of details – the generations of named individuals. We are told that Shem was 100 years of age when his wife gave birth to Arphaxad (see previous study). This occurred just two years after the end of the Flood. Shem lived another 500 years after this, producing many more sons and daughters, being 600 when he died. Then, when Arphaxad was 35, his wife produced Salah (‘sprout’).
“And Arphaxad lived after he begat Salah four hundred and three years, and begat sons and daughters.
And Salah lived thirty years, and begat Eber:
And Salah lived after he begat Eber four hundred and three years, and begat sons and daughters.”
Arphaxad lived for another 403 years after that, producing more sons and daughters, living a total of 438 years. At the age of 30, Salah had Eber (‘the region beyond’). After this, Salah lived another 403 years also, just like his own father, making his total life span 406. Already, then, we see a shortening of life expectancy.
“And Eber lived four and thirty years, and begat Peleg:
And Eber lived after he begat Peleg four hundred and thirty years, and begat sons and daughters.
And Peleg lived thirty years, and begat Reu:
And Peleg lived after he begat Reu two hundred and nine years, and begat sons and daughters.”
At 34 years of age, Eber had Peleg (‘division’), and continued to live for another 430 years, making his life span 464. He, too, had many more sons and daughters in that time. Peleg was 30 when he had Reu (‘friend’) and lived for another 209 years, his total life span being 239. Like the others, he also had many sons and daughters.
“And Reu lived two and thirty years, and begat Serug:
And Reu lived after he begat Serug two hundred and seven years, and begat sons and daughters.
And Serug lived thirty years, and begat Nahor:
And Serug lived after he begat Nahor two hundred years, and begat sons and daughters.”
Reu was 32 when he had Serug (‘branch’) and continued for another 207 years, being 239 when he died. He had many more sons and daughters. Serug was 30 when he had Nahor (‘snorting’), and thus we come to the grandfather of Abraham. Serug lived another 200 years after his birth, having more sons and daughters before dying at age 232.
“And Nahor lived nine and twenty years, and begat Terah:
And Nahor lived after he begat Terah an hundred and nineteen years, and begat sons and daughters.
And Terah lived seventy years, and begat Abram, Nahor, and Haran.”
At age 29 Nahor had Terah (‘station’), who was to become Abraham’s father. Nahor lived another 119 years’ to have more sons and daughters, finally dying at age 148. Terah, though, was 70 years of age before he had his first child, Abram (‘exalted father’). Note that he was not yet named Abraham. Terah also had a son he named after his own father, Nahor, and a son named Haran.
“Now these are the generations of Terah: Terah begat Abram, Nahor, and Haran; and Haran begat Lot.
And Haran died before his father Terah in the land of his nativity, in Ur of the Chaldees.”
Terah had Abraham, Nahor and Haran. Haran had a son named Lot (‘covering’) who later went to live in Sodom. We are not given Haran’s age, but he died before his father Terah died, in the land of his birth, the Ur of the Chaldees. Ur (‘flame’) was a city in southern Babylonia, and was a place known for its moon worship.
“And Abram and Nahor took them wives: the name of Abram's wife was Sarai; and the name of Nahor's wife, Milcah, the daughter of Haran, the father of Milcah, and the father of Iscah.
But Sarai was barren; she had no child.
And Terah took Abram his son, and Lot the son of Haran his son's son, and Sarai his daughter in law, his son Abram's wife; and they went forth with them from Ur of the Chaldees, to go into the land of Canaan; and they came unto Haran, and dwelt there.
And the days of Terah were two hundred and five years: and Terah died in Haran.”
We are now told that Abram and his brother, Nahor, married. Abram’s wife was Sarai, and Nahor’s wife was his niece, Milcah, his brother Haran’s daughter. Sarai (‘princess’) later became known as Sarah, and Milcah’s name means ‘queen’. Both names suggest that these women were of high birth and prominent figures in their society. We know that Abraham was immensely wealthy, so it is possible that his whole family were rulers in Babylonia. An additional note says that Haran also had a daughter named Iscah (‘one who looks forth’). Sarai had no children, because she was barren (aqar – sterile), and this led to misery until God intervened.
Terah uprooted his family and took Abram and his wife Sarai, and his grandson Lot, out of Ur. Their destination was Canaan. When they arrived in the city known as Haran (‘mountaineer’), they settled down for some years. Terah died there, aged 205. (From this we know that his son Haran, must have died under the age of 135).
This chapter brings to an end the very early history of the whole world and starts to concentrate on the characters who founded the Hebrew nation loved by God.
Some linguists say that all language comes from about three sources (interestingly, the same as the number of sons born to Noah). This either means the one language was replaced by three new ones, or that God made many more languages, but they tended to join together some words and attributes, thus, eventually, reducing the number. This would have taken hundreds of years. Note that in ancient Hebrew ‘lips’ was used to mean language or speech.
Very likely, because people grouped together with others who now had the same language, those groups naturally moved away to other parts of the earth, to live together as tribes. These tribes grew to become nations. There is evidence that at about this time, most or all people lived around the Mediterranean (including North Africa: the land of Cush appears to have been populated by Ham’s descendants, and became the Nubians, who took over Egypt as Pharaohs), and farther East to India and China. From these core countries, people started to move north and south.
The Welsh and northern French share similar words, and appear to have come first from India to Italy. Germans came from one of Noah’s sons, and so on. The more interesting point is that people began to have different colour skins. Genetic faults? Or, deliberate differences created by God when languages were created?
© March 2005 (Revised 2014)