What is the relationship of Genesis 11:1–9 to Genesis 10? What is the significance of the people’s travel and location? What is the significance of their building materials? Why did they want to build such a tower? Why did they want to make a name for themselves? What was wrong about their plans?
Genesis 11:1–4: And the whole earth was of one language, and of one speech. 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 thoroughly. And they had brick for stone, and slime had they for mortar. 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.
Genesis 11:1 records that the whole earth was of one language, and of one speech. Yet Genesis 10 says that the descendants of Noah’s sons settled in different areas and that each had its own “tongue” or “tongues” (10:5, 20, 31). How can this be? One likely explanation is that Genesis 11:1–9 seems to have occurred before the list of the table of nations in Genesis 10. The story in chapter 11 explains the dispersal of the nations and the multiple languages that are mentioned in chapter 10. Thus Genesis 11:1–9 tells what happened before the nations divided and had different languages. The two words dwelt and scattered contrast their intention to settle in one place in order to avoid being scattered.
Verses 1–4 explain the sin that led to the punishment of verses 5–9. The mention of their journey from the east is like other references to the east in Genesis. These references often tell of sinful consequences. When Adam and Eve were cast out of the garden of Eden, they went east (3:24). After God pronounced judgment on Cain, he went to “the land of Nod, on the east of Eden” (4:16). Now after the flood, they journeyed from the east. After Lot left Abram, he “journeyed east” (13:11).
The people settled on a plain in the land of Shinar. This would fit the identification of the city as Babylon. Verse 3 reveals the kind of building materials used in that time and place. In lands such as Canaan, stones were numerous, and buildings were often constructed of stones. However, in the drier areas, stones were not available. But they found materials that were as strong as stones. They had an abundance of mud and clay. They put this material into molds and hardened them in kilns, thus producing bricks. They used as mortar a bitumen-based mixture. When the bricks were held together with mortar, the result was a strong structure. They said, Go to, let us make brick, and burn them thoroughly (“Come, let us make oven-fired bricks,” ). “They had brick for stone and asphalt for mortar”.
Verse 4 is a key verse. The words let us appear three times in verses 3–4. They said, Let us build us a city and a tower. Cooperation is not always a good thing. It depends on the purpose of the cooperation. Thieves cooperate, and so do missionaries. In this case the first plans sound neutral. They wanted to build a city and a tower.
The problems appear when they described the purpose of these things. They planned a tower, whose top may reach unto heaven (“a tower that reaches to the heavens,” NIV). This is sometimes translated as “a tower with its top in the sky,” ). Did they intend only to build a high building, or were they seeking to reach heaven as the place where God dwells? This could mean that they sought a closer walk with God or with some of their pagan gods. If we give them the benefit of the doubt, they hoped to reach heaven by their own efforts. But the more likely meaning is that they wanted to build a tower that would rival the deities of heaven. This echoes the temptation of Adam and Eve who sought to become as gods. This ungodly desire to be our own god is at the crux of human sin. People feel that they and their group do not need the one true God, so they seek to take the place of God. Either reason reveals their pride. No one can build his way into heaven. And surely no one can build a tower high enough to reach heaven.
This interpretation fits well with the last part of Verse 4: Let us make us a name. This is an example of human ambition and misplaced priorities. Throughout history many individuals and groups have sought to make a name for themselves. In other words, they want to have a reputation for greatness that rivals the greatness of God. Notice the difference between Abram and the people of this city. God promised to make Abram’s name great (12:2). These people wanted to make their own name great. Most people want a good reputation. The opinions of others are important to us. More important, however, than creating a good impression on people is the reputation we have with God. Genesis 11:1–11 is the opposite of 12:1–9 in many ways. Abram followed God’s leadership, trusting God to show him where he was going. He was a man whose goal was to go where God wanted him to go and do what God wanted him to do. He had no aspirations about making a name for himself, but God promised, “I will … make thy name great” (12:2).
All our plans—whether made individually or collectively—should be evaluated in light of God’s purposes and plans for us. We should not be driven by selfish ambition and plans that exclude God. Humans have great potential for greatness in God’s sight. Our plans should be evaluated in light of God’s purposes and desires.
What are the lasting truths in Genesis 11:1–4?
- Cooperation can be bad or good, depending on its purpose.
- The desire to be our own god is a powerful temptation.
- Some people believe that they and their society have no need for God.