“Now the whole world had one language and a common speech” (Genesis 11:1).
So Genesis 11:1 tells us that there was a time when everyone on Earth spoke the same language. In fact, we’re told that every person on Earth not only spoke the same language, but also shared a “common speech” or “arrangement” of that language. This implies that the various dialects, accents, and regional speech patterns that we’re familiar with today didn’t exist during that period as well.
For example, people from England, Ireland, Scotland, Australia, and the United States all speak the same language, but its usually easy to identify where someone comes from just by listening to the way that he or she speaks that language. It’s then often possible to know if that person grew up in the north, south, east, or west of their country and whether he or she lived in the city, a rural area, or somewhere in between just by listening to that person’s accent and speech pattern.
These regional accents and dialects can sometimes make it difficult for people to understand each other, even when they speak the same language. However, this wasn’t a problem for anyone living in the days of Genesis chapter 11 because everyone spoke the same language in the same way that everyone else did. This made communication easy, even for people who had never spoken to one another before.
“As men moved eastward, they found a plain in Shinar and settled there” (Genesis 11:2).
The name Shinar means “country of two rivers.” (1) In this case, these two rivers probably refer to the Tigris and the Euphrates rivers, both of which still exist today. This allows us to identify the general location of Shinar and say that it was probably located somewhere within the modern day area of Iraq where these two rivers are situated. This portion of the world is also identified as Babylon or Chaldea in the Bible and we’ll take a closer look this area when we are introduced to a man named Abram a little later on in this chapter.
Anyway, the fact that these people settled down in this area should get our attention because that’s something that God specifically said not to do. You might remember that after the Great Flood was over, God told Noah (and people of Genesis 11 by extension) to “…increase in number and fill the earth” (Genesis 9:1). However, these people decided to park themselves in Shinar instead and not go any further.
Then they had a few more not-so-good ideas that we’ll look at next.
(1) “Shinar” The Online Bible Thayer’s Greek Lexicon and Brown Driver & Briggs Hebrew Lexicon
“They said to each other, ‘Come, let’s make bricks and bake them thoroughly.’ They used brick instead of stone, and tar for mortar” (Genesis 11:3).
Many ancient cultures used stone as a building material while others made use of sun-dried clay bricks that were easier to put together and provided a little more structural stability. However, Genesis 11:3 tells us that these people on the plain of Shinar decided to go in a much more technically advanced direction.
For example, did you notice that Genesis 11:3 tells us that these construction workers specifically said, “…let’s make bricks and bake them thoroughly”? This indicates that these builders were using construction materials that were processed by hardening them in some sort of kiln or furnace. So we can say that these people clearly wanted to create something that was built to last.
We should also notice that these builders used tar as a cementing agent for this building project. While there were other materials that could have been used for this purpose, tar conveniently had the advantage of being waterproof. We’ll talk about why these builders might have been intrested in that particular feature a little later.
But for now, let’s ask this question: what was the purpose behind this choice of building materials? Well, that answer comes next…
“Then they said, ‘Come, let us build ourselves a city, with a tower that reaches to the heavens, so that we may make a name for ourselves and not be scattered over the face of the whole earth'” (Genesis 11:4).
Did you detect anyone who was noticeably absent from this building program? If not, let’s take another look at this verse to see where the focus of this construction project really is. Here is Genesis 11:4 again but this time, we’ll put in a little added emphasis…
“Let us build ourselves a city, with a tower that reaches to the heavens, so that we may make a name for ourselves.”
So who is missing from this big construction plan? It’s God.
You see, this whole proposal is all about a group of people who wanted to make a name for themselves without any consideration or recognition of their Creator. At best, this building project was designed to serve as a focal point for a group of people who wanted to put themselves first and live without any recognition of God in their lives. At worst, these people were arrogantly looking to build something that represented their internal disrespect and disregard for God.
Unfortunately for them, Somebody had other plans…
“But the LORD came down to see the city and the tower that the men were building” (Genesis 11:5).
The funny thing about this verse is that God had to “go down” to check out this great building project that was supposedly going to “reach to the heavens” (Genesis 11:4). But in reality, this project wasn’t any joke.
Think about what the construction of this tower said about the people who were building it. First, their desire to “…build ourselves a city, with a tower that reaches to the heavens,” tells us that these people were basically saying, “We’ll get to the heavens on our own- we don’t need God.”
Next, these builders had a clear purpose behind their work: “…so that we may make a name for ourselves.” Instead of focusing on God and His plan for them, they decided that they were going to create something that would serve as a legacy to themselves.
The final thing they wanted to achieve was to create a permanent structure so they wouldn’t have to be “…scattered over the face of the whole earth.” This explains why they used hardened construction materials and tar-based mortar according to Genesis 11:3- they were good choices to build a permanent place to live. However, there’s another possible explanation concealed behind this choice of building materials.
You see, these components are the same kind of environmentally resistant and waterproof materials that someone might choose to build with if he or she had an attitude of disrespect towards God, but were concerned that He might try to flood out the world again. Remember that Noah’s Flood occurred just a few generations before the events that we’re reading about here and perhaps their attitude was, “If God ever decides to flood the world again, this time we’ll be ready.”
“The LORD said, ‘If as one people speaking the same language they have begun to do this, then nothing they plan to do will be impossible for them'” (Genesis 11:5).
Now it may be possible to read this verse and get the impression that God somehow felt “threatened” by what was going on. But the reality was actually just the opposite. You see, these people seemed to be under the impression that they could make their way into the heavens by their own efforts. But that wasn’t God’s plan for them- and this great building program was more like a sand castle than a permanent monument in the eyes of God.
While God could have chosen to wipe out this project in nanoseconds, He instead chose to demonstrate just how easily all of these great efforts could be derailed. We’ll look at how He accomplished that next.
Since there was no language barrier to hold anyone back, people were free to combine their resources to accomplish pretty much whatever they wanted up to this point. But what would happen if these same people were suddenly unable to understand each other? Well, in that case, it would quickly become impossible to accomplish anything- and that’s exactly what happened in Genesis 11:7-8…
“‘Come, let us go down and confuse their language so they will not understand each other.’ So the LORD scattered them from there over all the earth, and they stopped building the city.”
So in the end, this great building project turned into a force that pushed everybody further away from everybody else. In other words, it became exactly what these people were trying to avoid.
“That is why it was called Babel–because there the LORD confused the language of the whole world. From there the LORD scattered them over the face of the whole earth” (Genesis 11:7-9).
So it seems that those people who could understand each other began to collect into groups and eventually separated from everyone they couldn’t understand. Over time, these individuals would eventually go on to form separate and distinct people groups, each with their own social culture and unique physical characteristics as well.
Now how does all this tie into what we know about humanity’s historical development? Well, one scholar-type provides us with a possible answer…
“A similar pattern of cultural development seems to have occurred over and over again. As a tribe migrated to an unexplored region, it would find a suitable location … and then try to establish a village. Although members of the tribe certainly knew many useful arts… they could not use them right away. Veins of metal had to be discovered, mined, and smelted; suitable clay… had to be found for making bricks and pottery; animals had to be bred; and crops had to be planted. All of this might take several years. In the meantime, the tribe had to survive by hunting, fishing and gathering fruits and nuts. Temporary homes had to be built of stone, if available, or timber, or even in caves. Remains of these original occupation sites naturally suggest to evolutionists a “stone age culture,” but actually they reflect only a very temporary situation. As soon as materials for ceramics and metals could be found, the “stone age” at the site was succeeded by a “bronze age” or “iron age.” The “village economy” was quickly succeeded by “urbanization” as the population increased and suitable building materials were developed.” (1)
(1) Henry M. Morris, The Genesis Record pg. 275
“This is the account of Shem. Two years after the flood, when Shem was 100 years old, he became the father of Arphaxad. And after he became the father of Arphaxad, Shem lived 500 years and had other sons and daughters” (Genesis 11:10-11).
Genesis 11:10-32 contains a long list that provides a detailed family history of Noah’s son Shem. Now it may seem boring to read through these genealogies of people who lived thousands of years ago, but one thing to notice from this list is that everyone’s life span was starting to become shorter and shorter as time progressed. In fact, all of the people listed in Genesis 11:10-32 generally lived for much shorter lives than those people who were alive before the time of Noah’s Flood.
For example, Noah’s life span covered a period of 950 years and his son Shem lived for 600 years. Now 600 years is a long time, but Noah still lived for 350 years more than his son. Genesis 11:24 then goes on to mention a man named Terah who eventually became the father of a man named Abram (who we’ll meet next). Terah represented the ninth generation following Noah and he lived to be “only” 205 years old, or 745 years less than Noah. So what’s the explanation for this 78% reduction in life expectancy?
Well, it seems that the earth’s environment prior to the Flood was a lot more favorable for human life than the environment that followed. The result was that people aged less quickly prior to the Flood, which meant that their lives could go on for as long as eight or nine centuries.
Anyway, this genealogy leads us to the introduction of one of the most important people in Biblical history…
“This is the account of Terah. Terah became the father of Abram, Nahor and Haran. And Haran became the father of Lot. While his father Terah was still alive, Haran died in Ur of the Chaldeans, in the land of his birth. Abram and Nahor both married. The name of Abram’s wife was Sarai, and the name of Nahor’s wife was Milcah; she was the daughter of Haran, the father of both Milcah and Iscah. Now Sarai was barren; she had no children. Terah took his son Abram, his grandson Lot son of Haran, and his daughter-in-law Sarai, the wife of his son Abram, and together they set out from Ur of the Chaldeans to go to Canaan. But when they came to Haran, they settled there” Genesis 11:27-31).
Many of these little details seem unimportant now, but they will eventually become an important part of what God does in Abram’s life, and the lives of everyone who follows God today.