Bibliotheca Sacra 138 (1981) 119-38.

          Copyright © 1981 by Dallas Theological Seminary.  Cited with permission.



                                    Studies in the Book of Genesis

                                                          Part 4:


                        The Dispersion of the

                      Nations in Genesis 11:1-9


                                                  Allen P. Ross


                                        Introduction to the Passage



            The narrative in Genesis 11:1-9 describes the divine inter-

vention among the human family to scatter them across the face

of the earth by means of striking at the :heart of their unity- their

language. A quick reading of the passage shows that the pre-

dominant idea is not the tower of Babel but this scattering.

If the point is not simply the tower, then this passage does not

present, as some have suggested, a Hebrew adaptation of the

Greek Titans storming heaven to dislodge God. Rather, the char-

acteristics of the people in this story are anxiety and pride

through their own gregariousness.1 The tower, on the one hand,

is born from the people's fear of being scattered across the earth;

and on the other hand it is an attempt to frustrate God's plan to

fill the earth (Gen. 9:1).

            The sin. Since the story has the trappings of a judgment

narrative in which Yahweh interrupts mankind's misguided

activities and scatters them abroad, it may be assumed that the

antithesis of this scattering must be the sin. The major error was

not the building of a city, but the attempt of the race to live in one

City.2 Therefore it appears that the human family was striving for

unity, security, and social immortality (making a name) in de-

fiance of God's desire for them to fill the earth.

            Divine punishment. It is important to keep in mind that the

"judgment" was not the destruction of the city but of the lan-



120     Bibliotheca Sacra-April-June 1981


guage that united the people. It was shattered into a multiplicity

of languages so that the common bond was destroyed.3 Thus the

text is demonstrating that the present number of languages that

form national barriers is a monument to sin.

            Divine prevention. Since the people's purpose was to make a

name for themselves and to achieve power through unity, the

apostasy of the human spirit would shortly bring the race to the

brink of another catastrophe such as the Deluge. By frustrating

their communication and dividing them into nations, it is evi-

dent that "it is the will of God, so long as sin is present in the

world, to employ nationalism in the reduction of sin."4

            For ages people have restricted themselves to native man-

ners and customs and regarded diverse languages of foreigners

with great horror.5 Thus Israel was delivered from a people of "a

strange language" (Ps. 114:1) and was frequently warned of de-

struction by a fierce nation whose language would not be under-

stood and whose deep speech could not be comprehended (Deut.

28:49; Isa. 28:11; 33:19; Jer. 5:15). The language barrier

brought sudden fear and prevented unification.

            Ringgren summarized the twofold aspect of Yahweh's in-

tervention in Genesis 11 as divine reaction to pride.


            Theologically, the building of the tower in Gen. 11 is interpreted as

            an act of human arrogance and rebellion against God; accordingly,

            Yahweh intervenes against its builders and scatters them over the

            whole earth. This action of God is both punishment and a preven-

            tive measure; it prevents men from going too far in their pride.6


            Later prophets would draw on this narrative, recording the

very beginnings of the divisions as they looked to the end of days

when God Himself would unify mankind once again. Zephaniah

3:9-11 appears to be constructed antithetically to this passage

with its themes in common with Genesis 11:1-9: the pure speech

(i.e., one language),7 the gathering of the dispersed people (even

from Cush),8 the removal of pride, and the service in the holy

mountain. The miracle on the day of Pentecost is often seen as a

harbinger of that end time.9




            The literary style of the narrative shows an artistic hand

ordering the material in such a way as to mirror the ideas from

the Babylonian background of the story as well as to contrast by

means of antithetical parallelism the participants in the story. To

such literary art, repetition and parallelism are essential.

            The Dispersion of the Nations in Genesis 11:1-9             121


            Antithetical balance. In the antithetical parallelism of the

narrative ideas are balanced against their counterparts. The

story begins with the report of the unified situation at the begin-

ning (11:1) and ends with a reminder of that unity and its

resultant confusion for the scattering (11:9). This beginning and

ending picture is reflected in the contrast of the dialogues and

actions: 11:2-4 describes what the humans proceeded to do;

11:5-8 describes how Yahweh turned their work aside (begin-

ning with the contrastive, "But Yahweh ... ").

            Within these balanced sections many elements support the

antithetical arrangement. As seen in the Hebrew, verse 1 is bal-

anced with 9, 2 with 8, and 3 with 7, and the narrative turns at

verse 5.10

            Poetic devices. The mechanics of the writer can also be seen

in the heavy alliteration and sound play throughout the account.

First, the writer enhances the meaning of the ultimate word

play (the llaBA/lb,BA ["confuse"/"Babel"] exchange) by his sounds.

The letters b, l, and n, culminating in the word lb,BA; are frequent-

ly used. Verse 3 reads Mynibel; hnAB;l;ni hbAhA; Nb,xAl, hnAbel.;ha Mh,lA. Verse 4 has

Unl.A-hn,b;ni hbAhA.  In verse 5 are the words yneB; UnBA; and verse 7 has hlAb;nAv;.

In verse 8 the sounds continue with hnob;li UlD;H;y.ava. And in verse 9 is

the anticipated culmination of the sounds in lb,BA ... llaBA.

            There also appears to be a play on the key word of the pas-

sage, CUP ("scatter"). The word is frequently followed by the

phrase, "across the face of the whole earth," Cr,xAhA-lkA yneP;, which,

interestingly, begins with the letter P and ends with C, thus

reflecting CUP.11 Other alliterations involve yneP;/NP,; Nb,xAl;/hnAbel.;ha; and


Second, the wordplays in the passage strengthen the ideas.

Bullinger calls such wordplays "paronomasia" which he de-

scribes as the employment of two words that are different in

origin and meaning, but similar in sound and appearance to

emphasize two things by calling attention to the similarity of

sound.12 One is placed alongside the other and appears to be a

repetition of it. Once the eye has caught the two words and the

attention concentrated on them, then one discovers that an

interpretation is put on the one by the other.

While this description gives the general nature of wordplays,

it is too broad for distinguishing the types of wordplays within

the group known as paronomasia. To be precise, it should be said

that paronomasia involves a play on similarity of sound and some

point in the meaning as well; those that have no point of contact


122                 Bibliotheca Sacra-April-June 1981


in meaning are best classified as phonetic wordplays such as

assonance, rhyme, alliteration, or epanastrophe.

This distinction becomes necessary in the exegesis of the

narrative. In verse 3 is the exhortation, Mynibel; hnAB;l;ni, "let us make

bricks" (literally, "let us brick bricks"). Immediately there follows

a second exhortation: hpAreW;li hpAr;W;ni, "let us burn them hard"

(literally, "let us burn them for burning"). These are paronoma-

sias in the strict sense since they offer a sound play and are

etymologically connected.

However, the key play in the passage is not strictly parono-

masia since there is no connection etymologically between lb,BA

and llaBA. It is a phonetic wordplay. The people would say that the

name was called "lb,BA" because Yahweh "made a babble" (llaBA

the language.

All these devices enhance the basic antithetical structure of

the passage. Fokkelman illustrates this by connecting the par-

onomasia of verse 3, Mynibel; hnAB;l;ni, with the response of God in verse

7, hlAb;nA, in a sound-chiasmus:13


L          B         N         "let us make bricks"


N         B         L          "let us confuse"


The reversal of the order of the sounds reveals the basic idea

of the passage: The construction on earth is answered by the de-

struction from heaven; men build but God pulls down. The fact

that God's words are also in the form of man's words (as cohorta-

tive) adds a corroding irony to the passage. God sings with the

people while working against them.14

The same point is stressed with Mwe, MwA, and MyimawA. To bring

everlasting fame (Mwe) they unite in one spot (MwA) as the base of

operations for their attainment of fame which they make con-

ditional on the encroachment of MyimawA, the abode of God. What

drives them is hubris. What calls out the nemesis of Yahweh from

heaven (MyimawA) and scatters them from there (own) is also hubris.15

The "brackets" on the text illustrate this poignantly: what "all the

earth" sought to avoid, namely, dispersion "all over the earth,"

happened (cf. v. 1 and v. 9).



The Babylonian background. That this passage has Baby-

lon in mind is clear from the explication of the name "Babel" in

verse 9. The first time this term was used was in the Table of

The Dispersion of the Nations in Genesis 11:1-9             123


Nations in Genesis 10 where the beginning of the kingdom was

recorded in the exploits of Nimrod from Cush (10:10). Not only is

there this direct reference to proud Babylon, but also other evi-

dences show that the background of the story was Mesopota-

mian. Speiser says, "The episode points more concretely to

Babylonia than does any other portion of primeval history and

the background that is here sketched proves to be authentic

beyond all expectations.”16

Babylon was a thing of beauty to the pagan world. Every

important city of Babylonia was built with a step-tower known as

a ziggurat (ziggurratu).17 In Nebuchadnezzar's Babylon itself, in

the area of Marduk's sanctuary known as E-sag-ila, "the house

whose head is raised up,"18 there was a seven-storied tower with

a temple top that was known as E-temen-anki. This structure,

measuring 90 meters by 90 meters at the base as well as being 90

meters high, became one of the wonders of the world.19 The

tower was a symbol of Babylonian culture and played a major role

in other cultures influenced by it.20

The first of such towers must be earlier than Nebuchadnez-

zar's, for his were rebuildings of ancient patterns. Cassuto main-

tains that this reference must be to E-temen-anki (although he

suggests that the occasion for the tradition giving rise to the

satire would come from an earlier time, from the Hittite destruc-

tion of Babylon).21 Speiser does not agree. He points out that it

cannot be E-temen-anki, which cannot antedate the seventh

century. Therefore this account must be centuries earlier than

E-temen-anki.22 Since Esarhaddon (seventh century) and

Nebuchadnezzar (sixth century) were the first since Hammurabi

to build such works, the biblical reference in Genesis 11 must be

to a much earlier Babylon.

So while the actual Neo-Babylonian Empire's23 architecture

cannot be the inspiration for this account, one must conclude

that their buildings were rebuildings of some ancient tower

located in the same area.

But when the literary parallels concerning this architecture

are considered, some very significant correspondences to the

narrative are noted.

First, there is a specific connection of this story with the

account of the building of Babylon, recorded in the Akkadian

Enuma Elish, tablet VI, lines 55-64:

When Marduk heard this,

Brightly glowed his features, like the days:

124                 Bibliotheca Sacra-April-June 1981


"Like that of lofty Babylon, whose building you have requested,

Let its brickwork be fashioned. You shall name it the sanctuary."

The Anunnaki applied the implement;

For one year they molded bricks.

When the second year arrived,

They raised high the head of Esagila equaling Apsu.

Having built a stage tower as high as Apsu,

They set up in it an abode for Marduk, Enlil, Ea;

In their presence he adorned it with grandeur.24


Within this passage are several literary parallels to the bibli-

cal narrative. Line 62 reads, "They raised the head of Esagila

mihrit apsi," (sa Esagila mihrit apsi ullu rest [su] ). Speiser

notes the word play of ullu resisu with Esagila, which means

"the structure which raises the head," explaining that it evokes a

special value for the Sumerian name, giving it a significant

meaning in Babylon.25 Thus he concludes that resam ullum

became a stock expression for the monumental structures of

Babylon and Assyria.

Speiser shows that apsu is a reference to the heavens. He

allows that it often means "the deep," but that cannot be correct

in the light of line 63 which says, "when they had built the temple

tower of the upper (elite) apsu" (ibnuma ziggurat sa apsi elite).

In line 62 then, mihrit apsi must be "toward heaven," and apsu

must be celestial and not subterranean.26

A second important element is the bricks. The Hebrew text in

Genesis 11:3 describes the brickmaking with a cognate accusa-

tive construction. Once the bricks are made, the tower is made.

Speiser observes that the bricks figured predominantly in the

Babylonian account where there is a year-long brick ritual.27 The

Babylonian account not only records a similar two-step process

(making bricks in the first year and raising the tower head in

the second), but it also has a similar construction, using a

cognate accusative, libittasu iltabnu (Hebrew:  Mynibel; hnAB;l;nii).  In

fact, the Hebrew and Akkadian words are cognate. The similarity

is striking.

So in Enuma Elish and Genesis there are at least three solid

literary connections: the making of the tower for the sanctuary of

the gods, with Genesis reporting the determination to build the

tower and city in rebellion to God; the lofty elevation of its head

into the heavens, with Genesis recording almost the same ref-

erence; and the making of the bricks before the building of the

city, with Genesis describing the process with the same gramma-

tical construction.

The Dispersion of the Nations in Genesis 11:1-9             125


Another correspondence is reflected in the great pride of the

builders. One of the purposes of the Babylonian creation epic at

its composition was to show the preeminence of Babylon over all

the cities of the country, and especially the supremacy of Marduk

over all deities. They were so pleased with themselves that they

considered Babylon to be a celestial city, prepared by the Anun-

naki gods and made for Marduk on behalf of his victory over

Tiamat. It then became the pattern for the earthly city (Enuma

Elish, tablet VI, lines 113-15). In fact Babylon, that metropolitan

city for so many peoples, claimed to be the origination of society,

their city having descended from heaven.28 Herein is the im-

mense pride of Babylon.

Therefore with this world-famous city and tower culture

claiming to be the heavenly plan and beginning of creation, the

record in Genesis 11 is a counterblast and a polemic.29 To com-

municate this most forcefully, the text employs literary elements

of that ancient, traditional theme preserved in the Babylonian

culture, but the contents and thrust of the message differ


The differences are pointed out in part by Vos.31 First, Gene-

sis implies that nothing like this had ever been built before by

man, but the ziggurats represent traditional workings. Second,

Genesis presents the building as evidence of their disobedience,

but the Babylonian work was for the purpose of worshiping a local

deity. Third, Genesis describes this as the work of one united race

of people that became the basis of the scattering and confusion

into languages and tribes, but the ziggurats were man-made

mountains of a national group (their towers were the symbol of

their culture). Also these towers developed gradually over the

centuries after the diffusion and scattering.

So Genesis, in setting forth the account of the divine

intervention at Babel in the ancient past, deliberately alludes to

the arrogance of Babylon that was represented in their literature.

The result is a satire on the thing of glory and beauty of the pagan

world. The biblical writer, having become familiar with the vain-

glorious words in the traditions of Babylon, weaves his account

for the purpose of deriding the literary traditions of that ancient

city and establishing the truth. In fact traditions from Mesopota-

mia recorded the ancient division of languages as well. The

Sumerians had recorded that there was originally one language

since everyone came to worship Enlil with one tongue (Enmerkar

Epic, lines 141-46).32

126                 Bibliotheca Sacra-April-June 1981


Cassuto suggests a collection of satirical ideas that would

have given rise to the Genesis narrative, and he paraphrases

them as follows:

You children of Babylon ... you called your city Babel--Babili,

"Gate of god," or Bab-ilani, "Gate of gods"--and your tower you

designated "House of the foundation of heaven and earth." You

desired that the top of your tower should be in heaven.... You did

not understand that, even if you were to raise the summit of your

ziggurat ever so high, you would not be nearer to Him than when

you stand upon the ground; nor did you comprehend that He who in

truth dwells in heaven, if he wishes to take a closer look at your lofty

tower, must needs come down.... Your intention was to build for

yourselves a gigantic city that would contain all mankind and you

forgot that it was God's will to fill the whole earth with human

settlements, and that God's plan would surely be realized.... You

were proud of your power, but you should have known that it is

forbidden to man to exalt himself, for only the Lord is truly exalted,

and the pride of man is regarded by Him as iniquity that leads to his

downfall and degradation--a punishment befitting the crime....

On account of this, your dominion was shattered and your families

were scattered over the face of the whole earth. Behold, how fitting is

the name that you have given to your city! It is true that in your

language it expresses glory and pride, but in our idiom it sounds as

though it connoted confusion--and confusion of tongues heard

therein, which caused its destruction and the dispersion of its

inhabitants in every direction.33


Babylon was the prototype of all nations, cities, and empires

that despise God's instructions and raise themselves in pride.34

Babylon represented man's megalomaniacal attempt to achieve

world peace and unity by domestic exploitation and power. They

would be brought down in confusion; herein was the warning to

the new nation of Israel: any disobedient nation would be abased

and brought low in spite of her pride, ingenuity, and strength.

The "Babylon" motif became the common representation for

the antitheocratical program. Later writers drew on this theme

and used the name as a symbol for the godless society with its

great pretensions. Isaiah 47:8-13 portrayed Babylon's pleasures,

sins, and superstitions. Isaiah 13:19 pictured her as "the glory of

kingdoms, the beauty of the Chaldeans' pride"; and Isaiah 14:13

describes her sinful arrogance in exalting her throne above the

Most High in the heavens only to be brought low. Jeremiah also

predicted the cup of vengeance on this arrogant city (Jer. 51).

Daniel recorded her persecutions against Judah. And Revelation

17-18 applies the theme to the spiritual Babylon in the escha-

ton, showing that it was her sins that reached heaven and

The Dispersion of the Nations in Genesis 11:1-9             127


brought the catastrophe to her, thus preparing the way for the

true celestial city to come down to earth.35

The setting in the primeval narratives. The present story of

the scattering is part of the primeval events of Genesis which give

a picture of man in open rebellion to God and of God intervening

in judgment on each situation.36 The scattering of the race from

Babel forms the capstone to the primeval history of the human

race.37 This development of mankind is accurately described by


The primeval history reaches its fruitless climax as man, conscious

of new abilities, prepares to glorify and fortify himself by collective

effort. The elements of the story are timelessly characteristic of the

spirit of the world. The project is typically grandiose; men describe it

excitedly to one another as if it were the ultimate achievement--

very much as modern man glories in his space projects. At the same

time they betray their insecurity as they crowd together to preserve

their identity and control their fortunes.38


So it is with this story that the common history of all man-

kind comes to an abrupt end, which leaves the human race

hopelessly scattered across the face of the entire earth. It is this

that makes the present narrative so different from those preced-

ing it: In each judgment there was a gracious provision for hope

but in this judgment there is none. It does not offer a token of

grace, a promise of any blessing, a hope of salvation, or a way of

escape. There is no clothing for the naked sinner, no protective

mark for the fugitive, no rainbow in the dark sky. There is no ray

of hope. The primeval age ends with judgmental scattering and

complete confusion. The blessing is not here; the world must

await the new history.

In view of this, the story of the scattering of the nations is

actually the turning point of the book from primeval history to

the history of the blessing. From this very confused and dis-

persed situation nations would develop in utter futility until God

would make a great nation through one man who himself would

be "scattered" from this alluvial plain to the land of Canaan. The

blessings of final redemption and unification would come

through his seed.

The beginning of Genesis 11 presupposes a linguistic unity

and localization comparable to the beginning of Genesis 10.

Since the Table of Nations in Genesis 10 describes the many

families of the earth "after their families, after their tongues, in

their lands, in their nations," and Genesis 11 describes the

128                 Bibliotheca Sacra-April-June 1981


divine intervention to scatter them, the question is how this

story of the dispersion is compatible with the Table. They appear

to be reversed chronologically.

Most modern scholars follow the critical view that Genesis 11

is independent of the ethnographic Table and is fundamentally

irreconcilable with it.39 However, this is not seen as a major

obstacle, for as von Rad states, "The chapters must be read

together because they are intentionally placed next to each other

in spite of their antagonism."40  So while critical scholars are

bothered by the antagonisms, they recognize that the two chap-

ters are complementary in referring to the same scattering.

The Table of Nations gives absolutely no explanation for the

scattering, but "that the author was intending right along to treat

of the confusion of tongues appears from 10:25."41 There it is

stated that in the days of Peleg ("Division") was the earth divided.

Writers have explained this division as some sort of tribal

split,42 or some piece of trivia about conditions at the time, such

as; for example, irrigation ditches.43 The word gl,P, is often used

for trenches and irrigation ditches, but the implication of the

Table is toward universal events.44 It is worth noting that the

root word occurs in Psalm 55:9 (Eng., 10) for a moral division:

"Destroy, 0 LORD, and divide (gl.aPa) their tongues" (author's trans-

lation here and throughout the article). The prayer is that God

would break apart their counsel into contending factions, an end

that is comparable to the story of the division of the nations.

So the point of contact appears to be the birth of Peleg (and

thus his naming) in Genesis 10.45 At that point the incident of

chapter 11 would have happened, causing the people to spread

out into the earth until they settled in their tribes as described in

chapter 10. Chapter 11 is the cause; chapter 10 is the effect.

The passages are arranged in a manner consistent with

Genesis. The broad survey is given first; the narrowing and

selection and/or explanation are given afterward .46 The order is

thematic and not chronological. The choice of this reversed order

is a stroke of genius. Jacob stated it well: "The placement of

chapter 10 before this one is a special refinement. The absurdity

of the undertaking becomes obvious if we know the numerical

nations into which mankind should grow."47



It should be clear by now that the story of the dispersion is a

sequel to the Table of Nations and is designed to explain how the

The Dispersion of the Nations in Genesis 11:1-9             129


nations speak different languages in spite of their common origin

and how they found their way to the farthest corners of the earth.

The major theme of the passage is the dispersion of the nations

because of their rebellious pride and apostasy in uniting at Babel.

But the story is more than an explanation of the scattering; it is

an explanation of the problems due to the existence of nations.

It was at Babel--that city founded by Nimrod, a descendant

of Ham through Cush; that city known for its pride and vanity;

that seat of rebellion toward the true God and pagan worship of

the false gods--that Yahweh turned ingenuity and ambition into

chaos and confusion so that the thing the people feared most

came on them and that their desire to be men of renown was

suddenly turned against them. For the Israelite nation the lesson

was clear: If she was to survive as a nation, she must obey God's

will, for the nation that bristles with pride and refuses to obey will

be scattered.48 Thus the account of the scattering at Babel has a

theological significance for God's people.


Exegesis of the Passage


PROLOGUE (11:1)49

The first verse informs the reader that the entire race had a

common language, thus showing that this beginning is parallel

to 10:1. Knowing the previous arrangement of the scattered

nations in chapter 10, Jacob explains that a tone of irony is

already sounded in this verse.50

The whole earth (= the inhabitants) had one "lip" (hpAWA to

indicate speech)51 and one vocabulary (MyribAD; to indicate the con-

tent of what was said). The point of this prologue is clear: The

entire race was united by a common language.



Settlement (11:2). The narrative records that the human

family migrated "off east" (Md,q.,mi) and settled in the region of

ancient Babylon. The verb used to describe their journey (fsanA)

carries the sense of bedouins moving tents by stages. This

wandering continued in an easterly direction from Armenia until

they settled (Ubw;y.eva) in Shinar where they found a plain. This

"valley of the world," as the Talmud calls it, became the designated

place for the nomads-turned-settlers.

Resolution (11:3-4). The resolve of the race comes in two

stages: in verse 3 they made bricks, and in verse 4, motivated by

130                 Bibliotheca Sacra-April-June 1981


their initial success, they moved to a grander scale by building a

city with a tower. Bush follows Josephus in designating Nimrod

as the leader of this founding of Babylon.52

In their zeal for societal development, alliance, and fame, and

with all the optimism of a beginning people, they began to orga-

nize their brickmaking. They were an ingenious lot, for they

lacked the proper stone and clay and had to make do with

makeshift materials.53 The writer's attitude toward this comes

across in an appropriate pun: they had no clay (rm,Ho) but they

used asphalt (rmAHe). Jacob suggests the effect of this assonance

sounds like a child's play song.54

Met by initial success they advanced to a greater resolution:

"Come, let us build. . . ." Couched in the same grammatical

construction as the preceding resolve, their words display that

they would use the materials made to make a city "with a tower. "

The circumstantial clause draws the reader's attention to

the tower. Once built, this tower would provide the pattern for

fortresses and acropolises for others.55  Building it with its top in

the heavens may reflect the bold spirit of the workers, even

though it is hyperbolic language used to express security (cf.

Deut. 1:28).

The purpose of their building venture was fame. They

wished to find security by arrogantly making a name--a desire

that is satirized in verse 9. But their desire to be renowned was

betrayed by their fear of the oblivion of dispersion. Richardson

observes this motivation.

The hatred of anonymity drives men to heroic feats of valour or long

hours of drudgery; or it urges them to spectacular acts of shame or

of unscrupulous self-preferment. In the word forms it attempts to

give the honour and the glory to themselves which properly belongs

to the name of God.56


Thus the basic characteristics of culture are seen here:

underlying anxiety (the fear of being separated and discon-

nected) and the desire for fame (a sense of security in a powerful




The investigation (11:5-6). The second half of the passage

reflects the first, beginning with Yahweh's investigation of

the city and the tower which the humans had begun to build.

The description, written so anthropomorphically, describes


The Dispersion of the Nations in Genesis 11:1-9             131


Yahweh's close interest and participation in the affairs of man.59

He did not need to come down to look at their work (in fact His

coming down implies prior knowledge). Procksch clarified this by

pointing out that "Yahweh must draw near, not because he is

near-sighted, but because he dwells at such tremendous height

and their work is so tiny. God's movement must therefore be

understood as a remarkable satire on man's doing."60 Or in the

words of Cassuto one could say that no matter how high they

towered, Yahweh still had to descend to see it. Yahweh's coming

down does not alone strike this note of satire. The parallel con-

struction of the cohortatives (11:7) reflects their plans made

earlier.61 The point to be made is clear: The tower that was to

reach the heavens fell far short.

The purpose of His coming down was "to see" the work. This

is the second anthropomorphic expression in the line and

announces that He will give the city a close investigation. The

narrative is filled with condescension. In referring to them as

MdAxAhA yneB; ("sons of the earth"), he shows them to be earthlings.

This strikes at the heart of the Babylonian literature which cred-

ited the work to the Anunnaki gods. The work, according to

Genesis, was terrestrial, not celestial.

Verse 6 records the results of that investigation: "And

Yahweh said, `If as one people all having one language they have

begun to act this way, now nothing that they propose to do will be

out of their reach."' The similarity of style and wording to Gene-

sis 3:22 is most striking. The potential for calamity is dangerous

to the race, and God will prevent it.62 The verb llaHA is used here;

the beginnings of man are commonly counterproductive.63 They

will nullify the purposes of God in favor of their own purposes

which are within reach. They will be at liberty for every extrava-

gance if they can think only of their own confederation.

The resolution (11:7). Continuing to speak, Yahweh says,

"Come, let Us go down and confound their language so that they

cannot understand one another."

The internal difficulty concerns the relationship of the word

hdAr;ne ("let Us go down") with dr, ("But [Yahweh] came down")

of verse 5. The critical approach is to divide the two elements into

strata, but that is not a satisfactory solution.64 Dillmann simply

saw a return to heaven first, then a reflection (comparing 3:22),

and then the coming in judgment.65 This may be the simplest

way of understanding it. Cassuto takes rm,, "and He said, "as an

explanatory connection of contemporaneous actions: "But

132                 Bibliotheca Sacra-April-June 1981


Yahweh came down ... thinking rm,xy.ova literally, ‘saying') ... they

are one ... let us go down...."66

The second verb describes the actual purpose: "let Us con-

found."67 It was this confusion [llaBA] that led to the diversity of

their understanding and thus to their dispersion. Bush explains

how this would come about.

This was to cause a dispersion of the multitudes congregated at

Babylon; an end which did not require for its accomplishment the

instantaneous formation of new languages, but simply such a con-

fusion in the utterance of the old, as should naturally lead to mis-

apprehension, discord and division. The dialectic discrepancies,

however, thus originating, though perhaps not very great at first,

would become gradually more and more marked, as men became

more widely separated from each other, and by the influence of

climate, laws, customs, religion, and various other causes, till they

finally issued in substantially different languages.68

Once the understanding of one another was confounded, the

division would be effected.

The effect (11:8). "So Yahweh scattered them from there

across the face of the whole earth, and they ceased building the

city." Their greatest fear (v. 4) came on them.69 The place of unity

(MwA) became the place of dispersion (Mw.Ami). Their view was toward

centrality; God moved them universally. The result of this disper-

sion meant that the city was unfinished as they had planned it.

The rebellious race as a unified people did not fulfill their goal.




In a marvelously clever "etymological" word play, verse 9

announces, "Therefore [that is why] its name is called Babel,

because there Yahweh confused the lip [language] of all the

earth and scattered them across the face of the whole earth."

The formula NKe-lfa with xrAqA is quite common as an explana-

tory inference from a reported event and is used most often with

place names.70  Here it introduces the meaning given by the

Israelites for Babylon. The word llaBA provided a satirical meaning

of “confusion” for the proud Babylonians' name.71 The story

shows how this gate of the gods fell far short of expectations,

ending in confusion and chaos.

So Yahweh scattered them across the face of the earth. The

text need not imply that the confusion was immediately reached

nor the scattering instantaneous. The narrator fixed this point

from which the division of the peoples and the languages would

begin and move ever farther.72


The Dispersion of the Nations in Genesis 11:1-9             133




Irony is seen in the beginning and the ending of this pas-

sage. The group at Babel began as the whole earth (11:1), but

now they were spread over the whole earth (11:9). By this the

lesson is clarified: God's purpose will be accomplished in spite of

the arrogance and defiance of man's own purposes. He brings

down the proud, but exalts the faithful.

The significance of this little story is great. It explains to

God's people how the nations were scattered abroad. Yet the

import goes much deeper. The fact that it was Babylon, the

beginning of kingdoms under Nimrod from Cush, adds a rather

ominous warning: Great nations cannot defy God and long sur-

vive. The new nation of Israel need only survey the many nations

around her to perceive that God disperses and curses the rebel-

lious, bringing utter confusion and antagonism among them. If

Israel would obey and submit to God's will, then she would be the

source of blessing to the world.

Unfortunately, Israel also raised her head in pride and re-

fused to obey the Lord God. Thus she too was scattered across the

face of the earth.




1 B. Jacob, The First Book of the Bible: Genesis, ed. and trans. Ernest I. Jacob

and Walter Jacob (New York: KTAV" Publishing House, 1974), p. 79. Luther felt this

story gave rise to the story of the giants trying to expel Jupiter (Jaroslav Pelikan,

ed., Luther's Works, Lectures on Genesis, Chapters 6-14 [St. Louis: Concordia

Publishing House, 1960], p. 211.

2 Hugo Gressmann, The Tower of Babel (New York: Jewish Institute of Religion

Press, 1928), p. 3.

3 Delitzsch explains that the primitive language through this intervention "died

the death from which comparative philology is incapable of awakening it" (Franz

Delitzsch, A New Commentary on Genesis, trans. Sophia Taylor [Edinburgh: T.

& T. Clark, 18991, p. 355).

4 Harold G. Stigers, A Commentary on Genesis (Grand Rapids: Zondervan

Publishing House, 1976), p. 129.

5 A. Dillmann, Genesis, Critically and Exegetically Expounded (Edinburgh: T.

& T. Clark, 1897), p. 387.

6 Theological Dictionary of the Old Testament, s.v. "Babhel," by Helmer Ring-

gren, 1:467.

7 Spoken of in the singular, the "pure lip" must mean the language barriers will

be broken down to make one universal tongue. The second idea in the expression

means that their speech will be cleansed.

8 The Bible uses this word for both Ethiopia and the Kassite power. What the

connection is remains a matter of debate. In this connection, the similarities

between Ethiopic and Akkadian are interesting for speculation.

134                 Bibliotheca Sacra - April-June 1981


9 Derek Kidner, Genesis: An Introduction and Commentary (Downers Grove,

IL: InterVarsity Press, 1967), p. 110.

10 Fokkelman diagrams it as follows:

A tHAx, hpAWA Cr,xAhA-lkA (v. 1)

  B   MwA (v. 2)

C  Uhfere-lx, wyyxi (v. 3)

   D  Mynibel; hnAB;l;ni hbAhA (v. 3)

E   Unl.A-hn,b;ni  (v.  4)

   F   lDAg;miU ryfi  (v. 5)

X txor;li hvAhy; dr,y.eva (v. 5)

   F’  lDAg;miha-tx,v; ryfihA-tx, (v. 5)

E'  MdAxAhA yneb; UnBA rw,xE  (v. 5)

   D'  hlAb;nAv; . . . hbAhA  (v. 7)

C' Uhrere tpaW; wyxi (v. 7)

      B'  Mw.Ami (v. 8)

A'  (llaBA) Cr,xAhA-lKA tpaW; (v. 9)

(J. P. Fokkelman, Narrative Art in Genesis [Assen Amsterdam: Van Gorcum,

1975], p. 22). In verse 1 is the strong statement of one language for the race. In

verse 9 Yahweh confused them. In verse 3 they spoke to one another, but in verse

7 they were not able to understand each other. In verses 3 and 4 is the workers'

double cohortative, and in verse 7 is Yahweh's cohortative mirroring their words.

In verse 4 the people wish a tower in the heavens, and in verse 7 Yahweh comes

down from heaven. In verse 4 they desire a name; in verse 9 the name is called

Babel. In verse 4 they fear scattering; in verse 8 they are scattered (U. Cassuto,

From Noah to Abraham, trans. J. Abrahams [Jerusalem: Magnes Press, 19641,

pp. 230-34).

11 While some may find such a discussion fanciful or strained, it cannot be

ignored. There is in good literature a clear choice of words and a deliberate

juxtapositioning of phrases to reflect and enhance the ideas. The style in this

section and in much of Genesis 1--11 has been a prime factor in distinguishing

this section from the second part in Genesis, namely, chapters 12-50.

12 E. W. Bullinger, Figures of Speech Used in the Bible (1898; reprint, Grand

Rapids: Baker Book House, 1968), p. 307.

13 Fokkelman points out that the fact that one word is the word with a prefix

and the other is the root itself in no way destroys the effect of the sound of these

letters which are played on six times in the story (Narrative Art in Genesis, pp. 14-15).

14 Ibid., p. 14.

15 Hubris on the positive side is pride, megalomania, a wanting to be like God,

and an overstepping of one's bounds. On the negative side it is the fear of having

to live without safety and existential security, of being lonely and vulnerable. So

their hubris leads them to act impiously and brings down God's judgment. It is

crime and punishment, both of which are caused by pride that oversteps bounds

(Fokkelman, Narrative Art in Genesis, p. 16; see also Donald E. Gowan, When

Man Becomes God: Humanism and Hubris in the Old Testament (Pittsburgh:

Pickwick Press, 1975] ).

16 E. A. Speiser, Genesis, The Anchor Bible (Garden City, NY: Doubleday & Co.,

1964), p. 75. It is riot to be inferred from this statement that Speiser holds a

conservative view of this Scripture.

17 It is necessary to say at the outset that it is not that the writer saw a ziggurat

and composed a myth about the origin of languages, and that this myth somehow

found its way into the Book of Genesis. Rather, Genesis implies that such towers


The Dispersion of the Nations in Genesis 11:1-9             135


had not been built before this and this would be quite unique (Howard F. Vos,

Genesis and Archaeology [Chicago: Moody Press, 1963], p. 47).

18 Emil G. Kraeling, "The Earliest Hebrew Flood Story," Journal of Biblical

Literature 66 (1947):282.

19 Cassuto, From Noah to Abraham, p. 227; Andre Parrot, Ziggurats et Tour de

Babel (Paris: Editions Albin Michel, 1949); Merrill F. Unger, Archaeology and the

Old Testament (Grand Rapids: Zondervan Publishing House, 1954), p. 47; En-

cyclopedia Biblica, s.v. "Babylon," by A. Oppenheim, 2:28.

20 Gressmann, The Tower of Babel, pp. 15-19. Gressmann thought the tower

structure was related to their understanding of the world with God at the pinna-

cle, the door of heaven, and man on the slopes of the artificial mountain. The

entire world rested on the breast of the underworld. Thus it was fitting for this to

be included in primeval events. Most would view it as an artificial high place of

worship erected on the plain.

21 Cassuto, From Noah to Abraham, p. 228. Cassuto is (unnecessarily) assum-

ing that the traditions demand a city and a tower in ruins. The judgment passage,

however, says absolutely nothing of that at all. The most that is said is that this

project was not completed.

22 E. A. Speiser, Genesis, p. 75. This argumentation is used here simply to

show the difficulty in ascribing the identification to E-temen-anki even if one were

to take the late date of the composition in accordance with a J document.

23 E. A. Speiser, "Word Plays on the Creation Epic's Version of the Founding of

Babylon," Orientalia, n.s. 25 (1956):317-18. Speiser shows that there is a chron-

ological problem with the date of J and E-temen-anki, but then he adds in his

argumentation that other temples also had the -anki element in the name, such as

Borsippa's which was E-ur-me-imin-anki, "house of the seven preceptors of

heaven and earth," so that we are not limited to one reference that first fits the

idea with -anki. His point is that the source was literary and not monumental


24 James B. Pritchard, ed., Ancient Near Eastern Texts Relating to the Old

Testament, 3d ed. (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1969), p. 60.

Speiser, who translated the Akkadian myths and epics for Pritchard's work, states

at the outset that the majority of the scholars would assign Enuma Elish to the

Old Babylonian period on internal evidence alone. Unger explains that it was

composed in the days of Hammurabi in the mold of political and religious prop-

aganda to show the preeminence of Babylon and supremacy of Marduk. "However,

the poem itself, though one of the literary masterpieces of the Babylonian Sem-

ites, goes back to much earlier times. It is clearly based upon the earlier traditions

of the Sumerians, the non-Semitic precursors of the Babylonian Semites in lower

Babylonia" (Unger, Archaeology arid the Old Testament, p. 27).

25 Speiser, "Word Plays," p. 319. He compares this to other and similar phrases

to show that they did it frequently.

26 Alexander Heidel, The Babylonian Genesis (Chicago: University of Chicago

Press, 1942), p. 48. Heidel had the same difficulty attempting to render it "deep."

Speiser says, "I was equally at sea in translating “equaling apsu. "' Speiser alludes

to Enuma Elish, tablet IV, lines 142-45, where apsu = samamu (Speiser, "Word

Plays," p. 319).

27 The making of the first brick was a trial ordeal before the gods and was to be

accomplished by the king. The ceremony of the bricks was to be a sign that the

service was offered to the gods (Henri Frankfort, Kingship and the Gods [Chicago:

University of Chicago Press, 1948), pp. 272-74).

28 Theological Dictionary of the Old Testament, s.v. "Bbhel,"byH. Ringgren,

1:467. Ringgren suggests that the metropolis with so many peoples (= lan-

136                 Bibliotheca Sacra-April-June 1981


guages) was natural for such an account of the dispersion.

29 Cassuto, From Noah to Abraham, p. 227.

30 It seems clear that the story did not originate in Babylon. There is no exact

correspondence, but that is to be expected since it is a travesty on Babel. Gress-

mann thought the story came from Babylon to the Assyrians and was brought to

the Israelites by the Arameans, but that is unlikely (Gressmann, The Tower of

Babel, p. 5). There were stories of the glories of Babylon with all the towers and

cult mountains even in Palestine (Gerhard von Rad, Genesis, trans. John Marks

[London: SCM Press, 1972], p. 146). Later it would be recorded by the classical

writers: Diodorus 2.7; Herodotus 1.178; Strabo 16.1.5; and Pliny 6.121.

31 Vos, Genesis and Archaeology, p. 47.

32 S. N. Kramer, "The 'Babel of Tongues': A Sumerian Version," in Essays in

Memory of E. A. Speiser, ed. W W Hallo (New Haven, CT: American Oriental

Society, 1968), pp. 108-11; George Smith, The Chaldean Account of Genesis

(New York: Scribner, Armstrong & Co., 1876), p. 160.

33 Cassuto, From Noah to Abraham, pp. 229-30. Cassuto has attempted to

reconstruct the type of satirical material behind the passage by relating the

passage to the time when Babylon was sacked by the Hittites. The idea of the

message as a polemic (against what the Israelites would have known Babylon

claimed for herself as opposed to the truth) is an accurate presentation of the

message, but Cassuto does not treat the text with precision. In the first place,

Genesis presents it as a universal judgment on the race collected in Shinar and not

one group of people scattered by the Hittites. True, Cassuto is looking for some

occasion and the Hittite invasion is a happy one for him. However, that is

unwarranted. Second, there is no hint whatsoever that the city and the tower

were reduced to rubble. They were just not completed. Third, the text is not saying

that all the languages could be spoken there but that one was once in the

beginning and God confounded it. Cassuto's attempt to take a naturalistic ex-

planation to the occasion for the text weakens it.

34 Alan Richardson, Genesis I -XI: Introduction and Commentary (London:

SCM Press, 1953), p. 124.

35 Kidner, Genesis, p. 111.

36 Ryle observed that "we are led to suspect that the mystery of the origin of

distinct languages belongs to the dim obscurity of the infancy of the human race,

an infinitely remote and prehistoric age" (Herbert E. Ryle, The Book of Genesis

[Cambridge: University Press, 1914], p. 144).

37 Von Rad, Genesis, p. 143.

38 Kidner, Genesis, p. 109.

39 John A. Skinner, A Critical and Exegetical Commentary on Genesis (Edin-

burgh: T. & T. Clark, 1910), p. 224. Skinner was quick to add that the incon-

sistency is not such that would hinder the collector of traditions from putting the

two in historical sequence.

40 Von Rad, Genesis, pp. 147-48.

41 H. C. Leupold, Exposition of Genesis, 2 vols. (Grand Rapids: Baker Book

House, 1942), 1:381.

42 Skinner, A Critical and Exegetical Commentary on Genesis, p. 220.

43 This is suggested by Driver who follows Sayce in the suggestion (S. R. Driver,

The Book of Genesis [London: Methuen & Co., 1913], p. 130).

44 Josephus referred the dispersion to the time of Peleg and related the whole

story to the efforts of Nimrod (Antiquities of the Jews 1.146, and Apion 1.19). Most

traditional scholars have followed this line.

45 According to Genesis 11:10, 12, 14, and 16 Peleg was in the fifth generation

after the Flood. At this time, according to Keil, there could have been 30,000

people on the earth. That may be a bit generous, but even a conservative estima-

The Dispersion of the Nations in Genesis 11:1-9             137


tion turns up enough to satisfy the passage. Certainly not all the tribes listed in

chapter 10 need to have been existing at Babel (C. F. Keil and F. Delitzsch, The

Pentateuch, Biblical Commentary on the Old Testament, trans. James Martin, 25

vols. [reprint, Grand Rapids: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co., 19681, 1:176).

46 For example, Genesis 37 records the sale of Joseph into Egypt. The story line

of Genesis 38 traces the family of Judah into further generations. Chapter 39,

however, traces the account of Joseph from his sale into Egypt. The same could be

posited for chapter 1 (the total survey of creation) and chapter 2 (the selective

discussion of the main elements of the creation, viz., man and woman). The

princes of Edom (chap. 36) are also discussed in some development before the

narration returns to the story.

47 Jacob, The First Book of the Bible, p. 80.

48 The concept of dispersion or scattering of peoples was an ancient one.

Kitchen deals with the idea of exile and scattering in the ancient literature to show

that the concept was real (fearfully real) for Israel (Kenneth A. Kitchen, "Ancient

Orient, 'Deuteronomism,' and the Old Testament," in New Perspectives on the

Old Testament, ed. J. Barton Payne [Waco, TX: Word Books, 1970), pp. 1-24).

49 Cassuto entitles the first half of the narrative, "Many Are the Plans in the

Mind of Man" (Cassuto, From Noah to Abraham, p. 238).

50 Jacob, The First Book of the Bible, p. 79.

51 Isaiah 19:18 describes those who speak the language of Canaan; Isaiah 33:19

portrays the foreigners with deep speech and stammering tongue; Ezekiel 3:5

describes the people as deep of lip i(= strange speech) and heavy of tongue (=

hard language). The lip, mouth, or tongue were frequently employed in metonomy

to represent the speech or the language.

52 George Bush, Notes on Genesis, 2 vols. (reprint, Minneapolis: James & Klock

Publishing Co., n.d.), 1:183.

53 Making bricks to replace the unavailable stones would further feed the pride

of the people who would rise above their difficulties. These bricks (libittu) are mud

bricks (Chicago Assyrian Dictionary, s.v. "libittu").

54 Jacob, The First Book of the Bible, p. 77.

55 Von Rad, Genesis, p. 146. Several examples of this are seen in Judges 8:9;

9:46; 2 Chronicles 14:6; and Isaiah 2:15.

56 Richardson, Genesis I -XI, p. 128.

57 Von Rad, Genesis, p. 145.

58 Cassuto called this section, "It Is the Purpose of the Lord That Will Be

Established" (From Noah to Abraham, p. 244).

59 Midrash Pirke of R. Eliezer (c. 14) records ten comings down of the Lord:

Paradise, Babel, Sodom, the Bush, Sinai, twice at the Rock, twice at the

Tabernacle, and once in the last day. The coming down was viewed as Yahweh's

revealing of Himself. It is seen in Scripture as the divine intervention breaking

through the course of events (Exod. 19:20; 34:5; Num. 11:25; 12:5); however, one

should also see Exodus 3:8 and Numbers 11:7 (for deliverance and blessing).

60 Cited by von Rad, Genesis, p. 145.

61 Consequently, this writer takes the waw antithetically: "But Yahweh came

down" - in contrast to their efforts to ascend.

62 Throughout these verses the divine mood is not anger for depravity but rather

laughter at foolishness (Jacob, The First Book of the Bible, p. 79). Kidner observed

that the note of foreboding marks a father's concern and not a rival's. He shows

that it is like Christ's words in Luke 23:31, "If they do these things in a green tree

. . . " (Kidner, Genesis, p. 110). It is better to have division than to have collective

apostasy in unity and peace.

63 Compare Nimrod's beginning with kingdoms and Noah's beginning with viniculture.

138                 Bibliotheca Sacra-April-June 1981


64 The two-recension theory bypasses the issue. It still remains a surprise that a

"redactor" would leave such an incongruity unrevised (Cassuto, From Noah to

Abraham, p. 246).

65 Dillmann, Genesis, p. 393.

66 He offers as examples for this construction Genesis 26:22 ("thinking, for the

LORD now ...") and Exodus 2:10 ("she named ... reflecting. .(Cassuto, From

Noah to Abraham, p. 246).

67 The word "Us" is taken here as a plural of majesty as in the earlier chapters

of Genesis. For a discussion of its use with verbs, see Gerhard F. Hasel, "The

Meaning of 'Let Us' in Gn 1:26," Andrews University Seminary Studies 13


68 Bush, Notes on the Book of Genesis, p. 179.

69 See Exodus 1:12 and 1:10 for a similar situation. The Egyptians were afraid

Israel would multiply, but the more they attempted to stop it, the more they


70 Burke 0. Long, The Problem of Etiological Narrative in the Old Testament

(Berlin: Alfred Topelmann, 1968), p. 3.

71 The name in the Achaemenid literature came to mean "the gate of God"

(Bab-ill), or perhaps "the gate of the gods." In Persian it is Babirus. In Sumerian

it is KA.DINGIR.K(A). The idea that Babylon was one of the oldest cities (Gen.

10:10) was current in Babylon itself, for the name is believed to have been proto-

Euphratian and part of the heritage of the earliest pre-Sumerian or Semitic


The Encyclopedia Judaica (s.v. "Babylon, "p. 31) mentions this as the view of

B. Landsberger and refers the reader to Die Serie ana ittisu (1937) for the

discussion. The first mention of Babylon in cuneiform texts is from the period of

the Third Dynasty of Ur when it was a provincial government.

Bush illustrated how the connotative meaning carried by saying that there

can be no doubt that the Latin words balbus ("stammerer") and balbutio ("stam-

mering") derive their origin from Hebrew llaBA, or, by the doubling of the first

radical, balbel, bilbel, from which latter form of the word comes ~n, closely

related to the English and German babble. The Greek (3aQ(3aQ6g (by commutation

of liquids for balbalos), "barbarian," primarily signifying a person of rude or

outlandish pronunciation, is doubtlessly referring to the same root (Bush, Notes

on Genesis, 1:178). The Oxford English Dictionary (s.v. "babble"), however, says

of babble that "in none [of these languages] can its history be carried far back; as

yet it is known in English as early as anywhere else.... No direct connexion with

Babel can be traced; though association with that may have affected the senses. "

72 Figart suggests that this point would be the logical place for the development

of races to begin. The text of Genesis 11:6 makes a point of the unity of the race

("one people"), but according to Genesis 10 they are dispersed according to

families, nations, tongues, and lands. He says, "Again, if God intervened and

miraculously changed man's looks, as well as his language, then there is no need

to account for these changes through isolation, environment, or culture. This is

not to dismiss the known effects of these three factors; we have already shown

some possible changes. Yet, if God did the initial changing of genetic structure,

then those other factors were only modifying means within the limits set by God.

As a matter of fact, this is all they could be in any interpretation" (Thomas O.

Figart, A Biblical Perspective on the Race Problem [Grand Rapids: Baker Book

House, 1973], p. 45). Figart then proceeds to mention places in Scripture where

God does intervene and change the structure of mankind (the Fall and the

Rapture). He concludes that the silence of the Table concerning Negroid and

Mongoloid peoples is to be related to the purpose of the Table, that is, the rela-

tionship of Israel to her neighbors (p. 49).

This material is cited with gracious permission from:

Dallas Theological Seminary

            3909 Swiss Ave.

            Dallas, TX   75204  

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