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Bible Commentaries

John Dummelow's Commentary on the Bible

Genesis 11

 

 

Verses 1-32


The Tower of Babel. The Descendants of Shem to Abraham

We have here the ancient Hebrew explanation of the diversity of human language, and of the wide dispersion of the human race. Babylon is represented as the original centre of human civilisation after the Flood. The splendid buildings of Babylonia were among the most remarkable achievements of human power and pride. But they were repugnant to the Jews as being associated with idolatry, and their erection is here regarded as rebellion against Jehovah, who confounds the language of the builders, and brings about their dispersion. 'The story emphasises the supremacy of the One God over all the inhabitants of the world, and ascribes to His wisdom that distribution into languages and nations which secured the dissemination of mankind.. and provided for the dispersion of civilising influences into different quarters of the globe. Above' all, it teaches that rebellion against God is the original source of discord. The gift of Pentecost, as the Fathers saw, is the converse of the story of the Tower of Babel. The true unity of the race, made known in Christ (cp. Colossians 3:11) is confirmed by the utterance of the Spirit which is heard by all alike. The believer “journeys” not away from God's presence, but draws nigh to Him by faith' (Bishop Ryle). The narrative is from the Primitive source.

1. It used to be conjectured that Hebrew was the primitive language of mankind, but it is now known that that language is only one branch, and that not the oldest, of the Semitic group of languages including Assyrian, Aramaic, Phœnician and Arabic.

2. From the east] RM 'in the east.' The writer is in Palestine. Shinar] S. Babylonia.

3. Brick.. slime (RM 'bitumen')] These were the regular materials of ancient BabyIonian architecture, as the remains of the oldest cities still show. There was no stone available in these alluvial plains.

4. A city and a tower] The principal building in every ancient city was its temple, and the chief feature of a Babylonian temple was its ziggurat or stage-tower. The remains of these towers are the most prominent of the mounds which mark the sites of ruined cities. The pile of vitrified brick near Babylon, known as Birs Nimrûd, is the best known example of such a ziggurat, and early travellers supposed it to be the biblical Tower of Babel. The most famous temple-tower, however, and the one which probably gave rise to the tradition here, was that of E-Sagila, the temple of Bel in Babylon, built of brick in seven stages, the topmost of which formed a shrine for the god. It was of extreme antiquity, and was restored and beautified by Nebuchadnezzar.

Whose top may reach unto heaven] cp. Deuteronomy 1:28. The expression 'Whose top is in the heavens' has been found on inscriptions concerning these storied towers, but it seems as if the writer regarded the enterprise as an impious attempt to scale heaven. Let us make us a name, etc.] The tower was meant to procure renown for its builders, and to serve as a centre and bond of unity, so that none would think of leaving it. The writer seems to indicate the intention of establishing a universal empire.

5. The Lord came down, etc.] The words are meant to teach that God is concerned in men's doings. But 'it is not to be thought from such modes of expression that human characteristics are intended to be ascribed to the Creator. In any age it is necessary to describe the unknown by the help of the known; and as the mysterious personality of God must ever be incomprehensible to men, there is no means in which we can represent His relations to us, except by using words borrowed from our own faculties, emotions, and modes of action '(Geikie). 6, 7. God is here represented as dreading lest men make themselves so powerful as to become His opponents. The v. is a good example of the anthropomorphism characteristic of the Primitive document.

7. Us] God is conceived as taking counsel with the angels His attendants: cp. Genesis 3:22.

9. Babel] as if from balal, 'to confound.' The true etymology, however, is Bab-ilu, 'gate of God.' See on Genesis 4:1.

10-32. The descendants of Shem to Abraham.

The formal list here is the continuation of that in Genesis 5, and both belong to the Priestly document. The early period of the world's history from the Creation to Abraham is thus represented in the form of a genealogical table. The figures given here cannot be regarded as literally historical. Only 300 years are reckoned to have elapsed between the Flood and the birth of Abraham (say 2200 b.c.), whereas the beginnings of BabyIonian civilisation can be traced back to 5000 b.c. As in Genesis 5, the number of generations is ten, a number which is common in the lists of other ancient nations. It may have been suggested by the ten fingers, as indicating completeness. We may therefore regard the present list as a conventional arrangement for bridging over the interval between the Flood and the beginnings of the Hebrew race, based on ancient tradition. It will be observed that the ages assigned to the Patriarchs enumerated in this chapter are much lower than those in Genesis 5. There is a continuous reduction from the 600 years of Shem to the 138 of Nahor. The names of the generations from Shem to Eber have already been given in Genesis 10:22-25, and the latter's Arabian descendants in the line of Joktan were there traced. Now (Genesis 11:18-26) his successors in another line are followed, until the point of supreme interest is reached in the Birth of Abraham.

14. Eber] the ancestor of the Hebrews. See on Genesis 14:13.

26. For the meaning of Abram and Sarai (Genesis 11:29) see on Genesis 17.

27. Haran] son of Terah. The Jewish Book of Jubilees declares that he was burnt to death, whilst attempting to save some of the images of the gods, when Abraham burnt the house in which they were.

31. Ur of the Chaldees] or 'Ur Kasdim.' The Chaldeans lived in S. Babylonia. The modern Mugheir, near the Euphrates, 125 m. NW. of the Persian Gulf, marks the site of an ancient city called Uru, which is by many identified with the Ur of this passage. But in the Accadian inscriptions the whole province of Accad or N. Babylonia was called Uri. Haran, the town (see next note), was also in this district, and the difficulty of explaining why Terah made the long journey of 600 m. from Mugheir disappears, if the Ur of Genesis may be identified with Uri. The family of Terah was evidently a pastoral one, and it was natural that they should make a new settlement from time to time.

31. Haran] (the Roman Carrhœ) was a city in Mesopotamia. It was an ancient seat of the worship of the moon god Sin. Caravan roads led from Haran to Syria and Palestine. Terah, who had intended to settle in Canaan, remained at Haran, and died there. Genesis 12 tells us how Abraham received the divine command to leave his home and relatives, and, in reliance on God's promise, to settle in a new country, there to found a race who should preserve the knowledge of the true God, and prove a blessing to all mankind.

32. The days of Terah were two hundred and five years] According to the Samaritan text Terah was 145 years old when he died. As Terah was 70 at the birth of Abram (Genesis 11:26) and the latter left Haran when he was 75, the Samaritan text confirms the statement in Acts 7:4 that Abram waited till after his father's death to leave Haran.

 


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Bibliography Information
Dummelow, John. "Commentary on Genesis 11:4". "John Dummelow's Commentary on the Bible". http://odl.studylight.org/commentaries/dcb/genesis-11.html. 1909.

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