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Bible Commentaries

Thomas Coke Commentary on the Holy Bible

Genesis 11





Men begin to build the city and tower of Babel: God confounds their language: and disperses them over all the earth. The posterity of Shem: Abram marries Sarai: Terah dies.

Verse 1

Genesis 11:1. The whole earth All the inhabitants of the earth, before they were divided and dispersed, spoke one common language, as descended from one common parent. The word, rendered languages שׂפה sapah, signifies lip, as the margin of our Bibles has it; and the word דברים debarim, speech, is plural, and may be rendered "the same words:" so that, probably, hereby is only expressed, that "all men used the same words pronounced in the same manner; they had the same pronunciation, and the same language." Mr. Parkhurst observes, that as sapah signifies sense, sentiment, as well as speech and language, the meaning of this place is, "that mankind in general were unanimous in their speech and counsels, and appeared so in their sentiments and designs (probably because united under one political government); and coming to the delightful plain of Shinar, they intended all to settle there, instead of spreading themselves into the unknown countries of the earth; and to this purpose encouraged one another to build a large city, and a high tower or temple, to prevent their separation, Genesis 11:4 but that God miraculously interposed, and confounded or frustrated this rebellious scheme, which was inconsistent with his will." It clearly appears, that whatever further may be implied, the words certainly express an intercommunity of the same language, and a confusion of that common language afterwards, Genesis 11:7. The reader will be pleased to remember, that when it is said in the foregoing chapter, that the earth was divided by Noah's posterity according to their tongues or language, we remarked, at the beginning of that chapter, that the division of the earth was posterior to the event recorded here, of the confusion of languages.

Verse 2

Genesis 11:2. As they journeyed from the earth Hence it seems to follow, that the whole posterity of Noah continued together, till now, united under one common head, most probably living in tents, and, according to the most early custom, removing from place to place, for the better convenience of pasturage and the like. And it came to pass, as they journeyed thus eastward, (for so it should be rendered,) more and more towards the east, they arrived at a plain in the land of Shinar, where they pitched their tents, being delighted with it, and continued. By the land of Shinar is meant the pleasant valley, along which the river Tigris runs, comprehending the country of Eden, the happy seat of Adam in his state of innocence; near which, it is probable, his righteous descendants dwelt before the flood; and consequently Noah, as the guide of his family, may well be supposed desirous of returning thither, and so of directing his course that way, or towards the east. It is plain, from scripture, that Babel was the same with the city of Babylon; and Moses expressly says, that Babel lay in the land of Shinar, ch. Genesis 10:10. as well as three other cities which are there mentioned, and found to be situated on the banks of the Tigris; and many footsteps of the name of Shinar in these parts are to be met with, both in ancient and modern authors.

Verse 3

Genesis 11:3. And they said one to another, &c.— United in language and sentiment, they agreed to provide proper materials, and so to build a city, which might be a more certain habitation than moveable tents, which might also unite them under one government and polity, and give them strength and celebrity. The materials they provided, were brick instead of stone, and for mortar or cement they had slime, bitumen, a kind of liquid pitch, which sometimes is gathered under ground in brittle masses of a fat, inflammable substance, and sometimes like the glutinous matter or pitch which distils from the pine-tree; though generally bitumen boils up out of the earth, and swims on the surface of the water like a black oil or scum, which thickens to a consistence after having been exposed a little while to the air: and in that form it is found in certain springs, of which there are many in Assyria. Several authors describe the walls of Babylon to have been built of such materials as are here mentioned. Coctilibus muris cinxisse Semiramis urbem, says Ovid, Met. iv. 57. "surrounded Babylon with walls of brick." And Herodotus says, the walls were cemented with asphaltus, or the pitch above described.

Verse 4

Genesis 11:4. Go to, let us build, &c.— They proposed to build a magnificent city with a tower, either for defence or for religion, though for the latter most probably; whose top, says our translation, may reach unto heaven. There is nothing in the Hebrew for may reach; it is only said there, and its head, or top, to heaven: nevertheless, as almost all the versions supply, may reach, the passage may be understood as a vaunt in these builders, expressing the very superlative height to which they would exalt their tower. See Deuteronomy 9:1. It is however very probable, that this tower was originally destined to idolatrous worship; to which, it is well known, it served in after-ages; as we have accounts of the idols, &c. found there; particularly, of a stupendous image of the sun. It was repaired and beautified by Nebuchadnezzar, and called the Temple of Bel, or Belus, or Lord: of this an exact account may be read in Prideaux, vol. 1: In this sense we may well understand the passage, and its top to heaven, or the heavens, as expressing its dedication to the heavens and their hosts, the sun, moon, &c. which were, perhaps, the first objects of idolatrous worship. This agrees nearly with Archbishop Tennison, who supposes, that this tower was consecrated by the builders of it to the sun, as the cause of drying up the waters of the deluge. The Jerusalem Targum, and some of the great Jewish Rabbies, seem to be of the same opinion. Thus this temple was to be the centre, and their idolatrous worship the cement, of their union. For my own part, I cannot but think, "a tower with its top dedicated to the heavens and their hosts," the best interpretation of the passage, especially as antiquity assures us, the top of this tower was dedicated to Bel, or the Sun.

And let us make us a name, lest, &c.— Their intention in building the city and tower, was to make themselves a name, and to prevent their being scattered abroad upon the face of the whole earth, as God probably declared [but certainly designed] they should. The scheme was to keep together, and very likely under one head. Let us, say the heads or leaders of this design, make us a name, a monument or token of superiority or eminence; to signify, I conceive, to all succeeding generations, that they were the true original governors to whom mankind ought to be in subjection; lest other leaders starting up should carry off parties, so break the body, and set up separate governments. It seems to have been a piece of state-policy to keep all mankind together, under their present chiefs and their successors. And the lofty tower was, probably, intended (among other purposes) to command every part of the city, and to keep off any body of men who should attempt to break in upon them. To this let it be added, that the giants are called men of name, or renown, ch. Genesis 6:4. like whom, these Babel-builders seemed desirous to procure glory and a name, by strengthening themselves in their city, which they would make the metropolis of the world, and there preserve the seat of universal empire, thus keeping their colonies united, in opposition, as it were, to God and all his designs of peopling the earth by their dispersion.

REFLECTIONS.—Observe here, the original corruption still operating, and manifesting itself in the daring design and attempt of this generation. Note; 1. They who seek a great name, and make this their ruling motive, will often find at last their conduct stamped with infamy. 2. When presumptuous sinners, or the self-sufficient, build up their hopes of heaven highest, their confusion is nearest, and their ruin inevitable. 3. There is no counsel or might against the Lord: they who attempt to disappoint his determination, only in the end cover themselves with shame.

A spacious plain in the land of Shinar, where they dwelt, afforded them means; and unity of language united them in their designs. Note; many a worldly heart is so pleased with its accommodations on earth, that here it would fain build its abode; and putting its name in this Shinar, look no farther.

Observe also, the methods they pursued. 1. They encouraged each other:—Go to. When people are unanimous, what can they not accomplish. 2. They provided themselves durable materials, and therefore promised themselves success in their undertaking. Learn hence, (1.) The great help of united efforts: shall the children of this world unite, and shall the children of God be divided? (2.) Nothing is so promising as to resolve, and do they set about the work immediately. To die only resolving, as is the case with too many, is never the way to build the tower which can reach to heaven.

Verse 5

Genesis 11:5. And the Lord came down to see, &c. — All allow, the Lord's coming down to see the city and tower, is to be understood, "after the manner of men," by way of accommodation to our conceptions; and means no more, than that by the effects he made it appear, that he observed their motions, and knew their intentions: and this is a very proper way, in our embodied state, of representing the actions of Deity. Some suppose, that the Messiah, the Word of God, is here meant.

Verse 6

Genesis 11:6. The people is one One in sentiment and design, and one in language also: this seems to confirm the opinion advanced in note on Genesis 11:1.

Verse 7

Genesis 11:7. Let us go down, &c.— God is said to go down, when he executes any work upon earth, which makes his power and presence signally known. The plural us is another proof of the sacred doctrine of the Trinity. See note on ch. Genesis 1:26.

And there confound their language If this word (language) in the first verse, imports not only speech, but sentiment, the confusion here occasioned by the Lord among them, must have been in both. He not only occasioned a confusion and dissension of sentiment among them, but also a confusion in their language or speech, insomuch that one man was not able to understand what another said. We have no business to examine into the manner how this might be occasioned, when we consider, that it was the immediate work of God; who, doubtless, by a thousand means could have effected this end: nor does there appear more difficulty in occasioning such a confusion in language, or pronunciation, than of giving the power of speaking all languages to men utterly unskilled in them. See Acts 2. Certain however it is, that the confusion produced the end designed by the Lord, and brought on that dispersion and division of mankind, which was a natural consequence of division either in language or sentiment: those who understood the same language, and were of the same sentiments, naturally uniting together. So the earth came to be peopled; these men gradually separating, most probably by joint consent, and the generality of them leaving the city and tower they had begun to build, which, from that event, was called Babel, or confusion: and thus did the Lord scatter or disperse them over all the earth; that is, by means of this event, he caused them to be dispersed; the scripture frequently applying that directly to God, which is only the consequence of his agency.

It has been inquired, in what the crime of these builders at Babel more especially consisted? In answer to which, let the reader consider what hath been said of their attempt, in the note on Acts 2:4. And it will also appear, that, by this scheme, a great part of the earth would have been for a long time uninhabited, uncultivated, and over-run with wild beasts. But, most probably, the bad effects which this project would have had upon the minds, the morals, and the religion of mankind, was the chief reason why God interposed to crush it as soon as it was formed. It had manifestly a direct tendency to tyranny, oppression, and slavery; whereas, in forming several independent governments, by a small body of men, the ends of government, and the security of liberty and property, would be much better attended to, and more firmly established; which, in fact, was generally the case. Corruption may creep into religion under any constitution; but tyranny and despotic power is the readier and surest way to deprive men of the use of understanding and conscience: and vice and idolatry would have spread much faster, had the whole world, in one body, been under the absolute dominion of vicious, insolent, and idolatrous monarchs. This would have been a state of things just in the opposite extreme of the ante-diluvian licentiousness, and would have been nearly as pernicious to all morality and religion, as it must have sunk mankind into the basest servility of soul, and have stocked the earth with a mean-spirited race of mortals, who durst not open their own eyes, make any generous use of their own faculties, or relish the bounties of heaven with pleasure and thankfulness.

For these wise and beneficent reasons, I presume, the Divine Providence interposed, and baffled the project, (which, in the then circumstances of the projectors, would otherwise have been unhappily successful,) by confounding their language in such a manner, as that they could not understand one another. Thus the contagion of wickedness, for some time at least, had bounds set to it; evil example was confined, and could not stretch its influence beyond the limits of one country: nor could wicked projects be carried on with universal concurrence by many little colonies, separated by the natural boundaries of mountains, rivers, and deserts, and hindered from associating together by a variety of languages, unintelligible to each other. And further, in this dispersed state, they would, whenever God pleased, be made checks reciprocally upon each other by invasions and wars; which would weaken the power and humble the pride of corrupt and vicious communities. This dispensation, therefore, was properly calculated to prevent a second universal degeneracy; God therein dealing with men as rational agents, and suiting his designs to their present state and circumstances. This dispersion probably happened about two hundred and forty years after the flood.

REFLECTIONS.—We have here, 1. The name God gives these mighty workers, the children of men. Observe, (1.) They are children of vanity; foolish in their designs, and weak in their efforts against God. (2.) They are children of corruption, wicked as well as weak; and therefore obnoxious, in their state of degeneracy, to the divine displeasure.

2. God's resolution to confound their enterprize. He beheld their pride, but he is able to abase them. When the wicked say, "Let us cast off his bands, and break his cords from us," they are but forging their own chains. God mocks at the impotent attempt, and will make it appear as foolish as it is impious.

3. The method God took: he confounded their language; a method perfectly effectual to prevent their design: they could no longer join in counsel, nor obey command. Whenever he pleaseth, he can as easily disappoint the devices of the wicked, as he now divided their tongues. It was a mercy he visited them no farther: had he said, Let us go down, and consume them utterly, he had been righteous; but he mingles mercy with judgment in this world: it is in the next, where the impenitent will have judgment without mercy.

4. The effect produced: they left off to build. It is high time to have done, when God stands against us.

Verse 10

Genesis 11:10. These are the generations of Shem The sacred historian having thus far given us an account of such events as concern all mankind, now prepares to quit the narration of general transactions, for the more immediate history of that family, which was chosen by God to be the vehicle of his sacred promises, as well as the progenitors of the Messiah. Accordingly, he resumes the genealogy of Shem and his third son Arphaxad, from whom Abram, the father of the faithful, was lineally descended. And it merits peculiar attention, as it serves to give a good reason of the longevity of the patriarchs, and the wisdom of God in that dispensation, that from Adam to Abram there were only three descents: for Adam lived to see Methuselah; Methuselah, Shem; and Shem, Abram; nay, Shem was alive even at the birth of Isaac: by which means it is easy to observe how well the tradition and notices of facts might be kept up, as well as the original language (whatever it was) spoken by Adam, and by all men, before the confusion at Babel. "This language," says Calmet, "was the Hebrew, or some language which had a very great conformity with the Hebrew."

REFLECTIONS.—The descendants of Shem to Abram are here recounted. This genealogy is preserved for our sakes, that we might see the fulfilment of God's promises in the woman's seed; among whose ancestors Abram stands in so distinguished a light. Note; the parts of scripture which seem least practical, are not always least useful. It is observable, the age of man gradually decreased after the flood, either from some physical causes operating upon the body, or from God's immediate hand. It is a blessing to us, that threescore years and ten are now the limits; a soul which is truly seeking God, will count it enough to be so long confined in a sinful world.

Verse 27

Genesis 11:27. These are the generations of Terah It may be proper to remark, that it appears, from this genealogy, that these patriarchs begat children about the age of thirty, which may therefore serve as a mean number in any calculation. When it is said, that Terah lived seventy years, and begat three sons, it means, that of these three the eldest was then first born; the same method of speaking is used with regard to Noah, ch. Genesis 5:32. And as Shem is mentioned first, though youngest of the sons of Noah, so Abram is here mentioned first, though youngest of the sons of Terah; "who begat him," says Mr. Locke, "at one hundred and thirty." It was necessary to give this account of these three sons of Terah, as they are connected so much with the subsequent history; but it does not follow from this, that these were the only children Terah had: nay indeed, it appears to the contrary, Sarah having been his daughter by another wife, and so half-sister to her husband Abraham, see ch. Genesis 20:12. The eastern writers unanimously agree, that Terah was a statuary, or carver of idols, which employment was judged a very honourable one among the Chaldaeans, the person who followed it being considered as a maker of gods. However it is added, that he was converted by his son Abraham, and by his persuasions prevailed upon to leave Ur. See Dr. Herbelot's Bibl. Orientale. Josephus says, he quitted Chaldaea, not being able to endure the country after the loss of his son Haran.

Verse 31

Genesis 11:31. They went forth from Ur—to go into Canaan—and came unto Haran Terah, with his son Abram with Sarai, and his grandson Lot, leaving Nahor and his family behind, from what motive it doth not appear, probably from the call of God, Nehemiah 9:7, left Ur of the Chaldees, purposing to go into the land of Canaan; but the old man stopt short, and died in his two hundredth and fifth year at Haran, a city in the north-west parts of Mesopotamia, celebrated for the defeat of Crassus, situated on or near the Euphrates, directly in Terah's way to Canaan, about one and twenty miles distant from Ur. It is rendered in the Greek, Charran, Acts 7:2. Some think Terah gave it the name of Haran from his son, who died a little before; but Le Clerc supposes it comes from a word signifying "parched or burnt up," on account of the parched deserts in its neighbourhood. Ur is called of the Chaldees by way of anticipation, as this land was not so called till long after this period. Chaldaea, in Greek and Roman authors, denotes the country lying between Mesopotamia (and taking in part of it, especially those parts lying along the Tigris) to the north, Susiana to the east, the Persian Bay to the south, and Arabia Deserta to the west. Its capital city was Babylon, hence called the beauty of the Chaldees' excellency, Isaiah 13:19. Ur lay in the eastern part of Mesopotamia, and is supposed to have been built by Ashur the son of Shem. The name of Ur, which in Hebrew denotes light or fire, is supposed to have been given to this city, either because the Chaldaeans were the first who studied astronomy and the motions of the celestial luminaries; or, most likely, because the sun, or fire, the great symbol of the sun, was worshipped there. For the sun appears to have been the most ancient object of false worship: hence, the Hebrew word for images, chamman, signifies temples or images of the sun; and hence, we are told by Maimonides and others, that the first object of the Chaldaean idolatry was fire, that is, most probably, the heavenly bodies primarily, and artificial fire, as their symbol. See Deuteronomy 4:19. Job 31:26.


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Bibliography Information
Coke, Thomas. "Commentary on Genesis 11:4". Thomas Coke Commentary on the Holy Bible. 1801-1803.

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