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Bible Commentaries
Genesis 11

Ellicott's Commentary for English ReadersEllicott's Commentary

Verse 1


(1) The whole earth.—That is, all mankind. After giving the connection of the various races of the then known world, consisting of Armenia, the regions watered by the Tigris and Euphrates, the Arabian peninsula, the Nile valley, with the districts closely bordering on the Delta, Palestine, the Levant, and the islands of Cyprus, Rhodes, and Crete; with Lud on his journey to Asia Minor, and the Japhethites breaking their way into Europe through the country between the Caspian and the Black Sea: after this, we go back to the reason of this dispersion, which is found in the confusion of tongues.

Of one language, and of one speech.—Literally, of one lip, and of words one: that is, both the pronunciation and the vocabulary were identical. As regards this primitive language, whereas but a few years ago the differences between the Sanscrit and the Semitic tongues were regarded as irreconcilable, recent inquiries tend to show that both have a common basis.

Verse 2

(2) As they journeyed.—The word literally refers to the pulling up of the tent-pegs, and sets the human family before us as a band of nomads, wandering from place to place, and shifting their tents as their cattle needed fresh pasture.

From the east.—So all the versions. Mount Ararat was to the north-west of Shinar, and while so lofty a mountain could not have been the spot where the ark rested, yet neither could any portion of Armenia or of the Carduchian mountains be described as to the east of Babylonia. The Chaldean legends make the ark rest on Mount Nizir, or Elwend, on the east of Assyria; and though Ararat may possibly signify Aryaverta, “Holy Land,” yet the transference of the name from Elwend to Armenia is not easily explicable. Moreover, the Bible elsewhere seems to point to Armenia as the cradle of the human race. Most modern commentators, therefore, translate eastward, and such certainly is the meaning of the word in Genesis 13:11, where also the versions, excepting our own, render from the east.

Land of Shinar.—See on Genesis 10:10. The whole of Chaldea is a level plain, and the soil immensely rich, as it is an alluvial deposit, which still goes on forming at the head of the Persian Gulf, at the rate of a mile in a period estimated at from seventy to thirty years (Rawlinson, Anc. Mon., i. 4). A strip of land 130 miles in breadth has been added to the country, by the deposit of the earth washed down by the Tigris and Euphrates, since the time when Ur of the Chaldees was a great port.

Verse 3

(3) Let us make brick, and burn them throughly.—Heb., for a burning. Bricks in the East usually are simply dried in the sun, and this produces a sufficiently durable building material. It marks a great progress in the arts of civilisation that these nomads had learned that clay when burnt becomes insoluble; and their buildings with “slime,” or native pitch, for cement would be virtually indestructible. In fact, Mr. Layard says that at Birs-Nimroud it was scarcely possible to detach the bricks one from another, as the cement by which they were united was most tenacious (Nineveh and Babylon, p. 499).

Verse 4

(4) A tower, whose top may reach unto heaven.—The Hebrew is far less hyperbolical: namely, whose head (or top) is in the heavens, or skies, like the walls of the Canaanite cities (Deuteronomy 1:28). The object of the builders was twofold: first, they wished to have some central beacon which might guide them in their return from their wanderings; and secondly, they had a distinctly ambitious object, for by remaining as one nation they would be able to reduce to obedience all the tribes now perpetually wandering away from them, and so would “make them a name.” We may, indeed, dismiss the silly stories of Josephus about their defiance of God and Nimrod’s impiety, and the purpose of escaping a second deluge, for all which there is not the least vestige of authority in the sacred record; but we undoubtedly find a political purpose of preventing that dispersion of mankind which God had commanded (Genesis 1:28), and of using the consequent aggregation of population for the attaining to empire. There was probably some one able and ambitious mind at the bottom of this purpose, and doubtless it had very many advantages: for it is what is now called centralisation, by which the individual sacrifices his rights to the nation, the provinces to the capital, and small nations are bound together in one empire, that the force of the whole body may be brought to bear more rapidly and effectually in carrying out the will of the nation or of the ruler, as the case may be. Nimrod’s efforts at a later date were successful (Genesis 10:10-12); and when we remember the blood-stained course of some of his cities, we may well doubt whether, with all its present advantages, this centralisation really promotes human happiness.

Verses 5-7

(5-7) The Lord came down.—The narrative is given in that simple anthropological manner usual in the Book of Genesis, which so clearly sets before us God’s loving care of man, and here and in Genesis 18:21 the equity of Divine justice. For Jehovah is described as a mighty king, who, hearing in His upper and heavenly dwelling of man’s ambitious purpose, determines to go and inspect the work in person, that having seen, he may deal with the offenders justly. He views, therefore, “the city and the tower;” for the city was as important a portion of their purpose as the tower, or even more so. The tower, which, no doubt, was to be the citadel and protection of the city, was for the latter’s sake to give the people a sense of strength and security. Having, then, inspected the tower and the city nestling round it, the Deity affirms that this centralisation is injurious to man’s best interests, and must be counteracted by an opposite principle, namely, the tendency of mankind to make constant changes in language, and thereby to break up into different communities, kept permanently apart by the use of different tongues. At present “it is one people, and there is one lip to all of them, and this is what they begin to do,” &c. Already there are thoughts among them of universal empire, and if thus the spread of mankind be hindered, and its division into numerous nations, each contributing its share to the progress and welfare of the world, be stopped, man will remain a poor debased creature, and will fail utterly in accomplishing the purpose for which he was placed upon earth. “Go to,” therefore, He says, in irony of their twice repeated phrase, “we will go down, and make their speech unintelligible to one another.” Now, though there is no assertion of a miracle here, yet we may well believe that there was an extraordinary quickening of a natural law which existed from the first. This, however, is but a secondary question, and the main fact is the statement that the Divine means for counteracting man’s ambitious and ever-recurring dream of universal sovereignty is the law of diversity of speech. In ancient times there was little to counteract this tendency, and each city and petty district had its own dialect, and looked with animosity upon its neighbours who differed from it in pronunciation, if not in vocabulary. In the present day there are counteracting influences; and great communities, by the use of the same Bible and the possession of the same classical literature, may long continue to speak the same language. In days also when communication is so easy, not only do men travel much, but newspapers and serials published at the centre are dispersed to the most distant portions of the world. In old time it was not so, and probably Isaiah would not have been easily understood thirty miles from Jerusalem, nor Demosthenes a few leagues; from Athens. Without books or literature, a little-band of families wandering about with their cattle, with no communication with other tribes, would quickly modify both the grammar and the pronunciation of their language; and when, after a year or two, they revisited the tower, they would feel like foreigners in the new city, and quickly depart with the determination never to return. And to this day diversity of language is a powerful factor in keeping nations apart, or in preventing portions of the same kingdom from agreeing heartily together. And thus at Babel the first attempt to bind the human family into one whole came to an ignominious end.

Verse 8

(8) The Lord (Jehovah) scattered them abroad from thence upon the face of all the earth: and they left off to build the city.—The tendency of men, as the result of a growing diversity of language, was to separate, each tribe holding intercourse only with those who spake their own dialect; and so the Divine purpose of occupying the world was carried into effect, while the project of this ambitious knot of men to hold mankind together was frustrated, and the building of their tower ceased.

Verse 9

(9) Therefore is the name of it called Babel.—Babel is, in Aramaic, Bab-el, the gate of God, and in Assyrian, Bab-ili (Genesis 10:10). It is strange that any one should have derived the word from Bab-Bel, the gate of Bel, for there is no trace that the second b was ever doubled; moreover, Bel is for Baal; and though we Westerns omit the strong guttural, because we cannot pronounce it, the Orientals would preserve it. El is the regular Semitic word for God—in Assyrian, Ili; in Arabic, Ilah; in Syriac, Moho. So far from diminishing, this increases the force of the Scriptural derivation. Man calls his projected city Bab-el, the gate—that is, the court—of God; God calls it Babble; for in all languages indistinct and confused speech is represented by the action of the lips in producing the sound of b. The exact Hebrew word for this was balbal—the Greek verb, bambaino; the Latin, balbutio; and a man who stammered was called balbus. The town, then, keeps-its first name, but with a contemptuous meaning attached to it; just as Nabal (1 Samuel 25:25) may really have had his name from the nabla, or harp, but from the day that his wife gave it a contemptuous meaning Nabal has signified only folly.

The Babylonian legends are in remarkable agreement with the Hebrew narrative. They represent the building of the tower as impious, and as a sort of Titanic attempt to scale the heavens. This means that the work was one of vast purpose; for there is something in the human mind which attaches the idea of impiety to all stupendous undertakings, and the popular feeling is always one of rejoicing at their failure. The gods therefore destroy at night what the builders had wrought by day; and finally, Bel, “the father of the gods,” confounds their languages. It is remarkable that the very word used here is bâlai (or perhaps bâlâh), and thus the meaning of “confusion” would attach to the word equally in the Assyrian as in the Hebrew language (Chald. Gen., p. 166).

One question remains: Was the tower of Babel the temple of Bel destroyed by Xerxes, and which was situated in the centre of Babylon? or was it the tower of Borsippa, the site of which was in one of the suburbs, about two miles to the south? This tower was the observatory of the Chaldean astronomers, and its name, according to Oppert, means “the tower of languages.” We incline to the belief that this ruin, now called the Birs-Nimrud, was the original tower, and that the temple of Bel was a later construction, belonging to the palmy times of the Chaldean monarchy. An account of it will be found in Sayce, Chald. Gen., pp. 169, 170, and in Rawlinson, Anc. Mon., i. 12, 21, &c.

Verses 10-26


(10-26) These are the generations of Shem.—Here also, as in Genesis 5:0, there is a very considerable divergence between the statements of the Hebrew, the Samaritan, and the Septuagint texts. According to the Hebrew, the total number of years from Shem to the birth of Abram was 390, according to the Samaritan, 1,040, and according to the LXX., 1,270. These larger totals are obtained by adding, as a rule, one hundred years to the age of each patriarch before the birth of his eldest son, and the LXX. also insert Cainan between Arphaxad and Salah. The virtual agreement of two authorities, coming from such different quarters as the Samaritan transcript and the LXX. version is remarkable, but scholars have long acknowledged that these genealogies were never intended for chronological purposes, and that so to employ them leads only to error.

Like the genealogy of Seth, in Genesis 5:0, the Tôldôth Shem also consists of ten generations, and thus forms, according to Hebrew ideas respecting the number ten, a perfect representation of the race. With the exception of Arphaxad (for whom see Genesis 10:22), the names in this genealogy are all Hebrew words, and are full of meaning. Thus—

Salah means mission, the sending out of men in colonies to occupy new lands.

Eber is the passage, marking the migration of the head-quarters of the race, and the crossing of some great obstacle in its way, most probably the river Tigris. With this would begin the long struggle between the Semitic and Hamitic races in Mesopotamia.

Peleg, division, may be a memorial of the separation of the Joktanite Arabs from the main stem, but see Note on Genesis 10:25. Through him the rights of primogeniture passed to the Hebrews.

Reu, friendship, seems to indicate a closer drawing together of the rest after the departure of Joktan and his clan, which probably had been preceded by dissensions.

Serug, intertwining, may denote that this friendship between the various races into which the family of Shem was by this time divided was cemented by intermarriage.

Nahor, panting, earnest struggle, indicates, most probably, the commencement of that seeking after a closer communion with God which made his descendants withdraw from contact with the rest and form a separate community, distinguished by its firm hold of the doctrine of the unity of the Godhead. From the words of Joshua (Joshua 24:2) it is plain, not only that idolatry was generally practised among the descendants of Shem, but that even Nahor and Terah were not free from its influence. Yet, probably, the monotheism of Abraham was preceded by an effort to return to the purer doctrine of their ancestors in Nahor’s time, and the gods which they still worshipped were the teraphim, regarded both by Laban and Rachel (Genesis 31:30; Genesis 31:34) as a kind of inferior household genius, which brought good luck to the family.

Terah, wandering, indicates the commencement of that separation from the rest caused by religious differences, which ended in the migration of Abram into Canaan.

In Abram, high-father, we have a prophetic name, indicative of the high purpose for which the father of the faithful was chosen. There is a difficulty about the date of his birth. We read that “Terah lived seventy years, and begat Abram, Nahor, and Haran;” and in Genesis 11:32 that “the days of Terah were two hundred and five years.” But St. Stephen says that Terah died in Haran before Abram’s migration (Acts 7:4), and in Genesis 12:4 we are told that Abram was seventy-five years of age when he departed from that country. Either, therefore, Terah was a hundred and thirty years old when Abram was born—and Abram was a younger, and not the older son—or the Samaritan text is right in making the total age of Terah a hundred and forty-five years. The latter is probably the true solution: first, because Nahor died at the age of a hundred and forty-eight, and it is not probable that Terah so long outlived him; for human life, as we have seen, was progressively shortening after the flood: and secondly, because Abram, in Genesis 17:17, speaks of it as almost an impossibility for a man to have a son when he is a hundred years old. Had he been born when his father was a hundred and thirty, he could scarcely have spoken in this way.

Verse 27


(27) Now these are the generations.—This tôldôth, which extends to Genesis 25:11, is one of the most interesting in the Book of Genesis, as it gives us the history of the patriarch Abraham, in whom God was pleased to lay the foundation of the interme diate dispensation and of the Jewish Church, by whose institutions and psalmists and prophets the light of true religion was to be maintained, and the way prepared for the coming of Christ. But though Abraham is the central figure, yet the narrative is called the Tôldôth Terah, just as the history of Joseph is called the Tôldôth Jacob (Genesis 37:2). The explanation of this is, not that we have in it the history of Lot, and of Moab and Ammon, which are mere subsidiary matters; but that it connects Abraham with the past, and shows that, through Terah and the tôldôth which ended in him, he was the representative of Shem.

Terah begat Abram.—Commentators, in their endeavour to make St. Stephen’s assertion in Acts 7:4 agree with the numbers of the Hebrew text, have supposed that Abram was not the eldest son, and that the first place was given him because of his spiritual preeminence. But this is contrary to the rules of the Hebrew language, and the failure of the attempt to deprive Shem of his birthright by a mistranslation of Genesis 10:21 confirms Abram’s claim to the same prerogative.

Verse 28

(28) Haran died before his father.—Heb., in the presence of his father. This is the first recorded instance of a premature death caused by natural decay.

In Ur of the Chaldees.Ur-Casdim. A flood of light has been thrown upon this town by the translation of the cuneiform inscriptions, and we may regard it as certain that Ur is now represented by the mounds of the city of Mugheir. When first we read of this city, it was inhabited by a population of Accadians, a Turanian race, sprang probably from an early offshoot of the family of Japheth; but in course of time it was conquered by men of the Semitic family, who from thence overran the whole of Shinar, or Babylonia, and expelled from it the descendants of Cush. Mr. Sayce (Chald. Gen. p. 20) puts this conquest at some very uncertain date, two or three thousand years before Christ; but the establishment of a powerful monarchy under a king named Lig-Bagas, and the consolidation under his sway of several petty kingdoms, into which Chaldea had been previously split up, he places with some confidence at 3,000 years before the Christian era (ibid., p. 24). Now, there are in our museums inscribed bricks and engraved cylinders actually from the library of Lig-Bagas, and we learn that the Accadian literature was still older; for many of the works found at Agané are translations from it: and thus all those difficulties as to the antiquity of the art of syllabic writing which used to exist when men had nothing better to judge by than Egyptian picture-writing have passed away. Abraham migrated from a town which was then a famous seat of learning, and where even the ordinary transactions of life were recorded on tablets of terra-cotta. Very probably, therefore, he carried with him bricks and cylinders inscribed with these ancient records. We are no longer, therefore, surprised at the striking similarity between the narratives in the Book of Genesis prior to the migration of Abraham and those preserved in the cuneiform inscriptions. But the believer in inspiration cannot fail to be struck also at their dissimilarity. The cuneiform inscriptions are polytheistic, acknowledging twelve superior gods, and of gods inferior a countless multitude. The Semitic race is accused of adding to these a number of goddesses, chief among whom were Beltis, the wife of Bel, and Istar, the planet Venus. Of all this there is no trace in the Biblical records; nor is there in the whole Chaldean literature anything so grand and Divine as the thoughts expressed in the opening words of Genesis: “In the beginning God created the heaven and the earth.”

As Ur is an Accadian word, we must reject all Semitic interpretations of its meaning; we must further add that Mr. Rawlinson gives reasons for believing that its early importance was due to its being a great maritime emporium (Anc. Mon., i. 27). It was, we read, a walled town, and the great port for the commerce of the Persian Gulf, while round it lay a marvellously rich country, said to be the original home of the wheat-plant, and famous for its dates and other fruits. Its being called Ur-Casdim, “Ur of the Chaldees,” shows that they had already won it from the Accadians when Terah dwelt there. Its subsequent name, Mugheir, probably means “mother of bitumen”—that is, producer of it.

Verse 29

(29) Iscah.—Not the same as Sarai, for we learn in Genesis 20:12 that she was Abraham’s half-sister—that is, a daughter of Terah by another wife. Nor was she Lot’s wife, as Ewald supposed, for she was his full sister. Marriages between near relatives seem to have been allowed at this time, and were perhaps even common for religious reasons (see Genesis 24:3-4; Genesis 28:1-2), but not marriages between those actually by the same mother. Thus Abraham takes his half-sister to wife, and Nahor his niece. Iscah, like Naamah (Genesis 4:22), was probably eminent in her time, but for reasons not recorded.

Verse 31

(31) They went forth with them.—This may possibly mean that they went forth in one body; but the phrase is strange, and the Samaritan, followed by the LXX. and Vulg.,by a slight transposition of the letters reads, “And he (Terah) brought them forth.”

Haran.—The Charran of Acts 7:4, that is, Carrhae in North-west Mesopotamia, about twenty geographical miles south-east of Edessa. The name must not be confounded with that of Haran, the father of Lot, as really it is in the Heb. Kharan, and was so called in Accadian times, in which language the word means road,” being, according to Mr. Sayce, the key of the highway from the east to the west. It was both a very early and a very late outpost of Chaldean power. (Tomkins’ Studies on Times of Abraham, 55ff.)

Terah’s migration was partly perhaps a movement of a tribe of the Semites northwards (see Note on Genesis 11:28), made restless by the Elamites, who about this time overran Western Asia; but chiefly it had a religious motive: for Ur was the especial seat of the worship of the moon-god, Sin; and though Terah had not attained to the purity of Abraham’s faith, yet neither was he altogether an idolater. But why did they intend “to go into the land of Canaan?” As Abram subsequently continued this migration in simple dependance upon God’s guidance (Genesis 12:1), it was probably the Divine rather than the human purpose that is here expressed. Still, there may have been some tradition in the family, or knowledge handed down from patriarchal times, which made them look upon Canaan as their land of hope; and the expedition of Amraphel, king of Shinar, and others against the south of Palestine, recorded in Genesis 14:1-16, and confirmed by our large present knowledge of these popular movements, shows that we must not assume that, far removed from one another as were Babylonia and Canaan, therefore they were lands mutually unknown. We gather also that the Divine summons came to Abram in Ur (see «Genesis 15:7; Nehemiah 9:7; Acts 7:2), but we learn in Genesis 12:1 that his final destination was not then definitely told him.

Verse 32

(32) The days of Terah.—See note on Genesis 11:26. According to the Samaritan text, Abram left Haran in the same year as that in which Terah died. Nahor had probably joined Terah about this time, as we find him subsequently settled in Haran (Genesis 24:10); and moreover, Abram is expressly commanded to leave “his kindred and his father’s house,” whereas all those who are mentioned by name as going with Terah shared in Abram’s subsequent migration. (See Genesis 11:31.)

Bibliographical Information
Ellicott, Charles John. "Commentary on Genesis 11". "Ellicott's Commentary for English Readers". https://www.studylight.org/commentaries/eng/ebc/genesis-11.html. 1905.
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