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Bible Commentaries
Genesis 11

The Biblical IllustratorThe Biblical Illustrator

Verses 1-3

Genesis 11:1-3

Of one language

God’s gift of speech


Language or speech God hath allowed to men as men.

2. One language did God vouchsafe to all for good. It was mainly to keep them to the Church.

3. Sin perverts the sweet blessing of one speech to conspiracy against God (Genesis 11:9). (G. Hughes, B. D.)

Two kinds of unanimity

Men may do wrong things unanimously, as well as things that are right. We must distinguish between union and conspiracy; we must distinguish between identity and mere association for a given object. Twelve directors may be of one language and of one speech, but the meaning of their unity may be self-enrichment, at the expense of unsuspecting men, who have put their little all into their keeping and direction. It is nothing, therefore, to talk about unanimity in itself considered. We must, in all these things, put the moral question, “What is the unanimity about?” “Is this unanimity moving in the right direction?” If it be in a wrong direction, then unanimity is an aggravation of sin; if it be in a right direction, then union is power, and one-heartedness is triumph. But it is possible that unanimity may be but another word for stagnation. There are words in our language which are greatly misunderstood, and unanimity is one of them; peace is another. When many persons say peace, what do they mean? A living, intelligent, active cooperation, where there is mutual concession, where there is courtesy on every hand, where there is independent conviction, and yet noble concert in life? Not at all. They say that a Church is unanimous, and a Church is at peace, when a correct interpreter would say it was the unanimity of the grave, the peace of death. So I put in a word here of caution and of explanation: “The whole earth was of one language and of one speech”; here is a point of unanimity, and yet there is a unanimous movement in a wrong direction. (J. Parker, D. D.)

One language and one speech

What that language was it is not necessary on the present occasion to examine. The arguments are very strong that it was Hebrew. But the fact that all men did use the same tongue, and the way in which the fact is recorded, lead us to infer that there was something much more than identity of dialect. For we all well know how language is connected with thought and feelings, and how our words react and determine our feelings. So that a oneness of expression will go a great way to produce oneness of soul. Have we not all proved its effect to unite and bind us one with another? Is not that the charm of the familiar language of co-patriots in foreign lands? Is not this one of the secrets of the bliss of song? So that a real and perfectly “one language and one speech” might be expected to have a most united result on the minds of all who used it, and a most favourable influence on the spirit of true religion. But it is a thing which now is not. No one country has it within itself. No two persons that ever meet have it. It is a lost thing. There is not, truly, upon this earth, in any fraction of it, “one language” and “one speech”; and hence a very great part of our sin and our misery! And even if there were a language perfectly the same, yet until there was a setting to rights of disorders which have come into human thought, and until minds were themselves set in one accord, there could not be unity. So that, indeed, there must be something which belongs to a higher dispensation than this. For if the thoughts were disordered, they would themselves give disordered senses to the words spoken. And remember one other thing. In that age, it was not so long after the flood, nor had people been so divided, nor truth so lapsed, but that all must have known the faith of the one true God. And, therefore, their worship must have been one, the same thoughts and the same expressions going up to the same God everywhere. But the world was evidently not yet ripe for unity. Unity is a beautiful flower, but it can only grow in its own proper soil. Then the Fall cropped up, and at once poisoned human nature. They could not use even their one language or their one mind without its unity becoming sin. So they took occasion, by their very oneness, to determine to do two things, which real unity never does. They resolved to make a great monument to their own glory, and they thought to frustrate an original law of God and to break a positive rule of our being. For the primary principle of all religion is that we should seek first the glory of our Maker. Therefore God breathed upon their work, and it was crushed. It was a false unity. They sought their own praise, and it ran contrary to the mind of God. And God Himself at once traced the sin to that root--an unhallowed and unsanctified oneness of mind and language; and God proceeded to punish them in that very thing which they thus misused, and to take away from them that privilege and blessing for which man was not yet educated and prepared. So the Lord scattered them abroad from thence upon the face of all the earth. Said I not right they were not ripe for this precious gift--the omnipotence of unity? Generations must pass; new eras must unfold; Christ must come down and suffer; the Holy Spirit dwell amongst us; the Church must live and work; missionaries must preach; martyrs must die; the whole earth must be regenerate before men could hear their own, their higher, their destined unity. And so the unity, the profane unity, was dashed into hundreds of divergent atoms, and was carried by the four winds to the four corners of the earth. And what was the consequence of this judicial scattering, and this division of the human race which began on the plains of Shinar, and has been increasing ever since, and which we see all around us now? God never does a work, how purative soever it may be, in which there is not a mercy and some purpose or another. Doubtless this scattering of the early post-diluvians carried the knowledge of the true God and of the one faith into all the lands whither they went, even as the early Christians, when they fled from Jerusalem, bore the seed of the gospel into every land. And that knowledge, diluted, indeed, and marred, would go down from generation to generation; and hence, perhaps, the fact--the remarkable fact--that there is no instance in the history of the whole earth of a people, even in the remotest islands of the Pacific, who had not some vestige of the knowledge and worship of a god. And once more there was a plea for prayer, an argument for hope, a pledge of promise--“We were all one once, Lord. Thou didst scatter us. Bring back again Thine own image. Give us, give the whole earth, its unity again.” I will not now speak of the evil results of that broken language and these severed interests of the family of man. They are too large and too patent to be catalogued here. I will proceed with the unfolding, as it seems to me, of God’s great means for the restitution of unity. From that moment God has steadily, progressively, uniformly carried on His great design to restore the unity which man then fulfilled. Just as He set Himself at once to give back the lost paradise--a better than the first was--has He graciously worked in His working to repair, and much more than repair, the fractured oneness. It became necessary by this dispersion that God should select one family and one race which He should make a special and secure depository of His one truth. Otherwise probably the truth, split and scattered, would not have survived in the earth. And therefore the next fact in history is the call of Abraham. And when God elected Abraham and his descendants to be the stewards of revelation, it was for this very end--that truth might continue one in the world. But in that act of electing grace God did not choose Abraham only, but in Abraham that “Seed” which was to gather together not only all truth, but all people into Himself. Accordingly, “in the fulness of time” Christ came. And by His life, death, resurrection, and ascension He became the Head into which all members--thousands and millions of members--were to be gathered and united, and so to make a oneness--oh! how different from all before! how glorious! how entire!--the oneness of one body and one life, the oneness of God. To give effect to, to supplement and complete that unity, the Holy Ghost came as at Pentecost. And at once--mark the fact--He dealt with language, that lost gift--the “one language” and the “one speech”; language, doubtless a gift to man at the creation, but now how much more better a gift by the redemption. So it came to pass that the gulf of separation--unknown speech--that great gulf of separation, was, at that moment, taken away. But it was not only in tongue and in speech that they assimilate, but in mind and heart. For the theme and interest of all are one--“We do hear them speak in our tongues the wonderful works of God.” Observe, then, the effects. At that moment all the Church was really and truly of one heart and one soul; and that union expressed itself in the gift of speech which made all language one. So that the unity was the same, only greater and purer than that before judgment fell upon Babel. And why was it, why was it at Pentecost? It was a beautiful thing, but it did not last. It was a bright rift in the cloud of separation. Why was it, and why did some retain the power of language while in the Church by the gift of tongues, why was it? I have no doubt in my own mind that it was the first drop in the shower--a pledge of what is to be. And will it not one day come--one pure language on the whole earth, one worship, and one service with one consent? But this, I conceive, is the order: First, the body of Christ made one, made one by the individual embodiment into Him of each one of His elect, in His own proper season. Then the mind, made one by the indwelling and inworking of the same Holy Spirit. And then the language, made one by some infusion of the power of the Holy Ghost in the latter days. You have read, perhaps, of two heathen men of different countries, both converted, who met, but could not understand each other’s speech, when one by chance or providence said “Hallelujah,” and the other, taking up the formulary, said “Amen.” And they ran into each other’s arms. The story may be true or not, but it is a pretty allegory, and a true type of what I believe shall one day be. (J. Vaughan, M. A.)

Verse 4

Genesis 11:4

Go to, let us build us a city and a tower

The tower of Babel


Three motives may have led to the building of the tower of Babel.

1. A feeling that in union and communion lay the secret of man’s renown and strength; that to disperse the family was to debilitate it.

2. A remembrance of the deluge, and a guilty dread of some similar judgment, leading them to draw close to each other for support.

3. Man was awaking to self-consciousness and a knowledge of his own resources. He was gaining a glimpse into the possible progress of civilization. The tower was to be a focus where the rays of his power would be concentrated.

To all philanthropists this narrative preaches this simple and sublime truth--that genuine unity is not to be effectually compassed in any other manner than by striking at the original root of discord. Every scheme for the promotion of brotherhood which deals only with the external symptoms of disunion, and aims at correcting only what appears on the surface of society, is ultimately sure of frustration.

In His own good time and manner God realized the presumptuous design of the Babel builders, and united in one central institution the scattered families of man. In the mediation of His Son He has reared up a Tower whose top reaches to heaven. It was in order to gather the nations into this world-embracing community that the apostles of Christ went forth charged with a message of peace and love. When the Spirit descended at Pentecost the physical impediment obstructing union--that difference of language which the sin of Babel had introduced--was removed. The apostles spake with other tongues, as the Spirit gave them utterance. (Dean Goulburn.)

The tower of Babel

The events connected with the building of the tower of Babel forcibly illustrate the power and the weakness of man. There is great power of scheming, great power of working, ending in an ignominious failure. So it is in all the ways of life; there is a way of spending force for naught, and there is a way of turning every effort to good account; there is a scheming that is nothing but inflation, and there is a purposing which gives shape and strength to one’s daily life. The courses of Providence, as revealed in the history of the world, enable us now to judge programmes by anticipation; before we begin to build we can now tell how we shall finish, or whether we shall finish at all. Poor self-deceiving heart! How many bricks has it made, and burnt thoroughly, and yet how few towers it has ever finished! The people constitute themselves into a community of builders, and they propose to themselves a city and a tower. In this plan there are three things which men generally account laudable--

1. There is self-reliance. The loudest cry of today is, Help yourselves! It is thought that the man who trusts his own arm trusts a good servant. So far, therefore, there is nothing amiss in these builders.

2. There is a desire for self-preservation--“lest we be scattered abroad upon the face of the whole earth.” Self-preservation is held to be the first law of nature. If a man will not take care of himself, who will take care of him? Still, therefore, the builders have not trespassed.

3. There is ambition--a city, and a tower, and a name! No man can make much headway in life who is not ambitious. The finalist grows weaker every day; the progressionist strengthens with every encounter. The whole work was within man’s own sphere. They wanted more than a city and a tower; they wanted a name, “let us make us a name.” That has been the ruin of many a man: anything for a name--any price for renown! This is not the ambition which is commended; this stands to a true ambition as presumption to faith. One thing is clear, viz., that God is observant of human plans. He knows our purpose, He overhears our secret communings. He allows men to build for awhile, and in the time of their rejoicing over the work of their hands He throws the city and tower to the dust. The error of these people was not in having a plan, but in having a plan without God.

(1) Carefully examine the quality and meaning of every new plan of life. Many a man has been ruined by ideas which he deemed necessary to the success of his fortune;

(a) Appearances;

(b) Miscalculations;

(c) Oversights; have contributed their share to his disasters.

(2) Beware of the sophism that heaven helps them that help themselves. The doctrine is true only in so far as men may by helping themselves in accordance with the will of heaven.

(3) Regulate ambition by the Divine will.

(4) If we make great plans let us make them in God’s name and carry them out in God’s strength. See the folly of planning without God.

(a) God has all forces at command.

(b) God has set a limit to every man’s life.

(c) God has pronounced Himself against those who dishonour His name. All these considerations have also a reflex bearing on those who plan in a right spirit.

(5) Let us learn what is meant by all the unfinished towers that we see around us. “This man began to build,” etc. Job said, “My purposes are broken off.” Look at disappointed men, etc.; ruined men, etc.

(6) Cooperation with God will alone secure the entire realization of our plans. Application:

(a) We all have plans.

(b) Examine them.

(c) Remember the only foundation, on which alone men can build with safety. (The Pulpit Analyst.)

The builders of Babel

It is a melancholy fact that the evil of our nature tends continually to increase, and assume a sad variety of forms. As men abide under the power of evil they wax worse and worse. We have an instance of this downward tendency in the builders of Babel. Since the flood the course of sin may be thus traced;

1. In the form of sensual indulgence. The type was drunkenness, of which Noah has given a sad example.

2. Disregard of parental authority. Ham.

3. In the form of ambition. Builders of Babel.

LOVE OF GLORY. They would indulge the passion for fame at all costs.

1. The boldest schemes of ambition are generally the work of a few.

2. Such ambition involves the slavery of the many.


1. They thought that it was external “City.” “Tower.”

2. They held that the individual must be sacrificed to the outward grandeur of the State. This is the genius of all Babel-building, to make the city supreme, and to sink the individual. All must be sacrificed to one idea: the nation--State--Constitution. It is not within the province of worldly ambition to recognize the sublime importance of the individual soul. Hence the conflict between the policies of statecraft and the interests of true religion. This exaltation of the State above the individual has--

(1) A political form;

(2) an ecclesiastical form.


1. God interferes in all matters which threaten His government.

2. God often interferes effectually by unexpected means. These foolish builders imagined that they were safe in the unity of their speech, yet it was here that they were vanquished.


Babel bricks

These emigrants to Shinar were evidently dissatisfied with a patriarchal life, and desirous of founding a great monarchy.

AMBITION, or the perversion of the divinely-implanted principle, “Excelsior.”


1. Cautions us to beware of our own hearts; and--

2. Counsels us to be careful of the Divine will.

ASSUMPTION, or the presupposition of man’s independence of God. It--

1. Cautions us to remember our entire dependence; and--

2. Counsels us to regard the Divine preeminence as essential to our happiness.

ASSOCIATION, or the persuasion that human unity means human perpetuity. It--

1. Cautions us against forgetting that God must come into any scheme after unity; and--

2. Counsels us about fulfilling the Divine ideal of unity in Him.


1. Moral towers of Babel (great or small) should be erected in God’s name, and carried through in God’s strength.

2. Moral towers of Babel (great or small), if not so attempted and accomplished, tend to dishonour God’s name, and to disown God’s strength.

3. Moral towers of Babel (great or small), thus dishonouring Him, are sure, sooner or later, to be overthrown by God, who has all forces at His command; and--

4. Moral towers of Babel (great or small) conceived in God’s name, constructed by God’s strength, and contributing to God’s glory, are certain of the Divine permission and permanence. (W. Adamson.)

Human labour


1. The constructive element.

2. The ambitious element.

3. The social element.

4. The cooperative element.


1. Their enterprise from the beginning was rebellion against heaven.

2. They were allowed to go on almost to its final accomplishment.


1. He discloses its purpose.

2. He arrests its progress.

3. He frustrates its design. (Homilist.)


The tower of Babel

1. Because he has duties to perform towards others.

2. Because man’s highest and best powers cannot be properly developed by having this as the only object in view.

(1) The sense of right cannot be quickened.

(2) Self is a sphere too limited for a man’s sympathy to be fully manifested.

(3) Self is an object too cold and limited to strengthen and intensify man’s love.

3. Because there is no true happiness in the pursuit, nor actual attainment of the object.


1. It concentrates the powers of many towards one object.

2. It is recognized in heaven.

(1) For evil (Psalms 2:1-5).

(2) For good (Mark 13:20).

3. The more Divine the union, the greater will be its reality and strength.


1. A higher intelligence is opposed to them.

2. A greater power.

3. A purer love. They deserved to be destroyed, but were only scattered.

4. This failure was--

(1) Humiliating.

(2) From an unexpected source.

(3) Complete. Conclusion:

1. In every undertaking, let us endeavour to know if it be according to God’s will.

2. Let us have God’s glory as the sole object of life. (Homilist.)

Universal monarchy

But why, it may be asked, should it be the will of God to prevent a universal monarchy, and to divide the inhabitants of the world into a number of independent nations? This question opens a wide field for investigation. Suffice it to say at present, such a state of things contains much mercy, both to the world and to the Church. With respect to the world, if the whole earth had continued under one government, that government would, of course, considering what human nature is, have been exceedingly despotic and oppressive. The division of the world into independent nations has also been a great check on persecution, and so has operated in a way of mercy towards the Church. If the whole world had been under one government, and that government inimical to the gospel, there had been no place of refuge left upon the earth for the faithful. From the whole we may infer two things--

1. The harmony of Divine revelation with all that we know of fact. If all that man can be proved to have done towards the formation of any language be confined to changing, combining, improving, and reducing it to a grammatical form, there is the greatest probability, independent of the authority of revelation, that languages themselves were originally the work of God, as was that of the first man and woman.

2. The desirableness of the universal spread of Christ’s kingdom. We may see in the reasons which render a universal government among men incompatible with the liberty and safety of the world abundant cause to pray for this, and for the union of all His subjects under Him. Here there is no danger of tyranny or oppression, nor any need of those low motives of rivalship to induce him to seek the well-being of his subjects. A union with Christ and one another embraces the best interests of mankind. (A. Fuller.)


1. Sinful apostates are active in drawing each other to sin.

2. Wickedness is studious for means to effect its ends.

3. No difficulties usually hinder sin from its undertakings.

4. It is but brick and slime wherewith wickedness builds (Genesis 11:3).

5. Wicked ones are much encouraging one another to evil.

6. Cities and towers, ornament and strength, are sinners’ trophies.

7. Sin’s structure would be as high and stately as heaven.

8. Sinners are ambitious of a name on earth.

9. Dispersion is the evil which sinners fear.

10. Sinners resolve to provide their own security against God’s judgments by the works of their own hands (Genesis 11:4). (G. Hughes, B. D.)

Right building

There are times in life when lucky ideas strike men; when there is a kind of intellectual springtide in their nature; when men rise and say, “I have got it! Go to, this is it!” And in the bright hours when such ideas strike one the temptation is to be a little contemptuous in reference to dull men who are never visited by conceptions so bright and original as we deem them. A man has been in great perplexity, month after month, and suddenly he says, “Go to, the solution is now before me; I see my way right out of this dark place”; and he heightens his tone as the joy swells in his heart. That is right. We could not do without intellectual birthdays; we could not always be carrying about a dead, leaden brain, that never sees light or shouts victory. We like these moments of inspiration to break in upon the dull monotony of such a lifetime as ours. So it is perfectly right that men should express their new conceptions--their new programme--and lay out a bold policy in a clear and confident tone. But are all our ideas so very bright? When we see our way to brick making, is it always in the right direction? When we set our mind upon founding a city and building a tower the top of which shall rest against the stars, is it right? You see that question of “right” comes in again and again, and in proportion as a man wishes to live a true Divine life he will always say, before going to his brick making and his city founding and his tower building, “Now, is this right?” Many of us could have built great towers, only we knew we should be building downwards if we set our hands to such work as has often tempted us. Do not let us look coldly upon apparently unsuccessful men, and say, “Look at us; we have built a great city and tower, and you, where are you?--stretching in the dust and grovelling in nothing.” They could have built quite as large a tower as ours; they could have been quite as far up in the clouds as we are, only we had perhaps less conscience than they had. When we saw a way to burning bricks, we burned them; and a way to establishing towers, we founded them; and they, poor creatures, unsuccessful men, began to pray about it, and to wonder if it was right, and to ask casuistical questions, and to rack themselves upon conscience; and so they have done no building! And yet they may have built. Who can tell? All buildings are not made of brick; all men do not require to lay out brick fields, and burn clay, in order to build. It may be found one day, when the final inspection takes place, that the man who has built nothing visible has really built a palace for the residence of God. It may be found, too, that some successful people have nothing but bricks--nothing but bricks, bricks, bricks! Then it will be seen who the true builders were. What I pause here to say is this: We may have bright ideas, we may have (to us) new conceptions; there are, to our thinking, original ways of doing things; now and again cunning plans of overcoming difficulties strike us. Do I condemn this intellectual activity? No; I simply say, Let your intellect and your conscience go together; do not be one-sided men; do not be living altogether out of the head, be living out of your moral nature as well; and if it be right, then build the tower with all industry and determination. Let it be strong and lofty, and God shall come down upon your work and glorify it, and claim it as His own. (J. Parker, D. D.)


Bold men--men of vigorous mind, striking out something that is very definite, and about which there could be no mistake. We, too, are doing just what they did; we are following the god Ambition--the restless god Ambition, who never sleeps, never pauses, never gives his devotees vacation, but is always stirring them up to more and more furious desires. Do I condemn ambition? Nothing of the kind. I praise ambition; I say to every young man who may today accept me as his teacher, Be ambitious; build loftily; let your aspirations be confined only by the limits which God Himself has set to human power and human capability; but--but--that old question comes in again, Is it right? Is it right? Our ambitions may be our temptations; our ambitions may be stumbling blocks over which we fall into outer darkness; our ambitions may be the cups out of which we drink some deadly intoxicant, poisoning the mind and destroying the heart’s life. Therefore I pause again to ask, Is it right? Then, too, we pronounce some men ambitious who are really not ambitious. All men do not understand the word ambition. Ambition has been vulgarized, taken out altogether from its refined and beautiful associations, and debased into something that is intensely of the earth, earthy. I call men to intellectual ambition; to spiritual ambition; to the ambition which says, “I count not myself to have attained; this one thing I do, I press.” Alas! there are ten thousand men in our city streets today who are “pressing”; but the question is, Towards what do they press? The apostle says, “I press towards the mark for the prize of my high calling of God in Christ Jesus.” That is better than saying, “Let us build a tower whose top shall reach even unto heaven”; and yet it is true tower building--it is palace building. (J. Parker, D. D.)

Bad advice soon taken

It must needs be that one man gave his counsel first, saying to the rest, “Come, let us build,” etc. But when once it was broached not one man allowed it, but even all full quickly yielded to it. Whereby we see, first, the vileness of man, not only to devise that which is naught, but to set it full greedily abroad when it is devised, and to labour to persuade others to embrace and follow the same. Again, to consent to that which is wickedly devised of others, and to make a particular conceit a general judgment, action, and work at last. Great cause, therefore, that men’s lewd devices should be restrained from being published, since both the deviser’s wish and man’s great corruption is so prone to yield a wicked consent and following of the same. Caiaphas’s counsel, when it once sounded of Christ’s death, was quickly hearkened unto, and from that day forward consultation had together how they might accomplish the same. Whosoever broached it first that the people should ask Barabbas and refuse Jesus, it was soon received, liked, and followed of such ignorant spirits and giddy heads. That a sort should combine together and kill the apostle had a beginner, and how quickly pleased the plot such other bloody minds and spiteful hearts! How soon embraced Lot’s younger daughter the counsel of the elder to do so vile a thing! That unbrotherly conspiracy against Joseph was soon yielded unto when once it was uttered. Do you remember the murmuring against Moses and Aaron, in the Book of Numbers? How began it? Had it not a captain, then a second, then a third, then a number? Once broached that Moses and Aaron took too much upon them; that others were equal with them, and therefore should be in like authority; that the people were wronged, and so forth--soon was it liked, soon was it caught, soon was it prosecuted of proud minds, that would be aloft, and knew not to obey. Conclude we, then, upon all those that sin, some be wicked to broach a wickedness, and thousands weak to follow the same when once they hear it; yea, though it be to build a tower against God. It never was, nor ever shall be, either godly policy or Christian duty to suffer men’s brains to broach what they list, and others to follow unquiet devices, hateful to God and hurtful to His Church in a high degree. (Bishop Babington.)

The tower of Babel

In Babylonia there are at present the remains of three stupendous ruins, each of which have been claimed by different travellers as occupying the site of the tower of Babel. One of these especially has much to support its claim. The temple of Belus was in all probability erected on the site of the tower of Babel, so the arguments which settle the position of one of these erections serve to fix the other. Rawlinson says of these particular ruins:--“It is an oblong mass, composed chiefly of unbaked bricks, rising from the plain to the height of one hundred and ten feet, and having at the top a broad flat space with heaps of rubbish. The faces of the mound are about two hundred yards in length, and thus agree with Herodotus’ estimate. Tunnels driven through the structure show that it was formerly covered with a wall of baked brick masonry: many such bricks are found loose, and bear the name of Nebuchadnezzar.” The difficulty of identifying the site of the scriptural Babylon arises chiefly from the fact that the materials of which it was built have at various times been removed for the construction of the great cities which have successively replaced it. Nebuchadnezzar either repaired Babylon, as many suppose, or built it anew upon a neighbouring site with the remains of the more ancient Babel. The kind of building which was erected, and known as the tower of Babel, may be best understood by the description of the great temple of Nebo at Borsippa, known to moderns as the Birs-Nimrud. It was a sort of oblique pyramid, built in seven receding stages. “Upon a platform of crude brick, raised a few feet above the level of the alluvial plain, was built of burnt brick the first or basement stage--an exact square, two hundred and seventy-two feet each way, and twenty-six feet in perpendicular height. Upon this stage was erected a second, two hundred and thirty feet each way, and likewise twenty-six feet high; which, however, was not placed exactly in the middle of the first, but considerably nearer to the southwestern end, which constituted the back of the building. The other stages are arranged similarly--the third being one hundred and eighty-eight feet, and again twenty-six feet high; the fourth one hundred and forty-six feet square and fifteen feet high; the fifth one hundred and four feet square, and the same height as the fourth; the sixth sixty-two feet square, and again the same height; and the seventh twenty feet square, and once more the same height. On the seventh stage there was probably placed the ark or tabernacle, which seems to have been again fifteen feet high, and must have nearly, if not entirely, covered the top of the seventh story. The entire original height, allowing three feet for the platform, would thus have been one hundred and fifty-six feet, or without the platform, one hundred and fifty-three feet. The whole formed a sort of oblique pyramid, the gentler slope facing the N.E., and the steeper inclining to the S.W. On the N.E. side was the grand entrance, and here stood the vestibule, a separate building, the debris from which having joined those from the temple itself, fill up the intermediate space, and very remarkably prolong the round in this direction.” (Things Not Generally Known.)

The materials used to build it

The materials generally used for the construction of Babylonian buildings are here most faithfully described (Genesis 11:3). As in Egypt, the edifices of Mesopotamia consisted of sun-dried, but often also burnt bricks, baked of the purest clay, and sometimes mixed with chopped straw, which materially enhances their compactness and hardness; these bricks were generally covered with inscriptions, promising to prove of the greatest historical value. But instead of mortar, the Babylonians used as a cement that celebrated asphalt or bitumen, which is nowhere found in such excellence and abundance as in the neighbourhood of Babylon. One of the most gifted of the modern explorers declared the ruins of Birs-Nimroud a specimen of the perfection of Babylonian masonry, and remarked, “that the cement by which the bricks were united is of so tenacious a quality, that it is almost impossible to detach one from the mass entire” (Layard, “Nineveh and Babylon,” p. 499). Nothing but the violence of a fearful conflagration, the ravages of which are manifest in the ruins of Birs-Nimroud, would have been able to annihilate a building which appeared to be beyond the destructive power of time. (M. M.Kalisch, Ph. D.)


This, we may depend upon it, was no republic of builders; no cooperative association of bricklayers and bricklayers’ labourers, bent on immortalizing themselves by the work of their own hands. This early effort at centralization, with a huge metropolis as its focus, sprang, we may be quite sure, from the brain of some one ambitious potentate, and was baptized, from the very first, in the blood and sweat and misery of toiling millions. That “Go to, let us make brick, let us build us a city, let us make us a name,” is not the language of voluntary association; but is the stately style, which emperors affect. By this time we know only too well what it means--the cynical indifference to human suffering, the wastefulness of human life, the utter selfishness, the cruelty, the hardness of heart, masked under gilded forms. The characteristic of all world empires--that which makes them world empires--is that they lean upon might, and not upon right. Just in so far as they do this, they are world empires. And, doing this, they are a defiance to the eternal righteousness of God. And, being this, they are doomed to decay. In such world empires there is no true cohesion. The force which unites is purely external. The moment its pressure relaxes, the thing breaks up. In other words, man, seeking to make himself as God, can offer no rest, no centre of unity, no position of stable equilibrium, to his fellow men. He may be armed with irresistible might. He may be statesman and general, as well as king or emperor. By his very success he sows the seeds of decay. Collapse and disintegration overtake his work, even in the very hour of its seeming triumph. I remember visiting the tomb of the First Napoleon in Paris on one of the last days of the June of 1870. You know it, or you have heard about it. It struck me irresistibly, with all its accompaniments, as the symbol of just such a world empire, as I have been speaking about tonight. Within three months from that day, that empire--like its predecessor--had collapsed in blood and disaster. Not he, who, being man, would make himself as God; but He, who being God, makes Himself man; is the true centre of rest and union for a suffering and divided humanity. (David J. Vaughan, M. A.)

Let us make us a name

Human greatness

1. A “name” is an important thing for a man.

2. All men make some kind of “name” for themselves.

3. Striving to “make a name” as the chief end of life is a grand mistake. This is what the men in “the land of Shinar” were now doing. Men have a natural desire for distinction; but what is the legitimate object? Is it to appear great, or to be great? Reputation is one thing, character another. The words of Christ, in Matthew 23:12, will enable us to discover the right and wrong direction of this ambition.

A GREATNESS THAT COMES TO HUMILIATION. “He that exalteth himself shall be abased.”

1. In the moral reflections of his own soul. Conscience can never be satisfied by achievements the most brilliant, or possessions the most splendid, where selfishness has been the spring of their attainment.

2. In the estimation of all Christly men. These men see no greatness where there is not goodness.

3. In the retributions of Providence. There is a moral government over us all, there is a Nemesis that tracks the steps of men.

A GREATNESS THAT COMES FROM HUMILIATION. “He that humbleth himself shall be exalted.”

1. In their own spirits. They master their passions, rise superior to mere personal considerations, rule their own souls, and are greater than they who take a city.

2. In the moral judgment of society. Just as a man makes himself of no reputation and works from disinterested love--unostentatiously and with no selfish motives--does he get enthroned in public sentiment.

3. In the friendship of God. (Homilist.)

Vainglory foolish

That we may get a name: see the madness of the world ever to neglect heaven, and seek a name in earth, where nothing is firm, nothing continueth, but fadeth away and perisheth as a thought. This madness the prophet David mentioneth in his 49th Psalm, and laugheth at it, saying, “They think their houses and their habitations shall continue,” etc.

Making a name

This is a disease that cleaves to us all, to “receive honour one of another, and not to seek the honour which comes from God John 5:44). A rare man is he surely that hath not some Babel of his own, whereon he bestows pains and cost, only to be talked of. Hoc ego primus vidi, was Zabarelle’s ἐπινίκιον. Epicurus would have us believe that he was the first that ever found out the truth of things. Palaemon gave out that all learning was born and would die with him. Aratus, the astrologer, that he had numbered the stars and written of them all. Archimedes, the mathematician, that if he had but where to set his foot, he could move the earth out of its place. Herostratus burnt Diana’s temple for a name. And Plato writes of Protagoras, that he vaunted that, whereas he had lived sixty years, forty of them he had spent in corrupting of youth. Tully tells us that Gracchus did all for popular applause, and observes that those philosophers that have written of the contempt of glory, have yet set their names to their own writings, which shows an itch after that glory they persuaded others to despise. “These two things,” saith Tully somewhere of himself, “I have to boast of, Optimarum atrium scientiam rerum gloriam, my learned works, and noble acts.” Julius Caesar had his picture set upon the globe of the world, with a sword in his right hand, a book in his left, with this motto, En utroque Caesar. Vibius Rufus used the chair wherein Caesar was wont to sit, and was slain; he also married Tully’s widow, and boasted of them both, as if either for that seat he had been Caesar, or for that wife an orator. When Maximus died in the last day of his consulship, Caninius Rebulus petitioned Caesar for that part of the day that he might be said to have been consul. So many of the popish clergy have with great care and cost procured a cardinal’s hat, when they have lain a-dying, that they might be entitled cardinals in their epitaph, as Erasmus writeth . . . And Sextus Marius, being once offended with his neighbour, invited him to be his guest for two days together. The first of those two days he pulled down his neighbour’s farmhouse, the next he set it up again far bigger and better than before. And all this for a name, that his neighbours might see, and say, what hurt or good he could do them at his pleasure. (J. Trapp.)

End of worldly ambition

Look to the end of worldly ambition, and what is it? Take the four greatest rulers, perhaps, that ever sat upon a throne. Alexander, when he had so completely subdued the nations that he wept because he had no more to conquer, at last set fire to a city and died in a sense of debauch. Hannibal, who filled three bushels with the gold rings taken from the slaughtered knights, died at last by poison administered by his own hand, unwept, and unknown, in a foreign land. Caesar having conquered 800 cities, and dyed his garments with the blood of one million of his foes, was stabbed by his best friends, in the very place which had been the scene of his greatest triumph. Napoleon, after being the scourge of Europe, and the desolator of his country, died in banishment, conquered and captive. So truly “the expectation of the wicked shall be cut off.” (G. S. Bowes.)

Verse 5

Genesis 11:5

The Lord came down to see

God’s visitation


Men’s apostasy and proud attempts are knit together with God’s visitation.

2. God is below when men think He hath forsaken the earth, and is near to visit the wickedness of man.

3. God’s descent is for vengeance sometimes upon sinners.

4. God doth visit the beauty and strength of wickedness.

5. The apostate sons of Adam may build their fabrics to prevent God’s judgments.

6. Jehovah will mark for vengeance the sons of wickedness and weakness in all their buildings against Him (Genesis 11:5). (G. Hughes, B. D.)


1. God speaks, as well as marks, the attempts of the ungodly to their reproach and confusion.

2. God points out the greatest advantages of violent workers of iniquity to scorn.

3. Unity of minds, resolutions, and communications, are the greatest props to wicked undertakers.

4. Violent workers of iniquity presume to finish as well as begin: that nothing shall be withheld from them.

5. Proud and presumptuous undertakings of men are a scorn and derision to God (Genesis 11:6). (G. Hughes, B. D.)

God’s inspection

Almighty God Himself came down to see what the children of men were doing, and when He comes down (a phrase which is used to accommodate Himself to our methods of expression), nothing can escape the penetration of His eye. He looks at our day books, ledgers, and other memorandum books, to see how we are building the tower of our life; He visits our country residences and palatial buildings for the purpose of trying their foundations; He looks into all the building of our fortune, that He may see whether our gains have been honestly secured. Terrible is the day for the bad man on which Almighty God lays His great hand--the hand on which the winds are hidden, the great palm in which all the stars of the heaven are gathered--upon the tower which is being built. He will shake it, and, if the foundation is bad, the whole superstructure will be thrown down to the dust! When men build their towers under the conviction that every stone of them will be tried by Divine power--when they build their cities, and erect their towers, and extend their properties, under the assurance that not one thing of all the things that their hands are doing will escape the test of God’s Spirit--we may expect life to be built upon a true foundation, and according to a righteous plan. What we have to ponder is this most certain fact, that God will come down to see our work, and that there is no possibility of concealing from Him any incorrectness of plan or any deficiency of service. (J. Parker, D. D.)

Verse 9

Genesis 11:9

Therefore is the name of it called Babel; because the Lord did there confound the language of all the earth

God causing confusion in order to restore peace


GOD IS NOT THE AUTHOR OF CONFUSION, BUT OF PEACE. Yet once, in His wise compassion, He made confusion in order to prevent it; He destroyed peace, that in the end He might restore it.

God, who hath made of one blood all nations of men, did, by that exercise of His power, THE BEST THING THAT COULD BE DONE TO CHECK AND RETARD THE RAPID GROWTH OF EVIL AND TO PREPARE THE MEANS BY WHICH MAN MIGHT BE BROUGHT BACK TO OBEDIENCE. While there was but one tongue, men easily corrupted each other; when there were many, evil communications were greatly hindered. God marred the Babel builders’ work, but it was in order to mar their wickedness; and meanwhile He had His own gracious designs for a remedy. Pentecost. (F. E. Paget, M. A.)

Divine order in confusion

1. The confusion of tongues was not at random. It was a systematic distribution of languages for the purpose of a systematic distribution of man in emigration. The dispersion was orderly, the difference of tongue corresponding to the differences of race. By these were the Gentiles divided in their lands, everyone after his tongue, after their families in their nations.

2. From the earliest period there has been manifested, in the history of scientific progress, an invincible faith among scientific men that the facts of nature are capable of being arranged in conformity with laws of geometry and algebra. In other words, all have a profound conviction of the existence of what Argyll calls “the reign of law,” i.e., order in the midst of apparent confusion and aimlessness.

3. There is no illogical course in arguing that those who believe in God as the Creator of order in nature have a right to conclude that He preserves the same order in history. The cataclysms in nature have an order and object; why not then the catastrophes of history. There is Divine order in the midst of historical confusion, as palpable and manifest as in that of science. Looking back upon the pathway which history has trodden, we can perceive traces of design--powerful evidences of an infinite aim--order in the midst of confusion. Over the wheels of history, as over the wheels in Ezekiel’s sublime vision, is the appearance of the likeness of the glory of the Lord. (W. Adamson.)

The scattered builders


1. Worldly wisdom.

2. Desire for worldly power.

3. Worldly pride.


1. God looked.

2. God intervened.

3. God governed. So it is always.

God restrains the power of evil, and makes it serve Him (Psalms 76:10). LEARN:

1. Not to be self-willed, proud, ambitious.

2. To submit to God’s will, and trust always in His wisdom and love. (W. S. Smith, B. D.)

The tower of Babel


1. Numerous. For one hundred years the posterity of Noah had continued to increase.

2. Of one speech. Hence present variety of language corroborative of the dispersion; otherwise there must have been many sources of the human race.

3. Disobedient. Had been expressly commanded to “replenish,” i.e. refill, the earth. Instead of obeying God, they lived together. Thus, too, the population of the world was retarded. Men increase more rapidly in new countries.

4. United in rebellion.


1. Purpose. Not to escape another flood, for not only had they the promise, but very few could in such a case escape that way. Probably it was to serve some idolatrous purpose, and be a landmark around which they could unite as one people and nation.

2. Material.

3. Character. Lofty. Eastern buildings not generally marked by loftiness. This, a grand and solitary exception.


1. The person. “God,” whom they thought least of, and practically defied.

2. The mode. “Confound their language.”


1. The building abandoned. If some speaking one tongue had continued, the jealousy of the rest would have hindered. But so strange an event would confound them as well as their speech.

2. They separated. Into how many tribes or nations we know not. The most eminent philologists (as Bunsen, etc.) find three original stocks, which some even call the Semitic, Japhetic, and Hamitic.

3. The earth was more widely peopled. Thus was the Divine will enforced. But had this been obeyed, without the need of resorting to this compulsory method, how much more easily had missionary efforts, and commercial enterprises, etc., now been carried out. Thus the world is this day suffering through the sin of these builders of old. LEARN:

The sin and folly of disobeying God.

The ease with which God can punish sin.

The far-reaching consequence of sin.

No confusion of tongues in heaven. All sing the one new song. (J. C. Gray.)


1. How vain and disastrous it is for men to contend against God; they cannot effectually resist Him; they can only destroy themselves. Especially if their contention is against any of the plans and arrangements connected with His eternal covenant--if the work which they are opposing, or the providential dispensation against which they are rebelling, has a direct bearing on His glorious design for the redemption of the world, and the salvation of souls,--if they are labouring to shut out Christ, or what is Christ’s, from His own domains, from hearts and homes that should be His,--how idly and madly do they kick against the pricks!

2. How wise it is, and how blessed, to acquiesce in God’s allotment of the good things of life, and in His manner of bringing His purposes of love to pass! The blessed Lord is the God of Shem;--but Shem suffers wrong, and has to exercise long patience before deliverance comes. Still it is enough that Jehovah is his God; let him not be careful or anxious. “Seek ye first the kingdom of heaven, and all other things shall be added unto you.”

3. In regard to the duty and the destiny of nations, the purpose of God is here revealed.

(1) On the one hand, schemes of conquest, and of concentrated dominion, are seen not to be of God; and however He may sometimes make them subservient to His own purposes, He will always, in the end, pour contempt on the proud ambition of man.

(2) Orderly dispersion and colonization are of God. In particular, in the line of Japheth, to which we belong, and among the isles of the Gentiles, colonization seems to be especially the Divine rule.

(3) But even if Japheth should prove unfaithful in the use of the privileges and opportunities of his high calling, as enlarged by God, and permitted to dwell in the tents of Shem,--and for his unfaithfulness should be cast away,--there is hope for the world still. “Blessed be Jehovah, the God of Shem,” is still, after all, the rallying watchword by which faith is quickened, and expectation stirred. For “salvation is of the Jews”; and it is concerning the seed of Shem that the animating question is put,--“If their fall be the riches of the world, and the diminishing of them the riches of the Gentiles, how much more their fulness?” (Romans 11:12). The Lord, whose name is blessed, is still the God of Shem: Israel is still “beloved for the fathers’ sake.”

(4) Finally, the division of languages, though an obstacle to schemes of human ambition, will not be suffered to be an obstacle to the triumph of the cause of God. Of this, God Himself gave a proof and pledge, in the miracle wrought on the day of Pentecost,--the counterpart of the miracle at Babel. The separation of nations will not hinder the unity of the faith. (R. S.Candlish, D. D.)

The dispersion at Babel

LET US INQUIRE WHO WERE DISPERSED OVER THE FACE OF THE EARTH AT THE DESTRUCTION OF BABEL. Who were those that lived on the plains of Shinar, built the tower of Babel, and were scattered over all the earth? It is evident they could not be the whole of mankind; for they had before been sent to the various places of their Divine destination. Some had gone to one quarter of the world, and some to another. Who, then, could the builders of Babel be that, after the general dispersion of mankind, were scattered over the earth? The Scripture history will inform us upon this subject. They were the sons of Ham; for the sacred historian tells us, “The sons of Ham were Cush, and Misraim, and Phut, and Canaan. And the sons of Cush: Seba, and Havilah, and Sabtah, and Raamah, and Sabtecha; and the sons of Raamab, Sheba and Dedan. And Cush begat Nimrod: he began to be a mighty one in the earth. He was a mighty hunter before the Lord: whereof it is said, Even as Nimrod the mighty hunter before the Lord. And the beginning of his kingdom was Babel.” But how came Nimrod the son of Ham, and his posterity, at Babylon, where Babel was built? This portion of the earth was allotted to Shem; and Nimrod with all the posterity of Ham was appointed to go to Africa. What right, then, had Nimrod, or any of the sons of Ham, to take possession of the plains of Babylon? Undoubtedly they had no right at all. But this is the Scripture account of the event. “And every region was of one language, and of one speech. And it came to pass in the journeying of the people from the east, that they found a plain in the land of Shinar.” The people, then, who journeyed from the east were not all the people of the earth, but only the posterity of Ham, and especially Nimrod and his posterity. This is a very rational account. But it is absurd to suppose that the posterity of Noah, who consisted of a hundred and twenty or a hundred and thirty thousand, should all move in a body from the rich and fertile country around Mount Ararat, where they first settled after the flood, without any Divine direction or natural necessity. Hence it is natural to conclude that the people who journeyed from the east to the plain of Shinar were Nimrod and his posterity. Especially when we reflect it is expressly said that “the beginning of Nimrod’s kingdom was Babel.” But how came Nimrod to pitch upon the plain of Shinar after the general dispersion of mankind, and after he was directed to go to Africa, a country far distant from Babylon? To this I would answer, There seems to be no account given of his conduct but the following. When the posterity of Shem and Japheth obeyed the Divine direction to separate and go to the places allotted them, the posterity of Ham, or at least Nimrod and his descendants, refused to obey the Divine command. In open defiance to God they moved from the east and came to the pleasant land of Babylon, and there by force of arms took the plain of Shinar out of the hands of the children of Shem. They determined not to disperse, as God had required, and as the other branches of Noah’s family had done. This shows that they built Babel in rebellion against God, and that God had just cause to come down and defeat their impious design by confounding their language.


1. That their dispersion was productive of war. They waged the first war after the flood in taking possession of Babylon. And after they were driven from thence they maintained their rebellious and warlike spirit. Their course was everywhere marked with violence and cruelty.

2. This knowing and powerful people carried the arts and sciences with them wherever they went. In these they excelled all other people. And notwithstanding their tyranny and cruelty, they did much to spread light and knowledge among the inhabitants of the earth. Of this they have left astonishing monuments in almost all parts of the world.

3. That this learned and ingenious people were gross idolaters, and spread idolatry through all nations whom they subdued and among whom they lived. They were the most corrupt and wicked part of Noah’s family.


1. This subject gives us reason to think that true religion prevailed and flourished for many years after the flood. Everything was suited to produce this happy effect. Neither Noah nor his family could ever forget the solemn, instructive, and affecting scenes through which they had passed, nor erase from their minds the deep impressions those scenes had made upon them. They would naturally relate to their children what they had seen, and heard, and felt during the awful period of the flood, and they again would relate the same things from one generation to another.

2. We learn from the Scripture history of mankind which we have been considering, that infidelity has been the principal source of the wars and fightings that have deluged the world in blood.

3. It appears from what has been said that all false religion is only a corruption of the true.

4. It appears from what has been said how much easier it is to spread any false religion in the world than the true religion.

5. It is a strong evidence in favour of the religion contained in the Bible that it has been so long preserved in the world, notwithstanding all mankind could do to destroy it.

6. We learn from what has been said, the deplorable state in which mankind in general have been involved for ages and are still involved. It is indeed a dark mystery that God has suffered them so long to walk in their own way without using such effectual means to enlighten and save them as He always has had power to use. But we have good reason to believe that He will yet bring light out of their darkness, holiness out of their blindness, and happiness out of their misery.

7. This subject shows the great reason that Christians have to expect, desire, and pray for a better state of things in the world. (N. Emmons, D. D.)


1. God’s execution of vengeance falleth soon after His resolution.

2. Jehovah will be the executioner of His own sentence on the wicked.

3. It is God’s work to set confederates against each other who conspire against Him.

4. The place of sin may sometimes prove the place of vengeance.

5. Sinners’ consultations to strengthen themselves in one place may end in a universal dispersion.

6. The earth is overspread with sinners against God by His judgment taken on them.

7. The strongest councils of sin will be frustrated by God.

8. High resolutions of sinners fall short of all their ends (Genesis 11:8). (G. Hughes, B. D.)

Good architecture

Good architecture is the work of good and believing men. (J. Ruskin.)

God’s infinite resources for punishing sinners

This brings before us a hint of the unknown resources of God, in the matter of punishing those who disobey His will. Who could have thought of this method of scattering the builders of the city? God does not send a fire upon the builders; no terrible plague poisons the air; yet in an instant each workman is at a loss to understand the other, and each considers all the rest as but raving maniacs! Imagine the bewildering and painful scene! Men who have been working by each other’s side days and weeks are instantly conscious of inability to understand one another’s speech! New sounds, new accents, new words, but not a ray of intelligence in all! “It is a fearful thing to fall into the hand of the living God.” God has innumerable ways of showing His displeasure at human folly and human crime. A man may be pursuing a course of prosperity in which he is ignoring all that is moral and Divine, and men may be regarding him as the very model of success; yet, in an instant, Almighty God may blow upon his brain, and the man may sit down in a defeat which can never be reversed. God is not confined to one method of punishment. He touches a man’s bones, and they melt; He breathes upon a man’s brain, and henceforth he is not able to think. He comes in at night time and shakes the foundations of man’s most trusted towers, and in the morning there is nought but a heap of ruins. He disorganizes men’s memories, and in an instant they confuse all the recollections of their lifetime. He touches man’s tongue, and the fluent speaker becomes a stammerer. He breaks the staff in twain, and he who was thus relying upon it is thrown down in utter helplessness. We know but little of what God means when He says “Heaven”; that word gives us but a dim hint of the infinite light and blessedness and triumph which are in reserve for the good. We have but a poor conception of what God means when He says “Hell”; that word is but a flickering spark compared with the infinite distress, and endless ruin and torment, which must befall every man who defies his Maker. (J. Parker, D. D.)

Confusion of language

Speaking of this confusion of language, may I not be permitted to inquire whether even in our own English tongue there is not today very serious confusion? Do men really mean words to be accepted in their plain common sense? Does not the acute man often tell his untrained client what he intends to do in language which has double meanings? Do we not sometimes utter the words that have one meaning to the world and another meaning to our own hearts? Yea does not always mean yea, nor does nay always mean nay; men sign papers with mental reservations; men utter words in their common meaning, and to themselves they interpret these words with secret significations. The same words do not mean the same thing under all circumstances and as spoken by different speakers. When a poor man says “rich,” he means one thing; when a millionaire says “rich,” he means something very different. Let us consider that there is morality even in the use of language. Let no man consider himself at liberty to trifle with the meaning of words. Language is the medium of intercourse between man and man, and on the interpretation of words great results depend. It behoves us, therefore, who profess to be followers of Jesus Christ, so to speak as to leave ourselves without the painful reflection of having taken refuge in ambiguous expressions for the sake of saving ourselves from unpleasant results. It will be a sign that God is really with us as a nation, when a pure language is restored unto us--when man can trust the word of man, and depend with entire confidence upon the honour of his neighbour. (J. Parker, D. D.)

The confusion of tongues

The late Bishop Selwyn devoted a great part of his time to visiting the Melanesian Isles, and he thus writes home about the difficulty of languages: “Nothing but a special interposition of the Divine power could have produced such a confusion of tongues as we find here. In islands not larger than the Isle of Wight we find dialects so distinct that the inhabitants of the various districts hold no communication one with another.” (Old Testament Anecdotes.)

No architect

The late Mr. Alexander, the eminent architect, was under cross examination at Maidstone by Serjeant, afterwards Baron, Garrow, who wished to detract from the weight of his testimony, and, after asking him what was his name, he proceeded: “You are a builder?” “No, sir, I am an architect.” “They are much the same.” “I beg your pardon, sir; I cannot admit that. I consider them to be totally different.” “Oh, indeed l Perhaps you will state wherein the difference consists?” “An architect, sir, conceives the design, prepares the plan, draws out the specifications--in short, supplies the mind; the builder is merely the bricklayer or the carpenter. The builder is the machine; the architect the power that puts it together and sets it going.” “Oh, very well, Mr. Architect, that will do. And now, after your very ingenious distinction without a difference, perhaps you can inform the court who was the architect of the Tower of Babel?” The reply, for promptness and wit, is not to be rivalled in the history of rejoinder:--“There was no architect, sir, and hence the confusion.” (Old Testament Anecdotes.)

Verses 10-26

Genesis 11:10-26

These are the generations of Shem

The generations of Shem



THE DIRECTION OF THE STREAM OF HISTORY TOWARDS THE MESSIAH. “God calmly and resolutely proceeds with His purpose of mercy. In the accomplishment of this eternal purpose He moves with all the solemn grandeur of long suffering patience. One day is with Him as a thousand years, and a thousand years as one day. Out of Adam’s three sons He selects one to be the progenitor of the seed of the woman. Out of Noah’s three sons He again selects one. And now out of Terah’s three is one to be selected. Among the children of this one He will choose a second one, and among his a third one before He reaches the holy family. Doubtless this gradual mode of proceeding is in keeping with the hereditary training of the holy nation, and the due adjustment of the Divine measures for at length bringing the fulness of the Gentiles in the covenant of everlasting peace.”

THE GRADUAL, NARROWING OF HUMAN LIFE. “In the manifold weakenings of the highest life endurance, in the genealogy of them, there are, nevertheless, distinctly observable a number of abrupt breaks--

1. From Shem to Arphaxad, or from 600 years to 438;

2. From Eber to Peleg, or from 464 years to 239.

3. From Serug to Nahor, or from 230 years to 148; beyond which last, again, there extend the lives of Terah, with his 205, and of Abraham, with his 175 years. Farther on we have Isaac with 180 years, Jacob 147, and Joseph 110. So gradually does the human term of life approach the limit set by the Psalmist (Psalms 90:10). Moses reached the age of 120 years. The deadly efficacy goes on still in the bodily sphere, although the counter working of salvation has commenced in the spiritual.” (T. H. Leale.)

Post-diluvial genealogy

The general title is expressed thus, “These are the generations of Shem.” Of these Moses was speaking (chap. 10), so far as Peleg, whose name was given him upon the occasion of dividing the earth; by way of parenthesis, he includes the history and cause of this earth’s division, in the former part of this chapter. He now returns to draw up the line full unto Abram, about which this title is set in the front. Consider the use of all these mentioned in the title.

1. To point where the Church of God was after the flood.

2. To show God’s providence in singling out some generations in the world for His Church, these and not others.

3. To make known to us the state of the Church either for truth or for corruption at this time.

4. To continue to us the right chronology of the world, not for speculation only, but for pious practice to us, upon whom the ends of the world are come.

5. To make us better understand some passages of the prophets mentioning these persons or their conditions.

6. To show us the true line of Christ, and to confirm the New Testament given by Him. Every generation in the Church from the flood is but to bring Christ nearer. (G. Hughes, B. D.)

Race of man

The human race may be compared to an immense temple ruined, but now rebuilding, the numerous compartments of which represent the several nations of the earth. True, the different portions of the edifice present great anomalies; but yet the foundation and the cornerstone are the same. All spring from the same level, and all should be directed to the same end. The walls of the building have been thrown down, and the stones scattered by a great earthquake; yet a mighty Architect has appeared, and His powerful hand is gradually raising the temple wails. The only difference between one side of the edifice and the other is, that here the restoration is somewhat further advanced, while there it is less forward. Alas! some places are still overgrown with thorns, where not a single stone appears. Yet the great Architect may one day look down on these desolate spots, and there the building may suddenly and rapidly spring up, reaching the summit long before those lofty walls which seem to have outgrown the others, but which are still standing half-raised and incomplete. “The last shall be first.” (Merle DAubigne.)


1. God’s providence hath pointed out His Church and recorded its line, after as before the flood; herein helping the faith of following ages.

2. God chooseth what generations and families He pleaseth to pitch His Church in them.

3. A family God may choose out of the world to set His name upon them, when the world is passed by; a few or little remnant God reserveth.

4. Every generation in the Church from the flood is but to bring Christ nearer.

5. Times are appointed for the birth of everyone in the Church for His work (Genesis 11:10).

6. Length of days, etc., God giveth to His chief witnesses, as Shem was to Isaac’s days; much work he had to do in that compass of time.

7. The eminentest in the Church, may have many children degenerate from it. More care should be used to keep them closer to God (Genesis 11:11). (G. Hughes, B. D.)

Verses 27-32

Genesis 11:27-32

Now these are the generations of Terah: Terah begat Abram, Nahor, and Haran

The dawn of Abram’s history

Here we have the commencement of the sixth document, indicated by the usual preface, “These are the generations.

” This portion is intended to bring Abram before us, and therefore goes to the roots of his history, showing us from what a source so eminent an example of righteousness sprang. The history is brief, but it may be considered as a condensed outline of Abraham’s life. Here we find him--

POSSESSED OF GREAT MORAL COURAGE. Terah, the father of Abram, was an idolator (Joshua 24:2). Both himself and his children were ignorant of the true object of worship, or if they had any knowledge of this, they did not retain that knowledge, but suffered themselves to be led away by the impiety around them. Such is the hole of the pit from whence this sublime character was digged.

UNDER THE SHADOW OF FUTURE TRIAL (Genesis 11:30). (T. H. Leale.)

Children dying before their parents





Death in the prime of life


1. Youth is no security.

2. Health is no protection.

3. The order of nature is set at defiance.

4. No reliance can be placed on the distinctions of society--on the law of heredity, on favourable conditions.

GOD’S DESIGN IN ALL THIS IS TO TEACH MANKIND, from the cradle to the grave, THE UNCERTAINTY OF LIFE. Death is ever in our path. (The Homiletic Review.)

Death in the prime of life


1. Death is no respecter of persons.

2. No respecter of age.

3. No respecter of condition.

4. No respecter of character.


1. To fully understand and accept these facts, and shape life by them.

2. To make our salvation the first and main duty of life.

3. In whatever state, condition, or period of life we are, to risk nothing on the contingent of living. (The Homiletic Review.)

Third age--patriarchal era

God trained him by separation; by a series of separations. This is the key thought of Abraham’s life. We are accustomed to consider faith as the key to Abraham’s life. Certainly it is; but did not his faith manifest itself in just this, that he was willing to separate himself from all for the Lord’s sake?

1. You find, him first called of God to leave his country and his father’s house.

2. The second separation is from his father Terah.

3. The next separation is from Canaan itself as a home.

4. Fourthly, separation from Egypt.

5. The next thing we read of is his separation from Lot.

6. After separation from Lot, comes separation from Ishmael.

7. Passing over what may be called Abraham’s separation from himself, in the twentieth chapter, we come to his separation from Isaac.

8. The next thing we learn of Abraham is his separation from Sarah. “And it came to pass after all these things that Sarah died.”

9. Then, finally, we find Abraham separated from all.

In Genesis 25:5, we are told that “Abraham gave all that he had unto Isaac.” Abraham had been a rich man, but his heart had not been set on his riches, as was evident whenever questions of property came up.

This leads us to the second great subject: the gospel unto which Abraham was separated--the blessing of Abraham--the “Abrahamie covenant” of theology. It is, as already remarked, the same old covenant of grace, plus the idea of separation and consequent restriction. And here, as we are entering upon this period of restriction, this narrowing of the channel of blessing to the line of a single family first, and a single nation afterward, it is important for us to remember three things: In the first place this policy of restriction was not adopted until the offer of mercy had been thrice made to all mankind, and thrice rejected. In the second place, this restriction of the blessings of grace to a single family and a single nation was for the sake of all. It was the only way by which the blessing could be secured finally to all. Abraham was called, not for his own sake, nor for his descendants’ sake only, but for the world’s sake--“In thee shall all the families of the earth be blessed” (Genesis 12:3); and again (Genesis 22:18): “In thy seed shall all the nations of the earth be blessed.” There is no real narrowing. It is still, “God so loved the world.” In the third place, even though in the meantime the channel must be narrowed to a single family and nation, “whosoever will” may come. The door is open all the while. “The sons of the stranger” have simply to leave their country and their family, and come and join themselves to the family of Abraham, and to the nation of the Jew, and they are made welcome. (J. M.Gibson, D. D.)

Setting out, but stopping short of the promised land

How many are there who set out on the way to Canaan, but never reach that land of promise--who run well for a time, but are afterwards hindered! In the present life they obtain rest, in peace with God, in the exercise of the grace He ministers, and in a conscious sense of His approbation; and these first fruits of the Spirit are the earnest of the rich, everlasting harvest. Those only who enter by faith into the land of promise here shall be admitted into the Canaan above. But how many are there who seem to set out well, and even to make some progress, and yet die before they gain that happy reversion!

We ask, HOW FAR MEN MAY GO IN THE WAY TO CANAAN, AND YET, LIKE TERAH, DIE IN HARAN? in other words, How far they may proceed in the ways of religion, yet fall short of the kingdom of grace and glory?

1. We may be visited with many convictions, and even with great terrors, and yet fall short of a state of grace. Does conscience admonish you that you have been neglecting your duty to your God and your Saviour--your highest duties, your first interests, even the interests of your immortal souls? Does the fear of futurity sometimes visit you, urging you to say, “What must I do?” It may be well--it shall be well, if those alarms impel you to the Saviour. But rest not in convictions; for if these be the whole extent of your experience, you are still in Haran, separated by a wide boundary from the land of promise, the spiritual Canaan: and if you die in your present state, you are excluded from the Canaan that is above.

2. We may be conscious of tender religious emotions--sorrow, desire, joy--and yet fall short of real grace. Not only may the conscience beconvinced, but the heart may be in some measure softened, and yet remain unconverted; for it is “deceitful above all things.”

3. We may form many good resolutions, and yet be dwelling in Haran. Who is there that has not often formed these? In a season of conviction, in an hour of compunction, in a day of trial and adversity, we resolve to apply to the things that belong to our peace, to attend to the warnings of the word and providence of God, and to seek after that portion that is satisfying and abiding. But alas! the conviction wears off, the trial passes by, the danger is averted; and we forget all our purposes and resolutions. Or perhaps we set about fulfilling them, and adhere to them for a time; but, trusting in our own strength, we are overcome and brought again under the power of the enemy. What avail an army of good resolutions, unaccompanied by prayer, and unsupported by grace, against the subtlety and power of the enemy of souls? “The way to hell,” it has been emphatically said, “is paved with good resolutions.”

4. We may actually enter on the work of reformation, and proceed a certain length in it, and yet fall short. Herod not only feared John, but “did many things.” Thus are men often induced to abstain from particular transgressions, to exercise some degree of self-denial, to address themselves to various duties--things in themselves, no doubt, promising and right, but being done only from temporary impulse, or from selfish and slavish motives, consistent still with an unregenerate state, are usually as transient in their duration as defective in their principle. These facts are affecting, and even alarming. You are ready to say, If all the attainments you have mentioned are ineffective, what is there that will avail? My brethren, nothing will avail without a change of heart--“a new heart” must be given us, “a new spirit” put within us.


1. Here the analogy of a journey leads us to mention, first, sloth, spiritual sloth. Like a paralysis extending over our whole frame, it completely unfits us for prosecuting our journey.

2. We mention, as a second obstacle, the love of the world; a principle that entangles and enchains--that perverts the heart, and turns the feet out of the right path.

3. In fine, the grand obstacle is, an inward aversion to the ways of God, a dislike of serious religion.

We inquire, WHAT IS THE STATE AND PROSPECT OF THOSE WHO STOP SHORT OF THE KINGDOM OF GOD? Surely it may well awaken both sorrow and fear. Do you not lament the fate of a promising youth who, in the near prospect of succeeding to a large estate, is cut off by the hand of death? Do you not mourn when any object, exceedingly desirable, seems just ready to be attained, and is then unexpectedly snatched from us and lost forever? How deplorable! to have gone so far in the way to Canaan and yet to come short, to have approached so near the promised land, yet never to enter; to come to the gate of heaven, and to be cast down into hell!

1. Consider; those who stop short of the kingdom lose the benefit of all they have felt and done in the things of religion.

2. Nay, further, all that they have felt and done in religion will really serve to aggravate their guilt and imbitter their disappointment.

3. Once more; the conduct of such persons brings peculiar reproach upon religion. For they convey to others an injurious conception of it; they represent it as a system of restraints, of difficulties, and of dangers, without adequate reward. And now, in concluding, I address, first, those who have not yet set out on the way to Canaan--I intend careless sinners, who continue to this day, without fear or concern, in the broad way that leads to destruction. Has God no claims upon you? Has Christ no right to your regard? Has eternity no demands on your attention? Even in you there is a conscience that will speak if you will give it a hearing, and if not here, yet assuredly hereafter. Be persuaded to avert its overwhelming reproaches, yea, the more overwhelming frown of Him who is greater than conscience, by now making peace with Him through Jesus Christ. Secondly, I address those who have professedly set out on the way to Canaan--I mean those who profess that they have given themselves to Christ, to be saved and to be governed by Him. Remember, my beloved friends, you must “endure to the end,” if you would be saved. If a man enter the army, and follow his regiment a few marches, and then desert to the enemy, is he not accounted a traitor and a rebel? Such will your character be, if, having professed to give yourselves to Christ, you forsake Him and return to the world. (H. Gray, D. D.)

Stopping short

The simple fact, “Terah died in Harsh,” stands in the Scriptures as a monument, like the pillar of salt which uttered its warning to every passer by, “Remember Lot’s wife.” It exhibits an old man, after his many years spent in idolatry and ignorance, attempting in a late obedience to Divine commands to remove from his native condition and home, to the land of promise; but wasting in procrastination the time for his journey, and indolently staying upon the road over which he was required to pass to gain the end placed before his view; and finding all his efforts and plans to accomplish his purpose, to prove unavailing for his good. He never attained the inheritance for which he set out so late, and which he pursued so carelessly. Has this fact then no practical connection with ourselves? Does it not exhibit a striking illustration of the folly and danger of postponing until old age, our own commanded journey to the land of promise?

Let us consider THE WORK WHICH GOD REQUIRES SINFUL MAN TO UNDERTAKE. The call of Abraham from his country and home is frequently employed to illustrate the great duty which is required of every sinful man. Like him, everyone is commanded in the gospel to attain and exercise a simple controlling faith in the Divine promises; to follow in this spirit of faith the peculiar commands of God the Saviour; to go out, in its reliance upon Him, from a state of selfishness and idolatry, man’s natural condition, to seek the better and heavenly country which is revealed in the gospel, and offered in Christ Jesus, to every believing soul. Such an exercise of faith developing itself in full and permanent obedience to the Divine commands, is the work which God requires of all who hear the gospel. But when is this great work to be undertaken? When shall man begin to subdue his rebellious heart into reconciliation to the will of God? May he select his own time for the work? Surely not. The Scriptures never intimate a moment beyond the time in which the command is actually given, as the time for man’s obedience. The morrow is not given to man. “Now,” “today,” are the Divine designations of the proper time for man’s submission. Whenever God speaks, it is that His will may be done at once. He who rejects and disobeys the commands of God in his youth, is exceedingly unlikely to find the opportunity or the disposition to obey in his subsequent years.

Let us consider THE COURSE WHICH MEN GENERALLY PURSUE IN REFERENCE TO THIS IMPORTANT MATTER. Do they, or do they not, generally obey at once? Do they, with Abraham, arise and go? or do they more commonly with Terah, procrastinate the enterprise until it is too late to accomplish it at all? Some few accept with gratitude the blessed invitations of the Saviour, and unite themselves unto Him, in a perpetual covenant, never to be forgotten. But what is the course pursued by the great majority of mankind? Do they not altogether drive away the convictions of this early period? They refuse to yield their hearts and characters, to be thus subjected by the Holy Spirit to the service of God. They bargain with their consciences, in order to silence their awakened demands, that at some future period they will attend to the duty required of them. Thus most frequently, they live and die in their chosen idolatry and guilt; always hearing the command, “arise and go,” and always determining that they will obey it; but never putting their resolution into effect. Like Torah, they die in Haran; they perish amidst unfulfilled vows and attempts of obedience to God, and under the guilt and burden of actual rebellion against Him.

Let us trace THE USUAL RESULT OF THIS COURSE OF PROCRASTINATION. It will be but tracing the history and experience of the great proportion of mankind. Twenty years of the sinner’s life go by. They are the most important, and in most cases the deciding period of his existence, in reference to his eternal welfare. But their close finds him still unrenewed in his character, and hardening his mind and conscience against the power of truth. In the wonderful forbearance of God, twenty years more are added to these, all of them crowned with privileges, and with invitations to a better land. But the lingering sinner still refuses to arise and go. By this time, he has seen and felt much of the folly of things temporal, and of the emptiness of the heart which depends upon them. But he is hardened through the deceitfulness of sin; and he is unwilling to make the decided and violent rupture which seems necessary if he would now effect his escape from an impending ruin. With more light in his conscience, he has more dulness and obduracy in his affections; and the work of true piety grows more and more difficult. If twenty years more bring him to the verge of feebleness and death, he is still found more deeply anxious to obtain the hope which he does not possess, and which he finds it more and more impossible to get. By this time, he is mourning over nearly all his joys as departed forever. Almost every monument of his life seems to be a tomb. “Here lie the remains,” is the inscription which he reads upon pleasures, and possessions, and hopes which are gone. And now, old age is looked for to effect that which youth and maturity have failed to accomplish. But here another disappointment comes. Old age also is very different in its character from its anticipated appearance. Man then awakes to the sorrowful conviction that he has been deluded through the whole of his course in life. He sees nothing of that spontaneous preparation for eternity, which he hoped to find in the later years of life. It is now harder, vastly harder, than it has ever been before, to lay hold of any adequate and abiding hope for a world to come. Lingering Terah sits down to measure up, in the sad calculation of his own experience, the folly by which he has been so long deceived. The love of the world and the pride of self have grown upon his heart.

What now becomes THE RESULT OF THIS PROCRASTINATION? Generally one of two things. Either total, hardened, self-defending negligence; or a partial, constrained, and unsatisfying attention to the duties of religion. That is, Terah either positively refuses to obey the Divine command, and remains to die as he has lived, in Chaldea; or else, he unwillingly sets cut under the lashes of an awakened conscience, and goes as far as Haran, and dies there, in a new condition indeed, but with the same character. (S. H.Tyng, D. D.)


1. God may make known His mind by the child unto the father; and call it before him (Acts 7:2).

2. By revelation to a son, God may make parents willing to obey His call.

3. The Spirit giveth honour to parents, as leaders, when they follow the call of grace.

4. God points out by name such as He separates for His Church.

5. Faith puts all believers upon motion, when God calls them even from their native country.

6. Faith in God makes haste to depart from polluted places.

7. Faith intends to go as far as God calleth the soul. (G. Hughes, B. D.)

Sarai was barren; she had no child

Sarai’s barrenness

1. The subject spoken of, Sarai; she that was to be the mother of the Church, of whom, purposely, the Spirit writeth this which followeth to show forth the power of God.

2. The condition spoken of her--under two expressions.

(1) She was barren, i.e., naturally she was so, and that from her youth and first marriage--the fitter object for God to work upon by His power.

(2) To her was no child. That is, hitherto she had no child, when she was now taking her journey with her husband and grandfather. God records the trials of His saints, not for their reproach bat for His own glory. (G. Hughes, B. D.)


Bibliographical Information
Exell, Joseph S. "Commentary on "Genesis 11". The Biblical Illustrator. https://www.studylight.org/commentaries/eng/tbi/genesis-11.html. 1905-1909. New York.
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