The Dispersion of the
Nations in Genesis 11:1-9
Allen P. Ross
Introduction to the Passage
THE NATURE OF THE ACCOUNT
The narrative in Genesis 11:1-9 describes the divine inter-
vention among the human family to scatter them across the face
of the earth by means of striking at the :heart of their unity- their
language. A quick reading of the passage shows that the pre-
idea is not the
If the point is not simply the tower, then this passage does not
present, as some have suggested, a Hebrew adaptation of the
Greek Titans storming heaven to dislodge God. Rather, the char-
acteristics of the people in this story are anxiety and pride
through their own gregariousness.1 The tower, on the one hand,
is born from the people's fear of being scattered across the earth;
and on the other hand it is an attempt to frustrate God's plan to
fill the earth (Gen. 9:1).
The sin. Since the story has the trappings of a judgment
narrative in which Yahweh interrupts mankind's misguided
activities and scatters them abroad, it may be assumed that the
antithesis of this scattering must be the sin. The major error was
not the building of a city, but the attempt of the race to live in one
City.2 Therefore it appears that the human family was striving for
unity, security, and social immortality (making a name) in de-
fiance of God's desire for them to fill the earth.
Divine punishment. It is important to keep in mind that the
"judgment" was not the destruction of the city but of the lan-
120 Bibliotheca Sacra-April-June 1981
guage that united the people. It was shattered into a multiplicity
of languages so that the common bond was destroyed.3 Thus the
text is demonstrating that the present number of languages that
form national barriers is a monument to sin.
Divine prevention. Since the people's purpose was to make a
name for themselves and to achieve power through unity, the
apostasy of the human spirit would shortly bring the race to the
brink of another catastrophe such as the Deluge. By frustrating
their communication and dividing them into nations, it is evi-
dent that "it is the will of God, so long as sin is present in the
world, to employ nationalism in the reduction of sin."4
For ages people have restricted themselves to native man-
ners and customs and regarded diverse languages of foreigners
great horror.5 Thus
strange language" (Ps. 114:1) and was frequently warned of de-
struction by a fierce nation whose language would not be under-
stood and whose deep speech could not be comprehended (Deut.
28:49; Isa. 28:11; 33:19; Jer. 5:15). The language barrier
brought sudden fear and prevented unification.
Ringgren summarized the twofold aspect of Yahweh's in-
tervention in Genesis 11 as divine reaction to pride.
Theologically, the building of the tower in Gen. 11 is interpreted as
an act of human arrogance and rebellion against God; accordingly,
Yahweh intervenes against its builders and scatters them over the
whole earth. This action of God is both punishment and a preven-
tive measure; it prevents men from going too far in their pride.6
Later prophets would draw on this narrative, recording the
very beginnings of the divisions as they looked to the end of days
when God Himself would unify mankind once again. Zephaniah
3:9-11 appears to be constructed antithetically to this passage
with its themes in common with Genesis 11:1-9: the pure speech
(i.e., one language),7 the gathering of the dispersed people (even
mountain. The miracle on the day of Pentecost is often seen as a
harbinger of that end time.9
LITERARY ANALYSIS OF THE PASSAGE
The literary style of the narrative shows an artistic hand
ordering the material in such a way as to mirror the ideas from
the Babylonian background of the story as well as to contrast by
means of antithetical parallelism the participants in the story. To
such literary art, repetition and parallelism are essential.
The Dispersion of the Nations in Genesis 11:1-9 121
Antithetical balance. In the antithetical parallelism of the
narrative ideas are balanced against their counterparts. The
story begins with the report of the unified situation at the begin-
ning (11:1) and ends with a reminder of that unity and its
resultant confusion for the scattering (11:9). This beginning and
ending picture is reflected in the contrast of the dialogues and
actions: 11:2-4 describes what the humans proceeded to do;
11:5-8 describes how Yahweh turned their work aside (begin-
ning with the contrastive, "But Yahweh ... ").
Within these balanced sections many elements support the
antithetical arrangement. As seen in the Hebrew, verse 1 is bal-
anced with 9, 2 with 8, and 3 with 7, and the narrative turns at
Poetic devices. The mechanics of the writer can also be seen
in the heavy alliteration and sound play throughout the account.
First, the writer enhances the meaning of the ultimate word
The letters b, l, and n, culminating in the word lb,BA; are frequent-
ly used. Verse 3 reads Mynibel; hnAB;l;ni hbAhA; Nb,xAl, hnAbel.;ha Mh,
Unl.A-hn,b;ni hbAhA. In verse 5 are the words yneB; UnBA; and verse 7 has hlAb;nAv;.
In verse 8 the sounds continue with hnob;li UlD;H;y.ava. And in verse 9 is
the anticipated culmination of the sounds in lb,BA ... llaBA.
There also appears to be a play on the key word of the pas-
sage, CUP ("scatter"). The word is frequently followed by the
phrase, "across the face of the whole earth," Cr,xAhA-lkA yneP;, which,
interestingly, begins with the letter P and ends with C, thus
reflecting CUP.11 Other alliterations involve yneP;/NP,; Nb,xAl;/hnAbel.;ha; and
Second, the wordplays in the passage strengthen the ideas.
Bullinger calls such wordplays "paronomasia" which he de-
scribes as the employment of two words that are different in
origin and meaning, but similar in sound and appearance to
emphasize two things by calling attention to the similarity of
sound.12 One is placed alongside the other and appears to be a
repetition of it. Once the eye has caught the two words and the
attention concentrated on them, then one discovers that an
interpretation is put on the one by the other.
While this description gives the general nature of wordplays,
it is too broad for distinguishing the types of wordplays within
the group known as paronomasia. To be precise, it should be said
that paronomasia involves a play on similarity of sound and some
point in the meaning as well; those that have no point of contact
Bibliotheca Sacra-April-June 1981
in meaning are best classified as phonetic wordplays such as
assonance, rhyme, alliteration, or epanastrophe.
This distinction becomes necessary in the exegesis of the
narrative. In verse 3 is the exhortation, Mynibel; hnAB;l;ni, "let us make
bricks" (literally, "let us brick bricks"). Immediately there follows
a second exhortation: hpAreW;li hpAr;W;ni, "let us burn them hard"
(literally, "let us burn them for burning"). These are paronoma-
sias in the strict sense since they offer a sound play and are
However, the key play in the passage is not strictly parono-
masia since there is no connection etymologically between lb,BA
and llaBA. It is a phonetic wordplay. The people would say that the
name was called "lb,BA" because Yahweh "made a babble" (llaBA
All these devices enhance the basic antithetical structure of
the passage. Fokkelman illustrates this by connecting the par-
onomasia of verse 3, Mynibel; hnAB;l;ni, with the response of God in verse
7, hlAb;nA, in a sound-chiasmus:13
L B N "let us make bricks"
N B L "let us confuse"
The reversal of the order of the sounds reveals the basic idea
of the passage: The construction on earth is answered by the de-
struction from heaven; men build but God pulls down. The fact
that God's words are also in the form of man's words (as cohorta-
tive) adds a corroding irony to the passage. God sings with the
people while working against them.14
The same point is stressed with Mwe, MwA, and MyimawA. To bring
everlasting fame (Mwe) they unite in one spot (MwA) as the base of
operations for their attainment of fame which they make con-
ditional on the encroachment of MyimawA, the abode of God. What
drives them is hubris. What calls out the nemesis of Yahweh from
heaven (MyimawA) and scatters them from there (own) is also hubris.15
The "brackets" on the text illustrate this poignantly: what "all the
earth" sought to avoid, namely, dispersion "all over the earth,"
happened (cf. v. 1 and v. 9).
SETTING FOR THE PASSAGE
The Babylonian background. That this passage has Baby-
lon in mind is clear from the
explication of the name "
verse 9. The first time this term was used was in the Table of
Nations in Genesis 10 where the beginning of the kingdom was
in the exploits of Nimrod from
this direct reference to proud
dences show that the background of the story was Mesopota-
mian. Speiser says, "The episode points more concretely to
the background that is here sketched proves to be authentic
beyond all expectations.”16
the area of Marduk's sanctuary known as E-sag-ila, "the house
whose head is raised up,"18 there was a seven-storied tower with
a temple top that was known as E-temen-anki. This structure,
measuring 90 meters by 90 meters at the base as well as being 90
meters high, became one of the wonders of the world.19 The
tower was a symbol of Babylonian culture and played a major role
in other cultures influenced by it.20
The first of such towers must be earlier than Nebuchadnez-
zar's, for his were rebuildings of ancient patterns. Cassuto main-
tains that this reference must be to E-temen-anki (although he
suggests that the occasion for the tradition giving rise to the
satire would come from an earlier time, from the Hittite destruc-
cannot be E-temen-anki, which cannot antedate the seventh
century. Therefore this account must be centuries earlier than
E-temen-anki.22 Since Esarhaddon (seventh century) and
Nebuchadnezzar (sixth century) were the first since Hammurabi
to build such works, the biblical reference in Genesis 11 must be
a much earlier
So while the actual Neo-Babylonian Empire's23 architecture
cannot be the inspiration for this account, one must conclude
that their buildings were rebuildings of some ancient tower
located in the same area.
But when the literary parallels concerning this architecture
are considered, some very significant correspondences to the
narrative are noted.
First, there is a specific connection of this story with the
of the building of
Enuma Elish, tablet VI, lines 55-64:
When Marduk heard this,
Brightly glowed his features, like the days:
124 Bibliotheca Sacra-April-June 1981
"Like that of lofty
Let its brickwork be fashioned. You shall name it the sanctuary."
The Anunnaki applied the implement;
For one year they molded bricks.
When the second year arrived,
They raised high the head of Esagila equaling Apsu.
Having built a stage tower as high as Apsu,
They set up in it an abode for Marduk, Enlil, Ea;
In their presence he adorned it with grandeur.24
Within this passage are several literary parallels to the bibli-
cal narrative. Line 62 reads, "They raised the head of Esagila
mihrit apsi," (sa Esagila mihrit apsi ullu rest [su] ). Speiser
notes the word play of ullu resisu with Esagila, which means
"the structure which raises the head," explaining that it evokes a
special value for the Sumerian name, giving it a significant
meaning in Babylon.25 Thus he concludes that resam ullum
became a stock expression for the monumental structures of
Speiser shows that apsu is a reference to the heavens. He
allows that it often means "the deep," but that cannot be correct
in the light of line 63 which says, "when they had built the temple
tower of the upper (elite) apsu" (ibnuma ziggurat sa apsi elite).
In line 62 then, mihrit apsi must be "toward heaven," and apsu
must be celestial and not subterranean.26
A second important element is the bricks. The Hebrew text in
Genesis 11:3 describes the brickmaking with a cognate accusa-
tive construction. Once the bricks are made, the tower is made.
Speiser observes that the bricks figured predominantly in the
Babylonian account where there is a year-long brick ritual.27 The
Babylonian account not only records a similar two-step process
(making bricks in the first year and raising the tower head in
the second), but it also has a similar construction, using a
cognate accusative, libittasu iltabnu (Hebrew: Mynibel; hnAB;l;nii). In
fact, the Hebrew and Akkadian words are cognate. The similarity
So in Enuma Elish and Genesis there are at least three solid
literary connections: the making of the tower for the sanctuary of
the gods, with Genesis reporting the determination to build the
tower and city in rebellion to God; the lofty elevation of its head
into the heavens, with Genesis recording almost the same ref-
erence; and the making of the bricks before the building of the
city, with Genesis describing the process with the same gramma-
Another correspondence is reflected in the great pride of the
builders. One of the purposes of the Babylonian creation epic at
composition was to show the preeminence of
the cities of the country, and especially the supremacy of Marduk
over all deities. They were so pleased with themselves that they
naki gods and made for Marduk on behalf of his victory over
Tiamat. It then became the pattern for the earthly city (Enuma
Elish, tablet VI, lines 113-15). In fact
city for so many peoples, claimed to be the origination of society,
their city having descended from heaven.28 Herein is the im-
mense pride of
Therefore with this world-famous city and tower culture
claiming to be the heavenly plan and beginning of creation, the
record in Genesis 11 is a counterblast and a polemic.29 To com-
municate this most forcefully, the text employs literary elements
of that ancient, traditional theme preserved in the Babylonian
culture, but the contents and thrust of the message differ
The differences are pointed out in part by Vos.31 First, Gene-
sis implies that nothing like this had ever been built before by
man, but the ziggurats represent traditional workings. Second,
Genesis presents the building as evidence of their disobedience,
but the Babylonian work was for the purpose of worshiping a local
deity. Third, Genesis describes this as the work of one united race
of people that became the basis of the scattering and confusion
into languages and tribes, but the ziggurats were man-made
mountains of a national group (their towers were the symbol of
their culture). Also these towers developed gradually over the
centuries after the diffusion and scattering.
So Genesis, in setting forth the account of the divine
The result is a satire on the thing of glory and beauty of the pagan
world. The biblical writer, having become familiar with the vain-
words in the traditions of
for the purpose of deriding the literary traditions of that ancient
city and establishing the truth. In fact traditions from Mesopota-
mia recorded the ancient division of languages as well. The
Sumerians had recorded that there was originally one language
since everyone came to worship Enlil with one tongue (Enmerkar
Epic, lines 141-46).32
Bibliotheca Sacra-April-June 1981
Cassuto suggests a collection of satirical ideas that would
have given rise to the Genesis narrative, and he paraphrases
them as follows:
You children of
"Gate of god," or Bab-ilani, "Gate of gods"--and your tower you
designated "House of the foundation of heaven and earth." You
desired that the top of your tower should be in heaven.... You did
not understand that, even if you were to raise the summit of your
ziggurat ever so high, you would not be nearer to Him than when
you stand upon the ground; nor did you comprehend that He who in
truth dwells in heaven, if he wishes to take a closer look at your lofty
tower, must needs come down.... Your intention was to build for
yourselves a gigantic city that would contain all mankind and you
forgot that it was God's will to fill the whole earth with human
settlements, and that God's plan would surely be realized.... You
were proud of your power, but you should have known that it is
forbidden to man to exalt himself, for only the Lord is truly exalted,
and the pride of man is regarded by Him as iniquity that leads to his
downfall and degradation--a punishment befitting the crime....
On account of this, your dominion was shattered and your families
were scattered over the face of the whole earth. Behold, how fitting is
the name that you have given to your city! It is true that in your
language it expresses glory and pride, but in our idiom it sounds as
though it connoted confusion--and confusion of tongues heard
therein, which caused its destruction and the dispersion of its
inhabitants in every direction.33
that despise God's instructions and raise themselves in pride.34
world peace and unity by domestic exploitation and power. They
would be brought down in confusion; herein was the warning to
new nation of
and brought low in spite of her pride, ingenuity, and strength.
the antitheocratical program. Later writers drew on this theme
and used the name as a symbol for the godless society with its
pretensions. Isaiah 47:8-13 portrayed
sins, and superstitions. Isaiah 13:19 pictured her as "the glory of
kingdoms, the beauty of the Chaldeans' pride"; and Isaiah 14:13
describes her sinful arrogance in exalting her throne above the
Most High in the heavens only to be brought low. Jeremiah also
predicted the cup of vengeance on this arrogant city (Jer. 51).
recorded her persecutions against
applies the theme to the spiritual
ton, showing that it was her sins that reached heaven and
brought the catastrophe to her, thus preparing the way for the
true celestial city to come down to earth.35
The setting in the primeval narratives. The present story of
the scattering is part of the primeval events of Genesis which give
a picture of man in open rebellion to God and of God intervening
in judgment on each situation.36 The scattering of the race from
race.37 This development of mankind is accurately described by
The primeval history reaches its fruitless climax as man, conscious
of new abilities, prepares to glorify and fortify himself by collective
effort. The elements of the story are timelessly characteristic of the
spirit of the world. The project is typically grandiose; men describe it
excitedly to one another as if it were the ultimate achievement--
very much as modern man glories in his space projects. At the same
time they betray their insecurity as they crowd together to preserve
their identity and control their fortunes.38
So it is with this story that the common history of all man-
kind comes to an abrupt end, which leaves the human race
hopelessly scattered across the face of the entire earth. It is this
that makes the present narrative so different from those preced-
ing it: In each judgment there was a gracious provision for hope
but in this judgment there is none. It does not offer a token of
grace, a promise of any blessing, a hope of salvation, or a way of
escape. There is no clothing for the naked sinner, no protective
mark for the fugitive, no rainbow in the dark sky. There is no ray
of hope. The primeval age ends with judgmental scattering and
complete confusion. The blessing is not here; the world must
await the new history.
In view of this, the story of the scattering of the nations is
actually the turning point of the book from primeval history to
the history of the blessing. From this very confused and dis-
persed situation nations would develop in utter futility until God
would make a great nation through one man who himself would
"scattered" from this alluvial plain to the
blessings of final redemption and unification would come
through his seed.
The beginning of Genesis 11 presupposes a linguistic unity
and localization comparable to the beginning of Genesis 10.
Since the Table of Nations in Genesis 10 describes the many
families of the earth "after their families, after their tongues, in
their lands, in their nations," and Genesis 11 describes the
128 Bibliotheca Sacra-April-June 1981
divine intervention to scatter them, the question is how this
story of the dispersion is compatible with the Table. They appear
to be reversed chronologically.
Most modern scholars follow the critical view that Genesis 11
is independent of the ethnographic Table and is fundamentally
irreconcilable with it.39 However, this is not seen as a major
obstacle, for as von Rad states, "The chapters must be read
together because they are intentionally placed next to each other
in spite of their antagonism."40 So while critical scholars are
bothered by the antagonisms, they recognize that the two chap-
ters are complementary in referring to the same scattering.
The Table of Nations gives absolutely no explanation for the
scattering, but "that the author was intending right along to treat
of the confusion of tongues appears from 10:25."41 There it is
stated that in the days of Peleg ("Division") was the earth divided.
Writers have explained this division as some sort of tribal
split,42 or some piece of trivia about conditions at the time, such
as; for example, irrigation ditches.43 The word gl,P, is often used
for trenches and irrigation ditches, but the implication of the
Table is toward universal events.44 It is worth noting that the
word occurs in Psalm 55:9 (
"Destroy, 0 LORD, and divide (gl.aPa) their tongues" (author's trans-
lation here and throughout the article). The prayer is that God
would break apart their counsel into contending factions, an end
that is comparable to the story of the division of the nations.
So the point of contact appears to be the birth of Peleg (and
thus his naming) in Genesis 10.45 At that point the incident of
chapter 11 would have happened, causing the people to spread
out into the earth until they settled in their tribes as described in
chapter 10. Chapter 11 is the cause; chapter 10 is the effect.
The passages are arranged in a manner consistent with
Genesis. The broad survey is given first; the narrowing and
selection and/or explanation are given afterward .46 The order is
thematic and not chronological. The choice of this reversed order
is a stroke of genius. Jacob stated it well: "The placement of
chapter 10 before this one is a special refinement. The absurdity
of the undertaking becomes obvious if we know the numerical
nations into which mankind should grow."47
THE PURPOSE OF THE DISPERSION NARRATIVE
It should be clear by now that the story of the dispersion is a
sequel to the Table of Nations and is designed to explain how the
nations speak different languages in spite of their common origin
and how they found their way to the farthest corners of the earth.
The major theme of the passage is the dispersion of the nations
of their rebellious pride and apostasy in uniting at
But the story is more than an explanation of the scattering; it is
an explanation of the problems due to the existence of nations.
It was at
that seat of rebellion toward the true God and pagan worship of
the false gods--that Yahweh turned ingenuity and ambition into
chaos and confusion so that the thing the people feared most
came on them and that their desire to be men of renown was
suddenly turned against them. For the Israelite nation the lesson
was clear: If she was to survive as a nation, she must obey God's
will, for the nation that bristles with pride and refuses to obey will
scattered.48 Thus the account of the scattering at
theological significance for God's people.
Exegesis of the Passage
The first verse informs the reader that the entire race had a
common language, thus showing that this beginning is parallel
to 10:1. Knowing the previous arrangement of the scattered
nations in chapter 10, Jacob explains that a tone of irony is
already sounded in this verse.50
The whole earth (= the inhabitants) had one "lip" (hpAWA to
indicate speech)51 and one vocabulary (MyribAD; to indicate the con-
tent of what was said). The point of this prologue is clear: The
entire race was united by a common language.
MAN'S PROCEDURE (11:2-4)
Settlement (11:2). The narrative records that the human
family migrated "off east" (Md,q.,mi) and settled in the region of
carries the sense of bedouins moving tents by stages. This
continued in an easterly direction from
settled (Ubw;y.eva) in
"valley of the world," as the Talmud calls it, became the designated
place for the nomads-turned-settlers.
Resolution (11:3-4). The resolve of the race comes in two
stages: in verse 3 they made bricks, and in verse 4, motivated by
130 Bibliotheca Sacra-April-June 1981
their initial success, they moved to a grander scale by building a
city with a tower. Bush follows Josephus in designating Nimrod
as the leader of this founding of Babylon.52
In their zeal for societal development, alliance, and fame, and
with all the optimism of a beginning people, they began to orga-
nize their brickmaking. They were an ingenious lot, for they
lacked the proper stone and clay and had to make do with
makeshift materials.53 The writer's attitude toward this comes
across in an appropriate pun: they had no clay (rm,Ho) but they
used asphalt (rmAHe). Jacob suggests the effect of this assonance
sounds like a child's play song.54
Met by initial success they advanced to a greater resolution:
"Come, let us build. . . ." Couched in the same grammatical
construction as the preceding resolve, their words display that
they would use the materials made to make a city "with a tower. "
The circumstantial clause draws the reader's attention to
the tower. Once built, this tower would provide the pattern for
fortresses and acropolises for others.55 Building it with its top in
the heavens may reflect the bold spirit of the workers, even
though it is hyperbolic language used to express security (cf.
The purpose of their building venture was fame. They
wished to find security by arrogantly making a name--a desire
that is satirized in verse 9. But their desire to be renowned was
by their fear of the oblivion of dispersion.
observes this motivation.
The hatred of anonymity drives men to heroic feats of valour or long
hours of drudgery; or it urges them to spectacular acts of shame or
of unscrupulous self-preferment. In the word forms it attempts to
give the honour and the glory to themselves which properly belongs
to the name of God.56
Thus the basic characteristics of culture are seen here:
underlying anxiety (the fear of being separated and discon-
nected) and the desire for fame (a sense of security in a powerful
THE INTERVENTION OF YAHWEH (11:5-8)58
The investigation (11:5-6). The second half of the passage
reflects the first, beginning with Yahweh's investigation of
the city and the tower which the humans had begun to build.
The description, written so anthropomorphically, describes
Yahweh's close interest and participation in the affairs of man.59
He did not need to come down to look at their work (in fact His
coming down implies prior knowledge). Procksch clarified this by
pointing out that "Yahweh must draw near, not because he is
near-sighted, but because he dwells at such tremendous height
and their work is so tiny. God's movement must therefore be
understood as a remarkable satire on man's doing."60 Or in the
words of Cassuto one could say that no matter how high they
towered, Yahweh still had to descend to see it. Yahweh's coming
down does not alone strike this note of satire. The parallel con-
struction of the cohortatives (11:7) reflects their plans made
earlier.61 The point to be made is clear: The tower that was to
reach the heavens fell far short.
The purpose of His coming down was "to see" the work. This
is the second anthropomorphic expression in the line and
announces that He will give the city a close investigation. The
narrative is filled with condescension. In referring to them as
MdAxAhA yneB; ("sons of the earth"), he shows them to be earthlings.
This strikes at the heart of the Babylonian literature which cred-
ited the work to the Anunnaki gods. The work, according to
Genesis, was terrestrial, not celestial.
Verse 6 records the results of that investigation: "And
Yahweh said, `If as one people all having one language they have
begun to act this way, now nothing that they propose to do will be
out of their reach."' The similarity of style and wording to Gene-
sis 3:22 is most striking. The potential for calamity is dangerous
to the race, and God will prevent it.62 The verb llaHA is used here;
the beginnings of man are commonly counterproductive.63 They
will nullify the purposes of God in favor of their own purposes
which are within reach. They will be at liberty for every extrava-
gance if they can think only of their own confederation.
The resolution (11:7). Continuing to speak, Yahweh says,
"Come, let Us go down and confound their language so that they
cannot understand one another."
The internal difficulty concerns the relationship of the word
hdAr;ne ("let Us go down") with dr,Oy.va ("But [Yahweh] came down")
of verse 5. The critical approach is to divide the two elements into
strata, but that is not a satisfactory solution.64 Dillmann simply
saw a return to heaven first, then a reflection (comparing 3:22),
and then the coming in judgment.65 This may be the simplest
way of understanding it. Cassuto takes rm,xyo.va, "and He said, "as an
explanatory connection of contemporaneous actions: "But
Bibliotheca Sacra-April-June 1981
Yahweh came down ... thinking rm,xy.ova literally, ‘saying') ... they
are one ... let us go down...."66
The second verb describes the actual purpose: "let Us con-
found."67 It was this confusion [llaBA] that led to the diversity of
their understanding and thus to their dispersion. Bush explains
how this would come about.
This was to cause a dispersion of the multitudes congregated at
instantaneous formation of new languages, but simply such a con-
fusion in the utterance of the old, as should naturally lead to mis-
apprehension, discord and division. The dialectic discrepancies,
however, thus originating, though perhaps not very great at first,
would become gradually more and more marked, as men became
more widely separated from each other, and by the influence of
climate, laws, customs, religion, and various other causes, till they
finally issued in substantially different languages.68
Once the understanding of one another was confounded, the
division would be effected.
The effect (11:8). "So Yahweh scattered them from there
across the face of the whole earth, and they ceased building the
city." Their greatest fear (v. 4) came on them.69 The place of unity
(MwA) became the place of dispersion (Mw.Ami). Their view was toward
centrality; God moved them universally. The result of this disper-
sion meant that the city was unfinished as they had planned it.
The rebellious race as a unified people did not fulfill their goal.
In a marvelously clever "etymological" word play, verse 9
"Therefore [that is why] its name is called
because there Yahweh confused the lip [language] of all the
earth and scattered them across the face of the whole earth."
The formula NKe-lfa with xrAqA is quite common as an explana-
tory inference from a reported event and is used most often with
place names.70 Here it introduces the meaning given by the
of “confusion” for the proud Babylonians' name.71 The story
shows how this gate of the gods fell far short of expectations,
ending in confusion and chaos.
So Yahweh scattered them across the face of the earth. The
text need not imply that the confusion was immediately reached
nor the scattering instantaneous. The narrator fixed this point
from which the division of the peoples and the languages would
begin and move ever farther.72
The Dispersion of the Nations in Genesis 11:1-9 133
Irony is seen in the beginning and the ending of this pas-
The group at
now they were spread over the whole earth (11:9). By this the
lesson is clarified: God's purpose will be accomplished in spite of
the arrogance and defiance of man's own purposes. He brings
down the proud, but exalts the faithful.
The significance of this little story is great. It explains to
God's people how the nations were scattered abroad. Yet the
goes much deeper. The fact that it was
of kingdoms under Nimrod from
ominous warning: Great nations cannot defy God and long sur-
The new nation of
around her to perceive that God disperses and curses the rebel-
lious, bringing utter confusion and antagonism among them. If
source of blessing to the world.
fused to obey the Lord God. Thus she too was scattered across the
face of the earth.
1 B. Jacob, The First Book of the Bible: Genesis, ed. and trans. Ernest I. Jacob
Walter Jacob (
story gave rise to the story of the giants trying to expel Jupiter (Jaroslav Pelikan,
Luther's Works, Lectures on Genesis,
Chapters 6-14 [
Publishing House, 1960], p. 211.
Hugo Gressmann, The
Press, 1928), p. 3.
3 Delitzsch explains that the primitive language through this intervention "died
the death from which comparative philology is incapable of awakening it" (Franz
Delitzsch, A New Commentary on Genesis, trans.
Sophia Taylor [
& T. Clark, 18991, p. 355).
Harold G. Stigers, A Commentary on Genesis (
Publishing House, 1976), p. 129.
A. Dillmann, Genesis,
Critically and Exegetically Expounded (
& T. Clark, 1897), p. 387.
6 Theological Dictionary of the Old Testament, s.v. "Babhel," by Helmer Ring-
7 Spoken of in the singular, the "pure lip" must mean the language barriers will
be broken down to make one universal tongue. The second idea in the expression
means that their speech will be cleansed.
The Bible uses this word for both
connection is remains a matter of debate. In this connection, the similarities
between Ethiopic and Akkadian are interesting for speculation.
Derek Kidner, Genesis: An Introduction and Commentary
IL: InterVarsity Press, 1967), p. 110.
10 Fokkelman diagrams it as follows:
A tHAx, hpAWA Cr,xAhA-lkA (v. 1)
B MwA (v. 2)
C Uhfere-lx, wyyxi (v. 3)
D Mynibel; hnAB;l;ni hbAhA (v. 3)
E Unl.A-hn,b;ni (v. 4)
F lDAg;miU ryfi (v. 5)
X txor;li hvAhy; dr,y.eva (v. 5)
F’ lDAg;miha-tx,v; ryfihA-tx, (v. 5)
E' MdAxAhA yneb; UnBA rw,xE (v. 5)
D' hlAb;nAv; . . . hbAhA (v. 7)
C' Uhrere tpaW; wyxi (v. 7)
B' Mw.Ami (v. 8)
A' (llaBA) Cr,xAhA-lKA tpaW; (v. 9)
(J. P. Fokkelman, Narrative Art in Genesis [Assen Amsterdam: Van Gorcum,
1975], p. 22). In verse 1 is the strong statement of one language for the race. In
verse 9 Yahweh confused them. In verse 3 they spoke to one another, but in verse
7 they were not able to understand each other. In verses 3 and 4 is the workers'
double cohortative, and in verse 7 is Yahweh's cohortative mirroring their words.
In verse 4 the people wish a tower in the heavens, and in verse 7 Yahweh comes
down from heaven. In verse 4 they desire a name; in verse 9 the name is called
Noah to Abraham, trans. J. Abrahams [
11 While some may find such a discussion fanciful or strained, it cannot be
ignored. There is in good literature a clear choice of words and a deliberate
juxtapositioning of phrases to reflect and enhance the ideas. The style in this
section and in much of Genesis 1--11 has been a prime factor in distinguishing
this section from the second part in Genesis, namely, chapters 12-50.
12 E. W. Bullinger, Figures of Speech Used in the Bible (1898; reprint, Grand
Rapids: Baker Book House, 1968), p. 307.
13 Fokkelman points out that the fact that one word is the word with a prefix
and the other is the root itself in no way destroys the effect of the sound of these
letters which are played on six times in the story (Narrative Art in Genesis, pp. 14-15).
14 Ibid., p. 14.
15 Hubris on the positive side is pride, megalomania, a wanting to be like God,
and an overstepping of one's bounds. On the negative side it is the fear of having
to live without safety and existential security, of being lonely and vulnerable. So
their hubris leads them to act impiously and brings down God's judgment. It is
crime and punishment, both of which are caused by pride that oversteps bounds
(Fokkelman, Narrative Art in Genesis, p. 16; see also Donald E. Gowan, When
Man Becomes God:
Humanism and Hubris in the Old Testament (
Pickwick Press, 1975] ).
E. A. Speiser, Genesis,
The Anchor Bible (
1964), p. 75. It is riot to be inferred from this statement that Speiser holds a
conservative view of this Scripture.
17 It is necessary to say at the outset that it is not that the writer saw a ziggurat
and composed a myth about the origin of languages, and that this myth somehow
found its way into the Book of Genesis. Rather, Genesis implies that such towers
The Dispersion of the Nations in Genesis 11:1-9 135
had not been built before this and this would be quite unique (Howard F. Vos,
18 Emil G. Kraeling, "The Earliest Hebrew Flood Story," Journal of Biblical
Literature 66 (1947):282.
19 Cassuto, From Noah to Abraham, p. 227; Andre Parrot, Ziggurats et Tour de
Old Testament (Grand Rapids: Zondervan Publishing House, 1954), p. 47; En-
cyclopedia Biblica, s.v. "
structure was related to their understanding of the world with God at the pinna-
cle, the door of heaven, and man on the slopes of the artificial mountain. The
entire world rested on the breast of the underworld. Thus it was fitting for this to
be included in primeval events. Most would view it as an artificial high place of
worship erected on the plain.
21 Cassuto, From Noah to Abraham, p. 228. Cassuto is (unnecessarily) assum-
ing that the traditions demand a city and a tower in ruins. The judgment passage,
however, says absolutely nothing of that at all. The most that is said is that this
project was not completed.
22 E. A. Speiser, Genesis, p. 75. This argumentation is used here simply to
show the difficulty in ascribing the identification to E-temen-anki even if one were
to take the late date of the composition in accordance with a J document.
23 E. A. Speiser, "Word Plays on the Creation Epic's Version of the Founding of
ological problem with the date of J and E-temen-anki, but then he adds in his
argumentation that other temples also had the -anki element in the name, such as
Borsippa's which was E-ur-me-imin-anki, "house of the seven preceptors of
heaven and earth," so that we are not limited to one reference that first fits the
idea with -anki. His point is that the source was literary and not monumental
24 James B. Pritchard, ed., Ancient Near Eastern Texts Relating to the Old
Testament, 3d ed. (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1969), p. 60.
Speiser, who translated the Akkadian myths and epics for Pritchard's work, states
at the outset that the majority of the scholars would assign Enuma Elish to the
Old Babylonian period on internal evidence alone. Unger explains that it was
composed in the days of Hammurabi in the mold of political and religious prop-
aganda to show the
the poem itself, though one of the literary masterpieces of the Babylonian Sem-
ites, goes back to much earlier times. It is clearly based upon the earlier traditions
of the Sumerians, the non-Semitic precursors of the Babylonian Semites in lower
25 Speiser, "Word Plays," p. 319. He compares this to other and similar phrases
to show that they did it frequently.
Alexander Heidel, The
Babylonian Genesis (
Press, 1942), p. 48. Heidel had the same difficulty attempting to render it "deep."
Speiser says, "I was equally at sea in translating “equaling apsu. "' Speiser alludes
to Enuma Elish, tablet IV, lines 142-45, where apsu = samamu (Speiser, "Word
Plays," p. 319).
27 The making of the first brick was a trial ordeal before the gods and was to be
accomplished by the king. The ceremony of the bricks was to be a sign that the
was offered to the gods (Henri Frankfort, Kingship
and the Gods [
28 Theological Dictionary of the Old Testament, s.v. "Bbhel,"byH. Ringgren,
1:467. Ringgren suggests that the metropolis with so many peoples (= lan-
guages) was natural for such an account of the dispersion.
29 Cassuto, From Noah to Abraham, p. 227.
It seems clear that the story did not originate in
but that is to be expected since it is a travesty on
mann thought the
story came from
the Israelites by the Arameans, but that is unlikely (Gressmann, The Tower of
mountains even in
writers: Diodorus 2.7; Herodotus 1.178; Strabo 16.1.5; and Pliny 6.121.
31 Vos, Genesis and Archaeology, p. 47.
S. N. Kramer, "The '
Memory of E. A. Speiser, ed. W W Hallo (
Society, 1968), pp. 108-11; George Smith, The Chaldean Account of Genesis
(New York: Scribner, Armstrong & Co., 1876), p. 160.
33 Cassuto, From Noah to Abraham, pp. 229-30. Cassuto has attempted to
reconstruct the type of satirical material behind the passage by relating the
to the time when
as a polemic (against what the Israelites would have known
claimed for herself as opposed to the truth) is an accurate presentation of the
message, but Cassuto does not treat the text with precision. In the first place,
presents it as a universal judgment on the race collected in
one group of people scattered by the Hittites. True, Cassuto is looking for some
occasion and the Hittite invasion is a happy one for him. However, that is
unwarranted. Second, there is no hint whatsoever that the city and the tower
were reduced to rubble. They were just not completed. Third, the text is not saying
that all the languages could be spoken there but that one was once in the
beginning and God confounded it. Cassuto's attempt to take a naturalistic ex-
planation to the occasion for the text weakens it.
Alan Richardson, Genesis I -XI:
Introduction and Commentary (
SCM Press, 1953), p. 124.
35 Kidner, Genesis, p. 111.
36 Ryle observed that "we are led to suspect that the mystery of the origin of
distinct languages belongs to the dim obscurity of the infancy of the human race,
an infinitely remote and prehistoric age" (Herbert E. Ryle, The Book of Genesis
37 Von Rad, Genesis, p. 143.
38 Kidner, Genesis, p. 109.
39 John A. Skinner, A Critical and Exegetical Commentary on Genesis (Edin-
burgh: T. & T. Clark, 1910), p. 224. Skinner was quick to add that the incon-
sistency is not such that would hinder the collector of traditions from putting the
two in historical sequence.
40 Von Rad, Genesis, pp. 147-48.
H. C. Leupold, Exposition
of Genesis, 2 vols. (
House, 1942), 1:381.
42 Skinner, A Critical and Exegetical Commentary on Genesis, p. 220.
43 This is suggested by Driver who follows Sayce in the suggestion (S. R. Driver,
The Book of
44 Josephus referred the dispersion to the time of Peleg and related the whole
story to the efforts of Nimrod (Antiquities of the Jews 1.146, and Apion 1.19). Most
traditional scholars have followed this line.
45 According to Genesis 11:10, 12, 14, and 16 Peleg was in the fifth generation
after the Flood. At this time, according to Keil, there could have been 30,000
people on the earth. That may be a bit generous, but even a conservative estima-
The Dispersion of the Nations in Genesis 11:1-9 137
tion turns up enough to satisfy the passage. Certainly not all the tribes listed in
10 need to have been existing at
Pentateuch, Biblical Commentary on the Old Testament, trans. James Martin, 25
For example, Genesis 37 records the sale of Joseph into
Genesis 38 traces the family of
traces the account of Joseph from his sale into
posited for chapter 1 (the total survey of creation) and chapter 2 (the selective
discussion of the main elements of the creation, viz., man and woman). The
narration returns to the story.
47 Jacob, The First Book of the Bible, p. 80.
48 The concept of dispersion or scattering of peoples was an ancient one.
Kitchen deals with the idea of exile and scattering in the ancient literature to show
the concept was real (fearfully real) for
Orient, 'Deuteronomism,' and the Old Testament," in New Perspectives on the
Old Testament, ed. J. Barton
49 Cassuto entitles the first half of the narrative, "Many Are the Plans in the
Mind of Man" (Cassuto, From Noah to Abraham, p. 238).
50 Jacob, The First Book of the Bible, p. 79.
Isaiah 19:18 describes those who speak the language of
portrays the foreigners with deep speech and stammering tongue; Ezekiel 3:5
describes the people as deep of lip i(= strange speech) and heavy of tongue (=
hard language). The lip, mouth, or tongue were frequently employed in metonomy
to represent the speech or the language.
George Bush, Notes on Genesis, 2
Publishing Co., n.d.), 1:183.
53 Making bricks to replace the unavailable stones would further feed the pride
of the people who would rise above their difficulties. These bricks (libittu) are mud
bricks (Chicago Assyrian Dictionary, s.v. "libittu").
54 Jacob, The First Book of the Bible, p. 77.
55 Von Rad, Genesis, p. 146. Several examples of this are seen in Judges 8:9;
9:46; 2 Chronicles 14:6; and Isaiah 2:15.
56 Richardson, Genesis I -XI, p. 128.
57 Von Rad, Genesis, p. 145.
58 Cassuto called this section, "It Is the Purpose of the Lord That Will Be
Established" (From Noah to Abraham, p. 244).
59 Midrash Pirke of R. Eliezer (c. 14) records ten comings down of the Lord:
Tabernacle, and once in the last day. The coming down was viewed as Yahweh's
revealing of Himself. It is seen in Scripture as the divine intervention breaking
through the course of events (Exod. 19:20; 34:5; Num. 11:25; 12:5); however, one
should also see Exodus 3:8 and Numbers 11:7 (for deliverance and blessing).
60 Cited by von Rad, Genesis, p. 145.
61 Consequently, this writer takes the waw antithetically: "But Yahweh came
down" - in contrast to their efforts to ascend.
62 Throughout these verses the divine mood is not anger for depravity but rather
laughter at foolishness (Jacob, The First Book of the Bible, p. 79). Kidner observed
that the note of foreboding marks a father's concern and not a rival's. He shows
that it is like Christ's words in Luke 23:31, "If they do these things in a green tree
. . . " (Kidner, Genesis, p. 110). It is better to have division than to have collective
apostasy in unity and peace.
63 Compare Nimrod's beginning with kingdoms and Noah's beginning with viniculture.
138 Bibliotheca Sacra-April-June 1981
64 The two-recension theory bypasses the issue. It still remains a surprise that a
"redactor" would leave such an incongruity unrevised (Cassuto, From Noah to
Abraham, p. 246).
65 Dillmann, Genesis, p. 393.
66 He offers as examples for this construction Genesis 26:22 ("thinking, for the
LORD now ...") and Exodus 2:10 ("she named ... reflecting. .(Cassuto, From
Noah to Abraham, p. 246).
67 The word "Us" is taken here as a plural of majesty as in the earlier chapters
of Genesis. For a discussion of its use with verbs, see Gerhard F. Hasel, "The
of 'Let Us' in Gn 1:26,"
68 Bush, Notes on the Book of Genesis, p. 179.
69 See Exodus 1:12 and 1:10 for a similar situation. The Egyptians were afraid
70 Burke 0. Long, The Problem of Etiological Narrative in the Old Testament
(Berlin: Alfred Topelmann, 1968), p. 3.
71 The name in the Achaemenid literature came to mean "the gate of God"
(Bab-ill), or perhaps "the gate of the gods." In Persian it is Babirus. In Sumerian
is KA.DINGIR.K(A). The idea that
was current in
Euphratian and part of the heritage of the earliest pre-Sumerian or Semitic
Encyclopedia Judaica (s.v. "
B. Landsberger and refers the reader to Die Serie ana ittisu (1937) for the
The first mention of
the Third Dynasty of Ur when it was a provincial government.
Bush illustrated how the connotative meaning carried by saying that there
can be no doubt that the Latin words balbus ("stammerer") and balbutio ("stam-
mering") derive their origin from Hebrew llaBA, or, by the doubling of the first
radical, balbel, bilbel, from which latter form of the word comes ~n, closely
related to the English and German babble. The Greek (3aQ(3aQ6g (by commutation
of liquids for balbalos), "barbarian," primarily signifying a person of rude or
outlandish pronunciation, is doubtlessly referring to the same root (Bush, Notes
Genesis, 1:178). The
of babble that "in none [of these languages] can its history be carried far back; as
yet it is known in English as early as anywhere else.... No direct connexion with
72 Figart suggests that this point would be the logical place for the development
of races to begin. The text of Genesis 11:6 makes a point of the unity of the race
("one people"), but according to Genesis 10 they are dispersed according to
families, nations, tongues, and lands. He says, "Again, if God intervened and
miraculously changed man's looks, as well as his language, then there is no need
to account for these changes through isolation, environment, or culture. This is
not to dismiss the known effects of these three factors; we have already shown
some possible changes. Yet, if God did the initial changing of genetic structure,
then those other factors were only modifying means within the limits set by God.
As a matter of fact, this is all they could be in any interpretation" (Thomas O.
Figart, A Biblical
Perspective on the Race Problem [
House, 1973], p. 45). Figart then proceeds to mention places in Scripture where
God does intervene and change the structure of mankind (the Fall and the
Rapture). He concludes that the silence of the Table concerning Negroid and
Mongoloid peoples is to be related to the purpose of the Table, that is, the rela-
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