d) Gen 11:5–7: Verse five comprises the center of the chiasm in Gen 11:1–9.[1] Thus, this sentence forms the hinge of this account which altered human history.[2]

This scene involves God’s heavenly council (Cf. Gen 1:26).[3]

In keeping with the rest of Genesis, the Lord inspected human activity. Then he rendered judgment (Gen 3:8–19; Gen 4:9–16; Gen 18:20–21; Gen 19:24–25).[4]

Moses reported, “And the Lord came down in order to see the city and the tower which the sons of humanity (adam) had built. And the Lord said, ‘Behold, [there is] one people and one language for all of them, and this they began to do, and now nothing will be unattainable for them, all of which they purpose to do.’”

The ziggurat accomplished what the builders intended (Gen 11:4). A deity did indeed descend to them, even though he did not require the staircase.[5]

However, their activity achieved much different results than they anticipated.[6]

Just as in Gen 3:8–9, God already knew what the inhabitants of Shinar had done.[7]

This passage highlights the Lord’s omnipotence and his sovereignty, in contrast to the vulnerability of the descendants of Noah (Gen 10:32).[8]

By using the word am for “people,” Moses emphasized their common descent from one male ancestor.[9] They were indeed “sons of Adam.”[10]

Utilizing a single language increased their unity and effectiveness, enabling them to work together to build the city and a ziggurat.[11]

Their attempt to make a stairway for a god to descend denigrated God’s capability.[12] The Lord recognized that these settlers crossed a firm boundary,[13] degrading his divine name.[14]

Permitting this project to continue would produce dire consequences.[15]

Humans would persist in infringing upon divine prerogatives.[16] Therefore, the Lord revealed himself in all his glory and holiness, far above all mortal attributes.[17]

The builders had exhorted each other, saying, “Come, let us make bricks (nilbenah)” (Gen 11:3). In contrast, God employed word play with mocking irony.[18]

He said, “Come now, let us go down and let us confuse (nabelah) there their language so they cannot understand a man’s language [from] his companion.”

Concerning the identity of “us” in this verse,[19] God was speaking to his heavenly court of angels (1 Ki 22:19–20; Job 2:1; Ps 89:5–7).[20]

This also aligns with the Ancient Near Eastern (ANE) concept of a group of deities who confer to make decisions.

Enuma Elish describes a heavenly council in this way:

They made ready to leave on their journey, all the great gods who decree the fates. They entered before Anshar [the god of heaven], filling [Ubshukinna, the Chamber of Destiny].

They kissed one another in the Assembly. They held converse as they [sat down] to the banquet…For Marduk, their avenger, they fixed the decrees.[21]

This divine council determined the fate of the gods and of everyone on earth.[22]

Some scholars object that it debases God to have him consult with created beings like angels (Isa 40:13–14). Yet, this is not something he must do, but rather how he chooses to operate (Gen 3:22–24; Gen 18:16–19; Gen 19:1).[23]

Inviting the angelic court to assist him in confusing the tongues of the people-groups meshes well with the responsibilities of these heavenly beings.[24]

According to other Old Testament texts, the Lord entrusted them with the care of the nations apart from Israel (Deut 32:8–9; Dan 10:13, 20–21; Dan 12:1).[25]

On the surface, the method God chose to disrupt their plans seems surprising.[26]

However, destroying the ziggurat would have failed to correct the root of the problem.[27] The builders could have simply constructed another tower for the gods to reach down to them.[28]

By demolishing their ability to communicate, the people could not continue to live in unity.[29]

In the ANE, people correlated the failure of a city with abandonment by its patron god.[30]

According to the Lament for Sumer and Urim:

[The god] An frightened the very dwellings of Sumer, the people were afraid. Enlil blew an evil storm, silence lay upon the city. Nintur bolted the door of the storehouses of the Land. Enki blocked the water in the Tigris and the Euphrates.

Utu took away the pronouncement of equity and justice. Inana handed over victory in strife and battle to a rebellious land. Ninĝirsu poured Sumer away like milk to the dogs.

Turmoil descended upon the Land, something that no one had ever known, something unseen, which had no name, something that could not be fathomed. The lands were confused in their fear. The god of the city turned away, its shepherd vanished.[31]

The concept of a language which encompassed the known world occurs in a twenty-first century BC Sumerian Epic.[32]

According to Enmerkar and the Lord of Aratta:

In those days, there being no snakes, there being no scorpions, there being no hyenas, there being no lions, there being no dogs or wolves, there being no (thing) fearful or hair–raising, mankind had no opponents—in those days…(in) the (whole) compass of heaven and earth the people entrusted (to him) could address [the god] Enlil, verily, in but a single tongue.[33]

This work also addresses the confusion of languages.[34]

It continues:

In those days…having lordly bouts fought, having princely bouts fought, and having royal bouts fought, did Enki, lord of abundance, lord of effective command, did the lord of intelligence, the country’s clever one, did the leader of the gods, did the sagacious omen-revealed lord of Eridu, estrange the tongues in their mouths as many as were put there. The tongues of men which were one.[35]

This myth from Uruk appears to reflect an event from late in the fourth millennium BC.[36]

Image via Wikimedia Commons


Read Gen 11:5–7. Why didn’t the ziggurat work in the way that its builders intended? Who carried out this judgment? How do ANE texts reflect what happened in Babel? How do you picture the outcome of this event?







Go to Dispersed over the Face of the Earth

[Related posts include Let Us Make Humanity (Gen 1:26); Hiding from God (Gen 3:8); A Day of Reckoning (Gen 3:9–13); Access to the Tree of Life (Gen 3:22); Driven Out (Gen 3:23–24); Misappropriated Blood (Gen 4:9‒10); Cursed from the Ground (Gen 4:11‒14); Banished from God’s Presence (Gen 4:15‒16); A Renewed Mandate (Gen 9:1); Seventy Nations (Gen 10:32); A Plain in Shinar (Gen 11:1–2); Let Us Bake Bricks (Gen 11:3); A Stairway to Heaven (Gen 11:4); Dispersed over the Face of the Earth (Gen 11:8–9); The Spirit Descends (Acts 2:1–3); Speaking Other Tongues (Acts 2:4); A Bewildered Crowd (Acts 2:5–8); Babel Reversed (Acts 2:9–11); Author and Date of Genesis; and Ancient Literature]

[Click here to go to Chapter 12: Scattered to the Ends of the Earth (Gen 11:1–9)]


[1]Hamilton, The Book of Genesis, Chapters 1–17, 354.

[2]Wenham, Genesis 1–15, 236.

[3]Wenham, Genesis 1–15, 240.

[4]Waltke and Fredricks, Genesis: A Commentary, 180.

[5]Walton, Genesis, 377–8.

[6]Walton, Genesis, 377–8.

[7]Wenham, Genesis 1–15, 240.

[8]Waltke and Fredricks, Genesis: A Commentary, 180.

[9]W. Von Soden and E. Lipiński, “עַם” (am) TDOT 11:163–77, 165. Moses used the term leom (people) to emphasize the divergence between Jacob and Esau in Gen 25:23.

[10] Wenham, Genesis 1–15, 240.

[11]Waltke and Fredricks, Genesis: A Commentary, 180.

[12]Wenham, Genesis 1–15, 240.

[13]Walton, Genesis, 377–8.

[14]Walton, “The Mesopotamian Background of the Babel Account and Its Implications,” 170, https://www.ibr-bbr.org/files/bbr/BBR_1995_09_Walton_TowerBabel.pdf.

[15]Hamilton, The Book of Genesis, Chapters 1–17, 354.

[16]Waltke and Fredricks, Genesis: A Commentary, 177.

[17]Walton, Genesis, 377–8.

[18]Robert P. Gordon, “Babel, Tower of, Theology,” NIDOTTE 4:428–30, 428.

[19]Waltke and Fredricks, Genesis: A Commentary, 180. The post Let Us Make Humanity (Gen 1:26) explores this topic in depth.

[20] Walton, Genesis, 129.

[21]Speiser, trans., “Enuma Elish (The Creation Epic),” in ANET, 3:129–38, 65–6.

[22]Mullen, “Divine Assembly,” ABD 2:213.

[23] Walton, Genesis, 129.

[24]Wenham, Genesis 1–15, 241.

[25]Christensen, Deuteronomy 21:10–34:12, 796.

[26]Hamilton, The Book of Genesis, Chapters 1–17, 355.

[27]Walton, Genesis, 378.

[28]Hamilton, The Book of Genesis, Chapters 1–17, 355.

[29]Walton, Genesis, 378.

[30]Mark A. Awabdy, “Babel, Suspense, and the Terah-Abram Narrative,” JSOT 35, no. 1 (1 September 2010):3–29, 25, http://journals.sagepub.com/doi/abs/10.1177/0309089210365960.

[31]Faculty of Oriental Studies at the University of Oxford, “The Lament for Sumer and Urim,” lines 58–68, http://etcsl.orinst.ox.ac.uk/cgi-bin/etcsl.cgi?text=t.2.2.3#. Italics mine.

[32]Wenham, Genesis 1–15, 236.

[33]Thorkild Jacobsen, trans., “Enmerkar and the Lord of Aratta” in The Context of Scripture: Canonical Compositions from the Biblical World (COS) (ed. William W. Hallo ed.; Leiden; New York: Brill, 1997), lines 135–40, 1:547.

[34]Walton, “The Mesopotamian Background of the Babel Account and Its Implications,” 174, https://www.ibr-bbr.org/files/bbr/BBR_1995_09_Walton_TowerBabel.pdf.

[35]Jacobsen, trans., “Enmerkar and the Lord of Aratta,” in COS, lines 141–55, 1:547–8.

[36]Walton, “The Mesopotamian Background of the Babel Account and Its Implications,” 175, https://www.ibr-bbr.org/files/bbr/BBR_1995_09_Walton_TowerBabel.pdf.