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– The Confusion of Tongues
- נסע nāsa‛ “pluck out, break up, journey.” מקדם mı̂qedem “eastward, or on the east side” as in Gen_2:14; Gen_13:11; Isa_9:11 (12).
- החלם hachı̂lām “their beginning”, for החלם hăchı̂lām, the regular form of this infinitive with a suffix. יזמוּ yāzmû as if from יזם yāzam = זמם zāmam.
- נבלה nābelâh usually said to be for נבלה nābolâh from בלל bālal; but evidently designed by the punctuator to be the third singular feminine perfect of נבל nābal “to be confounded,” having for its subject שׂפה śāpâh, “and there let their lip be confounded.” The two verbs have the same root.
- בבל bābel Babel, “confusion,” derived from בל bl the common root of בלל bālal and נבל nābel, by doubling the first radical.
Having completed the table of nations, the sacred writer, according to his wont, goes back to record an event of great moment, both for the explanation of this table and for the future history of the human race. The point to which he reverts is the birth of Peleg. The present singular passage explains the nature of that unprecedented change by which mankind passed from one family with a mutually intelligible speech, into many nations of diverse tongues and lands.
Genesis 11:1 Updated American Standard Version (UASV)
11 Now the whole earth had one language and the same words.
The previous state of human language is here briefly described. “The whole land” evidently means the whole then known world with all its human inhabitants. The universality of application is clearly and constantly maintained throughout the whole passage. “Behold, the people is one.” And the close is on this point in keeping with the commencement. “Therefore was the name of it called Babel, because the Lord had there confounded the lip of all the land.”
Of one lip, and one stock: of words. – In the table of nations, the term “tongue” was used to signify what is here expressed by two terms. This is not undesigned. The two terms are not synonymous or parallel, as they form the parts of one compound predicate. “One stock of words,” then, we conceive, naturally indicates the matter, the substance, or material of language. This was one and the same for the whole race. The term “lip,” which is properly one of the organs of articulation, is, on the other hand, used to denote the form, that is, the manner of speaking; the mode of using and connecting the matter of speech; the system of laws by which the inflections and derivations of a language are conducted. This also was one throughout the human family. Thus, the sacred writer has expressed the unity of language among mankind, not by a single term as before, but, with a view to his present purpose, by a combination of terms expressing the two elements which go to constitute every organic reality.
Genesis 11:2-4 Updated American Standard Version (UASV)
2 And as men migrated from the east, they found a plain in the land of Shinar and settled there. 3 And they said to one another, “Come, let us make bricks, and burn them thoroughly.” And they had brick for stone, and bitumen for mortar. 4 Then they said, “Come, let us build ourselves a city and a tower with its top in the heavens, and let us make a name for ourselves, lest we be scattered over the face of the whole earth.”
The occasion of the language change about to be described is here narrated. “As they journeyed eastward.” The word “they” refers to the whole land of the previous verse, which is put by a common figure for the whole race of man. “Eastward” is proved to be the meaning of the phrase מקדם mı̂qedem by Gen_13:11, where Lot is said to journey (מקדם mı̂qedem) from Bethel to the plain of the Jordan, which is to the east. The human race, consisting it might be of five hundred families, journeys eastward, with a few points of deflection to the south, along the Euphrates valley, and comes to a plain of surpassing fertility in the land of Shinar (Herod. 1:178, 193). A determination to make a permanent abode in this productive spot is immediately formed.
Genesis 11:3-4 Updated American Standard Version (UASV)
3 And they said to one another, “Come, let us make bricks, and burn them thoroughly.” And they had brick for stone, and bitumen for mortar. 4 Then they said, “Come, let us build ourselves a city and a tower with its top in the heavens, and let us make a name for ourselves, lest we be scattered over the face of the whole earth.”
A building is to be erected of brick and asphalt. The Babylonian soil is still celebrated for these architectural materials. There is here a fine clay, mingled with sand, forming the very best material for brick, while stones are not to be found at a convenient distance. Asphalt is found boiling up from the soil in the neighborhood of Babylon and of the Dead Sea, which is hence called the “lacus Asphaltites.” The asphalt springs of Is or Hit on the Euphrates are celebrated by many writers. “Burn them thoroughly.” Sun-dried bricks are very much used in the East for building purposes. These, however, were to be burned and thereby rendered more durable. “Brick for stone.” This indicates a writer belonging to a country and an age in which stone buildings were familiar, and therefore not to Babylonia. Brickmaking was well known to Moses in Egypt, but this country also abounds in quarries and splendid erections of stone, and the Sinaitic peninsula is a mass of granitic hills. The Shemites mostly inhabited countries abounding in stone. “Asphalt for mortar.” Asphalt is a mineral pitch. The word rendered mortar means at first clay, and then any kind of cement.
Genesis 11:4 Updated American Standard Version (UASV)
4 Then they said, “Come, let us build ourselves a city and a tower with its top in the heavens, and let us make a name for ourselves, lest we be scattered over the face of the whole earth.”
The purpose of their hearts is now more fully expressed. “Let us build us a city, and a tower whose top may be in the skies.” A city is a fortified enclosure or keep for defense against the violence of the brute creation. A tower whose top may be in the skies for escape from the possibility of a periodical deluge. This is the language of pride in man, who wishes to know nothing above himself and to rise beyond the reach of an over-ruling Providence. “And let us make us a name.” A name indicates distinction and pre-eminence. To make us a name is not so much the cry of the multitude as of the few, with Nimrod at their head, who alone could expect what is not common, but distinctive. It is artfully inserted here in the popular exclamation, as the people are prone to imagine the glory even of the despot to be reflected on themselves. This gives the character of a lurking desire for empire and self-aggrandizement to the design of the leaders – a new form of the same selfish spirit which animated the antediluvian men of name Gen_6:4. But despotism for the few or the one implies slavery and all its unnumbered ills for the many. “Lest we be scattered abroad upon the face of the whole land.” The varied instincts of their common nature here speak forth. The social bond, the tie of kinsmanship, the wish for personal safety, the desire to be independent, perhaps even of God, the thirst for absolute power, all plead for union; but it is union for selfish ends.
Genesis 11:5-7 Updated American Standard Version (UASV)
5 Jehovah came down to see the city and the tower that the sons of men had built. 6 And Jehovah said, “Behold, they are one people, and they have all one language, and this is only the beginning of what they will do. And nothing that they propose to do will now be impossible for them. 7 Come, let us go down and there confuse their language so that they will not understand one another’s speech.
These verses describe the nature of that change by which this form of human selfishness is to be checked. “The Lord came down.” The interposing providence of God is here set forth in a sublime simplicity, suited to the early mind of man. Still, there is something here characteristic of the times after the deluge. The presence of the Lord seems not to have been withdrawn from the earth before that event. He walked in the garden when Adam and Eve were there. He placed the ministers and symbols of his presence before it when they were expelled. He expostulated with Cain before and after his awful crime. He said, “My Spirit shall not always strive with man.” He saw the wickedness of man, and the land was corrupt before him. He communicated with Noah in various ways and finally established his covenant with him. In all this, he seems to have been present with man on earth. He lingered in the garden as long as his forbearance could be expected to influence man for good. He at length appointed the limit of a hundred and twenty years. And after watching over Noah during the deluge, he seems to have withdrawn his visible and gracious presence from the earth. Hence, the propriety of the phrase, “the Lord came down.” He still deals in mercy with a remnant of the human race and has visited the earth and manifested His presence in a wondrous way. But He has not yet taken up His abode among people as He did in the garden, and as He intimates that He will sometime do on the renovated earth.
Genesis 11:6 Updated American Standard Version (UASV)
6 And Jehovah said, “Behold, they are one people, and they have all one language, and this is only the beginning of what they will do. And nothing that they propose to do will now be impossible for them.
In like simplicity is depicted the self-willed, God-defying spirit of combination and ambition which had now budded in the imagination of man. “The People is one” – one race, with one purpose. “And they have all one lip.” They understand one another’s minds. No misunderstanding has arisen from the diversity of language. “This is their beginning.” The beginning of sin, like that of strife, is as when one letteth out water. The Lord sees in this commencement the seed of growing evil. All sin is dim and small in its first rise, but it swells by insensible degrees to the most glaring and gigantic proportions. “And now nothing will be restrained from them, which they have imagined to do.” Now that they have made this notable beginning of concentration, ambition, and renown, there is nothing in this way which they will not imagine or attempt.
Genesis 11:7 Updated American Standard Version (UASV)
7 Come, let us go down and there confuse their language, so that they will not understand one another’s speech.
Here is announced the means by which the defiant spirit of concentration is to be defeated. From this and the previous verse, we learn that the lip, and not the stock of words, is the part of language which is to be affected, and hence, perceive the propriety of distinguishing these two in the introductory statement. To confound is to introduce several kinds, where before there was only one; and so in the present case to introduce several varieties of form, whereas language was before of one form. Hence, it appears that the one primitive tongue was made manifold by diversifying the law of structure, without interfering with the material of which it was composed. The bases or roots of words are furnished by instinctive and evanescent analogies between sounds and things, on which the etymological law then plays its part, and so vocables come into existence. Thus, from the root “fer,” we get “fer, ferre, ferens, fert, ferebat, feret, ferat, ferret;” φέρε phere, φέρειν pherein, φέρων pherōn, φέει pherei, ἔφερε ephere, φέρῃ pherē, φέροι pheroi, etc.; ברה perēh, ברה pāroh, פרהo poreh, שפרה pārâh, יפרה yı̂preh, etc., according to the formative law of each language.
It is evident that some roots may become obsolete and so die out, while others, according to the exigencies of communication and the abilities of the speaker, may be called into existence in great abundance. But whatever new words come into the stock, are made to comply with the formative law which regulates the language of the speaker. This law has been fixed as the habitude of his mind, from which he only deviates on learning and imitating some of the formative processes of another tongue. In the absence of any other language, it is not conceivable that he should on any account alter this law. To do so would be to rebel against habit without reason, and to put himself out of relation with the other speakers of the only known tongue.
The sacred writer does not care to distinguish the ordinary from the extraordinary in the procedure of Divine Providence, inasmuch as he ascribes all events to the one creating, superintending, and administering power of God. Yet there is something beyond nature here. We can understand and observe the introduction of new words into the vocabulary of man as often as the necessity of designating a new object or process calls the naming faculty into exercise. But the new word, whether a root or not, if engrafted into the language, invariably obeys the formative law of the speech into which it is admitted. A nation adds new words to its vocabulary, but does not of itself, without external influence, alter the principle on which they are formed. Here, then, the divine interference was necessary, if the uniform was ever to become multiform. And accordingly this is the very point in which the historian marks the interposition of the Almighty.
Philologists have distinguished three or four great types or families of languages. The first of these was the Shemitic or Hebrew family. It is probable that most of the Shemites spoke dialects of this well-defined type of human speech. Aram (the Syrians), Arpakshad, (the Hebrews and Arabs), and Asshur (the Assyrians), certainly did so. Elam (Elymais), succumbed first to the Kushite race (Κίσσιοι Kissioi, Κοσσαῖοι Kossaioi) and afterward to the Persian, and so lost its language and its individuality among the nations. Lud (the Lydians) was also overrun by other nationalities. But this type of language was extended beyond the Shemites to the Kenaanites and perhaps some other Hamites. It includes the language of the Old Testament.
The second family of languages has been variously designated Japhetic, Indo-Germanic, Indo-European, and Arian. It is spoken by the great bulk of the descendants of Japheth, and embraces a series of cognate modes of communication, extending from India to the various European colonies of America. It includes Greek, the tongue of the New Testament.
A third class, including the Kushite (Babylonian), Egyptian, and other African languages, has been termed Hamitic. Some of its stocks have affinities both with the Shemitic and Japhetic families.
It is probable that the congeries of unclassed languages (Allophylian, Sporadic, Turanian), including even the Chinese tongues, have relations more or less intimate with one or other of these three tolerably definite families. But the science of comparative philology is only approaching the solution of its final problem, the historical or natural relationship of all the languages of the world. It is evident, however, that the principle of classification is not so much the amount of roots in common, as the absence or presence of a given form. Assignable natural causes may bring about the diversity in the matter, but the diversity in the form can only arise from a preternatural impulse. Forms may wear off but do not pass from one constituent law to another without foreign influence. The speech of a strong and numerous race may gradually overbear and annihilate that of a weak one, and in doing so may adopt many of its words, but by no means its form. So long as a national speech retains any of its forms, they continue to be part of that special type by which it is characterized.
Hence, we perceive that the interposition of Providence in confounding the lip of mankind, is the historical solution of the enigma of philology; the existence of diversity of language at the same time with the natural persistency of form and the historical unity of the human race. The data of philology, indicating that the form is the side of language needing to be touched in order to produce diversity, coincide also with the facts here narrated. The preternatural diversification of the form, moreover, marks the order amid variety which prevailed in this great revolution of mental habitude. It is not necessary to suppose that seventy languages were produced from one at the very crisis of this remarkable change, but only the few generic forms that sufficed to effect the divine purpose, and by their interaction to give origin to all subsequent varieties of language or dialect. Nor are we to imagine that the variant principles of formation went into practical development all at once, but only that they started a process which, in combination with other operative causes, issued in all the diversities of speech which are now exhibited in the human race.
That they may not understand one another’s lip. – This is the immediate result of diversifying the formative law of human speech, even though the material elements were to remain much the same as before. Further results will soon appear.
Genesis 11:8-9 Updated American Standard Version (UASV)
8 So Jehovah scattered them from there over the face of the whole earth, and they stopped building the city. 9 Therefore its name was called Babel, because there Jehovah confused the language of the whole earth; and from there Jehovah scattered them abroad over the face of the whole earth.
The effect of the divine interposition is noted in Gen_11:8-9. “And the Lord scattered them abroad.” Not understanding one another’s mode of speech, they feel themselves practically separated from one another. Unity of counsel and of action becomes impossible. Misunderstanding naturally follows and begets mistrust. Diversity of interest grows up, and separation ensues. Those who have a common speech retreat from the center of union to a sequestered spot, where they may form a separate community among themselves. The lack of pasture for their flocks and provision for themselves leads to a progressive migration. Thus, the divine purpose, that they should be fruitful and multiply and replenish the land Gen_9:1 is fulfilled. The dispersion of mankind at the same time put an end to the ambitious projects of the few. “They left off to build the city.” It is probable that the people began to see through the plausible veil which the leaders had cast over their selfish ends. The city would henceforth be abandoned to the immediate party of Nimrod. This would interrupt for a time the building of the city. Its dwellings would probably be even too numerous for its remaining inhabitants. The city received the name of Babel (confusion), from the remarkable event which had interrupted its progress for a time.
This passage, then, explains the table of nations, in which they are said to be distinguished, not merely by birth and land, but “every one after his tongue.” It is therefore attached to the table as a needful appendix, and thus completes the history of the nations so far as it is carried on by the Bible. At this point, the line of history leaves the universal, and by a rapid contraction narrows itself into the individual, in the person of him who is to be ultimately the parent of a chosen seed, in which the knowledge of God and of his truth is to be preserved, amidst the degeneracy of the nations into the ignorance and error which are the natural offspring of sin.
Here, accordingly, ends the appendix to the second Bible, or the second volume of the revelation of God to man. As the first may have been due to Adam, the second may be ascribed in point of matter to Noah, with Shem as his continuator. The two joined together belong not to a special people but to the universal race. If they had ever appeared in a written form before Moses, they might have descended to the Gentiles as well as to the Israelites. But the lack of interest in holy things would account for their disappearance among the former. The speakers of the primitive language, however, would alone retain the knowledge of such a book if extant. Some of its contents might be preserved in the memory and handed down to the posterity of the founders of the primeval nations. Accordingly, we find more or less distinct traces of the true God, the creation, the fall, and the deluge, in the traditions of all nations that have an ancient history.
But even if the nations did not possess this two-volumed Bible in a written form, its presence here, at the head of the writings of divine truth, marks the universal design of the Old Testament and intimates the comprehension of the whole family of man within the merciful purposes of the Almighty. In the issues of Providence the nations appear now to be abandoned to their own devices. Such a judicial forsaking of a race, who had a second time heard the proclamation of his mercy, and a second time forsaken the God of their fathers, was naturally to be expected. But it is never to be forgotten that God twice revealed his mercy “to the whole human race” before they were left to their own ways. And even when they were given over to their own willful unrighteousness and ungodlincss, it was only to institute and develop the mystery by which they might be again fully and effectually brought back to reconciliation with God.
The new developments of sin during this period are chiefly three – drunkenness, dishonoring of a parent, and the ambitious attempt to be independent of God’s power, and to thwart his purpose of peopling the land. These forms of human selfishness still linger about the primary commands of the two tables. Insubordination to the supreme authority of God is accompanied by disrespect to parental authority. Drunkenness itself is an abuse of the free grant of the fruit of the trees orignally made to man. These manifestations of sin do not advance to the grosser or more subtle depths of iniquity afterward explicitly forbidden in the ten commandments. They indicate a people still comparatively unsophisticated in their habits.
The additional motives brought to bear on the race of man during the interval from Noah to Abraham, are the preaching of Noah, the perdition of the unbelieving antediluvians, the preservation of Noah and his family, the distinction of clean and unclean animals, the permission to partake of animal food, the special prohibition of the shedding of man’s blood, the institution thereupon of civil government, and the covenant with Noah and his seed that there should not be another deluge.
The preaching of Noah consisted of pressing the invitations and warnings of divine mercy on a wicked race. But it bore with new power on the succeeding generations when it was verified by the drowning of the impenitent race and the saving of the godly household. This was an awful demonstration at the same time of the divine vengeance on those who persisted in sin, and of the divine mercy to the humble and the penitent. The distinction of the clean and the unclean was a special warning against that conformity with the world by which the sons of God had died out of the human race. The permission to partake of animal food was in harmony with the physical constitution of man and seems to have been delayed until this epoch for moral as well as physical reasons. In the garden, and afterward, in Eden, the vegetable products of the soil were adequate to the healthy sustenance of man. But in the universal diffusion of the human race, animal food becomes necessary.
In some regions where man has settled, this alone is available for a great portion of the year, if not for the whole. And a salutary dread of death, as the express penalty of disobedience, was a needful lesson in the infancy of the human race. But the overwhelming destruction of the doomed race was sufficient to impress this lesson indelibly on the minds of the survivors. Hence, the permission of animal food might now be safely given, especially when accompanied by the express prohibition of manslaying, under the penalty of death by the hands of the executioner. This prohibition was directly intended to counteract the bad example of Cain and Lamek, and to deter those who slew animals from slaying men, and provision was made for the enforcement of its penalty by the institution of civil government. The covenant with Noah was a recognition of the race being reconciled to God in its new head and therefore suited to be treated as a party at peace with God, and to enter on terms of communion with him. Its promise of security from destruction by a flood was a pledge of all greater and after blessings which naturally flow from amity with God.
Thus, we perceive that the revelation of God to the antediluvian world was confirmed in many respects, and enlarged in others, by that made to the postdiluvians. The stupendous events of the deluge were a marvelous confirmation of the justice and mercy of God revealed to Adam. The preaching of Noah was a new mode of urging the truths of God on the minds of men, now somewhat exercised in reflective thought. The distinction of clean and unclean enforced the distinction that really exists between the godly and the ungodly. The prohibition of shedding human blood is the growth of a specific law out of the great principle of moral rectitude in the conscience, apace with the development of evil in the conduct of mankind. The covenant with Noah is the evolution into articulate utterance of that federal relation which was virtually formed with believing and repentant Adam. Adam himself was long silent in the depth of his self-abasement for the disobedience he had exhibited. In Noah, the spirit of adoption had attained to liberty of speech, and accordingly, God, on the momentous occasion of his coming out of the ark and presenting his propitiatory and eucharistic offering, enters into a covenant of peace with him, assuring him of certain blessings.
There is something especially interesting in this covenant with Noah, as it embraces the whole human race and is in force to this day. It is as truly a covenant of grace as that with Abraham. It is virtually the same covenant, only in an earlier and less developed form. Being made with Noah, who had found grace in the eyes of the Lord, and added to the former expression of the divine favor to man, it explicitly mentions a benefit which is merely the first and most palpable of the series of benefits, temporal and eternal, flowing from the grace of God, all of which are in due time made over to the heirs of salvation. We cannot tell how many of the Gentiles explicitly or implicitly consented to this general covenant and partook of its blessings. But it is only just to the God of Noah to be thankful that there was and is an offer of mercy to the whole family of man, all who accept of which are partakers of his grace, and that all subsequent covenants only help to the ultimate and universal acceptance of that fundamental covenant which, though violated by Adam and all his ordinary descendants, was yet in the fullness of time to be implemented by him who became the seed of the woman and the second Adam.