“No one has ascended into heaven, but He who descended from heaven: the Son of Man.”
“The whole earth used the same language, the same words. 2 It came about that as they traveled from the east, they found a plain in the land of Shin‘ar and lived there.3 They said to one another, “Come, let’s make bricks and bake them in the fire.” So they had bricks for building-stone and clay for mortar. 4 Then they said, “Come, let’s build ourselves a city with a tower that has its top reaching up into heaven, so that we can make a name for ourselves and not be scattered all over the earth.” 5 Adonai came down to see the city and the tower the people were building. 6 Adonai said, “Look, the people are united, they all have a single language, and see what they’re starting to do! At this rate, nothing they set out to accomplish will be impossible for them! 7 Come, let’s go down and confuse their language, so that they won’t understand each other’s speech.”8 So from there Adonai scattered them all over the earth, and they stopped building the city. 9 For this reason it is called Bavel [confusion] — because there Adonai confused the language of the whole earth, and from there Adonai scattered them all over the earth.”
-Genesis 11:1-9 Complete Jewish Bible (CJB)
This account is preceded by the Table of Nations—seventy in total (Genesis 10). This is where Judaism finds the basis for the symbolic interpretation of the number seventy as representing the nations. Thus, seventy elders in the Sanhedrin, seventy palm trees at the oasis on Israel’s journey in the desert, seventy disciples sent out by Yeshua, and so on.
It is interesting to note that while the nations as a whole are mentioned—out of chronology, obviously a literary tool--prior to Babel, the descendants of Shem—Semites—are singled out after this event. Also, in the Table of nations, Shem, Noah’s first born, is listed last, so as to have his offspring named just prior to the story of the tower of Babel. This lineage is continued onward from Peleg following the story of the tower.
Genesis 11:10-32 gives us the lineage from Shem to Abram/Abraham, who would be ha-Ivri—the Hebrew—grandfather of the nation of Israel (Jacob). It seems that G-d intends a type for the Gospel here; the efforts of humanity to reach deity are futile, G-d himself will use the weakest of nations, even a single man, to bring about His saving work, thus redeeming humanity and saving us from ourselves.
What Language did the whole earth speak? It is important to remember that this account takes place before the previous chapter’s lineage chronologically speaking. This event is post flood, when the population was beginning to re-emerge, so the number of people involved, while substantial, would not have been even remotely comparable to later world population estimates. Therefore it is more than reasonable to expect that they shared the same language or had a lingua franca—unifying language—spoken by everyone as a bridge between the various people groups and their unique tribal dialects—in much the same way English is used as a trade language today throughout the world.
There are many debates as to what the common language may have been. The Hebrew folk singer Ehud B’nai sings, “When the L-rd said, ‘Let there be light,’ it was in the language of the Hebrew man.” While this may be overly optimistic on his part, as a Jew I tend to want to agree with Mr. B’nai. After all, the text of the Torah has been passed down to us in Ivrit—Hebrew. The truth is that there is no way to prove conclusively what that singular language might have been. Perhaps it was Te Reo? In the end it is probably best not to claim ownership of something this mysterious, after all, “the hidden things are unto G-d alone.”(D’varim/Deuteronomy 29:29)
The additional statement of verse 1, “the same words,” may denote understanding. Meaning that they not only comprehended each other, but also understood each other and shared a common ethos. The Hebrew dvar—spoken word—may indicate the concept of a shared story or lineage, as in oral tradition. This corresponds to the flood narrative. The terms “Language” and “same words,” find their juxtaposition in verse 7. G-d takes away both their common language and their common purpose. Why? Because their speech and purpose were in opposition to the speech and purpose of G-d. Their (Humanity) word--dvar—sought, in pride to exalt itself. G-d’s Word--Dvar--came down, humbling Himself even unto death on a cross. (Yochannan/John 1:14)
They journeyed from the east—that is the area surrounding Ararat, where the ark rested and the sons of Noah began to repopulate. Their journey took them from the vineyards of Noah to the plains of Shinar, Babel/Babylon.
The author—Moses/Joshua, I see too many flaws in the redactive theory to give it any serious attention—is writing this for a Hebrew audience who are familiar with the concept of mud/clay and straw, given their history of slavery and brick making for Pharaoh in Egypt. In the Promised Land Israel used stone for altars and larger construction projects. Stone was readily available in Israel/Canaan, while clay was the predominant resource in Mesopotamia.
Why does the author detail the building materials and process used to build the Ziggurat—ancient pagan temple, usually associated with the worship of the heavens? It is more than likely that this description reminded Israel of her slavery. It is possible that slaves were used for the tower project. Or, with the future in view, perhaps the author was pointing to the Hebrew altars—method of worship—humble stone structures, standing in stark contrast to the majestic Ziggurat—pagan temple tower.
“Let us build a city with a tower—Ziggurat, temple—that reaches the heavens.”
This prideful statement is echoed in Yeshiyahu/Isaiah 14:13-14, a passage often attributed to ha-shatan—the adversary, the Devil, Satan.
“But you said in your heart,
‘I will ascend to heaven;
I will raise my throne above the stars of God,
And I will sit on the mount of assembly
In the recesses of the north.
‘I will ascend above the heights of the clouds;
I will make myself like the Most High.’”
Isaiah 14:13-14 New American Standard Bible (NASB)
“Otherwise we will be scattered over the whole earth.” The people saw safety in numbers, security in their own combined efforts. In their attempt to achieve their own security without G-d, they reaped the very thing they were most afraid of and were scattered throughout the earth. (V.8-9)
As we read of this tower to the heavens we are also reminded of Jacob’s dream at Bethel regarding the ladder or stairway to the heavens. (Genesis 28:17) Yeshua tells us that He is that ladder/stairway. (Yochannan/John 1:51) The anti-thesis to the tower of Babel.
“The L-rd--HaShem—came down…”
There is a literary irony here. G-d descends in order to see the highest of humanity’s achievements. This is also a beautiful type for Messiah, “the Word became flesh and dwelt among us.” (Yochannan/John 1:14)
“To see what the children of humanity—Heb. bene ha-adam-sons of men, a juxtaposition to Heb. bene ha-Elohim-sons of G-d/gods--were building.” Sons of men is interpreted by some, to mean non G-d fearers or pagans: Sons of G-d is interpreted to mean G-d fearers or worshippers of YHVH.
We know that in Him—G-d—all things exist and have their being (Acts 17:28). G-d need not come down or see; both these terms are meant to convey to the reader the present and continuous reality of a G-d who continues to participate in His creation. Yeshua said, “My Father is always at His work.”(Yochannan/John 5:17)
“Adonai said, “Behold, they are one people, and they all have the same language. And this is what they have begun to do, and now nothing which they purpose to do will be impossible for them.”
Not, “nothing will be impossible for them” but “nothing which they purpose to do will be impossible for them.” The purposes of fallen humanity will never equate to the higher thoughts and purposes of G-d. We may achieve all that we set out to achieve, but in the end it will lead to death. G-d’s purpose here is not to stunt our growth, rather He works to protect us from growing in vain. A plant rooted in poisoned soil may grow for a time but eventually it will die, rotting away from the root. G-d would have us planted in good soil: sometimes that means He will turn over the field, replace the soil and start again with a new crop.
“Come, let us go down and confuse their language so they will not understand each other.”
Us? Some believe this refers to the Unity of G-d: Father, Son and Spirit. Others hold the view that G-d is speaking with the heavenly council of angels. Both interpretations are acceptable, there is no need to choose one over the other.
The terms: confuse, language and not understand, counter their positive forms in verse 1. It was Impossible for humanity in its fallen state to maintain a universal tongue, in light of the powerful work of G-d. The text doesn’t tell us how long the confusing of the language took, it may have happened instantaneously or over a period of time. Either way, the result is the same.
“The L-rd scattered them from there all over the earth and they stopped building the city.”
The very thing humanity sought to protect itself against was brought about by G-d. The L-rd disturbed their security and pride, scattering them throughout the earth and leaving them vulnerable. G-d did this for the good of humanity, that we might seek out the security found in Him rather than pursue false security through our own efforts.
The word Babel is of Akkadian origin and means “gateway to a god.” Babel is also the Hebrew word for Babylon—the location of these events—this word probably had its inception at the time of this event in earth history. The Hebrew author—Moses/Joshua—clearly intends a word play with the similar Hebrew word balal, meaning “confusion.” Why then does the author, inspired by G-d, use Hebrew characters to name the city by transliterating the Akkadian word? Remembering that this is the first mention of the name of this city in the Scriptures. Should he not have simply used balal to name both the city and affirm the story, thus avoiding confusion? Perhaps we should take note of the two clear meanings here and the chronology of the events of the text. We must remember that all the Nations spoke one tongue—possibly a lingua franca—and that the intent of their building was to reach G-d or a god through their own efforts, thus Babel—gateway to a god—this they sought in accordance with their fallen pride. We call this idolatry—the root of all evil. Now, having failed—the author writing this retrospectively—they have had their language confused--balal.
How does the author best show the reality of what has taken place? Perhaps he shows us by using the Akkadian word transliterated into Hebrew –Rashi in his famous commentary, did a similar thing with French words, transliterating them into his own form of Hebrew. The author of Genesis is aware that a Hebrew reader will observe the word play—or miss-spelling as it were—and glean both meanings, having understood the story to teach a profound and pivotal spiritual truth. What is that truth? That humanity in its arrogance seeks to reach G-d by its own efforts (Babel), and G-d, knowing that by trying to do this humanity will destroy itself, comes down and confuses (balal) their efforts; thus slowing humanity’s rapid journey toward its own extinction—both physical and spiritual, Hebrew culture does not separate the two.
In this account we learn that our own attempts to make a way to G-d will end in confusion. All that we do for G-d is sin, while all that we do from G-d is righteousness—right action born of the Spirit in Messiah—because of His blood sacrifice for us.
We are saved through G-d coming down, not by our going up.
“No one has ascended into heaven, but He who descended from heaven: the Son of Man.”
© 2013 Yaakov Brown
Founder of the Beth Melekh International Messiah Following Jewish Community,