"The Name produced light from His breast and the light produced new life. That new life lived in the region beyond."
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 Bavel, the descendants of Shem—Semites—are singled out after this event. Also, in the Table of nations, Shem, Noach’s first born, is listed last, so as to have his offspring named just prior to the story of the tower of Bavel. This lineage is continued onward from Peleg following the story of the tower.
In the previous chapter we were afforded a glimpse into the future, “by these were the nations divided in the earth after the flood.” In addition a specific reference is made to the origin of Bavel, a city built by the wicked warrior Nimrod (Rebellion) [Genesis 10:8-12].
The actions of humanity at Bavel echo through time until they find their counter point at the outpouring of the Ruach Ha-Kodesh (Holy Spirit) [Acts 2]. Humanity seeks to usurp G-d while G-d acts to reconcile humanity to Himself. The account of Bavel affords us an opportunity to examine our motives and goals. When our vain efforts have come to nought, we may discover that letting go is the action that benefits us most.
“No one has ascended into heaven, but He who descended from heaven: the Son of Man.”
Gen 11:1 And it came to pass that in all the earth (khol ha-aretz) lips were one (echat) and words (d’varim) were one (echadiym).
If, as the Jewish sages suggest, the present narrative takes place in the year 1996 from Creation, 340 years after the flood. Then Noach and his children are still alive and Avraham would be 48 years old. This illuminates the remainder of the text in that it suggests that only B’nai Ha-adam (Children of man: idolaters) were involved in building the tower of Bavel (Confusion).
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.” This view is shared by both Rashi, who calls Hebrew the Holy Tongue and Mizrachi, who claims that Hebrew is the language by which the world was created. While this may be overly optimistic, as a Jew I tend to want to agree with Rashi, Mizrachi, and Ehud 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. 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)
Gen 11:2 And it came to pass, as they journeyed east, forward (meekedem), that they found a valley in the earth in Shinar (Casting Out, or Scattering In All Manner Of Ways) and dwelt there.
They journeyed east—that is from the area surrounding Ararat, where the ark rested and the sons of Noach began to repopulate the earth. Their journey took them from the vineyards of Noach (rest) to the plains of Shinar (scattering), in the region of Bavel (Confusion).
Gen 11:3 And said man to friend, “come, let’s make white bricks, and burn, burning them.” And they had the brick for stone, and pitch for cement.
The scribe of Genesis 11 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 being used to construct bricks, 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 scribe was pointing to the Hebrew altars—method of worship—humble stone structures, standing in stark contrast to the majestic Ziggurat—pagan temple tower.
Gen 11:4 And they said, “Come, let’s build a city of anguish and terror (eey’r) and a tower, whose head reaches into the heavens; and let us fashion (v’naaseh: make from something) for ourselves a name (Shem: Figuratively, a G-d e.g. HaShem), lest we be scattered abroad upon the face of all the earth.”
“Let us build a city with a tower—Ziggurat, temple—that reaches the heavens.”
Jewish tradition suggests that these are the words of Nimrod (rebellion) to his people (Pirke Eliezer, c. 24.) A careful reading of the text alongside the knowledge that righteous men like Noach and Avraham were living at the time, confirms that Children of G-d (b’nai Elohim: G-d fearers) did not participate in the building of the tower.
The Targums of both Yonatan and Yerushalayim read:
"Let us build in the midst of it a temple of worship on the top of it, and let us put a sword into his (the idol's) hand.''
The Jewish sages explain that Nimrod was the primary instigator of this rebellion and that he planned to build a tower to the heavens and from it wage war against G-d. Thus the Midrashim perceive sinister motives in the building of the tower.
The prideful statement of 11:2 is echoed in Yeshiyahu/Isaiah 14:13-14, a passage, which speaks of the king of Babylon and is also understood to be an admonishment against ha-Satan—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 G-d,
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 Bavel.
The phrase, “Let us fashion for ourselves a name” can be understood to mean either, “Let us fashion our own god” or, “Let us fashion an image of ourselves as god”. In each instance the Hebrew, “Shem” can be understood as representing of HaShem (The Name), which refers to the One G-d YHVH. In this case the intention is to usurp that Name and adopt it as their own. In other words this statement translates, “I am become god”.
Gen 11:5 And descending, HaShem (YHVH: Merciful) observed and considered (ra’ah) the city of anguish and terror (ha-ee’r) and the tower, which had been built by the children of the humanity (ha-adam).
It is worth noting that the proper Name HaShem (YHVH), which denotes mercy, is used throughout this account. G-d is acting here, not as judge but as Merciful Deliverer.
“The L-rd--HaShem—came down…”
In addition to the obvious anthropomorphism 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—Hebrew B’nai ha-adam, sons of men, a juxtaposition to the Hebrew b’nai ha-Elohim (sons of G-d)--were building.” Sons of men means 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; this is an obvious use of anthropomorphism, both these terms are meant to convey to the reader the present and perpetual 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)
Gen 11:6 And said HaShem (YHVH: Merciful), “Behold, the people are one (echad: a complex unity), and their lips are one (achat); and all of them in this, begin to profane, defile, pollute and desecrate (ha-chelam): and accomplishing, now nothing will restrain them, which they have purposed to fashion (la’asot)…
“HaShem 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.
Gen 11:7 Come, let us descend, and there confuse their lips, so that they will not hear, perceive or understand, a man's lips to his friend.”
“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 final result is the same.
Gen 11:8 Scattering, HaShem (YHVH: Merciful), them there upon the face of all the earth: to stop them establishing the city of anguish and terror.
“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 against her 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.
Gen 11:9 Accordingly it is called by the name Bavel (confusion); because there confusion was caused by HaShem (YHVH: Merciful), and the lips of all the earth from there were scattered by HaShem (YHVH: Merciful) upon the face of all the earth.
The word Bavel (Meaning confusion in Hebrew) is of Akkadian origin and in their language means “gateway to a god.” Bavel 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 scribe—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 an 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 reflect the lesson of 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, or to become gods through their own efforts, thus Bavel—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 scribe, writing this retrospectively—they have had their language confused (balal).
How does the scribe 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 the modern French 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 or become G-d by its own efforts (Bavel), 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 thought does not separate the two.
In this account we learn that our own attempts to make a way to or become 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 sacrificed 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.”
The Generations of Shem (Name)
Genesis 11:10-32 gives us the lineage from Shem to Avram/Avraham, who would be ha-Ivri—the Hebrew—grandfather of the nation of Israel (Jacob). It seems that the Author 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.
The genealogy of the previous chapter gives foundation to the fact that there are 10 generations between Noach and Avraham, indicating the completeness in Avraham’s calling and the mercy of G-d upon the rebellious acts of humanity. This genealogy differs in presentation from the genealogy of the previous chapter because its purpose is to show the connection between Shem and Avram (Ha-Ivri: The Hebrew). Thus the genealogy is listed through the line of Arfachshad (light trickles from the breast), indicating that this is a genealogy of light, born at the breast of HaShem.
As a remez (hint) of deeper meaning this genealogy also shows the link between The Shem (G-d) and Avram (Father of a people: Israel. Who will become the father of many peoples, Avraham, the father of all who will believe). A third reading will discover the sod (mystery), that reveals G-d (HaShem) as Av (Father), ra (Great: rabah), am (the people: Israel), and subsequently, “G-d of the peoples” Av-ra-h’-am.
Gen 11:10 These are the generations (Toldot) of Shem (Name): Shem was a hundred years old, and begat Arfachshad (light trickles from the breast) two years after the flood: Gen 11:11 And Shem (Name) lived after he begat Arfachshad (light trickles from the breast) five hundred years, and begat sons and daughters. Gen 11:12 And Arfachshad (light trickles from the breast) lived thirty five years, and begat Shalach (Sprout, go forth, new life): Gen 11:13 And Arfachshad (light trickles from the breast) lived after he begat Shalach (Sprout, go forth, new life) four hundred and three years, and begat sons and daughters. Gen 11:14 And Shalach (Sprout, go forth, new life) lived thirty years, and begat Ever (The region beyond): Gen 11:15 And Shalach (Sprout, go forth, new life) lived after he begat Ever (The region beyond) four hundred and three years, and begat sons and daughters.
The Name produced light from His breast and the light produced new life. That new life lived in the region beyond.
Gen 11:16 And Ever (The region beyond) lived thirty four years, and begat Peleg (division): Gen 11:17 And Ever (The region beyond) lived after he begat Peleg (division) four hundred and thirty years, and begat sons and daughters. Gen 11:18 And Peleg (division) lived thirty years, and begat Reu (Friend): Gen 11:19 And Peleg (division) lived after he begat Reu (Friend) two hundred and nine years, and begat sons and daughters.
Division was born from the region beyond and after some time a friend was born out of division.
Gen 11:20 And Reu (Friend) lived thirty two years, and begat Serug (branch): Gen 11:21 And Reu (Friend) lived after he begat Serug (branch) two hundred and seven years, and begat sons and daughters. Gen 11:22 And Serug (branch) lived thirty years, and begat Nachor (Snorting, Noble, Freeman): Gen 11:23 And Serug (branch) lived after he begat Nachor (Snorting, Noble, Freeman) two hundred years, and begat sons and daughters.
The friend gave birth to a branch and the branch gave birth to a freeman.
Gen 11:24 And Nachor (Snorting, Noble, Freeman) lived nine and twenty years, and begat Terach (Seek the Spirit: Tur-ruach): Gen 11:25 And Nachor (Snorting, Noble, Freeman) lived after he begat Terach (Seek the Spirit: Tur-ruach) an hundred and nineteen years, and begat sons and daughters. Gen 11:26 And Terach (Seek the Spirit: Tur-ruach) lived seventy years, and begat Avram (Father of a great people or, Great Father of a people), Nachor (Snorting, Noble, Freeman), and Haran (Mountain climber).
The freeman gave birth to those seeking the Spirit and those seeking the Spirit gave birth to the father of a great nation and to a freeman and one who ascended the mountain.
The Generations of Terach [Seek the Spirit]
Gen 11:27 Now these are the generations (Toldot) of Terach: Terach (Seek the Spirit: Tur-ruach) begat Avram (Father of a great people or, Great Father of a people), Nachor (Snorting, Noble, Freeman), and Haran (Mountain climber); and Haran (Mountain climber) begat Lot (covering).
These are the generations of those who sought the Spirit. Those who were seeking the Spirit gave birth to a father of a great people, who scaled a mountain and received a covering.
Gen 11:28 And Haran (Mountain climber) died before his father Terach (Seek the Spirit: Tur-ruach) in the land of his birth, in Oor (Flame, light) of the Casdim (Increasing ones: a plural form of kesed).
The one who climbed the mountain died in the presence of the one seeking the light in the land of his birth in the light of the increasing ones.
Gen 11:29 And Avram (Father of a great people or, Great Father of a people) and Nachor (Snorting, Noble, Freeman) took to themselves wives: the name of Avram’s (Father of a great people or, Great Father of a people) wife was Sarai (My Princess); and the name of Nachor’s (Snorting, Noble, Freeman) wife, Milkah (Queen), the daughter of Haran (Mountain climber), the father of Milkah (Queen), and the father of Yiskah (she will look out, she will see).
The father of a great people and a freeman took wives, the father of a great people married a Princess and the freeman married a Queen, the daughter of the one who ascended the mountain: he had also begotten she who will see.
Gen 11:30 But Sarai (My Princess) was barren; she had no child. Gen 11:31 And Terach (Seek the Spirit: Tur-ruach) took Avram (Father of a great people or, Great Father of a people) his son, and Lot (covering) the son of Haran (Mountain climber) his son's son, and Sarai (My Princess) his daughter in law, his son Avram’s (Father of a great people or, Great Father of a people) wife; and they went forth with them from Oor (Flame, light) of the Casdim (Increasing ones: a plural form of kesed), to go into the land of Kenaan (Lowland, Slave, Merchant, Servant); and they came unto Haran (Mountain climber), and dwelt there. Gen 11:32 And the days of Terach (Seek the Spirit: Tur-ruach) were two hundred and five years: and Terach (Seek the Spirit: Tur-ruach) died in (Mountain climber).
The princess was unable to have children so the one seeking the Spirit took her husband, the father of a great nation and the covering from the one who ascended the mountain and the princess; and went out from the light of the increasing ones to go into the land of slavery. And they came to the mountain of ascent and lived there. The one seeking the Spirit died on the mountain of ascent.
A Paraphrase of Genesis 11:10-32
Using the Meanings of the Genealogical Names
The following paraphrase should be treated as a remez (hint) based allegory which uses the p’shat (plain) meaning of the Hebrew names to generate a drash (comparative teaching) or mashal (parable) and nothing more. I am in no way suggesting that this is the p’shat (plain) meaning of the text, which is an historical, literal genealogy recording the link between Shem and Avram.
I have represented the meanings of the Hebrew names to the best of my understanding and where the names have multiple meanings I have chosen the meaning that I believe best fits the present text in light of the metanarrative of the Biblical Canon.
The Generations of the Name (Genesis 11:10-26)
The Name produced light from His breast and the light produced new life. That new life lived in the region beyond. Division was born from the region beyond and after some time a friend was born out of division. The friend gave birth to a branch and the branch gave birth to a freeman. The freeman gave birth to those seeking the Spirit and those seeking the Spirit gave birth to the father of a great nation and to a freeman and one who ascended the mountain.
The Generations of those who seek the Spirit (Genesis 11:10-32)
These are the generations of those who sought the Spirit. Those who were seeking the Spirit gave birth to a father of a great people, who scaled a mountain and received a covering. The one who climbed the mountain died in the presence of the one seeking the light in the land of his birth in the light of the increasing ones. The father of a great people and a freeman took wives, the father of a great people married a Princess and the freeman married a Queen, the daughter of the one who ascended the mountain: he had also begotten she who will see. The princess was unable to have children so the one seeking the Spirit took her husband the father of a great nation and the covering from the one who ascended the mountain and the princess and went out from the light of the increasing ones to go into the land of slavery. And they came to the mountain of ascent and lived there. The one seeking the Spirit died on the mountain of ascent.
© 2016 Yaakov Brown
Spiritual leader of Beth Melekh Community, Auckland, Aotearoa, N.Z.