11:1 one speech. Literally, “of one lip and one set of words”–that is, one phonology and one vocabulary, the same language as spoken by the antediluvians. This may well have been the Hebrew language, or some similar Semitic language since the primitive records were transmitted through Noah and Shem and since it is very unlikely that either Noah or Shem were participants in the rebellion and judgment at Babel.
11:2 from the east. The phrase may mean “eastward.” It is also possible that, as the people migrated from Ararat, they first went farther to the east, and then turned back westward until they came to the plain of Shinar (Sumer). This fertile valley so reminded them of Eden that they named its two rivers (Tigris and Euphrates) after two of the Edenic rivers.
11:2 land of Shinar. The reference to Shinar ties back in to Genesis 10:10, reminding us that the leader of the population by this time was Nimrod, “the mighty tyrant in the face of the LORD” (Genesis 10:9).
11:2 dwelt there. Their decision to “dwell” here in one location was in defiance of God’s command to “fill the earth” (Genesis 9:1,7). God’s design was to have a multiplicity of local governmental units (Genesis 9:5,6; Acts 17:26,27), but Nimrod purposed to establish a one-government dictatorship under himself. When Shem’s son Asshur settled in a separate location, Nimrod quickly took it over (Genesis 10:11).
11:3 Go to. Literally, “give”–indicating a council had reached a decision concerning various possible courses of action and was now pronouncing its decision.
11:3 for morter. The first decision was to develop a brick-making industry, with kiln-baked clay bricks and asphalt from the nearby pits as mortar. This would enable them to plan and develop strong, permanent buildings.
11:4 a tower. A second council, no doubt soon after the first, reached the firm decision to stay permanently in the Babel metroplex, erecting a strong capital city with a great central tower symbolizing its unity and centralizing its culture. This tower became the prototype of all the great ziggurats (stepped towers) and pyramids of the world.
11:4 unto heaven. The words “may reach” are not in the original. The tower was undoubtedly promoted as a great religious monument, dedicated “unto heaven.” Its top would be used for worship and sacrifice, and the rank and file probably felt at first that its beauty and grandeur would honor God. Almost certainly the walls and ceiling of the shrine at the top were emblazoned with the painted representations of “man, and...birds, and fourfooted beasts, and creeping things” (Romans 1:23), which depicted the universal signs of the zodiac. This remarkable system was probably originally formulated by the antediluvian patriarchs to depict the primeval prophecies of the coming Seed of the Woman and God’s ultimate victory over Satan in a permanent record in the stars themselves (see note on Genesis 1:14). Under Nimrod’s subtle corruption of God’s truth, however, this “gospel in the stars” was soon distorted into astrology, and evolutionary pantheism, then into spiritism and polytheism, as people gradually ceased worshipping the true God of heaven and turned to “the host of heaven,” the fallen angels.
11:4 scattered abroad. The intent of the leaders of this rebellion was flagrant rejection of God’s command.
11:5 came down. God was well aware of all that was transpiring, but was long-suffering, allowing ample time for repentance. The expression “came down” is figurative, indicating the rebellion had now gone too far and required divine intervention.
11:6 one language. In God’s judgment, the main problem was the unity of the people; the one most effective way of thwarting unity would be to prevent communication.
11:6 nothing will be restrained. Nimrod, with direct access to demonic intelligence and Satanic power, would be invincible without divine intervention. No doubt there was a faithful remnant (e.g., Noah, Shem), but these were helpless without God’s action.
11:7 Go to. A council in heaven (perhaps mocking Nimrod’s councils–note Psalm 2:1-4) decrees the confusion of tongues. This act is clearly supernatural, involving the divine creative power which Satan could neither duplicate nor reverse.
11:7 confound their language. In some inexplicable manner, God altered the brain/nerve/speech apparati of the Babylonian rebels to give each family unit (possibly the seventy families of Genesis 10) its own distinctive vocabulary/phonology complex. With all this, however, they all remained truly human, unchanged in basic thought processes or moral character. Further, their distinctive languages were still sufficiently alike that they could, with time and much effort, learn to speak each other’s languages. For some time to come, however, they could no longer communicate and, therefore, they could no longer cooperate. They were thus forced to obey God’s earlier command to scatter abroad and to fill the earth with different nations and governmental units.
11:8 scattered them abroad. The tower had been completed and was actively in use, but the city was still unfinished. Probably all families except that of Nimrod himself departed from Babel, leaving him and his immediate family the burden of developing his own tribe at Babel as best they could. These probably became the Sumerians. The others scattered into various regions as already described in Genesis 10, some eventually developing great civilizations. This account, originally written by Shem (Genesis 11:10), is reflected in somewhat distorted form in the legends of other nations, including a tablet excavated at Ur. There is no better scientific theory to date for the origin of the various families of languages. All such theories seem to point to an origin in the Middle East.
11:8 they left off. In addition to the Babel tablet found at Ur (see note above), an inscription purportedly made by Nebuchadnezzar (sixteen centuries after Nimrod) on the base of the remains of a tower in Borsippa (a Greek word possibly meaning “tongue-tower”), some seven miles southwest of Babylon, claims that he (Nebuchadnezzar) was rebuilding the base of the ancient tower of Babel.
11:9 Babel. The Hebrew word babel means “mixed” or “confusion.” It was associated by the writer with the “babble” of sounds which was the last memory held by all who scattered from the city. The word “babble” is an example of onomatopoeia, a word that imitates an actual sound, and thus is essentially the same in all languages. The name Babel, therefore, does not really mean “gate of God,” as its later apologists claimed, but “confusion.”
11:9 all the earth. As the people scattered, each family gradually became a tribal unit, and each had to develop its own distinctive culture as best it could. Each for a time would have to live by hunting and gathering, residing in caves or temporary shelters. The stronger families would occupy the best nearby sites (e.g., the Nile valley), while others would be forced farther away. Although they were all familiar with the arts of agriculture, animal husbandry, ceramics, metallurgy, construction, navigation, etc., each family would require time, population growth, and discovery of sources of metals and building materials. They all had known how to write, but now, with a completely new speech, each tribe would need to invent an entirely new written language, and this would require still more time and ingenuity. Within a few generations, however, all these attributes of “civilization” had surfaced all over the world, even on distant continents. As populations grew, some tribes eventually reached into every part of the world. In some instances they traveled by land bridges (e.g., Bering Strait, Malaysian Strait) which existed for perhaps a millennium during the Ice Age which followed the Flood. In other cases, they established colonies through sea exploration (e.g., the Phoenicians). All carried essentially the same Babylonian culture and religion with them, unfortunately, so that Babylon is called in the New Testament “the mother of harlots and abominations (that is, “idolatries”) of the earth” (Revelation 17:5). At the same time, they also carried a faint remembrance of the true God and His promises, especially remembering the divine judgment of the great Flood in their traditions. Each retained knowledge of God, and could see enough evidence of Him in both the creation and their own natures (Romans 1:20; 2:13-15; John 1:9) so they were inexcusable in their almost universal descent into the religious morass of evolutionary pantheism, astrology, spiritism, polytheism and, finally, atheistic materialism.