Exegetical Essay on GENESIS 11:1-9

The descendants of Ham, fearing scattering and slavery that was promised in Gen.9:25-27, had intended to make the name for themselves by building the Tower of Babel. According to chronological studies, they should have spent three years to prepare construction materials and no less than twenty two years to build the tower in Shinar, the Babylonian kingdom. One of the ancient legends states that each of the so-called ‘bricks’, used for the construction, was 20 feet long, 15 feet wide and 7 feet thick. It is considered that the confusion of languages had happened 101 years after the Flood and 326 years before the calling of Abraham, in the fourth generation of the account of Shem, Ham and Japhet, Noah’s sons. The Tower of Babel became the symbol of pride, disobedience, and self-confidence from humans’ part and God’s control over humanity.

Help with Exegetical Essay on GENESIS 11:1-9

Help with Exegetical Essay on GENESIS 11:1-9

The initial two chapters of Genesis, the first book of the Old Testament and Bible itself, give us the core picture of creation of the universe, earth, and the creatures that fill it; God’s love and goodness and the paramount role of people on this earth. Nevertheless, this pure, sinless and wonderfully created world had faced sweeping changes with the beginning of the third chapter. The Primeval History was similar to the technological progress of the XXIst century, moving breathless from one achievement to another. Yet, the consequences of these actions had led to destruction, sin and, finally, death.

The disobedience and doubts as to God’s instructions at first resulted in the fall of man, then in jealousy and murder, rebellion of all humans against God’s directions and, finally, in the Flood. Nevertheless, the sin had not been washed away from the earth; it remained in the stubborn hearts of men, who were created with a free will. Shortly thereafter, people have rejected commands of God and claimed to control their lives by themselves. However, God, as the Creator of the universe, holds everything in His hands irrespective of humankind’s intentions.

The story of the Tower of Babel is written in the book of Genesis 11:1-9. This memorial had marked the origins of the peoples of the earth and became the turning point in the history. The people of the Earth were trying to build the tower that would reach heaven. The purpose of this enormous staged tower is still undefined: either it would be a temple and be used as a place of worship, or it would be a long-lasting sign of dignity and intellectual capacities. Anyway, the tower was meant to be a religious center to praise either gods or human knowledge.

The construction was similar to multi-storied ziggurats – the ancient temples in Babylonia, which served as a pattern for pyramids of Egypt and which remains are still excavated in our time. According to Elizabeth Stone,

“The Babylonian ziggurats were enormous stepped pyramids that served, in most cases, as the base for temples. Cities throughout southern Mesopotamia, from the third millennium to the first, housed their most important deities in temples at the bottom of these ziggurats, so that in general, religion served the political ends of the state” (The Oxford Encyclopedia of Archaeology in the Near East, 5:390).

This passage proves that the ancient Babylonia was not just a tribe of mighty hunters and great warriors, as it is shown in Bible, but rather a political structure with the king at the head of society, governors, mayors and local governments; society was composed of the upper and lower class free people and slaves. For almost 1200 years, the Babylonian civilization had saved its culture and ethos. The well-known “Code of Hammurabi” (1750 or 1712 B.C.) is the greatest illustration of socio-economic organized structure of the ancient Babylonia. Along with other documents and writings, it represents the highly developed society with its values, moral and religious standards.

The builders of the tower had left aside the commands of God; therefore, they put aside the Creator of these instructions – God. Only eight souls were saved during the Flood: Noah, his sons and their wives. The devastated earth had to be refilled with animals, birds, other creatures, and, certainly, men. It was similar to the new creation; thus, God had stated the same instructions to Noah and his children as He had instructed Adam (Gen.1:26-28). Genesis 9:1-2 says: “Then God blessed Noah and his sons, saying to them, “Be fruitful and increase in number and fill the earth… [every creature is] given into your hands”. Desert lands had to be filled and subdued.

The original form of the Pentateuch was written on Hebrew; though, some of the Old Testament’s passages appear on Aramaic. There is little or no doubt regarding its authorship – the earliest Hebrew and Christian traditions insist that Moses, who was guided by God, combined ancient documents and writings into one book. The latest events that appear in Genesis are dated back to 300 years before the birth of Moses. It starts from the “Hymn of creation” that is considered to be the direct revelation from God; moreover, the book includes ten ‘studbooks’ taken from the historical writings. These lists of descendants assemble most of Genesis and include additions and explanations revealed to Moses.

The pericope of the Tower of Babel can hardly be related to a hymn, or prayer. Neither is polemics. However, the ‘call’ better suits the passage than propaganda. The Tower of Babel is a significant lesson for future generations and no one should turn a blind eye towards the past examples. Bible says: “so is My word that goes out from My mouth: it will not return to Me empty, but will accomplish what I desire and achieve the purpose for which I sent it” (Is. 55:11). The tower had shown that human sin destroys the order of God’s creation and its consequences may be worse than sin itself. Adam and Eve had sinned once, yet, the whole world was cursed; David had committed adultery once, yet, his whole family was torn into pieces.

In exactly the same way the purpose of the tower was to make a name for nations, yet, all of them were scattered and confused by different languages. When God has a plan, not a single creature can disturb it, “but who are you, o man, to talk back to God? “Shall what is formed say to him who formed it, ‘Why did you make me like this?’”(Rom.9:20). The best biblical verse to summarize all stated above is the following: “For I know the plans I have for you,” declared the Lord, “plans to prosper you and not to harm you, plans to give you hope and a future” (Jer. 29:11). All we have to do is to trust our heavenly Father and do what He says. When we try to intervene with His commands and instructions, we will commit sin and, therefore, reap the consequences of disobedience.

The Primeval History describes the new technologies and stubbornness of our ancestors. The early humans said to each other: “Come, let us make bricks and bake (burn) them thoroughly” (Gen.11:3). The deficit of stones in Shinar had forced these people to use bricks. In order to make them permanent, long-term, strong and liken bricks to stones, descendants of Ham had used fire to burn them. This technology was a brand new at that time. Using such methods, they have succeeded in preparing building materials for the tower. The phrase “come, let us (build, make, burn …)” is composed of singular imperative that is followed by a cohort of 2 plurals. In the Guide to Biblical Hebrew Syntax, Bill Arnold states: “With these exhortation cohortatives, the verb of motion in the imperative serves as an intensifying auxiliary” (Arnold, Choi, p.66). Thus, the phrases suchlike affect the mentality and bring call to action. By this phrase, peoples in Babylonia encouraged each other to build the tower and “nothing they plan to do will be impossible for them” (Gen. 11:6).

Furthermore, humans use another motivation for the construction: “Come, let us build ourselves a city, with a tower that reaches to the heavens, so that we may make a name for ourselves and not be scattered over the face of the whole earth” (Gen. 11:4). The doctrines of the ancient world suggested that the whole life of a newborn was enclosed in his/her name and unless the thing had a name it was nonexistent. The same way in Genesis, God gave the names of day, night, heaven, land, and sea to what He had created. The same way Adam named all the creatures that were brought into existence by God. Israelites were afraid of Canaanites, who could wipe their names off the earth. Therefore, the name for builders of the Tower of Babel meant existence and future. The name was important and significant, it gave power, acceptance and social status; scattering meant to have nothing.

The name “Shinar” (Akkadia, or Sumer) means ‘the land of the Chaldeans’; while, Babylon (Bab-ilim or Babil) means the ‘Gate of God’ on ancient Semitic dialect and “Babel” or ‘confusion’ on Hebrew. Since, in the verse seventh, God said: “Come, let us go down and confuse their language so they will not understand each other”, the final interpretation of Babylon remains ‘confusion’. However surprising it may seem, the words of God were retold by Moses, using the same forceful phrase. As nothing was impossible for people in their desire to build the tower and make the name, for God was nothing impossible as well. But, He is the Almighty God that is why His plan was fulfilled.

The table of nations was split into pieces by the story of the tower of Babel. Its first part lays in the 10th chapter, while the rest follows after the story. Since from Babylon all nations were scattered throughout the earth, this passage, as a new step in the history, was essential for these accounts. It seemed that the future of these descendants was shadowed by the deeds of their fathers; nevertheless, the 12th chapter shows God’s merciful reaction to the tower and faithfulness to His covenant. The call of Abram had designated the new era – the plan of redemption through His Peculiar People.

As a place of ecumenical significance, Babylon is mentioned 264 times in the Old Testament and 11 times in the New Testament. In all these references, it is described as a depraved city, full of lust for power, materialism, pleasures and sinful cravings. The book of Revelation shows Babylon as a city of power – Babylon the Great, whose citizens have agreed on revolt against the sovereignty of God, but “she will be consumed by fire, for mighty is the Lord God who judges her” (Rev.18:8b). Just like Nimrod, the founder of the city, whose name means “let us revolt”, Babylon was organizing rebellions against God all through its existence; yet, the Lord Almighty judges righteously.

Works cited:

  1. Arnold, Bill T., Choi, John H. A Guide to Biblical Hebrew Syntax. New York, N.Y.: Cambridge University Press. 2003.
  2. Barker, Kenneth. The NIV Study Bible. Zondervan Publishing House. 1984.
  3. Coogan, Michael D. ed. M.D. Coogan. In the Beginning: The Earliest History. The Oxford History of the Biblical World, Oxford: Oxford University Press. 1998.
  4. Stone, Elizabeth C. ed. Eric M. Meyers. Ziggurat. The Oxford Encyclopedia of Archaeology in the Near East, New York: Oxford University Press. 1997.
  5. Walker, N. How Does God Speak in the World? Boston: Houghton Mifflin. 1995.

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