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Genesis 11 Summary - The Cambridge Bible for Schools and Colleges

Ch. Gen 11:1-9. The Story of the Tower of Babel. (J.)

The story of the Tower of Babel, contained in this short passage, preserves the recollection of a strange Israelite piece of folk-lore. No trace of this narrative has with any certainty, up to the present time, been discovered in the cuneiform inscriptions. Nor is this altogether surprising. The story connects the famous capital of Babylonia (Babel = Babylon) with an enterprise which is described as so colossal in its insolent impiety as to necessitate the personal interposition of the Almighty, Jehovah Himself. The success of the enterprise is frustrated by the simple exercise of the Divine Will; and the result is that the human race, which before had possessed one language, became in an instant subdivided into different communities by diversity of speech. The strangeness and the simplicity of the story inevitably seize upon the imagination. That it is devoid of any foundation in history or science hardly requires to be stated. So far as concerns the diversity of languages, science shews no tendency to favour the hypothesis, either of Babylonia having been the point of dispersion for the languages of the world, or, indeed, of the languages of the world having had any single common origin. Even the hopeful attempt in the 19th century to reduce the languages of the world to three great families, or groups of dialects, each characterized by distinctive features of word formation and grammar, has in recent years been abandoned. The recognition of the existence of a far larger number of independent languages than before was supposed possible has shewn that the problem is one of immense complexity. We are led to suspect that the mystery of the origin of distinct languages belongs to the dim obscurity of the infancy of the human race, an infinitely remote and prehistoric age.

With this conclusion the account in the Book of Genesis stands in some measure of agreement. The story of the Tower of Babel is suddenly interposed between the genealogies which lead up to the birth of Abram. Though it supplies a theory which would account for the dispersion of the peoples of the world, it is evident that the Hebrews themselves did not regard the story as satisfying the problem. The tenth chapter of Genesis had already recorded the standard Hebrew tradition. It attributed the peopling of the world and the diversity of languages ( Gen 11:5 ; Gen 11:20 ; Gen 11:31) to the dispersion of the descendants of the three sons of Noah. This was the working hypothesis, if we may so call it, of Israelite tradition in explaining the origin of the races. The present story by the suddenness of its introduction, the vagueness of its details, and the abruptness with which it breaks off, as well as by its startling anthropomorphic features, reminds us of the parenthesis in Gen 6:1-4. It reads like a fragment of an independent primitive tradition. It possessed an interest which justified its preservation, even though its details were hardly reconcilable with the narratives in 9 and 10. It preserved a legend which (1) accounted for the diversity of race by the diversity of language; (2) attributed the diversity of language, with its attendant train of evils (misunderstanding, discord, hostility, and war), to the punishment or curse inflicted upon an impious race by a Divine decree; (3) associated with Babylon, the most ancient centre of civilization and town-life, the insolent impiety of a generation that sought to scale Heaven; (4) recorded the impression produced on the minds of the early Hebrews by the sight of the towers, Ziggurats, or temples which rose in many towns of Assyria and Babylonia to an immense height, and of which the meaning was unknown to nomad tribesmen or to wayfaring foreigners.

Consult other comments:

Genesis 11:0 - The Cambridge Bible for Schools and Colleges

Genesis 11:0 - Commentary on the Holy Bible by Thomas Coke

Genesis 11:0 - John Gill's Exposition of the Entire Bible

Genesis 11:0 - Matthew Henry's Whole Bible Commentary

Genesis 11:0 - Jamieson, Fausset and Brown's Commentary Critical and Explanatory on the Whole Bible

Genesis 11:0 - English Annotations on the Holy Bible by Matthew Poole

The Cambridge Bible for Schools and Colleges