Commentary on Genesis 11:1-9
This text is offered as an alternative First Reading for the Day of Pentecost, with the instructions that if it is chosen, then Acts 2:1-21 gets used as the Second Reading.
Certainly, there have been connections made between Genesis 11:1-9 and Acts 2:1-21, with people understanding God’s gift of speaking in tongues as a reversal of the confusion of tongues at Babel.
However, some New Testament scholars place a caveat on reading the Day of Pentecost as a “solution” to the problem of the Tower of Babel. For example, Eric Barreto explains that such a reading suggests diversity is a punishment from God; that our different languages and cultures are a problem in need of an answer. Barreto notes that in the Day of Pentecost, the Spirit maintains the diversity of human language by enabling everyone to hear the gospel in their own language, not in a single universal language. Diversity — of language, culture, and the like — is therefore not a divine punishment, but something to be celebrated.1
Barreto is paying attention to what C. L. Seow refers to as “the history of consequences” of interpretations of biblical texts. These consequences include how a text is interpreted, applied, and used, as well as the ethical implications of certain readings of the text.2 The history of consequences of Genesis 11:1-9 includes South African theologians’ use of the text to justify apartheid, by arguing that God desired to keep separate languages and races apart from one another.
One reason why Genesis 11:1-9 has been interpreted and applied in such various ways — with varying ethical implications — is that the narrative is sparse, with very little explicit reason given for why God scattered the people and confused their language.
There have been at least three main emphases in the interpretations, though they are not mutually exclusive. The first is that this is a story about pride and rebellion against God. The people attempt to build a tower because they desire to make a name for themselves (Genesis 11:4), when God is the one who ultimately makes a name for people, as is evident in the promise to Abram (Genesis 12:2).
Second, this narrative has been read as a critique of the totalizing power of empire, particularly the Babylonian empire that destroyed Judah and took the people away into exile. The name of the city, “Babel” (Genesis 11:9), is the same Hebrew word that gets translated as “Babylon” throughout the rest of the Old Testament. Among other things, empires impose a single dominant language — as Alexander the Great did in the Macedonian empire — and thereby enforce a level of unity and conformity.
A third way of understanding Genesis 11:1-9 has been to see the people’s desire to remain in one place as contrary to God’s mandate that they “spread out and fill the whole earth” (Genesis 1:28, 9:1). Even in the verse immediately preceding this lectionary text, Genesis 10:32, the survivors of the flood “spread out over the earth.” Those who want to settle and build a city are scattered by God because God wants them to continue to move and even diversify.
Though the text is sparse, certain details stand out, such as the repetition and variation of the language in verse 1, which explains, “all the earth had one language and the same words.” In Genesis 11:6, God echoes the narrator, saying, “the people are one, and all of them have one language.” Then, in Genesis 11:9, God confuses “the language of all the earth.”
The people are journeying in Genesis 11:2, but in the same verse they find and “dwell” in a plain in Shinar. Genesis 10:10 located Babylon in Shinar, so the connection has been made even before the name “Babel” is given in 11:8. The Hebrew verb yasab “to dwell,” can also be translated as “to sit,” so the word emphasizes that the people have stopped moving.
The people’s first action is to make bricks, something that the Israelites will be commanded to do when they are enslaved in Egypt. They use “bitumen” as mortar (Genesis 11:3), the same material used by Moses’ mother to seal up his basket before she places it in the water (Exodus 2:3). After making bricks, the people then decide to build a city and a tower, consequently making a name, lest they be scattered (Genesis 11:4).
In Genesis 11:5, God comes down to see the city and tower. Within the Jewish tradition, this is less about God’s lack of omnipotence than it is a description of God’s personal involvement in what happens on the earth.
Despite God’s direct statements in Genesis 11:6-7, there is a level of mystery about exactly why the response to the people’s unity, especially their unity of language, is to confound that language and scatter them. Again, the three main threads of explanations, above, attempt to solve the mystery. God does not destroy the city or the tower, which suggests that the issue is not with the building projects, but more about the reasons for building.
Being scattered is typically negative, a consequence of disobedience. What the people fear in Genesis 11:4 comes to pass in Genesis 11:8, “being scattered on the face of all the earth.” But in Deuteronomy 30:3 — just a few biblical books after Genesis — is the first of many times when God promises to “gather” from all the places where God has “scattered” (see also Ezekiel 11:16-17; 20:34, 41; 28:25).
Our theology frames and directs our understanding of texts. If we assume God’s power, benevolence, and love in this narrative, it becomes harder to read it only as a punishment. Another consequence of reading Acts 2:1-21 as a “solution” to the “problem” of Genesis 11:1-9 is that it can suggest God in the Old Testament punishes people in ways that are not ameliorated until after the ascension of Jesus and the outpouring of the Holy Spirit. In fact, God’s actions of grace are evident throughout the metanarrative, from start to finish.
- Eric Barreto, “What Happened at Pentecost?” http://www.enterthebible.org/blog.aspx?post=2547
- C. L. Seow, Job 1-21, Grand Rapids, Mich.: Eerdmans, 2013, 184-185.