Genesis - 11:4

4 They said, "Come, let's build ourselves a city, and a tower whose top reaches to the sky, and let's make ourselves a name, lest we be scattered abroad on the surface of the whole earth."

Verse In-Depth

Explanation and meaning of Genesis 11:4.

Differing Translations

Compare verses for better understanding.
And they said, Go to, let us build us a city and a tower, whose top may reach unto heaven; and let us make us a name, lest we be scattered abroad upon the face of the whole earth.
And they said, Come, let us build us a city, and a tower, whose top may reach unto heaven, and let us make us a name; lest we be scattered abroad upon the face of the whole earth.
And they said: Come, let us make a city and a tower, the top whereof may reach to heaven: and let us make our name famous before we be scattered abroad into all lands.
And they said, Come on, let us build ourselves a city and a tower, the top of which may reach to the heavens; and let us make ourselves a name, lest we be scattered over the face of the whole earth.
And they say, 'Give help, let us build for ourselves a city and tower, and its head in the heavens, and make for ourselves a name, lest we be scattered over the face of all the earth.'
And they said, Come, let us make a town, and a tower whose top will go up as high as heaven; and let us make a great name for ourselves, so that we may not be wanderers over the face of the earth.
And they said: 'Come, let us build us a city, and a tower, with its top in heaven, and let us make us a name; lest we be scattered abroad upon the face of the whole earth.'
They said, 'Come, let us build ourselves a city, and a tower whose top reaches to the sky, and let us make ourselves a name, lest we be scattered abroad on the surface of the whole earth.'
And they said: "Come, let us make a city and a tower, so that its height may reach to heaven. And let us make our name famous before we are divided into all the lands."
Et dixerunt, Agite, aedificemus nobis urbem et turrim, cujus caput pertingat usque ad coelum, et faciamus nobis nomen, ne forte dispergamur in superficiem universae terrae.

*Minor differences ignored. Grouped by changes, with first version listed as example.

Historical Commentaries

Scholarly Analysis and Interpretation.

Whose top may reach unto heaven. This is an hyperbolical form of speech, in which they boastingly extol the loftiness of the structure they are attempting to raise. And to the same point belongs what they immediately subjoin, Let us make us a name; for they intimate, that the work would be such as should not only be looked upon by the beholders as a kind of miracle, but should be celebrated everywhere to the utmost limits of the world. This is the perpetual infatuation of the world; to neglect heaven, and to seek immortality on earth, where every thing is fading and transient. Therefore, their cares and pursuits tend to no other end than that of acquiring for themselves a name on earth. David, in the forty ninth psalm, deservedly holds up to ridicule this blind cupidity; and the more, because experience (which is the teacher of the foolish) does not restore posterity to a sound mind, though instructed by the example of their ancestors; but the infatuation creeps on through all succeeding ages. The saying of Juvenal is known, -- Death alone acknowledges how insignificant are the bodies of men.' [1] Yet even death does not correct our pride, nor constrain us seriously to confess our miserable condition: for often more pride is displayed in funerals than in nuptial pomp. By such an example, however, we are admonished how fitting it is that we should live and die humbly. And it is not the least important part of true prudence, to have death before our eyes in the midst of life, for the purpose of accustoming ourselves to moderation. For he who vehemently desires to be great in the world, is first contumelious towards men, and at length, his profane presumption breaks forth against God himself; so that after the example of the giants, he fights against heaven. Lest we be scattered abroad. Some interpreters translate the passage thus, Before we are scattered:' but the peculiarity of the language will not bear this explanation: for the men are devising means to meet a danger which they believe to be imminent; as if they would say, It cannot be, that when our number increases, this region should always hold all men; and therefore an edifice must be erected by which their name shall be preserved in perpetuity, although they should themselves be dispersed in different regions.' It is however asked, whence they derived the notion of their future dispersion? Some conjecture that they were warned of it by Noah; who, perceiving that the world had relapsed into its former crimes and corruptions, foresaw, at the same time, by the prophetic spirit, some terrible dispersion; and they think that the Babylonians, seeing they could not directly resist God, endeavored, by indirect methods, to avert the threatened judgment. Others suppose, that these men, by a secret inspiration of the Spirit, uttered prophecies concerning their own punishment, which they did not themselves understand. But these expositions are constrained; nor is there any reason which requires us to apply what they here say, to the curse which was inflicted upon them. They knew that the earth was formed to be inhabited and would everywhere supply its abundance for the sustenance of men; and the rapid multiplication of mankind proved to them that it was not possible for them long to remain shut up within their present narrow limits; wherefore, to whatever other places it would be necessary for them to migrate, they design this tower to remain as a witness of their origin.


1 - "Mors sola fatetur Quantula sint hominum corpuscula." Ju5

The purpose of their hearts is now more fully expressed. "Let us build us a city, and a tower whose top may be in the skies." A city is a fortified enclosure or keep for defense against the violence of the brute creation. A tower whose top may be in the skies for escape from the possibility of a periodical deluge. This is the language of pride in man, who wishes to know nothing above himself, and to rise beyond the reach of an over-ruling Providence. "And let us make us a name." A name indicates distinction and pre-eminence. To make us a name, then, is not so much the cry of the multitude as of the few, with Nimrod at their head, who alone could expect what is not common, but distinctive. It is here artfully inserted, however, in the popular exclamation, as the people are prone to imagine the glory even of the despot to be reflected on themselves. This gives the character of a lurking desire for empire and self-aggrandizement to the design of the leaders - a new form of the same selfish spirit which animated the antediluvian men of name Genesis 6:4. But despotism for the few or the one, implies slavery and all its unnumbered ills for the many. "Lest we be scattered abroad upon the face of the whole land." The varied instincts of their common nature here speak forth. The social bond, the tie of kinsmanship, the wish for personal safety, the desire to be independent, perhaps even of God, the thirst for absolute power, all plead for union; but it is union for selfish ends.

Let us build us a city and a tower - On this subject there have been various conjectures. Mr. Hutchinson supposed that the design of the builders was to erect a temple to the host of heaven - the sun, moon, planets, etc.; and, to support this interpretation, he says וראשו בשמים verosho bashshamayim should be translated, not, whose top may reach unto heaven, for there is nothing for may reach in the Hebrew, but its head or summit to the heavens, i.e. to the heavenly bodies: and, to make this interpretation the more probable, he says that previously to this time the descendants of Noah were all agreed in one form of religious worship, (for so he understands ושפה אחת vesaphah achath, and of one lip), i.e. according to him, they had one litany; and as God confounded their litany, they began to disagree in their religious opinions, and branched out into sects and parties, each associating with those of his own sentiment; and thus their tower or temple was left unfinished.
It is probable that their being of one language and of one speech implies, not only a sameness of language, but also a unity of sentiment and design, as seems pretty clearly intimated in Genesis 11:6. Being therefore strictly united in all things, coming to the fertile plains of Shinar they proposed to settle themselves there, instead of spreading themselves over all the countries of the earth, according to the design of God; and in reference to this purpose they encouraged one another to build a city and a tower, probably a temple, to prevent their separation, "lest," say they, "we be scattered abroad upon the face of the whole earth:" but God, miraculously interposing, confounded or frustrated their rebellious design, which was inconsistent with his will; see Deuteronomy 32:8; Acts 17:26; and, partly by confounding their language, and disturbing their counsels, they could no longer keep in a united state; so that agreeing in nothing but the necessity of separating, they went off in different directions, and thus became scattered abroad upon the face of the earth. The Targums, both of Jonathan ben Uzziel and of Jerusalem, assert that the tower was for idolatrous worship; and that they intended to place an image on the top of the tower with a sword in its hand, probably to act as a talisman against their enemies. Whatever their design might have been, it is certain that this temple or tower was afterwards devoted to idolatrous purposes. Nebuchadnezzar repaired and beautified this tower, and it was dedicated to Bel, or the sun.
An account of this tower, and of the confusion of tongues, is given by several ancient authors. Herodotus saw the tower and described it. A sybil, whose oracle is yet extant, spoke both of it and of the confusion of tongues; so did Eupolemus and Abydenus. See Bochart Geogr. Sacr., lib. i., c. 13, edit. 1692. On this point Bochart observes that these things are taken from the Chaldeans, who preserve many remains of ancient facts; and though they often add circumstances, yet they are, in general, in some sort dependent on the text. 1. They say Babel was built by the giants, because Nimrod, one of the builders, is called in the Hebrew text גבור gibbor, a mighty man; or, as the Septuagint, γιγας, a giant. 2. These giants, they say, sprang from the earth, because, in Genesis 10:11, it is said, He went, מן הארץ ההוא min haarets hahiv, out of that earth; but this is rather spoken of Asshur, who was another of the Babel builders. 3. These giants are said to have waged war with the gods, because it is said of Nimrod, Genesis 10:9, He was a mighty hunter before the Lord; or, as others have rendered it, a warrior and a rebel against the Lord. See Jarchi in loco. 4. These giants are said to have raised a tower up to heaven, as if they had intended to have ascended thither. This appears to have been founded on "whose top may reach to heaven," which has been already explained. 5. It is said that the gods sent strong winds against them, which dispersed both them and their work. This appears to have been taken from the Chaldean history, in which it is said their dispersion was made to the four winds of heaven, בארבע רוחי שמיא bearba ruchey shemaiya, i.e. to the four quarters of the world. 6. And because the verb פוץ brev eht esua phuts, or נפץ naphats, used by Moses, signifies, not only to scatter, but also to break to pieces; whence thunder, Isaiah 30:30, is called נפץ nephets, a breaking to pieces; hence they supposed the whole work was broken to pieces and overturned. It was probably from this disguised representation of the Hebrew text that the Greek and Roman poets took their fable of the giants waging war with the gods, and piling mountain upon mountain in order to scale heaven. See Bochart as above.

And they said, Go to, let us (e) build us a city and a tower, whose top [may reach] unto heaven; and let us make us a name, lest we be scattered abroad upon the face of the whole earth.
(e) They were moved with pride and ambition, preferring their own glory to God's honour.

And they said, go to, let us build us a city and a tower,.... Some Jewish writers (r) say, these are the words of Nimrod to his people; but it is a question whether he was now born, or if he was, must be too young to be at the head of such a body of people; but they are spoken to one another, or by the principal men among them to the common people, advising and encouraging to such an undertaking. It is generally thought what led them to it was to secure them from another flood, they might be in fear of; but this seems not likely, since they had the covenant and oath of God, that the earth should never be destroyed by water any more; and besides, had this been the thing in view, they would not have chosen a plain to build on, a plain that lay between two of the greatest rivers, Tigris, and Euphrates, but rather one of the highest mountains and hills they could have found: nor could a building of brick be a sufficient defence against such a force of water, as the waters of the flood were; and besides, but few at most could be preserved at the top of the tower, to which, in such a case, they would have betook themselves. The reason of this building is given in a following clause, as will be observed. Some think by "a city and tower" is meant, by the figure "hendyadis", one and the same thing, a city with towers; and, according to Ctesias (s), there were two hundred and fifty towers in Babylon: but no doubt the city and tower were two distinct things; or there was one particular tower proposed to be built besides the city, though it might stand in it, or near it, as an acropolis or citadel to it; as it is not unusual in cities to have such, to betake unto in case of danger:
whose top may reach unto heaven: not that they imagined such a thing could be literally and strictly done, but that it should be raised exceeding high, like the cities in Canaan, said to be walled up to heaven, Deuteronomy 1:28 hyperbolically speaking; and such was the tower of Babel, by all accounts, even of Heathens: the Sibyl in Josephus (t) calls it a most high tower; and so Abydenus (u) reports;"there are (says he) that say, that the first men that rose out of the earth, proud of their strength and largeness (of their bodies), and thinking themselves greater than the gods, erected a tower of a vast height, near to heaven, where Babylon now is.''And the temple of Belus, which some take to be the same with this tower, at least was that perfected, and put to such an use, was, according to Ctesias (w), of an immense height, where the Chaldeans made their observations of the stars: however, the tower that was in the middle of it, and which seems plainly to be the same with this, was exceeding high: the account Herodotus (x) gives of it is,"in the midst of the temple a solid tower is built, of a furlong in length, and of as much in breadth; and upon this tower another tower is placed, and another upon that, and so on to eight towers.'' the word used by Herodotus, translated "length", signifies also "height", and so it is taken here by some; and if so, it looks as if every tower was a furlong high, which makes the whole a mile, which is too extravagant to suppose, though it may denote the height of them all, a furlong, which makes it a very high building. This agrees with Strabo's account of it, who calls it a pyramid, and says it was a furlong high (y): according to Rauwolff (z), the tower of Babel is still in being; this, says he, we saw still (in 1574), and it is half a league in diameter; but it is so mightily ruined, and low, and so full of vermin, that hath bored holes through it, that one may not come near it for half a mile, but only in two months in the winter, when they come not out of their holes. Another traveller (a), that was in those parts at the beginning of the last century, says,"now at this day, that which remaineth is called the remnant of the tower of Babel; there standing as much as is a quarter of a mile in compass, and as high as the stone work of Paul's steeple in London--the bricks are three quarters of a yard in length, and a quarter in thickness, and between every course of bricks there lieth a course of mats, made of canes and palm tree leaves, so fresh as if they had been laid within one year.''Not to take notice of the extravagant account of the eastern writers, who say the tower was 5533 fathoms high (b); and others, beyond all belief, make it 10,000 fathoms, or twelve miles high (c); and they say the builders were forty years in building it: their design in it follows:
and let us make us a name; which some render "a sign" (d), and suppose it to be a signal set upon the top of the tower, which served as a beacon, by the sight of which they might be preserved from straying in the open plains with their flocks, or return again when they had strayed. Others take it to be an idol proposed to be set upon the top of the tower; and the Targums of Jonathan and Jerusalem intimate as if the tower was built for religious worship, paraphrasing the words,"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.''And it is the conjecture of Dr. Tennison, in his book of idolatry, that this tower was consecrated by the builders of it to the sun, as the cause of drying up the waters of the deluge: but the sense is, that they proposed by erecting such an edifice to spread their fame, and perpetuate their name to the latest posterity, that hereby it might be known, that at such a time, and in such a place, were such a body of people, even all the inhabitants of the world; and all of them the sons of one man, as Ben Gersom observes; so that as long as this tower stood, they would be had in remembrance, it being called after their names; just as the Egyptian kings afterwards built their pyramids, perhaps for a like reason; and in which the end of neither have been answered, it not being known who were by name concerned therein, see Psalm 49:11 though a late learned writer (e) thinks, that by making a name is meant choosing a chief or captain, which was proposed by them; and that the person they pitched upon was Nimrod, in which sense the word he supposes is used, 2-Samuel 23:17 but what has been observed at the beginning of this note may be objected to it; though Berosus (f) says, that Nimrod came with his people into the plain of Sannaar, where be marked out a city, and founded the largest tower, in the year of deliverance from the waters of the flood one hundred and thirty one, and reigned fifty six years; and carried the tower to the height and size of mountains, "for a sign" and "monument", that the people of Babylon were the first in the world, and ought to be called the kingdom of kingdoms; which last clause agrees with the sense given:
lest we be scattered abroad upon the face of the whole earth: which they seemed to have some notion of, and feared would be their case, liking better to be together than to separate, and therefore were careful to avoid a dispersion; it being some way or other signified to them, that it was the will of God they should divide into colonies, and settle in different parts, that so the whole earth might be inhabited; or Noah, or some others, had proposed a division of the earth among them, each to take his part, which they did not care to hearken to; and therefore, to prevent such a separation, proposed the above scheme, and pursued it.
(r) In Pirke Eliezer, c. 24. (s) Apud Diodor. Sicul. Bibliothec, l. 2. p. 96. (t) Antiqu. l. 1. c. 4. sect. 3. (u) Apud Euseb. Evangel. Praepar. l. 9. c. 14. p. 416. (w) Apud Diodor. ut supra, (Sicul. Bibliothec, l. 2.) p. 98. (x) Clio sive, l. 1. c. 181. (y) Geograph. l. 16. p. 508. (z) Travels, ut supra. (pars. 2. ch. 7. p. 138.) (a) Cartwright's Preacher's Travels, p. 99, 100. (b) Elmacinus, p. 14. Patricides, p. 13. apud Hottinger. Smegma, p. 264. (c) Vid. Universal History, vol. 1. p. 331. (d) Perizonius, apud Universal History, ib. p. 325. (e) Dr. Clayton's Chronology of the Hebrew Bible, p. 56. (f) Antiqu. l. 4. p. 28, 29.

a tower whose top may reach unto heaven--a common figurative expression for great height (Deuteronomy 1:28; 9:1-6).
lest we be scattered--To build a city and a town was no crime; but to do this to defeat the counsels of heaven by attempting to prevent emigration was foolish, wicked, and justly offensive to God.

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