Genesis - 11:7

7 Come, let's go down, and there confuse their language, that they may not understand one another's speech."

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Explanation and meaning of Genesis 11:7.

Differing Translations

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Go to, let us go down, and there confound their language, that they may not understand one another's speech.
Come ye, therefore, let us go down, and there may not understand one another's speech.
Give help, let us go down, and mingle there their pronunciation, so that a man doth not understand the pronunciation of his companion.'
Come, let us go down and take away the sense of their language, so that they will not be able to make themselves clear to one another.
Come, let us go down, and there confuse their language, that they may not understand one another's speech.'
Therefore, come, let us descend, and in that place confound their tongue, so that they may not listen, each one to the voice of his neighbor."
Agite, descendamus, et confundamus ibi labium eorum, ut non audiant unusquisque labium proximi sui.

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

Historical Commentaries

Scholarly Analysis and Interpretation.

Go to, let us go down. We have said that Moses has represented the case to us by the figure hypotyposis, [1] that the judgments of God may be the more clearly illustrated. For which reason, he now introduces God as the speaker, who declares that the work which they supposed could not be retarded, shall, without any difficulty, be destroyed. The meaning of the words is of this kind, I will not use many instruments, I will only blow upon them, and they, through the confusion of tongues, shall be contemptibly scattered. And as they, having collected a numerous band, were contriving how they might reach the clouds; so on the other hand, God summons his troops, by whose interposition he may ward off their fury. It is, however, asked, what troops he intends? The Jews think that he addresses himself to the angels. But since no mention is made of the angels, and God places those to whom he speaks in the same rank with himself, this exposition is harsh, and deservedly rejected. This passage rather answers to the former, which occurs in the account of man's creation, when the Lord said, "Let us make man after our image." For God aptly and wisely opposes his own eternal wisdom and power to this great multitude; as if he had said, that he had no need of foreign auxiliaries, but possessed within himself what would suffice for their destruction. Wherefore, this passage is not improperly adduced in proof that Three Persons subsist in One Essence of Deity. Moreover, this example of Divine vengeance belongs to all ages: for men are always inflamed with the desire of daring to attempt what is unlawful. And this history shows that God will ever be adverse to such counsels and designs; so that we here behold, depicted before our eyes what Solomon says: There is no counsel, nor prudence, nor strength against the Lord,' (Proverbs 21:30.) Unless the blessing of God be present, from which alone we may expect a prosperous issue, all that we attempt will necessarily perish. Since, then, God declares that he is at perpetual war with the unmeasured audacity of men; anything we undertake without his approval will end miserably, even though all creatures above and beneath should earnestly offer us their assistance. Now, although the world bears this curse to the present day; yet, in the midst of punishment, and of the most dreadful proofs of Divine anger against the pride of men, the admirable goodness of God is rendered conspicuous, because the nations hold mutual communication among themselves, though in different languages; but especially because He has proclaimed one gospel, in all languages, through the whole world, and has endued the Apostles with the gift of tongues. Whence it has come to pass, that they who before were miserably divided, have coalesced in the unity of the faith. In this sense Isaiah says, that the language of Canaan should be common to all under the reign of Christ, (Isaiah 19:18;) because, although their language may differ in sound, they all speak the same thing, while they cry, Abba, Father.


1 - Hypotyposis, in rhetoric, a figure whereby a thing is described, or painted in such vivid colouring, that it seems to stand before the eyes, and to be visible or tangible, rather than the subject of writing, or of discourse. -- Ed.

Here is announced the means by which the defiant spirit of concentration is to be defeated. From this and the previous verse we learn that the lip, and not the stock of words, is the part of language which is to be affected, and hence, perceive the propriety of distinguishing these two in the introductory statement. To confound, is to introduce several kinds, where before there was only one; and so in the present case to introduce several varieties of form, whereas language was before of one form. Hence, it appears that the one primitive tongue was made manifold by diversifying the law of structure, without interfering with the material of which it was composed. The bases or roots of words are furnished by instinctive and evanescent analogies between sounds and things, on which the etymological law then plays its part, and so vocables come into existence. Thus, from the root "fer," we get "fer, ferre, ferens, fert, ferebat, feret, ferat, ferret;" φέρε phere, φέρειν pherein, φέρων pherōn, φέει pherei, ἔφερε ephere, φέρῃ pherē, φέροι pheroi, etc.; ברה perēh, ברה pāroh, פרהo poreh, שפרה pārâh, יפרה yı̂preh, etc., according to the formative law of each language.
It is evident that some roots may become obsolete and so die out, while others, according to the exigencies of communication and the abilities of the speaker, may be called into existence in great abundance. But whatever new words come into the stock, are made to comply with the formative law which regulates the language of the speaker. This law has been fixed as the habitude of his mind, from which he only deviates on learning and imitating some of the formative processes of another tongue. In the absence of any other language, it is not conceivable that he should on any account alter this law. To do so would be to rebel against habit without reason, and to put himself out of relation with the other speakers of the only known tongue.
The sacred writer does not care to distinguish the ordinary from the extraordinary in the procedure of Divine Providence, inasmuch as he ascribes all events to the one creating, superintending, and administering power of God. Yet there is something beyond nature here. We can understand and observe the introduction of new words into the vocabulary of man as often as the necessity of designating a new object or process calls the naming faculty into exercise. But the new word, whether a root or not, if engrafted into the language, invariably obeys the formative law of the speech into which it is admitted. A nation adds new words to its vocabulary, but does not of itself, without external influence, alter the principle on which they are formed. Here, then, the divine interference was necessary, if the uniform was ever to become multiform. And accordingly this is the very point in which the historian marks the interposition of the Almighty.
Philologists have distinguished three or four great types or families of languages. The first of these was the Shemitic or Hebrew family. It is probable that most of the Shemites spoke dialects of this well-defined type of human speech. Aram (the Syrians), Arpakshad, (the Hebrews and Arabs), and Asshur (the Assyrians), certainly did so. Elam (Elymais), succumbed first to the Kushite race (Κίσσιοι Kissioi, Κοσσαῖοι Kossaioi) and afterward to the Persian, and so lost its language and its individuality among the nations. Lud (the Lydians) was also overrun by other nationalities. But this type of language was extended beyond the Shemites to the Kenaanites and perhaps some other Hamites. It includes the language of the Old Testament.
The second family of languages has been variously designated Japhetic, Indo-Germanic, Indo-European and Arian. It is spoken by the great bulk of the descendants of Japheth, and embraces a series of cognate modes of communication, extending from India to the various European colonies of America. It includes Greek, the tongue of the New Testament.
A third class, including the Kushite (Babylonian), Egyptian, and other African languages, has been termed Hamitic. Some of its stocks have affinities both with the Shemitic and Japhetic families.
It is probable that the congeries of unclassed languages (Allophylian, Sporadic, Turanian), including even the Chinese tongues, have relations more or less intimate with one or other of these three tolerably definite families. But the science of comparative philology is only approaching the solution of its final problem, the historical or natural relationship of all the languages of the world. It is evident, however, that the principle of classification is not so much the amount of roots in common, as the absence or presence of a given form. The diversity in the matter may be brought about by assignable natural causes; but the diversity in the form can only arise from a preternatural impulse. Forms may wear off; but they do not pass from one constituent law to another without foreign influence. The speech of a strong and numerous race may gradually overbear and annihilate that of a weak one; and in doing so may adopt many of its words, but by no means its form. So long as a national speech retains any of its forms, they continue to be part of that special type by which it is characterized.
Hence, we perceive that the interposition of Providence in confounding the lip of mankind, is the historical solution of the enigma of philology; the existence of diversity of language at the same time with the natural persistency of form and the historical unity of the human race. The data of philology, indicating that the form is the side of language needing to be touched in order to produce diversity, coincide also with the facts here narrated. The preternatural diversification of the form, moreover, marks the order amid variety which prevailed in this great revolution of mental habitude. It is not necessary to suppose that seventy languages were produced from one at the very crisis of this remarkable change, but only the few generic forms that sufficed to effect the divine purpose, and by their interaction to give origin to all subsequent varieties of language or dialect. Nor are we to imagine that the variant principles of formation went into practical development all at once, but only that they started a process which, in combination with other operative causes, issued in all the diversities of speech which are now exhibited in the human race.
That they may not understand one another's lip. - This is the immediate result of diversifying the formative law of human speech, even though the material elements were to remain much the same as before. Further results will soon appear.

Go to - A form of speech which, whatever it might have signified formerly, now means nothing. The Hebrew העה habah signifies come, make preparation, as it were for a journey, the execution of a purpose, etc. Almost all the versions understand the word in this way; the Septuagint have δευτε, the Vulgate venite, both signifying come, or come ye. This makes a very good sense, Come, let its go down, etc. For the meaning of these latter words see Genesis 1:26, and Genesis 18:21.

Go to, (h) let us go down, and (i) there confound their language, that they may not understand one another's speech.
(h) He speaks as though he took counsel with his own wisdom and power: that is, with the Son and holy Spirit: signifying the greatness and certainty of the punishment.
(i) By this great plague of the confusion of tongues appears God's horrible judgment against man's pride and vain glory.

Go to, let us go down, and there confound their language,.... These words are not spoken to the angels, as the Targum and Aben Ezra; for, as Philo the Jew observes (h), they are said to some as co-workers with God, which angels could not be in this work of confounding the language of men; it being above the power of creatures so to work upon the mind, and on the faculty of speech, as to make such an alteration as was at the confusion of tongues, when men were made to forget their former language, and had another put into their minds, and a faculty of speaking it given; or, however, the first language was so differently inflected and pronounced, that it seemed another, and various; all which could not be done but by him who is almighty, even that Jehovah, Father, Son, and Spirit, said Genesis 11:8 to confound man's language; and the first of these speaks to the other two, with whom he consulted about doing it, and with whom he did it. Not that every man had a new and distinct language given him, for then there could have been no society and converse in the world, but one was given to each family; or rather to as many families as constituted a nation or colony, designed for the same place of habitation; how many there were, cannot be said with any certainty. Euphorus, and many other historians (i), say they were seventy five, according to the number of Jacob's posterity that went down into Egypt; others say seventy two: the Jewish writers generally agree with the Targum of Jonathan in making them seventy, according to the number of the posterity of Noah's sons, recorded in the preceding chapter; but several of them spoke the same language, as Ashur, Arphaxad, and Aram, spoke the Chaldee or Syriac language; the sons of Canaan one and the same language; and the thirteen sons of Joktan the Arabic language; Javari and Elisha the Greek language; so that, as Bochart (k) observes, scarce thirty of the seventy will remain distinct: and it is an observation of Dr. Lightfoot (l) not to be despised, that"the fifteen named in Acts 2:5 were enough to confound the work (at Babel), and they may very well be supposed to have been the whole number.''The end to be answered it was:
that they may not understand one another's speech; or "hear" (m), that is, so as to understand; the words were so changed, and so differently pronounced from what they had used to hear, that though they heard the sound, they could not tell the meaning of them: hence, as Jarchi observes, when one asked for a brick, another brought him clay or slime, on which he rose up against him, and dashed his brains out.
(h) De Confus. Ling. p. 344. (i) Apud Clement. Alexandr. Strom. l. 1. p. 338. (k) Phaleg. l. 1. c. 15. col. 55. (l) See his Works, vol. 1. p. 694. (m) "audiant", Pagninus, Montanus, &c.

confound their language--literally, "their lip"; it was a failure in utterance, occasioning a difference in dialect which was intelligible only to those of the same tribe. Thus easily by God their purpose was defeated, and they were compelled to the dispersion they had combined to prevent. It is only from the Scriptures we learn the true origin of the different nations and languages of the world. By one miracle of tongues men were dispersed and gradually fell from true religion. By another, national barriers were broken down--that all men might be brought back to the family of God.

Go to, let us go down and there confound their language - This was not spoken to the angels, as if God needed either their advice or their assistance, but God speaks it to himself, or the Father to the Son and Holy Ghost. That they may not understand one another's speech - Nor could they well join hands when their tongues were divided: so that this was a proper means, both to take them off from their building, for if they could not understand one another, they could not help one another; and to dispose them to scatter, for when they could not understand one another, they could not enjoy one another. Accordingly three things were done, Their language was confounded. God, who when he made man taught him to speak, now made those builders to forget their former language; and to speak a new one, which yet was the same to those of the same tribe or family, but not to others: those of one colony could converse together, but not with those of another. We all suffer hereby to this day: in all the inconveniences we sustain by the diversity of languages, and all the trouble we are at to learn the languages we have occasion for, we smart for the rebellion of our ancestors at Babel; nay, and those unhappy controversies, which are strifes of words, and arise from our misunderstanding of one another's languages, for ought I know, are owing to this confusion of tongues. The project of some to frame an universal character in order to an universal language, how desirable soever it may seem, yet I think is but a vain thing for it is to strive against a divine sentence, by which the languages of the nations will be divided while the world stands. We may here lament the loss of the universal use of the Hebrew tongue, which from henceforth was the vulgar language of the Hebrews only, and continued so till the captivity in Babylon, where, even among them, it was exchanged for the Syriac. As the confounding of tongues divided the children of men, and scattered them abroad, so the gift of tongues bestowed upon the Apostles, Acts 2:4-11, contributed greatly to the gathering together of the children of God, which were scattered abroad, and the uniting of them in Christ, that with one mind and mouth they might glorify God, Romans 15:6. (The imagination of a late writer, that God did not confound their tongues, but their religious worship, is grounded on criticisms concerning the meaning of the Hebrew word, which are absolutely false. Beside, would God confound their religious worship? Surely, He is a God of order, and not of confusion. Their building was stopped, they left off to build the city - This was the effect of the confusion of their tongue's; for it not only disabled them from helping one another, but probably struck a damp upon their spirits, since they saw the hand of the Lord gone out against them. The builders were scattered abroad from thence upon the face of the whole earth - They departed in companies after their families and after their tongues, Genesis 10:5, Genesis 10:20, Genesis 10:31, to the several countries and places allotted to them in the division that had been made, which they knew before, but would not go to take possession of, 'till now they were forced to it. Observe
The very thing which they feared came upon them; that dispersion which they thought to evade. That it was God's work; the Lord scattered them; God's hand is to be acknowledged in all scattering providences; if the family be scattered, relations scattered, churches scattered, it is the Lord's doing. That they left behind them a perpetual memorandum of their reproach in the name given to the place; it was called Babel, confusion. The children of men were now finally scattered, and never will come all together again 'till the great day. when the Son of Man shall sit upon the throne of his glory, and all nations shall be gathered before him, Matthew 25:31-32.

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