YES! I also believe that the tower was likely built in ziggurat (I will trust you on how to spell that ) form…Do you believe in a literal confusing of languages? If not, what do you believe to be the origin of all of the languages in the world?
We’re told in Genesis 10 that other languages already existed. We’re told in Genesis 11 that the Tower of Babel event only affected a local area and involved the confusion of language, not the creation of new languages.
@J.E.S in Genesis, it says nothing about the origin of all languages. It says their language was confused, not that multiple new languages arise. The story is not about new languages being formed, but about the language they had becoming confused. No mention in Genesis or elsewhere sa to this being the place where all languages arise.
We have actually observed first hand the origin of new languages, both real and fake.
So we know that languages can arise in many ways, we have observed it. So I think we can be sure that languages everywhere did not need some sort of supernatural assistance to form, nor does Scripture make this claim.
(Why does this forum require posts to be at least 20 characters?!)
Wow, you’re right, it doesn’t actually say that new languages formed (or even that this was a permanent confusion) – and yet that’s how I’ve heard it taught my entire life. Crazy how much can get read into scripture that simply isn’t there.
Yet it is taught as if it is the plain reading of the passage. When it is not even in the passage.
That is why…
I really believe there is no contradiction between the findings of mainstream science and God’s Word (Scripture). There is, however, intractable contradictions between mainstream science and man’s interpretation of God’s Word. We are, however, only bound to God’s Word, not man’s word.
The real clincher for me is the problem of death before the fall…At least, to the extent that evolution would require. I do not believe there is a way to read that into-or out of-the Bible…
Is there something wrong with my NIV translation of Genesis 11?
"Now the whole world had one language and a common speech. As people moved eastward, they found a plain in Shinar and settled there…
"But the Lord came down to see the city and the tower the people were building. The Lord said, “If as one people speaking the same language they have begun to do this, then nothing they plan to do will be impossible for them. Come, let us go down and confuse their language so they will not understand each other.
“So the Lord scattered them from there over all the earth, and they stopped building the city. That is why it was called Babel—because there the Lord confused the language of the whole world. From there the Lord scattered them over the face of the whole earth.”
The passage does seem to say that before the Tower of Babel was built, the whole world spoke a common language. It also says that the confusion in language that occurred at the Tower of Babel affected the whole world. Admittedly it doesn’t say anything about new languages as such. However, as it stands, the account cannot be taken as historical, since the tower could not have been built before 3,000 B.C. or so, and the world’s languages are far older than that. I would suggest that Genesis 11 is better read as a counter-myth, intended to counteract pagan accounts of the origin of languages, just as Genesis 1 was written to counteract Babylonian creation myths by depicting creation as the work of God, not gods. The historical details don’t matter so much.
By the way, Perreault and Matthew (2012) have an interesting article in PLoSOne on when human language most likely originated (somewhere around 150,000 to 350,000 years ago, although a recent bottleneck would push these dates back):
I wonder if the word “world” here is similar to its usage in describing the flood – does it really mean the entire globe, or simply a large region of people?
It sounds like this is a population that’s still small enough to move and work as one, which would be impossible for an entire globe’s worth of people even if they did speak the same language. Either way, when their language was confused and they were scattered, then it makes sense that that would give rise to new dialects since they were no longer communicating with other groups – but yes, I can see now how it doesn’t make sense to view this as the birth of every single language on the globe.
This is a standard ANE literary convention for a specific area. For example, the Sumerians used the term “the whole universe” to refer to the kingdom of Sumer. Here’s an example from “Enmerkar and the Lord of Aratta”, which very likely served as a literary model for the Tower of Babel (not in terms of borrowed content, but structure and literary forms).
In those days, the lands of Subur (and) Hamazi,
Harmony-tongued Sumer, the great land of the decrees of princeship,
Uri, the land having all that is appropriate,
The land Martu, resting in security,
The whole universe, the people in unison
To Enlil in one tongue [spoke].
Note the way this section starts in a way very similar to Genesis 11.
Hi Elle and Jonathan,
You make a valid point when you suggest that “the world” may have meant the local region. That makes more sense.
I wrote something about this yesterday…But I forgot to post…!
Another interesting discussion may be: What is your interpretation of this verse? AiG leans toward a more figurative one (God forced everybody to move somewhere else), but I have occasionally considered a literal interpretation…This would help explain some legends from different cultures around the world that say the people (or their ancestors) were functionally “dropped” into the land where they lived…
As for the world, earth etc., perhaps the “world” is talking about the entire population of humans, and the “earth” is the geographic world.
Thoughts? (This is becoming the traditional ending of posts ).
Honestly, I’m not sure what to make of the verse you mentioned. I hadn’t heard about legends of people being dropped into the land where they lived before, so I’ll have to check them out. But if such a drop happened and had anything to do with the origin of the world’s languages, then it must have taken place a very long time ago indeed: over 100,000 years ago. (Were people building towers then? Not that I’m aware of.)
I think that interpretation makes sense in light of how some interpret the Genesis flood (such as RTB, I believe) – that it was not global in scope, it was regional, but it was still universal in the sense that it wiped out all humans (except those on the ark).
I hoped someone would mention “Enmerkar and the Lord of Arrata”. Archaeologist David Rohl makes an convincing case that Enmerkar is none other than Nimrod from Genesis 10.
It is spread out over several chapters in a book of mine, but basically the scattering after Babel referenced in Genesis is describing an event from the very beginning of the historical record- the sudden end of the Uruk expansion around 3100 B.C.
Has anyone looked into the word used for language here?
It is not the standard one used of languages in the Hebrew scriptures.
The word used for language throughout Genesis 11 is שָׂפָה (“lip”) not the usual לָשׁוֹן (“tongue”). From what I can tell — do a concordance search yourself and see! — שָׂפָה typically refers metaphorically to speech (i.e., the content or moral quality of what is said), not to the cultural-linguistic idiom (e.g., Hebrew vs. Akkadian, etc.). I’m having a hard time pinning down a single context where שָׂפָה unequivocally refers to the language. (Even in Is. 19:18, a possible counterexample, it could easily refer to cultic, rather than linguistic, differences.)
Compare this with Genesis 10:5, 20, and 31, which uses לָשׁוֹן: “From these the coastlands of the nations were separated into their lands, every one according to his LANGUAGE, according to their families, into their nations” (v.5), and sim. in the other two verses. Unlike Genesis 11, this seems to function unequivocally as an etiology of linguistic diversity.
To me, it seems that languages (לָשׁוֹן) were diversified in Genesis 10, and Genesis 11 has Babel imposing a single religious/cultic idiom (שָׂפָה) on all this diversity.
I originally posted this as a comment on RJS’s post on Babel on Jesus Creed back in 2014, but got little discussion at the time. Here’s the link, which describes J. Richard Middleton’s perspective on Babel:
Fantastic catch which I intend to give more thought to when I can. I do think that Genesis 11 came before 10 in time. That is to say, 10 tells where they went after the scattering, and 11 tells how they got scattered.
You wrote of the account of the tower of Babel not really saying something which is widely thought to be in the text. There is a lot of what I call “theology which is not in the Bible” in regard to early Genesis. For example, did the flood account kill everyone on earth except the family of Noah? If you say “yes” then you read the account of Babel one way, if you say “no” you read it another. In the latter case what jumps out at you in the text of the Babel account is that it reads like there are already other people there when the clan of Noah comes down out of the hills and finds the plain in Shinar…
I don’t even buy the idea that evolution is responsible for all of the animal life forms in the earth’s history as most do around here, including our host. But if by “death before the fall” you mean physical death, of the kind evolution would require, there really is another way to look at those passages. For example there is a passage in Gen. 1 which is used to support the no-death-before-the fall argument and when you look at the text closely that falls apart too…
Only just seen this, @AMWolfe. Middleton’s interpretation has a lot of merit, I think. Exactly what the original setting is is hard to say, but a number of commentators point out the non-linguistic character of the vocabulary used in the Babel account. Unity of purpose more than unity of language seems to be involved.
What does seem to make the passage a judgement on Mesopotamian state power, yet somehow also tied up with redemptive history, is the is the parallel between the early chapters of Genesis, and the experience of Israel up to the Exile, which has been noted by so many recent scholars. Both accounts involve a call into relationship with God, a rebellion and deterioration of both religion and morals, and an exile that ends up in Babel/Babylon. Both involves “men of strange tongues” (Isa 28.11).
However we account for the origin of Genesis, as N T Wright points out, no Israelite in Exile could possibly have read it without seeing his own situation in Adam’s children’s.
I’ve long been suspicious of the common interpretation of Acts 2 (tongues at Pentecost) as the reversal of what happened at Babel, and the reuniting of mankind in Christ, because it’s always seemed to me that the audience were all dispora Jews, and that Pentecost is therefore better seen as a final reversal of the Exile.
Yet the insight that there is strong parallism between the story of Adam and his line, Israel and its history, and Christ recapitulating and remedying both in the gospel means that our exegetical work ought to be to link all three. My instinct is that there is an understanding that resolves them, but I don’t yet see it clearly.
Incidentally, have done a recent piece on this threefold parallelism, so it’s a fresh theme in my mind.