Larry Hunt's Bible Commentary


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Genesis 11

Chapter 11


v. 2:  The writer might have meant to say that all the children of Noah were traveling in a group, that none had gone off on his own yet, or he might have meant that some of them migrated eastward, leaving others behind.  If the latter is true, their fear of becoming scattered throughout the lands (v.4) might be a little more understandable: they would have been worried that some would scatter from them as they scattered from the original group.  I suppose one of the sons of Shem or Japeth led them to Shinar.


v. 4:  The sin of these original Babylonians seems to have been pride.  They wanted to build a tower to heaven in order to make a name for themselves.  See also notes on Nimrod in 10:10.


v. 7:  I do not believe that every single person was unintelligible to every other person after this confusion of tongues; if that had been the case, even the smallest household would have been unable to function.  Therefore, I suspect that the Confusion only divided family groups from family groups.  This would encourage families to leave the city and settle other lands.

        Notice, too, that the text does not say that God gave these people different languages.  It says that he confused them so that they did not understand each other.  I imagine, therefore, that even though the people were speaking the same language to each other, God supernaturally prevented them from making sense of what they heard.[1]  (A perfect illustration of this process in reverse is recorded in Acts 2:5-13.)  If this is what happened, then the people would all be speaking the same language when they scattered across the earth, and, consequently, the daughter languages that developed later from this single language would resemble each other.  The idea that all modern languages descended from a single mother tongue is called monogenesis by its proponents and is a very respectable theory among modern philologists, and their reasons for believing in this theory are entirely unconcerned with any attempt to justify the historicity of the story of the tower of Babel.[2] 

        I have been speaking of the story as if it recorded historical fact.[3]  I may be wrong to do so, of course, but there is only one difficulty that I can see in harmonizing it (as history) with what we think we know from science about human history, and that is the problem of dating.  John H. Walton dates the setting of the story to the fourth millennium B.C. based on the kiln-fired brick technology used in making the tower (372), but it seems that humans had scattered over the earth long before this.  The cave paintings in Lascaux, for instance, are from around 15,000 B.C., and those in the recently discovered Chauvet cave are from around 28,000 B.C.  The migration of humanity, therefore, and the subsequent divergence of languages must have happened at a far earlier date than the fourth millennium B.C.  Nevertheless, I do have a theory for harmonizing the story with these very ancient dates.  Perhaps the story as we have it took shape in Mesopotamia in the fourth millennium B.C. and was passed down to the Hebrews (under divine guidance).  This fourth millennium B.C. version could have recorded a story that was far more ancient than the fourth millennium B.C. while superimposing cultural elements familiar to Mesopotamians of the fourth millennium B.C. (ziggurats, kiln-fired bricks, etc.).  This type of anachronism appears frequently in stories.  Malory, for instance, tells the story of fifth century Britain in his Le Morte Darthur, but he dresses his warriors in the fifteenth century armor with which he was familiar.  Thus, the fourth millennium version of the story could preserve the tale of a historical event that was set in Mesopotamia tens of thousands of years ago.  There is just no knowing.  According to Walton, archeology “cannot inform us of its [Babylon’s] history prior to the second millennium because the shifting channel of the Euphrates has obliterated the strata” (378).   

        What language did Noah’s children speak before this confusion of language?  Languages naturally divide over time when people live apart from each other, and it is reasonable to believe that the descendants of Cain did not often mix with the descendants of Seth.  It is possible, therefore, that there were at least two distinct dialects at the time of the flood.  If these two dialects were not mutually intelligible, they would have represented the first naturally evolved human languages.  Of these two, however, only the Sethic language would have survived the flood with Noah and his children.  

     That Adamic (the language first spoken by humanity) evolved from its initial state is deducible from the fact that Adam added to it when he made up names for the animals.  I also believe it changed significantly as a result of the fall from grace.  How could acquiring knowledge of good and evil not have affected it drastically in the long run? A language evolves to describe the circumstances of its speakers.  I’m told that Eskimos have many words for snow because they deal with it in many forms.  Adamic, then, must have evolved to accommodate new experiences such as regret, shame, loneliness, evil, death (and redemption?), but I suspect that the language lost something profound eventually.  For instance, being cut off in some degree from God (and completely from The Tree of Life), how could our understanding of the nature of love, life, and all of creation not have suffered?  And where our understanding of the nature of a thing suffers, the names by which we designate that thing become less accurate.[4] As an example of the principle, let us say that I see a cute, furry-looking thing walking toward me, and I name it “Cutefurrylookingthing.”  This name has the connotation of harmlessness, but the name is relatively inaccurate if, in fact, the thing is a poison-fanged predator that is stalking me.



[1] My friend Ken Hammes was the first to suggest this idea to me.

[2] See, for instance, Merritt Ruhlen’s The Origin of Language: Tracing the Evolution of the Mother Tongue.

[3] See also notes on 7:1.

[4] For more on this theme and on Adamic in general, see notes on 2:19.

[5] I would be curious to know how other ancient people referred to Babylon.  Did they transliterate the Babylonian word, did they translate the Babylonian word, or did they have their own name for the land.  If the latter is true, I wonder what that word would translate as.  If it translates as “confusion” then the association of the event of the confusion of languages with the city itself was not confined to the Hebrews.


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