Re: Did man originally speak a single language?

gordon brown (gbrown@euclid.Colorado.EDU)
Sun, 1 Nov 1998 19:21:24 -0700 (MST)

I don't think that it is at all clear that the traditional interpretation
of Genesis 11:1-9 is the correct one. The word earth (or world) in vs. 1
is the Hebrew 'erets, which is translated `land' in most of its
occurrences. Thus Gen. 11:1 might be saying that the whole country used
the same language. Also, is it clear who the `they" in vs. 2 were?
(Actually, my recollection is that the pronoun isn't there in the Hebrew.)

I think a case can be made that it is a certain branch of the descendants
of Shem that were involved. This account is immediately preceded and
immediately followed by a genealogy of the descendants of Shem. Chapter 10
contains lists of people descended from Japheth and Ham. It contains a
list of descendants of Shem as far as Joktan and Peleg, sons of Eber, and
also some descendants of Joktan. Then Chapter 11, beginning at vs. 10,
gives a genealogy from Shem to Abraham that goes through Peleg. Different
languages are already mentioned in Chapter 10: in vs. 5 "...every one
according to his language...", referring to the descendants of Japheth; in
vs. 20 "...according to their languages...", referring to the descendants
of Ham; in vs. 31 "according to their languages", referring to the
previously mentioned descendants of Shem. In 11:4 the tower builders say,
"Let us make for ourselves a name." Shem is the Hebrew word for `name'.
The verses that mention languages also mention the people dispersing to
various lands.

Now, admittedly, the genealogies of Noah's three sons are parallel, and so
prior mention does not have to mean prior occurrence, but the association
of the Babel account with the genealogy of Shem raises interesting
questions. My interest in the possibility that I have been discussing
stems from reading what Sailhamer wrote in the Expositor's Bible
Commentary concerning this passage.

One more question I would raise on this topic. We seem to read confusion
of tongues as meaning reprogramming of brains to change someone's
language. Couldn't it also mean a physical affliction causing a severe
speech impediment so as to render one's speech unintelligible?

Gordon Brown
Department of Mathematics
University of Colorado
Boulder, CO 80309-0395