Genesis 11:1-9: One Language Before Babel?

Genesis 11:1-9 is the record of the departure from one language and common speech to a plurality of tongues in the human race. This event took place at the tower of Babel, where mortals had decided that they would "make a name for [them]selves [lest they be] scattered over the face of the whole earth" (Gen 11:4). A recently discovered Sumerian tablet also tells for the first time from an extrabiblical perspective the story of a time when all languages were one on the earth.

The problem therefore is this: why does Genesis 10:5, 20, 31 describe each of the descendants of Noah's three sons as having differing languages when this was not supposed to have happened until the next chapter? Isn't this a mistake (called by scholars an anachronism) on the part of the writer of Scripture, in that it is a misplacement in time and space?

The Bible does not represent itself as always desiring to present its material in a strictly chronological sequence. Often it prefers to present it in a topical sequence. For example, the three temptations of Jesus in the Gospels are found in three different arrangements because the aim of the author was to present them so as to make the preaching and teaching point of theology that each had in mind. Likewise, the writer of Genesis jumps ahead of himself for the moment to describe what happened to the descendants of Noah's three sons, even though it outdistanced the story that he would resume in chapter 11. This technique is typical of the writer of Genesis.

There is another clue in the text itself that demonstrates that this is so. In Genesis 10:25 it mentions "one [who] was named Peleg, because in his time the earth was divided." Here is a clear allusion to the confusion of languages at the tower of Babel that will be described in the next chapter (Gen 11: 8-9). Since Peleg in Hebrew means "to divide" or "to split," it is more than likely that he received his name in memory of this event.

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Samuel Noah Kramer, "The Babel of Tongues: A Sumerian Version," Journal of the American Oriental Society 88 (1968): 108-111. See also Nahum M. Sarna, Understanding Genesis (New York: McGraw Hill, 1966), pp. 63-80.