My highly expressive youngest child occasionally still hears her early nickname “Boom Box.” What insight does this suggest about the original language at the Tower of Babel? Read on to find out.
An astounding event at the Tower of Babel over 4,000 years ago made language translation necessary today.
The History Book of the Universe records a remarkable series of events. Noah’s family disembarked from the Ark after the Great Flood (Genesis 6:1-9:19) around 2500 BC. God clearly instructed Noah and his sons to “Be fruitful and multiply, and fill the earth.” (Genesis 9:1,7)
Did Noah’s descendants listen to God? No, the clan settled on the plain of Shinar. They made no attempt to spread out and fill the earth. On the contrary, they stuck together to build a Tower, defying God’s order to re-populate the earth. Yahweh therefore confused the language of the Tower builders to force them to scatter across the face of the earth (Genesis 11:1-9).
Origin of Languages
The origin of language lies with the Creator. Yahweh created Adam with language in the beginning. Adam heard and understood God’s words to him about the Tree of Life and the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil. Adam named the animals on the day he was created. He named and spoke to Eve on the day the two of them were created.
The naming task alone demonstrates astonishing proficiency in verbal skills. Adam named all the cattle, and the birds of the sky, and every beast of the field (Genesis 2:19-20). Selecting hundreds or even thousands of names for this portion of the Creator’s original menagerie is an impressive feat of language.
At the time of the Tower of Babel, after the Flood, the whole world spoke the same language (Genesis 11:1,6). Why did the whole world speak a single common language at this time? Why hadn’t other languages developed from the original language Adam spoke?
Perhaps other languages had developed. But if they had emerged in the pre-Flood world, the Flood certainly wiped them all out. Only Noah’s language was left.
From Creation to the Flood was 1,656 years. Several factors might have inhibited development of different languages in that period. The patriarchs’ exceedingly long lifespans, along with the limited number of only 10 generations from Adam to Noah, would promote language stability.
Only 126 years passed between Adam’s death and Noah’s birth. Adam lived for 930 years and overlapped 243 years with Noah’s grandfather Methuselah, who died the year of the Flood. Noah overlapped Methuselah by 600 years. These long overlapping lifespans and few generations contributed to the constancy of language and profoundly diminished the opportunity for language changes.
At the Tower of Babel after the Flood, Yahweh supernaturally confused the common language. He created distinctive new vocabularies, syntaxes, and grammars. Yahweh altered people’s brains, nerves, and speech mechanisms to immediately function with new languages!
What was the common language at Babel?
1. Names Indicate Hebrew
What was Noah’s original language used by “the whole earth” before Yahweh scrambled tongues at Babel? We are not told, and that language may no longer exist. However, there is a strong possibility that the original language was Hebrew or a closely related language. I think Biblical Hebrew is likely the closest language to what Noah spoke.
One reason for concluding the original language was Hebrew is that the names of people given in Genesis 1-10 before the dispersion from Babel have specific Hebrew meanings. The names in Genesis 1-10 are likely the original names in the original human language. It’s unlikely that they would all have meanings in Hebrew or related Semitic languages if they were not native Hebrew words.
For example, Heth, the father of the Hittites, is listed as one of Ham’s descendants in Genesis 10:15. Heth means terrible in Semitic languages, but has no known meaning in Hittite. This suggests he was named (before Babel) when Hebrew or a closely related Semitic language was the world’s common language.
Similarly, Noah means rest. Methuselah means when he dies, it will come (presumably the Flood). Enoch means teacher.
This is similar to a man called “Slugger” or a woman who goes by “Bubbles” (yes, we know one). When my highly expressive youngest child visits the dentist, they still use her early nickname “Boom Box.” Names from one language lose significance if used within another language for which they are merely pleasant syllables. Thus it’s extremely unlikely for all the Genesis names to have Hebrew meanings if they did not originate in Hebrew.
2. Written Records Indicate Hebrew
A second reason for thinking the original language was Hebrew is the records behind Genesis. Moses was the author of the first five books of the Bible. Moses personally wrote most of Exodus through Deuteronomy himself, but for the book of Genesis he was probably a compiler and editor. I believe he used written records handed down from Adam, Noah, Shem, Ham, Japheth, Terah (Abraham’s father), Ishmael, Isaac, Esau, and Jacob. Moses put them together. He was likely the editor, under divine inspiration, to give us what we know as Genesis.
Here are “credits” Moses gave in Genesis for written records he used to compile his historical account:
Genesis 5:1 This is the book of the generations of Adam.
Genesis 6:9 These are the records of the generations of Noah.
Genesis 10:1 Now these are the records of the generations of Shem, Ham, and Japheth.
Genesis 11:10 These are the records of the generations of Shem.
(Similarly see Genesis 11:27; 25:12; 25:19; 36:1,9; 37:2 for “credits” for records from Terah, Ishmael, Isaac, Esau, and Jacob.)
So for example, Genesis 1:1-5:1 comes from Adam’s records that were handed down father-to-son and which Noah took with him on the Ark. Noah handed them down to his son Shem, who passed them on all the way to Jacob. Jacob’s records and those of his forebears were surely passed on to Moses (several generations after Jacob).
The relatively brief span of 126 years from Adam’s death to Noah’s birth makes the authenticity of the historical record even more likely. Methuselah was probably the personal custodian of the records between Adam (whom he overlapped by 243 years) and Noah (whom he overlapped by 600 years).
Moses took the bones of Joseph with him when he led the Israelites out of Egypt (Exodus 13:19), because Joseph had specified that his bones be taken back to the Promised Land when the Israelites returned (Genesis 50:24-25). If the bones of Joseph were preserved for Moses to take with him at the Exodus, it’s reasonable to think that the Israelites would also have preserved Jacob’s records and that Moses would have had access to them.
The records of Adam and Noah and likely those of Shem, Ham, and Japheth would have been in the original language since there was no other language available — “the whole earth used the same language and the same words” (Genesis 11:1). Since Moses understood them and compiled them into Genesis, it’s reasonable to think that those records were in Hebrew or a closely related language that Moses understood.
God gave Adam the gift of language. Everyone likely used the same language throughout the world for almost 1,800 years until the Tower of Babel. About a century after the Flood (see Tower of Babel – When?), God scrambled the original language and created many new ones. In the succeeding millennia, some of these languages died out, some morphed into others, and some spawned new languages.
The Tower of Babel was a mammoth edifice. It was the site of a pivotal event of world history. Its consequences cascade down through the centuries to our own day. Have you ever struggled to learn another language, or to understand someone with a heavy foreign accent? Have you ever felt confused or bewildered in a place with an unfamiliar language? You can credit your rebellious ancestors at the Tower of Babel for causing your troubles.
Soli Deo Gloria.
This is the fifth post in the Tower of Babel series.
Read the prequels:
1. Tower of Babel & Language Translation
2. Tower of Babel – Where?
3. Tower of Babel – What Did It Look Like?
4. Tower of Babel – When?
Subsequent posts will suggest answers to intriguing questions about the Tower of Babel:
How many languages did Yahweh create at Babel?
How is Babel a major problem for evolutionists?
Read the sequel:
6. Tower of Babel – How Many Languages?
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©William T. Pelletier, Ph.D.
“contending earnestly for the faith”
“destroying speculations against the knowledge of God”
(Jude 1:3; 2 Cor 10:4)
Wednesday April 17, 2013 A.D.
Now the whole earth used the same language and the same words. And it came about as they journeyed east, that they found a plain in the land of Shinar and settled there. And they said to one another, “Come, let us make bricks and burn them thoroughly.” And they used brick for stone, and they used tar for mortar. And they said, “Come, let us build for ourselves a city, and a tower whose top will reach into heaven, and let us make for ourselves a name; lest we be scattered abroad over the face of the whole earth.” And the LORD came down to see the city and the tower which the sons of men had built. And the LORD said, “Behold, they are one people, and they all have the same language. And this is what they began to do, and now nothing which they purpose to do will be impossible for them. “Come, let Us go down and there confuse their language, that they may not understand one another’s speech.” So the LORD scattered them abroad from there over the face of the whole earth; and they stopped building the city. Therefore its name was called Babel, because there the LORD confused the language of the whole earth; and from there the LORD scattered them abroad over the face of the whole earth. (Genesis 11:1-9)