Does Genesis contradict itself regarding when human languages divided?

by Luke Wayne

No, there is no contradiction in Genesis regarding the origin of human languages. Genesis 11 records the famous story of the "tower of Babel," when God first divided human language by an instant, supernatural act. Critics, however, claim that this presents a contradiction because (so they say) different languages already exist in Genesis 10, before the episode at Babel. This accusation, however, is based on a simple misreading of the chronological relationship between the genealogies of Genesis 10 and the continued historical narrative in Genesis 11. There is, in fact, no conflict at all.

The Argument

The story of Babel in Genesis 11 begins:

"Now the whole earth used the same language and the same words," (Genesis 11:1).

The apparent difficulty stems from the fact that differing languages have already been mentioned in the genealogies of Noah's sons given in the previous chapter:

"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," (Genesis 10:5).

"These are the sons of Ham, according to their families, according to their languages, by their lands, by their nations," (Genesis 10:20).

"These are the sons of Shem, according to their families, according to their languages, by their lands, according to their nations," (Genesis 10:31).

The critics' argument assumes that if divisions by language have already been mentioned in the genealogies in Chapter 10, then languages must have existed before the events described in chapter 11. As we will see, there are several reasons that this is not so.

Forward-Looking Genealogies and Narrative Chronology

Genealogies in Genesis sometimes serve to chronologically bridge one event to another. For example, the genealogy in Genesis five takes us year by year from the events of Adam and his immediate household to the time of Noah and the flood in Genesis 6-9. But not all genealogies work this way. Genesis 4:17-26 gives descendants of Cain and his children extending out several generations, but we should not assume that all of these generations were born before Adam and Eve give birth to Seth in Genesis 5:3. In other words, Genesis 4 looks forward several generations to say something about the line of Cain before jumping back to Adam again in Genesis five to continue forward once more in the line of one of Adam's other sons, the line which will carry forward the rest of the story.

A similar device is used in Genesis 36:9-43, which gives a genealogy of the descendants of Esau. This section again details multiple generations and includes even successive reigns of Edomite kings. This genealogy clearly extends well out into the future, but then immediately afterward, in 37:1, we pick back up with Esau's brother Jacob and his sons. We need not assume that all these generations and kings of Edom rose and fell in the brief time between Jacob's doings in Genesis 35 and his actions in Genesis 37. The genealogy in Genesis 36 is pausing to look forward and establish something about Esau and the eventual nation of Edom that arises from his descendants. After the genealogical look out into the future, we jump back and continue with our narrative about where we left off.

Something very much like this is also what is happening in Genesis 10-11. Genesis 10 stops to show how all the nations and peoples of the world would arise from the descendants of Noah's three sons. The original readers already knew that their world as they saw it around them was divided among the diverse people of various nations, tribes, and language groups. Genesis 10 looks forward and shows the lineage that leads to these various people groups, while Genesis 11 jumps back and offers a historical account of why they divided and where the different languages actually came from. Thus, there is no conflict here.

"Language, Family, and Nation" as a General Figure of Speech

It is also worth noting that collections of terms like "language, family, and nation", "language, land, and nation", "nation, tribe, and language", etc. were general figures of speech. The triad of words were meant to be taken together as a term for people in all their various division, not atomized separately. The genealogies in Genesis five are not meant to individually convey how people divided by languages, on the one hand, and distinctly and separately show how they divided by nations or lands on the other hand. Putting words together collectively was simply an expression which, taken together as a single phrase, was meant to describe the subdivided humanity of a particular line, region, or even on the whole of the earth, as the case may be.

We see this same kind of expression used elsewhere in Scripture. In Daniel, "peoples, nations, and language" is frequently used as a figure of speech for all people in the whole kingdom or empire. (Daniel 3:4,7,9, 4:1, 5:19, 6:25, 7:14). Similarly, the Book of Revelation likewise uses "peoples, tribes, and tongues" together to encompass all of humanity. (Revelation 5:9, 7:9, 10:11, 11:9, 13:7. 14:6) and once "peoples and multitudes and nations and tongues," (Revelation 17:15). Isaiah uses an abbreviated form of the same expression:

"For I know their works and their thoughts; the time is coming to gather all nations and tongues. And they shall come and see My glory," (Isaiah 66:18).

Thus, when we see the word "language" occur in Genesis 10, we need not single it out and assume the author to mean that every generation described was already divided by languages. The author obviously did not mean for us to picture Ham or Shem isolating all their children and teaching each of their sons a different language so that, right from the start, their sons were already divided into different languages. The terminology here is simply meant to convey that, over the course of generations, these lines were eventually divided into various tribes and cultures living in different places. These divisions certainly included language groups, but the chapter makes no comment as to when or how divided languages came to be. Chapter 11 alone gives a precise account of this, and the data given in Chapter 10 does not contradict it. Chapter 10 begins with one family (that obviously speaks a common language) and goes on to show that, generations later, the descendants of that one family have given rise to all the nations of men. Chapter 11 gives us more historical information on how and why humanity divided as it did. Both chapters are, in fact, in perfect harmony.