Genesis 11:1-2 – The Tower of Babel – One Language?

In Genesis 11:1 – The Tower of Babel – Development of Language, we discussed the possibility that the ”one language” and one “common speech” that “the whole world spoke” in Genesis 11:1 was Sumerian. This might seem to be a problem when you consider that Semitic languages go back almost as far (3rd to 4th millennium BC), because that mean there were two languages (or more) that were being spoken at the time, not just the one. If scripture is meant literally, then something must either be wrong with the scientific methods or the scripture, right?

A Young Earth Creationist would have no problem arguing that there is something wrong with the science used to establish the use of both Sumerian and Semitic languages at the time leading up to the Tower of Babel. After all, both languages (potentially with multiple dialects) date to more than 5,000 years ago, and YECs will point out that radio carbon dating begins to lose its reliability beyond 5,000 years, and the world (in their opinion) is only 6,000 years old anyway, so no surprise about the unreliability. Therefore, any scientific conclusions dating back more than 5,000 years are summarily dismissed. However, this overlooks that scientists have figured out that these known problems with carbon dating are not due to the age of the earth, but to the changes in atmospheric carbon levels over time. It turns out that accuracy beyond 5,000 years is only problematic when radio carbon dating is considered in isolation. When used in combination with other dating methods, it was possible as long ago as 2004 to obtain a date that was reliable to within +- 163 years, which allowed dating for objects as old 26,000 years. By 2009, the dates were even more accurate, allowing scientists to reliability date items that were made as long as 50,000 years ago.

The method for achieving this accuracy has been to clean up the carbon dating by using completely unrelated dating methods to determine how atmospheric carbon has varied over the millennia. They do this by dating the item with at least 2 alternative dating methods, then testing the item for carbon content, and then measuring the error that standard radio carbon dating produces. They then feed that data back into the carbon dating formula to calibrate it to the known age (based on the other alternative dating methods, which should at least roughly agree). This produces a calibration curve that can be applied to items that can only be aged using radio carbon dating. Any remaining error is in part because atmospheric carbon varies not only by time but location. Also, you cannot calibrate to any finer accuracy than the most accurate alternative method used. Now, does this mean that every single item has been dated with the new calibration curve? Hopefully so, but probably not (or at least not yet). So, if a Young Earther wants to criticize scientists for anything related to carbon dating, I suggest they request information on the version of the calibration curve used for a given item. Should a YEC show some recently touted results that depend on an outdated calibration curve, then I daresay they would be taken seriously… and the scientific community would actually thank them. Unfortunately, this is not the tack they take… or at least I have not seen it.

My conclusion? Given such a careful and logical approach, when I read that Semitic languages and Sumerian go back to 4000BC or more, I believe it. However, that leaves me with a seeming disagreement between scripture and science that still needs to be explained.

When I encounter such incongruities, I look at the possibility that the scripture was written from a particular perspective. I usually find that it was. For example, Genesis 1:1-2 is written from the perspective of God hovering over the deep. While God would “know” of everything, His chosen perspective here is voluntarily limited to what one would see from hovering over the deep. This limitation is by choice of course, but it’s a limitation in perspective no less. Lest anyone have a problem with this, recall God’s chosen limitation to come to earth as a man (Jesus) and to experience a physical death for us. Perspective is everything. The Flood was also from a limited perspective, that of a man on an ark. What we read of the Flood in Genesis is right in line with where Noah was and what he would have seen there, and the global features of the account is consistent with Noah’s reasonable assumption that what he saw there was true for everywhere else. A perspective can be literal and true, but should one fail to consider its perspective, any conclusion about what it means could be inaccurate.

Let us turn now to the Tower.

Let us assume that science is correct, that Noah’s descendants were not the only people in the world, and that Noah’s descendants spoke some Semitic dialect (eventually giving way to Hebrew). Let us also assume that scripture is correct, but was written from the perspective of someone experiencing it, as opposed to watching it. In that case, what is the likely scenario for Noah’s people as they migrate east, likely following the Euphrates and/or the Tigris River(s) to the plains of Shinar? Well, based on archaeology and other sciences, they would have encountered city after city of people. Furthermore, the primary language spoken in these cities would have been Sumerian. There may have been a few other minor languages, but even they would have known Sumerian; it certainly wasn’t the Semitic language of Noah and his descendants. While observing the world into which they were integrating, as outsiders, their likely observations are aptly described by the first 2 verses of Genesis 11…

 1 Now the whole world had one language and a common speech. 2 As people moved eastward, they found a plain in Shinar and settled there.

Unless you have the preconceived notion that they were the only people alive at the time, verse one does not appear to reference Noah’s descendants per se, but the larger ”world” into which they were migrating. It’s like being dropped in the middle of Russia, and you speak English. “The whole world speaks Russian” you might think as you look for a place to settle. But, with the importance of settling near food and water, you probably will choose a place in close proximity to anyone already there, and they would likely have “one language and a common speech.” If you think they constitute everyone in the world besides yourself, then verses 1 and 2 just might be written as they were.


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