Genesis 11:1-2 – The Tower of Babel – Yes, one language

 In Genesis 11:1-2 – The Tower of Babel – One Language?, I wrote the following…

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.

After using a combination of science and scripture to begin unraveling the true history of a misunderstood scripture, it is often instructive to decompose the key words of our verses using the Hebrew they were translated from. In this case, the key words I want to concentrate on are the words for language and speech.

The Hebrew word used for language in Genesis 11:1 is saphah. It is defined (in part) in Strong’s Concordance as several things.

  • Its derivation implies the idea of a termination of sorts
  • It means the “lip” of something, such as a national boundary

This is where the idea of a language comes in. The word saphah does not literally mean language, but it implies language when applied to a population of people. Apparently, context is quite important, for depending on its application, the word saphah can also mean the following: band, bank, binding, border, brim, brink, edge, shore, side, speech, talk, words. However, the key here is that something is being limited, like a page with a margin. What falls within that margin has something in common, and it precisely because they are within that margin. Furthermore, saphah is the singular form of the word. That is where the “one” comes from. Finally, the idea of a margin implies this is an area within a larger area.

The other word I want to look at from Genesis 11:1 is speech. It is translated from the Hebrew word dabar. Like saphah, it is defined by Strong’s to have several meanings, many by implication, and most having to do with activities that imply the spoken word. Dabar is derived from a similar word that is also spelled as dabar. However, while both words have the same letters in Hebrew, the pronunciation is slightly different. Dabar-2 is used figuratively to describe the arranging of words… i.e., to speak. Hence, it can refer (based on context) to a long list of activities that depend on speaking, such as: answer, appoint, bid, command, commune, declare, and so on.

In short, saphah implies reference to a “single language”, as defined by the extent of an area within a larger area; dabar implies speech by the nature of activity requiring it. Both have the implication of speech or language without literally meaning it.

Given the use of saphah, this seriously implies that a limited geographical area with a margin surrounding its extents. However, verse 1 says “whole world”. Wouldn’t that include the margins, as well as the area outside the margins, too? Well, let’s look at this more closely…

The word used in Genesis 11:1 for “world” (or “earth” in older translations) is erets. The literal translation is “earth”, but it can be a reference to either the earth “at large”, or partitively a land. So, depending on context, the meaning of erets can vary from anything as small as a field to as large as the entire world. Given saphah’s implication of limitation, and the scientific evidence for other peoples on the plains of Shinar both before and after the flood, it would seem that Genesis 11:1 is referring specifically to the Plains of Shinar. The proper translation then for Genesis 11:1 might then be something like this…

Now the whole area was confined by a margin, and the people within it had a common language for their interaction.

This does not rule out the possibility of a few minor languages here and there, but it does mean that there was some language that everyone in the area knew and used. Historically and scientifically, that would be Sumerian. And how do we know that this verse is not intending to include Noah’s clan, who were Semitic? Because of verse two…

 2 As people moved eastward, they found a plain in Shinar and settled there.

The New King James is clearer…

 2And it came to pass, as they journeyed from the east, that they found a plain in the land of Shinar; and they dwelt there.

The “they” refers to Noah’s clan. We know this because Noah’s clans were coming from the mountains of Ararat. We can know furthermore that verse 1 refers to the plains of Shinar (and not Noah’s clan) for the following reasons:

  1. The remainder of the chapter is about the confounding of languages on the plains of Shinar, so verse 1 is about Shinar
  2. The word saphah implies a border, which a wandering clan does not have, and Noah’s clans were still wandering in verse 1

It turns out that Moses’ Genesis narrative has carefully placed its statement about the language of Shinar before the migration of Noah’s clans into that same area. Therefore, verse 1 is not a statement about Noah’s clans, which one cannot see if they believe Noah’s clans are all there are.

To summarize Genesis 11:1-2… The people on the Plains of Shinar spoke Sumerian. Noah’s clans moved there.

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