A Question I Was Asked:

Is There a Contradiction Between Genesis 10 and Genesis 11:1. Were There Already Many Languages before Babel?

Is there a contradiction between Genesis 10 and Genesis 11:1. Were there already many languages before Babel? Can you look into this because I have been challenged on it by a Bible sceptic?

UK Apologetics Reply:

Okay let us look at this:

From these the maritime peoples spread out into their territories by their clans within their nations, each with its own language. (Genesis 10:5).

These are the sons of Ham by their clans and languages, in their territories and nations. (Verse 20).

These are the sons of Shem by their clans and languages, in their territories and nations. (Verse 31).

So - for sure - this suggests the existence of several languages already in existence, yet in Genesis 11:1, just one chapter later, we read the following:

Now the whole world had one language and a common speech. (Genesis 11:1).

The term "whole world" seems pretty conclusive, so how can this be explained to a Bible sceptic? Was the Tower of Babel really the point where language became confused or had it already happened?

The Explanation...

The explanation here is not difficult. The events which are noted for us by Moses in Genesis 10 and 11 were not written in a chronological order. Genesis 10 is a broad sweep of things, with a particular focus on 'the table of nations,' and can really be viewed as an 'insert chapter.' Genesis 11, however, is once again, a historical narrative - just as chapter 9 had been, so the thread continues from there.

In Genesis 11 the focus changes completely from chapter 10, we are now back to an events narrative. So there is little question that certain things recorded in chapter 10 occurred after the tower of Babel - not before it. In this chapter, Moses - effectively - temporarily stands back from his earlier narrative, in a reference to how things stood at a much later time. The simple fact is, Bible writers did not always record information in a strict chronological sequence and one can find several examples of this.

Genesis 11:1, then, refers to an earlier time than how things stood in the insert chapter of 'the table of nations' which one finds in Genesis 10. After this, however, Genesis 12 goes straight back into historical narrative with the story of Abraham, so it continues as historical narrative. Neverthless, it is hard to figure exactly when Abraham was called because of the lack of chronological form. We simply need to understand and accept that placing events in strict chronological order and sequence was not considered that important to early Hebrew writers. Having said that, it is plain that Moses changes his approach in chapter 10 to go into an inset chapter which has a broad sweep, and is not historical narrative, but we see in this how desperately hard it can be to date some of these events precisely.

So the events of the Tower of Babel recorded in chapter 11 certainly occurred before the descendants of Noah began speaking different languages and spreading out throughout the Earth, as described in chapter 10. Indeed, in Genesis 10:25, the text actually mentions a man named Peleg (apparently meaning 'division') who received such a name because "in his days the earth was divided." So this would seem to be a clear reference to the confusion of languages at the tower of Babel described in chapter 11. This confirms that Babel had already occurred because the earth did not become divided until God confused the languages (11:7-8).

Robin A. Brace. December 18th, 2015.