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Tongues, Confusion of

Tongues, Confusion of [EBD]

at Babel, the cause of the early separation of mankind and their division into nations. The descendants of Noah built a tower to prevent their dispersion; but God "confounded their language" (Gen. 11:1-8), and they were scattered over the whole earth. Till this time "the whole earth was of one language and of one speech." (See SHINAR.)


The unity of the human race is most clearly implied, if not positively asserted, in the Mosaic writings. Unity of language is assumed by the sacred historian apparently as a corollary of the unity of race. (This statement is confirmed by philologists.) No explanation is given of the origin of speech, but its exercise is evidently regarded as coeval with the creation of man. The original unity of speech was restored in Noah. Disturbing causes were, however, early at work to dissolve this twofold union of community and speech. The human family endeavored b check the tendency to separation by the establishment of a great central edifice and a city which should serve as the metropolis of the whole world. The project was defeated by the interposition of Jehovah, who determined to "confound their language, so that they might not understand one another?s speech." Contemporaneously with, and perhaps as the result of, this confusion of tongues, the people were scattered abroad from thence upon the face of all the earth, and the memory of the great event was preserved in the name Babel. [BABEL. TOWER OF] Inscription of Nebuchadnezzar . --In the Borsippa inscription of Nebuchadnezzar there is an allusion to the confusion of tongues. "We say for the other, that is, this edifice, the house of the Seven Lights of the Earth, the most ancient monument of Borsippa, a former king built it [they reckon forty-two ages], but he did not complete its head. Since a remote time people had abandoned it, without order expressing their words . Since that time the earthquake and the thunder had dispersed its sun-dried clay; the bricks of the casing had been split, and the earth of the interior had been scattered in heaps." It is unnecessary to assume that the judgment inflicted on the builders of Babel amounted to a loss, or even a suspension of articulate speech. The desired object would be equally attained by a miraculous forestallment of those dialectical differences of language which are constantly in process of production. The elements of the one original language may have remained, but so disguised by variations of pronunciation and by the introduction of new combinations as to be practically obliterated. The confusion of tongues and the dispersion of nations are spoken of in the Bible as contemporaneous events. The divergence of the various families into distinct tribes and nations ran parallel with the divergence of speech into dialects and languages, and thus the tenth chapter of Genesis is posterior in historical sequence to the events recorded in the eleventh chapter.



1. The Narrative:

According to Gen 11:1-9, at some time not very long after the Flood, "the whole earth was of one language and of one speech. And it came to pass, as they journeyed east" (the "they" is left vague) that they settled in the land of Shinar (Babylonia). There they undertook to build "a city, and a tower, whose top may reach unto heaven," using the Bah burned brick and "slime" as building materials. The motive was to "make us a name; lest we be scattered abroad upon the face of the whole earth." This seems to mean that the buildings would give them a reputation for impregnability that would secure them against devastating invasions. "And Yahweh came down to see." And He said, "Nothing will be withholden from them, which they purpose to do. Come, let us go down, and there confound their language." The persons spoken to are not named (compare Gen 1:26; 3:22), nor is it explained how Yahweh, who in Gen 11:5 was on earth, is now in heaven. "So Yahweh scattered them abroad from thence," and the name of the city was "called Babel (babhel); because Yahweh did there confound (balal) the language of all the earth: and from thence did Yahweh scatter them abroad upon the face of all the earth."

The purpose of this narrative is the explanation of the diversity of human languages. They originated through an act of Yahweh, in order to destroy the presumptuous designs of the first builders of Babylon.

2. Context:

The section admittedly belongs to J and it has no connection with the matter (mostly P) in Gen 10. For Genesis 10 explains the origin of the nations "every one after his tongue, after their families" (10:5,20,31) as due to the orderly migration and gradual spreading of the sons and descendants of Noah, and names Nimrod (10:10) as the sole founder of Babylon. Nor does 11:1-9 logically continue the J matter in Genesis 9, as too many persons are involved for the time immediately following the Flood. Still, it is quite possible that some J matter was dropped when the J and P sources were united at this point. Another possibility is to see in Gen 11:1-9 the continuation of Gen 4:16-24, which it carries on smoothly, with the same distrust of human culture. The murderer Cain went to the East of Eden (4:16), and his descendants brought in the knowledge of the various arts (4:20-22). These descendants journeyed still farther to the East (11:2), attempted to use their skill in building the tower and were punished by the balal catastrophe. No account of the Deluge could have followed, for all the diversities of languages would have been wiped away by that event.

This assumption of a special, early source within J probably best explains the facts. It is indicated by the very primitive, naive theology, which is much less developed than that of J as a whole. And the obscure relation of Gen 11:1-9 to the Flood narrative is accounted for, for two narratives were combined here, one of which contained an account of the Deluge, while the other did not.

3. Homogeneity:

By using the repeated "going down" of verses 5,7 as a clue, the section can be resolved fairly easily into two narratives, e.g. (1) The men build a tower, "whose top may reach unto heaven," in order to make a name for themselves as marvelous builders. Yahweh, seeing the work beginning and "lest nothing be withholden from them," etc., goes down and confounds their language. (2) The men build a city, as a defensive measure, "lest we be scattered abroad on the face of the whole earth." Yahweh goes down to see and scatters them abroad. For other analyses see the commentaries. But they are hardly imperative. For (2) gives no motive for Yahweh's action, while "city" and "tower," "confusion of tongues" and "scattering," are complementary rather than parallel terms. The supposition that a few words describing Yahweh's return to heaven have disappeared somewhere from verse 6 relieves the awkwardness.

4. Historicity:

The "historicity" of the narrative will be upheld by very few persons of the present day. Human languages began to diverge (if, indeed there ever was such a thing as a primitive language) tens, if not hundreds, of thousands of years before the building of Babylon and long before human beings had attained enough skill to erect the most rudimentary structures, let alone such an elaborate affair as the brick-built city and tower of Babel. And what is true of languages as a whole is equally true of the languages spoken in the vicinity of Palestine. If Egyptian Hittite, and the Semitic group have any common point of origin, it lies vastly back of the time and cultural conditions presupposed in Gen 11:1-9. It is needless to enlarge on this, but for the harm done by a persistent clinging to the letter of the narrative, White's History of the Warfare of Science with Theology may be consulted. It belonged to the genius of the Hebrews to seek religious explanations of the things around them. And such an explanation of the origin of languages is the content of Gen 11:1-9.

5. Sources:

This explanation seems, as yet, to be without parallel, for the translation of the fragmentary British Museum Inscription K 3657 is entirely uncertain. Indeed, legends as to how the differences of human speech began seem to be extremely scanty everywhere, as if the question were not one that occupied the minds of primitive people. Comparative folklore still has much work to do as regards this special topic (for a few references see Encyclopedia Brit, 11th edition, article "Babel" and Gunkel Genesis3 in the place cited.). The other features of the narrative, however, are without great significance. Buildings that were unfinished because the builders offended the gods are fairly abundant, and it is quite possible that the writer of Gen 11:1-9 had some particular Bah structure in mind (see BABEL, TOWER OF). Nor are attempts of men to climb into heaven difficult to conceive, when the sky is thought of (as it nearly always was until comparatively modern times) as a material dome. So Greek Baruch (3:6 f) specifies that they "built the tower to the height of 463 cubits. And they took a gimlet, and sought to pierce the heaven, saying, Let us see whether the heaven is made of clay, or of brass, or of iron." Closely parallel to the Babel story is the Greek legend of the giants, who piled Pelion on Ossa in their attempt to storm the dwelling of the gods, and, as a matter of fact, the two accounts seem to be combined in Sib Or 3:97-104.

Whether aided by a tradition about some particular Babylonian tower or not, the localization of the story in Babylonia was inevitable. The Babylonians, above all nations in the world, relied on their wisdom and their skill, and so nowhere but in Babylon would this supreme presumption have been possible. Babylon, the embodiment of pride, at the very beginning of her existence was guilty of an act of pride so overwhelming as to call out God's vengeance. The "folk-etymology" babhel-balal (in Aramaic babhel-balbel) may have been suggested by this story or (perhaps more probably) it may have originated separately, perhaps at first as a piece of deliberate irony. Certainly the many languages that could be heard in Babylon were not without significance for the story.

6. Religious Value:

The religious value of the story is dimmed for the modern reader because of the very primitive concepts that it contains. The men are able to build up into heaven. In order to see what they are doing Yahweh is obliged to "come down." He is obliged to take action lest His dwelling-place be invaded (compare Gen 3:22). And the "let us go down" of Gen 11:7, while certainly not polytheistic, is equally certainly a polytheistic "remnant." On the other hand, it is to be noted that God's power is never in question and that there is no desperate and uncertain battle as in the Greek legend. Important, also (and often overlooked), is the realization that God's power is just as active in Babylon as it is in Palestine. The primal meaning to the Israelite, however, was this: In Babylon was seen the greatest enemy of the people of God, possessing immeasurable resources. Humanly speaking, there were no limits to this power, and if it had been uncontrolled at the beginning, all the world would have been overwhelmed with the rule of evil. This God had prevented.


Driver in HDB; Cheyne (art. "Babel, Tower of") in EB; the commentaries. on Gen, especially those of Skinner, Driver, Procksch, and Gunkel.

Burton Scott Easton

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