Language is one of the most interesting, unique facets of humanity. While some animals communicate, they do not do so in the rich, multi-faceted form that humanity does. The origins of the thousands of languages can be traced back to a single language. Both evolution and creation agree on this point by default. However, they significantly differ in their interpretation of when languages began to differentiate and why. This article will discuss the event that led to the origin of languages; the Tower of Babel.
When the flood ended, God gave mankind several commands. One of those is given in Genesis 9:1. “And God blessed Noah and his sons, and said unto them, Be fruitful, and multiply, and replenish the earth.” By the time we reach the narrative of the Tower of Babel in Genesis eleven, mankind has done the first and the second parts of that command but not the third. The old English word “replenish” carries the idea of “filling”. To fulfill this command, the people of the earth would have needed to spread out across the face of the planet. Instead, they clustered together in one area. From reading Genesis 11:4 it is clear that the people did not want to spread out from one another.
The exact reason why the people did not want to be spread out across the face of the earth is unclear. Perhaps it was the aftermath of the flood. The ice age had begun to exert its effects on the northern part of the world and there were undoubtedly volcanic eruptions, tidal waves, dust storms, rain storms, mudflows, and other catastrophic events plaguing the surface of the planet. That, and the shared language and identity would have been a powerful incentive to remain together.
The people had multiple purposes in building the Tower of Babel. The first, and most obvious is they did not want to be scattered across the face of the earth. Genesis 11;4 tells us “And they said, Go to, let us build us a city and a tower, whose top may reach unto heaven; and let us make us a name, lest we be scattered abroad upon the face of the whole earth.” The last phrase of the verse reveals their primary motivation. However, there is another, underlying motive. In spite of God’s assurance that He would never again flood the world, the people do not appear to trust His Word. They want to build a tower reaching to heaven. The only reason for that would appear to be a shelter against the potential of God’s judgment.
God’s reasoning for extending judgment and confusing the languages is very interesting. He reveals it in Genesis 11:6 “And the LORD said, Behold, the people is one, and they have all one language; and this they begin to do: and now nothing will be restrained from them, which they have imagined to do.” Despite the rebellion and distrust on display, God does not punish man directly. Instead, rather than permitting man to continue to rebel and draw further punishment upon himself, God chose to confuse the languages. This was both a punishment and a protection. By confusing the languages, God forced man to follow His original command and spread out across the earth. However, He also showed mercy by not wiping them out or executing judgment upon their leaders. Further, He made any such endeavors in the future impossible. The confusion of languages made cooperation impossible. Building the Tower of Babel was abandoned and mankind spread out across the face of the earth.
The confusion of the languages is something shrouded in a certain amount of mystery. The Bible does not tell us how many languages God created. Some have speculated that He created the three major root languages at this time. However, this seems unlikely. Three language groups would not have motivated people to split up and spread out. It seems far more plausible that God would have also created some of the daughter languages within these groups around this time. Linguists claim there are at least sixteen, potentially more, different subfamilies within the three major parent families. Of those subfamilies, two contain more than one thousand languages and eleven contain at least one hundred. It thus seems very likely that God broke the languages down to something somewhat similar to what we observe today. New languages and dialects undoubtedly formed, but to cause people to spread out, it is likely God caused people to only be able to understand those in their extended family and perhaps a few friends families. This would have led to the scattering which occurred after Babel.
The Tower of Babel was not the origin of language, but it was the origin of the vast variety we observe in today’s languages. The painful part is that man brought the confusion on himself. Had mankind spread out across the earth as they were meant to do after the flood, high school language requirements likely would not exist as there would be significantly fewer languages. Time and distance would have created some dialects, but less than we see today. Further, the countless lives lost in wars fought over misunderstandings in language, particularly among tribal people, would have been saved. In that way, like mankind’s sin in the Garden, the Tower of Babel illustrates the far-reaching consequences of our sin.