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Language and Understanding

Genesis 11 returns to a narrative where the world of man has not yet scattered across the earth into the nations, tribes, and languages described in chapter 10. Chapter 10's focus was broad and looking far into the future, many generations from the end of the flood. The actual division of nations, as described in the Bible, hadn't happened until after humanity was divided by language and scattered across the globe. This event happens here, in chapter 11, at the Tower of Babel.

One of the most famous Bible stories is that of the Tower of Babel; the story of the tower that would reach into heaven, but could not be completed because God had the workers speak different languages from one moment to another. This caused them to be unable to understand each other, and therefore, unable to work with each other. With this language confusion, Nimrod was punished for his pride, thinking that he could build a tower that could reach the domain of God: Heaven. Therefore, you could – somewhat philosophically – say that the profession of translation is rooted in the failure of the construction of the Tower of Babel. After all, translators suddenly had a lot of work to do. The reality is – as so often – a bit more complicated. In his book Babel’s Courtyard, Salomon Kroonenberg shows that the exact opposite happened during the construction of the Tower of Babel. Several clay tablets with inscriptions from Mesopotamia, the region around Babel, show that different languages were already being spoken in the region before the construction of the tower. The construction actually caused people to start speaking the same language; Aramaic. Nevertheless, speaking the same language is no guarantee for success. Good communication is and remains difficult, even for the modern man with all his electronic devices. Even when everyone speaks the same language, a Babylonian confusion of tongues is always close at hand. This is a phenomenon translators also regularly have to deal with. When inspecting a text to be translated, the problem of sentences being open to interpretation often occurs. You think you know what the writer means, but it could also mean something else entirely. What also occurs frequently in translation is that sentences become grammatically inconsistent. Another source of confusion. In such cases, it is important that the translator first finds out what is really meant by requesting information from the client. If after the translation, the sentences are grammatically correct and there are no more ambiguities, the translator can be proud of a job well done, having produced a text that is better than the original. Therefore, translation is much more than just converting words into another language. Translators are also communication experts, language restorers, and warriors against Babylonian confusion of tongues. With or without language problems, the construction of the Tower of Babel didn’t work out. The part that was actually built was completely torn down by the troops of Alexander the Great.

Verse one highlights a particular condition of mankind which is not in and of itself evil: “… and the whole earth used the same language and the same words” (Genesis 11:1). We would assume since mankind came from a common ancestor, namely Noah, that all men spoke a common language.114 Moses began the account of the confusion of languages by drawing our attention to this fact.

Now there is nothing wrong with a common language. It is not evil, nor is it the cause of evil. Communication was greatly enhanced by it. It facilitated community life and was the foundation for unity. Potentially, a common language could have drawn men and women together in the worship and work of God. Practically, it was perverted to promote disobedience and unbelief. God’s gift of language, like other gifts of His grace, was misused. Sinful man cannot do anything but misappropriate God’s gifts of grace.

Our attention is thus drawn to the fact of common knowledge, not because we would be unaware of it, but because it was the occasion for the evil that followed. Also, it was the condition that God changed in order to prevent this evil which men conspired to achieve.


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