Which Was the First Nation?
Down through the millennia people have defended the supremacy of their own nation by claiming their own culture was established before all the others. Back in the third century BC, for example, something of a “chronology war” broke out, as chronographers in Egypt, Mesopotamia, Greece, and Judea vied for rights as the earliest nation.1 Flavius Josephus, in his Antiquities of the Jews and Against Apion, made similar arguments for the Hebrews in the first century AD.
Despite their efforts to put their nation first, these writers failed. The pivotal date that puts the history of all nations in perspective—the date that people were divided at Babel—remains elusive to this day.
Things to Consider
What do we know for sure about the timeframe of Babel in the history of nations? The Bible holds the key. Consider the following:
- In a straightforward reading of the Bible, the Babel account in Genesis 11 is located between Noah’s Flood (Genesis 6–9) and Abraham (beginning in Genesis 12), suggesting that Babel occurred between the Flood and Abraham.
- Logic suggests that the division of languages occurred before the time of Abraham because he came out of one culture and language (Ur of the Chaldees), visited another (Egypt), and settled amongst a third (the Canaanites).
- The Bible doesn’t give the date of Babel, but it does indicate the number of generations between Noah and Babel.
- Genesis 10:25 makes an interesting comment that “the earth was divided” in the days of Peleg, in the fourth generation in the line of Shem. The dominant interpretation in Jewish and church history has been that Peleg’s “division” refers to Babel. For example, Josephus in the first century says Peleg “was born at the dispersion of the nations to their several countries” (Antiquities of the Jews 1.6.4).
Peleg and the “Division of the Earth”
It’s not hard to see why this interpretation is so widely held. The mention of Peleg falls in the midst of a chapter devoted to the dividing of nations. The genealogy is thought to be an introduction to the Babel account, summarizing the key people who were at Babel and split up as a result of Babel. The genealogy in Genesis 10 flows right into the Babel narrative in Genesis 11 with the comment that “the earth was of one language” (Genesis 11:1).
In fact, it would be more natural to divide chapter 11 so that the first 9 verses go with chapter 10, and the rest of the chapter goes with the next chapter on Abraham (modern chapter divisions were not added to the Bible until the late Middle Ages). So the “dividing of the earth” in 10:25 seems most naturally to refer to the dividing of the “one language” mentioned in 11:1.
The Bible gives us no more specific information on when Babel occurred.
If all this is so, Babel occurred sometime during the lifetime of Peleg, whose name means “division.” Based on the ages of people listed in Genesis 11 in our English Bible, Peleg was born 101 years after the Flood, and he lived for 239 years. Abraham was born 292 years after the Flood.
The Bible gives us no more specific information on when Babel occurred—namely, it falls between the Flood and the time of Abraham, probably near the midpoint (around 2200 BC), give or take a century.
The King Lists
The Bible’s history gives far fewer years before Abraham than the ancient histories of other cultures, such as the king lists of the Sumerians and the Egyptians. However, it seems that priests and writers of these other histories purposely stretched their dates and histories, perhaps to show that their own culture was superior to all others.
Some of the earliest people in each of these king lists were deified as gods, and many were given life spans of thousands and tens of thousands of years. There are different versions of the lists with different numbers of kings, and overlapping reigns are listed sequentially as though they did not overlap.2 The result is extremely long genealogies compared to the biblical chronology.
These genealogies also have problems correlating with ancient records of astronomical events. Both Egyptian and Mesopotamian cultures, for example, made rather careful observations of eclipses, occultations, and the setting of stars and planets during the reign of each king.
We now know astronomical motions so precisely that we can calculate these events far back into ancient history. But the astronomical events do not match the king lists of either Egypt or Babylon. However, this mismatch makes sense if record-keepers extended their king lists by decades or centuries beyond the actual reigns, and therefore beyond the biblical chronology.
Not only are these secular histories stretched in time, but they do not mention the division of languages. So, although the Bible doesn’t precisely date Babel, no other source does either. This makes the biblical dating of Babel—within a century of the midpoint between the Flood and the birth of Abram—the most precise date that we have.