How was Moses able to read texts that he edited together from pre-Tower of Babel texts?
The original question is below, but in short:
How was Moses able to read texts that he edited together from pre-Tower of Babel texts?
I’ve given some thought to this question in the past and will share what I’ve come up with. But first, let’s jump back and consider what the original language could possibly have been. All modern languages developed from the root languages at the Tower of Babel. There has been linguistic variation (caused by natural processes of linguistic change) within the distinct kinds of languages since Babel. In other words, all languages today are not descended from one ancestral language by natural processes but due to God’s intervention. The Bible hasn't given us a clear indication what the original language (before Babel) may have been. Here is the passage:
Genesis 11:5–9 (NASB)
5 The LORD came down to see the city and the tower which the sons of men had built. 6 The LORD said, "Behold, they are one people, and they all have the same language. And this is what they began to do, and now nothing which they purpose to do will be impossible for them. 7 "Come, let Us go down and there confuse their language, so that they will not understand one another’s speech." 8 So the LORD scattered them abroad from there over the face of the whole earth; and they stopped building the city. 9 Therefore its name was called Babel, because there the LORD confused the language of the whole earth; and from there the LORD scattered them abroad over the face of the whole earth.
Other passages directly related to language and these events are:
Genesis 11:1 (NASB)
Now the whole earth used the same language and the same words.
Genesis 10:5 (NASB)
From these the coastlands of the nations were separated into their lands, every one according to his language, according to their families, into their nations.
So the possibilities are:
Since we don't have any writings from that time (pre-Babel), the original language may be difficult to ascertain. Let’s take a closer look at each of these and see each’s plausibility.
If #1 is correct, was the original language a Semitic language?
If one survived, the most likely scenario would be a Semitic language since the Hebrews, who were Semites, were blessed. And if this were the case, there is a possibility that Noah’s descendants could have easily read previous documents passed down from people back to Adam. The presence of the eleven toledoths in Genesis and the fact that Genesis 5:1 says, “This is the BOOK (normal Hebrew word for “book”) of the account/generation (toledoth) of Adam” is strong evidence that when Moses wrote Genesis in its present form he was working with existing written documents passed on from the patriarchs. This is different from the JEDP hypothesis, which is largely discredited.
Given the Genesis testimony to the great intelligence of pre-Flood man (Adam naming animals, Cain building a city, six generations later doing mining and metallurgy and inventing musical instruments, and Noah’s ability to build the Ark), there is no reason to think that pre-Flood man could not write (Adam was created with the ability to speak, why not to write also?), and there is good reason to think that man would write (to preserve history for posterity).
The word Semitic is literally derived from Shem, one of Noah’s three sons. Semitic languages are basically languages that came out of Babel that were given to Shem’s descendants. In Genesis 10:22 the Bible records the different sons of Shem as Elam, Asshur, Arphaxad, Lud, and Aram.
Aram may seem familiar because it is where we get the name of the language Aramaic, which Jesus spoke. Parts of Ezra, Nehemiah, and Daniel in the Old Testament were also written in Aramaic. Aramaic is a Semitic language, and Semitic languages were post-Babel. So it may not be wise to assume the original language was Semitic. It would be more like “Adamic” or possibly “Noahic,” but the terminology “Semitic” would imply a post-Babel introduction of the language, although I wouldn’t discount it entirely.
Another popular view is Edenics. Edenics is the proposition that Hebrew is the original language prior to the Tower of Babel—perhaps as far back as the Garden of Eden. This view has been proposed in the past (for example Henry Morris suspects this but is hesitant to fully espouse it in The Genesis Record in 1976),1 but the leading proponent of the view is Isaac Mozeson. He has a book called The Word, The Dictionary that Reveals the Hebrew Source of English. It was published in 1989.2
Nowhere in Genesis 11 is Hebrew stated to be the mother tongue, so the presuppositional idea is lacking at a foundational level.Mozeson makes the false claim in the introduction of his book that Genesis 10:25 was referring to the continental division as opposed to the linguistic division. The context of Genesis 10 and 11 are speaking of linguistic divisions. We know the continents had already moved and collided with each other as the mountains of Ararat were already uplifted by the collision of the Arabian plate (being pushed by the African plate) and the Eurasian plate (since Noah landed on them about 100–150 years prior to Peleg).
The book draws relationships to English words (as well as Arabic and other Indo-European languages) that have a Hebrew root in sound. Then he uses this to claim that the original language is Hebrew prior to Babel. Yet he is comparing this to today’s Hebrew, which goes back to about the time of Nehemiah and Ezra. The Hebrew we currently have was more-or-less finalized by Ezra the priest and scribe around 400–500 BC and used in the Masoretic text that was passed along for many years.
However, I doubt that anyone would deny the influence of many words from other language roots, whether Semitic or otherwise. English, by and large, has had influence from various languages and root languages. But it is a major leap to make the claim that, since some words have a relationship, Hebrew was the original language.
A theological problem also arises if Babel confusion didn’t change the sounds of words but only the spelling. God said He confused the language (literally “lip” or “speech”) of the whole world (Genesis 11:9). This means the sounds changed; however, there may very well have been many words that were still the same, since Genesis 11:1 makes the point that language and words were distinct. Yet what was confused was the language, or the way it was spoken, not necessarily the words. Many of these words could have been carried over to many different languages, hence similarities in some words.
Mozeson takes as a presupposition that Hebrew was the root language to all other languages and proceeds to try to defend that view. He says “Yes, I began from the Biblical given that Hebrew is the Mother tongue (Genesis, Chapter 11).”
However, nowhere in Genesis 11 is Hebrew stated to be the mother tongue, so the presuppositional idea is lacking at a foundational level. In fact, when we check the Bible, the first mention of Hebrew is with Abram in Genesis 14:13. But it doesn’t refer to language—instead it says that Abram was a Hebrew (descendant of Eber). In fact, every mention of Hebrew in the Old Testament refers to a person being a Hebrew, not that Hebrew was a language.
The first mention of Hebrew as a language came from the Greek-written John 5:2, and some translators actually say this should be Aramaic! Though the root word is Eber, signifying it probably is Hebrew. In the Old Testament, though, we read:
2 Kings 18:26 (NASB)
Then Eliakim the son of Hilkiah, and Shebnah and Joah, said to Rabshakeh, “Speak now to your servants in Aramaic, for we understand it; and do not speak with us in Judean in the hearing of the people who are on the wall.”
The language of the Jews was not called Hebrew but instead what is translated as “Judean” and was also used in 2 Kings 18:28, 2 Chronicles 32:18, Nehemiah 13:24, Isaiah 36:11 and Isaiah 36:13. In all fairness, though, what we know as “Hebrew” today is likely this Judean language.
But to make claim that Hebrew is the original language would mean that Hebrew hasn’t changed since Babel. Languages obviously change. English, 1000 years ago until today, has massive changes. These languages that came out of Babel have gone through changes as well.
Biblically, too, we would expect Hebrew to have changes. Abraham, as a descendant of Eber, actually left his family. Recall that family groups were divided by their language in Genesis 10:5. He settled among the Canaanites, who were obviously speaking Canaanite languages (Canaan was a descendant of Ham). Abraham, Lot, Isaac, Jacob, and Jacob’s sons lived in Canaan for centuries. Then the sons of Jacob (Israel) went and lived among the Egyptians for centuries! The Egyptians were descendants of Mizraim, who was also a son of Ham, and had a different language that likely influenced the Israelites too.
So if the language of Eber, who was at Babel, came through Abraham down to the Israelites and remained the same, then there should be plenty of others speaking and writing it (other than the Israelites who kept getting wiped out with only a remnant to repopulate). Abraham also had other sons (Ishmael, Zimran, Jokshan, Medan, Midian, Ishbak, and Shuah). They would have originally been speaking Abraham’s language, that of Eber. Many Arabic speakers claim heritage to Ishmael. Arabic has many similarities to Hebrew, but is different. Since the Hebrew from Eber’s day has not survived in other nations, this helps confirm that Hebrew has indeed changed since Abraham.
We would expect similarities with languages like Aramaic and Arabic since they were in the same vicinity. In fact, it wouldn’t surprise me if Ezra’s Hebrew and Arabic go back to the same root language (Eber’s actual language that came from Babel) and both have deviated since Babel.
We would also expect influence from Hebrew and vice-versa with regards to Latin (Roman Empire) and Greek (Alexander the Great) since both had many years of interaction in the Middle East.
So having word similarities does nothing to help the conclusion that Hebrew would be the original language as that would be expected whether or not it was the original language. Languages have in-depth contextual, syntactical, and grammatical workings that are unique and would also have to be accounted for.
If #2 is correct, then previous documents that survived on the Ark could easily have been translated, right?
Sometimes, people fail to realize that Noah and his sons (and, presumably, their wives) were still alive during and after Babel. When people were scattered from the Tower of Babel it was about 100–150 years after the Flood. Archbishop Ussher places Babel at 2242 BC and the Flood at 2348 BC, giving about 106 years from the Flood to Babel.
Like possibility #1, possibility #2 assumes the original language survived through Babel. The Bible doesn’t say the original language was necessarily lost, but confused. The Hebrew word is bālal, meaning to mix, mingle, confuse, or confound.
This suggests there may be aspects of the original language still used in one or various languages created at Babel. God could just as easily removed the original language altogether and this would indeed confuse the languages of the whole world!
The context of Genesis 10:5 seems to indicate that Noah’s 16 grandsons each had their own language division. Did this apply to Noah and his sons? We don’t know for sure. But since God divided the people according to their families, it seems unlikely that God would have destroyed the ability of Noah and his sons to communicate with each other. So it is quite likely that Noah and his sons retained the original language. This would still cause the confusion God intended.
In time, Noah (perhaps Shem and others too) could easily have learned another language if staying with one particular set of relatives with a different language. Then a translation of previous documents would be preserved to finally arrive at Moses. With this possibility though, there is still quite a bit of speculation.
If # 3 is correct, how would any documents be translated?
This has been the most popular view that I’ve seen regarding the languages at Babel. This is usually why people ask how documents could have been passed to Moses and how he could understand them. Keep in mind that popularity doesn’t dictate truth. There are a couple of possibilities for faithful transmission of accounts.
A. Noah and his sons (and their wives) would still have recollections of the pre-Flood world. In fact, consider these possibilities:
Adam and Methuselah were both alive for a long time together. If there are not gaps in the Genesis 5 genealogy (which we believe to be the case—see Ancient Patriarchs in Genesis), then their lives overlapped by hundreds of years. They could easily have had years of direct conversation. Noah and Methuselah had many years alive together (Methuselah died the year of the Flood, when Noah was 600 years old), and surely the two conversed quite often (and conversed with Shem, Ham, and Japheth, too). So Noah would have many memories and much knowledge about the pre-Flood world and even Adam’s actions through Methuselah!
After Babel, had Noah’s language changed, he or his sons could have written what they knew in the new language. These could have been the documents that Moses received. I would lean against this though since it may not mesh well with the toledoth breakdown mentioned before.
B. If the previous documents were in a language completely foreign to them (the original language that no one had any longer), linguists could study and learn it, and over time make a translation of it when the code is cracked. Such a document could have been what Moses received, although this seems the most unlikely possibility as it would be a difficult task to accomplish satisfactorily. Trying to crack a language has proven a difficult, but not impossible, task for modern scholars.
If #4 is correct, how would any documents have been translated?
The same reasons for #3 being correct would apply here, although translation would be easier if some of the original documents may have been in their portion of the language.
Regardless, this would be a near impossibility. First, the grammar, syntax, vocabulary, and even the vowel and consonant sounds in certain languages (e.g., English, Hungarian, Russian, Arabic, Chinese) are so utterly different. Secondly, each of these languages is a coherent whole allowing for people in each language to verbally communicate about every aspect of reality. If all the languages were once combined, the original language would have had a massive amount of redundancy.
Though this possibility sounds interesting, and God can do anything, it may not be the best possibility.
Regardless of which may be true, previous documents arriving in the hands of Moses aren’t a big problem. Taking time to learn and translate previous documents or recalling previous conversations would ensure that some information would arrive in a language post-Babel, whether through Noah and his sons or other means of translation.
We also should not forget that Jesus spoke face to face with Moses (Exodus 33:11)! If there were any discrepancies, he would have had the all-knowing God in his tent, who invented the different languages! So Moses shouldn’t have had any problems with accuracy or translation. Even if Moses received documents that needed translation, Christ knew the original language. I have doubts, though, that this was the way it was done.
Keep in mind that Moses (as all of the Scripture writers) was inspired as he wrote. Any word plays like man/woman (ish/ishshah) in Hebrew would be inspired by God through Moses. It is highly possible that word-plays like this were also like this in the original language. Interestingly enough, in English, for example, we have man and woman—God can easily have had language similarities survive through different languages. I would expect such things even from the original language since God, the author of language, has such infinite knowledge. I hope this helps stimulate some thinking.
Please see our section regarding languages for more information.
Bodie Hodge, AiG–USA
Personally, because of the following reasons, I think the first language might have been an original Semitic language from which Hebrew originated:
- The Bible says that God confused the language, but we don't know how God confused the language (that is, it doesn't mean that every group ended up with a new language).
- According to the Genesis account about Shem (Genesis 9:26, 11:10-26), he and his descendants were blessed. From Shem’s line came Abram, who is the founder of the Jewish nation.
- Moses, who wrote (compiled) Genesis would have used some source materials that are not extant today. It is likely that Noah had some sources about the history before the Flood (Creation, Corruption, etc.) and genealogies that are written (compiled) in Genesis. Shem’s descendants, whose names are recorded in Genesis, seem to have inherited them. If these materials were not written in a Semitic language similar to Hebrew, how could the people after the Babel (such as Moses) understand the materials? Alternatively, the source materials about the history and genealogies before Babel could have been passed down via oral tradition.
- How we should interpret the wordplay, which was written before Genesis chapter 11 (before the confusion of language at Babel), man (Hebrew ish) and woman (Hebrew isha) in Genesis 2:23? How should we interpret some names which are written before Genesis chapter 11, before Babel, like Adam (Hebrew meaning ground, man), Eve (Hebrew meaning life), Noah (Hebrew meaning, rest), Methuselah (the name is the combination of Hebrew words “die” and “send,” and the meaning is “When he dies, it shall be sent”)? Are they mere translations?
Reading Genesis 11:7, one may think like that people no longer speak the original language. However, the Bible does not say that God changed the original language to totally different ones at Babel. If all people began speaking new (different) languages then, I wonder why Moses did not write so? The Bible says two things, (1) God confused the language, and (2) people did not understand each other. So I don't think we have to assume that the original language vanished.