#22. Were Shem’s, Ham’s, and Japhet’s children dispersed throughout the earth each by their different language OR was all the earth one language and Yahweh ‘babbled’ their language at Babylon? (Gen 10:5, 10:20, 10:31-32 vs Gen 11:1-9)


The function of the Table of Nations in chapter 10 is not only to provide us with Noah’s sons’ offspring, but more so, and particularly for P, to account for the origins of the then known peoples and languages of the inhabitable world. Thus P’s explanation for the origin of the different languages that make up the peoples of the world is in stark opposition to J’s version which is rendered in chapter 11:1-9, the Tower of Babel story. As is typically recalled by readers of this mythic lore, the different languages that make up the different peoples of the inhabitable world are caused by Yahweh’s act of confusing or “babbling” the people’s only language. J’s fanciful story tells us that because the people schemed together in order to build cities and make names for themselves (11:4), which Yahweh takes as an affront, Yahweh himself decided to put an end to this:

And Yahweh said: “Here, they’re one people and they all have one language, and this is what they’ve begun to do. And now nothing that they’ll scheme to do will be precluded from them. Come on, let us go down and babble their language there so that one won’t understand another’s language. . . . On account of this its name was called Babylon, because Yahweh babbled the language of all the earth there, and Yahweh scattered them from there over the face of all the earth. (Gen 11:6-7…9)

This etiological tale of the origins of the different languages among the peoples of the earth is strikingly different from what the P tradition had already stated in the previous chapter, namely:

The islands of the nations in their lands were dispersed out from these [i.e., Japhet’s and his sons’ offspring], each by its language, by their families within their nations. (Gen 10:5)

These are Ham’s children, by their families, by their languages, in their lands, within their nations. (Gen 10:20)

These are Shem’s children, by their families, by their languages, in their lands, by their nations. These are the families of Noah’s children by their records in their nations, and the nations were dispersed from these in the earth after the flood. (Gen 10:31-32)

Thus P accounts for the different languages as a sort of genealogical feature. The dispersion of peoples and their languages throughout the earth happens genetically as it were from Noah’s offspring. Notably also is that for P this dispersion of peoples and languages is a positive event; it is the fulfillment of the divine command “be fruitful and multiply.” J’s account, however, stresses that this dispersion, contrary to P’s optimism, is a result of man’s inherent evil nature (cf. 8:21) and the ever widening diffusion of violence.

Thus at the conclusion of the primeval history (Gen 1-11), we see that the Priestly writer has continuously painted an optimistic genealogical account of mankind that has sought to offset the Yahwist’s genealogy of an ever increasingly violent, sinful, and hubristic humanity.

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