Rev. Kuiper is pastor of the Protestant Reformed Church of Byron Center, Michigan.
In previous articles we saw that language is both God’s creation and His gift to the human race. God created Adam able to speak and understand language—one language. For many years that language was the only language any human knew. Today, however, there are many languages: English, Dutch, German, French, Spanish, Chinese, to name only a few. In this article we will examine how so many languages came into existence.
Those who deny that God created language also deny, for the most part, that there was one original language. G. Revesz denies, for two reasons, that there was one original language. First, he argues that if all men spoke the same language, they would also have lived in the same geographic area; however, the fact that human remains from prehistoric times have been found in all parts of the earth indicates that men did not all live in the same geographic area. Second, we have no knowledge of one original language, or even of a few original languages, and “there is no hope that historical or comparative linguistic science will ever be in a position to throw light on them.”1
It is clear that Mr. Revesz disregards Scripture and considers the physical and linguistic sciences to be his authority. We, however, turn to Scripture, which makes clear in Genesis 11:1, 6 that before the confusion of tongues there was but one language in existence.
What was this language? Many Jews and Christians have held to the idea that Adam and Eve spoke Hebrew. Paul Isaac Hershon, a rabbinical commentator, says:
The sacred tongue, Hebrew, was spoken by all till the generation of the Confusion of Tongues, for the world was created with the sacred tongue; but now each of the 70 angels took one nation and instructed it in a new language; but God instructed Israel in the Hebrew tongue.2
Arthur Constance says that
rabbinical commentators, early Christian writers, and, until comparatively recently, modern Christian scholars generally accepted the view that this original language was Hebrew. It is true that a few of the early Church Fathers challenged this, but such great names as those of Augustine, Jerome, and Origin can be quoted in support of it; the few like Gregory of Nyssa who argued against it failed to influence the general Christian public, so that it became the accepted opinion throughout the Middle Ages and to the recent past.3
Scripture does not tell us what language Adam and Eve spoke. We know only that after the confusion of tongues the church, especially the covenant seed of the line of Abraham, spoke Hebrew or Aramaic (the latter being closely related to the Hebrew language). We know this from the fact that the Old Testament was written primarily in the Hebrew language. Furthermore, Abraham is called “the Hebrew” in Genesis 14:13. The point of this text is certainly not that Abraham spoke Hebrew; but by saying that Abraham was a Hebrew, even “the” Hebrew in the midst of the native inhabitants of Canaan, the text does imply that Abraham spoke the Hebrew language.
That Adam and Eve spoke Hebrew is, therefore, a reasonable assumption, though it cannot be proven to be true beyond all doubt.
God created one language. Today there are many languages. Scripture tells us these many languages came about in the way of the confusion of tongues at Babel, recorded in Genesis 11:1-9. The narrative teaches us that not simply language, but languages, are the creation of God.
In the years before the confusion of tongues, the world had banded itself together in opposition to God’s command to replenish the earth (Gen. 9:1). In the land of Shinar the children of men (that is, the spiritual seed of the serpent, not of the woman) began to build a city and a tower whose top would reach unto heaven. Their motive for this undertaking was to make for themselves a name, and their purpose was that they might not be scattered abroad upon the face of the whole earth (Gen. 11:4). The Lord’s stated reason why the men were succeeding in their endeavor is that “the people is one, and they have all one language” (Gen. 11:6).
This manifestation of rebellion against Jehovah’s command was the historical occasion for God to scatter the people over the face of the whole earth by confounding their speech. That their speech was confounded means that at that moment in history new languages were created. Genesis 10:5, 20, 31, and 32 show that God confounded the languages in such a way that extended families spoke the same language.
Remembering that language enables us to have fellowship with God and with other humans, we must examine the effect which this confusion of tongues had on the church’s relationship with God, with fellow saints, and with the world.
With regard to the church’s relationship with God, this confusion had no real effect. God’s people could continue to have fellowship with God, because God does not understand only one language, or a few languages. He who created language can speak to His people and can be spoken to by His people, no matter what language they speak.
The effect of this confusion of tongues on the church itself was that the saints were drawn together in unity. This was true in a physical way; God scattered the enemies of the church, so that the church would be preserved. I will not go so far as to say that every individual person who left the area of Shinar was not a child of God; Scripture does not say that. However, Scripture does make clear in Genesis 11:8 that it was the sons of men who were scattered, and in Genesis 11:10ff. that the church was found in the generations of Shem. The genealogy recorded in Genesis 11:10ff. ends in Abraham, who was only five generations down from Peleg, in whose days the earth was divided (Gen. 10:25, a reference to the confusion of tongues).
Two things become clear therefore. First, if any of those who left the area of Shinar at the time of the confusion of tongues were God’s children, they were soon cut off from God’s covenant in their generations. Second, those in the line of the covenant (Shem’s line, through Peleg, to Abraham) spoke the same language! That they spoke the same language was also an outward form of unity, and it made possible the fellowship of the saints which the church has always enjoyed. Further, that they spoke the same language was a reflection of the true doctrinal and spiritual unity of the church. The saints could understand each other, and they could understand God, because they knew the truth.
This confusion of tongues also had an effect on the church’s relationship with the world. We know that God has commanded His church to be separate from, and have no fellowship with, the world. By confusing the tongues, and calling the church out of Abraham’s line which spoke one language, God made it impossible for the church and the world to have fellowship with each other. They could not understand each other’s speech! The church was forced to live antithetically with respect to the wicked world, in accordance with her calling. In this sense, the confusion of tongues was the church’s salvation.
This separation of the church and world did not last long. The language barrier was eventually broken. This opened the way for some in the line of the covenant to fellowship with the world, and fall away from the church. It also opened the way, particularly in the new dispensation, for the church to go into the world with the gospel of Jesus Christ, so that the church might be gathered from every nation, tribe, and tongue.
Knowing that the confusion of tongues effected a separation between the church and the world, in that the people of God could communicate only with fellow saints, we are led to face this question: how does our language today compare with the world’s? Is it the same, or is it different? Of course, our physical language is not different. We can, and do, converse with other people we meet, whether they are members of the church or not. However, what of our spiritual language? The world’s spiritual language is that of the lie. The church’s spiritual language is that of the truth. The latter language is that which God speaks — indeed it is that which God gave. Which language do you speak?
We will return to this question in the next two articles, as we consider what effect the fall had on language, and what effect redemption in Christ has on the language of God’s people.
1G. Revesz, The Origins and Prehistory of Language, translated by J. Butler, New York (Philosophical Library 1956), 89.
2Quoted by Arthur C. Constance, “The Confusion of Languages,” Doorway Papers, vol. VI: “Time and Eternity,” Grand Rapids (Zondervan, 1997), page 194.
3Ibid., page 192.