When reading Genesis 11, the most unquestionable takeaway is that God miraculously changed the languages of the people so that they could no longer communicate and that prior to this there was only a single language used. In almost every interpretation of this story, at least the ones which I have read, this is the case. Personally, I would like to question this for a moment.
From these, the maritime peoples separated into their territories, according to their languages, by clans within their nations.– Genesis 10:5
Genesis 10 is obviously written before the Tower of Babel in Genesis. This means that Genesis states all of the spoken languages and clans before moving on to state the following:
Now the whole world had one language and a common form of speech. And as people journeyed eastward, they found a plain in the land of Shinar and settled there.– Genesis 11:1
Chronologically, this creates a contradiction. People cannot speak different languages in Genesis 10 and then suddenly speak the same language in Genesis 11. The most common explanation of this is that Genesis 10 is providing a list of the clans and languages that the world will disperse into following the events in Genesis 11. If this is the case, consider Genesis 11:4 for a moment.
“Come,” they said, “let us build for ourselves a city with a tower that reaches to the heavens, that we may make a name for ourselves and not be scattered over the face of all the earth.”– Genesis 11:4
Does this sound like a group of people trying to make a tower that goes all the way to a physical heaven, or does it sound more like a group of people trying to get famous for making a really tall tower? I personally read it as the latter, which raises the question of why? Who were they trying to impress? Remember that this story is placed in the Bible immediately after the flood and you have just read that these people wish to prevent themselves from being spread out over the earth. Did they think that they could refuse to obey God and then build a tower that would impress the creator of entire universe so that He would spare them from having to journey further into His creation? Or does it seem more reasonable that they may have already split into clans and spread out, while one clan decided to build a magnificent city with a tall tower so that the other clans would see it and be drawn back together. Personally, I find the latter to be more likely. The people in Genesis 10:4 don’t want to spread out over the earth, they seem to want to stay together as a community and draw the other clans back by becoming famous among them.
This localized view of the Tower of Babel does not directly resolve the contradiction that I previously pointed out. In order to do that, we need to understand that the Hebrew from which Genesis is interpreted is still debated to this day. It is entirely possible that “erets” can mean “land” in a local or global sense depending on the context. I would argue that the context given in both chapters 10 and 11 have been local. Chapter 10 speaks about the separation of clans into their respective lands and chapter 11 continues on with that context even after the Tower of Babel story as it later speaks of the genealogy of Abram. If we adopt the idea that we are speaking locally, there is no contradiction between Genesis 10 and 11 and chronologically the flow of the book is maintained until the natural stopping point at verse 10 where it is obvious that a new narrative is starting:
This is the account of Shem. Two years after the flood, when Shem was 100 years old, he became the father of Arphaxad.– Genesis 11:10
Now that we have established the context of the story, let’s tackle one final question. Did God immediately change the language of the people in Shinar? I would contend that this is not the way that God worked simply because of the language used to describe what happened.
“Come, let Us go down and confuse their language, so that they will not understand one another’s speech.”– Genesis 11:7
Here, God states that He will “confuse” their language. Does this mean that He is changing their native language to an entirely different one? I really don’t think so and I can provide a real-world scenario of what I believe confusion looks like in conversation. Have you ever tried to explain something to someone and they simply did not understand you? I have had this happen to me fairly frequently and it always occurs with someone that speaks the same native tongue as me. Usually, I am trying to convey a complex idea, much like communicating about how to build a magnificently tall tower, and the person with whom I am speaking cannot grasp exactly what I mean. Sometimes I am able to push forward and use a whiteboard of some other means to explain my intent, but many times I simply give up and move on. If the people building the tower simply could not understand complex instructions as they were given to them, perhaps they decided it would be best to move on and follow God’s instruction instead. God does not always have to perform what we would consider a “miracle” in order to achieve His means. Sometimes He simply hardens our hearts or, in the case of the tower, our minds and that is enough.