Date of Tower of Babel: Seely

                           Westminster Theological Journal 63 (2001) 15-38.

        Copyright © 2001 by Westminster Theological Seminary, cited with permission.   

 

 

    THE DATE OF THE TOWER OF BABEL

AND SOME THEOLOGICAL IMPLICATIONS

 

                                              PAUL H. SEELY

 

            If we assume that the story in Gen 11:1-9 is accurately describing an actual

historical event, that the account is what we might call "VCR history," the

narrative gives us five facts which enable us to date the event. One, the event

took place in Shinar, at Babylon in particular (vv. 2, 9). Two, the event involved

the building of a city with a tower (vv. 4, 5). Three, the tower was constructed of

baked brick (v. 3). Four, the mortar used was asphalt (v. 3). Five, the tower was

very probably a ziggurat (v. 4; see discussion below).

            When we employ these five facts to date the building of the tower of Babel,

we discover from archaeological data that the event occurs too late in history to be

the origin of all languages on earth. Scientifically enlightened concordism has

attempted to solve this problem through a reinterpretation of the biblical data,

and creation science through a reinterpretation of the scientific data; but, these

reinterpretations are merely plausible and are able to endure only by setting aside

the weighty evidence which supports consensual scholarship. A better solution

can be derived from Calvin's understanding of divine accommodation.

 

    I. The Location of Shinar and Its Relevance for Dating the Tower of Babel

 

            Although there is a question whether or not the word Shinar is related to the

word Sumer,1 there is no question that the land of Shinar is distinguished from

the land of Assyria, that is, northern Mesopotamia (Isa 11: 11). Further, it is evi-

dent that the land of Shinar covers the southern half of Mesopotamia

(Gen 10:10). The land of Shinar is the land between the Tigris and the Euph-

rates that lies south of modern Baghdad.2

            Archaeological excavations in the land of Shinar indicate that although

prior to the sixth millennium B.C. there may have been small villages equivalent

to those of modern-day Marsh Arabs in the southernmost reaches of the land,

Shinar was fundamentally uninhabited before about 6000 B.C.3 In the southern

 

Paul H. Seely is an independent scholar specializing in biblical history and the relationship

of science to Scripture.

   1 James R. Davilla, "Shinar" ABD 5:1220; Jerrold S. Cooper, "Sumer," ABD 6:233.

   2 Davilla, "Shinar," ABD 5:1220.

   3  Hans J. Nissen, "Mesopotamia," OEANE 3:476-77, especially the subsection " Eridu and

Hajji Mohammed"; Piotr Michalowski, "Sumerians," OEANE 5:96; Harriet Crawford, Sumer and

the Sumerians (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1991), 31.

                                                            15



16                    WESTMINSTER THEOLOGICAL JOURNAL

 

area of Shinar, the cities of Ur, Eridu, and Oueili "seem to be uninhabited

before about 5600 to 5000 B.C."4

            In the northern part of the land of Shinar, which is more relevant to our

study because Babylon is located there,5 the cities seem to have been founded

later than those in the southern part.6 Ras al-Amiya, c. 12 miles northeast of

Babylon, dates from c. 4750 B.C.7 Tell Uqair, about 25 miles from Babylon, rests

on virgin soil carbon-dated to about 4500.8 At Jemdet Nasr, about 25 miles

northeast of Babylon, occupation begins around 4000 B.C.9  Kish, c. 9 miles east

of Babylon, also has no remains earlier than 4000 B.C. The lowest levels of

Babylon lie below the water table, but its origins have been variously estimated

as being from 4000 to 3000 B.C.

            For reasons we will discuss below, it is doubtful that any archaeologist would

date the tower of Babel before c. 3500 B.C.; but since northern Shinar,

where Babel is located, was not settled before c. 5000 B.C., one certainly cannot

push the events of Gen 11:1-9 back into history earlier than that if one takes the

mention of the land of Shinar and of the city of Babylon seriously

 

            II. Urbanism and Monumental Architecture Date the Tower

            Prior to c. 3500 B.C., before the end of the Ubaid culture and the beginning

of the Uruk culture, the "cities" in Mesopotamia were just scattered settlements

with no monumental architecture. In a few places there is development toward

urbanism in the fifth millennium, but the clear rise of urban civilizations with

monumental buildings occurs c. 3500 B.C.10

            The tenor of the story in Gen 11: 1 with its social determination to make a

name, its strong desire for security, its building of a city, its use of baked bricks,11

and especially its building of a ziggurat (discussed in more depth below) all

point to urbanism with monumental architecture as opposed to a mere settle-

ment. This suggests that these events do not significantly antedate 3500 B.C.

 

   4 Jean-Louis Huot, "Ubaidian villages of lower Mesopotamia," in Upon This Foundation--The

Ubaid Reconsidered (ed. Elizabeth Henrickson and Ingolf Thuesen; University of Copenhagen:

Museum Tusculanum Press, 1989), 23.

   5 The word Babel is used nearly 300 times in the OT and usually refers to the city of Babylon,

although the country of Babylonia is sometimes the referent. In Gen 11:8, 9 it is clearly identified

as a city (in the land of Shinar); and there is no archaeological doubt about the location of this city.

   6 Marc Van Dc Mieroop, The Ancient Mesopotamian City (Oxford: Oxford University Press,

1999), 29.

   7 David Stronach, "Excavations at Ras al Amiya," Iraq 23 (1961): 121.

   8 Olivier Aurenche, Jacyues Evin, and Francis Hours, eds., Chronologies du Proche Orient:

Chronologies in the Near East: Relative chronologies and absolute chronology 16, 000- 4000

B. P.:: C.N.R.S. International Symposium, Lyon, France (BAR International Series 379; Oxford: 1987), 506,

   9 R. J. Matthews, "Jemdet Nasr," OEANE 3:212.

   10 Nissen, "Mesopotamia," OEANE 3:478; Hans J. Nissen, The Early History of the Ancient Near

 East---9000-2000 B.C. (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1988), 56--59; Jean-Louis Huot, "The

First Farmers at Oueili," BA 55 (1992), 188, 190. Cf. Seton Lloyd, Ancient Architecture (New York: Rizzoli,

1986), 12-13.

  11 Cf. R. J. Forbes, Studies in Ancient Technology (2nd ed.; Leiden: Brill, 1964), 1:67-68.



                        THE DATE OF THE TOWER OF BABEL              17

 

III. The Use of Baked Brick with Bitumen for Mortar Dates the Tower of Babel

 

            We can derive a more sure indication of the earliest date for the building of

the tower of Babel from the fact that the builders used baked bricks extensively

(v. 3 almost implies exclusively) as a building material. Baked bricks were very

expensive in Mesopotamia because fuel was so scarce, and their use shows how

committed the builders were to making a luxurious and impressive building.

This points to the age of urbanism; but the testimony of the baked bricks is

even more specific. For we know when baked bricks first appear in the archaeo-

logical record of the ancient Near East as building materials.

Nor are we arguing from silence. There are hundreds of archaeological sites

in the ancient Near East which have architectural remains. A number of them

display layer after layer of architectural remains covering many centuries or

even millennia. These architectural remains date from the beginnings of archi-

tecture in the ninth millennium down through the entire OT period and even

later. Further, baked brick is virtually indestructible; so it would almost certainly

be found if it were present.12

The ancient Near Eastern archaeological data regarding building materials

used in the ancient Near East is so abundant and clear that every modern

scholar writing about the history of architecture in the Near East comes to the

same conclusion: although unbaked brick was extensively used for architecture

from c. 8500 B.C. to Christian times, baked brick, though used occasionally for

such things as drains or walkways, did not make an architectural appearance

until c. 3500 B.C. and it was rarely used in architecture until c. 3100 B.C.13

Whether viewed in terms of breadth as at Chatal Huyuk with its dozens of

unearthed buildings14 or in terms of depth as at Eridu with its eighteen succes-

sive building levels from c. 5000 to c. 2100 B.C., the archaeological data from the

Near East universally testify that prior to c. 3100 B.C. the bricks used in archi-

tecture were unbaked. Indeed, Jacquetta Hawkes indicates in her archaeologi-

cal survey that baked brick was not used for architecture anywhere in the entire

world until c. 3000B. C.15 The use of baked brick in the tower of Babel indicates

very clearly, therefore, that it was not built before c. 3500 to 3000 B.C.

The use of bitumen (asphalt) for mortar also gives clear evidence of the ear-

liest date to which we can ascribe the events of Gen 11:1-9. Since there are

extensive remains of brick buildings in the sites of the ancient Near East and

 

   12 Edward Chiera, They Wrote on Clay (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1938), 6-7.

   13 Jack Finegan, Archaeological History of the Ancient Middle East (Boulder, Co.: Westview, 1977), 8;  

Armas Salonen, Die Ziegeleien im Allen Mesopotamien (Helsinki: Suomalainen Tiedeakatemia, 1972), 7;  

Charles Singer, The History of Technology (Oxford: Clarendon, 1954), 1:462; Lloyd, Ancient Architecture,

9-13; Pinhas Delougaz and Seton Lloyd, Pre-Sargonid Temples in the Diyala Region (Chicago: University

of Chicago Press, 1942), 46, 121.

   14 James Mellaart estimates that Chatal Huyuk had more than 1000 houses. There are also

fourteen continuous successive building levels at Chatal Huyuk dating between 7100 and 6300 B.C.  (James

Mellaart, The Archaeology of Ancient Turkey [Totowa, NJ.: Rowman & Littlefield, 1978], 13, 140).

    15 Jacquetta Hawkes, The Atlas of Early Man (New York: St. Martin's, 1976), 50, 76.



18                    WESTMINSTER THEOLOGICAL JOURNAL

 

bituminous mortar is nearly as indestructible as baked brick,16 it is easy to ascer-

tain when bitumen began to be used as mortar for bricks. The evidence from

thousands of bricks shows that bitumen was not used as a mortar for brick until

baked brick appeared. Until c. 3500 to 3000 B.C., if mortar was used, it was gyp-

sum or just mud. It is quite clear that bitumen was not used as mortar for brick

buildings until the proto-historical period, that is c. 3500 to 3000 B.C.17

 

IV. The Tower of Babel as a Ziggurat and Its Implications for Dating the Tower

 

Gen 11:4 tells us that the settlers in Sumer decided to build "a city and a

tower." The word used for tower is ldgm (migdal). Since this word is often used

in the OT for a watchtower or a defensive tower (e.g., Judg 9:45, 51; 2 Kgs 9:17;

17:9; Isa 5:2) and nowhere else refers to a ziggurat, what reason is there to

believe that in Gen 11:4 it refers to a ziggurat? The first reason is that the setting

is in Babylonia where the ziggurat was the most prominent structure in a city-

both visually and ideologically.18 Secondly, the tower in our text was designed to

bring fame and glory to the builders ("so that we may make a name for our-

selves"). Mesopotamian kings often took pride in building ziggurats, but no

such pride was taken in defensive towers which were simply parts of the city

wall. The use of baked brick and bitumen also tells us that the migdal in our text

was a ziggurat rather than a defensive tower, for baked brick and bitumen were

very expensive in Mesopotamia and hence were saved for luxurious architec-

ture like palaces, temples, and ziggurats.19

It is also telling that in our text the making of the baked bricks is specifically mentioned

first (v. 3) and after that the building of the city and tower

(v. 4). This is exactly the way the building of the temple and ziggurat of Babylon

are described in Enuma Elish (6.50-70) as well as in the account of Nabopolassar

in Neo-Babylonian times.20 In addition, Nabopolassar is told to make the founda-

tion of Babylon's ziggurat "secure in the bosom of the nether world, and make

its summit like the heavens" just as our text describes the tower as having "its

head in the heavens." Indeed it is typical of the descriptions of Mesopotamian

ziggurats that they have their heads in the heavens. Thus King Samsuiluna is

said to have made "the head of his ziggurat ... as high as the heavens." The

top of Hammurabi's ziggurat was said to be "lofty in the heavens." And Esar-

haddon, speaking of the ziggurat he built, says, "to the heavens I raised its

head."21

 

   16 Forbes, Studies, 1:69.

   17 Maurice Daumas, ed., A History of Technology and Invention: Progress through the Ages (New

York: Crown, 1969), 1:117. So also Bertrand Gille, The History of Techniques (New York: Gordon &

Breach, 1986), 1:211. Cf. Forbes, Studies, 1:71-72.

18 Elizabeth C. Stone, "The Development of Cities in Ancient Mesopotamia," CANE 1:236,

238.

   19 Singer, A History of Technology, 1:254-55; Forbes, Studies, 1:68.

   20 So strong is the parallel with Enuma Elish that E. A. Speiser thought Gen 11:1-9 was a

response to Enuma Elish. Andre Parrot, The Tower of Babel (London: SCM, 1955), 19.

   21 John H. Walton, The Tower of Babel (Ph.D, diss., Hebrew Union College, 1981), 44-45.



THE DATE OF THE TOWER OF BABEL              19

 

As for the use of the word migdal, one wonders what other choice the

Hebrews had for a word to refer to a ziggurat? Since they had no ziggurats in

their culture, they would either have to borrow a word or use the closest word

they could find in their own language. As Walton has pointed out, the word

migdal is not inaccurate and has a similar etymology to ziggurat, being derived

from gedal (to be large), while ziggurat is derived from the Akkadian word zaqaru (to

be high).22 It is also noteworthy that when Herodotus (1:181-183) needed a word to

describe the eight levels of the ziggurat he saw in Babylon, he chose pu<rgoj, which is

the Greek word most commonly used for defensive towers.

There is very good reason then to believe that the tower in our text refers to

a ziggurat and not just to a defensive tower. The vast majority of scholars agree

that a ziggurat is intended. We need to ask, therefore, when did ziggurats first

appear in Babylonia? The answer is, during the period of Uruk 5 and 4, that is,

the protohistoric period, 3500 to 3000 B.C.23

We see then that the archaeological facts coalesce around the dates 3500 to

3000 B.C. The building of a city not just a settlement, the use of baked brick, the

use of bitumen for mortar and the fact that a ziggurat is being built all dovetail

in date. This remarkable agreement makes it highly probable that the earliest

date to which we can ascribe the tower of Babel as described in Gen 11:1-9 is c.

3500 to 3000 B.C. But, what is the latest date to which we can ascribe its build-

ing? There is a text saying that Sharkalisharri restored the temple-tower at

Babylon c. 2250 B.C., and another text indicates that Sargon I destroyed Baby-

lon c. 2350 B.C.24 This suggests that there was a city established at Babylon

before 2350 B.C.; so, allowing a modest 50 years of city history, we can set 2400

B.C. as the terminus ante quem for the first ziggurat built in Babylon.25 We can thus

date the building of the tower of Babel sometime between 3500 and 2400 B.C.

V. The Meaning of Gen 11:1

In Gen 11:1 we read that `All the earth had one language and common

words." The Hebrew literally says they had one "lip" and one "words." Parallel

passages show that this simply means that everyone on earth spoke and could

understand the grammar (Isa 19:18) and words (Ezek 3:5, 6) of everyone else.

That is, all the earth spoke one and the same language.

The church, both Jewish and Christian, has historically understood this to

mean that everyone on the entire earth spoke the same language. Gen. Rab. says,

 

   22 John Walton, "The Mesopotamian Background of the Tower of Babel Account and Its

Implications," BBR 5 (1995), 156.

   23 H. W F Saggs, The Greatness that Was Babylon (New York: New American, 1962), 45; CAH3 1:1:226,

228; Harriet Crawford, The Architecture of Iraq in the Third Millennium BC (Copenhagen: Akademisk

Forlag, 1977), 27; Singer, History, 1:461. Some today would place the beginning of Uruk 5 at 3600 B.C.

    24 CAH3 1:1:219; Evelyn Klengel-Brandt, "Babylon," OEANE 1:254.

    25 Ziggurats began as elevated temples and did not become "true ziggurats" until c. 2100 B.c.,

after which they continued to be built or at least rebuilt until the fall of Babylon in the sixth century B.C.



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"all the nations of the world." Sib. Or. 3:105 says, "the whole earth of humans."

Chrysostom said, "all mankind."26 Augustine said, "the whole human race."27

Calvin said, "the human race."28 Luther, "the entire earth ... all the people."29

John Gill, "the inhabitants of the whole earth.”30 Adam Clarke, “All man-

kind."31 Even after scientific data made such a history of language doubtful,

nearly all commentators both liberal and conservative have continued to recog-

nize that, nevertheless, this is what the biblical text says. Westermann says,

"humankind ... the whole world."32 Sarna, "mankind."33 Cassuto says, "all

the inhabitants of the earth."34 Keil and Delitzsch, "the whole human race."35

Mathews, "mankind."36 Wenham says, "all the inhabitants of the world ...

mankind."37 Leupold says, "the whole human race."38

Although some commentators thought that mankind had already begun to

disperse or that those building the tower of Babel were just Nimrod and his fol-

lowers or just the descendants of Ham, there has been universal agreement

from the beginning right up to the present that Gen 11:1 means that every

human being on earth was speaking the same language until God "confused

the language" at the tower of Babel.

A handful of evangelical scholars, however, have apparently felt pressured by

the fact that taken at face value the story conflicts, as we shall see more clearly

later, with the archaeological evidence that not every human being on earth was

speaking the same language at the time of the building of the tower of Babel.

They have accordingly sought to adjust the story by suggesting that Gen 11:1

only refers to a small part of mankind speaking the same language, probably the

Sumerians speaking Sumerian. They construe the words "all the earth" in 11:1

as a reference simply to Mesopotamia or even just southern Mesopotamia.39

 

   26 St. John Chrysostom, "Homily 30," in Homilies on Genesis 18-45 (trans. Robert C. Hill; Washington,

DC: Catholic University of America Press, 1990), 222.

   27 Augustine, City of God, 16. 10. 11 (NPNF' 2:316-17).

   28 John Calvin, Commentaries on the First Book of Moses Called Genesis (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1948),1:332.

   29 Martin Luther, Works (St. Louis: Concordia, 1960), 2:210.

   30 John Gill, Gill's Commentary (Grand Rapids: Baker, 1852-54, repr., 1980), 1:68.

   31 Adam Clarke, The Holy Bible containing the Old and New Testaments... with a commentary and

critical notes ... (New York: Abingdon, c. 1860), 1:88.

   32 Claus Westermann, Genesis 1-11 (Minneapolis: Augsburg, 1976), 542.

   33 Nahum M. Sarna, Understanding Genesis (New York: Schocken, 1970), 69.

   34 Umberto Cassuto, A Commentary on the Book of Genesis (Jerusalem: Magnes, 1964), 2:239.

   35 C. F Keil and F Delitzsch, Biblical Commentary on the Old Testament (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1949), 1:172.

   36 Kennneth A. Mathews, Genesis 1-11:26 (Nashville: Broadman & Holman, 1996), 477.

   37 Gordon J. Wenham, Genesis 1-15 (Waco, TX: Word, 1987), 238.

   38 H. C. Leupold, Exposition of Genesis (Grand Rapids: Baker, 1960), 382.

   39 So, David F Payne, "Babel, Tower of," ISBE 1:382; Dale S. DeWitt, "The Historical Back-

ground of Genesis 11:1-9: Babel or Ur?" JETS 22 (1979): 17-18; Steve Reimer, "The Tower of

Babel: An Archaeologically Informed Reinterpretation," Direction 25 (1996): 64-72; and as an

optional interpretation Meredith Kline in The New Bible Commentary (ed. Donald Guthrie and J. A.

Motyer; rev. ed.; Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1970), 91; D. E. Kidner, Genesis (Chicago: InterVarsity,  1967), 110.



THE DATE OF THE TOWER OF BABEL              21

 

Kidner and Kline suggest this "local" interpretation as an alternative possi-

bility but give few supporting details. Reimer, Payne, and DeWitt each give sup-

porting details and suggest that the event being described in Gen 11:7-9 is

reflecting a cultural upheaval. Reimer sees the story of Gen 11:1-9 as reflecting

the fall of the Uruk culture c. 3000 B.C.; and, the confusion of language is just a

way of saying that diverse ethnic groups took over after the fall of the Uruk cul-

ture. Payne suggests that the upheaval was due to the influx of the Akkadians

with their Semitic language into Sumer sometime around 3000 to 2500 B.C.

The Akkadian language confused the Sumerian language and eventually dis-

placed it. DeWitt suggests that the upheaval was due to the invading Elamites

and Subarians in 1960 B.C. who put an end to the Sumerian civilization.

These are interesting suggestions, but before we can accept a "local" inter-

pretation of Gen 11:1-9, compelling exegetical reasons should be given for

rejecting the historical interpretation of the church, especially since it appears

that apart from this handful of concordists, all modern scholars agree with the

historic interpretation. But, neither Kline nor Reimer offers any exegetical rea-

sons for suggesting this new interpretation; and Kidner only notes that v. 4b

suggests the builders were fearful of attack, thus lending some support to the

idea that they were a limited particular people. Verse 4b, however, only men-

tions a fear of being scattered. There is nothing implying a fear of attack unless

the tower is interpreted as a defensive tower, and Kidner does not attempt to

interpret the tower as a defensive tower rather than a ziggurat. Kidner's inter-

pretation on the whole, in fact, leans toward the church's historic interpreta-

tion. He sees the act of God at the end of the story as a "fit discipline of an

unruly race."

Payne's only exegetical defense for the "local" interpretation is that the word

Crxh (the earth) can mean either land or the world; and he says, "it need not

be doubted that the author of this story was concerned with just his own immediate

surroundings, southern Mesopotamia.”40 But, Payne gives no reasons for inter-

preting Crxh as land rather than the world. His argument is a bare assertion.

DeWitt is the only one of the five who gives more than a one-sentence

defense of this new interpretation. He gives three reasons for understanding

Crx in 11:1 as referring just to Mesopotamia. His first reason is that Gen 10:5,

20, and 31 indicate "the natural development of diverse languages and dia-

lects." Genesis 11:1 would not, therefore, speak of a total worldwide singleness

of language because "the narrator would surely have caught so obvious a con-

tradiction to the immediate context."41

If DeWitt meant the various languages of the world developed over time as a

natural course of events, this is not in contradiction to a miraculous judgment,

as described in Gen 11:7-9, being the event which began the process. If DeWitt

meant the events of Gen 10 preceded those of 11:1-9, he is adopting a position

 

  40 Payne, "Babel," 382.

  41 DeWitt, "Historical Background," 17.



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contrary to the vast majority of exegetes. Historically, commentators have recog-

nized that the events of Gen 10 chronologically follow the events of 11:1-9, and

no one has thought this makes an "obvious contradiction" between the meaning

of Gen 10:5, 20 and 31 and understanding "all the earth" in Gen 11:1 as

meaning the entire world.

Although the events in Gen 10 are chronologically later than the events in

Gen 11:1-9, there are good contextual reasons why the church has not seen

Gen 11:1-9 as a contradiction of Gen 10. The biblical account of the flood

makes it abundantly clear that no human being was left alive on the earth after

the flood except Noah and his sons (and their wives). Since everyone living on

the earth after that would be descendants of this one family (9:19; 10:32), it was

obvious that everyone on earth would be speaking the same language for some

time after the flood. Since the flood and the sons of Noah are mentioned in

Gen 10:32, it is natural to understand the next verse, Gen 11: 1, as referring to a

time shortly after the flood when everyone was speaking the same language. It is

not surprising that exegetes throughout church history have identified "all the

earth" in Gen 11:1 as the recent descendants of Noah, all still speaking the

same language that he spoke.42

In addition to setting forth the background of the flood, Gen 10:32 (and its

parallel in 9:19) speaks of a dispersion of the descendants of the sons of Noah

over the whole world after the flood, a dispersion which involves a variety of

languages (10:5, 20, 31). Since the very next thing one reads about is the disper-

sion of the builders at Babel into conflicting language groups (11:4, 8, 9), it is

almost impossible not to make the connection between the two accounts. The

reader naturally sees the judgment of Gen 11:7-9 as being the event which

began the process of dispersion and language differentiation, with Gen 11:1

being a description of all the earth before the judgment at Babel.

DeWitt's second argument begins with the fact that Crx can mean either

land or whole world. He then says, there is a sequence of local concepts begin-

ning with "the whole Tigris-Euphrates basin [apparently in v. 1], a plain within

the basin (v. 2), a city within the plain (v. 4), and a tower within the city (v. 4)."

But this argument just begs the question for there is no reason why this

sequence cannot begin with the whole world and work down to the tower.43

DeWitt's third argument is that the whole paragraph is "full of local expres-

sions." His illustrations of these expressions are simply "a plain in the land of

Shinar" and "let us build a city, and a tower whose top is unto heaven, lest we be

scattered abroad upon the face of the earth." As a sub-argument, DeWitt adds

that the unity of the language and the builders is "so localized that they look out

upon their world with fear and are concerned for their security lest they be scat-

tered through the whole earth." He concludes that the tower and city must be

 

   42 Until the nineteenth century there was nearly unanimous opinion that the one language

being spoken in Gen 11: 1 was Hebrew.

   43 In Jer 26:6 there is a reverse sequence from the local temple to the city to the whole earth, and the

earth is clearly universal.



THE DATE OF THE TOWER OF BABEL              23

 

local. The tower and city, of course, are local as are the expressions he men-

tions; but these facts in no way prove or even imply that the word Crx in

Gen 11:1 is local any more than the address on an envelope with its local name,

street, and city implies that the country to which it is sent is local.

DeWitt's sub-argument, which is the same as the one argument offered by

Kidner, is also not compelling. It is true that the builders felt a certain fear of

being scattered; but the flood which their recent forefathers had survived was

an epochal traumatic event. The survivors would be like the only eight people

who survived a worldwide nuclear holocaust. An event like that would leave fol-

lowing generations with an undefined anxiety and fear which felt open to

destruction just by virtue of being separated from the community. There is no

need to suppose they feared attack from other groups of people; and there is no

clear evidence in the text which indicates that an attack from other groups of

people was the basis of their fear.

The concordists are largely just begging the question. Their arguments are

insufficient for rejecting the historical interpretation of the church. There are

very good contextual reasons supporting the historically accepted interpreta-

tion of "all the earth" in Gen 11:1 as referring to all mankind, the whole world;

and these reasons were not even addressed by the concordists. A review of those

reasons is, therefore, in order.

            First of all the phrase Crxh-lk, "all the earth," in Gen 11:1 occurs right

after a statement mentioning the anthropologically universal flood. It is the

anthropological universality of the flood which is the contextual backdrop that

defines the meaning of Gen 11:1.

Secondly, the statement that "all the earth" had the "same words and the

same grammar" is emphatic. An emphatic statement like this does not fit a ref-

erence to one country out of many, each of which has the same words and the

same grammar. Similarly, Geri 11:6a, "And Jehovah said, Behold, they are one

people, and they all have one language," makes little if any sense when inter-

preted locally. Since the world delineated in Gen 10 is about as wide and diverse

as Europe, Gen 11:1 interpreted locally would be like saying emphatically, "All

of Italy spoke the same language (Italian);" and 11:6a would be like saying

"Behold, the Italians are one people and they all have the same language." Why

should this be emphatic or draw any attention? All of France also spoke the

same language (French). All of Spain spoke the same language (Spanish). Every

country spoke the same language. So what if the Italians did? But, if the state-

ment is saying, "All the world spoke the same language," that is startling in light

of the fact that they certainly do not all speak the same language now. It would

be appropriate to make emphatic statements about the whole world speaking

the same language because it would be so unusual compared to the present.

Thirdly, the terminology in Gen 11:5 ill fits a merely local interpretation. It

calls the builders the "sons of men" (Mdxh ynb), literally "sons of the man."44

 

    44 Not "sons of Adam" since an article is not used with personal names.



24        WESTMINSTER THEOLOGICAL JOURNAL

 

If the account had been merely local, it probably would have spoken of par-

ticular sons like the "sons of Heth" (Hittites, Gen 23:3) or the "sons of Midian"

(l'vlidianites, Gen 25:4). The phrase "the sons of the man" refers to mankind in

general.45 Finally, the climax of the story in v. 9 is telling. If you interpret it

locally, it says, "there the Lord confused the language of the whole land of Shi-

nar." If people all over the world were already speaking different languages, this

conclusion to the story seems rather insignificant and anti-climactic. But, if all

of mankind was speaking one language until this event, v. 9 makes a fitting and

resounding climax not only to the story but also to the universal history begun

in Gen 1. Closing out that universal history with a story of mankind attempting

to make a name for itself in a way that threatens to bring a curse upon mankind

makes a great introduction to the next chapter of Genesis, wherein God prom-

ises to make a name for a man he chose, Abraham, and through him to bring a

blessing upon all mankind (Gen 12:2, 3).

In summary, the concordist reinterpretation of Gen 11:1-9 has a very weak

exegetical foundation and contrasts with the contextually rooted foundation

which supports the historical interpretation of the church. The fact that no one

until modern times interpreted "all the earth" in Gen 11:1-9 in a local way indi-

cates that this interpretation does not arise naturally from Scripture.46 Just as

concordists take Gen 1 out of context in order to make it harmonize with mod-

ern geography, geology, and astronomy47  so they take Gen 11:1-9 out of context

in order to make it harmonize with modern geography and anthropology.

In addition, although it might appear at first glance that the various "local"

reinterpretations of Gen 11:1-9 are bringing the biblical text into harmony

with its ancient Near Eastern context, the truth is they leave the biblical text at

serious odds with ancient Near Eastern archaeology.

In the biblical text (11:7-9), the confusion of the builders' language is so sudden

and definitive that the builders are no longer able to "understand one

another's speech" and are thereby forced to give up completing the building of

the city and tower. In Reimer's reconstruction of the event, although other lan-

guages may have come into the area c. 3000 B.C., the Sumerian language went

right on being spoken and understood until at least the fall of Ur III, a thousand

years later. So Reimer's reconstruction of the event actually contradicts

Gen 11:7 and 9.

Payne's reconstruction of the event with its invasion of the Akkadians in

3000 to 2500 B.C. likewise contradicts Gen 11:7 and 9, since it leaves the Sume-

rian language intact for at least another 500 years, allowing plenty of time to

finish building the city and tower. In addition, Payne's reconstruction of the

event was built upon an archaeological theory popular at the time which

hypothesized that the Akkadian language did not enter the area which the Bible

 

    45 Cf. Gen 1:27; 6:1; 8:21; and 9:6 where the same phrase is used.

    46 Several of the concordists themselves comment that the story looks like it is about human-

kind.

    47 Paul H. Seely, "The First Four Days of Genesis in Concordist Theory and in Biblical Con-

text," Perspectives on Science and Christian Faith 49 (1997): 85-95.



THE DATE OF THE TOWER OF BABEL              25

 

calls Shinar until the invasion of the Akkadians c. 3000 to 2500 B.C. Today a

number of leading archaeologists believe that Akkadian was spoken alongside

of Sumerian from the very beginning.48

DeWitt's reconstruction is a better archaeological fit to Gen 11:7 and 9, since

the fall of Ur III in 1960 B.C. initiates the end of Sumerian as a spoken lan-

guage; but it still leaves a generation or two before the language would have

been understood only by scribes. DeWitt's reconstruction contradicts the bibli-

cal text in any event, however, because 1960 B.C. is too late for the first building

of the city and tower of Babel as the biblical text demands.49 In addition, the

biblical text demands that just one language be spoken in Shinar before the

tower was begun; but, on DeWitt's reconstruction two languages were spoken

in Shinar for four hundred years before the tower of Babel was begun, for we

know that Akkadian was spoken in Shinar from the middle of the third millen-

nium B.C.50

The "local" interpretations of Gen 11:1-9 which have been offered, there-

fore, violate the biblical text both contextually and archaeologically.51 They

drive us back to the historical interpretation as the only contextually valid one.

The more detailed concordist reinterpretations do, however, make a positive

contribution in that they all fundamentally agree in dating the tower of Babel

between c. 3000 and 2000 B.C.52

 

VI. Scientific Evidence for Diverse Languages Prior to the Tower of Babel

 

As we have seen, if Gen 11:1-9 is accepted as historically accurate, the building

of the tower of Babel can be dated approximately between 3500 and 2400

B.C. The problem which arises is that when Gen 11:1-9 is interpreted in context

it is saying that until the building of the tower of Babel, that is, until 3500 B.C. at

the earliest, all people on earth spoke the same language. It is quite evident from

archaeology, however, that this is not the case.

When we step outside the world known to the biblical writer, it becomes

immediately obvious that diverse languages were in existence prior to and dur-

ing the building of the tower of Babel. We should perhaps stop, however, to

note just how large the earth was understood to be by the biblical writer. The

extent of the earth in the understanding of the biblical writer is given in Gen

   48 Joan Oates, Babylon (London: Thames and Hudson, 1986), 22; Crawford, Sumer and the

Sumerians, 20; I. M. Diakonoff, ed., Early Antiquity (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1991), 72.

   49 Even if the city and tower are moved to Ur as DeWitt suggests, it is still too late for the first

building of the city and tower.

   50 CAH3 1:1, 134; Gene B. Gragg, "Semitic Languages," OEANE 4:517.

   51 There may still be a tie to ancient Near Eastern literature including a possible Sumerian par-

allel. See Wenham, Genesis 1-15, 236-38.

   52 John Walton, though not offering a concordistic interpretation, dates the tower "perhaps dur-

ing the late Uruk period, or perhaps as late as the Jemdet Nasr period ..." (3500 to 3000 B.C.) in

"The Mesopotamian Background ... ," 173. All four of these evangelical scholars, therefore, con-

firm that the tower of Babel should be dated between 3000 and 2000 B.C., with 3500 B.C. as the

earliest date.



26                    WESTMINSTER THEOLOGICAL JOURNAL

 

10. The northern boundary is marked by the peoples around the Black Sea

(Gen 10:2; Ezek 38:6). The southern boundary is marked by peoples living in

the extreme south of the Arabian peninsula (Gen 10:7: cf. Matt 12:42). The

eastern boundary is marked by Elam (Gen 10:22). The western boundary is at

Tarshish (Gen 10:4), but its location is not certain. Although elsewhere in Scrip-

ture Tarshish may refer to Tartessos in Spain, in Gen 10 it probably refers to a

location c. latitude ten degrees east, perhaps Sardinia, Tunis, or Carthage. "All

the earth" in Gen 11:1 is then a circle or ellipse around 2400 miles in width and

1200 in height.53 Everyone in the ancient Near East understood this circular

area to be the entire extent of the earth and that this earth was surrounded by a

great ocean.54

Genesis 10 thus indicates (and history makes certain) that the writer of Gen

11 was oblivious to the existence of the Far East, Australia, and the Americas.55

Yet an awareness of these lands and the peoples living there is critically impor-

tant to the history of language. For although samples of written languages do

not appear in the Far East, Australia, or the West before 3500 B.C., archaeologi-

cally stratified sites and carbon-14 dating show that people certainly lived in

these areas both before 3500 B.C. and during the building of the tower of Babel.

In addition, the isolation of the Far East, Australia, and the Western peoples

from the Near East and from each other, as well as the structures of the many

languages in existence today that descended from them, virtually guarantee

that they were not speaking Sumerian or any other ancient Near Eastern lan-

guage.56

Spirit Cave in Thailand, for example, is a stratified site showing human occupation

from before 5000 B.C. down to 250 B.C.57 We do not know what language they were

speaking in Thailand from 5000 to 2000 B.C.; but, we can be sure it was not Sumerian.

Pan-p'o in China was continuously occupied by farmers of distinctly Mongoloid

type for at least five hundred years before the earliest date for the tower of Babel.58  

In addition, 113 potsherds were found at Pan-p'o incised with proto-Sinitic logographs.

These logographs are archetypal to the Chinese language

 

    53 See the maps in The Harper Atlas of the Bible (ed. James Pritchard, New York: Harper & Row, 1987),

 92-93, and in The Zondervan XIV Atlas of the Bible (ed. C. G. Rasmussen; Grand

Rapids: Regency, 1989), 71.

    54 Paul H. Seely "The Geographical Meaning of `earth' and `seas' in Genesis 1:10," WTJ 59

(1997): 231-55.

    55 We know from ancient history that no one in the ancient world envisioned the inhabited

world to be significantly larger than the extent delineated in Gen 10. It did not extend to the Far

East, Australia, or the Americas.

    56 Robert M. W Dixon, The Rise and Fall of Languages (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press,

1997), 96; R. L. Trask, Language Change (New York: Routledge, 1994), 52, 67; Leonard Bloomfield,

Language (New York: Holt, Rinehart and Winston, 1933), 13. Cf. "Language," The New Encyclopedia

Britannica (1998), 22:569.

    57 Joyce C. White, ' A Lost Bronze Age," Natural History (November 1984): 82; Ronald Schiller,

"Where was the ‘Cradle of Civilization'?" Readers Digest (August 1980): 67-71.

sa Ping-ti Ho, The Cradle of the East (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1975), 16-18. It

should be noted here that 3500 B.C. (the earliest date for the tower of Babel) would also have to



THE DATE OF THE TOWER OF BABEL              27

 

and testify clearly that a form of Chinese, unrelated to any language in the

ancient Near East, was spoken before the tower of Babel was built, perhaps

even thousands of years before it was built.59

In Japan, the Jomon culture, which is evidenced at 25 different sites in Japan,

seems to run in a continuous sequence from c. 10,000 B.C. to A.D. 1000. There are

more than enough stratified sites and carbon-14 dates from 5000 to 2000

B.C. to show that the Ainu inhabited Japan well before the time that the tower of

Babel began to be built and all during its building. The language which they

spoke is not related even to Chinese, much less to Sumerian.60

At Keniff Cave, Rocky Cave South, and numerous other sites in Australia,

there are well-stratified stone and bone remains dating from c. 20,000 B.C. to

A.D. 1500.61 Most relevant to our discussion are the dozen sites which are

radiocarbon-dated from c. 5000 to 4000 B.C., i.e., before the tower of Babel

began to be built.62 The people who left tools at these sites must have had a lan-

guage; and the language they spoke may be related to other languages of Oce-

ania, but certainly not to Sumerian, Chinese, or Japanese.63

At numerous sites in North America, such as Danger Cave in Utah, stratified

remains of Indian cultures are radiocarbon-dated from 9000 to 3000

B.C.64 At Sierra Madre Oriental and other sites in Mexico, human and cultural

remains are carbon-dated from 7000 to 1400 B.C.65 Since these Indians

apparently came from Asia originally, we would expect their languages around

5000 B.C. to relate to Asian languages, but not to ancient Near Eastern languages.

In any case, whatever languages they may have spoken, they were in America

speaking them before the tower of Babel began to be built and, all during the time

from 3500 to 2000 B.C.

We can say then that there is firm archaeological ground based both on

radiocarbon dates and stratified sites to support the conclusion that long before

the tower of Babel began to be built and all during the fourth millennium B.C.,

men were scattered over the entire globe speaking a multitude of different lan-

guages. This conclusion is clearly opposed to the assumptions underlying

Gen 11:1-9 and opposite to the statements in 11:1 and 6 in particular.

At this point someone might suggest that perhaps the tower of Babel should

be dated earlier. But, on what basis would anyone suppose that it should be

dated earlier than c. 3500 B.C.? One might be tempted to refer to the fact that a

 

predate the origin of the Mongoloid, Negroid, and Australoid peoples, an idea which no

anthropologist would accept.

   59  Ho, Cradle, 34, 366-67; Diakonof, Early Antiquity, 388.

   60 C. M. Aikens and T. Higuchi, Prehistory of Japan (New York: Academic, 1982), 18, 323. Cf.

Ho, Cradle, 38.

   61 Derek J. Mulvaney, The Prehistory of Australia (New York: Praeger, 1969), 111, 135, 179.

    62 Mulvaney, Prehistory, 180.

    63 "Australian Aboriginal Languages," The New Encyclopedia Britannica (Chicago: 1908), 1:714.

    64 Gordon Randolph Willey, An Introduction to American Archaeology (Englewood Cliffs: Prentice-

Hall, 1966), 1:29, 56-57; Robert J. Wenken, Patterns in Prehistory (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1990), 220.

    65 Willey, Introduction, 79-80.



28                    WESTMINSTER THEOLOGICAL JOURNAL

 

stone tower was built in Jericho c. 8500 B.C. But this really has no bearing on the

tower of Babel because, as noted earlier, southern Mesopotamia where Baby-

lon is located did not even have permanent settlements until c. 5500 B.C. and

had no cities with architecture comparable to that of Jericho until c. 3500 B.C. at

the very earliest.66 Hence, no one familiar with ancient Near Eastern archaeol-

ogy has been willing to date the tower of Babel any earlier than c. 3500 B.C.

Also, the further back the date of the tower is pushed, the less it fits the archaeo-

logical data and the more improbable the date becomes. Nor are the archaeo-

logical architectural data the only problem.

The flood account in Scripture reflects a relationship with second millennial

Mesopotamian accounts. Even granting a common ancestor to the biblical and

Mesopotamian accounts, every year that you move the date of the tower of

Babel (and the flood with it) earlier than 3500 B.C., the more improbable it

becomes that the two flood accounts would be so similar to each other since

they only would have been handed down orally.67

The fact is, in order for the tower of Babel to have been the starting point

for the division of one human family into varying races and language groups as

Gen 11:1-9 demands, even a very conservative interpretation of the archaeo-

logical and anthropological evidence indicates that the tower would have to

have been built long before 10,000 B. C. But the chances of a monumental tower

and city being built in Babylon out of baked brick and bitumen before even the

Neolithic age is so improbable from an archaeological point of view as to be

virtually impossible.

One cannot date the tower of Babel early enough to fit all of the archaeo-

logical and anthropological data without implicitly espousing a methodology

which favors bare possibility over probability; and, such a methodology is anti-

thetical to serious scholarship.

 

VII. Creation Science, Carbon-14 Dating, and the Tower of Babel

 

In order to maintain the historical interpretation of the flood and the tower

of Babel, creation science simply denies the validity of the trustworthiness of

carbon-14 dating. The validity of carbon-14 dating sounds the death knell for

creation science; so, many papers have been written by creation scientists

attempting to throw doubt on its validity.68 In the early decades of its use many

of the dates that carbon-14 dating produced were erroneous for one reason or

another; so, questioning was justified and non-Christians raised just as many

 

    66 Van De Mieroop, The Ancient Mesopotamian City, 23.

    67 Although there are important differences between the two accounts, no other flood account is

so close to the biblical account as the Mesopotamian. Virtually every scholar agrees they are

related to each other.

    68 Creationist papers on radiocarbon-dating written between 1950 and 1990 are reviewed in

CRSQ 29 (1993): 170-83.



THE DATE OF THE TOWER OF BABEL              29

 

questions as Christians did.69 But there has been a significant refinement of the

method in the last two decades and most importantly, its essential validity has

been confirmed objectively by comparison with dendrochronology and with

annually produced varves.70

By comparing carbon-14 dates with known dates from counting tree rings in

trees linked together stretching back from the present to 9300 B.C., the essential

validity of carbon-14 dating has been proven.71 This validation of carbon-14

dating through comparison with the ages given by counting tree rings rests

upon two long sequences of tree rings linked together. These sequences were

independently produced by different scientists in different parts of the world

using different species of trees.

The major objection from creation science to the validity of the tree ring

sequences is that due to varying weather conditions a tree might produce more

than one ring in one year. A very meticulous study, however, showed that the

bristlecone pine, upon which the first long dendrochronology was based, does

not normally produce more than one ring per year.72 The oak trees, upon

which the other major long dendrochronology is based, so rarely grow extra

rings that one can almost say they never grow them.73 Further, in order to be

sure that no extra (or missing) ring has slipped into a sequence, each section of

the sequence is based upon numerous trees growing over the same period of

time, eliminating by comparison any trees that might have idiosyncratic rings.

In addition, densities, which are independent of tree-ring widths, are compared

as well. Because of this cross-checking, errors from extra or missing rings are

eliminated.74

 

    69 Alasdair Whittle, Problems in Neolithic Archaeology (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1988), 19 n. 78.

   70 I say "essential validity" because contaminated samples and other problems can cause indi-

vidual carbon-14 dates to be invalid, and with dates prior to c. 750 B.C. there is a systematic deviation

of carbon-14 dates from accurate dates with the result that the earlier dates must be calibrated, and

even then there is room for slippage; but, in spite of problems with some particular dates, no one today

 doubts on scientific grounds that carbon-14 dating gives a valid overall guide to chronological sequencing.

    71 Minze Stuiver et al., "Radiocarbon Age Calibration Back to 13,300 Years BP and the 14 C

Age Matching of the German Oak and US Bristlecone Pine Chronologies," Radiocarbon 28 (1986): 969-79;

Bernd Becker, "An 11,000-Year German Oak and Pine Dendrochronology for Radiocarbon Calibration,"

Radiocarbon 35 (19931: 201-13. See the new optimism of two scholars who are aware of C-I4's early problems:

 Fekri A. Hassan and Steven W. Robinson, "High Precision Radiocarbon Chronometry of Ancient Egypt, and

Comparisons with Nubia, Palestine and Mesopotamia," Antiquity 61 (1987): 130.

   72 V C. LaMarche, Jr., and T. P Harlan, "Accuracy of Tree Ring Dating of Bristlecone Pine for

Calibration of the Radiocarbon Time Scale," Journal of Geophysical Research 78 (1973): 8849-58 n. 79.

    73 M. G. L. Baillie, Tree-Ring Dating and Archaeology (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1982), 52 n. 81.

    74 Jeffrey S. Dean, "Dendrochronology" in Chronometric Dating in Archaeology (ed. R. E. Taylor and Martin J.

Aitken; New York: Plenum, 1997), 34-38; Baillie, Tree-Ring Dating and Archaeology, 52-53.



30                    WESTMINSTER THEOLOGICAL JOURNAL

 

The patterns of tree rings which link the trees together in a sequence are kept

from error by similar replication.75 Since thousands of annual rings occur in

each bristlecone pine (up to 6000 in the oldest tree), one only has to find the

overlapping patterns of rings a few times in order to make a long sequence. In

the oak series where the rings are only available in hundreds, the examination

and comparison of numerous trees from the same period eliminates anomalies

and establishes the valid unique patterns which are used to link the overlapping

trees.76 In addition to unique patterns of ring widths and densities, unique rings

due to fire, flood, frost, or insect damage verify and validate the sequences.

Carbon-14 dating, as it is applied to these dendrochronological sequences, is

validated by the fact that the carbon-14 dates essentially agree with the tree-

ring dates, systematically growing older as the older tree rings are tested. Also,

although beginning around 750 B.C. the carbon-14 dates curve away from the

tree ring dates, the curve of the dates obtained from dating the long European

dendrochronological sequence matches the curve from dating the independent,

long American tree-ring sequence.77  In addition, because the production of

carbon-14 in the atmosphere varies slightly over time, the carbon-14 dates

oscillate along the length of the calibration curve, forming small peaks and val-

leys, popularly called "wiggles." In the independently produced European and

American tree sequences, even these "wiggles" match up.78 The fact that not

only the long-term but even the short-term patterns in the carbon-14 dates

match each other in two independently arrived at dendrochronological

sequences is proof positive that the carbon-14 dating is valid.79

So clear and irrefutable is this validation of carbon-14 dating that Dr. Gerald

Aardsma, a nuclear physicist, a specialist in carbon-14 dating and a teacher

at the Institute for Creation Research for five years, came to the conclusion that

since carbon-14 dating according to creation science theory could be valid only

after the flood, the flood must have occurred prior to 9300 B.C. Indeed, Aardsma

calculates the date of the flood as close to 12,000 B.C., partly because it would

take time after the flood for carbon-14 to stabilize in the ocean, which is neces-

sary before carbon-14 dating can be accurate.

Aardsma set forth the evidence and his conclusions about the date of the

flood in a paper published in 1990 and then in 1993 wrote a second paper

 

    75 Baillie, Tree-Ring Dating and Archaeology, 85-86; Martin Oberhofer, H. Y. Goksu, and D.

Regulla, eds., Scientific Dating Methods (Dordrecht: Kluwcr Academic, 1991), 201-6; J. R.

Pilcher et al., "'A 7, 272-Year Tree-Ring Chronology for Western Europe," Nature 312 (1984): 150-52.

   76 There is one section of the European oak chronology which is weak; but, even if it were

shown to be inaccurate, the difference would be relatively insignificant.

   77 H. E. Suess and T W Linick, "The 14C Record in Bristlecone Pine Wood of the Past 8000

Years Based on the Dendrochronology of the Late C. W. Ferguson," Phil. Trans. R. Soc. Lond. A 330 (1990): 405.

    78 Gerald Aardsma, "Tree Ring Dating and Multiple Ring Growth Per Year," CRSQ 29 (1993):

186, figure 4; R. E. Taylor, Austin Long, and R. S. Kra, eds., Radiocarbon After Four Decades (New

York: Springer-Verlag, 1992), 37, 44.

    79 Taylor, Long, and Kra, Radiocarbon, 20, 24-25, 37, 43; Goksu, Oberhofer; and Regulla, Scientific

Dating Methods, 201-6.



THE DATE OF THE TOWER OF BABEL              31

 

answering objections which had been made to his reliance on dendrochronol-

ogy in his 1990 paper.80 He received two immediate replies to his 1993 paper.

One still objected that the dendrochronological data was just tentative and a

Christian should hold to the biblical chronology regardless. Aardsma replied

that the biblical chronology was not certain.

The tree ring/radiocarbon data are not tentative; the tree rings really exist (in

excess of 10,000 of them, one after the other), and the concentrations of radiocarbon

in these rings will not be different tomorrow than it was measured to be yesterday.

These data will not vanish.81

The other reply to his paper was from a Christian paleobotanist who said,

As one who was raised with a belief in the accuracy of Ussher's chronology as

modified by Edwin R. Thiele (1965), I have been led independently to the same

conclusions with respect to the accuracy of dendrochronology as those reached

by Gerald E. Aardsma.82

We must say then that there is objective empirical proof of the validity of

carbon-14 dating back to at least 9300 B.C.; and this is in addition to the fact that

carbon-14 dating has also been objectively validated by comparison with the

10,000 years of annual varves found at the Lake of the Clouds in Minnesota.83

With carbon-14 dating objectively proven to be essentially valid back to 9300

B.C., one would have every reason to expect it to continue to give valid dates

even further back in history; and its correlations with varves and annual depos-

its in ice cores going back even further in history demonstrate its validity before

9300 B.C., but its proven validity back to 9300 B.C. is all that is necessary to sus-

tain the dates we have given above for the tower of Babel and for the archaeo-

logical finds prior to it.

Creation science, therefore, has no scientifically sound basis for rejecting the

dating of the tower of Babel sometime in the third millennium B.C. (or 3500 B.C. at

the earliest) or for rejecting the dating of numerous sites around the world

during the third millennium and earlier which indicate that mankind was

speaking numerous languages before and while the tower of Babel was being

built. This means that neither concordism nor creation science has any viable

solution to the conflict which exists between Gen 11:1-9 and the archaeological

data which show that many peoples were speaking different languages during

 

    80 Gerald Aardsma, "Radiocarbon, Dendrochronology and the Date of the Flood," in Pro-

ceedings of the Second International Conference on Creationism (ed. Robert E. Walsh and Chris L.

Brooks;Pittsburgh, PA: The Fellowship, 1990), 1-10; and "Tree Ring Dating and Multiple Ring Growth

Per Year," 184-89.

   81 CRSQ 30 (1993): 127-30.

   82 CRSQ 30 (1993): 127-31.

   83 Minze Stuiver, "Evidence for the Variation of Atmospheric C 14 Content in the Late Qua-

ternary," in Karl K. Turekian, ed., The Late Cenozoic Glacial Ages (New Haven: Yale University

 Press, 1971), 61. Creation science attempts to show that varves are not annual, but they ignore the

fact that since the pollen and diatoms vary annually, on those rare occasions when additional layers/

year occur, they can be identified and discounted.



32                    WESTMINSTER THEOLOGICAL JOURNAL

 

and prior to the building of the tower of Babel. A more biblical approach is

needed, and Reformed theology has pioneered just such an approach.

 

  VIII. Gracious Divine Accommodation to Limited Scientific Knowledge

 

            Whenever the word "earth" is used in the OT in a universal sense, such as in Gen 1:10,

it is defined historico-grammatically as a flat disc floating on a very

deep ocean.84 This description of the earth reflects, in the words of Warfield,

"an ordinary opinion of the writer's day"85 The divine revelation of God as

Creator and Ruler of all the earth is accommodated in Gen 1 and elsewhere in

the OT to the writer's limited understanding of geography.

In Gen 11:1-9 the revelation of God as Sovereign over the affairs of men

was also accommodated to the writer's limited understanding of geography. That

is, the writer was able to speak of "all the earth" having just one language because

he had no knowledge of the lands and peoples of the Americas, Australia, the Far

East, or even of all of Africa or Europe. As far as he was concerned, the earth

extended only from Sardinia to Afghanistan, and from the southern tip of the

Arabian Peninsula to the northern boundaries of the Black and Caspian Seas

(Gen 10)86; and the descendants of Noah had not yet spread out over even this

limited earth (Gen 11:4). The divine revelation of God was accommodated to

the writer's limited understanding of geography and anthropology.

We see another example of such divine accommodation to the limited geo-

graphical knowledge of the times in the NT.  In NT times educated people were

aware that the earth was a globe, but believed that the extent of the land area

which mankind inhabited was only slightly greater in longitude than the extent

of the earth in Gen 10 and not significantly greater in latitude. This limited

area of land was also believed, as in OT times, to be encircled by a great

impassable ocean.87 So in NT times just as in OT times, the southern coast of

the Arabian Peninsula was understood to be the southern limit of the entire

land continent including Africa, the place where the land inhabited by man lit-

erally came to an end.88

When then we read Jesus' statement in Matt 12:42/Luke 11:41 that the

Queen of Sheba came "from the ends of the earth," we may make the mistake

 

    84 Seely, "The geographical meaning," 231-55.

    85 B. B. Warfield, "The Real Problem of Inspiration," in The Inspiration and Authority of the

Bible (ed. Samuel G. Craig; Philadelphia: Presbyterian & Reformed, 1948), 197.

    86 Historical evidence shows that this was the entire extent of the earth as far as the writer and his

hearers were concerned. Kings in both Egypt and Mesopotamia often spoke of ruling the entire earth;

but when you inquire as to the extent of this earth, it is no bigger than as described in Gen 10. For example,

Naram Sin (2254-2218 B.C.) called himself "king of the four quarters, king of the universe," but his kingdom

extended only from Cyprus to the Gulf of Oman. Cf. Strabo, Geogr. 1.1.6-8, 13; 1.3.22; Pliny, Nat. 2.166-67,

170, 242; 6.1, 36-37, 56-58; Seneca, Nat. 3.29.7; 4A.2.24; 5.18.10; 6.23.3.

    87 Strabo, Pliny, and Seneca as in note 86; Tacitus, Germ. 45; Hist. Rech. 2.7; Josephus, AM. 1.31.  

   88 Sec the map of Strabo's world on left hand page opposite title page in volume 1 of The Geog-

raphy of Strabo (LCL; 1917; repr., Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1969).



THE DATE OF THE TOWER OF BABEL              33

 

of removing the statement from its historical context and understanding it in

terms of our modern geographical knowledge as a merely figurative way of saying

"a long distance." But the hearers of Jesus understood the statement literally. The

"ends of the earth" referred to the boundary between the inhabited earth (essen-

tially a single land mass) and the ocean that was believed to surround it.89 To the

south the earth was believed to end in the area of Sheba which is at the south-

western tip of the Arabian peninsula opposite Ethiopia. Thus Pliny speaks of

"the coast of the Ethiopic Ocean where habitation just begins."90 To the hearers

of Jesus there was no land south of that for there was no land beyond "the ends

of the earth."91 Hence, the hearers of Jesus would have understood Jesus' state-

ment literally; and if they had thought that his inspired statement necessarily

reflected God's omniscient knowledge of geography, it would have misled them

into believing that God agreed there was no inhabited land south of the land of

Sheba.

But Jesus did not mislead his hearers. He had no intention of revealing

God's knowledge of geography or of correcting the science of the times. His state-

ment was an accommodation pure and simple to the limited geographical

understanding of the times. Thus, the inspired statements of Matt 12:42,

Gen 1:14, and Gen 11:1 all reflect an understanding of the extent of the earth

which did not include the Americas, Australia, the Far East, or even all of

Africa or Europe. They are all accommodations to the geography of the times.

The idea that God has thus accommodated his revelation to the knowledge of

the times is not a new idea to Reformed theology. Warfield and others at "Old

Princeton" allowed for such an understanding and Calvin fostered it.

Calvin, for example, understood Ps 72:8 to be describing the extent of the

Messiah's kingdom as covering only the promised land. He commented,

"David obviously accommodates his language to his own time, the amplitude of

the kingdom of Christ not having been, as yet, fully unfolded."92 Calvin saw the

description of the extent of the kingdom as being an accommodation to proxi-

mate knowledge available at the time. Although he saw the description as being

limited by the revelation available at the time, the principle would be no differ-

ent if he had seen it as being limited by the geographical knowledge available at

the time. In the light of ancient Near Eastern literature not available to Calvin,

the description of the earth in Ps 72:8, though very limited geographically, is a

description of the entire earth in the mind of the writer.93 If Calvin had real-

ized this he might well have said, "David obviously accommodates his language

 

   89 Liddell & Scott define "end" (pera<j) as "end, limit., boundary." Since pera<j; and e]sxatoj

are synonyms [Tob 13:13 LXX (S)], see E. Earle Ellis, "'The End of the Earth' (Acts 1:8)," BBR 1

(1991): 126.

   90 Nat. 2.245.

   91 Thus Rom 10:18 speaks of "all the earth" as synonymous with "the ends of the inhabited

world." So also Philo, Legal. 18.173. Cf. Ign. Rom. 6:1; Ps 66:8 LXX (H 67:7); Ps 71:8 LXX (H 72:8).

    92 John Calvin, Commentary on the Book of Psalms (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1949), 3:109.

   93 Tarshish and Sheba (v. 10) were the western and southern ends of the known earth (cf. Ps

2:8). Seely, "Geographical Meaning," 249.



34                    WESTMINSTER THEOLOGICAL JOURNAL

 

to the limited geographical knowledge of his own time, the full extent of the

earth not having been, as yet, discovered."

Calvin gives us another example in his discussion of the geography of Eden

in Gen 2:8-14. It had been suggested in Calvin's time that the reason two of the

four rivers which are mentioned in that passage cannot be identified is that the

flood had changed the face of the earth so that the topography of the earth in

the time of Adam was different than it was in the time of Moses, and it is that

earlier, different topography that is being described in Gen 2:8-14. Calvin re-

jected this idea and said, "Moses (in my opinion) accommodated his topogra-

phy to the capacity of his age."94 Calvin believed that for the sake of being

easily understood the description of the garden of Eden would be accommo-

dated to the topographical knowledge available in the time of Moses. This is a

reflection of Calvin's strong belief that Scripture was written in terms which

any common Israelite could understand.

Similarly, when Gen 1 was criticized in Calvin's day for speaking of the sun

and the moon as "two great lights" and the stars as small in comparison even

though astronomers had proven that one of those stars, Saturn, was larger than

the moon, Calvin acknowledged the validity of the scientific facts, but said,

 

Certainly in the first chapter he did not treat scientifically of the stars, as a   

philosopher would do; but he called them [the sun and moon] in a popular

manner, according to their appearance to the uneducated, rather than according to

truth, "two great lights."95

 

Calvin did not expect the Scriptures to reflect modern scientific knowledge.

In the quote above he even goes so far as to contrast the biblical description of

nature given in Genesis with modern scientific knowledge. He refers to the bib-

lical description as one of true appearance, but the modern scientific descrip-

tion as one of objective "truth." In addition, he presses this difference between

the biblical description and the facts of modern science, saying, "The Holy

Spirit had no intention to teach astronomy." He also invites those of his readers

who might be interested in learning science to come not to Gen I but "to go

elsewhere."96 And he clearly delineates that "elsewhere" as referring to modern

professional scientists.

Admittedly, Calvin did not say that Gen 1:16 is an accommodation to the

science of the times, but only to the appearance which nature gives. But as was the

case with Ps 72:8, Calvin did not have available the data from anthropology and

ancient history that we have today. These data show clearly that it is not merely

appearances but the prescientific conclusions drawn from those appearances

which are in view in Gen 1. In the biblical period people did not think of the

stars as merely appearing small, but as actually being as small as they appear.

 

   94 John Calvin, Commentaries on the First Book of Moses Called Genesis (Grand Rapids:

Eerdmans, 1948), 1:119.

   95 Ibid., 1:86-87,256-57.

   96 John Calvin, Commentaries VI, Psalms 93-150 (repr., Grand Rapids: Baker, 1979), 184 (on Ps 136);

Calvin, First Book of Moses Called Genesis, 1:79.



THE DATE OF THE TOWER OF BABEL              35

 

For them the appearance was the reality. Stars could fall to the earth without

destroying it (Dan 8:10).97 The idea that one of those stars (Saturn) was larger

than the moon would have seemed incredible to them.

In NT times even many educated people still believed the stars were as small as they

appear. As sophisticated a thinker as Seneca could say of the stars,

“Although you pack a thousand of them together in one place they would never

equal the size of our sun."98 In the Sibylline Oracles both in 5:514-31 (first cen-

tury A.D.) and in 7:124-25 (second century A.D.), every star in heaven falls and hits the

earth; and although they cause a conflagration, both earth and man

remain.99 In the NT, accordingly, the stars can fall and hit the earth (Rev 6:13,

"into the earth," ei]j th>n gh?n) without destroying it.100 This verse, incidentally,

is another example of accommodation to the limited scientific knowledge of

the times.

As late as the end of the fourth century, Augustine, after raising the question

whether the stars were really very large but a long distance off or really as small as they

appeared, concluded that they were as small as they appeared.101 In his commentary on

Genesis, when he considered the same question in the early

fifth century, he continued to believe they were as small as they appeared, and

he cited Gen 1:16 as evidence that the sun and moon really were larger than the

stars, saying, "We do better when we believe that these two luminaries are

greater [in size] than the others, since Holy Scripture says of them, And God

made the two great lights."

Given the fact that people as late and as sophisticated as Augustine under-

stood Gen 1:16 literally, there can be no question that the original hearers of

Gen 1:16 understood the words literally. The verse cannot be interpreted

within its historical context as merely a reference to appearances, but rather as

a reference to conclusions drawn from the appearances. To the original hearers,

who believed the stars really were as small as they appear, the sun and moon

really were literally "the two great lights." And if they had thought, as August-

ine did, that this inspired statement in Gen 1:16 reflected God's omniscient

knowledge of astronomy, it would have misled them, as it misled Augustine,

into believing that God thought the sun and moon really were larger in size

than the stars.

Calvin's understanding of the fact: that modern science is not being revealed in

Gen 1:16 is a significant advance on Augustine's understanding. And,

although Calvin's own limited knowledge prevented him from seeing that

Gen 1: 16 is not a reference merely to appearances but to conclusions drawn

from those appearances, some of his comments on other passages show that his

 

   97 Cf. the Babylonian Dream Book 328, CAD K:48; Ezek. Trag. 79, 80.

   98 Nat. 7.1.

   99 Cf. Isaiah 34:4 LXX; Sib. Or. 2.202; 5.514-31; 7.124-25; Seneca, Marc. 26.6 and Ben. 6.1.

   100 1 discuss Jesus' accommodation to the belief in the smallness of the stars (as well as other

scientific beliefs of his day) in chapter three of my book, Inerrant Wisdom (Portland, Or.:

Evangelical Reform, 1989).

   101 Augustine, Letters of St. Augustine 14:3 (NPNF 1:231).



36                    WESTMINSTER THEOLOGICAL JOURNAL

 

principle of accommodation can encompass false conclusions which people

might draw merely from appearances. For example, in his comments on

Jer 10:2 where the people are in awe of "signs" in the heavens, that is, supposed

astrological omens given by the sun, moon, and stars, Calvin asks why the

prophet speaks of "signs" in the sense of astrological omens when in fact there

really are no such "signs." He answers that the prophet "accommodated him-

self to the notions which then prevailed."102 The accommodation is to a false

conclusion drawn merely from the appearances of the sun, moon, and stars.

Calvin's comments on John 17:12 demonstrate this same understanding of

accommodation. He first notes that the dignity of Judas's office gave him the

appearance of being one of the elect and "no one would have formed a differ-

ent opinion of him so long as he held that exalted rank." He then says that Jesus

spoke of him in v. 12 as being one of the elect "in accommodation to the ordi-

nary opinion of men.”103  Note that the accommodation to "the ordinary opin-

ion of men" is to an opinion about Judas which was contrary to the facts

because it was a belief based only on appearances.

So although Calvin did not apply his concept of accommodation to scientific

beliefs which were based only on appearances, he did provide for that possibility

in principle. Further, since Calvin had a deep commitment to interpreting the Bible

within its historical and cultural context, I think it is probable that if he had had the

anthropological and ancient Near Eastern data available which we have today, he

would have done so. He would have realized that such ideas as the solid firmament

(Gen 1:6), the water above (Gen 1:7), the earth founded upon the seas (Ps 24:2),

and the sun and moon as the largest lights (Gen 1:16) are prescientific beliefs based

on appearances.104 Accordingly, instead of referring simply to appearances, I think

he would have recognized they are really accommodations to the scientific "notions

which then prevailed." In any case, our recognition of the fact that Scripture is

accommodated to the scientific notions which then prevailed follows Calvin's understanding

of accommodation in principle; and with the knowledge we have available today I do not

believe we are really following Calvin if we are simply following him ad literatum.  Calvin

was a reformer willing to break with ecclesiastical tradition. Being true to him means that

Reformed theology must ever continue to reform.

Calvin's willingness to break with ecclesiastical tradition is seen in his breaking with

the Augustinian tradition that Scripture is a guide to science: where

Augustine saw Gen 1:16 as a revelation of scientific truth, Calvin realized that

Gen 1:16 was at best a reference simply to appearances and that the Holy Spirit

 

   102 John Calvin, Commentaries IX, Jeremiah 1-19 (repr., Grand Rapids: Baker, 1979), 7.

   103 John Calvin, Commentaries XVIII, John 12-21, Acts 1-13 (reps, Grand Rapids: Baker, 1979),

176.

   104 See my papers for a fuller discussion: "The Firmament and the Water above, Part 1: The

Meaning of raqia' in Gen 1:6-8," WTJ 53 (1991): 227-40; "The Firmament and the Water above,

Part 2: The Meaning of `The Water above the Firmament"' in Gen 1:6-8," WTJ 54 (1992): 31-46;

and "The Geographical Meaning," 231-55.



THE DATE OF THE TOWER OF BABEL              37

 

had "no intention to teach astronomy."105 These are clearly two different

approaches to the subject of the relationship of Scripture to modern scientific

knowledge; and although Calvin did not realize that Scripture is accommo-

dated to the science of the times, he certainly was moving in that direction. As

Gerrish said with regard to Calvin's geocentric understanding of Ps 19:4-6,

given his doctrine of accommodation, "Would it have been so difficult for

Calvin to assimilate the new ideas [of Copernicanism] and admit that the

Psalmist's language was rather differently accommodated than he had imag-

ined?"106

But, given that Scripture is accommodated to the science of the times, we

would like to understand why it has been accommodated in this way. I believe

one reason, as Calvin's understanding of accommodation stressed, is that it

facilitated communication of the theological truths being revealed. People of

differing cultures (and the OT did arise in a culture quite different from ours)

can find it almost impossible to accept some concepts that are common in

another culture. It is not so much a question of understanding the concepts as

of being able to accept them. When Anna Leorlowens tried to tell the children

of Siam that in some countries rain freezes as it falls and comes down as a white

substance called snow, "the whole school was indignant at what they considered

an obvious effort to stretch truth out of all reason and impose a ridiculous fan-

tasy on them."107 This proved to be a stumbling block to her authority as an

educator until the king, who had been educated in England, assured the chil-

dren that such a thing was possible. But, what if there had been no Western-

educated king?

When anthropologist Paul Raffaele saw that the houses of the Indonesian

Korowai Indians were built in the tops of trees, he tried to tell the Indians that

in the country where he came from people live in buildings ten times taller than

the trees. The Indians found this completely unbelievable. They snorted,

"Humans cannot climb that high." The anthropologist tried to explain eleva-

tors, but the Indians found this just as unbelievable as the original story. Some-

times, because of a radical difference in cultural background, a modern

concept simply cannot be accepted.

In our time, there has been so much emphasis upon outer space and space

travel that we find it almost impossible to grasp how anyone could ever have

believed the sky was solid. Yet, until the sixteenth century virtually everyone

everywhere in the world believed the sky was solid and had so believed for thou-

sands of years. The only exception to this belief before recent centuries was a

philosophical school which arose in China around A.D. 200 that believed the sky

was not solid. Yet, a Jesuit missionary coming upon this school of thought in the

sixteenth century found this idea of a non-solid sky so impossible to accept that

 

   105 Calvin's break with the Augustinian tradition is also seen in the contrasting ways in which he

and Augustine interpreted the firmament and the water above in Gen 1.

   106 B A. Gerrish, "The Reformation and the Rise of Modern Science" in The Impact of the

Church upon its Culture (ed. Jerald C. Brouer; Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1968), 261-62.

   l07 Margaret Landon, Anna and the King of Siam (New York: John Day, 1943), 229.



38                    WESTMINSTER THEOLOGICAL JOURNAL

 

he wrote home saying the idea that the sky is not solid is "one of the absurdities

of the Chinese."108

The inability to understand a concept which does not fit a current paradigm

is not a matter of intelligence, but of mentality, that is, of culturally ingrained

concepts. I believe then, in line with Calvin, that for the sake of facilitating as

opposed to hindering communication God wisely accommodated his revelation

to ancient scientific paradigms and left to mankind the task of discovering the

scientific truths which would change those paradigms. And this brings us to the

second basic reason why God has accommodated his revelation to ancient sci-

ence. He has endowed humankind with the grace, ability, and intellectual curi-

osity to discover the truths of the natural world, and more importantly, has

delegated to humankind the responsibility to discover those truths and thus sub-

due the earth (Gen 1:26-28). God accordingly has not attempted in Scripture to

correct the scientific "notions which then prevailed" but rather accommodated

his revelation to them. Increasing the dominion of humankind over the natural

world through the advance of scientific knowledge is our divinely delegated

responsibility.

In summary, in order to avoid obstacles to communication which might

become stumbling blocks, and to respect the divine decision to delegate to

humankind the responsibility for the discovery of natural knowledge, Scripture

is accommodated in Gen 11:1-9 (as well as in Gen 1 and Matt 12:42) to the lim-

ited geographical and anthropological knowledge available at the time. This is

in accord with Calvin's understanding of accommodation for he showed in his

expositions of Ps 72:8-10 and Gen 2:8-14 that he believed God accommodated

his revelation to the limited knowledge available at the time. In addition, in his

exposition of Gen 1:16 he broke with the old Augustinian belief that Scripture

reveals modern scientific knowledge. He believed Scripture was accommodated

in the realm of natural science to mere phenomenal appearances. But he also

showed in his expositions of Jer 10:2 and John 17:12 that he believed Scripture

could be accommodated to false conclusions which might be drawn from mere

phenomenal appearances. It is thus in accord with the principles of Calvin's doc-

trine of accommodation to believe that Scripture is accommodated not just to

phenomenal appearances, but to the limited scientific knowledge of the times,

to the scientific "notions which then prevailed."

I would only add that this divine accommodation which we find in Scripture

to the scientific "notions which then prevailed" does not reflect negatively upon God's

character as Truth. It is logically invalid to equate accommodation with making an error

or lying. Temporarily allowing a prescientific people to hold onto their ingrained beliefs

about the natural world is not at all the same thing as lying to them. Rather, it is following

the principle of becoming "all things to all men." It is a manifestation of amazing grace.

 

   108  Joseph Needham, "The Cosmology of Early China," in Ancient Cosmologies (ed. Carmen

Blacker, Michael Loewe, and Martin J. Plumley; London: Allen & Unwin, 1975), 90-92.


This material is cited with gracious permission from:

            Westminster Theological Seminary

            2960 W. Church Rd.

            Glenside, PA  19038

www.wts.edu

Please report any errors to Ted Hildebrandt at:  thildebrandt@gordon.edu