In Genesis 10:5 we read, "From these the maritime peoples spread out into their territories by their clans within their nations, each with its own language." Yet in Genesis 11:1 it says, "Now the whole world had one language and a common speech." How do these 2 verses not contradict one another? -- D.A.
This is a really excellent question. In fact you're the first person who has ever asked me that question – and it’s a good one (thanks)!
There are multiple indications in Gen 1-11 that we’re intended to read this material differently than we would read other narrative sections of the Bible. For example, A&E and C&A are the entire human population – except that after Cain kills Abel, it’s quite clear there's already human civilization “out there.” Gen 11 refers to – and often rewrites – previous material familiar in the various cultures of the Ancient Near East. When we release the 3rd edition of Genesis, Science & History (later this year) I hope to cover these sorts of issues. In the meantime, if you have any further ideas related to your question, please feel free to share them with me.
Back to your question. The fact that the author of Genesis included two accounts side-by-side even though they are (on the surface) contradictory signals us that he actually considered them complementary. Both accounts are important. Some writers believe Gen 11 comes chronologically before Gen 10. But that isn’t necessary, if I am on the right track. Of course it's possible that the Babel incident happened between the end of the Flood and the re-populating of the Eastern Mediterranean, but that feels like a stretch -- too strenuous an effort to force passages to harmonize.
Throughout Gen 1-11 the pagan myths are parodied. The formless void is the deity Tiamat in the Babylonian account, as are the heavenly bodies, the sea, and so forth. As for Gen 11, the Babylonian god Enki is making mischief, preventing humans from speaking the same language. There is no moral reason. Same with the Babylonian account of the Deluge, which was sent to drown the noisy humans, since they were disturbing the gods’ sleep! In Gen 6 there is a moral reason for the flood: the sin of violence. At Babel, human pride is the reason the tongues of mankind are confounded.
Much of Gen 1-11 is a take-off on the confused and idolatrous beliefs of pagans, esp. the Babylonians and the earlier Sumerians, although most pagan peoples in the region shared similar mythology.
Further, just as 70 sons/grandsons/progeny of Jacob went to Egypt (Gen 46:27), here Noah’s sons/grandsons/progeny number exactly 70. Probably no coincidence. The writer is making more of a comment about the origins of the Israelites than of the human race. (I admit, if you ignore theology and ancient culture, it could be argued that the author is doing both, but I think this is to fail to appreciate the masterful and textured sort of writing give us in the Primeval History.
So, to restate the point, there's no true contradiction -- unless we fail to appreciate the sort of literature we are reading. When we read over-literally, multiple problems crop up. In chapter 1, sun and moon are placed in the firmament on day 4! This is not a scientific account. There are reasons for what we read (in this case, sun and moon are not gods – as they were regarded among all the ancient peoples – and day 1 was the providential preparation for day 4, just as day 2 was for day 5, and day 3 for day 6). Or say someone insisted on reading Jesus’ parables literally – “contradictions” would not be justified, since the parable is only a vehicle for conveying theological truth, and does not need to be literally true for the point to hold. (Maybe a fellow was robbed on the Jericho Road – as in Luke 10 -- but the story works either way. Maybe a servant owed his master $100,000,00 – though I think not! -- but the parable in Matt 18 doesn’t require such a wooden reading of the story. Make sense?)
Interpretation is an enormously important subject. That’s why we teach a series on NT Interpretation and another on OT interpretation – in AIM, the biblical training program that’s been running in one form or another since 1995. Maybe you will be one of our star students one day!
Hope these thoughts aren’t too jumbled to be of help to you. If you want more, what you seek is almost certainly already at the website, or in the recommended reading. You just need to poke around till you find the right search words. (Remember, you're exploring a website that has over 10,000 pages.)