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." But in Genesis 11:1 we read, "Now the whole world had one language and a common speech." How do these 2 verses not contradict one another? -- Deb Albritton

Excellent question. You are the first person who's ever asked me about this – I appreciate your being so observant.

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.

  • In chapter 1, sun and moon are placed in the firmament on day 4! This is not a scientific account, but a theological narrative. 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).
  • Adam and Eve and Cain and Abel are the entire human population – except that after Cain kills Abel, it’s quite clear there is already human civilization “out there.”
  • 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 are important. There is a parallel in Gen 1-2: the first creation story (1:1-2:4a) has the creation order animals-humans (men and women created together), while in the second (2:4b-25) it is man-animals-woman. A strictly literal reading lands us in a boatload of problems.
  • 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.
  • Some scholars believe Gen 11 comes chronologically before Gen 10. But that isn’t necessary, if I am on the right track. Throughout Gen 1-11 the pagan myths are parodied. For example, re: Gen 11, the Babylonian god Enki is making mischief, preventing humans from speaking the same language. There is no moral reason. So it is with the Babylonian Flood, 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. With the third edition of Genesis, Science & History (later this year) I hope to cover these sorts of issues. (Wait for it!) 

So, to restate the point, there is no true contradiction when we appreciate the sort of literature we're reading. But when we read over-literally, multiple problems crop up. To illustrate, 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 $100,000,000 – 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 running 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 are exploring a website of over 10,000 pages.)