“Can you explain why Genesis 11:1 says that the ‘whole earth was of one language,’ when earlier, in Genesis 10, there is mention of various ‘tongues’ (vv. 5,20,31)?”
One principle of Bible interpretation that constantly must be kept in mind is this: some portions of scripture are arranged chronologically, i.e., in time sequence, while others are set forth topically, i.e., according to the writer’s thematic development. Not recognizing this fact can create considerable confusion in the mind of a Bible student.
There is a common mode of expression in the Bible whereby subjects are addressed topically, rather than chronologically. This means that the material may be assembled to accommodate a particular subject, rather than according to the sequence in which things actually happened.
For example, the careful reader will notice that there are some differences in the material presented in Genesis 1, as distinct from Genesis 2. It is not that the two records conflict with one another, as radical scholars allege; rather, Genesis 1 is presented chronologically, while chapter 2 reflects a thematic development with emphasis upon humanity. (See “Do the First Two Chapters of Genesis Contradict One Another?”)
I am taking the liberty at this point to reference a portion of my recently published book, Biblical Figures of Speech; this may facilitate our understanding of this problematic issue. It has to do with a figure of speech known as “prolepsis.”
The term “prolepsis” derives from a compound Greek word that signifies “to take before.” It is a figure of speech by which the time sequence of things is altered to accommodate the writer’s message.
For example, an event may be described as if it already had occurred.Or, information from a latter time period may be injected into an earlier record for clarity’s sake.
A modern example might be: “President Abraham Lincoln was born in Kentucky.”He was not President at the time of his birth, but the latter information is imported into the statement to provide a more complete information package. Let us now reflect upon some Bible examples of this form of expression.
- When John prepares to record the event of the raising of Lazarus from the dead, he mentions his friend’s sisters, Mary and Martha (John 11:1).He then identifies Mary as the one who anointed Jesus with ointment (v. 2).The actual anointing event, however, did not occur until later (cf. 12:3); yet in his record, the apostle condenses the time frame for identification purposes.That is prolepsis.Sometimes the recognition of this figure becomes very important in terms of correct doctrine.
- Let us consider another example in the Genesis record. In connection with the end of the creation week, Moses recounts that God rested (i.e., ceased from creative activity) on the seventh day. Further, it is said that the Lord blessed and sanctified (hallowed; made holy) the seventh day in commemoration of the cessation of his labor (Genesis 2:2-3). The text does not specify, however, precisely when the Sabbath was “hallowed.”
Many have assumed that the Sabbath became a “holy day” for the whole of mankind from the seventh day of earth’s history onward. But this by no means follows.
Consider the following facts.
- There is no record for the first several thousand years of human history that anyone kept the Sabbath as a day of religious worship, as such was authorized under the Mosaic system. There is not a solitary passage in Genesis that mentions any of the patriarchs observing the Sabbath as a holy day.
- Subsequent biblical information reveals that the “holy day” Sabbath was made known at Sinai (Nehemiah 9:14; cf. Deuteronomy 5:3,12), and that this obligation was a special “sign” between Jehovah and Israel (Ezekiel 20:10-12). It could hardly have been a unique “sign” between the Lord and Israel if everyone had been practicing Sabbath observance for centuries.
- Moses wrote the Genesis account after the Sabbath law was in place. When he recorded the narrative regarding God’s rest on the seventh day, he included the later information regarding its sanctification. This is prolepsis.
Sabbatarians, therefore, who attempt to argue for modern-day Sabbath-keeping, have no evidence, based upon Genesis 2:2-3, to buttress their assertion that the Sabbath was sanctified as a command for the whole human family from the time of creation onward.
- In giving instructions for the disciplinary procedure that was to be implemented among his people, Christ taught that if the wayward person cannot be reached by personal persuasion, the matter is to be brought before “the church” (Matthew 18:17).At this time, of course, there was no “church.” McGarvey comments:
“The Church is here spoken of before it had an actual existence, because the Savior was giving preparatory instruction and was compelled, as in many other instances, to speak by anticipation” (Commentary on Matthew & Mark, Des Moines, IA: Eugene Smith, n.d., p. 159).
This passage, therefore, is no proof-text that the church was already in existence — as some religionists have alleged.
Similar to these examples is the case of the inclusion of “tongues” references in the material of Genesis 10.
In this chapter there is information concerning the proliferation of Noah’s descendants. Several generations are mentioned along with various attending circumstances. The data supplied in chapter 10 is presented in anticipation of the dispersal chronicled in chapter 11. For further study, see: Harold Stigers, A Commentary on Genesis, Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1976, pp. 129ff.