THE DATE OF THE
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
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
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.
Although there is a question whether
or not the word
rates that lies south of modern Baghdad.2
Archaeological excavations in the
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,
Paul H. Seely is an independent scholar specializing in biblical history and the relationship of science to Scripture.
1 James R. Davilla,
Hans J. Nissen, "
Mohammed"; Piotr Michalowski,
"Sumerians," OEANE 5:96;
the Sumerians (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1991), 31.
before about 5600 to 5000 B.C."4
In the northern part of the
later than those in the southern part.6 Ras al-Amiya, c. 12 miles northeast of
on virgin soil carbon-dated to about 4500.8 At Jemdet Nasr, about 25 miles
as being from 4000 to 3000 B.C.
For reasons we will discuss below, it
is doubtful that any archaeologist would date the
push the events of Gen 11:1-9 back into history earlier than that if one takes the
II. Urbanism and Monumental Architecture Date the Tower
Prior to c. 3500 B.C., before the end of the Ubaid culture and the beginning
the Uruk culture, the "cities" in
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
Ubaid Reconsidered (ed. Elizabeth Henrickson
and Ingolf Thuesen;
Museum Tusculanum Press, 1989), 23.
5 The word
the country of
6 Marc Van Dc Mieroop,
7 David Stronach,
"Excavations at Ras al Amiya,"
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.
9 R. J. Matthews, "Jemdet Nasr," OEANE 3:212.
Cf. R. J. Forbes, Studies in Ancient
Technology (2nd ed.;
THE DATE OF THE
The Use of Baked Brick with Bitumen for
Mortar Dates the
We can derive a more sure indication of the earliest date for the building of
(v. 3 almost implies exclusively) as a building material. Baked bricks were very
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
writing about the history of architecture in 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
tecture were unbaked. Indeed, Jacquetta Hawkes indicates in her archaeologi-
cal survey that baked brick was not used for architecture anywhere in the entire
until c. 3000B. C.15 The use of baked brick in the
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
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.
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
Gen 11:4 tells us that the settlers in
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
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
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
4). This is exactly the way the building of the temple and ziggurat of
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-
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
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.
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
to Enuma Elish. Andre
21 John H. Walton, The
THE DATE OF THE
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
be large), while ziggurat is derived from the Akkadian
(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
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
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
lon c. 2350 B.C.24 This
suggests that there was a city established at
before 2350 B.C.; so, allowing a modest 50 years of city history, we can set 2400
as the terminus ante quem
for the first ziggurat built in Babylon.25 We can thus date the
building of the
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
Implications," BBR 5 (1995), 156.
23 H. W F Saggs,
The Greatness that Was
24 CAH3 1:1:219; Evelyn Klengel-Brandt, "
25 Ziggurats began as elevated temples and did not become "true ziggurats" until c. 2100 B.c.,
which they continued to be built or at least rebuilt until the fall of
"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
or that those building the
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
language" at the
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
the same language at the time of the building of the
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
a reference simply to
27 Augustine, City of
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, "
of Genesis 11:1-9:
interpretation Meredith Kline in The New
Bible Commentary (ed. Donald Guthrie and J. A. Motyer;
THE DATE OF THE
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
their Semitic language into
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
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
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
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, "
41 DeWitt, "Historical Background," 17.
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
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
a description of all the earth before the judgment at
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
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
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
"Behold, the Italians are one people and they all have the same language." Why
this be emphatic or draw any attention? All of
language (French). All of
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.
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
it says, "there the Lord confused the language of the whole
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-
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
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
the city and
text demands that just one language be spoken in
tower was begun; but, on DeWitt's reconstruction two languages were spoken
that Akkadian was spoken in
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
in that they all fundamentally agree in dating the
between c. 3000 and 2000 B.C.52
Scientific Evidence for Diverse Languages
Prior to the
As we have seen, if Gen 11:1-9 is
accepted as historically accurate, the building of the
B.C. The problem which arises is that when Gen 11:1-9 is interpreted in context
is saying that until the building of the
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
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,
49 Even if the city and tower are
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-
The northern boundary is marked by the peoples around the
(Gen 10:2; Ezek 38:6). The southern boundary is marked by peoples living in
extreme south of the
boundary is marked by
Tarshish (Gen 10:4), but its location is not certain. Although elsewhere in Scrip-
ture Tarshish may refer to Tartessos
c. latitude ten degrees east, perhaps
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
Genesis 10 thus indicates (and history makes certain) that the writer of Gen
was oblivious to the existence of the Far East,
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
appear in the Far East,
cally stratified sites and carbon-14 dating show that people certainly lived in
areas both before 3500 B.C. and during the building of the
addition, the isolation of the Far East,
languages in existence today that descended from them, virtually guarantee
that they were not speaking Sumerian or any other ancient Near Eastern lan-
53 See the maps in The Harper Atlas of the Bible (ed. James
Rapids: Regency, 1989), 71.
54 Paul H. Seely "The Geographical Meaning of `earth' and `seas' in Genesis 1:10," WTJ 59
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
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
be noted here that 3500 B.C. (the earliest date for the
THE DATE OF THE
and testify clearly that a form of Chinese, unrelated to any language in the
Near East, was spoken before the
even thousands of years before it was built.59
to show that the Ainu inhabited
spoke is not related even to Chinese, much less to Sumerian.60
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
from c. 5000 to 4000 B.C., i.e., before the
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
At Sierra Madre Oriental and other sites in
remains are carbon-dated from 7000 to 1400 B.C.65 Since these Indians
5000 B.C. to relate to Asian languages, but not to ancient Near Eastern languages.
any case, whatever languages they may have spoken, they were in
them before the
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
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.
this point someone might suggest that perhaps the
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
Ho, Cradle, 38.
61 Derek J. Mulvaney,
The Prehistory of
62 Mulvaney, Prehistory, 180.
63 "Australian Aboriginal
Languages," The New Encyclopedia
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.
tower was built in
lon is located did not even have permanent settlements until c. 5500 B.C. and
no cities with architecture comparable to that of
the very earliest.66 Hence, no one familiar with ancient Near Eastern archaeol-
ogy has been willing to date the
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
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
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
city being built in
Neolithic age is so improbable from an archaeological point of view as to be
One cannot date the
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.
Science, Carbon-14 Dating, and the
In order to maintain the historical interpretation of the flood and the tower
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,
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
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
Alasdair Whittle, Problems in Neolithic
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
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
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;
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
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):
figure 4; R. E. Taylor, Austin Long, and R. S. Kra,
eds., Radiocarbon After Four Decades
THE DATE OF THE
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
years of annual varves found at the
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
logical finds prior to it.
Creation science, therefore, has no
scientifically sound basis for rejecting the dating of the
during the third millennium and earlier which indicate that mankind was
numerous languages before and while the
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
Robert E. Walsh and Chris L. Brooks;
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.
prior to the building of the
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
had no knowledge of the lands and peoples of the
or even of all of Africa or
only from Sardinia to
Peninsula to the northern boundaries of the Black and
(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
erally came to an end.88
When then we read Jesus' statement in Matt 12:42/Luke 11:41 that the
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;
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
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
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
of the earth" referred to the boundary between the inhabited earth (
tially a single land mass) and the ocean that was believed to surround it.89 To the
the earth was believed to end in the area of
tip of the Arabian peninsula opposite
coast of the
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
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
did not include the
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
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
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
90 Nat. 2.245.
91 Thus Rom 10:18 speaks of "all the earth" as synonymous with "the ends of the inhabited
So also Philo, Legal. 18.173. Cf. Ign.
92 John Calvin, Commentary on the Book of Psalms (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1949), 3:109.
2:8). Seely, "Geographical Meaning," 249.
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
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
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.,
THE DATE OF THE
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
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
beliefs of his day) in chapter three of my book, Inerrant Wisdom (
101 Augustine, Letters of
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 accommoda-
tion 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.,
103 John Calvin, Commentaries XVIII, John 12-21, Acts 1-13
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
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-
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
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
until the king, who had been educated in
dren that such a thing was possible. But, what if there had been no Western-
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
school which arose in
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
(ed. Jerald C. Brouer;
l07 Margaret Landon, Anna and the King of Siam (New York: John Day, 1943), 229.
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
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
Michael Loewe, and Martin J. Plumley;
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