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Genesis 10:25 says, "

וּלְעֵ֥בֶר יֻלַּ֖ד שְׁנֵ֣י בָנִ֑ים שֵׁ֣ם הָֽאֶחָ֞ד פֶּ֗לֶג כִּ֤י בְיָמָיו֙ נִפְלְגָ֣ה הָאָ֔רֶץ וְשֵׁ֥ם אָחִ֖יו יָקְטָֽן׃ (Westminster Leningrad Codex)

"And to Eber were born two sons, the name of one (was) Peleg, for in his days divided was the earth and name of his brother (was) Joktan." (Interlinear)

Most commentaries refer to "נִפְלְגָ֣ה הָאָ֔רֶץ" (land divided) as refering to the division of the nations, resulting from the dividing of tongues at Babel.

Among the descendants of Arphaxad, Eber's eldest son received the name of Peleg, because in his days the earth, i.e., the population of the earth, was divided, in consequence of the building of the tower of Babel (Genesis 11:8) (Keil & Delitzsch-taken from here)

However, there are some who take "נִפְלְגָ֣ה הָאָ֔רֶץ" to quite literally mean "division of continents". One such claim is "Divided by water" made here:

Therefore, the earth was probably divided by water in Peleg’s day. The hydroplate theory explains how and why.

So, which is it? the traditional understanding of "people groups/languages" or a "division of land" resulting in the separation of lands by water, or some other means?

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  • Could there potentially be a third alternative, or are we limited to these two options? Apr 6 '15 at 10:50
  • "..there are some who take "נִפְלְגָ֣ה הָאָ֔רֶץ" to quite literally mean "division of continents". One such claim is "Divided by water" made here:" This is over stating the case being made, the actually says "Therefore, peleg probably implies a division by water." (rightly or wrongly) :-D Apr 6 '15 at 10:51
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    @JonathanChell The "division" implied grammatically(unless someone proves otherwise) refers to land, but contextually it appears highly improbable that "land"(motion of continents) was divided during Peleg's time. Some have suggested the land bridge opened from Asia-Americas during this time, but even their arguments lack specificity. Most commentators have opted for "division of lands"(ie:people groups) but that happened before Peleg, during the time of Noah. Therefore, how can the "division of lands" be reconciled with the language, and yet be reconciled with physical evidence?
    – Tau
    Apr 6 '15 at 16:08
  • @Tau There is some debate (see comments on James' answer) about whether you wanted just the text addressed (as implied by the body of the Q) or the text and outside physical evidence (as implied by your comment). Can you clarify by editing the body of the question. Thanks.
    – ThaddeusB
    Nov 26 '15 at 1:16
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    @Tau - I see the comments on James' answer have been deleted... just FYI, someone had commented on James' answer to say it was not a valid answer b/c you weren't interest in a scientific answer. There was then an argument about what you intended. That is the only reason I asked for clarification. To me, the question was plain enough as written.
    – ThaddeusB
    Dec 27 '15 at 4:13
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In Genesis 10:25, there are 2 words which are notable to the question at hand. The passage reads

Two sons were born to Eber: One was named Peleg (פֶּ֗לֶג) because in his days the earth was divided, (נִפְלְגָ֣ה הָאָ֔רֶץ) and his brother’s name was Joktan.

According to pg 928 of the Hebrew and Aramaic Lexicon of the Old Testament (HALOT), the name פֶּ֗לֶג can mean division of tongues (like in Psalms 55:10) or an irrigation canal ("streams of water in a dry place" - like it is used in Isaiah 30:25, Psalms 46:5 and Psalms 65:10).

This word derives from פלג which means "to distance onself", "divide" or to "split" and it has a connotation of making a furrow. נִפְלְגָה ("to be separated") is also derived from פלג. Other word derivatives include פְּלַגָּה ("subdivision of a tribe") and פְּלֻגָּה ("division within a family"; as it is used in 2 Chronicles 35:5.)

Perphaps the most interesting relationship is to the town of Phalga (also called Saggaratum) located on the Euphrates where the Ḫabūr joins the Euphrates. According to the HALOT, the town name and פֶּ֗לֶג were syntactically related - a view shared by Emil G. H. Kraeling of Columbia University. This town is near the Ziggurat of Mari and Saggaratum was the capitol of the kingdom of Zimri-lim who's rule was from 1775 to 1761 BC when he was conquered by Hammaurabi. This works out very nicely if you are of the opinion that the Tower of Babel was a Ziggurat and the dates would be consistent with an 18th Dynasty exodus from Egypt.

Furthermore, radiometric dating of archaeological and paleontological evidence indicates that while Pangaea did exist at one point, it was several million years before Neolithic and Calcolithic eras and occured in three phases spanning several million years which would also be inconsistent with a rapid event occuring over the lifetime of one man (peleg).

The radiometric dating methods used for dating the fossil evidence of Pangea and the continental drift are extremely accurate. While it would be possible for one dating method to be skewed by a sudden influx of a given element into the atmosphere (Potassium, in the case of Potassium-argon dating for example), it would be highly unlikely for this situation to occur for multiple unrelated elements. Accordingly, since the many dating methods are able to corroborate each other we can rest assured that these methods are accurate. The logarithmic decay curves are also known to be accurate since radioactive isotopes degrade at a known and observed constant rates and the observed laws of physics would have to have differed over time or simply be wrong for these dating methods to be inaccurate.

Accordingly, while the linguistic evidence may be ambiguous, the historic context and scientific evidence are not and the simplest explanation is that this should be regarded as the division of people groups and language.

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The scientific evidence indicates the earth initially had been a single land mass, a super continent named Pangea which began to break apart about 200 million years ago. The scientific evidence indicates the oldest human fossils are from about 2 million years years ago. Therefore, according to the scientific evidence, the "breaking apart" took place and was completed before humans existed.

Based upon the scientific evidence, one should conclude the phrase cannot mean "breaking apart" as the text in Genesis would be describing an event which occurred about 200 million years after it took place and for which there was no human was in existence to observe, or record, or otherwise know of. That is to say, the scientific evidence is that human existence began after the single land mass had broken apart and was in the form which it is found today.

On the other hand, one could understand the creation narrative as describing a single land mass:

9 And God said, “Let the waters under the heavens be gathered together into one place, and let the dry land appear.” And it was so. 10 God called the dry land Earth, and the waters that were gathered together he called Seas. And God saw that it was good. (Genesis 1 ESV)

Followed by a breaking apart:

To Eber were born two sons: the name of the one was Peleg, for in his days the earth was divided, and his brother's name was Joktan. (Genesis 10:14)

Regardless, since the text states the earth was divided, and evidence from the natural world confirms this to be a factual, it seems unreasonable to conclude it cannot mean what it says on the basis of radiometric dating which places the event before human existence. The proper statement science should make is that the Bible correctly describes the event, but incorrectly dates it, placing it about 200 million years too late and about 4,000 years before it became known through scientific methods.

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