5 By these have the isles of the nations been parted in their lands, each by his tongue, by their families, in their nations. (YLT)

This verse (also verse 20 and 31) seems to suggest that God formed the new nations by splitting the new languages by (biological) family group? Is this view correct?

  • The separate areas of land throughout the oceans of the world (the 'isles') were divided among humanity according to their language, according to their ethnic origin and according to their national boundaries. There was a distribution of land on the basis of the three dividing influences - language/ethnicity/geographical location.
    – Nigel J
    May 16, 2018 at 12:12
  • @Keelan Yes, i meant biological family.
    – alb
    May 16, 2018 at 23:23
  • 1
    Thanks for the clarification; I edited it into your post and removed my comment. Your question, "is this view correct", does not seem a hermeneutical question however. This site is not concerned with the truth value of the texts, but rather with their meaning. Or did you mean to ask if your understanding of the text is correct?
    – user2672
    May 17, 2018 at 6:25
  • Did someone down vote the question? Would like to know why.
    – alb
    Feb 13, 2019 at 19:53
  • 1
    @alb - you are absolutely correct for I don't see any other possibility. How could two groups stay together in harmony if they couldn't communicate? How would God separated the language of a father and his son while He could choose do this by clan? It is totally logical the language was by clan (family group), and therefore we had name by clan such as Canaanite, Israelite, Hittites etc. Aug 10, 2022 at 13:11

8 Answers 8


I don’t know that G-d divided the languages by family groups but I can quote the Scripture where it says by what He did divide the nations by

“When the Most High gave to the nations their inheritance, when he divided mankind, he fixed the borders of the peoples according to the number of the sons of G-d.” ‭‭Deuteronomy‬ ‭32:8‬ ‭ESV‬‬

(The MT says according to the sons of Israel but the LXX and the DDS both say sons of Elohim or Elyon. That is confusing because Israel did not exist when the nations were divided and Abraham was not even yet chosen)

If in fact it was divided by the sons of Elohim then the questions arises how many are there? And how many sons of Elohim were apportioned to each nation? One each, two ...?!?

The speculation is that Genesis 10 lists 72(70) families descending from Noah so the assumption is that there are 72(or 70 depending on the spelling of names) nations and languages.

Genesis 10:5 is curious because Genesis 11 says there was only one language one the earth

“From these the coastland peoples spread in their lands, each with his own language, by their clans, in their nations.” ‭‭Genesis‬ ‭10:5‬ ‭ESV‬‬


“Now the whole earth had one language and the same words.” ‭‭Genesis‬ ‭11:1‬ ‭ESV‬‬

So in my mind verse 5 comes after or because of the Tower of Babel and should be seen in that light.

  • Thank you downvoter. If I’m wrong tell me where I am wrong. Please show me why my interpretation of the verses are incorrect. Leave it as a downvote, I don’t care for the votes, just include an explanation for it please Feb 8, 2019 at 19:56
  • I just checked Bible Hub’s interlinear and in Deu 32:8 the word translated “of God” is the word “Yisrael”, which interestingly means nothing else than “Israel”. I wasn’t the downvoter, by the way. Feb 12 at 22:36
  • 30 of the 39 Bible translation Bible Hub lists have “of Israel”, not “of God”. I will give you an up-vote for using that verse. Feb 12 at 22:48

I'm not convinced that the reference in Genesis 10 has anything to do withe the Tower of Babel story; they're two different things.

It should be noted that in the next chapter it says:

And as people migrated from the east, they found a plain in the land of Shinar and settled there.

This does not say that all the people migrated, it only indicates that there were some and they migrated, and then settled. For that matter, the preceding verse should be rendered as:

Now the whole land had one language and the same words.

In the Old Testament the word generally translated as "world" tends to mean the known world or nearby region unless otherwise specified, so this is probably just referring to the region of Mesopotamia at the largest -- and thus everyone else is being ignored.

So the different languages in 10:5 are a different batch than those of 11:7, and 10:5 tells us nothing about 11:7.

That said, the history of the Tower itself is suggestive. Most likely this is about the great ziggurat in the city of Eridu. It would have been the largest ziggurat ever built but for one problem: it was never finished. And historians actually know why it wasn't finished: first, the workers spoke different languages and at some point became unable to communicate with each other; second, the city itself got abandoned. The workers had different languages because Eridu didn't have enough workers for the project so they brought in foreigners, i.e. people from outside the land. This is interesting because Eridu would have needed translators in order for the work force to be able to communicate, and if those translators disappeared for some reason then the whole effort would have been thrown into confusion, plus without translators the workers would have given up and just left -- all God needed to do was get the translators to quit the job, and we get the story as recorded in Genesis. Now to the question: given this history, the workers could have been related or they might not have been. But once they were at the Tower project, they would have settled according to the language they spoke, and then once the project shut down they would have migrated in those groups, effectively turning those groups into family. Historically we have no idea where the workers went; they might have gone back home, they might have kept going west, they might have even walked off the job and taken along all their tools and anything else they could pack and carry and gone off to start their own towns -- not hard to do when you have construction tools suitable for building a ziggurat! In a way, though, the writer lets us know one thing about them: they weren't important! If they'd been important, more would have been said, but instead the writer picks up with a genealogy that starts with Shem and we never hear about these scattered people again (though that doesn't mean they just vanished; since they apparently knew about construction, they would have ended up spreading those skills wherever they ended up).


Before addressing this question, we need to consider the chronological order of Genesis chapter 10 and 11. While Gen 10:5,20,31 describe the separation of clans, each with its own language, territory and nation, Genesis chapter 11 describes the 'Tower of Babel' event. It begins with the statement "Now the whole world had one language and a common speech".

The key question arises: When did the separation of clans and the diversification of languages actually occur?

Both Genesis chapter 10 and 11 provide genealogies of the sons of Noah. In Genesis 10, we find records of the descendants of all three sons of Noah, along with the names of their progeny. Each list emphasizes that they were dispersed "according to their families and their languages" (Gen 10:5,20,31).

However, the genealogy in Genesis 11 takes a different approach. It focus primarily on the genealogy of Shem and his descendants. Interesting, it follows a structure similar to the Adam's genealogy in Genesis 5, where only one son is named in each generation. These names in Genesis 5 and 11, are the forefathers founded in the genealogy of Jesus in Luke 3:23-38.

Amongst the names in Genesis 11, the name "Peleg" (Gen 11:16) is noteworthy. We find the name in Genesis 10:25.

Two sons were born to Eber: One was named Peleg,[k] because in his time the earth was divided; his brother was named Joktan.

The NIV footnotes indicate that "Peleg means division". Consequently, we can infer that the event of the "Tower of Babel" occurred during the time of Peleg, who was the fourth generations after the great flood, and the fifth generations before Abraham.

Turning to the question, Genesis 10 does suggests a division along family group or clans, although the text doesn't explicitly specify this detail. These chapters appear to serve as a segue into the narrative of Abraham, offering a perspective on the world during his era. Despite the confusion of languages mentioned, it appears temporary, as evidenced by Abraham's ability to communicate effectively with the Canaanites during his nomadic period.


The story of the Tower of Babel follows an account of the genealogy of Noah's descendants in Genesis 10. The story is an attempt to explain and tie into their knowledge of the world and its history their experiences and relationship with God, in particular:

  • the diversity of language the Hebrew people encountered on their travels, especially considering they are all understood to be descendants of Noah;

  • the discovery of advanced and unfamiliar building technologies (in ruins) in the lands around Babylon; and

  • instruction or guidance on how God wants the Hebrew people to live.

If God had randomly split family groups in order to form the new nations, this probably would not have been consistent with the experience of the Hebrew people, who would have noticed in their nomadic situation that nations appeared to be distinguished by geography, then within those lands by language and finally within language groups by genealogy, clan or family group.

They would have encountered a number of family groups in the same location who spoke the same language, but would have noticed that both family groups and language were geographically determined.

According to Genesis, God scattered the people into different nations but kept family groups together, dividing the languages geographically. The story of the Tower of Babel provides an explanation of why God brought about this change in situation from Noah and his three sons embarking from the ark together, to their own experience of many nations and languages.


This seems absolute that the nation's in reference here are divided on these lines of land, tongue , family and nation (Ethnicity) . Language and ethnicity had already then started to develop even before Babel according to the chronology of the Text of Genesis. This would show Babel to perhaps only be referencing a particular segment of Noah's sons as this story is focused around the land of Nimrod son of Cush, son of Ham Son of Noah.

  • I don't think there's anything that indicates Genesis 10 occurred chronologically before Genesis 11. Genesis alternates between narrative and genealogical sections, and while the narratives all follow after each other, the genealogical sections can come before or after the narratives of the people they describe.
    – curiousdannii
    Jan 8, 2019 at 0:13
  • The probability comes from Gen 10:10 And the beginning of his kingdom was Babel... in the land of Shinar. And that in connection with Gen 11:2 And it came to pass, as they journeyed from the east, that they found a plain in the land of Shinar; and they dwelt there. Nimrod being the great grand son of Noah, places Shinar as being "divided" unto him at his time (Chronos) and while Gen 10: 5, 20, 31 all start with Japheth, Ham and Shem, it is by them a starting point of division is referenced. There is rather nothing indicating Bable as referring anything but language and speech.
    – Lowther
    Jan 10, 2019 at 0:02

My opinion is that this story preserved old linguistic thoughts. Probably a lot of people thought "What was the first language ever?" or "Why there are so many languages and not just one?" or even "What is the language that God uses?"

This story basically answer those basic questions: According to this story, the mother of all languages is Hebrew, and all other languages had been created by God, by "mixing" this basic language.

Modern linguistics indicates that there are two (maybe three) different "base languages" that all modern languages developed from.

EDIT As @curiousdannii point in his comment, there were more than 3 "base languages" that all modern languages ddeveloped from.

  • 1
    It does not actually say anywhere in the Bible that Hebrew is "the mother of all languages".
    – fdb
    Oct 7, 2018 at 11:37
  • @fdb Genesis originally did written in (biblical) Hebrew...
    – A. Meshu
    Oct 7, 2018 at 14:02
  • Given that it was Adam, with the help of Eve probably, that gave names to all the animals, and not God, I think it is plausible that God let Adam and Eve develop their own written language. If so, then the first written language would, most likely, have been an uncomplicated construction in the form of simple pictures, which happened to be preserved by the ancient Chinese. It could be that the confusion of Bable caused various phonetic written languages to be formed. Languages that corresponded to the human race's search for new frontiers. By the way wasn't the originator of Hebrew, Eber? Nov 10, 2018 at 4:04
  • 1
    Are you suggesting that Adam and Eve were Chinese? Or that Adam and Eve wrote something? And who is Eber? Maybe try to answer your own answer and when you do that elaborate it more. Good luck!!
    – A. Meshu
    Nov 10, 2018 at 7:04
  • My comment was just a side note about the written language that the preflood people may have used. Their spoken language could very well be closer to Hebrew than to Chinese. The Chinese and the Hebrews had a common ancestor in either Noa, or one of his children or grandchildren. And Salah was the father of Eber, who was the father of Peleg (Gen 10 and 11). Nov 10, 2018 at 14:04

I have been reading these websites about Babel and to me they show unbelievable ignorance. The building of the tower has absolutely nothing to do with anything, men have been building towers all over the world, so what? The real reason for changing the languages lies in this one word: "imagined". "And the LORD said, Behold, the people is one, and they have all one language; and this they begin to do: and now nothing will be retrained from them, which they have imagined to do." And what have they imagined to do? The answer is evil. God just went through destroying everyone on earth because of evil, except for Noah and his family. And now Satan has all these people together in one place so he can destroy them. All civilizations die, and they all die because of evil. And it was very clever of God to change their languages, to scatter them to winds, and Satan has been fighting the language barrier for thousands of years.


If you look at the three children of Noah and their descendants, they form the basis for modern language families:

  • Shem - father of Indo-European languages
  • Ham - father of African languages
  • Japhet - father of eastern languages

The languages and their branching correspond to family/biological groups.

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