Evolution of Languages, Cultures, and Nations

Posted by on May 19, 2024

The following study is from the series “The Origin” and is related to what we have written in the articles: The Origin and Evolution of Species in Tanach, which explained the evolution of life according to the Hebrew Scripture (Tanach) and The Table of the 70 Nations Revised, in which we revised the universally accepted genealogy of the 70 nations from the common father of mankind, Noach. We suggested in the earlier sources that evolution is a natural phenomenon that has its place in the Creation study.

We are now turning to this study to further explain what we commenced previously in the foresaid articles. It would be therefore advantageous for the knowledgeable reader to refer to them [and all other articles in The Origin] for a proper context of what we intend to say hereafter. In this study, we will explain the evolution of languages and how it influenced the evolution and existence of nations.

Evolution of nations from three families

Pieter Brueghel the Elder’s paintings of the Tower of Babel

Pieter Brueghel the Elder’s painting of the Tower of Babel. Bavel (Babylon), the first attempt to build a multicultural megacity.

E.U. Parliament, Strasburg. Strikingly, this building resembles the unfinished and abandoned Tower of Bavel.

E.U. Parliament, Strasburg. Strikingly, this building resembles the unfinished and abandoned Tower of Bavel and the failed multiculturism.

After the Flood, the generations (Gen 10:5) that emerged from Noach’s sons spread out on the earth by the decree from heaven and occupied the vacant land. There they developed their own cultures after their tongues according to their clans and multiplied as a result of natural population growth. Thus, new nations were born out of the original clans of the three sons of Noach: Yaphet, Shem, and Cham. The sons of Yaphet, for example, were the coastland peoples who spread out in their lands (Gen 10:2-5), and so did the peoples who came out of the loins of Cham and Shem.

Of these were the isles of the nations divided in their lands, everyone after his tongue, after their families, in their nations. (Gen 10:5)

The word פָּרַד parad, to divide, is used here to connote natural separation, as opposed to the word פּוּץ puts, to scatter, which is used in Gen 11:6-9 in the sense of forced dispersion in the narrative of the Tower of Bavel. Thus, the Eternal wanted people to populate the earth and evolve in their own cultures and nations. The device He used to effect this upon the people was the confusion of the language they spoke.

Quickly forwarding time even further, in Chapter 32 of Deuteronomy, Mosheh wrote a poem at the end of his life. This poem encompasses the entire history of Israel and their sins. Verse 8 of it reveals something which is directly related to our study, and if the Torah had not mentioned it, we would not have known it. We read thus,

When the Most High gave nations their inheritance and set the divisions of mankind, He fixed the borders of the peoples according to the number of the children of Israel. (Deu 32:8)

The traditional rabbinic commentaries state that this reference is to the generation of the dispersion, the generation that intended to build the famous Tower of Bavel. But what has been conveyed here? In Bavel (Babylon), where mankind had lived in a single society, men desired to build a tower that would reach to heaven. That earnest and conscientious endeavor intended to accomplish the first “world family” which about 5,000 year later will materialize in a world organization, which is now known as the United Nations. Nevertheless, that was contrary to the will of the Eternal, whose will [from the very beginning of His world] was to

Be fruitful and increase, and fill the earth and subdue it, and rule over … (Gen 1:28)

To be fruitful and increase and fill and subdue the earth was a blessing given to mankind represented by the first humans, Adam and Chavah. By the blessing in Gen 1:28, the Supernal not only bestowed upon man the power to multiply and fill the earth, but also gave him dominion over it. That would have been accomplished, if Noach’s descendants had divided and spread over the earth. This will of the Creator undoubtedly was transmitted to them by Noach [who was still alive], and who received it from Adam. Not so with the will of mankind. The generation that was born after the universal Flood went against the Creator’s will. He separated them by confusing the common language they spoke, and they thus divided themselves and established territorial boundaries for their nations.

The verse in Deuteronomy has been approached by the early commentators from three different sides. According to the rabbinic tradition (Sifrei Devarim 311:5), which is not well established however, Deu 32:8 is interpreted to mean that 70 nations were established in their boundaries according to the 70 descendants of Israel. (For further arguments against it, refer to the foresaid article.) Yet despite the tradition, this does not appear to be correct, for this suggestion falls short on why there is no mention of any description in the Tanach of the borders of the territories of the sons of Noach.

According to others, the Eternal selected the borders of the twelve tribes of Israel in the land [that would be Israel’s in the future], thus replacing the twelve tribes of Kana’an with the twelve tribes of Israel (Gen 10:15-19). This interpretation, however, is problematic. The verses explicitly mention eleven sons of Kana’an, not twelve. Furthermore, in opposition to this interpretation of the early rabbis, Rabbi Mosheh ben Nachman, the Ramban, commented that these were ten tribes. There are eleven children of Kana’an mentioned here, but one did not develop into a separate nation. Their lands were promised the patriarch Avraham and given to Yehoshua and Israel for an everlasting possession, since all seed of Kana’an was found in wickedness, and the Supernal Owner of the Land gave it to the seed of Avraham according to the promise.

These problematic explanations force us to search for a different interpretation. In our opinion, we tend to side with those rabbis who have interpreted the phrase “according to the number of the children of Israel” to relate to the number of Israel’s descendants who went down to Egypt. If so, it is possible that the explanation of the verse is as follows: “according to the number of the children of Israel” means, “according to the 70 souls who went down to Egypt”, for indeed this is the plain meaning of the phrase: the children of the patriarch Ya’akov-Israel were seventy when they went down to Egypt. As for the meaning of the whole verse, it is difficult to discern, and we have no explanation. Thus far the tradition.

But it was not so with the nation of Israel. While all other nations first occupied their lands, and then developed over time their languages and dialects, cultures, and religions, the people of Israel uniquely became a nation before it became a political entity with a land. While all other nations developed from clans to nations   gradually, Israel became a nation in one day when they entered into the eternal Covenant at Sinai. Israel had laws (Torah, the constitution of the Land) before it had a land. She had language that had been in existence long before the patriarchs were born. Israel is a nation that has been given to a language, while the nations developed dialects from the original languages of the confusion. When they received the Covenant and the Torah, they thus became worthy of becoming the people of the Eternal to serve Him. While all other nations occupied their lands at the dispersion, Israel occupied the Land forty years after they became a nation. This makes the nation of Israel the only ethnic-religious entity uniquely meant for the people of the Eternal, meaning one must be a member of the nation of Israel (converts included) and a member of the Covenant.

Evolution of languages in dialects

There are two words for the term “language” in Hebrew: lashon and safah. The Hebrew word safah literally means “lip”, which is the revealed part of the mouth, and as such, it refers to the revealed and everyday aspect of the Hebrew language. Lashon, on the other hand, means “tongue”, which is the hidden part of the mouth, and as such, it refers to the hidden aspects of the language. Safah appears in Zep 3:9 wherein the prophet describes how all the nations of the world will have “purity of speech” in the end of days. We read,

For then I shall turn unto the peoples a clean lip, so that they all call on the Name of the Eternal, to serve Him with one shoulder. (Zep 3:9)

The prophesy describes how in the future, the Eternal will give all the nations of the world “clean lip”, this is to say, “clean speech” or “pure language”, so that the nations of the world turn to Him and serve Him in one accord, in unity (the euphemism used here is “one shoulder”). In Zephaniah, the term “clean lip” is used in opposition of the prophet’s “unclean lips” spoken of in Isa 6:5.

Rabbi Avraham ben Meir ibn Ezra, better known as Ibn Ezra, was a medieval Torah commentator, poet, philosopher and grammarian. He and other traditional commentators identify the pure speech in Zep 3:9 as referring to the Hebrew language, and that in future times the whole world will begin to learn Hebrew, the language of Creation. Biblical Hebrew is known as lashon hakodesh, “distinct language” or “language of the Set-apart One”. Each language reflects the culture and customs of the nation that speaks it. Moreover, language forms the culture and nation. Since the people of Israel are chosen to be a set-apart nation, consecrated only to the Eternal, and light to the world, they must speak a pure language, and as such the language they are chosen to speak must not contain profane and vulgar words. It will present no difficulty to a careful reader to notice the absence of profanity in the Hebrew Scripture. The above is taught in the article How Hebrew Addresses Delicate Matters, where we, citing these passages, prove the above. 

The Ramban comments that what makes the Hebrew language set-apart is that “it is the language with which God speaks with His prophets and His nation”. But in our opinion, this is not the only reason that makes Hebrew set-apart from all other languages, because when the Eternal created the world and spoke to mankind (Adam and Chavah), there were no other languages but one language: the language of Creation. To this language a nation was given to speak, and this is Israel. All other semitic languages of Hebrew, like Aramaic and Arabic, are dialects of this language. Hence, Hebrew is a set-apart language not only because it was the language the Eternal spoke with His prophets, but because Hebrew was the pure language of Creation. This language existed long before a nation was formed for it to speak.

One common language

And the whole earth was of one language and of one speech. (Gen 11:1)

We read in the very first verse of Genesis 11 that all the earth had safah echad, “one language”, and devarim echadim (literally, “uniform words”). This is the way of Torah to describe “a common language” and “one speech”, respectively. The opinion of the Rabbis and earlier theologians was that Hebrew was the original language the world spoke from Creation to the confusion of the languages. They based this on the fact that the names handed down from the earliest times are of Hebrew descent. Prior to Gen 11:1, all names in Torah have Hebrew meanings. Proof of this is the names Adam (ruddy), Chavah (life giver), Hevel (transitory), Shet (substituted), Peleg (earthquake), etc. All of these names are derived from Hebrew roots. After Genesis 11, however, the names that evolved from the descendants of Yaphet and Cham do not have any meaning in Hebrew, which supposes that there was discontinuation of the received original language, while the original language spoken until Genesis 11 continued with the semitic people of Shem. What is remarkable is that the Hebrew word שֵׁם shem, “name”, functions as a theme of the narrative in Gen 11:10-32, but it is also the personal name of the son of Noach. Shem’s descendants settled in the plain of Shinar and dwelt there: שָׁם sham, “there” (Gen 11:2); sham plays on shem, “name” and the proper name Shem. With the gradual development and changes, the languages Elohim confused at the Tower of Bavel evolved into existing dialects and formed cultures and nations: these are the so-called “70 nations” with which the modern world commenced. All other nations we observe today branched from these original nations.

Thus, the Eternal effected His will upon the clans of the sons of Noach to spread and inhabit the earth through the confusion (literally, overflow) of the language they originally spoke. He scattered them over the face of the earth so that they could not understand another’s speech, and consequently, they could no longer all live in one city and in one national culture.

Note: The verb  בָּלַל balal, to overflow, by implication to mix up, to confuse, in Gen 11:7, is related to the name of the first megacity Bavel (Babylon)— בָּבֶל bavel, “confusion”. It is interesting that the English word “to baffle”, meaning “to confuse”, is pronounced very closely to the Hebrew word bavel. According to some linguists, there are about 10,000 English words which are believed to be a direct entry from Hebrew language. We now return to the text to conclude our study.

This confusion of the language they spoke made them quarrel with one another, divide, and break up into separate nations. Thus, variety of nations evolved in the world, in opposition to their desire to live in unity of “multiculturalism” (the doctrine we know today of several different cultures, rather than one national culture, can coexist in a single country).

Likewise, the word  לָשׁוֹן lashon, “tongue”, is used in Gen 10:5 in opposition to שָׂפָה safah, “language”, “speech”, in Gen 11:1, indicating a natural departure from the same language. Such an evolution of the language creates dialects, which are mere new branches of the same language as a result of the new nations that sprang from Bavel moved away from each other. We see therefore that a language defines a nation, and the evolution of a nation can form dialects (or sublanguages). Changing the speech, therefore, does not affect safah, the spoken language, but it does affect lashon, “tongue”, the dialect. In Genesis 11, new languages were not yet born, only dialects of Hebrew. After that, all speeches that evolved from the original language had the nature of separate (new) languages. These new languages formed new cultures and consequently new nations we know today in the polity of the United Nations, which is currently made up of 193 member states, all evolved from three families.

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