THE BABEL DISPERSION
ETHNICITY AND THE GOSPEL
And He has made from one blood every nation of men to dwell on all the face of the earth, and has determined their preappointed times and the boundaries of their dwellings, so that they should seek the Lord, in the hope that they might grope for Him and find Him, though He is not far from each one of us… - Acts 17:26-27
In addition to the Great Flood (Genesis 6-8), the Babel dispersion (Genesis 11) is an oft overlooked epic overhaul of humanity. Not merely a story about a tower, this is an historical account of how God thwarted the world’s proud attempt to make a name for itself (11:4) apart from Him. As estimated by the late creationist writer Henry M. Morris, the “world” at this time entailed a five-generation post-Flood population of around 800-1000 persons among 70 families. They had conserved a single language (11:1) passed down through Noah’s family. Notably, in a desire to settle in the plain of Shinar, they violated God’s original charge to mankind: “fill the earth” (Genesis 1:28). Their tower “whose top is in the heavens” (11:4) was simply a high tower (possibly of the ziggurat type, as shown at left), surpassing any before, as suggested by the previous verse’s reference to improved building technology. It may have been intended as an astronomical observatory, as a prominent landmark for distant travelers, or even as a high place of pagan ritual worship. It is unlikely the tower was an attempt to reach God, as suggested by the well-intended Sunday school metaphor for works-righteousness.
Before I analyze the effects of this historical scattering, I should comment on one component of its cause: mankind’s remarkable technological capacity. God, disappointed in human pride and disregard for Him, declared that, with their unified communication and intent, “nothing that they propose to do will be withheld from them” (11:6). In today’s Christian culture, often reducing God to a self-help program, this might be a shocker: nothing is impossible for a cooperative, humanistic, godless society! So, rather than to assume that godless activities will fail, we should instead concern ourselves that they will succeed, and that the greater need for reconciliation and regeneration with the Creator will be forgotten.
Now, to analyze the effects of the Babel dispersion: One component of this great dispersion was God’s origination of diverse languages. “Come, let Us go down and there confuse their language, that they may not understand one another’s speech” (11:7). This is not diversity in the sense of gradual changes or dialects, but in entirely novel and discrete proto-languages, through God’s direct action. Though languages today may be classified in the hundreds, these can be further clustered into ten to twelve proto-languages. This suggests that the ensuing dispersion produced that same number of people groups: perhaps ten to twelve.
The modern day interpretation of language formation is a strong analog to today’s interpretation of biodiversity. Evolutionists observe ongoing diversification and variation among living things, and assume that present population changes are sufficient to account for the origins of the populations themselves. This despite the fact that On the Origin of Species… by Charles Darwin never truly addressed that origin, as is evidenced by the dotted lines (to the imagined common ancestor) in Darwin’s only illustration in that work. Similarly, those who interpret the development of language from an evolutionary point of view assume that all languages naturally emerged from a common ancestral language, rather than having their source in a supernatural event, such as the Babel dispersion.
Another component of this great dispersion was God’s geographical scattering of humanity. “So the Lord scattered them abroad from there over the face of all the earth, and they ceased building the city” (11:8). At one level, it is noted that God successfully thwarted the intended city, tower, and great civilization. Yet much can be inferred from this, along with the hindsight we now have. Unique geographical habitations necessitate unique ways of life, diets, clothing, customs, and so on. One might think of the language as the guarantor of the scattering, such that the scattering might ensure not only failure in their endeavor, but a new anthropological framework to instead foster God’s intentions. More on that later.
Since man’s great technological potential in part stirred up this event, it is only fitting to assess how God’s actions affected such technology. People groups could still communicate within their new languages, so what was truly the setback? Consider the numbers involved here; if 800-1000 persons are scattered into, say, twelve emigrations, each settled population might have only 75 persons. It is reasonable to think that 75 persons might possess the cumulative knowledge, skills, and ability to eventually rebuild a functioning society. Yet that number cannot nearly build at the same scale and rate, and by comparison, its sophistication would certainly be set back. We see today that massively sophisticated technology is commandeered not by renaissance men, or generalists, but by the complex interaction and contribution of many specialists. The world had become a connected “web” much as it is today, yet God returned it to a series of isolated communities, technology included. This, by the way, accounts for the true “stone age” concept: not a widespread, long-duration, evolutionary phase in “primitive” forms of man, but rather a localized, relatively rapid reconstruction among the technologically less-adept people groups.
As a side note, this might make us wonder what God now has in store for humanity. In many ways, we are figuratively in the “plain of Shinar” today, making a name for ourselves, gathered together in one “place” (the Internet, or consider the grid that powers it), building towers, manipulating reproduction, re-inventing materials at the microscopic level, tapping into the inherent nuclear power of matter, and so on. Nothing seems impossible, but where is God in all of it? It is not fanciful to see another Babel-type episode playing a part in the unfolding of the events depicted in Revelation. And it is understandable that worldwide economic markets and governing bodies are of great concern to the biblical thinker. Not all alarm-sounding is paranoia.
Yet another component of this dispersion, closely tied to the geographical scattering, is the isolation of gene pools. A major principle in population genetics suggests that allele frequency (that is, the relative amount of variation in each of our 20,000-plus genes within a population) remains relatively unchanged with no disturbing influence. Those “disturbing influences” include limited population size, non-random mating, and selection pressure for certain traits, all of which resulted from the geographical scattering. Even if the scattered people groups had the same allele frequencies (which is unlikely since the scattering was purposefully initiated), particular traits would emerge or lessen. In other words, within a few generations, these dozen or so people groups became physically different from each other. This is understood as “adaptive radiation”, exemplified by the amazingly diverse expression of lemur populations on Madagascar. This is not limited to obvious traits such as the darkness of skin, but includes metabolism, muscle composition, blood type, lung capacity, disease propensity, and on and on. Some traits depend only on one gene, or allele pair, where as others depend on several genes; yet with up to 25,000 genes estimated, there are likely thousands of traits (though there is no consensus on the actual number).
So, as a composite effect of the above components—language, geography, technology, and genetics—we have what is properly known today as ethnicity. Ethnicity involves a particular set of characteristics, including way of life, custom, diet, clothing, technology, language, and genetic makeup. Ethnicity may have been discernable in the post-Creation/pre-Flood world (though unlikely due to great variation, or heterozygosis, in early mankind). Likewise, it may have emerged in the post-Flood/pre-Babel world (due to a more homozygous human restart and a greater range of geographic and ecological extremes). Yet for certain it at least re-originated after Babel, under the physical influence of a post-Flood environment and post-Flood genetics, intensified by new languages and locations.
Thus, God “created” ethnicity (though it emerged after the creation event itself), not races. There is one human race, and within it, many ethnic groups descended from the proto-ethnic groups of the Babel dispersion. Because some of these later ethnic groups have degenerated (literally) into static allele frequencies, we tend to associate certain traits (usually visual ones) together, and label them as “races.” But the large-scale classification of humans (putting humans into just a handful of racial groups) is completely artificial, superficial, and inaccurate. For example, if one were to line up all living humans from light-skinned to jet-black-skinned, the transition would be gradual—light dark persons, dark light persons, olive, bronze, every value on the spectrum. One wouldn’t be able to divide the lineup. (And that’s not considering other characteristics that differ in skin, such as thickness, texture, etc.) Note in the figure to the left how much variation in melanin (a skin color factor) exists within populations of several “racial” sub-groups.
I think that in Adam’s time, one would be hard pressed to even define an ethnic group, let alone a race. Imagine traits in mosaic rather than clustered together: thick lips with light skin, straight hair with dark skin, wide-eyed persons with thick, yellow skin. Why, even today we have the speedy dark-skinned line (Ivory Coast, West Africa), and the endurance-oriented dark-skinned line (Kenya, East Africa). Meanwhile the Moroccans (North Africa) take the middle-distances, and the USA’s light-skinned Jeremy Wariner is a world-leader the 400 meters, a pretty fast race. (Forgive the track and field references.) The point is this: Ethnicity today is the extrapolation of the Babel dispersion, and such a diverse expression of traits, though often clustered in some populations, should not be forced into a “race” concept.
All that having been discussed, I return to the purpose of God’s initiation of languages and scattering of humanity in the Babel dispersion. The world attempted to gather, rather than spread, and make a name for itself, rather than to acknowledge God. God did not oppose their technological success just to oppose it, but rather to foster a framework in which mankind would again seek Him. This reality is revealed in Paul’s speech in Athens, excerpted from Acts 17 above. Every nation (ethnos) of men came from one blood (the human race), their times (kairos, or opportunities) and places appointed, that they might seek Him, “grope” for Him (NIV, “reach out”), and find Him! In what is known as the “Great Commission” (Matthew 28:19), Jesus charged the disciples (and by extension, today’s church) to go into every ethnos. He might have emphasized geographical or political regions, but he chose to target ethnic groups. This is the strategy. God fosters the hunger and delivers the Good News in this context.
Perhaps the next time you are reminded of the great ethnic diversity encompassing this planet, or when a concept of “race” stirs confusion and controversy, remember that “the Lord came down to see the city and the tower which the sons of men had built” (11:5), and the rest is history—“His story,” of which you are an important part, in re-introducing the world to its Creator.
All Scriptures NKJV
©2009 Chard Berndt