We do not often think about it, but people have been talking for a long time. It is a primary form of communication for us. At creation, we were equipped with auditory organs we call ears for the purpose of receiving and interpreting sound of all types, including the sounds that are made by vocal organs of other human beings.
Normally we hear sounds and interpret them in smooth succession. A category of sounds that requires a lot of us during the learning phase is language. Most other types of sounds are fairly simple when we compare them to language – verbal communication. The reason for this is that speech sound has to accomplish so many things for us, and many of them are very subtle compared to most “natural” sounds.
Anyway, we were born with the capacity to produce and to hear and interpret verbal sounds sourced in people. We all know language acquisition is fairly difficult when we are older. In fact, it is one of the more difficult things we accomplish when we are very young, and our skill with it typically continues to grow, even as we grow older, simply because it is hard to do.
We usually speak in the same language day to day. That language is usually the one we learned as very young people. Furthermore, we ordinarily expect that those with whom we are communicating will share the same language. This is what makes communication feasible most of the time. Things are, in fact, quite awkward when we find ourselves attempting to communicate with people with whom we do not “share” a language.
There is a question that we do not think about very often that I want to discuss in this blog. In its simplest form, the question can be stated like this: What language does God speak, or at least which language did He speak in Eden? Let’s take that question apart for a bit as it has several components.
In Genesis 1, the Bible tells us that God “spoke” with results that comported with what He said. For example, He said, “Let there be light, and there was light.” What happened after He said “Let there be light” was that light came into being. There had been no light, but He “said” it into being. Often we conclude that this was not auditory speech. It was a kind of spiritual speech to which the new creation responded. We, of course, cannot settle whether God’s creation-speech was naturally or spiritually produced. Could the infant creation “hear” the words of God in that moment, or was it responding “in the spirit” to a spiritual utterance? We just don’t know.
The next variation of the question concerns the communication God had with Adam. It’s pretty much the same thing. Did God speak audibly to Adam or was their communication purely of a spiritual nature? And did Adam respond audibly or spiritually in their conversations?
Then there’s the matter of Eve. Even if God communicated with her spiritually, was it the same as with Adam? Will we propose that Adam and Eve communicated with one another only in some spirit-to-spirit manner? It seems far more likely that they spoke to one another as we speak to one another today. Or did humans start that later in our history? At some point we will have to give this up and accept that at some point in time, a long time ago, human speech, as we know it, began to happen. Whether God used human speech or it only started with Adam and Eve is not as important as the fact that there was a first instance of human speech.
Then there is the matter of Satan. Are we to believe that Satan spoke to Eve in a spirit-to-spirit manner? Or, was their conversation more like ours? We just can’t be sure, but again, at some point, normal human communication began. Further, there is no reason to suppose that the first two conversers spoke different languages. Whether we view it anthropologically or spiritually, there was a first language – the one used by Adam and Eve. God might have used it first, and perhaps Satan even used it. But, surely Adam and Eve used it – at least after they left Eden.
So what was the first language – the one with which the first man communicated verbally with the first woman. In the absence of any reason to change that language, it is likely that Adam and Eve “taught” it to their sons. Cain, Abel, and Seth spoke the same language as Adam and Eve and perhaps God Himself. When Cain moved away from his parents, he set in motion forces that might have led to stresses on his language that would cause it to change somewhat. But in the family that carried on from Adam through Seth and his descendants, the language had no reason to change in any significant way.
In about a thousand years, Noah was born into the bloodline that followed Seth. The language had probably changed some but was undoubtedly basically the same as that of Adam. Noah’s sons spoke that same language when they came out of the ark. In another place, we might want to look at the language spoken by the descendants of Cain, but there was intermarriage between the race of Seth and the race of Cain, so there is little reason to think the languages were significantly different between the two “races” of man.
Then came the Tower of Babel (around eighteen hundred years after the creation; Noah was still alive at the time). One of the important phenomena in the Babel narrative is that up to that time the entire population of the world lived in the same place, probably with Noah and his sons. Hence, there was but one language and one culture at that time. It was the same one that came out of the ark. In fact, ark survivors were present at the time. Almost surely Shem lived there with all the other descendants of Noah – all of mankind.
At Babel, after men and women turned away from the culture of God that was being preserved and taught by Noah and Shem, things changed. When men began to assault the sovereignty of God out of the arrogance of their hearts, they were seeking to change the culture they had received that God had so carefully preserved for them. They attempted to change the way they related to God, which was a key element of their culture. When we seek to change a key component of our culture, we are seeking to change the entire culture because any culture stands on its key elements. For example, if you seek to change a key component of Christian culture by, say, introducing secondary gods, you are changing many other things in a cascading fashion. So it was at Babel. Noah and Shem (hopefully Japheth as well) were preserving the culture of the sons of God. Some of their own descendants decided to raise themselves up in their status to be equal to God. Had that been successful, many other aspects of Noahic culture would have had to change.
God, Himself, decided this was not to be. In order to carry out His judgment, He struck another one of the cultural elements of the human population – He “struck” language in such a way that communication became quite difficult. When men could no longer communicate well, they found it necessary to adapt to their misunderstandings by separating themselves from one another along the lines of close kinship and language. They were thus thwarted in their efforts to “raise themselves up to the heavens.”
Imagine those first moments, when they could not understand one another. One of them turned to another to ask the question, “What did that person say?,” only to find out that the person they had turned to for help uttered an unintelligible response that meant, “What did you say?”
Whatever the language of Noah and his sons when they came out of the ark, it was now lost to most of the people who could no longer understand it. In some way known only to God, He had completely re-wired their speech perceptions in such a way as to change what sounds they understood to mean whatever. They lost their common culture (and language), separated from one another and then interpreted God however they chose to do so. They would especially interpret God and the stories Noah had taught them as key components of their new cultures, each in a way as to validate their separation from one another. How quickly then did their cultures diverge from one another and their perversions of God’s character spread.
I like to think, though, that Noah and Shem kept on with the same language – the one Adam had learned from God. Perhaps that is the root of the language the child Jesus spoke when He was growing up.
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