Does the Ancient Sumerian Language Predate the Flood?
The history of the historical significance of the Sumerian language:
Many of those who attack the veracity of the Bible believe the Sumerian language to be the oldest written language in existence. First attested about 3100 BCE in southern Mesopotamia, it flourished during the 3rd millennium. Sumerian never extended much beyond its original boundaries in southern Mesopotamia; the small number of its native speakers was entirely out of proportion to the tremendous importance and influence Sumerian exercised on the development of the Mesopotamian and other ancient civilizations in all their stages. About 2000 BCE, Sumerian was replaced as a spoken language by Semitic Akkadian (Assyro-Babylonian), but continued in written usage almost to the end of the life of the Akkadian language, around the beginning of the Christian era (Encyclopædia Britannica, 2011).
According to most secular sources, the Sumerian language is the earliest known written language. What is referred to as the “proto-literate” period of Sumerian writing spans ca. 3500 to 3000 BCE. In this period, records are purely logographic, with no linguistic or phonological content (Wikepedia, 2011). Because secular scholars give little or no weight to biblical sources, they just ignore the evidence from the Bible entirely.
In truth, no one actually knows what the original language of man was. Because most philologists are heavily indoctrinated into the Darwinian worldview, they cannot accept the biblical revelation as being authentic. For this reason, these scholars reject the evidence concerning the origination of all language as revealed in Genesis chapter ten, e.g. the Tower of Babel, assigning it to mythical status.
It is important to realize that the ancient Hebrew, the language of the Jewish people and the language of the Tanakh, is at least as old as ancient Sumerian. While secular scholars believe Hebrew developed along side of some other ancient languages and dialects, it does not mean that the ancient Hebrew came from, or was predated by, other languages. This is just one more example of a conclusion from a secular academic community driven by a Darwinian worldview. In fact, the patriarchs of Israel had Hebrew names. The names of Adam and Eve were derived from the Hebrew. All of the accounts of the geographical locations, etc. are in Hebrew. The Bible tells us there was one seminal language, so what was that language? My vote would be ancient Hebrew.
The Secular Worldview:
Records with unambiguously linguistic content, identifiably Sumerian, are those found at Jemdet Nasr, dating to the 31st or 30th century BCE. From about 2600 BCE, the logographic symbols were generalized using a wedge-shaped stylus to impress the shapes into wet clay. This archaic cuneiform ("wedge-shaped") mode of writing co-existed with the pre-cuneiform archaic mode. Deimel (1922) lists 870 signs used in the Early Dynastic IIIa period (26th century). In the same period, the large set of logographic signs had been simplified into a logosyllabic script comprising several hundred signs. Rosengarten (1967) lists 468 signs used in Sumerian (pre-Sargonian) Lagash. The pre-Sargonian period of the 26th to 24th centuries BC is the “Classical Sumerian” stage of the language.
The cuneiform script is adapted to Akkadian writing from the mid 3rd millennium. Our knowledge of Sumerian is based on Akkadian glossaries. During the "Sumerian Renaissance" (Ur III) of the 21st century BC, Sumerian is written in already highly abstract cuneiform glyphs directly succeeded by Old Assyrian cuneiform (Wikipedia, 2011).
The Biblical Model for the Evolution of Language:
According to the Bible, all people spoke one language (Genesis 11:1) until the construction of the Tower of Babel, in southern Mesopotamia. This occurred sometime around 4000 BCE (Unger, 1977). During the construction of the Tower, God confused the language of man and scattered the nations (Genesis 11:7-8).
It is at this time that the Sumerians (from the land of Sumer, known as Shinar in the Bible - Genesis 10:10), speaking a non-Semitic language (Packer, Tenney, & White, Jr., 1995) appear in southern Mesopotamia. It is believed that the Sumerians are related to the people living between the Black and Caspian Seas (Miller & Miller, J. L., 1973) known as the Scythians, ancestors of Noah's son Japheth .
At approximately the same time the Sumerians appeared in Mesopotamia, another civilization emerges in the South, the Egyptians. The original language of the Egyptians is Hamitic (From Ham, the second son of Noah) and is also unrelated to the Semitic languages (Unger, 1977, p. 288).
The Problem with Usher’s Timeline:
Part of the problem with timelines can be traced back to Usher’s chronology. James Ussher (sometimes spelled Usher) was Church of Ireland Archbishop of Armagh and Primate of All Ireland between 1625–56 CE. Usher was a prolific scholar, who most famously published a chronology that purported to establish the time and date of the creation as the night preceding Sunday, 23 October 4004 BC, according to the proleptic Julian calendar.
Still, Usher’s chronology is one of the most widely accepted timelines for the Bible. There are others who believe that the Bible genealogies used to calculate timelines are incomplete and would not have listed every generation. That said, using Usher’s chronology, the date of creation was calculated to be 4004 BCE. Usher placed the Flood at ca. 2348 BCE. The Jewish historian, Josephus, Ussher, and many other scholars disagree slightly on some of their dates. But most agree that a straightforward reading of the Bible indicates the Deluge must have taken place in the third millennium before the birth of Jesus Christ — probably between 2500 BCE and 2300 BCE.
The Bible indicates it was 130 years from the Flood until the Tower of Babel. By Usher’s chronology, that would place the confusing of the languages ca. 2218 BCE. So is Usher’s chronology correct or not? There is much riding on this question. It is due to the fact that the Bible indicates that all people spoke one common language until the time that God intervened and created many different languages to thwart the plans of the ancient post-Flood people as recorded in Genesis chapter ten.
We have already noted that Merril Unger as well as other biblical scholars date the biblical story of the Tower of Babel to 4000 BCE. This is almost identical to Usher’s and Josephus’s date for the creation (as noted in Gen. 1:1). This is approximately 1000 years earlier than the archeological discoveries associated with the ancient Sumerian language.
Archaeology, supported by radiometric dating, alleges that the Sumerian language predates the Flood of Noah, when using the 2218 BCE date that Usher calculated. If Usher was correct, and the radiometric dating is also correct, we have evidence that invalidates the biblical account. One or the other is correct. They cannot both be accurate.
Where was Babel and What Really Happened There?
The biblical narrative is as follows:
Now the whole earth had one language and one speech. 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. Then they said to one another, “Come, let us make bricks and bake them thoroughly.” They had brick for stone, and they had asphalt for mortar. And they said, “Come, let us build ourselves a city, and a tower whose top is in the heavens; let us make a name for ourselves, lest we be scattered abroad over the face of the whole earth.”
But the LORD came down to see the city and the tower which the sons of men had built. And the LORD said, “Indeed the people are one and they all have one language, and this is what they begin to do; now nothing that they propose to do will be withheld from them. Come, let Us go down and there confuse their language, that they may not understand one another’s speech.” So the LORD scattered them abroad from there over the face of all the earth, and they ceased building the city. Therefore its name is called Babel, because there the LORD confused the language of all the earth; and from there the LORD scattered them abroad over the face of all the earth, Gen. 11:1-9.
The location for the Tower of Babel was (from or) east of Shinar. In ancient Hebrew, Shinar means “two rivers.” Shinar was part of ancient Mesopotamia, more specifically somewhere around the Tigris and Euphrates Rivers, i.e. representing the “two rivers” that is the definition of the word, or southern Babylon where Iraq is located today. Interestingly, the Akkadian: bab-ilu, from bab “gate” + ilu “god” is very similar if not completely identical to the Hebrew: bab-el, from bab "gate" + el “god,” (Merriam Webster, 2011). Most scholars today associate the Tower of Babel with an attempt to study the stars in the hope of attaining enlightenment. There is also a word play that appears in the Hebrew where “Babel” can mean confusion.
What we do know is that ancient Babylon became the seat of false religion that continues to plague mankind to this very day. This counterfeit faith finds its origins in the history of Nimrod, Gen. 10:8, and his wife Semiramis. This became the mother-child cult religion of ancient Babylon. This sect continued to spread throughout the civilized world eventually infecting the nation of Israel with the false worship of the Queen of Heaven, Jer. 7:17-18, 44:17-25. In the classic book, The Two Babylons by Rev. Alexander Hislop (1858), this history of pagan worship is meticulously studied revealing the links between Nimrod, Gen. 10:9, and every major civilization of antiquity.
The Etymology of the Word Babel:
The phrase "the Tower of Babel" does not actually appear in the Bible; it is always, “the city and its tower” (אֶת-הָעִיר וְאֶת-הַמִּגְדָּל) or just "the city" (הָעִיר), (Wikipedia, 2011). Originally, the city receives the name “Babel” from the word from ancient Hebrew, “balal” meaning to jumble or confuse. The confusing of the languages effectively stopped the concerted efforts of those who rejected the God of Noah, and His covenant with mankind, Gen. 9:1-13. Their attempt to overthrow the worship of the true and living God and replace it with a pagan substitute rooted in astrology and polytheism was defeated. The result of waking up and not being able to communicate with their neighbors further motivated them to leave their homes and migrate, e.g. the Lord scattered them over the face of the whole earth, Gen. 11:9b.
Does the Sumerian Language Predate the Tower of Babel and the Flood?
This is the crux of the matter. Because many who reject the veracity of God’s Word entertain alternate theories concerning the establishment and evolution of language. One of the most often criticisms of those who embrace the Hebrew Scriptures as God’s inspired Word to mankind is the claim that Sumerian predates the Flood.
Those who are constantly looking for evidence by which they can refute the trustworthiness of the Bible use the discovery of ancient Sumerian characters to disprove the biblical account. However, what are the facts behind their claim, and do the facts really disprove the biblical account?
The Encyclopædia Britannica dates the earliest documented use of the Sumerian language to 3100 BCE. So, what do biblical scholars believe concerning the story recorded in the Bible and what date would they ascribe to the creation of the various languages mankind uses to communication with one another.
Many reputable scholars, Unger, DeWitt, 1979; Livingston, 1974: 145-50; Aalders, 1981: 251-55; Harrison, 1969: 550-60, agree that the story of the Tower of Babel in the Bible is a trustworthy and historically accurate account of languages were created. Such scholars range from those who suggest that the account is generally and broadly historical (Livingston; Harrison) to those who insist that historicity extends even to the details (Aalders; Spina, 1992).
The consensus of scholars place the ancient Sumerians as having originated and coexisting with their Semitic neighbors much the way that the Sumerians and the Akkadians did. Because these ancient peoples are traced back to the same geographical location, as well as the same general time frame, it lends more credence to the biblical account recorded in the book of Genesis.
So can we say with absolute certainty that Sumerian predates ancient Hebrew? I do not think so. Whenever there is a discrepancy between modern scholarship and the Bible, I would side with the Biblical account. Radiometric dating may place the Sumerian language back to 3100 BCE, however, modern biblical scholarship dates the confounding of the languages to ca. 4000 BCE. That predates the earliest known examples of the Sumerian language by 900 years! (Safarti, 1999)
Perhaps Bible believing men and women should take a deep breath when confronted by those who think they have proved the Bible wrong. If the May/June 2011 article in Biblical Archaeology Review entitled “The Birth and Death of Biblical Minimalism” is an indication of things to come, modern biblical scholarship is going to have to admit that the majority of scholars who over the years have denied the veracity of the Scriptures have been completely wrong (Garfinkel, 2011).
While this may be a small ray of light from within a narrow community of scholars, I am not optimistic that their evolutionary counterparts will be as forthcoming. In fact, when the evolutionary faithful are confronted with overwhelming evidence against the millions to billions of years of evolutionary time they usually remain in complete denial. This includes evidence for a young earth/creation such as the partially fossilized remains from inside the femur of a 70 million year old T. Rex with collagen, hemoglobin, blood vessels and red blood cells (Schweitzer, 2005). In this same way, most of these biblical minimalists have not discarded their worldview or their distain for the Bible or those who view the Scriptures as the authoritative Word of God.
One thing is certain, believers should be mindful of the warnings contained in the Word of God:
That you may be mindful of the words which were spoken before by the holy prophets, and of the commandment of us the apostles of the Lord and Savior: Knowing this first, that there shall come in the last days scoffers, walking after their own lusts, and saying, Where is the promise of his coming? For since the fathers fell asleep, all things continue as they were from the beginning of the creation, II Peter 3:2-4 KJV
The fact that there is such strong opposition to the truth contained in the Word of God is evidence concerning its power and authority. As the Apostle Paul wrote to the body of believers in Rome almost two millennia ago, So then faith comes by hearing, and hearing by the word of God, Rom 10:17. This is thereal reason for the opposition expressed towards the Bible. Whether it is an attack on the Genesis account of creation, the confounding of the languages, or the gospel of God’s grace found in the Holy One of Israel, Messiah Jesus, God’s Word is always 100% trustworthy. The same cannot be said concerning the opinions of men. No matter how well educated a person might be, knowledge alone is not sufficient to cure what ails the human race. Only God can give sight to the spiritually blind, only the One who is the resurrection and the life can transform us from sinners into saints.