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Feedback archiveFeedback 2007

‘In Peleg’s days, the earth was divided’: What does this mean?

Jonathan Sarfati

Animation United States Geological Survey

Continental Drift

This week’s feedback is a friendly question from Helena K from Finland, about the meaning of the division of the earth in the days of Peleg (Genesis 10:25). The point-by-point response explains that the most likely meaning of the division of the earth was the separation of the peoples of the earth at Babel by God’s confusion of their languages.

Dear Sir!
Concerning the article In the days of Peleg by Larry Pierce. We have to take literally the words ‘Peleg: for in his days was the earth divided’. Why didn’t the author of the Bible use ‘nations’. The first and main meaning of the Hebrew word arez [or erets] is land, earth not nation.
Peleg’s grandfather was Salah and it means ‘send, scatter, make somebody to flee … ’ Might be that the scattering of the people happened when Salah was born. It was 37 years after the Flood. They had actually 64 years to go to their ordered territories by God before the continental drifts.
Scientists are wondering how it has been possible for ancient people to travel over the continents, but this model explains it too.
May God bless your important work!
Yours Helena K

Dear Sir!
Concerning the article In the days of Peleg by Larry Pierce. We have to take literally the words ‘Peleg: for in his days was the earth divided’. Why didn’t the author of the Bible use ‘nations’. The first and main meaning of the Hebrew word arez [or erets] is land, earth not nation.

There seems to be a widespread exegetical fallacy, sometimes called the ‘Law’ of First Mention. Proponents of this ‘law’ claim that God’s first mention of a term in the progressive revelation of Scripture somehow has a defining force for all later usages. Indeed, at a creation camp, an attendee explicitly invoked this ‘law’ to make the same argument about Peleg, i.e. that the division of the Earth in Peleg’s day related to the planet not the people, on the grounds that the way the Earth [ארץ erets] was defined first in Genesis was the planet.

What defines the meaning of a word is not its first or main meaning, but its meaning in its specific context.

But this law is not found in any standard hermeneutics books, nor is it on the very helpful Biblical Hermeneutics Home Page. The whole ‘law’ makes no sense, because it’s obvious from the different context that many times a word means something quite different from the way it is used the first time in the Bible. If this law were true, then the logical conclusion would be that the lexicons would have only one meaning for every word, instead of the extensive semantic range. What defines the meaning of a word is not its first or main meaning, but its meaning in its specific context.

To determine the context, we should always interpret Scripture with Scripture. Take the verse in question, ‘To Eber were born two sons: the name of the one was Peleg, for in his days the earth (erets) was divided’ (Genesis 10:25). There’s nothing else in Scripture to indicate that this referred to continental division. But only eight verses later (note that chapter and verse divisions were not inspired, but added much later, in 1205), the Bible states, ‘Now the whole earth (erets) had one language and one speech’ (Genesis 11:1), and as a result of their disobedience, ‘the LORD confused the language of all the earth (erets)’ (Genesis 11:9). This conclusively proves that the ‘earth’ (erets) that was divided was the same Earth that spoke only one language, i.e. ‘earth’ (erets) refers in this context to the people of the Earth, not Planet Earth. See also Babel, Towering change and Talking point.

The Brown–Driver–Briggs lexicon (BDB) lists one meaning of erets as people of the land, and the context means this is what Genesis 10:25 must refer to, not to the first ever meaning used.

Thus it’s not surprising that many commentators, writing well before plate tectonics was in vogue, believed that the division of Peleg referred to the linguistic/territorial division resulting from Babel, e.g.:

Photo Wikipedia.com

Temple 1 in Tikal, Guatemala

John Calvin (1509–1564) Genesis, 1554; Banner of Truth, Edinburgh 1984, p. 324:

‘For after he [Moses] has mentioned Arphaxad as the third of the sons of Shem, he then names Peleg, his great grandson, in whose days the languages were divided.’

John Gill (1697–1771), Exposition of the Bible:

for in his days was the earth divided among the three sons of Noah, and their respective posterities; their language was divided, and that obliged them to divide and separate in bodies which understood one another; hence that age, in which was this event, was usually called by the Jews the age of division; whether this was done about the time of his birth, and so this name was given him to perpetuate the memory of it, or in some after part of his life, and so was given by a spirit of prophecy, is a question: Josephus, Jarchi, and the Jewish writers, generally go the latter way; if it was at the time of his birth, which is the sense of many, then this affair happened in the one hundred and first year after the flood, for in that year Peleg was born, as appears from Genesis 11:11–16.’

C.F. Keil and F. Delitzsch, Commentaries on the Old Testament, n.d., original German in the 19th century, English translation published by Eerdmans, Grand Rapids, MI, The Pentateuch, Vol. 1, p. 171:

‘Among the descendants of Arphaxad, Eber’s eldest son received the name of Peleg, because in his days the earth, i.e. the population of the earth, was divided, in consequence of the building of the tower of Babel.’

H.C. Leupold, Exposition of Genesis, Baker Book House, Grand Rapids, MI, 1942, p. 378:

‘Peleg means ‘division’, for he lived at the time when the earth was divided (niphlegah) and the name given to the man is in memory of this event. The event referred to must be the one under consideration—the Confusion of Tongues.’—H.C. Leupold

‘Peleg means ‘division’, for he lived at the time when the earth was divided (niphlegah) and the name given to the man is in memory of this event. The event referred to must be the one under consideration—the Confusion of Tongues.’

One obvious example of how this ‘Law’ of First Mention can mislead is the word adam itself. In the first mention in Genesis 1:26, it means mankind in general. In chapters 2–5 and in the NT, it clearly refers to a specific individual. Those who deny the historicity of the First Adam also appeal to this first meaning, although the context rules it out—clearly there is a specificfirst man, Adam’ (1 Corinthians 15:45), who individually had relations with a single woman, Eve (Genesis 4:1), and fathered children, and is listed as the real first ancestor of Christ (Luke 3:38).

Peleg’s grandfather was Salah and it means ‘send, scatter, make somebody to flee … ’ Might be that the scattering of the people happened when Salah was born. It was 37 years after the Flood.

Your etymology is right, but that is not the only interpretation. The name could be a commemoration of the Flood, given by the first listed child born after the Flood to his own first born. John Gill comments:

And Arphaxad begat Salah, &c. Or Shelach which signifies ‘a sending forth’; that is, of waters: it is part of the name of Methuselah, given him by his father, as prophetic of the flood, see #Ge 5:21 and Arphaxad, who was born two years after the flood, gives this name to his first born, as commemorative of it … ’
They had actually 64 years to go to their ordered territories by God before the continental drifts.

However, such splitting would most likely lead to another global flood! But in Genesis 9:13-15, God formed a rainbow to indicate there would be no repeat of ‘a Flood to destroy all flesh.’ This gives us the clue as to when the continents did move apart—during Noah’s Flood—see What about continental drift? from the Creation Answers Book.

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Chess pieces

Some have claimed that peleg in Hebrew and the language of ancient Ur specifically means ‘division by water’. But according to BDB, peleg just means ‘divide’ in biblical Hebrew. It may well have come from a more specific use referring to water, but by extension its usage was generalized. This happens often in language. One example that springs to mind to a chessmaster like me is the word ‘stalemate’, with a very specific meaning derived from words meaning ‘imitation of (check)mate’. But now it’s often generalized in common parlance to mean any sort of impasse. Closer to the topic at hand, there is a nautical expression ‘tacking’ meaning a zigzag course effected by turning a ship’s head into the wind momentarily (before going onto the opposite tack). But by extension ‘tacking’ can mean a zigzag course on the land, and even a change in policy from a previous course. It just shows that meaning is determined by usage, not derivation.

Scientists are wondering how it has been possible for ancient people to travel over the continents, but this model explains it too.

Another explanation is that the continents were previously separated at the time of the Flood, and after the Flood, animals migrated via land bridges during the post-Flood Ice Age, or were selectively brought by mankind. This avoids the problem of another (post-Flood) catastrophe that would accompany such a division, and destroy most land life. See also How did the animals get to Australia? also from the Creation Answers Book, as well as Genesis and catastrophe: The Flood as the major biblical cataclysm.

May God bless your important work!
Yours Helena K

Thanks, you too. You might be interested in our Finnish articles and also the Finnish translation of Creation magazine, which as you probably guessed is called Luominen, available from http://www.luominen.fi/.

Jonathan Sarfati

Published: 3 November 2007(GMT+10)

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