Peleg, Pangaea, and Genesis 10:25
by Dave Miller, Ph.D.
Contrary to the opinion of many people, the Bible and science are in complete harmony with each other. When an apparent conflict presents itself, one can be assured that no genuine contradiction actually exists. Once all relevant evidence has been gathered, and that evidence has been handled correctly (i.e., subjected to accurate logical reasoning), the surface tension will disappear. Unfortunately, possessing an over-zealous desire to establish the Bible’s credibility, believers sometimes allow their exegetical analyses to be colored by the pressure of scientific consensus.
One example of this prejudicial influence is found in Genesis 10:25, which states that Peleg (meaning “division”) derived his name from the fact that “in his days the earth was divided.” Geologists largely believe that, at some time in the ancient past, the continents formed a single land mass called Pangaea. The “continental drift” theory (now better known as the theory of plate tectonics) postulates how this land mass subsequently fractured into several separate units and proceeded to “drift” to the positions that they presently occupy. Accordingly, some Bible commentators claim that Genesis 10:25 refers to this very phenomenon (e.g., Garton, 1991; Sewell, 1990).
It is true that the Bible does not preclude the postulation of a single land mass and a single ocean when God created land and sea at the Creation (Genesis 1:9-10). If, indeed, land was originally a single unit, one biblical explanation for the present multiple continents is the Flood of Noah’s day. The geological impact of a global deluge would have been catastrophic, dramatically reshaping and altering the surface of the Earth. Likewise, the fact that “all the fountains of the great deep were broken up” (Genesis 7:11) could have been responsible for tectonic movement. However, Genesis 10:25 most likely does not refer to the Earth’s continental divisions (see, for example: Leupold, 1950, 1:378; Whitelaw, 1950, 1:161; Clarke, n.d., 1:87; Keil and Delitzsch, 1976, 1:171). Rather, it is more likely referring to the human population of the Earth. Contextual indicators point to this latter conclusion.
First, the Hebrew term for “Earth” (‘erets) may be used figuratively to refer to the Earth’s inhabitants. In fact, two separate figures of speech employ this use: “synecdoche of the whole” and “metonymy of the subject” (Bullinger, 1968, pp. 578,638). A sampling of Old Testament verses where the figure of speech occurs just within Genesis include Genesis 6:11; 9:19; 11:1; 18:25; 19:31; 41:30,57 (Gesenius, 1979, p. 81; Bullinger, p. 578).
Second, verses both before and after Genesis 10:25 provide further indication that Moses was referring to a linguistic/political/human division rather than a physical division of the land mass. Earlier in the same chapter, he alluded to a separation of the peoples— “everyone according to his own language, according to their families, into their nations” (Genesis 10:5, emp. added). Later in the same chapter, Moses referred to the generational divisions of Noah’s descendants “in their nations; and from these the nations were divided on the earth after the flood” (Genesis 10:32, emp. added).
Third, it is evident, contextually, that Moses provided a chapter of genealogical explanation (chapter 9) in order to set the stage for the Babel incident that follows immediately (chapter 11). Chapter 9 functions as the link needed to bridge the account of the Flood with the next significant event of world history—the origin of humanity’s linguistic diversity (see Miller, Harrub, and Thompson, 2002). With no chapter break in the original autograph of Genesis, it is clear that “Earth” in the first verse of chapter 11 was used by Moses with the same meaning that it has in verse 25 of chapter 10. This conclusion is supported further by the allusions to national and linguistic separation in verses 5 and 32 of the same chapter.
Certainly, the Bible has been demonstrated repeatedly to be scientifically advanced, avoiding the blunders and inaccuracies of its literary contemporaries. This kind of accuracy stands as an eloquent witness to its divine origin. However, Christians must guard against imposing on the Bible the uncertainties and unproven assumptions of the latest scientific theories. The premature claims that often come forth from the scientific community constitute neither suitable nor unqualified controls for biblical interpretation.
Bullinger, E.W. (1968 reprint), Figures of Speech Used in the Bible (GrandRapids, MI: Baker).
Clarke, Adam (no date), Clarke’s Commentary: Genesis-Deuteronomy (New York: Abingdon-Cokesbury).
Garton, Michael (1991), “Rocks and Scripture: From the Flood to Babel,”Origins, 4:8-13.
Gesenius, William (1979 reprint), Hebrew and Chaldee Lexicon (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker).
Keil, C.F. and F. Delitzsch (1976 reprint), Commentary on the Old Testament: The Pentateuch (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans).
Leupold, H.C. (1950 reprint), Exposition of Genesis (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker).
Miller, Dave, Brad Harrub, and Bert Thompson (2002), “The Origin of Language and Communication,” Reason and Revelation, 22(8): 57-63, August.
Sewell, Curt (1990), “What Did Peleg See?,” Bible-Science Newsletter, 28:1-2,4-5, October.
Whitelaw, Thomas (1950 reprint), “Genesis,” The Pulpit Commentary, ed. H.D.M. Spence and Joseph Exell (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans).