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First Corinthians 12--Tongues (lashon, safah)

Jun 21, 2017

The last two of the nine gifts of the Spirit are listed in the last part of 1 Corinthians 12:10, “to another various kinds of tongues [glossa], and to another the interpretation of tongues.” To understand the purpose of the gift of tongues requires us to study its origin in the Old Testament story of the Tower of Babel, where diverse tongues originated. As we will see, the spiritual gift of tongues was designed to provide the solution to the problem at the Tower of Babel. The confounding of languages at Babel divided the people; the gift of tongues, when used properly, unites the people.

The Greek word for “tongue” is glossa, which means language or the tongue in person’s mouth. This Greek word appears to have two Hebrew equivalents: lashon and safah.

The Hebrew word lashon comes from the root word lashan, “to slander, accuse, or to lap (with the tongue). The word is also used in a positive sense, but the idea of slander and accusation seems to be inherent in the word itself. So lashon is seen in a negative light in Psalm 140:11,

11 May a slanderer [ish lashown, “man of tongue”] not be established in the earth; may evil hunt the violent man speedily.

The second word, used in the story of the Tower of Babel, is safah, “lip, language, speech, edge, border.” Its root word means “to scrape (off or together), sweep, destroy, consume.” The underlying idea seems to be to divide into separate piles by creating borders between each pile. This is what God did when He confounded the languages of the people.

In the genealogy of Japheth, we read in Genesis 10:5,

5 From these the coastlands of the nations were separated into their lands, every one according to his language [lashon], according to their families, into their nations.

This verse anticipated the story of their division by language in the next chapter. The Greek translation (Septuagint) renders lashon as glossa, the same word that Paul used when speaking of “tongues.” The same rendering is found in Genesis 10:20 and 31. Hence, we have reason to define glossa according to the Hebrew definition of lashon.

However, in Genesis 11 we find that the Hebrew word translated “tongue” is safah, not lashon. God said in Genesis 11:7,

7 Come, let Us go down and there confuse their language [safah], that they may not understand one another’s speech.

Here the Septuagint renders the safah as glossa. God divided the people by language, and this brought division, apparently causing them to accuse or slander each other. In other words, God did some divine scraping to separate the people and to put borders or edges between the families. Hence, “tongues” manifested division among the families and nations of the earth. When they did not “understand one another’s speech,” the implication is that they began to accuse and slander each other, so they were no longer in agreement or unity.

As I said earlier, the gift of tongues was designed to overcome the problem of tongues at the Tower of Babel. The gift of tongues, by definition, brought the word of God—the truth—which was to be the unifying factor in the church. So in David’s last words, 2 Samuel 23:2 says,

2 The Spirit of the Lord spoke by me, and His word was on my tongue [lashon].

David wrote again in Psalm 15:3,

3 He does not slander with his tongue [lashon], nor does evil to his neighbor, nor takes up a reproach against his friend.

So we see that the tongue—and the gift of tongues—is to be used to convey the word of God, not to slander. Unfortunately, even the word of God can divide the people, for it is a two-edged sword. But in this case, the word of God divides believers from unbelievers, even as it unites the believers themselves.

Paul will say much more about the gift of tongues in 1 Corinthians 14, so we will say no more about it at this time. But this background will provide us with greater understanding when we study it later. As we will see, Paul quotes the Old Testament prophet Isaiah when expounding on the purpose of tongues. While tongues may be a New Testament gift, its origin is clearly rooted in the Old Testament.


This is part 65 of a series titled "Studies in First Corinthians." To view all parts, click the link below.

Studies in First Corinthians


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Category: Teachings
Blog Author: Dr. Stephen Jones