Language Is Baffling - The Story of the Tower of Babel
The Biblical Babel of Languages
The biblical story of Babel is ordinarily viewed as the suppression of human hubris and/or a put-down of Babylonia, and it also functions as an etiological tale to explain how, in illo tempore, language became diverse. In its context in Genesis, the story is unnecessary. It follows a passage explaining how the descendants of Noah spread out across the world:
בראשית י:ה מֵאֵלֶּה נִפְרְדוּ אִיֵּי הַגּוֹיִם בְּאַרְצֹתָם אִישׁ לִלְשֹׁנוֹ לְמִשְׁפְּחֹתָם בְּגוֹיֵהֶם.
Gen 10:5 From them separated all nations into their territories, each one according to its language, according to their families among their nations.
When the Tower of Babel narrative begins, we have already been informed that the various peoples, each speaking its own language, were spread across the known world. We may therefore feel encouraged to seek a different, deeper meaning in the famed tale of the Tower of Babel.
A Reading of the Text
In his essay on the Tower of Babel, Jacques Derrida (1930–2004), the Jewish French-Algerian philosopher, points out what is perhaps the most obvious outcome of the narrative: the builders had a plan, an ideal, and they began to realize it. But the Way of the World, represented narratively by the Deity, thwarted the plan, and the building was never completed. The people couldn’t speak to each other and therefore couldn’t cooperate.
The narrative begins in an unspecified place, not in Babylonia.
בראשית יא:א וַיְהִי כָל הָאָרֶץ שָׂפָה אֶחָת וּדְבָרִים אֲחָדִים.
Gen 11:1 All the land was one language, and a single set of words.
The phrase I have rendered “a single set of words” could also be interpreted as “one words,” “unique words,” “few words.” The leading medieval Jewish exegete Rashi (11th century, northern France) extrapolates four different meanings (most of which come from Genesis Rabbah 38:6), some by punning:
1. “A single plan” (עצה אחת)—they conspired together to challenge the dominion of God:
באו בעיצה אחת: לא כל הימנו שיבור לו את העליונים, נעלה לרקיע ונעשה עמו מלחמה.
They came with one plan: It isn’t all up to him to select the heavens [for himself], let us go up to the sky and make war with him.
2. “About the one God”—taking אחד as “singular, unique,” as in the fundamental Shema text of Deuteronomy 6:4; this reading suggests that they spoke about the One who is one in the world.
על יחידו של עולם.
About the unique one of the world.
3. “Sharply, cleverly”—this interpretation is punning on חד “sharp” (Genesis Rabbah 38:6 says, שֶׁאָמְרוּ דְּבָרִים חַדִּים, “they said sharp things”), suggesting that they calculated that the sky was due to collapse, so they aimed to build it some supports.
אמרו אחת לאלף ותרנ"ו שנה הרקיע מתמוטט, כשם שעשה בימי המבול. באו ונעשה לו סמוכות.
They said: Every 1656 years the sky collapses, as it did during the flood. Let us build it some supports.
4. “Harmoniously”—unlike the generation of the flood, they spoke as one (see the commentary on verse 9).
שדור המבול שהיו גזלנים היתה מריבה ביניהם, ואילו היו נוהגין אהבה וריעות, שנאמר: שפה אחת ודברים אחדים (בראשית י"א:א'). למדתה: ששנוי המחלוקת וגדול השלום.
The generation of the flood were muggers and fought with each other [and were thus destroyed] while these [the builders of the tower] treated each other with love and camaraderie [and were not destroyed]…
This little exercise in exegesis demonstrates how ambiguous language can be. Our medium of communication is vulnerable to diverse interpretations.
בראשית יא:ב וַיְהִי בְּנָסְעָם מִקֶּדֶם וַיִּמְצְאוּ בִקְעָה בְּאֶרֶץ שִׁנְעָר וַיֵּשְׁבוּ שָׁם.
Gen 11:2 When they moved on from the East, they arrived at a valley in the Land of Shinʿar, and they settled there.
Shinʿar is apparently a Hebraized form of Shankhara, the Kassite name for Babylonia in the late second millennium B.C.E., but we don’t know how far east of Mesopotamia these settlers originate. What is crucial is that, contrary to the divine command to the first humans to “be fruitful and become many and fill the land and subdue it” (Gen 1:25), this population chooses to dwell together in one place. Their sharing a language would, on the face of it, facilitate that plan.
Building with Bricks, not Stones
The settlers of the valley in Shinʿar initiate a building project.
בראשית יא:ג וַיֹּאמְרוּ אִישׁ אֶל רֵעֵהוּ הָבָה נִלְבְּנָה לְבֵנִים וְנִשְׂרְפָה לִשְׂרֵפָה וַתְּהִי לָהֶם הַלְּבֵנָה לְאָבֶן וְהַחֵמָר הָיָה לָהֶם לַחֹמֶר.
Gen 11:3 They said, (each) man to his neighbor: “Let us brick-make bricks, and let us burn-them a burn.” So the brick was for them stone, and bitumen was for them mortar.
The narrator is aware that in Mesopotamia, people built with baked bricks, made of clay, and bound them together with bitumen. In the second sentence, the narrator contrasts that method of building with the local method in the Levant, where the Hebrew text was composed: one shaves stones and binds them together with mortar.
Conventional biblical commentators regard this second sentence as a marginal remark that needlessly interrupts the narrative flow. Some place it in parentheses; the NJPS Tanakh sets it off with em-dashes. In contrast, I regard this sentence as an essential observation on language, right on topic. The remark on different methods of construction applies analogously to the linguistic theme of the story: different languages employ different vocabulary (bricks) and different syntax (mortar).
The focus on language and its diversity is highlighted by wordplay. The Hebrew for “brick” and “for stone” are a pun: levena – le’even. So is the Hebrew pair “bitumen” and “mortar”: ḥemar – ḥomer. Difference in meaning depends on an oh-so-slight difference in sound.
Making a Name
בראשית יא:ד וַיֹּאמְרוּ הָבָה נִבְנֶה לָּנוּ עִיר וּמִגְדָּל וְרֹאשׁוֹ בַשָּׁמַיִם וְנַעֲשֶׂה לָּנוּ שֵׁם פֶּן נָפוּץ עַל פְּנֵי כָל הָאָרֶץ.
Gen 11:4 They said, let us build ourselves a city and a tower with its head in the heavens, and let us make ourselves a name—lest we scatter over the face of all the earth.
The people wish to ensure their perpetual unity, and ostensibly the preservation of their language and (we may infer) culture. The tower envisioned in the story is likely meant to evoke the image of a Mesopotamian temple-tower (ziggurat), yet these were built high for a very different purpose, i.e., for priests to ascend in order to pay homage to the gods. In the biblical account, the people are not concerned about the gods (or God), but about themselves and their name.
“Name” (shem) functions as a theme of this narrative. Shem as a proper noun is one of Noah’s three sons, whose descendants settle in the valley. The place they settled is first described in our story (Gen 11:2) as sham, “there,” which puns on shem, “name.”
The error of the builders is in thinking they could guarantee their continuity by establishing a name for themselves. In linguistic terms, they are trying to make a universal association between “name,” a signifier, and themselves, a signified. Reality, represented in the story by the Deity, is not going to allow it.
YHWH Comes Down
בראשית יא:ה וַיֵּרֶד יְ־הוָה לִרְאֹת אֶת הָעִיר וְאֶת הַמִּגְדָּל אֲשֶׁר בָּנוּ בְּנֵי הָאָדָם.
Gen 11:5 YHWH went down to see the city and the tower that the human sons had built.
This is the turning point in the narrative. Since the people are building up, thinking that by doing so they can control the outcome, the Deity descends, to see what is occurring.
בראשית יא:ו וַיֹּאמֶר יְ־הוָה הֵן עַם אֶחָד וְשָׂפָה אַחַת לְכֻלָּם וְזֶה הַחִלָּם לַעֲשׂוֹת וְעַתָּה לֹא יִבָּצֵר מֵהֶם כֹּל אֲשֶׁר יָזְמוּ לַעֲשׂוֹת.
Gen 11:6 YHWH said, being that they are all one people and one language, and this is what they have begun to do, anything they scheme to do can no longer be blocked!
The Deity sees the people’s collaboration to achieve goals that are contrary to the divine interest as a threat. Theologically, the Deity perceives that people can be controlled, kept in line, only if they are safely divided from one another. God wants people to populate the world and evolve in diverse cultures. Accordingly, God must (counter)act.
Mixing Up Their Language
בראשית יא:ז הָבָה נֵרְדָה וְנָבְלָה שָׁם שְׂפָתָם אֲשֶׁר לֹא יִשְׁמְעוּ אִישׁ שְׂפַת רֵעֵהוּ.
Gen 11:7 Let us go down and mix up their language there so that one man cannot understand (literally, hear) his neighbor’s language.
Having sized up the situation, the Deity calls on “us,” his cohort—of angels or agents, it must be assumed—to make of one language many. One can only imagine how many different languages were known to the biblical author(s), but the outcome is predicted: one people will not be able to understand another.
The word “there,” which (as noted above) puns on “name,” is meaningfully positioned, not following the phrase “let us go down” but between the words “mix up” and “their language.” Its placement underscores the problem of language by juxtaposing it with the reference to its diversification. On the thematic level, the story seeks to explain that language can only come with variety. But on the level of plot, the confusion of language accomplishes two purposes.
Purpose 1: Scattering Humanity
בראשית יא:ח וַיָּפֶץ יְ־הוָה אֹתָם מִשָּׁם עַל פְּנֵי כָל הָאָרֶץ וַיַּחְדְּלוּ לִבְנֹת הָעִיר.
Gen 11:8 YHWH scattered them out from there over the face of all the earth, so they stopped building the city.
The great dispersion “from there”—from the “name,” the fixation of language in one form—meant that the people could no longer all live in one city, in one culture, with one method of construction. Although the tale is best known for the tower that was being erected, strikingly, its demolition is not mentioned.
The story’s very common interpretation, which homes in on the theme of rebellion against the Deity by reaching and challenging him in the heavens, is belied by the absence of the tower’s destruction in the story. To be clear: if it was the builders’ reaching heaven that distressed the Deity, it is nowhere to be found in the divine response. The proliferation of languages is key.
Purpose 2: Multiplying Languages
בראשית יא:ט עַל כֵּן קָרָא שְׁמָהּ בָּבֶל כִּי שָׁם בָּלַל יְ־הוָה שְׂפַת כָּל הָאָרֶץ וּמִשָּׁם הֱפִיצָם יְ־הוָה עַל פְּנֵי כָּל הָאָרֶץ.
Gen 11:9 For this reason, he called its (the city’s) name Babel, for there YHWH mixed up the language of all the earth, and from there YHWH scattered them over the face of all the earth.
The story explains the name of the city Babel (Bavel) by a wordplay that is reflected in the great English translation of the Torah by Everett Fox: the Deity “baffled” the people’s language. The verb “to mix up,” already used in verse 7, is close in its form to the name of Babel—balal, bavel.
The builders of the city could not name something and have that name stick. Language establishes only an arbitrary association between sound (signifier) and concept (signified). The existence of different languages demonstrates that fact. X in language A can mean Y in language B.
Rashi picks up on this idea in adducing a classical rabbinic midrash that illustrates the breakdown in communication produced by the multiplication of languages, which the Deity causes. One builder asks for טִיט (Hebrew for “clay”) in his language, but his colleague understands the same string of sounds differently and hands him a brick. All hell breaks loose.
Languages may operate in different ways, just as cultures operate in different ways—in one the construction is done one way, in another it is done another way. The Deity, however, succeeds in fixing at least one signifier to a signified permanently and universally: Babel is Babel and it’s called that because of what the Deity did.
The Sumerian Babel of Tongues
The story of the Tower of Babel (Gen 11:1–9) is not the only ancient Near Eastern tale that explains multilingualism. This is hardly surprising, since many different ethnic groups, speaking many different languages, populated the ancient Near East. Due to trade, migration, and war, different groups encountered each other’s languages. The Tower of Babel story even shares a certain cynicism toward multilingualism found in an earlier ancient Sumerian tale, dubbed the “Babel of Tongues.”
The Sumerian story describes a primeval time (“there was no snake, there was no scorpion, …there was no fear, no terror”) when humankind lived in harmony. But this socio-political equilibrium was deliberately undermined by one of the chief gods, Enki, god of wisdom and occasional trickster, who:
“changed the speech in their mouths, set up contention within it, within the speech of man that (until then) had been one.”
In this myth, the creation of many languages was a divine prank, meant to weaken the social fabric of humanity. In the biblical story, the Deity’s act is a corrective response to the behavior of the human builders of the city and the temple-tower (ziggurat) within it.
The Need for Translation
Both stories understand the difficulty facing groups that wish to communicate with each other, namely, the need to translate from one language to another. For there to be any kind of communication, let alone collaboration, among peoples, one must translate from one language to the other.
Nevertheless, everyone who has dabbled in translation knows all too well that translation can only convey so much of one language to another; which is the etymological sense of “translate,” literally, from the Latin translatus meaning “carried across.” It is an enterprise always already doomed to coming up short.
As the German-Jewish critic Walter Benjamin (1892–1940) noted, in his classic essay on the value and impossibility of true translation, no language can express it all, but by translating from language into language and thereby expanding the potential of each, one asymptotically comes closer to expressing it all.
Each language captures a slice of the meaning of a thing. If we translate from one language to another in a manner that transforms the language into which we are translating, through expansion and nuancing, we capture more and more of what we would ideally like to express.
The story of language and the need for translation is riddled by the fact of its incompletion. The multiplication of languages and the phenomenon of translation would seem to be good in God’s eyes. But they must be accepted in all their limitations.
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Prof. Edward L. Greenstein is Professor Emeritus of Biblical Studies at Bar-Ilan University. He received the EMET Prize in Humanities-Biblical Studies for 2020 and an award from the Association for Jewish Studies for his book, Job: A New Translation (Yale University Press, 2019). He has been writing a commentary on Lamentations for the Jewish Publication Society.
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