Ari Lamm

Ari Lamm



Why Read The Bible In Hebrew? Let's talk about one of the most influential stories *ever* for thinking about the nature of human progress—the Tower of Babel. What exactly did Babel's builders do wrong? A thread (for non-Hebrew readers too!) 🧵 1

It's hard to overstate the historic importance of the Babel narrative. Great thinkers from antiquity to this very day have drawn upon it to explore everything from the temptations of hubris, to the promise and perils of technological innovation, to political polarization. 2

Now, anyone who has tried to understand the story has had to address three principal questions: 1) What did Babel's builders do wrong? 2) Why did God punish them as He did? And 3) What's the story's message? These turn out to be surprisingly difficult to answer! 3

What, for instance, was Babel's sin? Wasn't it actually an example of a brotherly, public-spirited society dedicated to building? This is @JonHaidt's view in @TheAtlantic: the story's a tragedy about "the scattering of people who had been a community". 4

Why would God thwart such aspirations? Was it just to punish impious hubris? @tylercowen advanced this idea in an essay for @BloombergView. In the Babel story, "people are seeking to become the rivals of God, who needs to keep their ambitions in check." 5

So is Babel a story about a unified community of builders whose only sin was challenging God for primacy in the Heavens? Was God's destruction of this public-spirited society just as much threat-neutralization as punishment? I believe the answer to all of these is: no. 6

Even before we get to the Hebrew, we can see that something's amiss in the Babel narrative (Genesis 11). The chapter famously begins: "Now the whole earth had one language and the same words". ...Which is weird, because Genesis 10 had just gotten through saying the opposite! 7

Gen 10 records the dispersal of Noah's descendants throughout the world, and their division into various tribes and peoples. And as the Bible tells us, they "spread in their lands, each with his own language..." (10:5). So which is it? Did humanity speak one language or many? 8

To answer this and all our other questions, we'll need to examine the Hebrew, which is *saturated* with allusions to other Biblical texts. Take the story's introduction: "And they said to one another, 'Come, let us make bricks...'" (11:3). Let's start with the bricks. 9

The phrase "let us make bricks" (nilbena levenim) consists of a verb and noun that share an identical root (l-b-n). This verb-noun pair appears only one other time in the entire Bible: "You shall no longer give the people straw to make bricks (lilbon ha'levenim)..." 10

That verse is from...Exodus! It's Pharaoh forcing the Israelites slaves to find their own raw material to meet their brick quotas. The connection between brick-making and slavery is no coincidence. In the ancient world, at least at scale, it basically *required* slave labor. 11

Okay so we have one clear allusion to enslavement in the Babel narrative. Any chance there are others? Well...buckle up. Remember 11:3—"Come, let us make bricks..."? The Hebrew word for "come" is "havah"—a very rare word that only appears 8 times outside the Babel story. 12

Its root means "to give", and so the word itself always means "give!". But on two exceptional occasions, it means "come one!". One's here in the Babel narrative. The other? Pharaoh arguing for enslaving the Israelites: "Come (havah), let us deal shrewdly with them" (1:10). 13

(There's one more case in the Bible in which "havah" could at least plausibly mean "come on!" It's in Genesis 38:16. The context there? Soliciting a prostitute, who nearly ends up getting killed.) 14

Reference to other cases of exploitation can be found throughout the Bible's account of Babel. Take God's pronouncement about Babel, "Behold, they are one people, and they have all one language" (11:6). The phrase "one people" ('am echad) appears one other time in Genesis. 15

When Jacob's sons negotiate with the clan of Shechem about how to merge their respective families, they offer to Shechem, "we will dwell with you and become one people (am echad)" (Gen 34:16). Two peoples connecting across difference. Sounds great, right? 16

Wrong. Jacob's sons had this conversation under duress. Shechem had raped their sister Dinah and held her captive. They were hoping to rescue her, and punish the perpetrators. Shechem's eagerness to become "one nation" with Jacob's family was a shiny lie covering up assault. 17

The allusions to exploitative societies don't stop there. Remember Babel's objective? "A city ('ir) and a tower with its top in the heavens (va'shamayim)..." (11:4). There is literally only one other reference in the entire Bible to a city in the sky (''shamayim). 18

When Moses pronounces God's judgment upon the wicked societies in Canaan, we're told those nations possessed "cities ('arim = plural of 'ir) great and fortified up to heaven (va'shamayim")" (Deuteronomy 9:1). And the Babel story goes even further with this comparison. 19

Consider, for instance, what God says about Babel: "And nothing that they propose to do will now be impossible for them" (11:6). The word for "be impossible" is "yibbatzer". This root appears nearly 40 times in the Bible and almost NEVER means "be impossible". So why use it? 20

Answer: because what that root *usually* means is "fortified". As in: "cities great and fortified up to heaven"—our verse from Deuteronomy 9:1. Guess the root used for "fortified"... Yep. Same root as "yibbatzer". Babel's compared to the exploitative kingdoms of Canaan. 21

This insight helps us interpret that oft-misunderstood sentence in the Babel narrative: "nothing that they propose to do will now be impossible for them". One common misreading of this passage is that it's God as tech skeptic. That's why it's essential to read the Hebrew! 22

Because aside from the "yibbatzer" reference to Canaan, there's the word for "they propose" (yazemu). Honestly just a poor translation. The root (z-m-m) actually connotes "plotting", usually to pervert justice. As in the malicious witness who tries to get his fellow killed. 23

Deuteronomy tells us he is punished "as he had meant (zamam) to do to his brother" (19:19). So the verse in Babel is not God worrying about Babel's technological prowess. He's concerned that their society is built upon injustice. Okay. So let's add all of the above together. 24

Babel seems wonderful on the surface—a society in which everyone comes together to build something. But beneath the surface, it's a dystopia. It's Egypt. It's Shechem. It's Canaan. Why is it so bad? Well, because what Genesis 11 is narrating for us is...the birth of empire. 25

Babel's not a free society in which people come together to build a tower. It's an empire—the first of its kind. Historically speaking, it is, in fact, in Mesopotamia that empires first emerge. And that explains the transition from Gen 10 to 11. 26

The single language spoken at the outset of Gen 11 represents not some golden age of mutual intelligibility. It's enforced uniformity. It's a *regression* from the diversity in Gen 10. Similarly, the brick-making wasn't some feat of public-spiritedness. It was forced labor. 27

This, in turn, explains Babel's great fear: "lest we be dispersed (n-f-tz) over the face of the whole earth". The leaders of Babel wanted to remain in one place to concentrate their power. The walls of Babel were not meant to keep danger out. They were meant to keep serfs in. 28

But in addition to the exploitative injustice of empire, Babel's reluctance to disperse (n-f-tz) was a sin in itself. After all, in the immediate aftermath of the Flood, the Bible records God's blessing to humanity: "Be fruitful and multiply and fill the earth" (9:1). 29

And how does that passage end? "These three were the sons of Noah, and from these the people of the whole earth were dispersed (n-f-tz)" (9:19). God saw dispersal (n-f-tz) throughout the earth—diversity, particularity—as a blessing. Babel feared it. 30

In this respect, as Rabbi Jonathan Sacks (@rabbisacks) put it, "the Bible represents the great anti-Platonic narrative in Western civilization". Plato saw moral progress as culminating in the universal. The Bible, by contrast, saw universalism as merely a first stage. 31

Don't get me wrong, the Bible treasures universalism—its great innovation in human affairs was the idea that every single person bears the divine image! But unchecked, universalism devalues us. If we're all ultimately the same, then we're all replaceable. Mere numbers. 32

And from there, it's just a quick jump to slavery. Which is why the Bible's skepticism of unadulterated universalism is so bound up with its hatred of empire. Empire is the natural consequence of devaluing people—refusing to see how each of us is special. 33

So how does God respond to Babel—the first empire? With punishment? Well...yes, definitely. God's treatment of Babel is punitive, and we can see this through another clear parallel to the story of Egypt. Consider how the Bible phrases God's actions here: 34

"So the Lord dispersed (va'yafetz) them from there over the face of all the earth (kol ha'aretz)" (11:8) Identical wording to how Exodus describes Pharaoh punishing the Israelites: "So the people were scattered (va'yafetz) throughout all the land (kal eretz) of Egypt" (5:12). 35

And in both cases, this follows slaves being forced (explicitly in Exodus, implicitly in Genesis) to make bricks! The literary implication is clear. Babel invented slavery to build its tower. So God punished Babel by treating it as a slave itself. 36

But, as the ancient Hebrew commentators (like Gersonides) noted, God's treatment of Babel was ultimately a blessing. He helped them, despite themselves, recover the blessings of diversity bequeathed to Noah. After all, the Bible understands that humans are tempted by empire. 37

Both in a negative sense—the power to rule over others is intoxicating. But also in a positive sense—the dream of universal brotherhood is a potent one! And it's here that the Bible makes its final, stunning point about the dream of punning on Babel's name. 38

"Therefore its name was called Babel, because there the Lord confused (balal) the language of all the earth" (11:9). The Bible is playfully associating the name Babel with the Hebrew word for "confusion". The point, first and foremost, is to have some fun at Babel's expense. 39

But this pun has a long, profound afterlife. Consider the prophet Zephaniah's uplifting vision for a future in which all nations praise God. "For at that time I will change the speech of the peoples to a pure speech that all of them may call upon the name of the Lord" (3:19). 40

"Pure speech" translates Hebrew "safah berurah"—a phrase that appears nowhere else in the Bible. Why is it here? In addition, the root b-r-r, meaning "pure", is somewhat odd here—there are other more common words for "pure"! What gives? 41

The answer lies in knowing that "r" and "l" are both liquid consonants, which can be interchangeable in Hebrew (and indistinguishable in many other languages!). So the root b-r-r would be linguistically interchangeable with the root b-l-l...the very root of the pun on Babel! 42

So "safah berurah" (pure speech) is a play on "safah belulah" (confused/Babel speech)! In other words, recovering one universal language is not the end goal. Our many, diverse languages are a blessing! So much so that Zephaniah foresees them as a symbol of salvation! 43

So in the end, the Tower of Babel narrative is not an expression of tech skepticism, nor is it a tale of public-spiritedness foiled by hubris. It is, first of all, a story of how humans can do great evil to other humans in pursuit of power. 44

It's also a comment on the dangers of pure universalism—a path towards devaluing other people, which can end in totalitarianism. But beyond all that, it's also a profoundly uplifting story about how God responds to human sin and failure. 45

Think about it: Babel is a tyrannical society. It's human failure on a gargantuan scale And what's God's response? Punishment, yes. That's just good parenting. But it's punishment that contains within it the roots of our redemption—the gift of diversity, of human uniqueness. 46

All three of these lessons are crucial for our society. 1. Abhor injustice 2. Embrace the goods of particularism And 3. Remember that, should we fail at these...we can keep trying to do better! History is not destiny. And sin, in turn, is merely permission to try again. /end

P.S. As always, deepest thanks to @zenahitz and the @CatherineProj for empowering me to think about this stuff! Our Hebrew study group may be concluded, but the inspiration it supplied will last forever.

And if you liked this, definitely check out my weekly podcast on the Bible called Good Faith Effort! @gfaitheffort Talk about cool stuff like this all the time 😉 Latest episode here! ❤️🔥❤️🔥❤️

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