Friday, December 16, 2005

parshat Noach: Dual Etiology for Bavel

A non-overt etiology in the story of the tower of Bavel. It begins {Bereishit 11}:

א וַיְהִי כָל-הָאָרֶץ, שָׂפָה אֶחָת, וּדְבָרִים, אֲחָדִים. 1 And the whole earth was of one language and of one speech.
ב וַיְהִי, בְּנָסְעָם מִקֶּדֶם; וַיִּמְצְאוּ בִקְעָה בְּאֶרֶץ שִׁנְעָר, וַיֵּשְׁבוּ שָׁם. 2 And it came to pass, as they journeyed east, that they found a plain in the land of Shinar; and they dwelt there.
ג וַיֹּאמְרוּ אִישׁ אֶל-רֵעֵהוּ, הָבָה נִלְבְּנָה לְבֵנִים, וְנִשְׂרְפָה, לִשְׂרֵפָה; וַתְּהִי לָהֶם הַלְּבֵנָה, לְאָבֶן, וְהַחֵמָר, הָיָה לָהֶם לַחֹמֶר 3 And they said one to another: 'Come, let us make brick, and burn them thoroughly.' And they had brick for stone, and slime had they for mortar.
ד וַיֹּאמְרוּ הָבָה נִבְנֶה-לָּנוּ עִיר, וּמִגְדָּל וְרֹאשׁוֹ בַשָּׁמַיִם, וְנַעֲשֶׂה-לָּנוּ, שֵׁם: פֶּן-נָפוּץ, עַל-פְּנֵי כָל-הָאָרֶץ. 4 And they said: 'Come, let us build us a city, and a tower, with its top in heaven, and let us make us a name; lest we be scattered abroad upon the face of the whole earth.'
ה וַיֵּרֶד יְהוָה, לִרְאֹת אֶת-הָעִיר וְאֶת-הַמִּגְדָּל, אֲשֶׁר בָּנוּ, בְּנֵי הָאָדָם. 5 And the LORD came down to see the city and the tower, which the children of men builded.
The midrash understands this to mean that they intended to wage war on heaven, based on וְרֹאשׁוֹ בַשָּׁמַיִם - that the head of the tower was meant to actually reach the heavens. They wanted to attack Heaven to preempt any future flood - and we might understand the rest of the verse in that light - that this was to prevent them from being scattered, and they were going to make a name for themselves by attacking Heaven.

On the level of peshat, this might well fit in. Scholars note a possible connection between this tower of Bavel and the ziggurat in Bavel described in Enuma Elish.

For a whole year they made bricks for it.
When the second year arrived,
They had raised the top of Esagila in front of (?) the Apsu;
They had built a high ziggurat for the Apsu.

Speiser notes (pg 76) "the Akkadian for "they raised its (Esagila's) head" (ullu resisu) is merely a play on Esagila." He continues, "it is to this particular phrase in a well-known canonical composition, transmitted either directly or indirectly, that the biblical phrase "with its top (literally "head") in the sky" obviously harks back."

Note I don't know if I would subscribe to the claim of "merely," and this would make a difference as to its import here. Perhaps high-falutin language, such that we find in Biblical poetry, utilizes expressions which are common from elsewhere but puts it in proximity so as to also create local parallelism, such that we see in the parallelism to Esagila. In fact, this may be a common expression, such that one should not make such a link, but trace both to common parlance.

By the spies sent to spy out the land of Israel, they notes that the cities were fortified "to the heavens." True, this does not involve mention a "head," but it shows that "in the heavens" at least is common enough. Likewise, the modern expression that someone has his head in the clouds does not hark back to Enuma Elish.

We have a mention of a head reaching the heavens in Vayeitzei. In Bereishit 28:12:
יב וַיַּחֲלֹם, וְהִנֵּה סֻלָּם מֻצָּב אַרְצָה, וְרֹאשׁוֹ, מַגִּיעַ הַשָּׁמָיְמָה; וְהִנֵּה מַלְאֲכֵי אֱלֹהִים, עֹלִים וְיֹרְדִים בּוֹ. 12 And he dreamed, and behold a ladder set up on the earth, and the top of it reached to heaven; and behold the angels of God ascending and descending on it.
Now, Speiser connects this to a ziggurat, but makes no direct connection to Enuma Elish, even though we have וְרֹאשׁוֹ מַגִּיעַ הַשָּׁמָיְמָה. So I have my doubts that that is an obvious literary connection between the two.

Still, the tower of Bavel is likely a ziggurat, which is a gateway to heaven. There is an upper and lower temple, and it is a conduit to heaven - as Speiser writes (pg 220) in Vayeitzei, it is "a spiritual symbol, in short, of man's efforts to reach out to heaven."

Now, Speiser and many modern scholars dismiss the explanation of Bavel and bll, to mix up and confuse, because bll is not equal to bbl. (Though as we see in Tg Onkelos, it can be blbl in Aramaic, which we might say could then lose the lamed...) As a result, they claim the aetiology is fanciful, and the true source of the name is babh `el = gate of god.

Now, I will admit that this etiology is a good one. I would even note that the fact that bll, confusion of language, comes from a confusion of the language bbl, gate of god, such that they intended it as gate of god (as we see in the story), but God had a different say and decided that it should be based on bll, confusion of their language and plans, and that this might form an excellent peshat in that narrative.

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