“Let us, then, go down and confound their speech there, so that they shall not understand one another’s speech.” Genesis 11:7 (JPS)
Confound – God has a real sense of humor, even when it comes to terribly important events. I would say that God has an Englishman’s sense of humor; that sort of dry wit that often uses word-plays and other linguistic devices to make subtle yet penetrating points. Of course, without reading the text in Hebrew, it is nearly impossible to see just how clever God is. So, let’s take a comment from Nahum Sarna’s treatment of this verse and just enjoy the marvelous God we serve. Besides, yesterday’s discussion of Greek dualism was heavy and we need a good laugh. J
This story, so famous in its misapprehension, is filled with Mesopotamian imagery. The construction of towers was a common practice in ancient Mesopotamia. Rulers often built these as monuments to their names, not unlike our practice today of naming buildings after famous people. Most of these towers, called ziggurats, carried religious implications because it was a common belief that one could enter into the realm of the gods by ascending to the heavens. The Genesis text reflects all this, even in the description of the building materials – bricks – which were not common in ancient Israel. In fact, this story is all about bricks because it is the human arrogance of brick-building that lies behind the description here. In ancient Mesopotamia, the discovery of kiln-fired bricks was considered an act of the gods passed down to men. So, in at least one sense, bricks were a direct tie between human beings and the gods.
The Hebrew verb for “confound” is navlah. It comes from the verbal stem b-l-l (as you know, most Hebrew verbs are formed for stems of three consonants). This is the basis of the humor. Sarna comments:
“It can hardly be coincidental that navlah, a unique form of the Hebrew stem b-l-l, “to confuse,” is a disarrangement of levenah, “brick,” the order of the first three consonants being reversed.”
What’s the joke? God turns the bricks inside-out. He rearranges Mesopotamian divine connections by disarranging the building material. Now bricks no longer reach to the gods. They simply act as God’s messengers to demonstrate the foolishness of human arrogance. Following the flood, God instructed human beings to “fill the earth.” The ziggurat was an attempt to do just the opposite. It was a symbol of collection in one place, a tower that could be seen from miles away in order to call people to a single location. The ziggurat was a human construction in direct disobedience to the will of God. So, He undid it.
Now that you know the historical background and the linguistic artistry, you can enjoy the application. The pride of Man will always result in the undoing of God, but more often than not, all that is needed to erase Man’s arrogance is a tiny rearrangement of the inside. Right?
Topical Index: ziggurat, confound, navlah, brick, Genesis 7:11, tower of Babel