THE TOWER OF BABEL AND THE COURTEOUS VENGEANCE
THE YAHWIST'S STORY of the building and destruction of the great Tower of Babel as told in Genesis 11 is the last of the aetiological myths in the early part of Genesis, the last direct confrontation with the deity, and the first post-diluvian catastrophe. The biblical story is completely circumscribed: Genesis 10 lists the descendants of Noah, which include his great- grandson Nimrod of Babylon, who is designated as a great man and (twice) as a proverbially mighty hunter, whilst the latter part of Genesis 11 repeats the genealogy of Shem down to Abraham. It is not hard to see why the Babel story, sandwiched between these two slightly repetitive blocks, has commanded such interest over the years, and why it was so fully treated and developed in the medieval vernaculars. After all, it provides the ultimate reason behind the very existence of those vernaculars, even if they are based on the displeasure of God.
That it is in the first instance a story about language is clear from the opening verse, reminding us that there was a stage when only one language existed, and then we are taken to a specific place, the plain of Sennaar or Shinar ― as ever, the names are variable. A decision is made to build a tower of bricks and tar ― the Vulgate Latin has bitumen, although the Authorised Version translated the relevant word as 'slime'. The aim of the building is for the tower to reach to Heaven, but to this is added the less transparent idea that the builders should also ensure fame: 'celebremus nomen nostrum', says the Vulgate. God comes down and observes the building, notes the single language, and adds somewhat enigmatically that men will not now refrain from their project. Acting directly, God confounds the language and scatters the men all over the earth, so they do indeed cease building the city, which seems to be coterminous with the tower. The myth, then, is of the origin of different languages and races. The final verse ― before we are returned abruptly to genealogy ― is etymological: the tower or the city is called Babel, which signifies confusion. This mixes, as modern textual criticism has pointed out, the Hebrew word balbel, 'to confuse', and the name of the ancient civilisation of Babylon, Babli, bab-ilu, the 'gate of God'.
As usual, a number of narrative questions are begged and the medieval sensus litteralis demands literal explanations: what was that original language, presumably also that of Eden, and was that done away with like the rest, or did it survive, and if so, how? 1 Who built the tower, what exactly____________________
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Publication information: Book title: The Medieval Popular Bible: Expansions of Genesis in the Middle Ages. Contributors: Brian Murdoch - Author. Publisher: D.S. Brewer. Place of publication: Rochester, NY. Publication year: 2003. Page number: 127.
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