CONTEXT: A gem of etiology for communication problems. Three word plays–in one of the shortest of stories–defy translation. “Bake bricks,” in the original is “brickify bricks,” literally, “make white.” “Bitumen” and “mortar” are different forms of the single Hebrew root, חמר, chemer, chomer. Bitumen is a naturally occurring thick, sticky substance in the low land of Babylonia.  The main pun of the story is Bavel, Babylonia, which is seen as a form of בלל, balal, “mix.”
            I have parenthesized verse 9 as extraneous, a gloss by someone concerned lest we miss what was for him the point of the story. I think the point of the story is the origin of misunderstanding and conflict.

            1It was that the whole land had a single language, and few words. 2It happened, in their travel from the east, people found a valley in the land of Shin’ar and there they settled.
            3They said, one man to his fellow:  “Let us bake bricks. We’ll fire them in a fire.”
            Brick was stone for them. Bitumen was as mortar.
            4They said: “Let us build ourselves a city and a tower with its head in the sky. We’ll make ourselves a name, lest we get dispersed over the face of the whole land.”
            5Yahh descended to see the city and the tower that the human beings had built. 6He said: “Well, they are a single people with a single language for all, and this is what they start doing?  And now nothing will be insurmountable to them, whatever they scheme to do. 7Let us go down there and mix up their language so that they won’t hear one another’s language.”
            8Thus Yahh dispersed them from there over the face of the whole land. They gave up building the city.
            (9That’s how the city came to be called Bavel, for there Yahh mixed up the language of the whole land, dispersing people from there over the face of the whole land.)

© Rabbi David L. Kline  

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