Thursday, January 27, 2005

George Steiner on the Tower of Babel

Whenever I need to sleep, I read George Steiner. As the relentlessly erudite words march on past my eyes, my brain — after making a a few spasmodic efforts to follow the train of thought — gives it up as a bad job and begins switching off the power. I've never been sure if it was his or my dullness that caused this soporific effect, but it's as dependable as counting sheep.

Sometimes in my waking hours, though, I have wondered, "Is it me? Is Steiner just too smart for me?" I was happy to run across this article by Joseph Epstein wherein he asks, "Whether [Steiner] knows all he claims to know in any genuine depth, or is instead a high-level kibitzer, is difficult to say."

And then just the other day I ran across Steiner's discussion of the Babel episode in Genesis 11. Based on this paragraph alone, I think I can say now that Steiner is, in Epstein's words, "a high-level kibitzer."

He begins by taking up the word migdal, "tower," used in Gen. 11:4 for the Tower of Babel:
Migdal is not, primarily, a "tower." It is a "great" or "exceeding" object with "its head in the heavens." Most likely, the original inference is that of a giant idol.
That's all wrong. In Biblical Hebrew, migdal always means "tower" and nothing else. It is built on the root g-d-l, which carries the meaning "large, big," etc., but this has no more to do with the sense of the word as it is used than, say, the fact that, etymologically, "Lord" is related to "loaf." Plus, rosh "head" can mean the top of anything, not an actual head.

Wait, there's more.

The edge of blasphemy throughout the narrative, moreover, turns on the synonymy between the verb "to make," used for the building of the Tower, and the term of "divine creation."
Huh? The word used for building the tower is just plain old banah, "to build." I don't know if it is ever used with God as the subject. Has Steiner confused banah and bara?
The puns are the crux, and untranslatable: the Hebrew root balal signifies "to mix," "to confound," "to disperse." But it can also be read as another echo of "Babel": as nebelah, meaning destruction!
I don't know about "to disperse," but the other glosses of balal are all right. But where does he get the idea that nebelah means "destruction"? It refers to a dead body; but no one gets killed in this story. And of all the puns in the Hebrew Bible, this one is the most translatable, since English "babble" conveys all that one could wish as an echo of "Babel."
And of the great translators of "Babel," only Luther sees that safah [Genesis 11:1] is not only "language" or "speech," but the actual tongue (einerlei Zunge und Sprache).
Actually, the "actual tongue" is denoted by lashon; safah refers to the "lip." Let me get this straight: a Jewish expert on language and translation does not know the difference between lashon and safah?

Now none of these mistakes are subtle nuances that only specialists could catch; any first-year student of Biblical Hebrew could correct them, or, indeed, anyone who could use a Hebrew dictionary. And yet this paragraph was written by a man whose career is built on discussing the nature of language, the interpretation of texts, the process of translation!

Oh, it's just one paragraph, right? Maybe I should just be grateful to Steiner for providing me with some shut-eye over the years. But mainly I'm just glad to know it's not me.

BIBLIOGRAPHY: George Steiner, "A Preface to the Hebrew Bible," No Passion Spent: Essays 1978-1995, New Haven, 1996.


Tim Bulkeley said...

The Babel episode elicits more rubbish than most Hebrew Bible passages, but surely this wins some sort of prize? Could we institute some sort of blog competition to find the worst example of biblical interpretation published by a reasonable publisher?! No, it wouldn;t work, you have already won, I suspect.

EMC said...

Tim, there would be a lot of competition, though, wouldn't there?

Dr. Joseph Ray Cathey said...


You now make me feel much better! An I though I was the only one who had trouble reading Steiner!