Tanakh Lab #3

Migdal Bavel

Bereshit 11:1-9

Interactive Learning Module

Tower of Babel / Pieter Bruegel the Elder

1. Introduction

  • Many narratives in Tanakh can sustain multiple interpretations, sometimes vastly different in tone and message.
  • The story of Migdal Bavel is a case in point. Commentators differ widely in how they understand both the sin of the people in building the tower and the lesson Tanakh wishes to relay in telling the story.
  • Some exegetes read it as a tale of rebellion against God, others relate it to the need to populate the world, while still others suggest that it revolves around the dangers of materialism, urbanization, and totalitarian societies.
  • Which of these approaches is best supported by a literary analysis of the chapter?
  • This module will look at the story, with an eye to the literary techniques it employs, attempting to see what they reveal about the main messages of the unit.

2. Guiding Words

  • Let's go to the Tanakh Lab.
  • In the box which says "Analyze One Text", use the book, chapter, and verse dropdown menus to select Bereshit 11:1-9. Press "display". Alternatively, click here.
  • What do the chapter's keywords reveal about the nature of the people's sin?
  • Let's look at the computer generated table of findings, focusing on the "תנ"ך" column which will compare the relative frequency of words here and in the rest of Tanakh.
  • Which words in the text are deemed the most significant according to this ordering?
  • What does the second root listed, "פוץ", imply about the focal point of the story?

3. Triplets

  • The root "פוץ", to disperse, is one of the most significant in the story. Its import is butressed by the presence of another refrain with a related messge.
  • Click on the triplets at the top of the table to find phrases of three words that repeat in the unit. Click on each entry to see where they appear in the text.
  • What is the context of each? What verb is associated with the phrases? Taken together, what do these suggest the story is about?
  • Let's go to the Mikraot Gedolot to see Rashbam on our verses. According to him, what is the sin of the people and the message of the story as a whole?
  • How does the literary analysis just done support his reading of the story?
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4. What is at the Center?

  • The repeating phrase "נָפוּץ עַל פְּנֵי כׇל הָאָרֶץ" (and its variations) implies that our story is focused on the need to populate the world and that the error of the builders of the tower was their desire to stay in one place.
  • Do other aspects of the chapter's literary artistry convey the same message?
  • Let's return to the Lab, this time focusing on the structure of the Biblical text.
  • Scan the unit. What word lies at the exact center of the story (marked by the concentric circles)? What might this betray about the motivations of the builders of the tower?
  • What verse is the middle verse of the unit (marked by the target icons)? What is the import of this verse to the story?
  • What message might Tanakh be subtly relaying in setting up the story in this manner, with these two center points?

5. "ועצת ה' היא תקום"

  • The fact that the word "man" appears at exactly the middle point of our story might reflect that this is a story about man putting himself at the center. Man wants to reach the heavens to reign in place of Hashem. [Cf. Rashi here and then return to the Lab.]
  • The central verse of the story, though, "And Hashem came down to see," conveys a very different message, highlighting how in the end, it is Hashem, not man, who is truly at the center and it His plans which will prevail.
  • Some have suggested that our chapter is set up in a chiastic structure (a-b-c-b-a), with the phrase "וַיֵּרֶד י"י לִרְאֹת" in the middle and several inverse parallels surrounding it. Try to lay out such a chiasm. [Compare your work with that displayed here].
  • How might such a structure reflect the message: "רַבּוֹת מַחֲשָׁבוֹת בְּלֶב אִישׁ וַעֲצַת י"י הִיא תָקוּם"?

6. "הבה"

  • Let's now look at yet another keyword which might further reinforce the message just mentioned, that though man might plan, Hashem might foil those plans.
  • On top of the table, click "words" to return to the list of keywords (rather than phrases) and look, once again, at the "תנ"ך" column. What root is deemed most significant when comparing its frequency here to the rest of Tanakh?
  • How much more prevalent is the root "יהב" here than elsewhere? [Hover over the number by the entry in the "תנ"ך" column.] What might the repetition of the word be coming to teach?
  • Sacn the various occurences of the word. Who is the speaker in each case? What does the text accomplish by having Hashem echo the lanaguage of the builders?

7. "Let Us" or "Give Me"

  • Let's now explore the usage of the root "יהב" throughout Tanakh, as this might reveal yet another layer of meaning behind the choice to employ this word as a refrain.
  • What does the word "הבה" appear to mean in our passage?
  • The word is often translated as "let us", which might imply that Tanakh is highlighting the unity between and shared vision of the builders.
  • Click, though, on the number next to the entry (in the תנ"ך column) to see how the word is used in the rest of Tanakh. What other meaning does the word take?
  • Given this meaning, what (perhaps subconscious) message might the text be planting in the reader's mind by utilizing this word specifically?
  • For further study: see Pirkei DeRabbi Eliezer (the paragraph beginning "רבי פנחס אומר").
  • How does the image there, of builders weeping over a fallen brick but not over a fallen individual, mirror the message being conveyed through the choice of the word "הבה" and its dual meaning? [Return to the Lab, here.]

8. Refining a Search

  • The usage of the root "יהב", which often takes on the meaning "give me", might suggest that underneath the people's apparent unity lay self-interest and feelings of entitlement.
  • Their motives in building the tower were not concern for human welfare, but materialism and perhaps a desire for glory, and in this lay their sin.
  • One final, related reading of the chapter might be supported by another keyword.
  • Let's click on the gear icon in the top red bar, which will allow us to refine our search by changing various settings.
  • The Lab's default setting relegates words which appear less than 3 times in a given passage to the bottom of the chart, assuming that such a few number of appearances will not render the word particularly significant.
  • Since our unit of text is but a few verses long, however, even a word which appears fewer times might be revealing. So let's change the "Minimum in the Text" (found near the bottom of the pop-up) to two. Then, press "close".

9. Brick Building

  • Under these new settings, still looking at the "תנ"ך" column, what word has jumped to the top of the keyword list?
  • Let's click on the "ק" icon next to the word "לבנה" to access the concordance. Click on the "graph" tab to get a visual display of the word's distribution across Tanakh.
  • How many times does the word appear altogether? In which books and in what contexts? [Click on each bar to see where the word appears in that book.]
  • In Torah, there are only two countries associated with brick building. Which two? Why might that be? What does brick building reveal about each civilization?
  • What associations does Egyptian brick building specifically raise? What undercurrents does this add to our passage?

10. Playing with Language

  • Brick building in Tanakh is associated with urbanization, feelings of self reliance, and totalitarian regimes, perhaps suggesting that it was such a trend that Hashem was trying to prevent.
  • Let's now close our study by looking at one last literary technique employed by our chapter, its use of wordplays.
  • As many of these involve related roots (rather than various forms of the same root) which the Lab's default setting does not display, let's press on the gear icon again to refine our search.
  • Under the section "Highlighting and Calculating", click on "include related roots", which will connect both noun and verb forms of a root and other similarly related words.

11. Wordplays Continued

  • Explore the passage for wordplays on your own. What examples can you find?
  • Look at verse 3 and click on "נִלְבְּנָה", "וְנִשְׂרְפָה", and "וְהַחֵמָר". Which other words are highlighted?
  • For similar wordplays, press "בָּנוּ" in verse 5 and "בָּבֶל" in verse 9.
  • What function do these serve? Do they merely add aesthetic beauty to the text, playing with language because the passage revolves around language creation?
  • Or, might there be some more fundamental message that the text is trying to relay?
  • [To revert back to the Lab's default settings, press the gear icon again and click on "restore defaults".]

12. Conclusions

  • The story of Migdal Bavel is a great example of the dictum "manner matches meaning," that the way in which a story is told might reflect the messages it wishes to convey.
  • The various approaches to the story laid out by commentators throughout the ages are each rooted in the text and revealed through a study of its literary artistry.
  • Thus, guiding words and phrases such as "פוץ" and "על פני כל הארץ" support those who assume the passage is about the necessity of populating the world.
  • The story's middle points and chiastic structure mirror the message that though man might sometimes think he is at the center, Hashem is the One in control. This point is reinforced through the text's repetition of the word "הבה", where Hashem foils the people's plans using their very same language.
  • Exploring the mention of brick building here and in the rest of Tanakh reveals further undercurrents, that our story might be a polemic against the self-reliance that often accompanies urbanization and eventually leads to totalitarian regimes.

13. Additional Reading