The story of the flood is one taught to small children – part of the oral tradition of mankind. What captivates us so much about this story? Is it that the imagery was so visual that anyone in preliterate society could remember the storyline and pass it down? Could be. Similarly, the Tower of Babel is another easily grasped story. Even a three year old can master the basic elements.
But why should this parasha contain two narratives that outline the ancient inhabitants’ sins, and G-d’s reactions to them? Thematically, the two narratives are connected.
ותשחת הארץ לפני האלוקים ותמלא הארץ חמס.ך וירא אלוקים את-הארץ והנה נשחתה כי-השחית כל-בשר את-דרכו על-הארץ: ויאמר אלוקים לנח קץ כל-בשר בא לפני כי-מלאה הארץ חמס מפניהם והנני משחיתם את-הארץ:
Now the earth had become corrupt before G-d; and the earth had become filled with robbery. And G-d saw the earth, and behold, it was corrupted, for all flesh had corrupted its way upon the earth. And G-d said to Noah, “The end of all flesh has come before Me, for the earth is filled with robbery through them; and behold, I am about to destroy them from the earth. (Genesis 6: 11-14)
The story of the Flood has been preserved not only in the Bible. Hundreds of cultures have flood stories, and there is no lack of corresponding documentation of a great flood in Mesopotamia. Both the epic of Gilgamesh and other Phoenician sources cite similar references to an event that apparently occurred in the late Neolithic*
- The eleventh tablet of the epic of Gilgamesh, British Museu
The literal description in Genesis is a bit startling. We all think of 40 days of rain, just as our nursery school teachers taught us. However, the actual pasuk is:
בשנת שש-מאות שנה לחיי-נח בחודש השני בשבעה-עשר יום לחדש ביום הזה נקבעו כל-מעינות תהום רבה וארבת השמים נפתחו:
In the six-hundredth year of Noah’s life, in the second month, on the seventeenth day of the month, on that day all of the fountains of the great deep burst forth; and the windows of heavens were opened. (Genesis 7: 22).
This statement is clearly more than “it rained and poured for forty daysies, daysies…” נקבעו כל-המעינות תהום The fountains of the deep burst forth. This is a clear description of a geographic cataclysm.
The Midrashic Sages did not relate to the event as a simple deluge, nor did they consider the physical extent of the region affected – they concerned themselves only with the moral and implications of such an event. If they had, they would have reported and discussed it differently.
As noted by Professor Moshe Kaveh, of the Bar Ilan University, the sages did not relate to this purely physical occurrence as an event with religious meaning for later generations: unlike when “G-d’s creatures drowned in the Sea” no day was set aside to mark Noah’s deliverance, no songs were sung while exiting from the ark. Rather, the moral implication is that G-d uses natural events in order to rectify corruption.
Do our sages relate to the concept that the whole world was flooded? Not really. In fact, the Sages viewed the flood as a local event. According to R. Yohanan (Zehavim 13b), the torrential rains did not fall upon Eretz HaKodesh. As cited by Ha Rav Epstein in Torah Temima:
Regarding Babylonia receiving more rain than any other land in the world and being drowned by the flood, it should be noted that in Tractate Zehavim, loc sit., Babylon was therefore called Shinar, because all the creatures that perished in the flood were tossed (Heb. ninaru) there. It is a deep valley, and therefore is also called metzulah (‘the deep’). According to the Sages, the phrase “All the World” refers specifically to Babylonia. This is evident in Pirkei de-Rabbi Eliezer (Horev ed., ch. 10, s.v. “beshishi”)” since all the creatures lived in one place, and seeing the waters of the flood, Nimrod became king over them, as it is said: “the mainstays of his kingdom were Babylon,…” (Gen.10:10)
“All the World” therefore, according to the Sages, and to HaRav Epstein, is a political construction, and not a physical one. This is the link to the narrative about Migdal Bavel , which also must be understood for its political implications. To understand both, we need to look at the archaeology of the Levant.
Let’s look at the scientific evidence of the physical event of the late Neolithic period, in the region. Geologists William Ryan and Walter Pitman, of Columbia University posited in 1993 that the flood described in the Bible, and in Mesopotamian literature was a result of glacial melting in Europe at the end of the last Ice Age. The floods that resulted from this caused the sea level to rise, and the Black Sea, formerly a fresh-water lake, was flooded with salt water. According to Ryan and Pitman, the Bosphorus blocked the water from flowing out; but gradually a channel was formed, and after about three months, the water broke through with great force, sweeping away villages and settlements along the shore of the Black Sea. The melting icebergs also caused the level of the Mediterranean to rise, and thus the sea water flowed through the straits of the Bosphorus, expanding the size of the lake. **
This hypothesis was confirmed through exploration of the original contours of the Black Sea by oceanographer Robert Ballard, confirmed evidence of human habitation about 20 kilometres offshore from Turkey, near the city of Sinop. Evidence of wooden structures and boats, as well as core samples support Ryan and Pitman’s hypothesis.
What are the implications, however, for the Neolithic settlements in the region?
Agriculture was already established along the shores of the inland lake. However, this massive geographic cataclysm, so much more than merely a flood, caused the surviving population to move west, spreading along the Mediterranean, bringing with them their nascent agricultural technologies, and spreading them throughout the region. The differences between the technologies of the earlier Natufian cultures and subsequent Pre-Pottery Neolithic A (PPNA (7000-8000 BCE). Natufian society was primarily hunter-gatherers, and early herders. However, the greater sedimentation found west of the Anatolian regions enabled granaries and cultivation of oats, millet and early forms of wheat to become possible. Thus rather than merely grazing animals, the PPNA and PPNB peoples were actually the earliest to establish cultivated agriculture, followed by the earliest cities.
Kathleen Kenyan, excavator of Jericho, the world’s oldest city, found that the earliest PPNA strata, which had an estimated population of 2,000 – 2,000 inhabitants, had no connecting paths or roads. Huts were built against each other, with inner courtyards, but the entire settlement was surrounded by a massive stone wall and tower. There is much debate over the function of the wall, for there is no evidence of any serious warfare at this time.***
Having established that this cataclysmic geographic event kick-started agricultural development throughout the Levant, now let’s take a look at the Tower of Babel. Clearly the generations immediately following the flood feared the potential dispersion of populations. They knew their history, and they knew there was strength in numbers.
אלה משפחות בני-נח לתולדתם בגויהם ומאלה נפרדו הגוים בארץ אחר המבול. ויהי כל-הארץ שפה אחד ודברים אחדים: ויהי בנסעם מקדם וימצאו בקעה בארץ שנער וישב שם: ויאמרו איש אל-רעהו הבה נלבנה לבנים ונשרפה לשרפה ותהי להם הלבנה לאבן והחמר היה להם לחמר: ויאמרו הבה נבנה-לנו עיר ומגדל וראשו בשמים ונעשה-לנו שם פן-נפוץ על פני כל-הארץ:
These are the families of Noah’s descendants, according to their generations, in their nations, and from these were the nations separated on the earth after the Flood.
The whole earth was of one language and of one common purpose. And it came to pass that when they migrated from the east they found a valley in the land of Shinar and they settled there. They said to one another, “come, let us make bricks and burn them in the fire, and the bitumen served them as mortar. And they said, “come, let us build a city, and a tower with its top in the heavens, and let us make a name for ourselves, less we be dispersed across the whole world. (Gen. 10:32 – 11:4).
Archaeologically speaking, this statement makes perfect sense. The dispersed generation after the flood were pre-pottery Neolithic. Here we have the description of a massive technological development – the firing of bricks and pottery. The post – PPNB era, about 7000-6000 BCE saw the development of new agriculture, but more importantly, new building techniques.
Throughout the Levant, settlements became more permanent with circular houses, much like those of the Natufians, with single rooms. However, these houses were for the first time made of mudbrick. The city of Jericho, however, had a surrounding stone wall as well as a stone tower. The wall served as protection from nearby groups, as protection from floods, or to keep animals penned. There are also some enclosures that suggest grain and meat storage.
ויאמרו איש אל-רעהו הבה נלבנה לבנים ונשרפה לשרפה ותהי להם הלבנה לאבן והחמר היה להם לחמר
Come let us make bricks, and fire them. And the bricks will serve as stones, and bitumen like mortar.
To me, this is a perfect depiction of the transition and development of technology. The primary source of bitumen in the Levant was the Dead Sea, which is, of course, very close the Jericho. Although Shinar is commonly identified with Babylon, it does sound like the valley mentioned could reasonably be assumed to be the Jordan valley, which is, of course, the eastern-most extension of the African Rift. With Jericho at its end, protecting the Dead Sea, as a source of bitumen, this would make sense. Could this be a reason for creating the first walled and fortified town? Maybe.
We all know the next stage of the narrative:
וירד ה’ לראות את-העיר ואת-המגדל אשר בנו בני אדם: ויאמר ה’ הן עם אחד ושפה אחד לכלם וזה החלם לעשות ועתה לא-יבצר מהם כל-אשר יזמו לעשות: הבה נרדה ונבלה שם שפתם אשר לא ישמעו איש שפת רעהו: ויפץ ה’ אתם משם על-פני כל-הארץ ויחדלו לבנת העיר:
G-d descended to look at the city and tower which the sons of man built, and G-d said, “Behodl, they are one people with one language for all, and this they begin to do! And now should it not be withheld from them all they proposed to do? Come let us descend and confuse their language, that they should not understand one another’s language. And G-d dispersed them from there over the face of the whole earth. (Gem 11:5-9)
This seems counter-intuitive. The flood was created to cleanse the earth of the corruption of man. The Sages are quite clear about the sins of that generation. But what sin did a group of city-builders have? After all, even today, unity is an ideal, something we strive for. Here we hear of them as one people with one language, and with one goal. But is that actually true? What sin is implied in this? And why use language as a way of dispersing people.
Are all common languages descended from a common ancestral language? Linguistically speaking, yes. Common features, words and consonant patters are shared by many of the languages of Europe, India, Asia and the Middle East. This theoretical language, Proto-Indo-European (or PIE) did exist. Of course this source language is long extinct. But how long ago? Linguistic research has come up with some startling answers.
Biologists using tools developed for drawing evolutionary family trees say that they have now solved this long-asked archaeological question: where did the Indo-European family of languages originate? Current theory states that the proto-Indo-European speakers were early agrarian settlers of the Anatolian steppes, above the Black Sea, now in Turkey. Having mastered animal husbandry, they bred pigs, sheep, goats, dogs and horses. Quentin Atkinson of the University of Aukland in New Zealand researched the origins of cognate words in 103 languages, working backwards until they reached a point of statistical origin. When did this happen? According to Dr. Atkinson, it followed the agricultural expansion that was known to have occurred 9,500 to 8000 years ago. That is, 7,500 to 6,000 BCE. Where did they originate? On the steppes above shores of the Black Sea. Not a coincidence.
Dr. Andrew Byrd, of the University of Kentucky is an expert in ancient Indo-European linguistics. Recently he recreated a recording of a short fable, in PIE. Of course no one knows how proto-Indo-European actually sounded, but Professor Byrd’s recording is based on common pronunciation of cognates from Latin, Greek, Uralic languages and Sanskrit. This audio is a recreation of a fable about sheep and horses, written in 1868 by an early linguist August Schleicher, who wrote the following tale using cognates:
A sheep that had no wool saw horses, one of them pulling a heavy wagon, one carrying a big load, and one carrying a man quickly. The sheep said to the horses: “My heart pains me, seeing a man driving horses.” The horses said: “Listen, sheep, our hearts pain us when we see this: a man, the master, makes the wool of the sheep into a warm garment for himself. And the sheep has no wool.” Having heard this, the sheep fled into the plain.
Was this the language spoken in Migdal Bavel? No one can know for sure, but we can thank the dispersal for the eternal challenge of man’s attempts at diplomacy. How effective was it to disperse men through language? Very. If the rhetoric coming from Syria and Iran today are disturbing, how much more so would they be if it was spoken in your own language, and came from the mouth of your own leader? And even more so, if there were no other languages, and there was no other leader.
No society has complete equality. Both Sforno and HaRav Samson Raphael Hirsch interpret the sin of Midgal Bavel as implicit. If you see humans banding together, surely there is coercion at play. Societies are never entirely just, nor is there ever a possibility of true equality. This was not necessarily a danger to agrarian people dwelling in small settlements, but a regime that can build a tower, has a powerful and coercive ruler. The implicit danger is dictatorial. A single ruler, ruling a single people has great power. While a small town can control this, a city might not. And the entire world, surely not. Thus the Tower of Babel was broken and the city dispersed. In essence the Tower of Babel represents an Axis Mundi, which G-d destroyed for its very presumption of being axial.
*J. R. O’Brien, “Flood Stories of the Ancient Near East,” Bl 13/ 1 (Fall 1986): 60-65.
** Erkan Go¨kas, et alia. “Evidence and implications of massive erosion along the Strait of Ijstanbul (Bosphorus)” Published online 1 June 2005. Sprinter-Verlag 2005
Walter Pitman, William Ryan http://www.pbs.org/saf/1207/features/noah.htm