And all the earth was one language, one set of words. And it happened as they journeyed from the east that they found a valley in the land of Shinar and settled there. And they said to each other, ‘Come let us bake bricks [havah nilb’nah l’veinim] and burn them hard [v’nis’r’fah lis’reifah].’ And the brick served them as stone, and bitumen served them as mortar.
— Genesis/Breishit 11:1-3, Alter translation*
Cassuto, in his commentary on Genesis (Part Two),* notes “a constantly recurring melody in the passage, a kind of leit-motif, which accompanies the narrative almost from beginning to end, and reaches its climax in the explanation of the name Babel; it is the sound of the letters [bet, lamed, nun]. He points out many “examples of paronomasia” — plays on words, or puns — such as nilb’nah l’veinim and continues with several more pages discussing word-play, alliteration, etc.
Alter similarly remarks on this aspect of the text:
bake bricks and burn them hard. A literal rendering of the Hebrew would be something like “brick bricks and burn for a burning.” The fusion of words reflects the striking tendency of the story as a whole to make words flow into each other. “Bitumen,” cheimar, becomes chomer, “mortar.” The reiterated “there,” sham, is the first syllable of shamayim, “heavens,” as well as an odd echo of shem, “name.”…the blurring of lexical boundaries culminat[es] in God’s confounding of tongues.
In another, more ironic, kind of word play, Alter adds, “The prose turns language itself into a game of mirrors.” (Both authors offer additional historical and comparative commentary as well as exegesis aiming at the plain sense of the text.)
*Please see Source Materials for full citations and further bibliographical notes.
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The “Opening the Book” series is presented in cooperation with the independent, cross-community Jewish Study Center and with Kol Isha, an open group pursuing spirituality from a woman’s perspective at Temple Micah (Reform). “A Song Every Day” is an independent blog, however, and all views, mistakes, etc. are the author’s.