Apparently I’m stuck in key texts in Genesis. This is partly because Genesis is good narrative material and partly because I still have John Wevers’ Notes on the Greek Text of Genesis checked out from the library. This text jumped out at me because I’m reading Waltke’s Old Testament Theology. I had not heard the interpretation he takes on the Tower of Babel before, and it stood out to me. When I was reading the greek text of that story it dawned on me that Waltke’s interpretation is not possible there as it is in the MT (see comment below). Anyway, happy Septuagint Saturdays.
The Building of the Tower
Gen. 11:1 καὶ ἦν πᾶσα ἡ γῆ χεῖλος ἕν καὶ φωνὴ μία πᾶσιν
Gen. 11:2 καὶ ἐγένετο ἐν τῷ κινῆσαι αὐτοὺς ἀπὸ ἀνατολῶν εὗρον πεδίον ἐν γῇ Σεννααρ καὶ κατῴκησαν ἐκεῖ
Gen. 11:3 καὶ εἶπεν ἄνθρωπος τῷ πλησίον δεῦτε πλινθεύσωμεν πλίνθους καὶ ὀπτήσωμεν αὐτὰς πυρί καὶ ἐγένετο αὐτοῖς ἡ πλίνθος εἰς λίθον καὶ ἄσφαλτος ἦν αὐτοῖς ὁ πηλός
Gen. 11:4 καὶ εἶπαν δεῦτε οἰκοδομήσωμεν ἑαυτοῖς πόλιν καὶ πύργον οὗ ἡ κεφαλὴ ἔσται ἕως τοῦ οὐρανοῦ καὶ ποιήσωμεν ἑαυτοῖς ὄνομα πρὸ τοῦ διασπαρῆναι ἐπὶ προσώπου πάσης τῆς γῆς
1) And all the earth was one tongue and one speech [was] for all.
2) And it happened as they moved from the east, they found a plain in the land of Sennaar and they settled there.
3) And a man said the neighbor, “Come, let us make bricks and roast them in fire and the brick became unto stone and bitumen became for them clay.
4) And they said, “Come, let us build for ourselves a city and a tower, the head of which will be unto the heaven and let us make for ourselves a name before [we] are scattered upon the face of the earth.
Most literally translated this would mean ‘lip, shore’ (LEH), but when it is used as a translation of the word שׁפה as it is here it can be translated as ‘language,’ since this is clearly what the Hebrew is metaphorically referring to. I have translated it as ‘tongue’ so that the metaphor is retained but is using a metaphor that makes sense in English. Would this be dynamic equivalent?
LXX vs. MT
καὶ φωνὴ μία πᾶσιν vs. ודברים אחדים
After so literally translating שׂפה as χεῖλος, in the previous clause it is interesting that the LXX translators chose to render this phrase equivalently rather than literally. We would have expected something like λόγοι μία. Wevers suggests that this change is to balance the parallelism of the line so that it is now “a:b:c::c’:b'” (Wevers, 147).
πλινθεύσωμεν πλίνθους καὶ ὀπτήσωμεν αὐτὰς πυρί vs. נלבנה לבנים ונשׂרפה לשׂרפה
The LXX has rendered the first set of cognate constructions with their own cognate construction נלבנה לבנים (lit: ‘let us make bricks for bricks’) becomes πλινθεύσωμεν πλίνθους (lit: ‘let us make bricks for bricks’). However, the second construction, the LXX has decided not to replicate the idiom. Thus ונשׂרפה לשׂרפה (NRSV: ‘let us burn them thoroghly’) becomes καὶ ὀπτήσωμεν αὐτὰς πυρί (‘let us burn them with fire’). Why the LXX translators chose to accept the idiomatic phrase in one clause and not the other is a puzzle.
πρὸ vs. פן
This small change is the main one that brought my attention to this passage. This one word changes the motivation for building the Tower of Babel. In the MT the word פן makes the motivation for building the tower a preventative measure from being scattered all over the earth. In other words: ‘let us build a city and a tower so that we will not be scattered all over the earth.’ In the LXX the reason for building the tower is to make a name for themselves before (πρὸ) they are scattered all over the earth. In other words, the scattering is going to happen. Wevers notes that the “translator realized that people inevitably scatter and has substituted for a פן a πρὸ construction” (Wevers, 149).
In his Old Testament Theology, Waltke notes that the sin of the Tower of Babel is that contrary to the biblical mandate, which is to “scatter, to spread out and fill the earth” (310) humanity choses to rebel and instead of scattering, they seek to build “a tower as a symbol of their attempt to build a society apart from God’s rule” (310-11). Now this interpretation is possible in the MT, but the LXX doesn’t want to be read this way. In the LXX, the scattering of humanity is inevitable and they seek to make a name for themselves before that happens. According to the LXX translators their sin must be found elsewhere than rebelling against the command to scatter and fill the earth.
J. Lust, E. Eynikel and E. Houspie, A Greek-English Lexicon of the Septuagint, 2 Vols. (Stuttgart, Germany: Deutsche Bibelgesellschaft, 1992, 1996); Bruce K. Waltke with Charles Yu, An Old Testament Theology (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan Publishing Co., 2007); John W. Wevers, Notes on the Greek Text of Genesis (Atlanta, GA: Scholars Press, 1993).