Wordplay in Genesis 11:9

image from wikipediaMany are familiar with the story of Babel. After the flood, a group of prideful city folks try to build a city and a tower that reaches the heavens. Because all men shared the same language at the time, it was a massive collaborative effort.

But, God comes down and thwarts their efforts presumably on account of their pride—they think they can reach him—and because he has commanded them to disperse, multiple, and fill the earth.

The means by which God accomplishes his task of dispersing the people and putting an end to their project was to confuse their language (i.e. make them speak different ones). As you may know, the Hebrew word for “to confound” is בבל, which is transliterated babel. Hence, the name given to the city “Babel.”

This is a nice little wordplay the Hebrew author uses, which functions to associate the place with the event: God confused them making their project—the tower and city—a place of confusion (Babel).

Many times, however, wordplay is lost in translation. As a matter of fact, the ESV translates the verse, “Therefore its name was called Babel, because there the Lord confused the language of all the earth” (Gen 11:9). There is a footnote for the word “confused” with the content “Babel sounds like the Hebrew word for confused.”

Ancient translators, however, had to make the decision: transliterate place names like “Babel” or translate them. In this instance, the LXX translator provides the following rendering:

διὰ τοῦτο ἐκλήθη τὸ ὄνομα αὐτῆς Σύγχυσις, ὅτι ἐκεῖ  συνέχεεν κύριος τὰ χείλη πάσης τῆς γῆς

Therefore, its name was called Suncusis (Confusion), because there the Lord suneceen (confused) the language of all the earth.

By translating Babel with Σύγχυσις (Confusion), the translator maintains the wordplay at the expense of the city’s “proper name.”

For those of the curious bent, the Vulgate does not follow the same path. Instead, it transliterates the place name:

et idcirco vocatum est nomen eius Babel quia ibi confusum est labium universae terrae

And for this reason, its name is called Babel, because there the language of all the earth was confused.

This entry was posted in Greek, Hebrew, Literary Analysis, LXX and tagged , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

1 Response to Wordplay in Genesis 11:9


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s