The Power of Language

How Noah and the Tower of Babel both revolve around the use and misuse of language.

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Reprinted with permission from The Torah: A Women’s Commentary, edited by Tamara Cohn Eskenazi and Andrea L. Weiss (New York: URJ Press and Women of Reform Judaism, 2008).

Genesis Begins with God's creation of the world by word alone: God said, "Let there be light!" (1:3). At the end of Genesis 1, God surveyed all that [God] had made, and look-it was very good! With language God created the world, separated the waters above from the waters below, named, judged, and expressed great satisfaction with the results. But by the end of parashat B'reishit; we read that Adonai saw how great was the wickedness of human beings . . . So Adonai thought: 'I will wipe the humans whom I created from off the face of the earth" (6:5-7).
The Torah: A Women's Commentary
In parashat Noah, what sin had the people committed to warrant the Flood? The fact that so many different answers have been offered suggests that there is no clear answer. Some interpreters say that the wrongdoing was miscegenation: the interbreeding between the sons of God and the daughters of mankind (6:1-4). Others in traditional sources postulate that it was the sin of refusing to have children--indeed, even Noah waited until he was 500 years old to have his first child.

For all the various theories about the precise nature of the sin, it is clear that the Flood's essential purpose was to cleanse Creation of the flaw that led to its corruption. And yet, from the time of the Ark's landing on dry land, God demonstrates an awareness that some essential flaw persists. God says: Never again will I bring doom upon the world on account of what people do, though the human mind inclines to evil from youth onward (8:21). Why does the human mind incline to evil? What is the flaw in the human mind? While the questions are not explicitly answered, we can nevertheless find answers in our tradition.

Why is Noah Silent?

Many commentators have criticized Noah for not challenging God about the planned destruction, as Abraham later does when God reveals the plan to destroy Sodom and Gomorrah (18:17-33). Readers over the ages have been puzzled by Noah's silence. But his silence is precisely the point. Nearly the entire portion of Noah is filled with God's speech and Noah's actions--but not words. From his building the ark through the entire Flood, Noah utters not a single word. When Noah finally speaks after being awakened from his wine (9:24), his words disclose the problem: he understood what his youngest son had done to him, so he said "Damned be Canaan! To his brothers he shall be the basest of slaves!" (9:24-25).

So Noah's first words neither praise God, nor express gratitude, nor ask for help, nor proclaim justice. Instead, he uses language to curse and to set up the differentiated love that will plague all the offspring Genesis--from Ishmael and Isaac to Esau and to Joseph and his brothers. By "differentiated love" I mean love that is given to one person and withheld from another.

Noah's first words show what might be an essential flaw in creation, leading to destruction in this parashah. As we read in Proverbs 18:21, death and life are in the power of the tongue. We have already seen the creative power of language in Genesis 1. Now it becomes dear that one sin causing the Flood was the abuse of language. In a way, we have always known that, as the Confession for the Day of Atonement lists many forms of language: idle talk, offensive speech, foolish talk, slander, passing judgment, plotting, tale-bearing, and swearing falsely. Each of these offenses involves some abuse of language.

In parashat Noah, the inherent flaw is made clear Noah's words form a curse; moreover, even when he comes to bless (9:27), he does so comparatively, blessing one son at the expense of another son's son, relegating his grandson Canaan to the role of slave. But love should not be comparative, quantifiable, or conditional.

When Language is Used for Destructive Purposes

God acknowledges the power of human language in the very next story, the episode of the Tower of Babel (Genesis 11). This time God, in order to restrain the people who are reaching out to heaven, confuses the language. God is thus undermining their capacity to use language in a destructive fashion (11:1-6).

From Noah's words and the people's words when they attempt to build their tower, we learn that the language that survives the devastation of the Flood is that of differentiated love, competition, hatred, cursing and revenge across generations. God's action at Babel is an attempt to heal the flaw of the sin at Babel by multiplying languages: perhaps somewhere among the new tongues would emerge a vision of reality that transcends the destructive, condemning words carried in the ark.

Our own experience verifies the lesson of the sin of the Flood. We know how language can kill. We have Seen the medical charts on which a doctor has scribbled "untreatable," thereby sealing a patient's fate. We have labeled a plant in our garden a "weed," thus sealing its fate.

Silence, then, might be a virtue. During the long days of the Flood and its aftermath, Noah did well, being silent. His silence reminds us of the better part of Job's comforters who initially sat with him on the ground seven days and seven nights. None spoke a word to him for they saw how very great was his suffering (Job 2:13). Once they began to speak, though, their words brought only discomfort, and finally God rebuked them: for you have not spoken the truth about Me as did My servant Job (42:7).

What lessons may we draw from this juxtaposition of silence and language? Is human speech invariably destructive? Where can we find the language that blesses, heals, and even creates? Again, the model is within this parashah, when God responds.

God restricts divine power, saying: Never again will I bring doom upon the world on account of what people do (Genesis 8:21); God restores blessings: God then blessed Noah and his sons saying to them, "Be fruitful and multiply and fill the earth" (9:1); and God enters into covenant with all living creatures: I am going to establish My covenant with you and your descendants after you, and with every living being in your care (9:9-10).

God's words and actions in the aftermath of destruction show us how we can use language to repair relationships, instruct others, forgive, and bless.

The product of fourteen years of work and the contributions of more than 100 scholars, theologians, poets, and rabbis—all of them women—The Torah: A Women’s Commentary is a landmark achievement in biblical scholarship and an essential resource for the study of the Bible. For more information or to order a copy, visit URJBooksandMusic.com.

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Carol Ochs teaches at Hebrew Union College--Jewish Institute of Religion in New York City. She is currently preparing a new edition of her book Women and Spirituality for Rowman and Littlefield Press.