The Power of Language

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

Print this page Print this page

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.

Did you like this article?  MyJewishLearning is a not-for-profit organization.

Please consider making a donation today.

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.