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The Civic and the Nomadic in the Hebrew Bible

Sketch of a Talk Prepared for COV&R 2010 to be delivered at the University of Notre Dame, South Bend, Indiana, July 2, 2010

Come-now! Let us build ourselves a city!

Genesis 11:3 (Fox translation)

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Prologue

The writers of the Hebrew Bible are profoundly distrustful of cities and the regions in which they occur. Think of the big names outside of the communities of Israel and Judah: the Egyptians to the southwest, the Assyrians to the north, the Babylonians to the east, and constant interaction with the Canaanites . All these regions are at one point or another engaged in hostilities with the Israelites.

And when cities are specifically mentioned—Ninevah in the story of Jonah, Sodom and Gomorrah in the patriarchal histories, the story of Bavel, and of the city built by Kayin and/or his son Hanoch in the pre-patriarchal narratives of Genesis—all are negative in one way or another.

Why is that? Cities are places of violence, places where mutually exclusive sacrificial systems meet and people are forced to live together without killing one another. They are places of great creative energy that may also be expressed as great destructive energy. Jews have preferred to live in the desert and to recognize their God in rejection of the idolatrous investments of other cultures. The Hebrews conceive of themselves (throughout most of their early history) as a nomadic people, a people whose thought is la pensée du dehors (“the thought of the outside”) as Blanchot has said a thought always on the move, drawing the consequence of the present circumstances. Even when Judaism is to be found as a prominent part of other cultures (as it is after the Haskalah), Judaism has remained alive within but not necessarily of the variety of cultural settings in which it is to be found.

In the paper that follows, I would like to examine two examples of such anti-civic narrative in Torah, to offer a sense of just how ill at ease the idea of the city makes the Biblical writers, a malaise that Girardians would recognize as sacrificial crisis. I will turn first to the story of Hanoch and Lemech in the famous toldot section of chapter 4, and then I will turn to the short opening section of chapter 11 where the story of the tower of Bavel is narrated. Each narrative will have something different to say to us about cities, although in neither case is the news good, nor the lesson an encouraging one.

Part One: Hanoch and Lemech

Here is the Biblical text in which the passage about Hanoch and Lemech occur (in Fox’s tramslation: see handout).1

4:17 Kayin knew his wife;

she became pregnant and bore Hanokh.

Now he became the builder of a city

and called the city’s name according to his son’s name, Hanokh.

18 To Hanokh was born Irad,

Irad begot Mehuyael,

Mehuyael begot Metushael,

Metushael begot Lemekh.

 

19 Lemekh took himself two wives,

the name of the (first) one was Ada, the name of the second was Tzilla.

20 Ada bore Yaval,

he was the father of those who sit amidst tent and herd.

21 His brother’s name was Yuval,

he was the father of those who play the lyre and the pipe.

22 And Tzilla bore as well—Tuval-Kayin,

burnisher of every blade of bronze and iron.

Tuval-Kayin’s sister was Naama.

 

23 Lemekh said to his wives:

Ada and Tzilla, hearken to my voice,

wives of Lemekh, give ear to my saying:

Aye—a man I kill for wounding me,

a lad for only bruising me!

24 Aye—if sevenfold vengeance be for Kayin,

then for Lemekh, seventy-sevenfold!

25 Adam knew his wife again, and she bore a son.

She called his name Shet/Granted One!

meaning: God has granted me another seed in place of Hevel

for Kayin killed him.

26 To Shet as well a son was born,

he called his name: Enosh/Mortal.

 

At that time they first called out the name of Yhwh.

 

5:1 This is the record of the begetting of Adam/Humankind.

At the time of God’s creating humankind,

in the likeness of God did he then make it

male and female he created them

and gave blessing to them and called their name: Humankind!

on the day of their being created.

These passages appear just after the exile from Eden—in the passages known as the toldoth—and is repeated after the Deluge in Chapter 11 in the passages known as the Tower of Bavel (or of Babel in English). It is presented, I would assert, as part of Torah’s campaign in bereishiyt (or Genesis) to establish the Abrahamic move in chapter 12 the so-called lech lechah, or “get gone, and I mean you,” by which Avram (later Avraham) leaves his native city of Ur of the Chaldees to found a new religious orientation based upon a law or governing rule of anti-idolatry: leave your land, your city, your family and kinship ties, and follow me to a land I will show you, a land of milk and honey, a land for which your charge will be to “be a blessing.”

In what follows, I want to show you first the way these early chapters seem to establish a crisis of differences in the Girardian sense. And secondly to show in operation what I have called elsewhere the “text of transgression,” a way in which the very text that we read is a product, a material extension, of the subject matter it describes. And so, as a result the task of deciphering this text, of unwinding its transgressive and transformed make-up, falls to the reader, and thereby the reader’s task (should he choose to accept it), [like that of the characters within the text,] is the task of anti-idolatry and thus [in this way] the site of reading itself is [assumes the status of or becomes] a site [or scene] of ethical instruction.

* * * * *=

At the end of the story of Kayin (4:1-16), we read the following (in Everett Fox’s translation).2

4:17 Kayin knew his wife;

she became pregnant and bore Hanokh.

Now he became the builder of a city

and called the city’s name according to his son’s name, Hanokh.

The problem is evident right away. Kayin had defined himself as a wanderer (4:14): “I must be wavering and wandering on earth.” And now he has a child. And that child’s claim to fame is that he is a “builder of cities.” What is a city? Whatever else it is, it is a place of stopping; it is a return in some sense to the forbidden garden, the garden of Kayin’s parents, a garden that is also not a garden. It represents, we may say, a rebellion against wandering, against the style of his father.

Secondly, the inheritance of the child is marked by a certain confusion between the father, the son, and the city itself, a confusion expressed in the very language: Hanoch became a builder of cities and he named the city Hanoch after his son, Hanoch.

Does “he” in 4:17 refer antecedently to Hanoch or to Kayin? We assumed above that it referred to Hanoch and that Hanoch was a rebel, that he built cities while his father wandered. But perhaps we got it wrong. Perhaps it refers to Kayin, and that Kayin becomes a builder of cities and names the city in accord with his son, Hanoch.

Here is another problem. The city and his son have the same name? He cannot distinguish the name of a person from the name of a material infrastructure? Has he run out of names already that he should do that, that he should start repeating himself? What kind of inheritance would the son have if he grows up in a universe in which his name and the city’s name are one and the same? Would there not be a monumental confusion both on the part of the inhabitants of that city and on the part of the child—Hanokh?

[All the translations read it as if it is Kayin! Except for Fox. Rashi and the Ramban. Rashi says “he” has to be Kayin, which suggests the text is unclear so that he is compelled to make that clarification. Secondly, Nachmanides says there is something wrong with the counting of generations. Lemech says he is the seventh generation, but in fact there are only six! Maybe there are others that are not mentioned, he says, thereby opening the door to the possibility that there are two Hanochs!

And Sarna notes from the perspective of an historical scholar that the founding of the first city would be better attributed to Enoch rather than to Cain.

Another example of how the Rabbis do that: when they preserve the text of Yaakov wrestling with the man, the ish, but we are never sure who is speaking. Also he wrestles with a man and calls the place the face of God. Or think about the confusion of the Midianites and the Ishmaelites in the story of Joseph.

So the Rabbis can play with the text and enact a certain confusion. It seems to me that is potentially what they are doing here. Why is that interesting? It is interesting because they are suggesting that the text itself is in some way enacting a confusion of differences, a crisis of differences, that it is implicated in the narrative it is describing.]

But let us assume that the first way we read it is the correct way, that “he” refers to Hanokh. Then we are to understand that Hanoch becomes the builder of a city and that Hanoch called the city’s name according to his son’s name, Hanoch. Then we learn that Hanoch did his father one better for he not only named his son and his city the same name but he named it the same as his own: it is as if in the above example Kayin were to name his son Kayin and the city Kayin. It is hard not to see in this duplication and potential triplication of names a breakdown of distinction and in Girardian terms a crisis of differences and the genesis of violence. [Moreover, we understand that for Girard they are one and the same: violence is nothing other than difference gone wrong, and difference nothing other than violence working well.]

18 To Hanokh was born Irad,

Irad begot Mehuyael,

Mehuyael begot Metushael,

Metushael begot Lemekh.

Mehuyael begot Metushael? Again with the duplicate names? Is this a competition with Hanoch and Hanoch? The difference is not particularly a great one. The similarity of naming seems to have become an inheritance in the Kayin-Hanoch family line.

With Lemech, the story takes a slightly different turn.

19 Lemekh took himself two wives,

the name of the (first) one was Ada, the name of the second was Tzilla.

20 Ada bore Yaval,

he was the father of those who sit amidst tent and herd.

21 His brother’s name was Yuval,

he was the father of those who play the lyre and the pipe.

22 And Tzilla bore as well—Tuval-Kayin,

burnisher of every blade of bronze and iron.

Tuval-Kayin’s sister was Naama.

Two wives? Was one not enough for him? The multiplication of these same names, the promotion of sameness rather than the promotion of diversity and distinction—would seem to have become endemic. Ha’adam leads to Kayin, who leads to Hanoch, who leads to Irad (or Hanoch who leads to Irad) who leads to Mehuyael, who leads to Metushael, who leads to Lemekh. Six generations from Kayin, seven if we count a son of Hanoch named Hanoch.

What do we know of these wives? Not very much. Not much more than their names. Ada and Tzilla. Ada gives birth to Yaval (who tends tent and herd) and Yuval (who tends lyre and pipe). Again, two very similar names. The idea of Hanoch having a son named Hanoch and building a city named Hanoch begins to look less and less bizarre. And Tzilla, of course, gives birth to a child name Tuval (not entirely dissimilar to Yuval), whose other name is Kayin, and we are back again to Kayin and the outset of the history. The daughter of Lemech and Tzilla is Naama.

All we know about these women, in other words, is that their son’s names were relatively the same (Yaval, Yuval, Tuval, Kayin), the fact that they give birth, and that the names of the woemn—for example in the case of Tzilla and Ada—were by contrast relatively distinct and not confusing.

23 Lemekh said to his wives:

Ada and Tzilla, hearken to my voice,

wives of Lemekh, give ear to my saying:

Aye—a man I kill for wounding me,

a lad for only bruising me!

24 Aye—if sevenfold vengeance be for Kayin,

then for Lemekh, seventy-sevenfold!

“Lemech said to his wives.” To both of them at once? Or one at a time. One utterance for two women? Is he economizing? Or is it to each individually? “Ada and Tzilla.” At least, he repeats their names. He seems to regard them as a group, as a unit, not as individuals with whom he has a multiplicity of independent relations. In fact, the rabbis are forced to specify the ways in which the relationships are independent. Again, I would suggest, precisely because the text does not do so.

“Ada and Tzilla,” he says to them, “hearken to my voice.” Not “hear my voice”, “listen to me,” but “hearken.” So (1) Likes it! Likes hearing his own voice. (2) Do it! Obey my voice! Why does he say it at all? We have very little text to work with in these interactions, so we have to make the most of the little we have, which, of course, is what the Rabbis do. Why “listen to me”? Have they not been listening to him? Does he fear rebellion? Against him? Against each other? “Wives of Lamech.” he says. He repeats himself. Do they not think of themselves as “wives of Lemech” that he needs to remind them of that fact? But notice that he addresses them by their relation to him. It’s all about him, as they say in contemporary discussions of primary narcissism. You are in so far as you serve me. As for others of his mind (and in particular his kinship system), he addresses them but not as part of a face to face relationship.

“Give ear to my saying.” Again, have the not been doing that, that he needs to say it twice (“hearken to my voice,” “give ear to my saying”)?

“Aye.” Yes. Expressed archaically. In English, of course, such affirmation rhymes with, is a pun with, self-denomination: “I.” Fox could have chosen another word of affirmation.

“A man I kill for wounding me.” Disproportionate relationship here. The man wounds me. But I kill him. I overreact. Why is he telling this to his wives? Why is he telling it to both of them? Has he not been able to deal with it himself? Or in relation to God? When Kayin is in despair, he addresses God. “Here, you drive me away from the face of the soil” (4:14). Moses will reenact this disproportion of course in the opening chapters of Exodus (Ex. 2-4). Are they his confidants? non-personally addressed as they are?

And then follows the self-comparison. “Aye—if sevenfold vengeance be for Kayin, / then for Lemekh, seventy-sevenfold!” We note the comparison to his illustrious ancestor. Is he trying to out do Kayin? Is there a competition here?

And that record of violence is inscribed within the history, [can whether the history is invoked in rout be made.]

25 Adam knew his wife again, and she bore a son.

She called his name Shet/Granted One!

meaning: God has granted me another seed in place of Hevel

for Kayin killed him.

26 To Shet as well a son was born,

he called his name: Enosh/Mortal.

“In place of Hevel, for Kayin killed him.” [tenials] of the violence at least of this history. Confusion of names, confusion of fathers and sons, of brothers and with brothers, of wives with each other—loss of differentiation and the increase of violence—both of these are associated with the inheritance of Hanoch or of Kayin whoever in fact became “the builder of a city” and “called that city by his son’s name, Hanoch” (4:17).

So cities are associated with these confusions. If they are associated with Kayin, they are associated with murder. If they are associated with Hanoch, they are associated with loss of difference—among people and between people and institutions.

Lest we think these characters—Hanokh’s and Lemech’s in particular—as all bad, all egoism, we shall note that Hanokh sometime later acquires the distinction in another incarnation that he “walked in accord with God” (5:22), a line echoed in 5:24 “Now Hanokh walked in accord with God.” We also learn that and Hanoch called upon the LORD (5:24).

And Lemech? When Lemech had lived 182 years, he begat Noach, “saying:

Zeh yenahamenu / may this-one comfort-our-sorrow.

from our toil, from the pains of our hands

coming from the soil, which YHWH has damned. (5:29)

Lemekh begets Noah who will, alone with his family and a selection “from all living things” (6:19), survive the pangeic catastrophe and provide the foundation for the post-deluge world, one intended to replace the world God was “sorry” he made (6:6), and which he blotted out because “great was human kind’s evil doing on earth / and every form of their heart’s planning was only evil all the day” (6:5).

Let us turn, then, to the second text, and then offer a few conclusions.

[Excursus on translations and commentary]

[Here is the Biblical text in which the passage about Hanoch and Lemech occur (in Fox’s

translation).3

4:17 Kayin knew his wife;

she became pregnant and bore Hanokh.

Now he became the builder of a city

and called the city’s name according to his son’s name, Hanokh.

18 To Hanokh was born Irad,

Irad begot Mehuyael,

Mehuyael begot Metushael,

Metushael begot Lemekh.

Who became a builder of a city? Kayin? Then why not say that? Why not say “And Kayin became a builder of cities, and called the name of the city (he built) after the name of his son, Hanoch.”

What do the commentators say? Within the Jewish interpretative community there are a number of common translations. The Hebrew is fairly straightforward and uncomplicated: “vayida kayin et-ishto, vatahar vatiled et-hanoch, vayhiy boneh iyr,vayikra sheim ha’iyrk’sheim bno hanoch,” which means, “And he knew (intimately) his wife, and she became pregnant and gave birth to Hanoch, and he became the builder of a city, and called the name of the city as [he called] the name of his son—Hanoch.” Which leaves the matter in doubt. The antecedent reference could be “Kayin.”

Here are the translations. The Stone and Artscroll editions (commonly considered “ultra-Orthodox”) translate (with one minor change): “And Cain knew his wife, and she conceived and bore Enoch (Artscroll: Chanoh). He became a city-builder, and he named the city after his son Enoch (Chanoch)” (23 and 159). The older JPS (1917) renders the line: “And Cain knew his wife; and she conceived, and bore Enoch; and he builded a city, and called the name of the city after the name of his son Enoch” (7) and this translation is followed by Hertz (15) and the Soncino edition (19). The newer JPS (1985) version renders it “Cain knew his wife, and she conceived and bore Enoch. And he then founded a city, and named the city after his son Enoch” (8), a reading followed by the Jewish Study Bible under Michael Fishbane’s editorship (19), Etz Hayim (commonly used in contemporary conservative congregations) (28), the JPS Commentary (35-36), and Plaut (used often in Reform liturgies) (45).

Friedman, the Jerusalem Bible, and the NRSV have slightly different renderings still but follow the common thread. “And Cain knew his wife, and she became pregnant and gave birth to Enoch. And he was a builder of a city, and he called the name of the city like the name of his son: Enoch” is how Friedman translates (29). “Cain had intercourse with his wife, and she conceived and gave birth to Enoch. He became the founder of a city and gave the city the name of his son Enoch” is how the Jerusalem Bible translates (8). And “Cain knew his wife, and she conceived and bore Enoch; and he built a city, and named it after his son Enoch” is the NRSV (7). Robert Alter (used sometimes in the study of the Hebrew Bible as literature writes: “And Cain knew his wife and she conceived and bore Enoch. Then he became the builder of a city and called the name of the city, like his son’s name, Enoch” (31).

In all of these seven translations, in other words, the dominant sense is that Cain is the antecedent reference of vayikra (“and he called”). But all of the English renderings also allow for the possibility (as a kind of subtext) that Hanoch may also be implicated. What do the classical Rabbis say? Again, the overwhelming opinion is that Kayin is the subject of both sentences.

Here is the translation of the Hebrew at 4:1 in a volume containing Rashi’s commentary: “And Cain knew his wife and she conceived, and bore Enoch: and he builded a city, and called the name of the city after the name of his son, Enoch.” And here is what Rashi writes: “17. And [Cain] builded a city, and he called the name of the city as a memorial for his son Enoch (“vayhiy [kayin] boneh iyr vayikra sheim haiyr l’zeicher b’no chanochh”) (42-43).

He inserts the word kayin into the Hebrew itself, which suggests, of course, that the Hebrew leaves it out. And which leaves the matter for us entirely open. Saying that “Cain ‘builded’ the city” suggests that the Hebrew leaves the matter in some doubt so that Rashi has to intervene and clarify the text. Rashi’s clarifications calls attention in other words to its own conditions of possibility. Not one word may be added or subtracted from Torah, the Rabbis say all the time. Rashi’s emendation is an interpretation. And as such, requires that we understand the gesture: namely, that the text leaves the matter open so that Rashi cold render it one way or another.

And the Ramban (Nachmanides) in some ways goes even further, finding a way of imagining Hanoch as an alternative candidate for city-builder. In response to 4:17, we read (Artscroll, 159)

Ramban also notes that Cain’s descendents consisted of only six generations [Chanoch, Irad, Mehujael, Methushael, Lamech , and his three children: Jabal, Jubal, and Tuval-Cain] while among the descendents of Seth [Adam’s third son—see Chapter 5] there were an additional two generations before the Flood [totaling eight: Enosh, Kenan, Mahlalel, Jared, Chanoch, Methuselah, Lamech and Noah]. Ramban suggests that there might have been more descendents [my italics], but the Torah had no need to record them, limiting its narrative to the names of those [my italics] who began the building of cities, the grazing of sheep, the art of music, and metal-working.

He creates a space, in other words, in which the name of Hanoch, the grandson of Kayin, father of Irad and son of Hanoch, may be inserted! There might be more descendents not explicitly mentioned—namely, Hanoch. And both Kayin and Hanoch the Elder are individuals who began “the building of cities.”

Third indication of something amiss. In the JPS Commentary, at 4:17, we read a note that directs us to 4:18—where we read the following:

18. Irad The name has not been satisfactorily explained. Curiously, in Sumerian traditions, the first city was Eridu, now Tell abu Shahrain, in southern Mesopotamia, which excavations have revealed to be the oldest site in that part of the world. It has been suggested, therefore, that the statement in verse 17, “He founded a city, and named the city after his son,” really belongs here, so that Enoch, not Cain, built the first city and named it Irad (=Eridu) after his son. (36)

Sarna identifies Enoch (Hanokh) in other words as the founder of the first city, naming it moreover after his son, although he does it in such a way that the traditional understanding—that Kayin fathers Hanokh who fathers Irad—is preserved.

What are the implications of this double rendering? If Kayin is the builder, we have egoism enough. He murders his brother. Then he founds a city and has a son, giving the son the same name—the same status in his mind—as the city. But if Hanoch is the builder, then the egoism is increased exponentially. He imitates his father in naming his son Hanoch. He names the city Hanoch (which is the same name as his son). And both are extensions of his own name, Hanoch. The Hebrew, in other words, allows for the possibility of duplication of what Girard would call “undifferentiation” in the language itself. It is as if the text, the Hebrew wording, is imitating the characters, duplicating what is being said “inside” the story by the way in which the story is being told “outside.” Or, to put it another way, as if there is no outside; as if the text is also inside the story we are reading, and needs decipherment every bit as much as the events internal to it require that interpretative gesture.]

Let us turn, then, to the second text, and then offer a few conclusions.

Part Two: Bavel

Have we been unfair to cities? Cities are only mentioned once in these early passages of Torah in these passages of generations or toldoth from Kayin to Noach in Chapter 4-6. Perhaps the phrase “and he became a builder of cities” was a throwaway line, and is irrelevant to the fact of the loss of differences and the rise of violence that will culminate in the flood. Perhaps we need another example.

There is of course another example in Genesis: Chapter 11, verses 1 to 9. Sometime after the flood (10:32), sometime after God has said he would “never again” (9:11) destroy the world, end all by a deluge, and then says “I will establish my covenant” (9:11), a city is in place. We read: “Now all the earth was of one language and one set-of-words” (11:1). What does that mean? Was there really only one language, Hebrew, for example? Or did everyone speak the same language, as they say? Everyone understanding what everyone else was saying?

Which ever it was, let us assume they all understood each other. Why is this development bad? Why is the proliferation of confusion and evil-doing which is identified with the rise of the collapse of differences and the spread of violence viewed by Torah as problematic? Why not just regard this as fact? Here is what precedes the generation first of Noah and later of Avrum who were chosen by God?

Because Torah is telling a particular history. The history that it is telling is the history of the renunciation of living in accord with commandment and the gradual but discernible revelation that only living in accord with commandment will the world get created, will the partnership that is between God or Yhwh and the human creature get completed. Viewed independently of that particular history, the history of trying to live in accord with God—which is to say, with commandment— the history makes little sense or at least makes different sense than it does for the Rabbis.

When Jacques Derrida for example views God as “panocidal”—as genocidal of the whole world—he has excluded this history of learning to live with commandment as its background, as well as excluding the projective nature of God.4 how uniquely performative are these terrible things. He has refused to consider, excluded from consideration, the universal violence that, among other misconstruals, imagines, has imagined, such a terrible and terrifying divine agency.

Does Derrida perform such confusions for us, such misunderstandings, because he endorses these perspectives, or because he would show us such misconstruals as precisely what the text is showing us? I leave that question open to other readers of Derrida to decide.

3 They said, each man to his neighbor:

Come-now! Let us bake bricks and let us burn them well-burnt!

Where is God in all of this activity? The tales of descendants of Kayin and Havva were acting in the clear abandonment—we pointed out—of the history of those who chose to live by commandment. God saw that the human creatures had moved away from commandment entirely, that they were all without relations to God, and so the flood ensued. But afterward, God promised to never again bring the flood.

And yet here people begin again to do precisely what they did before and what led to the flood. What does God do in this case? He cannot bring about another flood unless he is to break his promise and so he has something of a dilemma

And it was (11:22)

Now Torah makes a distinction between settling and sojourning. Presumably, then, these are the settled as opposed to the sojourning people, more like village inhabitants or city dwellers than the wanderers of the nomadic tribes.

They said “Come now.!”

They talk not to God (who spoke with Noah and with the sons of Noah) but with each other exclusively. And the word “neighbor” here refers to a category, the individual standing next to them, not to God.

Let us burn bricks . . . well burnt.

Let us do what God does. They echo God’s talk (cf. 7:1: “Come, you and all your household”) and echo the actions that in other circumstances could be give to God (surfaces impersonates an “offering” or “offering up” is a “burn-all”; an alah or olah is a thorough going burning) for purposes of civic technology. The burn all in this case will be directed for purely material purposes initially (moving buildings) and later it will be revealed they have another purpose.

Come, now, the city so that

They repeat the language of God to each other (have they not listened?). Let us build ourselves a city has a double meaning of course in English: (1) use our efforts to build a city to which we can thus lay claim for ownership; (2) construct ourselves to be a city and thereby make ourselves into a name (where did they get such an idea—that a name for a city could be taken from a person, or that the name for a person could be used to name a city?). Become famous. Be as powerful as God. Recall Havva: who said kanniti / I have gotten a man as has Yhwh!” (4:1).

But such a usurpation of the position of God was precisely what brought about the destruction before. Why? Because it eschewed commandment as the means for divine-human creative potential.

There is something intensely Greek about this narrative . They do all of this in order to promote the occurrence of consequence A. But the effects they undertake to avoid consequences A are precisely the efforts that destroy it. Think of Oedipus—this time, not in the way Rene Girard and I have spoken about it, but in the way that ancient Greeks thought about it. They undertake efforts to avoid being [surfeited] and [beaty] is precisely what occurs.

Or think of Beowulf culture with its high tower of Herot, which, fresh from thwarting the attack of Grendel (the word derives from a word meaning grain), in fact encourages it and enhances its destructive potential.

But Yhwh . . . the face of the earth.

All the humans wanted to do was something good, acquire some capacity for communications (people with one language). And what happens? The God are jealous of us. They foil our plans. They baffle our efforts. They turn what we say into babble.

Or have we gotten it wrong? Is this the God of creation? The God who said “let there be light” and there was light? Has this God looked down upon these little ziggurat builders and somehow shaken in his boots, saying, “Oh, my, we need to stop them; or there is no telling now what they’ll do next!”

Or is there another way to look at it? What if we say that what has “happened” has in some empirical sense is the failure of a civic project, a failure that has occurred for all sorts of reasons, not the least of which has been the crisis of difference and consequent violence as a result, but on their way out of town, they rationalize that failure: the Gods must have been against us all along, they say to each other. The Gods are jealous of us, and that’s really why they stopped us. And this rationalization has become a part of the text itself, one moreover, that in building a law of anti-idolatry for ourselves, we will have to deal with: namely, a text that is already itself the product of the very subject matter it describes.

The God of 11:1-9 is the rationalized God, I suggest, of the failed civic builders, the city dwellers who, in the face of the incompletedness of their project, chose to baffle that failure rather than confront it, to cover it over, with a text. This makes them of the city, from a biblical point of view is a profoundly ambivalent one. On the one hand, the possibility for anti-idolatry is never greater. All meet in the city for the city is the site of one language, of one people with one language. On the other hand, the potential for the meeting is loss of difference, dispersal, and in fact disaster.

Here is the text on Bavel in the opening of Chapter 11.

11:1 Now all the earth was of one language and one set-of-words.

2 And it was when they migrated to the east that they found

a valley in the land of Shinar and settled there.

3 They said, each man to his neighbor:

Come-now! Let us bake bricks and let us burn them well-burnt!

So for them brick-stone was like building-stone, and raw-bitumin

was for them like red-mortar.

4 Now they said:

Come-now! Let us build ourselves a city and a tower, its top in the heavens,

and let us make ourselves a name,

lest we be scattered over the face of the earth!

5 But Yhwh came down to look over the city and the tower that

the humans were building.

6 Yhwh said:

Here, (they are) one people with one language for them all, and

this is merely the first of their doings—

now there will be no barrier for them in all that they scheme to do!

7 Come-now! Let us go down and there let us baffle their language,

so that no man will understand the language of his neighbor.

8 So Yhwh scattered them from there over the face of all the earth,

and they had to stop building the city.

9 Therefore its name was called Bavel / Babble,

for there Yhwh baffled the language of all the earth-folk,

and from there, Yhwh scattered them over the face of all the earth.

Conclusion: Reading Biblical Cities

In other words, whether we construe the city finally to be built upon the Kayin’s history and the history of murder, or whether we construe the city to be built upon Hanokh who cannot distinguish his own name from his generation’s name from the city’s name, the crisis of difference and violence in the Biblical perspective are one and the same.

Is there any hope in the midst of the city? The hope Torah insists is scripture itself and learning sing to read through the deceptions, learning to read the textual distortions for what they are, and to restate the responsibility where it is appropriately due; learning to discern or disarm the appearance of idolatry wherever it shows up, if it occurs in the text as the text, in the text as the text itself.

Thank you very much.

 

Appendix

 

[Excursus: Here are a variety of different Jewish versions of 4:17:]

[Fox, 28: A

Kayin knew his wife;

she became pregnant and bore Hanokh.

Now he became the builder of a city

and called the city’s name according to his son’s name, Hanokh.

 

Stone, 23: B

And Cain knew his wife, and she conceived and bore Enoch. He became a city-builder,

and he named the city after his son Enoch.

 

Artscroll, 159: B1

And Cain knew his wife, and she conceived and bore Chanoch. He became a city-

builder, and he named the city after his son Chanoch.

 

Hertz, 15: C

And Cain knew his wife; and she conceived, and bore Enoch; and he builded a city, and

called the name of the city after the name of his son Enoch.

 

JPS (1917), 7: C

And Cain knew his wife; and she conceived, and bore Enoch; and he builded a city, and

called the name of the city after the name of his son Enoch.

 

Soncino Chumash, 19: C

And Cain knew his wife; and she conceived, and bore Enoch; and he builded a city, and

called the name of the city after the name of his son Enoch.

 

Rashi, 42-43: C1

And Cain knew his wife and she conceived, and bore Enoch: and he builded a city, and

called the name of the city after the name of his son, Enoch.

 

JPS (1985), 8: D

Cain knew his wife, and she conceived and bore Enoch. And he then founded a city, and

named the city after his son Enoch.

 

Fishbane (Jewish Study Bible), 19: D

Cain knew his wife, and she conceived and bore Enoch. And he then founded a city, and

named the city after his son Enoch.

 

Etz Hayyim, 28: D

Cain knew his wife, and she conceived and bore Enoch. And he then founded a city, and

named the city after his son Enoch.

 

JPS Torah Commentary, 35-36 : D

Cain knew his wife, and she conceived and bore Enoch. And he then founded a city, and

named the city after his son Enoch.

 

Plaut, 45: D

Cain knew his wife, and she conceived and bore Enoch. And he then founded a city, and

named the city after his son Enoch.

 

Alter, 31: E

And Cain knew his wife and she conceived and bore Enoch. Then he became the builder

of a city and called the name of the city, like his son’s name, Enoch.

 

Friedman, 29: F

And Cain knew his wife, and she became pregnant and gave birth to Enoch. And he was

a builder of a city, and he called the name of the city like the name of his son: Enoch.

And for purposes of comparison, here are some Christian versions:

i

Jerusalem Bible, 8: G

Cain had intercourse with his wife, and she conceived and gave birth to Enoch. He

became the founder of a city and gave the city the name of his son Enoch.

 

New Revised Standard Version, 7: H

Cain knew his wife, and she conceived and bore Enoch; and he built a city, and named it

after his son Enoch.

 

Choura qui: I

17.     Caïn pénètre sa femme.

Enceinte, elle enfante Hanokh. Il bâtit une ville

et crie le nom de la ville, comme le nom de son fils: Hanokh.

4:17:

vayida kayin et-ishto ~/~ ~/ ~/~

vatahar vatiled et-hanoch ~/~ ~/~ ~~/

 

vayhiy boneh iyr ~~ /~ /

vayikra sheim ha’iyr ~/~ / ~/

k’sheim bno hanoch ~/ ~/ ~/

 

There are about five different translations. Fox is unique. The orthodox community uses two very similar translations. The JPS 1917 is used by Hertz, Soncino, and Rashi. The new JPS is used by Fishbane, Etz Hayim, Torah commentary, and Plaut. Friedman uses his own. And the Jerusalem and NRSV use their own.

 

Alter notes at 4:17: “the builder of a city. The first recorded founder of a city is also the first murderer, a possible reflection of the antiurban bias in Genesis” (31).]

 

List of Works cited

Alter, Robert. The Five Books of Moses. New York: Norton, 2004.

 

Berlin, Adele and Marc Zvi Brettler, eds. The Jewish Study Bible. Jewish Publication Society Tanakh Translation. Michae Fishbane, consulting editor. New York: Oxford University Press, 2004.

 

Blanchot, Maurice. “Literature and the Right to Death” in Works of Fire.

 

Blanchot, Maurice. The Literary Space.

 

Blanchot, Maurice. The Writing of the Disaster

Cohen, Dr. A. ed. The Soncino Chumash. The Five Books of Moses with Haftoroth. London: The Soncino Press, 1979.

 

Etz Hayim. Torah and Commentary. New York: The Rabbinical Assembly, 2001.

 

Foucault, Michel, “The Thought of the Outside” in Aesthetics, Method, and Epistemology. Essential Works of Foucault, 1954-1984, Vol. 2. Edited by James D. Faubion. New York: The New Press, 1998.

 

Foucault, Michel. Language, Counter-Memory, and Practice, edited by Don Bouchard (Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 1980).

 

Fox, Everett, editor and translator. The Five Books of Moses. Genesis, Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers, and Deuteronomy. New York: Schocken Books, 1997.

 

Friedman, Richard Elliott, editor. Commentary on the Torah. New York: Harper-Collins, 2001

 

Hertz, Dr. J. H. The Pentateuch and Haftorahs. Second Edition. London: Soncino Press, 1978.

 

Isaiah, Rabbi Abraham Ben, and Rabbi Benjamin Sharfman, eds. The Pentateuch and Rashi’s Commentary. Genesis. Brooklyn: S. S. and R. Publishing Company, 1949.

 

Jacobs, Jane. The Death and Life of Great American Cities (New York: Random House, 1961).

 

Metzger, Bruce and Roland Murphy, eds. The New Oxford Annotated Bible with the Apocrypha. New York: Oxfords University Press, 1991.

 

Mumford, Lewis. The City in History: Its Origins, Its Transformations, and Its Prospects. New York: Mariner Books, 1968.

 

Plaut, W. Gunther, editor. The Torah. A Modern Commentary. New York: Union of American Hebrew Congregations, 1981.

 

Sarna, Nahum M. editor. The JPS Commentary. Genesis. New York: The Jewish Publication Society, 1989.

 

Scherman, Rabbi Nosson, ed. The Torah: Haftoras and Five Megillos With a Commentary Anthologized From the Rabbinic Writings. The Artscroll Series / Stone Edition. Brooklyn: Mesorah Publications, Ltd., 1995.

 

Tanakh. A New Translation of the Holy Scriptures. New York: Jewish Publication Society, 1985.

 

The Holy Scriptures According to the Masoretic Text. Philadelphia: Jewish Publication Society, 1950.

 

Wainsbrough, Henry, ed. The New Jerusalem Bible. Reader’s Edition. New York: Doubleday, 1990.

 

Zlotowitz, Rabbi Meir and Rabbi Nosson Scherman. Bereishis / Genesis. Volume 1. TheArtscroll Tanach Series. New York: Mesorah Publications, Ltd., 1977.

 

word count: 8,175

________________________________________________

Associate Professor of English and Jewish Studies

Director, Interdisciplinary Program in Classics

Department of English / Heavilon Hall 438

Purdue University / West Lafayette, Indiana 47907

Tel: (765) 494 3733 / Fax: (765) 494 3780

[email protected] / June 24, 2010

1 The passage is from Everett Fox’s edition of Torah. All references to Biblical passages are to this edition unless otherwise indicated.

2 The passage is from Everett Fox’s edition of Torah. All references to Biblical passages are to this edition unless otherwise indicated.

3 The passage is from Everett Fox’s edition of Torah. All references to Biblical passages are to this edition unless otherwise indicated.

4 See “Literature in Secret” in The Gift of Death (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2007).