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.

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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.