“Raphèl maí amèche zabí almi” — Babel, not a punishment for a sin, but God-or-Nature’s (deus sive natura’s) gift of diversity

Nimrod in the ninth level of hell

Genesis 10:6–12

The descendants of Ham: Cush, Egypt, Put, and Canaan. The descendants of Cush: Seba, Havilah, Sabtah, Raamah, and Sabteca. The descendants of Raamah: Sheba and Dedan. Cush became the father of Nimrod; he was the first on earth to become a mighty warrior. He was a mighty hunter before the Lord; therefore it is said, ‘Like Nimrod a mighty hunter before the Lord.’ The beginning of his kingdom was Babel, Erech, and Accad, all of them in the land of Shinar. From that land he went into Assyria, and built Nineveh, Rehoboth-ir, Calah, and Resen between Nineveh and Calah; that is the great city.

Genesis 11:1–9 The Tower of Babel

Now the whole earth had one language and the same words. And as they migrated from the east, they came upon a plain in the land of Shinar and settled there. And they said to one another, ‘Come, let us make bricks, and burn them thoroughly.’ And they had brick for stone, and bitumen for mortar. Then they said, ‘Come, let us build ourselves a city, and a tower with its top in the heavens, and let us make a name for ourselves; otherwise we shall be scattered abroad upon the face of the whole earth.’ The Lord came down to see the city and the tower, which mortals had built. And the Lord said, ‘Look, they are one people, and they have all one language; and this is only the beginning of what they will do; nothing that they propose to do will now be impossible for them. Come, let us go down, and confuse their language there, so that they will not understand one another’s speech.’ So the Lord scattered them abroad from there over the face of all the earth, and they left off building the city. Therefore it was called Babel, because there the Lord confused the language of all the earth; and from there the Lord scattered them abroad over the face of all the earth.

From Canto 31 of Dante’s “Inferno” (trans. Mandelbaum)

“Raphel mai amecche zabi almi,”
began to bellow that brute mouth, for which
no sweeter psalms would be appropriate.

And my guide turned to him: “O stupid soul,
keep to your horn and use that as an outlet
when rage or other passion touches you!

Look at your neck, and you will find the strap
that holds it fast; and see, bewildered spirit,
how it lies straight across your massive chest.”

And then to me: “He is his own accuser;
for this is Nimrod, through whose wicked thought
one single language cannot serve the world.

Leave him alone—let’s not waste time in talk;
for every language is to him the same
as his to others—no one knows his tongue.”


“Raphèl maí amèche zabí almi” — Babel, not a punishment for a sin, but God-or-Nature’s (deus sive natura’s) gift of diversity

As you heard in our first reading from Genesis Nimrod was a “a mighty one on the earth” and “a mighty hunter before God.” Although the Bible never explicitly states this, later tradition believed that Nimrod was the leader of those who built the tower in Babel. The punishment — and in Christian influenced cultures it is perceived as a punishment (I’ll return to this point in a while) — the punishment God metered out to Nimrod and his people for this act was twofold, the confusion of multiple languages so that they would no longer be able to understand each other’s speech, and their scattering across the world. It’s helpful to know that the city’s name, “Babel”, is derived from the Hebrew “balal” which means to jumble up and “lebalbel” means “to confuse.”

One famous and influential Christian poem that makes use of of this confusion of languages and the scattering as a punishment was made by the late medieval/early renaissance poet Dante Alighieri (1265-1321) who, in his poem “The Inferno”, places Nimrod in the ninth and final level of hell for the sin of attempting to build the tower in Babel. As Dante passes through this most dreadful of places finally to meet Satan himself, Nimrod’s only words to him are “Raphèl maí amèche zabí almi”. Dante’s guide through Hell, the ancient Roman poet Virgil, explains that “every language is to [Nimrod] the same / as his to others — no one knows his tongue” (60: 80-81).

Since the poem’s composition seven hundred years ago, countless gallons of ink have been used up in the attempt to understand what exactly Nimrod (i.e. Dante) meant by these words. However, to this day, Nimrod’s words remain – as Dante intended – unintelligible.

But to get to an understanding of what one intelligible modern use of these unintelligible words might be, firstly we need to be clearer about in what might have consisted in Nimrod’s sin that resulted in his terrible punishment.

For the moment I’m going to work backwards assuming that, were it possible for the God imagined by Christianity to exist, then that same God would surely be concerned to do nothing less than that desired by the Mikado in Gilbert and Sullivan’s comic opera of the same name:

My object all sublime
I shall achieve in time —
To let the punishment fit the crime —
The punishment fit the crime.

Let us then, for argument’s sake, take it that the punishment — if punishment it was, remember — did indeed fit the crime.

We might choose to begin our inquiry by recalling that Nimrod is traditionally better known to us as a hunter and not as a builder, so what if we were to take his building of the tower of Babel as related to his hunting? The question that then comes to mind is, for what was he hunting when he set to his building?

Well, Genesis 11 tells us that he and his people were seeking to “make a name for ourselves, lest we be dispersed over the face of the earth” and to achieve this they decide to build a tower that will take them right up into what is perceived to be God’s domain. In other words we may take them to have been hunting for fame and status as a people able to reach — and perhaps even conquer — God’s realm and, in so doing, also to achieve an undivided unity as a nation destined to rule over the world in the place of God.

Since then this act has generally been interpreted by the Christian tradition as a wilful contradiction of God’s post-flood commandment found in Genesis 9, namely, to “Be fruitful and multiply and fill the earth” (v. 1). In this context we may understand God’s commandment to mean something like “spread out, not vertically, but horizontally across the earth and, in so doing, become as a people, not an undivided unity speaking one language, but a dispersed plurality speaking many languages.”

It was Nimrod and his builders sin to attempt precisely the opposite and to this act God responds by saying, “Look, they are one people, and they have all one language; and this is only the beginning of what they will do; nothing that they propose to do will now be impossible for them. Come, let us go down, and confuse their language there, so that they will not understand one another’s speech.” It was for this sin that Dante imagines Nimrod was sent to the deepest and darkest level of Hell (the circle reserved for the treacherous and treasonous) at the centre of which Satan himself is found bound in chains and frozen solid in a lake of ice.

But one deeply problematic side-effect of making something formally a sin by making a commandment or law against it is that it can simultaneously make that same sin so damnably attractive and even more desirable than it might otherwise have been. This realization drove St Paul almost to distraction and you may recall that in Romans 7:7-8 he wrote:

“[I]f it had not been for the law, I would not have known sin. I would not have known what it is to covet if the law had not said, ‘You shall not covet.’ But sin, seizing an opportunity in the commandment, produced in me all kinds of covetousness. Apart from the law sin lies dead.”

Here, he is beginning to think through the (to him) disturbing thought — which I now want to think through a bit with you — that were one to be able to get rid of at least certain kinds of laws and commandments then, perhaps, the associated sins will significantly diminish if not disappear as well.
In making the Babel story a story about a sin that needed to be punished, Christianity, fatefully, managed to make the idea of speaking one language and being one unified people something sexy and very desirable.

On this reading, the truly terrible idea most famously expressed in our own recent European history in the chilling slogan “Ein Volk, Ein Reich, Ein Führer” — one people, one realm, one leader — was, paradoxically, given something of it’s lasting power and allure by interpreting God's words in the Babel story as a moral commandment.

Once we took the Babel story to be about a sin that broke God’s commandment/law and which resulted in God’s punishment we were unknowingly ensuring that we would go round and round this terrible, crazy carousel, generation after generation.   

But what if the story of Babel could be read by us, not as a story about a sin, a commandment/law and a punishment from God to fit the crime, but simply as a story which provides us with an etiology of cultural differences? An etiological myth or, as we can also call it, an origin myth, is a myth which is primarily concerned to explain the origins of certain religious practices, natural phenomena, proper names etc..

A good example of this is can be seen in connection with the place name “Delphi” and the name of the god associated with it, “Apollon Delphinios.” Homer gives us an origin myth in which Apollo, in the shape of a dolphin (delphis) helps the Cretans come across the sea in order to make them his priests. However, later research has shown that it is more likely the name “Delphi” is related to the word delphus meaning womb. Anyway, these folk etymologies abound everywhere and it seems more likely — and, I would argue, more morally healthy — that this is what the Babel story is. It is not moral tale about a sin which requires from God the giving out of a commandment or law and a punishment to fit the crime but, instead, simply a very early attempt to explain what is, in fact, an entirely natural phenomenon, namely, that the human species (at least once it began to become self-reflexive) has always-already been living in different places, with different languages, stories, traditions and so on.

This thought allows me, finally to come back to Nimrod’s strange, unintelligible words: “Raphèl maí amèche zabí almi”. The theologian Colby Dickinson feels that perhaps

“ . . . the figure of Nemrod [sic] fascinated Dante because his sin is that of which Dante himself appears to be guilty. Nemrod had sought, and perhaps got too close, to the limits of language, a task that every serious author must confront sooner or later” (Agamben and Theology, p. 7).

If there is still a useful (natural and non-Christian) sin floating about in today’s babel of an address that mixes an ancient biblical text with late medieval/early Renaissance poetry, maybe it is the one Dickenson sees, namely, the sin which occurs whenever any one of us fails to see the limits of human language and we are tempted to try to say more than we can.

In this light Nimrod’s unintelligible words can usefully stand as an intelligible reminder that to be a human being is always-already to be shaped by our linguistic limitations and, therefore of our need always to be bringing to every encounter with another person, religion, nation or culture, not a belief that we can and should be able to understand and unify everything that is going on around us but, instead to bring into play an always humble but radically open, inquiring and interpretive attitude — one that that constantly calls upon us carefully to look at and listen to the many diverse things going on around us rather than imposing on this diversity a predetermined and (what I'm sure is an) always false picture of simple unity.

If we can do this then perhaps our scattered, highly diverse human condition will no longer be seen by our wider, Christian, influenced culture as a punishment for a sin and therefore something dreadful — akin to incarceration in the ninth level of hell — but, instead, as God-or-Nature’s (deus sive natura’s) glorious, freeing gift which serves to keep we limited creatures always open-hearted, open-minded, open-eared and open-handed towards our always highly diverse and plural human species and highly diverse and plural world.

God-or-Nature’s (deus sive natura’s) words in the the story of the Tower of Babel suddenly becomes for us, not a punishment, but the gift of a different kind of human unity, a unity in diversity, the only kind of unity that can be ours for the living.