This essay is the fourth in a six-part series by Jacob Howland on Homer and the Hebrew Bible. Historians of Western intellectual culture sometimes compare “Jerusalem,” or the biblical traditions that erupt into history at Sinai, with “Athens,” the city where Socrates, Plato, and Aristotle sought human wisdom through the exercise of the human mind. In this series, Howland invites a different comparison. Rather than comparing later prophets to philosophers, he looks back at yet earlier cultural cornerstones set at the very foundations of Hebraic and Greek civilizations. Future installments in Howland’s series will arrive monthly. —The Editors
The Noahide portion of Genesis, containing the final episodes in the Bible’s universal history before the advent of the Hebrew patriarchs, opens with one big construction project—the ark—and closes with an even bigger one—the city and tower of Babel.
The first story involves the near-total destruction of human and animal life with the single exception of Noah’s boatload of survivors. The second develops similar themes of displacement and dispersion, but in a different register: in a vivid image of total social uniformity, the mobilized citizens of Babel fire, stack, and join bricks row upon row in high walls. But God baffles the language of this anonymous mass and scatters it—them—“over all the earth.” Thus, once again, 2,000 years after the expulsion from Eden, a few centuries after the flood, human beings will have to begin anew to find their way in the world.
If the single-minded people of Babel are moved by the desire to “make us a name,” Odysseus, too, means to earn great renown—in his case, by blinding the Cyclops; instead, he incurs severe divine punishment in the form of death for all of his companions and ten years of complete oblivion for him. His aspiration is characteristically heroic—personal and individual—while the Babylonians’ is collective and political, but both somehow cross a closely monitored border and set off a tripwire.
Why does God in Genesis and why do the gods in the Odyssey so forcefully oppose these efforts? Why do the humans’ attempts to become somebodies end in their becoming nobodies? To help illuminate the issues at play, let’s turn first to the Odyssey before coming back to the Bible.
Homer begins the Odyssey by describing the wanderings and tribulations of its eponymous hero. “Many cities of men he saw and learned their mind [noos],” Homer informs us in the epic’s opening lines. “Many pains he suffered, heartsick in the open sea,/ fighting to save his life [or soul] and bring his comrades home.”
A manuscript of the Odyssey possessed by the first head of the great library of Alexandria (founded in 283 BCE) contained the variant nomos, “law” or “custom,” instead of noos, “mind.” The two words, nomos and noos, differ only by the presence or absence of one central letter; we shall never know which reading is correct, but the ambiguity itself is highly suggestive. Ten years of warfare have left Odysseus with a nimble, tactical mind, but a lawless one: its civilizing center has dropped out. The significance of that lawless mind and that absent center is an essential concern of the Odyssey.
The Trojan war has begun with a violation of the unwritten laws of hospitality governing how strangers, guests, and hosts are to be treated: on a visit to Sparta, Prince Paris of Troy has abducted Helen, the transcendently beautiful wife of Menelaus king of Sparta, and taken her back to Troy. The ensuing war ends with the plundered city of Troy collapsing in a firestorm. Just prior to that moment, Odysseus invades the home of a Trojan prince named Deiphobus, Fear of God, and kills him after “the grimmest fight/ he had ever braved.”
Fresh from this explosion of pent-up passions associated with what the Greeks called thumos—spiritedness—Odysseus pushes off from the Trojan coast in a distinctly inhospitable mood:
The wind drove me out of Ilium on to Ismarus,
the Cicones’ stronghold. There I sacked the city,
killed the men, but as for the wives and plunder,
that rich haul we dragged away from the place—
we shared it around so no one, not on my account,
would go deprived of his fair share of the spoils.
When, however, a larger force of Cicones catches them swilling wine and slaughtering sheep on the beach, the hero will lose many men in pitched combat. Nor is this the last time that the men’s appetites will cause them to forget themselves.
The Cicones are a tribe of Thracians; they inhabit the last real place Odysseus will see until he reaches his home in Ithaca. As he is rounding Cape Malea, a wind blows his little fleet of twelve ships off course, and they make landfall in the land of the Lotus-Eaters. There, Odysseus sends off scouts who fail to return and must be hauled back to the ships: ingesting the “honey-sweet fruit” has wiped from their minds any thought of homecoming (nostos).
Homecoming, too, is central to the Homeric notion of mind: the words nostos and noos are both derived from a common Indo-European root meaning something like “return to light and life.” And it is not just the Lotus-eating scouts who have forgotten about home, for a lawless mind is a homeless one. Home is security; to be at home is to inhabit a linguistic and cultural order with interpretable signs. By contrast, the stranger in a strange land is perpetually imperiled because he cannot read faces, decode gestures, or guess intentions. Odysseus, because his heroic ambition opposes the very idea of home, must fight to win his life or soul.
“Ah how shameless—the way these mortals blame the gods,” Zeus king of the gods complains from on high. “From us alone, they say, come all their miseries, yes,/ but they themselves, with their own reckless ways,/ compound their pains beyond their proper share.” As if to confirm this judgment, Odysseus will recklessly test himself against the Cyclops Polyphemus right after leaving the Lotus-Eaters. The waves of pain generated by his blinding of that murderous giant will ripple through the Ionian Sea, exacting a great human cost. His exploit dooms all of his companions—perhaps 500 men—to death and precipitates a political crisis on his long-leaderless home island of Ithaca. Odysseus might have avoided these consequences had he not revealed his identity to Polyphemus, whose furious curses will be heard and acted upon by his father Poseidon, the god of sea and earth.
What has Odysseus been trying to prove? The hero blames Zeus himself for the annihilation of “my entire oarswept fleet and loyal crew of comrades,” if only because the king of the gods must have permitted his peevish and grudging brother Poseidon to exact revenge for the blinding of the Cyclops. But how could such broad and general punishment fit so particular a crime—or, rather, so particular a deed that, undertaken in self-defense, hardly seems criminal? Or is there more here than meets the eye—perhaps a human transgression still more grievous to the gods than the destruction of the Trojans and their temples?
Odysseus is a man of many names. The first was given him by his maternal grandfather Autolycus (Wolf Himself), whose bold confidence he would inherit. That great warrior, who “excelled the world at thievery . . . and subtle, shifty oaths,” arrived just after his grandson’s birth, fresh from some faraway adventure and “creating pain [odussamenos] for many.” Odysseus’s very name, as the historian George Dimock shrewdly observes, is Trouble.
No need has compelled Odysseus to confront the giant whom Zeus calls “godlike Polyphemus,/ towering over all the Cyclops’ clans in power.” He and his men have dropped anchor in the snug harbor of a neighboring island, a well-watered place full of game, lush meadows, and thick woods. This lovely place might have been the original home of the Phaeacians, who once lived “all too close” to the Cyclops; Odysseus reports that the one-eyed monsters were so near “we could even see their smoke, hear their voices,/ their bleating sheep and goats.” Insistent on learning whether the creatures were indeed “violent, savage, lawless” or rather “friendly to strangers, god-fearing men,” he takes his own ship and crew across the channel. As a precaution lest he “come across/ some giant clad in power like armor-plate,” he grabs a skin of potent wine and with a dozen of his finest fighters makes his way up to Polyphemus’s cave.
On seeing the great cavern, stuffed with lambs, kids, enormous racks of drying cheese, and “hammered buckets . . . brimming full with whey,” the men urge their captain to steal the cheese and the flocks and bolt. But Odysseus will not leave before he meets the proprietor and learns “what guest-gifts he’d give.” Like boorish visitors who let themselves in and raid the pantry, the men build a fire and make themselves a meal. Incredibly, they then settle down inside the cavern to await the monster’s return.
Polyphemus pegs these interlopers the moment he spots them:
“Strangers!” he thundered out, “now who are you?
Where did you sail from, over the running sea-lanes?
Out on a trading spree or roving the waves like pirates,
sea-wolves raiding at will, who risk their lives
to plunder other men?”
The unwritten laws of hospitality do not extend to pirates and raiders. Still, Odysseus is more a provocateur than an outright thief, and there is no call for bashing in the brains of such men and tearing them limb from limb.
Terrified by Polyphemus’s “monstrous hulk,” Odysseus advises him to respect “Zeus of the Strangers, avenger of all guests and suppliants.” But the monster’s reply is disheartening: “We Cyclops never blink at Zeus or Zeus’s shield/ of storm and thunder, or any other blessed god—/ we’ve got more force by far.” His solitary eye and gigantic size are emblems of the godlike self-sufficiency that his kind claims for itself. To Polyphemus’s bellowing question, “Who are you,” Odysseus answers that his name is “Nobody” (Outis).
Everyone knows what happens next. The one-eyed dairyman, so solicitous of his milk-herds, turns out to be a man-eater. He bolts down two Achaeans at a time for breakfast and dinner—six in all before Odysseus gets him dead drunk on his fiery wine, whereupon he and his men grind a sharpened, fire-hardened stake, fashioned from the Cyclops’ own club, into his solitary eye.
At least one Greek vase depicts the deadly weapon as a massive phallus. This suggests not only that Odysseus has aimed to prove he is a bigger man than the Cyclops (perhaps thereby even staking his own claim to godlike self-sufficiency), but also that the hero begets himself in an act of virtual rape. Born a “Nobody,” the one who will be eaten last, he emerges from the cave as from a birth canal to proclaim his real and now unforgettable name: “Odysseus,/ raider of cities, [who] gouged out your eye,/ Laertes’ son who makes his home in Ithaca!” This, too, is an act of Cyclopean self-inflation, if not an individual equivalent of Babel-style excess.
Homer gives us many clues to such a reading. The cave is associated with birth and nursing. Polyphemus ordinarily leaves the male animals outside, bringing in only the lactating females and their young. There he “squat[s] to milk his sheep and bleating goats,/ each in order, and put a suckling underneath each dam.” On the night he is blinded, however, he brings the rams and billy-goats into the cave as well, sealing the opening, as always, with a great stone slab. When the stake penetrates his eye, he shouts in pain as blood spurts from the socket. The next morning, Odysseus will lash his men and himself beneath the fleecy rams to elude detection by the monster’s probing hands. The rams paddle out of the cave bearing men below their bellies, like heavily pregnant mothers. And when the men are finally onboard their ship and rowing furiously away, a huge rock hurled by the enraged monster will generate a kuma (“wave,” “swell,” “fetus”) so great that its backwash sucks them toward shore; another, bigger boulder produces yet another wave that drives them all the way to the neighboring island.
What, then, of Odysseus’s first claim that his name was Nobody (Outis)? In some grammatical constructions, “no one” is mē tis. But an identically pronounced word, mētis, means “cunning intelligence,” which is precisely what has saved the hero and his men. Slaying Polyphemus as he sleeps would have trapped them in the cave; their only hope lay in Odysseus’s crafty and audacious plan to stun him with drink and then blind him.
Just as important is Odysseus’s linguistic cleverness, which prevents Polyphemus’s neighbors from coming to his aid. Hearing his unaccustomed cries, the other Cyclops can hardly believe their ears: “Surely no one [mē tis] is trying to kill you now by fraud or force!” they shout. Polyphemus replies that “Outis is killing me now by fraud and not by force,” which in Greek sounds exactly like “Nobody is killing me now either by fraud or by force.” The other monsters lumber off after advising him to pray for relief from his ills “to your father, Lord Poseidon,” leaving Odysseus to rejoice in “my name and excellent mētis.” Language, the medium of community, has broken down among the one-eyed giants—as it also does at Babel.
Polyphemus does finally pray to Poseidon after Odysseus, exulting in his escape, hurls his real name—and his father’s, and even his home address—in the Cyclops’ teeth. That revelation is as inevitable as it was imprudent. For the Greeks were never content to remain nobodies; they lived to win lasting renown in speech and deed. It was Odysseus’s supremely bold and clever victory over the Cyclops that, more than any other exploit, would immortalize his name—but only because he survived to tell the tale.
Cunning intelligence is from the first a threat to divine rule. “Metis” happens also to be the name of Zeus’s pregnant first wife, whom he swallows out of fear that their child will overthrow him. Coming to term inside his stomach, the infant Athena finds a way out. She springs full-blown from Zeus’s forehead—just as a fully formed Odysseus, to whom Athena herself will act as patron goddess, issues forth from the Cyclops’ cave.
And this is a good point at which to bring in the Bible, which contains its own version of a victory as cunning and improbable as Odysseus’s victory over Polyphemus. Just as the Cyclops cannot believe that he has been blinded by “a dwarf, a spineless good-for-nothing,” the Philistine giant Goliath scorns David “for he was a lad, and ruddy, with good looks.” Like Odysseus, David defeats the giant by striking him in his forehead—some ancient vases also locate the Cyclops’ eye there—in this case with a stone. That victory earns him a name so great as to eclipse that of King Saul.
But David’s triumph also differs fundamentally from Odysseus’s. “Cyclops,” the Greek hero gloats, “if any man on the face of the earth should ask you/ who blinded you, shamed you so, say Odysseus.” David, however, fights not in his own name but “in the name of the Lord of Armies.” Nor does David take personal credit for his victory. To the contrary: before his battle with Goliath, he predicts that “the Lord who has rescued me from the lion and the bear will rescue me from the hand of this Philistine.”
The contrast with David’s humble yet confident piety clarifies Odysseus’s crime: an act of hubris so great as to merit the extreme punishment doled out by Poseidon and sanctioned by Zeus. Nietzsche warns that one who fights monsters should take care not to become one himself. Odysseus’s appeal to Zeus, the god and protector of strangers, cannot conceal his own monstrous presumption, for which he is similarly humiliated. Odysseus’s all-too-human fantasy that he could effectively give birth to himself—that a mere mortal, born of woman, protected by ancestral laws, and sustained by the good graces of the gods, could nevertheless be wholly self-made—cannot stand.
This is the deepest meaning of Homer’s identification of mētis and outis, unconstrained cunning and personal oblivion. Human beings are essentially dependent beings, kneaded and shaped by the particularities of time and place. Odysseus—son of Laertes, husband of Penelope, father of Telemachus, king of Ithaca—owes his identity to familial inheritance, ancestral tradition, political custom, and the rocky ground of his native land: in brief, to all things that together make up the one place he calls home. But sheer autonomy, the unbounded assertion of human intelligence, is as lawless as it is timeless and placeless, incompatible with the peculiarities of patrimony and locality and indeed with any concrete identity whatsoever. Odysseus learns by suffering a profound lesson of Hesiod’s Theogony: namely, that the only thing in the universe that gives birth to itself is Chaos.
Also exploring the self-defeating character of the aspiration to total autonomy, albeit from a different angle, is the biblical story of Babel. Like Odysseus, the Babylonians attempt to make themselves—from the ground up. Babel was founded (or was perhaps just conquered) by Nimrod, the grandson of Ham and “the first mighty man on earth.” Like Ham’s transgression against his father Noah, the Babylonian transgression is implicitly patricidal. But their project, technically and politically, is collective: the undertaking of a single-minded mass of men. Correlatively, its form and scale are Nimrodian—big, mighty, and mechanical.
Genesis 10 sets forth a natural history (or genealogy) of the many separate nations that “branched out on the earth after the flood.” According to Genesis 11, however, those separate nations and languages are produced only when, at Babel, God Himself breaks up the primeval unity of mankind. This second account is prophetically compact and dense:
And all the earth was one language, one set of words. And it happened as they journeyed from the east that they found a valley in the land of Shinar and settled there. And they said to each other, “Come, let us bake bricks and burn them hard.” And the brick served them as stone, and the bitumen as mortar. And they said, “Come, let us build a city and a tower with its top in the heavens, that we may make us a name [shem], lest we be scattered over all the earth.” And the Lord came down to see the city and the tower that the human creatures had built. And the Lord said: “As one people with one language for all, if this is what they have begun to do, now nothing they plot to do will elude them. Come, let us go down and baffle their language there so they will not understand each other’s language.” And the Lord scattered them from there over all the earth and they left off building the city. Therefore it is called Babel, for the Lord made the language of all the earth babble. And from there the Lord scattered them over all the earth.
Who are these wanderers from the east who settle in the land of Shinar? The narrative identifies them only as “they.” And their anonymity is fitting, for the story emphasizes not, as in Genesis 10, organic particularity and difference but instead abstract universality and sameness: “one language, one set of words, . . . one people.”
Quite apart from whatever urgency might have sent them in a westward motion, these people’s fear of being, in their words, “scattered over all the earth” is hardly without justification. They must have known, if only as a vague collective memory, about the Bible’s previous episodes of displacement and exigency: the expulsion from Eden, the curse of Cain (who also sought to end his wandering by building a city), the flood.
Those were all God’s doings. How, then, might the city and the tower of brick, and the great “name” these structures will promote (presumably by broadcasting their builders’ reputation of being a hard target), protect them against Him? Or are the Babylonians worried about invading armies? Strikingly, the people of Babel manufacture the bricks before they decide what to do with them, an inversion of means and ends that is virtually inconceivable absent a considerable degree of technical advancement.
They form these bricks out of the soil (adamah)—the same stuff into which God breathed life so as to make the human being, ha’adam. As always, so here, human artifice imitates God’s creative activity: an automobile is a mechanical horse, a boat a duck, a submarine a fish, an airplane a bird. But technical skill can produce only mechanical replicas of living beings. The bricks of Babel, all cut to the same measure, are images of men from whom the breath of individual life has somehow departed. For late-modern readers, they may seem to intimate (or anticipate) a familiar possibility: permanent dehumanization through radical social and technological construction projects. God intervenes before that possibility—the possibility, that is, of a totalitarian fusion mistaken by the Babylonians as a means to collective self-divinization—can become an irreversible actuality.
Robert Alter in his translation and commentary remarks that the “polemical thrust” of this story lines up “with the stories of the tree of life [in the Garden of Eden] and the Nephilim, in which humankind is seen aspiring to transcend the limits of its creaturely condition.” The Nephilim, children produced by the intercourse of the sons of God with human females, blur the boundary between mortals and immortals. Their appearance (mentioned in the Bible immediately before the flood) prompts God to limit the human lifespan to 120 years: an echo of His decision to forbid access to the tree of life.
The Nephilim are subtly connected with Babel in another way as well: they are regarded as giants in the book of Numbers (see 13:22, 33), like the Homeric giants who pile mountain atop mountain to storm the gods. Their cry of “Let us build a city and a tower” also echoes God’s “Let us make a human in our image” at the Creation; similarly, God’s “now nothing they plot to do will elude them” recalls His earlier remark that “now that the human has become like one of us, knowing good and evil, he may reach out and take as well from the tree of life and live forever.” These connections are strengthened by the fact, as we have seen, that just as the Bible has offered two conflicting accounts of the Creation, it offers two conflicting accounts of the origin of nations.
As these textual echoes remind us, God and the Babylonians share no common language. God speaks in His own singular voice to the mysterious heavenly host, and the people speak in their univocal and corporate idiom to themselves; in this story, mortals and immortals never communicate. Rather, God foresees that if unchecked, “one people with one language for all” will accomplish whatever they “plot to do.” Coming immediately after an account of the emergence of diverse natural languages and nations, the story of Babel raises a fundamental question (perhaps the fundamental question) of human history: what language will prevail—God’s, or man’s?
Only since the 20th century, a century of totalitarian horrors, has it become possible to feel the full force and urgency of that question as it is raised in the story of Babel. In our age of indoctrination, censorship, and cancellation, will a single, omnivorous tongue, asserting itself as the measure of all things, swallow up the rich and varied languages of human understanding and expression, the languages of nations and individuals? And what will be the fate of the word of God in our time?
Still, although God confuses and scatters the Babylonians, one cannot help wondering whether He might possibly have saved Himself the trouble. After all, haven’t the constructions by which human beings have attempted to storm the heavens tended repeatedly to collapse under the weight of their own presumption? Might not history’s interminable succession of rising and falling empires suggest, hopefully, that while the aspiration to “make us a name” is a characteristically human one, no darkness is permanent?
In Genesis, at any rate, it is not man but God that makes great names, and those are the names not of cities but of individuals. In renaming Abram as Abraham, Sarai as Sarah, and Jacob as Israel, God symbolically seals His promise to bless and magnify them through multitudinous descendants. God also gives the people of Babel a name—but one that ironically signifies the reversal of these blessings and enlargements. By baffling their speech, He disperses and diminishes them: then and forevermore, “babble” signifies not technological and political capacity but intellectual and social dissolution and collapse.
God’s subversion of the Babylonian’s big plans bookends the postdiluvian story that begins with the covering of Noah’s nakedness by Shem (“Name”), from whom Abraham is descended, and Japheth, forefather of the Greeks. Clear in hindsight is that Shem’s name has honorific significance. It acknowledges his filial piety and subordination to God, whose instruction is to be a patrimony transmitted through the generations and sustained by pious predilection for our ancestors. The son named “Name” stands as a rebuke to the hard but brittle constructions that the “human creature” supposes will make him a Somebody independent of God but by which he only declares himself to be a Nobody against Him.