Baḥya ben Asher, who lived and taught in Saragossa, Spain in the late 13th and early 14th centuries, authored several works of rabbinic scholarship, drawing on philosophical as well as traditional sources. In the most famous of these, his commentary on the Bible, he suggests a surprising reason for the construction of the Tower of Babel:
The men [who built the tower] were wicked and knowledgeable in all wisdoms. They thus made a city and tower in order to be saved from a deluge of fire. Since they knew that the world had previously been destroyed in a deluge of water, they . . . sought to build a place such that if [God] wanted to bring a deluge of fire and burn the world, they could . . . tie up a part of the fire’s core such that it would not come close to the city. This is similar to that which we find even in our generation that some wise men know the power to tie up part of lightning so that it will only go up to a specific boundary.
Some readers, notes Yaakov Taubes, have concluded the Baḥya was referring to the lightning rod, and understood this technology—perhaps from the work of Arab scientists—more than four centuries before Benjamin Franklin. Taubes suggests a more plausible interpretation:
A more likely source for Rabbi Baḥya’s comment may have come from his Christian neighbors. A 15th-century book of Christian liturgical customs from Valencia (not far from where Baḥya spent much of his life) . . . notes that one should ring the bells whenever a storm threatens, and specifies that the number of bells rung is dependent upon the severity of the storm. . . . No less a figure than Francis Bacon, in his Sylva Sylvarum (1626), tried to explain how [ringing church bells could prevent lightning strikes] on a scientific level.
In Baḥya’s time, [indeed], bell ringing appears to have been seen as a scientific or supernatural method of dissipating storms. . . . Baḥya would certainly not ascribe any real power to a Christian religious ritual, but the lines separating magic, religion, and science were not always so clear in the medieval period.