[b-hebrew] SLM: Jacob's "ladder"
JimStinehart at aol.com
JimStinehart at aol.com
Mon Nov 26 10:22:22 EST 2012
The Hebrew word SLM appears in the Bible only at Genesis 28: 12 [and as
such is a hapax legomenon]. The word SLM has baffled Biblical scholars.
KJV translates SLM as “ladder”, in the famous phrase: “Jacob’s ladder”
. There seems to be little linguistic basis for that translation, however.
Gesenius sees SLM as coming from the verbal root SLL, meaning “to lift
up, especially to cast up into a heap, or to exalt, or to be something
slender that waves to and fro”. The connection there to a “ladder” seems a bit
tenuous. E.A. Speiser at p. 218 of “The Anchor Bible Genesis” criticizes
the traditional SLL etymology as follows:
“Etymologically, the term (stem sll ‘to heap up, raise’) suggests a ramp
or a solid stairway. And archaeologically, the Mesopotamian ziggurats were
equipped with flights of stairs leading up to the summit…. Only such
stairway can account for Jacob’s later description of it as a ‘gateway to
Actually, as to that last phrase, $(R is used frequently in the
Patriarchal narratives, and it means “gate”, not “gateway” [as correctly translated
by KJV]. That’s an important distinction to make here, as we will
eventually find that SLL is the “gateway” to the $(R/“gate” of heaven.
The dubious claim that Jacob is allegedly dreaming of a Babylonian
ziggurat turns out to be the apparent consensus of modern scholars:
“ramp. The term occurs only here. Although its etymology is doubtful, the
traditional rendering of ‘ladder’ is unlikely. As has often been
observed, the references to both ‘its top reaching the heavens” and “the gate of
the heavens” use phrases associated with the Mesopotamian ziggurat, and so
the structure envisioned is probably a vast ramp with terraced landings.”
Robert Alter, “Genesis” (1996), p. 149.
But in my opinion, the scholarly cure is worse than the disease. How
would a pre-exilic Hebrew author know anything about a ziggurat in southern
Mesopotamia? Semi-scholarly commentators have, unfortunately, largely adopted
the foregoing scholarly view: “The unusual Hebrew word translated ‘ladder
’ (28: 12) is a possible reference to the zigzagging outer ramps of
flights of stairs on Babylonian temple towers.” Kevin and Louise Perrotta, “
Genesis 25-33: Jacob’s Blessing” (2004), p. 45. Johannes P. Schade, in “
Encyclopedia of World Religions” (2006), similarly ventures that Jacob may
have seen “a rising flight of stones”.
But even worse are those university scholars who, most unfortunately, can
be counted on to try to change the order of the Hebrew letters in the
received text. Ouch! Noted Genesis scholar Claus Westermann does exactly that
here, viewing Hebrew SLM as being a bollixed up rendering of the Akkadian
word simmiltu. Another leading Genesis scholar, Bruce K. Waltke, seconds
that far-fetched claim, asserting that simmiltu is “an Akkadian cognate” of
Hebrew SLM. In Akkadian, simmilat-duri is a “siege-ladder”. My gosh, is
Jacob to be thought of as being portrayed, by an exilic or post-exilic
Jewish author, as dreaming of a Babylonian siege-ladder? You’ve got to be
kidding. Thankfully, such scholarly changing of the order of Hebrew consonants
is not without its critics. Victor P. Hamilton at p. 240 of “The Book of
Genesis” (1995) pooh-poohs the entire Babylonian analogy [Yes!], and in
particular comes up with the following nifty refutation of the scholarly
penchant for so often wanting to change the order of Hebrew consonants in the
received Masoretic Text: “F. Greenspahn, in ‘Hapax Legomena in Biblical
Hebrew’…, at p. 176 cautions that ‘reliance on metathesis…reduces the
possibility of a proposed cognate relationship’.”
Can’t we on the b-hebrew list do better than that? The Hebrew verb SLL
doesn’t work well for the Hebrew noun SLM meaning “ladder”. But a Hebrew
author who pre-dates the Exile wouldn’t be thinking of a Babylonian ziggurat,
for heaven’s sake. And changing the order of the Hebrew consonants to gin
up a bogus Akkadian cognate is outrageous, in my humble opinion.
So what then does the Biblical Hebrew common word SLM mean? What is its
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