[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 
proper etymology? 
Jim Stinehart 
Evanston,  Illinois
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