[b-hebrew] SLM: Jacob's "ladder"

Yigal Levin Yigal.Levin at biu.ac.il
Mon Nov 26 11:52:02 EST 2012



While I even agree with most of what you wrote, from past experience I know that the question at the end of your post is rhetorical. You obviously know something that nobody else knows. So spare us the sleepless night and please bestow a bit of wisdom upon us.


Yigal Levin


From: b-hebrew-bounces at lists.ibiblio.org [mailto:b-hebrew-bounces at lists.ibiblio.org] On Behalf Of JimStinehart at aol.com
Sent: Monday, November 26, 2012 5:22 PM
To: b-hebrew at lists.ibiblio.org
Subject: [b-hebrew] SLM: Jacob's "ladder"


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 heaven’.”


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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