The bulk of this morning’s Torah portion describes the flood. Humanity has become so corrupt that God regrets having created the earth, and decides to wipe out almost all life. Representative samples of each species are gathered together and entrusted to Noah, who builds the famous ark to serve as a shelter during the deluge.
After the waters subside, life emerges from the ark and begins anew. Hopefully, humanity has learned a lesson from the experience.
Several generations pass. Humans multiply, and eventually find themselves living in Mesopotamia, where they embark on a scheme which nearly results in a calamity as serious for humanity as the flood: the construction of the Tower of Babel.
The entire passage is described in just nine eloquently-crafted verses. (Gen. 11:1-9) We learn that all of humanity has settled in a valley in the land of Shinar, also known as Mesopotamia, Babylonia, and Iraq. Everyone speaks the same language. Together, they decide to make bricks, with which to build “a city and a tower with its top in the sky, to make a name for ourselves; else we shall be scattered all over the world.”
At first glance, it sounds like a pretty good idea. Everybody gets along. They are united in a shared vision. There do not seem to be any major disputes. Many people might wish things were a bit more like this today.
Yet, there seems to be a problem with this giant public-works project. God comes down to look at the tower that the humans are building and reacts with disapproval. “If, as one people with one language for all, this is how they have begun to act, then nothing that they may propose to do will be out of their reach.” (11:6)
God confounds their speech so that the humans do not understand one another, and scatters them over the face of the earth. The project grinds to a halt. The story ends by explaining that the city is called Bavel, or Babel, because it is where the Lord “babbled” the speech of the whole earth.
That is the basic story as it appears in this morning’s Torah portion. Our inclination might be to sympathize with humanity. After all, has there ever in history been a time during which everyone agreed?
But the Torah is very deliberate. If it tells us that there is something wrong with what these humans are doing, then there is something wrong with what these humans are doing. The reason is not easily apparent, and so it is up to us to dig deep to figure it out.
Jewish tradition is in agreement that the generation of the Dispersion, Dor Haflagah, as that generation is called, was in the wrong. The Mishnah, from the second century, declares that members of that generation do not have a place in the World to Come. The Rabbis of the Talmud (BT Sanhedrin 109a) concur, but have trouble agreeing on the specifics.
The school of Rabbi Shilah, located in Babylonia not too far from where the Tower of Babel once stood, offers a novel explanation. In the ancient world, people believed that the world as we know it was surrounded by water, both below the earth, and above the sky. The humans wanted to build a tower that was high enough that they could cut holes in the firmament, presumably to have access to water. The Talmud reports that when this theory made its way to the West, that is to say, to the land of Israel, the scholars laughed and made fun of it, suggesting that if that was their intent, it might have made more sense to have built the tower on top of a mountain, rather than at the bottom of a valley.
Rabbi Natan suggests that they built the tower as an expression of some sort of idolatrous belief and practice.
Rabbi Jeremiah claims that the people of Bavel were not quite as united as the Torah makes it seem. One third of them want to build a city and tower in which to live, perhaps to escape a future flood. Their punishment is to be scattered across the land. A second third wants to build the tower to worship idols. They are the ones whose tongues are confounded by God. The final third intends to use the tower to wage war against Heaven. They are transformed into apes, spirits, devils, and night-demons. Ouch!
But what of the tower itself? After all, significant progress is made before God takes notice. The tower is quite substantial. Rabbi Yochanan says that the bottom third sunk into the ground, The top third burnt up, but the middle third is still standing.
Other midrashim add colorful details to the legends. Genesis Rabbah describes how those who wanted to rebel against God planned to place a giant statue on top of the tower with a sword in its hand pointing a challenge directed at the Heavens. I imagine it looking kind of like the Titan of Braavos, for you Game of Thrones fans.
I’ll mention one final midrash. Someone made some calculations and determined that the flood occurred 1,656 years after creation. The people of Babel come to the conclusion that this is a built in feature of the firmament, the giant expanse of water suspended over the sky. Once every 1,656 years, the firmament totters, and the waters of chaos above break free and inundate the world. To prevent it from happening again, they decide to build four giant pillars to support the heavens – one in each of the cardinal directions. The Tower of Babel is supposed to be the pillar of the East.
This final midrash sounds appealing, actually. All of humanity becomes aware of an impending natural disaster that will have catastrophic effects for life on earth, albeit not for one thousand years. So they join together to invest massive resources into a technological solution to prevent the deluge. We are in desperate need of that kind of long-range planning.
The problem, from the midrash’s perspective, is that the people have removed God from the equation. The periodic flooding of the earth happens on its own, and is not the result of God’s actions. In fact, just a few chapters earlier, we read of God’s promise, symbolized by the rainbow, never to destroy the earth by flood again. Their sin, therefore, is a lack of faith. They have placed nature above God rather than God above nature.
So what was the sin of the Tower of Babel that provoked God so greatly? We have just heard numerous suggestions, and believe me, we have only scratched the surface. Whenever the Rabbis offer this many explanations for something, it means that they have absolutely no idea whatsoever.
But to me, all of these “sins” share a basic feature. “Come, let us make a name for ourselves,” they declare. Humanity, collectively sees no limits on itself. Whether the people want to overthrow God, build a monument to themselves, or reverse the forces of nature – they lack basic humility about their place in creation.
Perhaps a lesson to be learned is: God is God, and we are not.
There is still something appealing, however, about the unity that exists at the outset of the story. Is cooperation and a universally shared vision inherently problematic? I cannot believe that the story of the Tower of Babel is disparaging the idea of humanity collectively working together.
I would like to think that we, as a species, have it within us to both have some humble respect for our place amidst creation, as well as come together to solve problems and challenges that affect us all. Some of those problems are of our own making. Others are external. But we all make our homes on the same planet, and we eventually have to pay the cost of our collective hubris.
We face numerous challenges that can only be solved through joined effort: challenges of inequality and oppression, environmental destruction, climate change, and on and on. We live in a scattered world, in which we do not all speak the same language. Even when we share a vocabulary, we often are not speaking the same language.
Perhaps the Tower of Babel can inspire us to, humbly, find a way to come together.