Bricks and Stones: On Man’s Subdual of Nature
Like so many of the stories that make up the first sections of Bereshit, the Torah’s account of the Babylonian bricklayers, builders of the “Tower of Babel,” is extraordinarily cryptic. Interpretations abound, and one would not be hard-pressed to find many varied explanations of this strange story throughout Jewish literature, some with profound theological interpretations. The classical interpretation favored by Hazal and so many of the medieval commentators is to see the mundane goal of building a city with a tower as a reference to some theological sin.[i] However, it is very difficult to understand how this reading is supported by the verses themselves, even if the religious importance of such a reading, namely, disapproval of idolatry, is self-understood.
To my mind, however, no reading of the eleventh chapter of Bereshit leads to as surprising a conclusion as that of R. Yitzhak Abarbanel. Noting that the Torah supplies no heretical, idolatrous, or otherwise nefarious motive for their construction projects, Abarbanel states that the construction itself must have been a sin in God’s eyes. The statement that the Torah does attribute to these builders is, “Come, let us make bricks” (Bereishit 11:4). This was the sin that occurred at the Tower of Babel: the sin of innovation, of manipulating nature for man’s purposes. Abarbanel recognizes that it might not be immediately apparent why such activities would be deserving of punishment, elaborating:
God created man as an intelligent soul and prepared all of his necessities for him, without him having to perform any personal labor, in order so that he involve himself only in lofty, necessary thoughts. But Adam sinned in that he was unsatisfied with the natural, and he was drawn after his lusts, destroying himself in that the purely natural no longer suffices… So too, the generation that was dispersed… and because they strayed from the natural way, they needed new names for their novel inventions… Thus, God caused them to differ in their terminologies, and thus the languages became confused, and this caused their dispersal.[ii]
Not only did the population of Shin’ar sin against nature by building a city of brick, but exactly such an affront is ascribed by Abarbanel to the primal, perhaps quintessential, sin of Adam. Similarly, he continues that Kayin was guilty of the same by preferring to sacrifice to God an artificial, human product rather than the unspoiled wild animal sacrificed by his brother. While Abarbanel himself doesn’t point this out explicitly, the same anti-nature streak can be seen in Kayin’s descendants, about whom the Torah writes developed innovations in livestock raising, music, and metallurgy (cf. Bereshit 5:20-22). Abarbanel would likely tell us that we are meant to look upon these advancements with distaste, and associate the sons of Lemekh with their famously sinful ancestor. Could it really be that the Torah is intimating to us that God disapproves of technological innovation? Did God not command humanity to gain dominance over the natural world, instructing Adam to “rule over the animals?” (Bereishit 1:28) The standard reading of the first two chapters of Bereshit leads to the conclusion that God intends for mankind to engage in material productivity and the harnessing of nature, and yet Abarbanel insists upon reading this subtext of naturalism into the very same story.
One could dismiss Abarbanel’s interpretation and its philosophical baggage by pointing out that because Hazal and the vast majority of traditional commentators interpret the story of the Generation of Dispersion in a very different manner, they must have disagreed with Abarbanel’s conception of man’s sin. Not only that, but several statements of Hazal indicate that they do not share Abarbanel’s fondness for naturalism. One relatively well-known story related by the Midrash records how Rabbi Akiva was asked by a Roman, “Whose acts are better, those of man or those of God?” Knowing that the Roman was planning on challenging the practice of circumcision, Rabbi Akiva responded that man’s creations are more beautiful.[iii] Rabbi Akiva saw a parallel between the commandment of circumcision, which involves altering a natural state, and a general divine approval for man to alter nature, to believe that man’s acts are better than those of God. The invention of mules, seemingly attributed by the verse in Bereshit to a descendant of the murderous Kayin, is attributed by the Talmud to the ingenuity of Adam, in a passage that Maharal reads as celebrating man’s dominion over nature through innovation.[iv] This could not be more different than Abarbanel’s reading of these passages as condemning such alteration of the natural world.
On the other hand, other sources imply that Abarbanel’s sentiments are not against the spirit of Hazal. Another well-known Midrash writes[v] that God warned man, “Note, do not destroy my world,” perhaps interpreting the divine intention of man’s placement in Eden “to work it [le-ovdah] and guard it,” (Bereishit 2:15) as meaning to serve [la-avod] the land, and not to use it for man’s own purposes. Such a reading would resolve any tension between the two directives, le-ovdah u-le-shomrah, as both words are aimed to limit man’s involvement to preservation. The implication of le-ovdah is not, as some interpret the phrase, a mandate to develop the world, but to avoid tampering with it.[vi] The Talmudic sage R. Shimon b. Elazar appears to understand the sin of man in a similar manner as does Abarbanel: “I have never seen a gazelle drying leather, a lion as a porter, or a wolf who is a shopkeeper, and yet they are sustained without laboring… but I acted wickedly and sullied my manner of sustainment.”[vii] While the exact meaning of this statement is not clear, Abarbanel may have had it in mind when associating man’s fall with a disconnect from the natural world, by seeing in this teaching a disapproval of man’s efforts to have to change the natural world.
In order to find some resolution to this tension, it is instructive to return to the biblical passage and try to understand what this story teaches us regarding technological advancement. It is introduced by mankind’s migration to the east, where they came upon a valley in Shin’ar. There, they said to each other that they would create mortar bricks to be used instead of stones, and use them to build a city with a tower whose top reaches the very sky, in order that they not be dispersed throughout the land. Even before asking why this event prompts God to foil their plans, the description requires further analysis as it stands. First of all, this is the third time in the eleven chapters of the Torah that a person or people are described as moving eastward, and, to paraphrase a favorite phrase of Rashi’s,[viii] the matter begs to be expounded. Why does the Torah need to tell us that the people found a valley to settle in? Furthermore, why were they worried about being dispersed that they needed to create a city to remain together? Additionally, what did God view as the major problem: the tower, the city, or the bricks that they developed in order to build them?
Certain aspects of this construction project inspire comparison to another biblical building endeavor: the construction of the Beit ha-Mikdash.[ix] The people of Babel intended to build a high tower, and the Beit ha-Mikdash is also referred to as a “tower” (cf. Shir ha-Shirim Rabbah 4:4). Seen in this light, the contrast that arises between the two building projects appears to have heavy symbolic significance, and this contrast will help us to provide context for the interpretation of Abarbanel, as well as see the connection between the story as described in the Torah and the sin which Hazal ascribe to it: idolatry. Two of the descriptions provided by the Torah of the tower built in Bereshit stand in stark contrast to depictions of the Beit ha-Mikdash: first, the Tower of Babel was built in a valley, but the Mikdash was built upon a mountain, and second, the Tower of Babel was built by using out of “bricks instead of stones,” (Bereishit 11:3) but in the Temple, the Torah forbade using building material that had been hewn from iron tools.
While bricks made from mortar bear no apparent similarity to the materials from which they were made, uncut stones are unambiguously natural materials. By beginning its foundation in a valley, the tower would symbolize that they needed no start-up loan or external support—they could perform all on their own, with no help whatsoever. By celebrating the invention of bricks, the craftsmen of Babel were in effect reveling in their ability to outdo God’s creation, and how they do not need Him. Their tower could have been a highly noble enterprise: symbolically, the contractors’ motivations appear to represent aspirations to reach greater heights and to promote international unity—what could be so bad? Utilizing personal growth for self-aggrandizement and human cooperation to snub the God who created man spoils even the loftiest of goals. The entire story is introduced by a migration eastward, which is also symbolic of traveling away from God’s presence: Adam had to move to the east when he was evicted from Eden (Bereshit 3:24) and Kayin traveled eastward when leaving “the presence of God” (ibid. 4:16).[x] The laws and location of the Beit ha-Mikdash, however, represent the opposite: it was to be built on a mountain, in recognition that all spiritual heights begin with God’s natural gifts. As God’s hand in the process was all but hidden, building material was to be limited to uncut stones so no spectator could make the mistake of thinking this structure to be a celebration of man’s technological and architectural ability. The Talmud states that the rabbis approved a blue-green marble for the Beit ha-Mikdash, “because it is reminiscent of waves.”[xi] Perhaps their intention was that waves remind a person that no matter what building he may build, there are forces of “nature,” of God’s, that will always be more impressive, and that cannot be forgotten.
This approach to the Tower of Babel bridges the interpretations of the Midrash and that of Abarbanel: perhaps it is true that the sin of the tower-builders was their rejection of nature, but it was a rejection of nature as an expression of God’s will that was deserving of punishment. [xii] Thus, there truly is something sinful about technological advancement: the danger that it poses in distancing man from seeing the source of all of his strengths and all of his materials. In the proper religious framework, however, if the changing of nature is done in the glorification of He Who made nature, then those same endeavors can result in the Beit ha-Mikdash.
Matt Lubin is in his fourth year in Yeshiva College as a Biology major, and is an editor for Kol Hamevaser.
[i] See Rashi Bereshit ad loc., Sanhedrin 109a and Bereshit Rabbah 6:6
[ii] R. Yitzhak Abarbanel, Commentary to Bereishit 11:1
[iii] Midrash Tanhuma to Tazria, Vayikra 5:5
[iv] Pesachim 54a and R. Judah Loew, Be’er ha-Golah 1:10 (Hartman ed. page 232)
[v] Kohelet Rabbah 7, commenting on Kohelet 7:13
[vi] Cf. Radak ad loc., as well as Sefer Hovot ha-Levavot, Sha’ar ha-Bitachon Ch. 3
[vii] Kiddushin 82b. Note, however, that Tiferet Yisrael Ch. 1 (Hartman ed. page 30) writes that this is not meant to reflect negatively on man’s general need to improve upon nature, but specifically that man requires such behavior in order to sustain himself.
[viii] Cf. Rashi, Bereshit 1:1 and 25:19
[ix] Correlations between these two building projects is noted by the Zohar, Volume 1, 74a. This source was brought to my attention by R. Ahron Lopiansky of Yeshivah Greater Washington, whose shiur on this topic served as a significant inspiration for the ideas presented in this article.
[x] Such an explanation is particularly poignant considering the phraseology of Midrash Lekah Tov to Bereshit 11:13, which homiletically interprets “traveling East [mi-kedem]” in another context to “traveling away from the One who originated the World [m-kadmono shel olam].” The tower-builders, too, were distancing themselves from God by changing nature so that its original creator would be unrecognizable; they were almost literally moving away from the origin of the Earth.
[xi] Bava Batra 3b
[xii] For a very similar approach to reconciling the text with its midrashic interpretation, see the commentary of R. Samson Rafael Hirsch to this passage (Bereishit 11:1-12).