Tower of Babel: Lessons for Humanity
The story of the Tower of Babel has captivated the imagination of generations of scholars and commentators.[i] What is the purpose of this short biblical narrative, which relates the story of a people who came together to build a tower, only to then be dispersed across the earth by God? A simple, cursory reading might initially indicate that the meaning of the Migdal Bavel story is to provide an explanation for the origination of linguistic diversity[ii]. However, a closer reading brings to light a more complicated perspective. Why is it important to mention the use of bricks for building the Tower? Why must God ‘come down’ to see the Tower-can He not see it from the heavens? Why is there a mention of both a Tower and a City[iii]? Finally, why did God deem it necessary to stop the people from building?
Some commentators explain the divine disruption of the people’s building plans as an indication that they sinned and offended God. The exact offense committed by the Tower generation ranges among the various commentators: from a full-scale revolt against God (Rashi[iv]), to corruption of urbanization and technology (Abravanel[v]), to idolatry (Seforno[vi]). Other commentators have argued that the builders were not evil. Rather, they simply made a human error which was not in line with God’s plan for the world, so God had to ‘come down’ and fix it (Ibn Ezra[vii]). Often, the story of the Tower of Babel is taught in elementary school, where the nuances and deeper meanings of this important Biblical narrative remain unexplored. In reality, this short story teaches a number of timeless lessons, some of which may hold special resonance among readers living in the modern world.
Ancient Near East Context
Some modern commentators, most notably M. D. Cassuto, have noted that this Biblical narrative appears in the text right before God’s covenant with Abraham. Cassuto interprets the text as a satirical polemic against the paganistic Babylonian religion, and as an explanation for the necessity of the covenant between God and Abraham. In the ancient Near East, every city had a ziggurat, which was a tall, rectangular, stepped tower that had a temple at the top. For the pagans, ziggurats served as a literal physical link between the earth and the heavens, and were a designated place of meeting and praying to their deities[viii].
The greatest ziggurat in ancient Babylonia was called etemenanki, also known as the Temple of Marduk. Rising to an impressive 300 feet, the ruins were unearthed by archeologists about 100 years ago. A number of scholars have suggested that this Temple is the Tower that was described in the Torah. The Babylonian people were extremely proud of their beautiful Temple of Marduk, and even credited their deities for creating it. The Akkadian Creation Epic, which centers on the supremacy of the Marduk deity and the servitude of humankind, describes how the deities used bricks to create this massive ziggurat in honor of Marduk. This claim may explain the Torah’s seemingly insignificant focus on the people’s brick-making: by stating that it was the people who built the temple with bricks, the Torah is mocking the Babylonians’ claim that it was their deities who made the bricks[ix].
Additionally, God’s “descent” in the Torah is meant to deride the Tower generation’s attempt at coming closer to God through the physical height of the ziggurat-no matter how tall the ziggurat, God must still descend to humanity’s level. Finally, the Torah even speaks against the name of the city of Babel. The Babylonians obtained the name of their city from the Akkadian word babilim, which means “the gate of the god”. The Hebrew meaning of the word bavel is confusion. The Torah was taunting the Babylonians, and telling them that while they considered their city to be “the gate of the god”, in reality they were wrong and confused.
The famed city and Tower that were so glorified and prized in the eyes of the Babylonians were singled out by the Torah and made into a satire against paganism and mythology. Ultimately, it was the arrogance of the Tower generation that led them to create an idolatrous society and introduce idol worship into their community. It is this Biblical narrative that provides the backdrop for the re-introduction of Monotheism into the world[x].
Freedom of Religion and Culture
Rashi, among other authorities, suggests that it was Nimrod, the ruler of Shinar, that led the building of the Tower of Babel. Nimrod is described as a powerful and ruthless leader, who arrogantly attempts to displace God from His position as king of the world[xi] . R. David Kimchi takes this description a step further, and expands on Nahmanides’ view of Nimrod as a power-hungry monarch. According to R. Kimchi, Nimrod set out to conquer the world and to bring all of humanity under his dominion. Nimrod planned to oppress the people he had vanquished and make the world into one nation, which would have one religion. When God dispersed the people of the City of Babel, He ensured that the different groups of people located in different regions of the world would develop their own cultures and philosophies[xii].
The Maharal of Prague notes that when a ruler suppresses opinions that differ from his own, it is an indication that the ruler’s philosophy cannot survive or even flourish when it must compete with other value systems. Indeed, a ruler who must do this is a weak leader. God’s forced dispersal of the Babylonians caused different societies to form all over the world. When many cultures, and even religions, are allowed to exist and develop, and humankind does not experience oppression, and freedom of speech and culture is allowed and even encouraged, the world becomes a better and healthier place for all of its inhabitants[xiii].
Pluralism and the Search for Truth
Rabbi Eliezer Ashkenazi, the 16th-century Talmudist and physician, opposes Rashi’s negative view of the Tower generation and describes the city of Babel as a highly moral society[xiv] . According to him, the inhabitants of the city had learned from the mistakes of the generation of the Flood, and put great effort into creating a loving and harmonious community. Rabbi Ashkenazi builds[xv] his explanation off of Abraham Ibn Ezra’s interpretation of the “single language” as a reference to the existence of a single religion in the city of Babel, and writes that while some of their theological beliefs may have been problematic, the inhabitants of Babel had a unified religious consensus and respected God. If so, Ashkenazi challenges, why did God deem it necessary to disperse such a cohesive and moral community?
Rabbi Ashkenazi answers his own question by stating that the disruption by God of the City of Babel was intended to replace the existence of their exclusive religion with religious pluralism. According to Ashkenazi, it is only when humankind has the opportunity to engage in free inquiry that it is truly able to discover the truth- in particular the religious truth. The society of Babel, with its intellectual unity, repressed the independent search for truth. The divine creation of a pluralistic society was a prerequisite for the discovery by humanity of the truth of God. In order to discover God, a person must have the freedom of thought and choice to search for Him.
In fact, we learn soon after the fall of the Tower of Babel that our forefather Abraham discovered God. Only when Abraham found himself in a pluralistic society was he able to embark on an independent, intellectual, religious journey and properly evaluate the belief systems around him. Abraham’s rational quest for the truth eventually led him to discover God, and thereafter he spent the rest of his life proclaiming His Oneness to the rest of humanity[xvi].
The abundance of lessons that may be learned from the story of the Tower Of Babel is a beautiful example of a well-known verse in Psalms: “One thing God has spoken, these two have I heard[xvii]”. According to Jewish tradition, multiple interpretations in the Torah may all be correct, even if these teachings contradict each other. The Torah, when interpreted responsibly, encompasses all the wisdom in the world. Innovative readings of the Tower of Babel are integral to ensuring the continuation of the Jewish legacy of shivim panim laTorah.
Michal Schechter is a Senior at SCW majoring in Biology
[i] I extend my thanks and gratitude to Dr. Michelle Levine, who exposed me to many of the sources I used in this article.
[ii] In fact, Genesis 10:5 (which precedes the story of Migdal Bavel) indicates that there were a number of languages already in existence.
[iii] See: Joel S. Baden, “The Tower of Babel: A Case Study in the Competing Methods of Historical and Modern Literary Criticism”, Journal of Biblical Literature. Vol. 128, No. 2, 2009, 209-224.
[iv] Genesis 11:1
[vi] Genesis 11:4
[viii] The Ancient Near East: An Encyclopedia for Students, Vol. 4, 175-177.
[ix] M.D. Cassuto, From Noah to Abraham, translated by Israel Abrahams. Genesis Chapter 11, 225-249.
[x] Hayyim Angel, “The Tower of Babel: A Case study in Combining Traditional and Academic Bible Methodologies”, Conversations. Issue 15, 2013, 135-143.
[xi] Genesis 10:8
[xii] Genesis 10:9
[xiii] Be’er Hagola, “Seventh Well”, chapter 2 (as quoted in Lippman Bodoff, The Binding of Isaac, Religious Murders & Kabbalah: Seeds of Jewish Extremism and Alienation? 2005, 157-160).
[xiv] Eliezer Ashkenazi, Sefer Ma’aseh Hashem (reprint, New York: Grossman 1962), folios 75a-76b.
[xv] Pun intended.
[xvi] Byron L. Sherwin, “The Tower of Babel in Eliezer Ashkenazi’s Sefer Ma’aseh Hashem”, Jewish Bible Quarterly. Vol. 2 No. 2, 2014, 83-88.
[xvii] Psalms 62:12