Tower of Babel

Tower of Babel

by

Howard Adelman

The story is only nine verses so I print it below.

Genesis Chapter 11 בְּרֵאשִׁית
א וַיְהִי כָל-הָאָרֶץ, שָׂפָה אֶחָת, וּדְבָרִים, אֲחָדִים. 1 And the whole earth was of one language and of one speech.
ב וַיְהִי, בְּנָסְעָם מִקֶּדֶם; וַיִּמְצְאוּ בִקְעָה בְּאֶרֶץ שִׁנְעָר, וַיֵּשְׁבוּ שָׁם. 2 And it came to pass, as they journeyed east, that they found a plain in the land of Shinar; and they dwelt there.
ג וַיֹּאמְרוּ אִישׁ אֶל-רֵעֵהוּ, הָבָה נִלְבְּנָה לְבֵנִים, וְנִשְׂרְפָה, לִשְׂרֵפָה; וַתְּהִי לָהֶם הַלְּבֵנָה, לְאָבֶן, וְהַחֵמָר, הָיָה לָהֶם לַחֹמֶר. 3 And they said one to another: ‘Come, let us make brick, and burn them thoroughly.’ And they had brick for stone, and slime had they for mortar.
ד וַיֹּאמְרוּ הָבָה נִבְנֶה-לָּנוּ עִיר, וּמִגְדָּל וְרֹאשׁוֹ בַשָּׁמַיִם, וְנַעֲשֶׂה-לָּנוּ, שֵׁם: פֶּן-נָפוּץ, עַל-פְּנֵי כָל-הָאָרֶץ. 4 And they said: ‘Come, let us build us a city, and a tower, with its top in heaven, and let us make us a name; lest we be scattered abroad upon the face of the whole earth.’
ה וַיֵּרֶד יְהוָה, לִרְאֹת אֶת-הָעִיר וְאֶת-הַמִּגְדָּל, אֲשֶׁר בָּנוּ, בְּנֵי הָאָדָם. 5 And the LORD came down to see the city and the tower, which the children of men built.
ו וַיֹּאמֶר יְהוָה, הֵן עַם אֶחָד וְשָׂפָה אַחַת לְכֻלָּם, וְזֶה, הַחִלָּם לַעֲשׂוֹת; וְעַתָּה לֹא-יִבָּצֵר מֵהֶם, כֹּל אֲשֶׁר יָזְמוּ לַעֲשׂוֹת. 6 And the LORD said: ‘Behold, they are one people, and they have all one language; and this is what they begin to do; and now nothing will be withheld from them, which they propose to do.
ז הָבָה, נֵרְדָה, וְנָבְלָה שָׁם, שְׂפָתָם–אֲשֶׁר לֹא יִשְׁמְעוּ, אִישׁ שְׂפַת רֵעֵהוּ. 7 Come, let us go down, and there confound their language, that they may not understand one another’s speech.’
ח וַיָּפֶץ יְהוָה אֹתָם מִשָּׁם, עַל-פְּנֵי כָל-הָאָרֶץ; וַיַּחְדְּלוּ, לִבְנֹת הָעִיר. 8 So the LORD scattered them abroad from thence upon the face of all the earth; and they left off to build the city.
ט עַל-כֵּן קָרָא שְׁמָהּ, בָּבֶל, כִּי-שָׁם בָּלַל יְהוָה, שְׂפַת כָּל-הָאָרֶץ; וּמִשָּׁם הֱפִיצָם יְהוָה, עַל-פְּנֵי כָּל-הָאָרֶץ. {פ} 9 Therefore was the name of it called Babel; because the LORD did there confound the language of all the earth; and from thence did the LORD scatter them abroad upon the face of all the earth. {P}
There is one classical interpretation of the Tower of Babel story. The theme of the tale is the folly of humanity in trying to build a world of uniformity. It is a tale of hubris, of what happens to humans when led politically by too much ambition to become great. The destruction of the tower and the multiplication languages, peoples and nations, were all intended to curb human ambitions. Unlike the Garden of Eden, where humans are exiled from the garden because they can have sex and know good and evil, this time the people who built the tower are forced to disperse to the ends of the earth and cannot simply migrate to another place.

Why is tyranny and ambition associated with human unity since in ordinary political life, populist feelings led by authoritarian figures are associated with nativism not human unity, with xenophobia and distrust? In this story, xenophobia and the division of the world into different cultures, languages and nations that occupy different geographical spaces is a result of the hubris of being unified. Or is it? Of ambition to be like the gods, certainly! But human unity of language, culture and geography was the precondition and not the result of what takes place. However, was it the necessary condition and hence the partner of ambition to reach the heavens? What is viewed as an attempt to rise into the divine world through creating a united nation across the globe creates the conditions for the antithesis, for ambition to enter the divine realm and for the disintegration into warring nations and languages.

The Garden of Eden began with humanity leaving the Garden of Eden and settling mentally, settling in their imaginations, in the south-west through the use of the imaginary Gihon River in the land of Cush. Humans do not take the Pishon to the ends of the earth. They do not multiply and populate the whole world. In reality, they settle in the fertile crescent to the south-east, in Mesopotamia otherwise known as the Shinar plane.

These are the descendants of Cain, the farmer, who killed his brother Abel, the nomad and shepherd. These heirs built cities. The flood came and humanity and most of nature was wiped out, with the exception of the family of Noah who saved a core of nature and finally found dry land on Mount Ararat in the north. Once again humanity set forth, moved south and east to Mesopotamia, to Shinar, settled there and built a city and a tower “with its top in heaven,” the vault that separates the waters below from the pure and sweet waters above that fall as rain. At that height, according to Josephus, as high as Mount Ararat, they could not be flooded out. It was a time when all humans spoke a common language.

Why did they build such a city and such a tower? To prevent going outwards to the River Pishon and being scattered to the ends of the earth. What would prevent such a dispersal? By building upwards and making a name. By Trumpifying the world and building the largest and the tallest structure, a structure built with bricks that had come through fire (i.e. clay bricks in contrast to the found and much more solid and permanent stone which is shaped and used to build the buildings in Jerusalem and Amman) and slime to serve as mortar to hold those bricks together. After watching the current American election, does anyone have trouble recognizing what the slime is that is used as mortar?

Note, contrary to Rabbi Ovadia S’forno of Italy (16th century), the humans who built the city which held the highest structure in the world did not do so to “create a world of homogeneity.” The world already spoke just one language and spoke in the same tongue. It was already a unified cosmopolitan world. That is the first verse. It is a precondition, not a goal. But in this classical interpretation, this condition becomes a goal, this goal is the making of a homogeneous world in one city instead of proliferating and occupying the whole of the earth, instead of diversifying into nations that each spoke its own language.

What did God do? What humans did not. He scattered humanity over the whole globe after humans built a Tower of Babel towards the heavens, a Tower of Babel, that turned out to be a tower of confusion, from the Hebrew bll, to confuse, and the gate of god, bãb-ilim. It was punishment for not occupying the whole earth and creating political and economic unity out of diversity across the globe and instead trying to build a nativist culture that aspired to be the greatest, that aspired to be divine. God did not want competition from humans. Humans were not on earth to aspire to be gods, but to complement God, to build a material world that is man-made and one in which humanity assumes responsibility.

Most rabbinical commentators thought the Tower of Babel was built in rebellion. Nimrod, the hunter as opposed to the farmer, the progenitor of Esau in contrast to Jacob, the archetypal populist tyrant who leads a rebellion of the people mentioned in the Table of Nations, the son of Cush, the grandson of Ham and great-grandson of Noah, is said to be the builder of the tower, an idolater and proto-Trump who would build a material edifice to his own name rather than to God, a new or renewed imperium. A tyrant builds on a foundation of human anxiety, a widespread fear of a new and strange world, a society, though very strong on the outside, but one in which the population feels weak and vulnerable, a population that wants most of all to huddle together and not extend out into the world. They accept a leader that does just that, but upward rather than outward, to his own glory rather than to the glory of humanity.

The new technology of burning bricks in a kiln rather than baking a mixture of straw and mud in the sun, facilitated building on a scale that neither the use of stone nor the old-fashioned mud bricks could achieve. However, instead of the technology being used to build a unified and richer world of diversity, the effort became deformed into the ambition of building upwards and creating a nativist realm. The foundation was technological unity of uniform bricks, but used to erect human cultural and political unity via exclusion. There is a false dichotomy between manufacturing through means of replicated and identical bricks, versus unhewn natural stone where God, ever the conservative and even reactionary, prefers the latter – “If you make me an altar of stone, do not build it of hewn stone, for if you use a tool on it, you pollute it.” (Exodus 20:25) ¬

The new imperium of nativism erected on a foundation of technological and uniform manufacturing envisioned building a human world on the same premise, like a bee hive or an ant hill with economic divisions of castes to serve the principles of conformity. Judy Klitsner in “The Tower of Babel and the Midwives of Egypt” noted that the devarim ahadim feared diversity of thinking and preferred that thought mirror the bricks baked in kilns. In Subversive Sequels in the Bible: How Biblical Stories Mine and Undermine Each Other, Klitsner focused on the different dialogues between and among the different narratives as later stories undermine and subvert earlier ones. I have a different focus – on the complementarity of the original cluster of tales.

As I reconstruct the geography of the Torah before the story of the Israelites as a nation begins, the world exists within a perimeter of geological time with natural elements both in contention and interaction. Within that perimeter are four stories of the development of the nations – the Garden of Eden tale, the story of Cain and Abel, Noah and the Flood and then, finally, the very short and intense story, the Tower of Babel.

The outer perimeter of this geography of the imagination consists of light or fire that divides night from day and even a light to enlighten the darkness, namely the moon, the vision that comes during sleep as the unconscious erupts as a precondition of the development of self-consciousness. There are also earth and air, and the spirit of the divine is expressed through ruach and the air that flows over the water of the seas. Finally, there is also the fresh water that comes from the other side of the vault of heaven to refill the fresh water rivers that represent change. Sometimes it comes in excess of earthly and human absorptive capacity.

Within this perimeter, there are four tales of human development that can be arranged as follows:
Garden of Eden

Tower of Babel Cain and Abel

Noah and the Flood.

Look at the contrasts between the stories opposite one another.

Garden of Eden Noah and the flood

Sex Gender
Disobedience Obedience
Failure to accept Responsibility for Actions Carrying Responsibility via Obedience
The Male as Nerd The Male as an Action Hero
Becoming Earthly Cast onto the Waters
Divine Expression thru Language & Naming Divine Intervention thru Destruction
Male who Others His Body Male Who Emphasizes Bodily Survival
Female Objectified The Female that Fades into the Background
Knowing We Will Die Determination to Survive
Difference Indifference
Courage in the face of the Unknown Fear of What is Known
Know Thyself as a Principle Celebrating the Know-Nothings
Non-conformity Conformity
Stress on Diversity Stress on Uniformity
Global citizens vs Nativist
Emigrants Refugees

Cain and Abel Tower of Babel

Genesis of Cities Implications of City Life
Nature Technology
Uniqueness Replication
Rivalry of the Farmer vs the Shepherd Rivalry of Globalization vs Nativism
Quest for Recognition Personal Ambition
Fields versus Plains Valleys versus Heights
Horizontal Rivalry over Turf Vertical Rivalry over Ambition
The Principle of Division The Principle of Unity
Murder Mayhem

As we face another divide in the river of life, it is well to recognize clearly what is at stake.

With the help of Alex Zisman

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