THE CITY OF BAVEL AND ITS TOWER by Rabbi Allen S. Maller
The conventional gloss of the Tower of Babel (Genesis 11:1-9) is that humanity arrogantly challenged God 's space by invading/building a "tower; with its head reaching up to the heavens". This is the gloss of the Qur'an when the Pharaoh, mockingly and arrogantly asks his associate Haman to build a lofty tower. Pharaoh said: "O Haman! Fire up (a kiln to bake bricks) of clay, and build me a lofty tower, that I may mount up to the god of Moses: but as far as I am concerned, I think (Moses) is a liar!" [Qur'an 28:38]
However, a careful reading of the Torah text shows that what they built was an entire city made out of manufactured uniform bricks (Genesis 11:3); and the reason they built the city and the tower was not to challenge God, but to "make a name for themselves, lest they be dispersed over the whole earth."
In the aftermath of a catastrophically destructive flood, many generations of humans were fearful and anxiety ridden. They felt very weak and vulnerable; and they only wanted to huddle together in one place. Humanity did not want curiosity to lead people to explore other locations and thus promote change and development (going against God"s blessing to "fill up the earth"); and they did not want to expand their knowledge and vocabulary because that promotes non conformity and diversity. Humans were proud that every single human being spoke the same language, and that their one language had only "a few words" (11:1 literal translation from the Hebrew).
When the post flood humans said “to one another; come let us make bricks and burn them throughly.” (11:3) they were doing much more than discussing building methods. Bricks are one of the first building materials created by human beings. Sun dried bricks made of mud and straw, are called adobe'. They were used in the famous ziggurat temples of Mesopotamia. But over time rain and flood water will dissolve sun dried mud and straw bricks, and cause them to crumble and break apart. Ancient brick makers learned to "burn" bricks by baking them in a very hot oven called a kiln. Then the bricks became very hard and durable. Manufacturing hundreds of thousands of bricks for very large building projects produced the first mass production factories.
When the post flood humans said “to one another; come let us make bricks and burn them throughly.” (11:3) they wanted to build their city with uniform manufactured bricks, instead of natural unhewn stones. They did not want each stone to be a different shape and color from all the other stones because they wanted to unify themselves by highly organized, conformist, teamwork, factory behavior, as well as an all encompassing common purpose. Also. the use of uniform bricks made it easier to build giant building projects with much higher buildings, and even a skyscraper temple tower; for they thought that if another flood occurred, perhaps some of them could survive on the roofs of their tall buildings, or on top of their temple tower.
The Biblical opposition to the use of baked bricks in a ritual/spiritual context may also be connected with our interpretation of the sin of the city builders. Immediately after the giving of the ten commandments the Torah says, “An alter of earth you shall make for me...(Exodus 20:21) and “If you make me an alter of stone, do not build it of hewn stone, for if you use a tool on it, you pollute it. (20:25). Thus, natural unshaped building materials are preferred by the Torah to manufactured materials.
The fear of dispersal and the need to make a name for themselves shows that the generations following the flood lacked both a self-confident individual identity and an established positive group identity. Their polytheistic account of the flood, found in the ancient Epic of Gilgamesh, relates that the gods decided to destroy humanity because humans made to much noise, and kept the gods from sleeping. These early humans believed that violence was natural, normal and thus inevitable. Wide spread human and animal violence would not be punished by the gods because, in polytheistic myths, the gods themselves spend a lot of time fighting and killing each other.
Finally, they believed that one language would guarantee co-operation, so they would not have to learn to respect social or personal differences because there would be no differences between individuals or groups of people. There would be only one group of people, with one and the same language for all humanity. This seemed like an ideal way for humans to create harmony; and avoid strife and violence.
Their plan for the city might have been modeled on bee hives or termite mounds: lots of close contact, with a high degree of conformity and common purpose. When God sees what they are scheming to do, and what effects that master plan will have on the future of humanity; God confounds their language, and disperses them all over the surface of the earth. This geographical expansion will promote linguistic, cultural and religious diversity which in turn will greatly enrich humanity's cultural, artistic and spiritual productivity. Indeed, there are 6,909 known spoken languages today, although about half are endangered, and will very likely no longer be spoken in another two to four generations. Although globalization will lead to the disappearance of many languages and cultures; new religions seem to still be growing rapidly. How long they will last is not yet known, but it is hard to argue that we should or will ever go back to the days when humanity had only “one language with a few words.”