Posted on March 23, 2011
by Scott Greenberg
When I say “city,” what do you think of? Chances are an image of a skyscraper comes to mind. Lofty, towering, and majestic, the skyscraper is the symbol of the modern era and what humans can accomplish. It can hold hundreds of offices and homes in just a few acres of land, and tourists flock to the top to look down on the ant-sized humans below. It defines the urban skyline and can be seen from miles away.
But while the modern skyscraper came into existence in the late 1800s, humans have been trying to build tall buildings since the time of the bible. This week we read about the gigantic flood which God sent on the world to punish them for their evil. The parashah then relates how all the people of the earth journeyed east together, with all a common language. There, the people said to each other (in Genesis 11), “Come, let us build us a city, and a tower, with its top in the sky, and let us make us a name; lest we be scattered abroad upon the face of the whole earth.”
This doesn’t seem so bad on the surface. After all, the world has just been destroyed, and people are trying to rebuild. So what do they do? They build a city, where they can establish a permanent life, and center it around a strong tower, a guarantor of their stability. But when God sees the tower, God becomes angry at them. Why?
“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 they propose to do will now be impossible for them.’”
God then proceeds to scatter all of the people who built the tower across the earth and “confound[s] their language” so that everybody begins to speak different languages. This is a really harsh punishment if you think about it. According to the story, once humanity used to be unified both geographically and linguistically and God destroyed all chance of human unity by dividing people up by language. Legend has it that God also destroyed the tower itself, making all of the labor that went into it futile. What could have been so bad about the Tower of Babel for God to impose such a harsh punishment?
Unfortunately, the text doesn’t give us many clues. All it says is that God feared that humans, spurred by the success of the Tower, would proceed to accomplish more (and presumably worse) things. As usual, the midrash has a host of explanations for exactly what was so bad about the Tower of Babel. One presents the tower as an attempt to prevent another flood by having a high place to flee to. Another said that the people of the generation were trying to reach heaven to rebel against God. Yet another says that the builders of the tower cared more about its completion than each other: they would cry out when a brick fell out of place but not for the humans it fell upon. The Midrash clearly thought that the building of the Tower of Babel was an act of arrogance and rebellion.
The story of the Tower of Babel has always disturbed me a little bit, mostly because I live in the New York metropolitan area and can still remember when two extremely tall skyscrapers fell over nine years ago. Why would God destroy a skyscraper, the ultimate symbol of human accomplishment? Why would he scatter a unified society trying to stabilize itself after the flood? Why would he be afraid that “nothing they propose to do will now be impossible for them?” The picture of God painted in Genesis 11 is a destructive God, jealous of human progress.
But maybe this story, only nine verses, is trying to teach us an important lesson about the achievements of humankind. A skyscraper, so monumental and majestic, is only as good as its builders. The Tower of Babel was built by humans who thought they could rebel against God or betray each other, and thus it had no value. Conversely, the terrorists who destroyed the World Trade Center on 9-11 destroyed it because it did have value, because it embodied the American (and Jewish) ideals of liberty and tolerance. The skyscraper is value-neutral; its builders give it value.
This is a broader lesson: when we set out to achieve and accomplish, we must always consider if the towers that we build deserve to be destroyed. Have we built our towers with kindness, generosity, dignity, and respect, or with arrogance, apathy, vengeance, and selfishness? Will our towers last from generation to generation or will they come crumbling down? That is the true lesson of the Tower of Babel.