The receptive history of the Tower of Babel story far outshines its mere nine-verse presence in the Hebrew Bible. The narrative has been a feature of art and literature for millennia, appearing in ancient synagogues, Renaissance paintings and modern music. As stories are adapted and retold across time and space, their cultural resonance and significance transforms in tandem with the new context. As Oxford professor of theology Dr. Hindy Najman notes, this cultural mailability of biblical narrative is the essence of the vitality of scripture. In Judaism, scriptural narratives are read and retold to inform life in every age; these retellings inform modernity while modernity informs contemporary understandings of the text.
While the Tower of Babel story is often understood as a tale of crime and punishment, the biblical text provides little detail about the construction of the tower. The builders’ heretical intentions are implicit, to be imposed by the reader and interpreters. The nefarious implications of the construction project become clear when the text is read in context with other texts that explain the negative implications of the program such as Jubilees—from about 100 BCE; 3 Baruch—of dubious dating; and later Babylonian Sanhedrin—from somewhere in the third to fifth centuries. These texts fill in the sparse account of the biblical narrative with polemical details. In the text, the venture is clearly an affront to the Divine. Though never explicitly stated nor explained, God finds the project unsettling and determines it must be prevented:
(ESV) And the Lord said, “Behold, they are one people, and they have all one language, and this is only the beginning of what they will do. And nothing that they propose to do will now be impossible for them. (Gen. 11:6)
God is the clear halting force in the story, and had He not intervened there is no reason to assume the project would have failed. However, the text never gives any detail as to what about the project was so abhorrent to God, nor what specifically He hoped to achieve by stopping it. In the wake of the destruction of the entire world through a super-natural flood, it seems strange that God would re-establish a world that was again an affront to Divine sensibilities.
It is evident throughout history that authentic Jewish understandings of biblical stories were dynamic and vital. In this moment we are due a renewed reading of the Tower of Babel story. Instead of implying themes of crime and punishment, we can continue the creative narrative of the Book of Genesis at large and consider the story as an extension of the recreation of the world after the flood. Perhaps, the Tower of Babel is not God punishing humanity for unity and working together; rather He is introducing much-needed diversity of thought and expression through the dispersion of language. In this framing, dispersion is not a punishment, but rather a step in the process of rebuilding the world after the flood.
A world of homogenous thought and experience is not complete. In such a world no task is out of reach—anything deemed worthy of collective effort can be achieved. However, in such a world there is no mediating force to evaluate the worthiness of any collective goal. There is no oppositional voice forcing the majority or collective to consider alternative consequences of communal action. There is no consideration for the impact of a project on communal outliers or minorities. This sort of “groupthink” is focused in execution but stagnant in consideration.
Earlier in the Torah portion, Noah stands against cultural homogeneity; in a world of unified corruption Noah was the lone tzadik. From the onset we see the dangers of the unchallenged cultural singularity that ultimately begot the flood and worldly destruction. While re-establishing the world, God sees the resurgence of this groupthink and introduces linguistic diversity to add nuanced debate and disagreement to temper the otherwise unchallenged will of the unified world. This diversity is not a punishment but rather a corrective element of the post-destruction rebuilding of a better world.
Over the past year and a half, our world has been upended as if destroyed by an unnatural flood; as we work together to rebuild a society we can look to the Tower of Babel in a new light. The narrative need not be a warning against collective action, but instead we can understand it as a directive to include a multiplicity of diverse thought and action in our communities to rebuild stronger than we were before our flood.
Mr. Edward Maza teaches humanities at The Idea School. Mr. Maza holds a BA in art history and education studies from Yale University and an MPhil (master’s degree) from the University of Oxford in Hebrew Bible Theology.