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Noah: The Too-Tall Tower

Genesis 6:9–11:32

The builders of the Tower of Babel had their work cut out for them. The alluvial plain of Mesopotamia (formed by the Flood) had no quarries that would yield monumental stone. Instead, they molded and fired bricks and substituted raw bitumen for mortar. Through the power of technological ingenuity, they freed themselves from their environmental constraints. By ordinary standards, and notwithstanding their exaggerated hopes for the height of their planned tower with its "head in the heavens," they would seem to have been in line for applause and congratulations.

Particularly vexing, then, is the theological challenge posed by this story, which appears just before a lengthy genealogy of the sons of Noah at the close of this week's reading. Is ambition, even inflated ambition, an offense? Why did God forcibly interrupt the construction, confound the builders' language (i.e., their means of communication), and disperse the builders themselves "upon the face of the earth" rather than letting them discover for themselves the inevitable folly of their grandiosity? Why did the rabbinic sages regard the construction project as a grievous sin and deny to the "generation of the dispersion" a share in the World to Come?

Traditional commentators differ in their assessments. According to the majority, represented by Rashi in the 11th century, the builders were intent upon ascending heaven in order to overthrow God and prevent another flood. A problem with this interpretation is that the punishment appears to be, if anything, too lenient: disruption and dispersion are hardly proportionate to fomenting rebellion against God Himself. As against this, a minority view represented by the 12th-century Abraham ibn Ezra argues that their crime lay in the refusal to abide by God's postdiluvian imperative to "be fertile, increase, and fill the earth" (9:1): the identical imperative that was first given to Adam and Eve. From this perspective, the disruption and dispersion they suffered were exactly what they deserved: if they would not fulfill their destiny freely, they would do so reluctantly.

Modern biblical scholarship adds that the Torah's message of retributive justice is embodied in its very language. The people announce their intention with the cry of "havah nilb'nah" (let us go build), and God announces His negation with "havah . . . nab'lah" (let us go confound). Similarly, they undertake their project "lest we disperse upon the face of the whole earth," and the denouement is that "from there He dispersed them upon the face of the whole earth." The Dutch scholar, J.P. Fokkelman, in his masterful Narrative Art in Genesis (1975), likens this linguistic measure-for-measure play to the aphorism "Man proposes; God disposes," or, as the Bible puts it: "Many designs [arise] in the mind of man; but it is the plan of the Lord that shall prevail" (Proverbs 19:21). 

Returning to and combining the two traditional perspectives, we see emerging from them a polemic against self-worship. The builders of Babylon are archetypes of egoistical man who puts himself even above God, placing his own desires at the center of existence while relegating God's dictates and imperatives to the periphery. God commanded mankind "to fill the earth"; in the face of this decree, the otherwise understandable, even admirable impulse to achieve a unified language and purpose becomes, in its single-minded human self-centeredness, an act of idolatry: for the Bible, the premier sin.

Nowhere, perhaps, are the builders' overweening pride and all-consuming obsession portrayed more poignantly than in the following passage from Pirkei d'Rabbi Eliezer, a medieval midrashic anthology:

There were seven steps on the eastern side of the tower and seven on the west. On one side, they would raise the bricks and on the other they would descend. If a human being fell and died, they paid no attention; but if a brick fell, they would sit and cry, saying: "Woe unto us; when will we get a replacement?"

"This hubris of man," says Fokkelman, "calls forth this nemesis of God."



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