By the eleventh chapter of the Bible, it appeared that mankind had reached perfection. United in time, place and purpose, the whole world appeared ready to accept the word of God. Yet God rejected this model of the human race, and instead opted to give his holy texts to a sliver of the world in entirely inverted circumstances. The message embedded in the choice is as timeless as it is important.
The Tower of Babel and the State
About 300 years after God destroyed the world in the flood, “the entire earth was of one language and uniform in words.” They assembled together in “a valley in the land of Shinar” and decided to make bricks to “build ourselves a city and a tower with its top in the heavens to make ourselves a name, lest we be scattered upon the face of the earth.” (Genesis 11:1-4)
This Tower of Babel was an incredible accomplishment. Ten generations – from Noah through Abraham – lived in this city and tower. The people were not just “of one language” but coordinated in a common goal. To a modern reader, this situation appears too good to be true – mankind working constructively to build a place where everyone could live together. It seems so aspirational that it puzzles the reader as to why God was upset and said “Lo! they are one people, and they have one language, and this is what they have commenced to do? Come let us descend and confuse their language, so that one will not understand the language of his companion’. And the Lord scattered them from upon the face of the earth and they ceased building the city.” (Genesis 11:6-8)
To appreciate God’s objection, biblical commentators compared this generation to that of the flood.
The Bible states that God destroyed the world in the flood because of “חָמָֽס” (Genesis 6:11) which is translated as ‘robbery’ by Rashi and the Ramban. While at first, robbery doesn’t seem so terrible a crime worthy of destroying a world, it does invite a reader to imagine the nature of such society.
If the world operates on the basis of theft – that the ownership of personal property has no inherent meaning – people prioritize stealing over work. In such environment, a person will invest his or her efforts in how to take the fruit, cattle or spouses of their neighbor rather than engaging in the actual work of cultivating such things. There would be no effort in saving or developing anything as it could be stolen, making people live for the day rather than invest in the future. Such a world cannot mature nor endure.
The society that built the Tower of Babel had a different notion about personal property. Rather than one person stealing another’s belongings for themselves, they collected it for the state. Rabbi Joseph Soloveitchik said “the generation… had a strict political code. The were not weakened by abundance [like those in the Flood]…. They were aggressive in undertaking, bold in design, and arrogant in execution. The ideology of Marxism as interpreted by Lenin and Mao Tse Tung could not have been better portrayed than in these verses.”
Rabbi Solveitchik combined two principles in his critique of this society – one led by an authoritarian leader and one based on Socialism. He criticized this society that “tried to create a new social world order. In order to realize this ideal, they destroyed individual freedom, dictating to everyone what to do and how to live.” People can see this at play today in the alt-left’s efforts to institute a new social order under the marketing banner of the common good as it advocates for “canceling” those who break with their orthodoxy while they attempt to redistribute personal property.
Rampant robbery for personal gain that existed before the Flood was obsessed with the indulgence of living in the moment and needed to be wiped out as it destroyed the possibility of long-term development. The seizing of personal property for the state during the Tower of Babel, needed to be disrupted as well. God had previously directed Noah and his children to “be fruitful and multiply upon the earth” three times (Genesis 8:17, 9:1 and 9:7) and instead they constrained themselves to a small valley, thereby limiting their progeny and directed their efforts to building man-made structures rather than cultivating the land for personal use.
God “came down” (Genesis 11:7) to this authoritarian socialist society and did not see an ideal society worthy of receiving his holy words, and decided to “confuse their language” and “scattered them from there upon the face of the earth, and they ceased building the city.“
Which makes one consider the society that actually did receive the Torah.
The Tower of Babel and Mt. Sinai
God handed the Ten Commandments to a very different society in a very different place. Mount Sinai and the Tower of Babel could not be more different:
|Mount Sinai||Tower of babel|
|Natural mountain||Man made structure|
|Located in remote desert away from people||Center of the world with all humanity|
|In the afterglow of the Exodus and destruction of Egyptian army||In the shadow of the destruction of every living thing in the Flood|
|Only Moses ascended the mountain and the Israelites barred from approaching it||The entire world inhabited the tower|
|God “descended” to Mt. Sinai to see a man he had spoken to before who had followed his command||God “descended” to find a society which ignored the direction he had given to some of them (Noah and his children)|
|Laws given to a single man to teach to a single tribe over time||Laws not given to the entire world at a moment in time|
|That tribe was scared and acting out, looking for leadership as the commandments were being given to Moses||The world was working seamlessly in concert, building their man-made city and tower which didn’t need a God as it reached the heavens via the work of its own hands|
When God dispersed mankind in the year 1996 after Creation, He set in place the ability for humanity to follow his command to “be fruitful and multiply upon the earth” but simultaneously made engaging with everyone more difficult, as God’s preference for speaking to one person at a time would require multiple prophets to interact with local communities and tribes, even as the miracles would capture the attention of the whole world.
As noted above, God opted to give the Ten Commandments to a people who were just freed from slavery and eager for leadership and a new society. This was in sharp contrast to the people on the Tower of Babel who may not have been receptive to taking upon themselves the word of God, having seen the impacts of global devastation. Consider that they decided to build their city and tower in a valley. They were highly confident in their own abilities to reach the skies, almost as a further insult to God as they didn’t want any advantage from the natural world.
The Shortened Life
The dispersion had ramifications beyond the change in language, the abandonment of the tower and setting in motion the establishment of nations around the world. The lifespans of people dropped considerably as well.
Peleg, a descendant of Shem, died during the dispersion. Curiously, he was either named with prophesy as the name was derived from the Hebrew word for dispersion, or he was renamed at his death כִּ֤י בְיָמָיו֙ נִפְלְגָ֣ה הָאָ֔רֶץ (Genesis 10:25).
Peleg died when he was 239 years old, considerably less than his father, grandfather and great grandfather who were 464, 433 and 438 years old, respectively. The reduction of 225 years of Peleg’s life relative to his father is the numerical equivalent of the word scattered in Hebrew “הֱפִיצָ֣ם” (Genesis 11:9). From this day on, the lifespan of people continued to decline – all the way to 120 years old, the lifespan of Moses, the great teacher of the Torah.
There are people today – like Senator Bernie Sanders and the Democratic Socialists – who view the idea of collective global action on behalf of a powerful state that shuns religion as an ideal to be pursued. The Bible clearly instructs otherwise, as conveyed in the short story of global unity at the Tower of Babel.
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