(This blog was first posted on October 5, 2010.)
And all the earth was of one language and one set of words … And they said: Come let us build a city for ourselves, and a tower with its head in the heavens, and let us make a name for ourselves, lest we be scattered all over the face of the earth. And God went down to see the city and the tower …
And God said: Hey! One people and one language for all, and this is what they begin to do? … Come let Us go down there and scramble their language, so that they will not understand each other’s language. Then God scattered them from there over the surface of all the earth, and they stopped building the city. Therefore He called its name Babel, because there God scrambled the language of all the earth, and from there God scattered them over all the surface of the earth. (Genesis/Deuteronomy 11:1-9)
Babel = Babylon, from the Sumerian Babilim, “Gate of the God” (both city and region)
balal = scramble, confuse; thoroughly mix oil into grain for a meal offering
Obviously the people of Babel are doing something wrong—something that isn’t horrible enough for God to destroy them with a flood, but is serious enough for God to investigate and correct their mistake.
What is their mistake? Three theories are: that they don’t follow God’s order to scatter; that they enforce conformity and suppress individuality; and that they try for permanence in a world God created for change.
1) They refuse to scatter.
After the Flood, God tells Noah’s descendants to be fruitful and multiply and fill the land. But the traumatized people are afraid of being scattered. There is comfort in numbers—and in being able to see that nobody is engaged the kind of outrageous sins that led to the Flood. I can imagine the anthropomorphic God in this story heaving a celestial sigh, wondering what it will take for humans to get with the program. Then God scrambles their minds so they have different languages and different sets of words—i.e., different concepts. This time, when God scatters the humans, they have so much trouble communicating that they stay scattered.
2) They suppress the individual.
The people of Babel speak only in the plural, and appear to be in perfect agreement. No individuals are named in the story. Whether this counts as cooperation, or conformity, it’s not what God has in mind. Sforno (Rabbi Obadiah Sforno, 16th century) wrote that if everyone held the same beliefs, including the same beliefs about God, then no one would seek the true God. Only when people find out about religious differences do they develop a desire for deeper understanding. Martin Buber (1878-1965) wrote that only a person with a well-developed sense of self is able to connect with God.
In the allegory of Babel, after God scatters the people and gives them different languages and concepts and cultures, individuality and variety return to humankind. Then we are again able to learn and change.
3) They crave permanence.
Permanence is a continuing issue in Genesis/Bereishit. Although subsequent chapters focus on the desire for a sense of permanence through one’s descendants, the book has already addressed the issue of death. The result of eating from the Tree of Knowledge in Eden is personal mortality; God removes Adam and Eve from the garden of Eden and places them in our own world, where they will eventually die. Noah and his family witness the death of their entire world, and must start all over again when the Flood waters recede.
What is the meaning of life when, sooner or later, you will die? One possible response is to create something that will outlast you, that will be a monument down through the ages. This is difficult to do alone. So the people act collectively to make a name for themselves, by building a city and a tower so high that its head is in the heavens. (In this part of the Torah, the heavens are eternal, while the earth is always changing.)
Of course their plan fails. God, or the nature of the universe God created, will not let anything on earth endure forever.
The answer is to give up on permanence, and find a different meaning of life.
Each human must find his or her own individual meaning. But the book of Genesis offers some suggestions. We can “walk with God”, which I interpret as behaving morally for its own sake. We can raise and teach children. We can love another person, as Isaac loves Rebecca and Jacob loves Rachel. We can wrestle with ourselves and develop our own hidden potential, like Jacob wrestling and finding new courage at the ford of Yabbok.
What other ways can we find meaning in a life without permanence? I welcome your comments.