Humans are supposed to spread out over the whole earth; God makes that clear early in the book of Genesis/Bereishit. After creating humans, God tells them:
“Be fruitful and multiply and fill the earth and subjugate it, and rule over the fish of the sea and over the birds of the heavens and over all the living things that crawl on the earth.” (Genesis/Bereishit 1:28)
Perhaps God expects humans to be good stewards of God’s creation; after all, God makes humandkind “in God’s image.”1 But they fail. Nine generations later, in the time of Noah, God observes “that the evil of humankind is abundant on the earth” (Genesis 6:5) and “the earth is filled with violence because of them …” (Genesis 6:13)
So God floods the whole world in this week’s Torah portion, Noach2, and life begins over again with the passenger’s on Noah’s ark, including his three sons and their wives.
Then God blessed Noah and his sons, and said to them: “Be fruitful and multiply, and fill the earth.” (Genesis 9:1)
All bird and land animals will fear humankind, God adds. And the rules have changed: now humans are allowed to kill and eat other animals, but anyone who kills a human being must be killed in turn.
“Whoever sheds the blood of humankind,
by humankind his blood must be shed,
Because in the image of God
[God] made humankind.
And you must be fruitful and multiply. Swarm over the earth and multiply on it!” (Genesis 9:6-7)
In other words, it is a sin or crime to kill a fellow human being, because we all have some divine characteristics. And God still wants humans to fill up the earth.
Noah’s descendants do multiply, and eventually they scatter. His grandchildren and great-grandchildren become the ancestors of people who establish separate countries all over the Ancient Near East, including Canaan, Egypt, Kush, Akkad, Aram, and Bavel—the Hebrew name for “Babylon” in English. But then they modify God’s prohibition against killing fellow human beings. The separate ethnic groups become alienated from each other and make war in order to seize their neighbors’ lands. Later in the Torah, killing in battle is not considered murder.
However, this week’s Torah portion describes a brief period when all human beings cooperate and live together in harmony. This occurs when Noah’s descendants move away from the ark and settle together in Shinar, a biblical name for the Mesopotamian valley of the lower Tigris and Euphrates.
Everyone on earth had one language and one set of words. And it was as they journeyed from the east that they found a broad valley in the land of Shinar, and they settled sham. (Genesis 11:1-2)
sham (שָׁם) = there.
If only some of the humans had stayed in Shinar and the rest had journeyed on, God might have been satisfied. But all the humans on earth settle there, and began making bricks.
And they said: Come, let us build for ourselves a city, and a tower with its top in the heavens, and let us make ourselves a sheim, lest we be scattered over the face of the whole earth. (Genesis 11:4)
sheim (שֵׁם) = name, fame, reputation. (Also the name of Noah’s oldest son, from whom Abraham is descended.)
These people do not want to scatter over the earth. Since no dissent is reported, we can assume that they are a functional social group and they prefer to stay together. They probably have leaders, but not a king. (In Genesis 10:8-10 one of Noah’s descendants, Nimrod, is called a mighty hunter and the king of Shinar when its chief cities were Bavel, Erekh, Akkad, and Kalneih. But this seems to refer to a later period of history than the time when people build the first city after the Flood.)3
Noah’s early descendants succeed in building a city and a tall tower, activities that, in the absence of a king with a police force, require a high level of willing cooperation.4 A city makes it easy for people to engage in more activities together, take advantage of a greater division of labor, and get help in emergencies, but the reason for building a tower is not as obvious. Three reasons commentators have proposed are:
- Noah’s early descendants are afraid that God will decide to wipe out the human race again. Instead of preventing divine destruction by obeying all of God’s wishes, these people build a watchtower so they can see their enemy, God, approaching and take steps.5
- They build the tower all the way up to the heavens in order to wage war against God there, with the help of an idol they plan to place at the top.6
- The tower is merely a landmark that shepherds can see from far away, so they can easily guide their flocks home.7
All three reasons confirm the unity of the people. So why are they worried about being “scattered over the face of the whole earth” when they are so good at living together? The only reason must be that they know scattering is God’s agenda.
And why do they believe that making themselves a sheim will keep them together?
In Biblical Hebrew, sheim means “name”, “fame”, or “reputation”. Since they are the only human beings in the world, they do not need a name for themselves beyond “human”.8 And while certain individuals might become famous, the people as a whole cannot do so because there is no other group of beings to compare themselves with—except perhaps gods or angels. (See my post Bereishit: How Many Gods).
Then does sheim mean reputation? The people as a whole might want to establish a good reputation with God so that God would forgive them for not scattering over the earth. Did they hope that building the city with the tower would impress God?
Maybe what they really want is a sham rather than a sheim. Although the two words do not share a root verb, their spelling is identical in a Torah scroll: שם. For more than two thousand years, Torah scrolls have had no vowel pointing. The vowel points that distinguish sheim (שֵׁם) from sham (שָׁם) in books were only added when the Masoretes codified the Hebrew Bible during the 7th to 12th centuries C.E.
Maybe in the original oral version, a few thousand years ago, the humans said:
Come, let us build for ourselves a city, and a tower with its top in the heavens, and let us make ourselves sham (“there”), lest we be scattered over the face of the whole earth.
All the humans in the world cooperate to make themselves a place in the world, their home.
They cooperate with each other, but not with God.
And God went down to look at the city and the tower that the children of the human had built. And God said: “Hey! One people and one language for all of them, and this is how they have begun to act? So now nothing that they plan to do will be impossible! Come, let us go down there and let us scramble their language, so that a man cannot understand the language of his neighbor.”9 (Genesis 11:6-7)
The best way to make the collaborative, cooperative people scatter is to turn them into strangers, aliens who cannot even understand each other. Then they will no longer want to work together.
Then God scattered them from there over the surface of all the earth, and they stopped building the city. Therefore He called its name Bavel, because there God scrambled the language of all the earth, and from there God scattered them over all the surface of the earth.10 (Genesis 11:8-9)
What if it were true that if all humans on earth could understand each other, nothing we planned to do would be impossible?
Would we stop killing each other? Would we finally become good stewards of the earth?
- Genesis 1:27.
- “Noah” in English is Noach (נֺחַ or נוֹחַ) in Hebrew. The word means “rest” or “resting place”.
- The Talmud, written in the 5th century C.E., long after the book of Genesis, claimed that Nimrod was king over the people who built the Tower of Babel (Talmud Bavli, Chullin 89a).
- The popular myth that the builders of the Tower of Babel valued a brick above a human life appears in Sefer HaYashar, Genesis, Noach 14 (first published in 1625).
- E.g. 14th-century Rabbeinu Bachya, 17th-century Siftei Chakhamim.
- E.g. Midrash Tanchuma, written no later than 800 C.E., Siftei Chakhamim.
- E.g. Radak (12-13th-century rabbi David Kimchi), Rabbeinu Bachya.
- adam (אָדָם) = human, humankind.
- For commentary on why God suddenly switches to the first person plural, “us”, see last week’s post: Bereishit: How Many Gods?
- This folk etymology connects the name of the city and region of Bavel (בָּבֶל) with the verb for “scramble”, balal (בָּלַל). However, the name Bavel probably comes from the Sumerian place-name Babilim, which meant “Gate of God”.