October 29, 2022
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by Bettijane Eisenpreis
And they said, “Come, let us build us a city, and a tower with its top in the sky, to make a name for ourselves, else we shall be scattered all over the world. The Lord came down to look at the city and tower that man had built, and the Lord said, “If, as one people with one language for all, this is how they have begun to act, then nothing they may propose to do will be out of their reach. Let us, then, go down and confound their speech, so that they shall not understand one another’s speech.” Thus the Lord scattered them from there over the face of the earth; and they stopped building the city.
The quotation above tells the story of the famous – or rather infamous – Tower of Babel. Its location was supposed to be in Babylon (Babel), but the name is also a pun, a play on the Hebrew word “balal,” confound.
I’ve read this story over and over, and I’m not sure what the people did that was so terrible. In this age of political and social division, when red and blue don’t speak to each other, a story about all the people on the earth cooperating on a building project seems refreshing. Why was the prospect of a building constructed by all the people of the earth so upsetting to God?
The story emphasizes the fact that the top of the tower was to be in the sky. Does God suspect that the people might invade heaven? Is that what God means by saying, “nothing that they propose to do will be out of their reach?” But God is the Lord of heaven and earth; why should God feel threatened by mere mortals?
Hubris in ancient Greek, meant transgression against a god. Today it means pride or arrogance, not knowing your place. The Tower, many say, is a classic example of hubris. Paintings usually depict it as an unwieldy edifice, so big and awkward that it is about to collapse from its own weight. Legend says that the people who built it had to stand on each other’s shoulders, so that if one fell, he would bring the others down as well. Maybe the Tower was not such a happy project!
But I’m still thinking about the language issue. The people who build the Tower all spoke the same language, and God punished them by “confounding” or confusing their understanding and scattering them all over the earth. Today, even people who speak the same language don’t understand each other. I can’t help thinking how wonderful it would be if we could listen to opposing points of view and explain ourselves to each other. All these millenia later, we are still being punished for the Tower of Babel.
Many of the stories in the Torah seek to explain facts that our ancestors could not understand. The story of Creation deals with the existence of day and night, of people and animals. The story of Adam and Eve talks about men, women and childbirth. This story is about language – not just Hebrew and English, French and German – but basic communication between people, in their own countries and all over the world.
We have been punished for our hubris. Someday, perhaps, we will start again, not to build a Tower, but to try and understand each other. That is, if we don’t destroy the world first.