Blessings in our Diversity

Lessons from the Tower of Babel in Genesis 11:1-8
 Crowds tend to have the effect of making the individual lose his or her independent judgment, and instead simply follow what others are doing. We call this “herd behavior.” People in a crowd become anonymous. Most times their conscience is silenced, and they also lose a sense of personal responsibility. Large groups are prone to regressive behavior, primitive reactions and instinctual actions. Crowds are easily led by exploiters and manipulators, who may play on people’s fears and sense of victimhood and incite them to hate and attack other groups. Judeo-Christianity encourages us to never lose our individuality in the crowd. We believe that every human being is created in the image and likeness of God. Hence, diversity is a sign of strength, not weakness! That’s the ultimate lesson from the Tower of Babel.

The tower or ziggurat was the great symbol of the ancient Mesopotamian city states of the lower Tigris-Euphrates valley, the cradle of civilization. It was there that human beings first settled, established agriculture, and built cities. As the Torah makes clear, one of the great discoveries of Mesopotamia (along with the wheel, the arch and the calendar) was the ability to manufacture building materials, especially bricks made by pouring clay into molds, drying it in the sun, and eventually firing it in kilns: “And they said one to another: ‘Come, let us make brick, and burn them thoroughly.’ And they had brick for stone, and slime had they for mortar” (Gen.11:3). This made possible the construction of buildings on a larger scale and reaching greater heights than hitherto. From this grew the ziggurat in the plains of Shinar (Gen.11:1), a stepped building of many levels, which came to have profound religious significance. Essentially these towers – of which the remains of at least thirty have been discovered – were man-made “holy mountains,” the mountain being the place where heaven and earth most visibly meet. Inscriptions on several of these buildings, decoded by archaeologists, refer, as does the Torah, to the idea that their top “reaches heaven”: “And they said: ‘Come, let us build us a city, and a tower, with its top in heaven,’ ” (Gen.11:4). The largest – the great ziggurat of Babylon to which the Torah refers – was a structure of seven stories, three hundred feet high, on a base of roughly the same dimensions.

The results of human behavior most often are the opposite of what God intended. The builders of Babel wanted to concentrate humanity in one place: “Let us build a city…and not be scattered over the face of the whole earth” (Gen.11:4). The result was that they were dispersed: “from there the Lord scattered them over the face of the whole earth” (Gen.11:8). They wanted to “make a name” (11:4) for themselves, and they did, but the name they made – Babel – became an eternal symbol of confusion. Their pride lay in their newfound technological ability to construct buildings of unprecedented grandeur. They did not realize that the greatest creative power is LANGUAGE – a message found several times in the opening chapter of Genesis with the great simplicity that is repeated often in Genesis 1… “And God said…and there was.”

The Babel building project in Genesis 11:1-8 had two main goals – the city and the tower. The city is a means to concentrate people geographically, and the tower provides a vantage point for control of those people. Imagine multiple generations of the survivors of the Flood living in the flood plains in and around Babel. Whoever has the high ground establishes control; the higher the tower, the more control. A tower with “its head in the heavens” expresses the desire to control everyone, to be all-powerful. No wonder the ancient rabbis saw the attempt to build the tower as a rebellion against God. Remember that it is only God who has dominion over humanity. People are not to dominate other people. And certainly, nobody should have ultimate control over all humanity, as the designers of the tower intended. The builders of the tower were ultimately challenging God’s rule over people.

God is God; humanity is humanity. There can be no blurring of these boundaries. That was the sin of the builders of the tower. Their aspiration to “reach heaven” (Gen.11:4) was laughable, and indeed the Torah makes a joke of it. They think that their construction – three hundred feet high – has reached heaven, whereas God has to “come down” to look at it (“Man plans, and God laughs”). Intoxicated by their technological advancements, the builders of Babel believed they had become like gods and could now construct their own cosmopolis, their man-made miniature universe. Not content with earth, they wanted to build an abode in heaven. It is a mistake many civilizations have made, and the result is catastrophe. As Lord Acton pointed out, even the great city-state of Athens which produced Socrates, Plato and Aristotle, self-destructed when “the possession of unlimited power, which corrodes the conscience, hardens the heart, and confounds the understanding of monarchs, exercised its demoralizing influence.” What went wrong in Athens, Lord Acton writes, was the belief that “there is no law superior to that of the State – the lawgiver is above the law.” In modern times, the reenactment of Babel is most clearly associated with the names of Hitler, Stalin, Pol Pot, etc.

Rabbi Naftali Zvi Yehudah Berlin, (1817–1893), writing in Czarist Russia prophetically foreseeing the worst excesses of communism, talks about Babel as the world’s first totalitarianism, in which to preserve the masses as a single entity, all freedom of expression is suppressed (hence the expression “the whole world had one language and a unified speech”). The human race has witnessed way too many times in its history the desire by the few power-hungry to control the masses. One of the most terrifying threats to totalitarian rulers is the free dissemination of information, which is why, in the Western world, freedom of the press is such a core value. It is only through the control of information that the power-hungry can hope to limit the emergence of new ideas. It is only through the limiting of ideas and freewill that the powerful can impose their will of the powerless. Now we also understand the fear of the Babel leadership (Gen.11:4)– “lest we be scattered.”

God’s intent is for man to fill the earth, while the leaders in Babel seek to undermine the will of God by concentrating humanity in one place, the city with its control tower. Hence, we understand the divine judgement, which leads to the scattering of peoples across the face of the planet. What is more, we understand God’s method of salvation in this judgement at Babel. It is an act of God to dismantle the evil plans of power-hungry individuals who ultimately challenge God’s will and ways. Changing the language of people is not simply a tool to confound their plans. First, the inability for neighbors to understand each other forces people to live apart, thus moving them into the purpose of God to fill the earth and be fruitful (Gen.1:28). Secondly, the diversity of language leads to the expansion of the human civilization as people discover, explore, express, and implement a diversity of thoughts and ideas.

Indeed, what differentiates humans from other animals is the ability to speak. Targum Onkelos translates the last phrase of Genesis 2:7, “God formed man out of dust of the ground, and breathed into his nostrils the breath of life, and man became a living creature,” as “and man became ruaĥ memallelah, a speaking spirit.” Because we can speak, we can think, and therefore imagine a world different from the one that currently exists. Creation begins with the creative word, the idea, the vision, the dream. Language – and with it the ability to remember a distant past and conceptualize a distant future – lies at the heart of our uniqueness as the image of God. Just as God makes the natural world by words (“And God said…and there was”) so we make the human world by words, which is why the Bible takes words so seriously: “Life and death are in the power of the tongue,” says the book of Proverbs (18:2). Already at the opening of the Torah, at the very beginning of creation, is foreshadowed the Judeo-Christian doctrine of revelation: that God reveals Himself to humanity not in the sun, the stars, the wind or the storm but in and through words – sacred words that make us co-partners with God in the work of redemption. Our human creative power is linked to our language (words) – the medium through which we communicate our ideals, construct imaginative possibilities, and call others to join us in realizing them. Hence, the lack of diversity in language in the story of Babel highlights limitations to human creativity. This is understandable, as every different language – with its unique grammar, structure, and vocabulary – yields nuanced differences of tone, meaning, intensity, etc. Different languages enhance the human creativity. Diversity is a sign of strength, not weakness!

Only when God is God can man be man. This means organizing our world under the sovereignty of our Creator. Without this conscious effort of living under God’s Word, there is little to prevent human beings from sacrificing the many for the sake of the few, or the few for the sake of the many. Only a respect for the integrity of creation under God’s intended purpose will stop human beings from destroying themselves. Humility in the presence of Divine order is our last, best safeguard against dehumanizing ourselves. Babel was the first civilization, but sadly not the last, to begin with a dream of utopia and end in a nightmare of hell. When human beings try to live apart from the Word and Will of God, they quickly become less than human.  Diversity is a sign of the strength of God in our lives; it is not human weakness!

Adapted from:
  • Sacks, Jonathan. Genesis: The Book of Beginnings (Covenant & Conversation)
  • Grumet, Zvi. Genesis: From Creation to Covenant.
  • Lord Acton, Essays in the History of Liberty (Indianapolis: Liberty Classics, 1986), 13.