Giant Termite Mounds and the City of Babel’s Tower

A vast array of regularly spaced, still-inhabited, termite mounds in northeastern Brazil [covering an area the size of Great Britain] that began over 4,000 years ago was reported last year in Current Biology [November 19, 2018]. They are almost as old as the world’s oldest known termite mounds in Africa; which might have been the model for the Biblical narrative of the tower of Babel.

The conventional interpretation of the Tower of Babel (Genesis 11:1-9) allegory is that humanity arrogantly challenged God’s space by building a tower; with its head reaching up to the heavens. However, a careful reading of the Torah text shows that what was built was not just a tower, but an entire city made out of manufactured uniform bricks (11:3-4).

And the reason they built the city and the tower was not to challenge God or invade the heavens, but to “make a name for ourselves, lest we be dispersed over the whole earth.” (11:4).

The Brazlian termite mounds, which are easily visible on Google Earth, are not nests. Rather, they are the result of the insects’ slow and steady excavation of a network of interconnected underground tunnels. The termites’ activities over thousands of years has resulted in huge quantities of soil deposited in approximately 200 million cone-shaped mounds, each about 2.5 meters tall and 9 meters across.

“These mounds were formed by a single termite species that excavated a massive network of tunnels to allow them to access dead leaves to eat safely and directly from the forest floor,” says Stephen Martin of the University of Salford in the UK. “The amount of soil excavated is over 10 cubic kilometers, equivalent to 4,000 great pyramids of Giza, and represents one of the biggest structures built by a single insect species.”

Termites are very different from humans in their single minded, highly organized society. Yet there were times in the past when generations of humans were fearful and anxiety-ridden. They felt weak and vulnerable; and they only wanted to huddle together in one place.

Humanity did not want curiosity to lead people to explore other locations; and thus promote change and development. This seemed to go against God’s blessing to fill up the earth (Genesis 9:7).

Similarly, many humans did not want to expand their knowledge and vocabulary because that promotes nonconformity and diversity. Humans were proud that every single human being spoke the same language, and that their one language had only a few words (Genesis 11:1, my literal translation from the Hebrew).

When these humans said to each other; ‘come let us make bricks and burn them thoroughly’ (11:3), they were doing much more than discussing building methods. Bricks are one of the first building materials to be created by human beings. Sun-dried bricks made of mud and straw are called ‘adobe’. They were used in the famous ziggurat temples of Mesopotamia over 4,000 years ago.

But over time, rain and flood water will dissolve sun-dried mud and straw bricks, and cause them to crumble and break apart. Ancient brick makers learned to “burn” bricks by baking them in a very hot oven called a kiln. This would make the bricks very hard and durable. Manufacturing hundreds of thousands of bricks for very large building projects led to the first mass production factories.

When humans said to one another; “come let us make bricks and burn them thoroughly” (11:3); they wanted to build their city with uniform manufactured bricks instead of natural uncut stones. The use of uniform bricks made it easier to construct giant building projects with much higher structures, and even a skyscraper-sized tower.

Beyond this practical reason to use uniform, manufactured bricks, there was a powerful symbolic reason to use them as well. They did not want each stone to be a different shape and color from all the other stones in order to symbolize their wish to unify themselves by teamwork expressed as highly organized conformist factory behavior, as well as an all-encompassing common purpose.

This disregard for the individual’s life is expressed in an eight century Jewish commentary that states that as the tower grew higher and higher; when a person fell and died, he was not mourned, but when a brick fell and broke, everyone would weep (Pirkei de-Rabbi Eliezer 24).

The termite mounds were largely hidden from view in the fully deciduous, semiarid, thorny-scrub forests unique to northeastern Brazil. The termite mounds only really come into view when some of the lands were cleared for pasture in recent decades.

“It’s incredible that, in this day and age, you can find an ‘unknown’ biological wonder of this sheer size and age still existing, with the occupants still present,” Martin said.

The biblical opposition to the use of baked bricks in a ritual/spiritual context may also be connected with our interpretation of the sin of the city builders. Immediately after the giving of the Ten Commandments the Torah says, “An altar of earth you shall make for me” (Ex. 20:21) and “If you make me an altar of stone, do not build it of hewn stone, for if you use a tool on it, you pollute it” (Ex. 20:25).

Thus, natural unshaped, irregular, building materials, symbolizing naturally different personalities, are preferred by the Torah over mass manufactured materials, symbolizing social. political, and religious conformity.

The fear of dispersal and the desperate need to make a name for themselves demonstrates that the generations following the flood lacked both a self-confident, individual identity and an established positive group identity.

Their polytheistic account of the flood, found in the ancient Epic of Gilgamesh, relates that the gods decided to destroy humanity because humans made too much noise, and kept the gods from sleeping.

These early humans believed that violence was natural, normal and thus inevitable. Widespread human and animal violence would not be punished by the gods, because, in polytheistic myths the gods themselves spent a lot of time fighting and killing each other. The only resort was to build a city and tower.

Finally, they believed that one language would guarantee cooperation. This way they would not have to learn to respect social or personal differences, because there would be no differences between individuals or groups of people. There would be only one group of people, with one and the same language for all humanity. This seemed to them like an ideal way for humans to create harmony and avoid strife and violence.

Their plan for the city might have been modeled on termite mounds: lots of close contact, with a high degree of conformity and common purpose. According to the Biblical narrative when God saw what they were scheming, and what effects that master plan would have on the future of humanity, God confounded their language and dispersed them all over the surface of the earth.

This geographical expansion was meant to promote linguistic, cultural and religious diversity, which in turn greatly enriched humanity’s cultural, artistic and spiritual productivity. Indeed, there are thousands of known spoken languages today.

Although globalization will lead to the disappearance of many languages and cultures, it is hard to argue that we should or ever will go back to the days when humanity had only one language with a few words (Genesis 11:1).

About the Author
Rabbi Allen S. Maller has published over 250 articles on Jewish values in over a dozen Christian, Jewish, and Muslim magazines and web sites. Rabbi Maller is the author of "Tikunay Nefashot," a spiritually meaningful High Holy Day Machzor, two books of children's short stories, and a popular account of Jewish Mysticism entitled, "God, Sex and Kabbalah." His most recent books are "Judaism and Islam as Synergistic Monotheisms' and "Which Religion Is Right For You?: A 21st Century Kuzari" both available on Amazon.
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