The Tower of Babel

Did the events recited in the Torah really occur? At least one definitely did. The first 10 verses of Genesis XI recite not the “story,” but the history of the emergence and collapse of the first civilization on Earth. Civilization is the cumulative and conscious transmission of advanced culture.

These verses are about the Tower of Babel. They lack the precision and drudgery of an archaeologist’s field notes. Instead the Torah, in its usual fashion, is providing the essence of what happened — in this case, seven millennia of human history that archaeology recently began figuring out.

The section starts by saying the people of the Earth migrated to a valley in the land of Shinar, which we have to conclude is lower Mesopotamia, or the area between the Tigris and Euphrates Rivers, from south of Baghdad in modern day Iraq to where the head of the Persian Gulf was 9,000 years ago. These were Sumerians who arrived from the south or southeast, who occupied the southern half, and the Semitic language speakers conventionally referred to as Akkadians who had come from the north and west. This was an area where hunter-gatherers thrived. Verse one ambiguously uses the Hebrew words: “devarim achadim” to describe them. Rabbinic commentaries give different meanings to these words and the interpretations are all over the map: united in common purpose, united against God, of limited vocabulary. Because the Hebrew word davar can mean both “thing” and “word,” it may mean they were content with few possessions. At their disposal were an abundance of different food sources: migratory birds, animals, marine life in the rivers, and Persian Gulf, which then extended perhaps 100 kilometers further inland than it does today and a variety of plants that grew in the rich silt the Euphrates deposited every time it flooded. (The Tigris did not flood because it flows too far below the surrounding land.) If one source failed in a particular year others could be harvested. Their diets were protein rich and varied, their societies non hierarchical. Why would anyone want to change that?

But change it did. The culprit is grain.

This area lacks rain for eight months of the year (today at least). The smarter plants, knowing they would die, devised a propagation strategy. They put their energy into producing larger, hardy seeds that could survive underground until rain reappeared, encased in husks to prevent premature germination. Thus did wild cereal crops appear in Middle East.

These wild crops did not lend themselves to agriculture. Barley seeds break off easily to maximize dispersal. A dehusking method had to be found

But by 8-6,000 BCE, the people the Bible refers to learned to cultivate founder crops (not wheat) and domesticate animals. By 7000 BCE, there emerged in favorable locations small permanent settlements whose inhabitants, if engaged in agriculture, did so in conjunction with foraging, fishing, and hunting. Since these activities required much less work than growing grain, for the same amount of nutrition, no one would voluntarily give them up for the relative drudgery of agriculture. So for several millennia we have nomads and primitive sedentists who are certainly in no rush to become civilized.

The period 3200-2800 BCE saw the emergence of large city states in lower Mesopotamia. Uruk was the largest with a wall that enclosed 5.5 square kilometers or five times the size of Jerusalem and half the size of Rome as these cities would be three millennia later. It is theorized it controlled the surrounding 20-30 kilometers and had a population of 25-50,000 people.

Yale University professor James C. Scott concludes these city states could not have existed without the cultivation of grain on a massive scale because only cereal grains can provide the basis for taxation. They ripen at the same time, are visible (not growing below ground), therefore assessable, have higher caloric value per unit volume and weight, therefore can be removed more efficiently than other foods by the tax collector and can be stored without spoiling in their husks.

Provided people could be coerced into a giving up a fifth of their crop or coerced into slavery their labor produced a surplus that was used for the sustenance of elites and those performing specialized tasks for their benefit. (The slaves were “paid” in the form of a food ration distributed in the most ubiquitous object archaeologists unearth from this period: a bevel-rimmed two-liter bowl, likely mass produced.)

The emergence of these states follows upon the start of a regional dry period that continues today. Hans J. Nissen of Free University in Berlin has written that water flowing in the Tigris and Euphrates so declined that the Persian Gulf is now three meters lower than in 3500 BCE, which made cultivation without long irrigation canals from the Euphrates impossible. People living along feeder rivers would have seen their water source dry up, forcing them closer to the Euphrates. Organizing people into the job of canal construction and maintenance for irrigation of crops and human and animal consumption may have given the city states their start.

But these states were terrible places to live. The crowding of people and animals made the spread of disease likely and attracted pests to the food and waste produced. Hitherto unknown diseases could enter the state through trade with ever more distant suppliers as the increased need for wood for fuel meant that the local trees were cut down and because the wood of local palm trees was not sturdy enough for monument building. Trade was also necessary as war and the material aggrandizement of elites required metals and other non locally available commodities that would be traded for grain ergo even more cultivation. The increased need for labor required more wars in order to capture slaves to be put to this work. So more land had to be cultivated. Because all irrigation water contains salt which plants do not absorb the soil became saline and unproductive. Dependence on two cereal crops means that if they failed the settlement could be wiped out if grain had not been stored. The trade routes were exposed to nomadic pirates who would have to be paid protection money. Most of the population subsisted on an inadequate diet of grain that provided calories, but little proper nutrition. The walls were erected as much to keep people in as to keep invaders out.

But it was civilization.

The Sumerians were the first to develop pictorial writing around 3100 BCE as a mnemonic device in order to keep records of slaves and other possessions. Within 100 years, the pictograms could symbolize sounds. Sumerian does not resemble any other know language. The states over time adopted the language and writing of the Akkadians, except for liturgical and scholarly writing. A wierd form of Akkadian is spoken today. We call it Hebrew. It is inflective, meaning grammatical modification of the words is achieved through declension and conjugation. Sumerian is agglutinative, i.e., cannot do that. Akkadian is written with a purely phonetic alphabet with letters “making” human sounds.

Genesis expresses the birth of civilization thus: “And they said one to another: ‘Come, let us make ourselves bricks and burn them thoroughly.’ So they substituted brick for stone and used bitumen for mortar. And they said: ‘Come, let us build ourselves a city, and a tower with its top in the sky and we will make ourselves a name lest we be scattered on the face of the whole Earth'” — i.e., lest we revert to nomadic hunter gatherers who cannot be taxed or exploited.

In fact, bricks are not an invention of civilization and these city states employed flat bricks for corners and doorframes. But Early Dynastic I (beginning of third millennium) saw the invention of the “plano-convex brick,” which was set at an angle requiring a lot more mortar, but advantaged by allowing a bifurcation of tasks: specialized bricklayers would set the brick followed by unskilled mortar schmeerers. Construction thus became more efficient and buildings acquired herringbone-like decoration.

The main point the Torah is making is that they built a city (state) and purely for hollow self-aggrandizement built a tower, probably a reference to the enormous ziggurats: staired stage towers, surmounted by temples.

The passage goes on to recite that God is upset by this and confuses their language so that they could not understand one another. They stop building and disperse. By counting the number of years individuals mentioned in the genealogies lived, Torah scholars dates this dispersal to the Hebrew year 1996 or 1765 BCE.

This in fact happened. As Scott writes in Against the Grain: “From roughly 1800 until 700 BCE…settlements in Mesopotamia covered less than a quarter of their previous area, and urban settlements were only one-sixteenth as frequent…” People became liberated and returned to foraging, pastoralism, rudimentary sedentism, etc., though some states survived.

The reason for the collapse of these civilizations are not yet figured out. Clearly, those first city states were as ecologically unviable in the long term as is the corporate dominated, capitalist, surveilled, global city state we have today except that ours will not have archaeologists deciphering the ruins three millenia post collapse as they will have died along with everyone else. Or the collapse may have been aided by other factors: diseases for which the inhabitants had no immunity, constant warfare, attacks by nomads along the necessary trade routes, slave revolts, “taxpayer” revolts. Take your pick.

Now, here comes the mind blowing part. The next event Genesis recites is that Terah, Abraham’s father, takes his family out of Ur Kasdim which could be Ur, the second-most important of the city states. Abraham is part of this historical dispersion! Terah’s intention is to go to Canaan, but instead settles in Harran (likely a trade-route town in today’s south east Turkey).

Then we get to Chapter XII (Parshat Lech Lecha), which starts with a sentence so cadenced, ringing, majestic, and commanding that it is worth learning Hebrew just to experience its recitation: “God said to Abraham: ‘Go for yourself from your land, and from your birthplace and from your father’s house to the land that I will show you.’” But Abraham had already left his birthplace. With the words “for yourself,” God is sending Abraham not just to a different physical place, but to a different way of living having nothing to do with the oppression, coercion and hollow self aggrandizement of the cultural space he was born to. God is in effect telling him, “I am giving humanity through you a fresh start.”

The Torah, as much as it anything, is about liberation, equality, non-exploitation, non-oppression. It is a vision of society without hierarchy, socialism 3,000 years before Marx. The Jews themselves are liberated from slavery in Egypt. Many commandments, just five of which are: observing Sabbath, giving workers and animals a day of rest, not perverting the judgement of a proselyte or orphan or taking the garment of a widow as security come with a reminder of that enslavement. Moses was chosen as leader precisely because there was never a person more modest, as the Torah describes him. He did not want the job and when he is brought a report of Eldad and Medad undermining his authority by prophesying, he exclaims; “Would that the entire people of God could be prophets.” He was the last person to use his position to exploit others for personal benefit and create a hierarchy with himself at the top. When the Jews conquered Canaan each person, other than a Levite who got none, was given an equal plot of land and no one ruled, only God. Concentration of power and wealth was prevented by the Jubilee Year when, after 50 years, all land went back to the original family that owned it. I could go on with many further examples.

This, I believe, is why the last of the 613 commandments is to study the Torah. It is not just a history lesson but a guide to the founding of a just, non hierarchical society.

About the Author
Murray Teitel works in Toronto as a barrister and writes art criticism and other journalism on a freelance basis.
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