The story of the Tower of Babel is an etiological story brought, in part, to explain why people are spread throughout the world and why it is that people speak different languages. However, it is also much more than that! Think of it, the people of the world gather together for a really big project, something that will bring them unity and renown – a tower to reach the heavens. What could possibly be wrong? Why should these people be punished, dispersed throughout the world, their languages varied so that their desired unity can no longer be achieved?
From the Torah’s telling, these questions are not easily answered since the biblical story, as “large” as it is in stature, is short on words, leaving us to ponder the reason for their fate. This story, then, is a preacher’s paradise, giving the interpreter great leeway to inject a meaningful lesson into the plot of the story. Any survey of rabbinic midrash on this story will leave the reading with a virtual catalogue of alternative answers to the question of why.
One particular midrashic “retelling” of this story attracted my attention this year. I call it a “retelling” because it rescores the plot rather than injecting an interpretation into the original words. This midrash, found in Pirke d’Rabbi Eliezer (8th– 9th century Eretz Yisrael) recounts the story this way: “Come let us build a great city, lest we be scattered over the face of the world like things were at the beginning. And let us build a giant tower in the midst of the city so that we might ascend to the heavens since God only has power over the waters. (Remember this takes place after the flood story.) And we will acquire for ourselves renown. Rabbi Pinhas said: There were no stones to build the city nor the tower. So, what did they do? They made bricks and fired them like a potter fires his/her wares. They built the tower so that it reached a height of at least seven miles high, with stairs from the west and from the east. Those who brought bricks up [to continue the building] climbed up the east side and descended on the west side. If a person fell and died, they paid no attention but if a single brick fell, they sat and wept, saying: ‘Woe unto us. When will we bring another in its place?’ Avram, the son of Terah, passed by and saw them building the city. He cursed them in the name of his God, saying: ‘Confound, O Lord, split their tongue for I have seen outrage and strife in the city.’ (Psalms 55:10)” (chapter 24, adapted)
For the author of this midrash, it was not the people’s challenge to God which offended; nor their effort to thwart God’s will. It did not bother God that they wanted fame or fortune. What raised God’s ire was that these people elicited little concern for their fellow human being. The “project” was more important than the life of a person. And for this God punished them. When a brick is more precious than a person’s life, the greater good is disturbed. And so, the story of the Tower of Babel becomes a timeless morality play about the fixation of people with making things or projects more precious than the lives of others. This is clearly an idolatry which God will not abide.