When I helped guide a young Christian business associate through a spiritual crisis, little did we know that it would result in a life-altering book. The Weight of Gold brings out the Torah’s universal messages for personal growth and social justice, showing that the Torah is indeed the User’s Guide to the human soul. Follow this blog each week for new insights into this ancient text.
Technology is a useful servant but a dangerous master.
– Christian Lous Lange, Nobel Prize Acceptance Speech
Last week God became upset that Creation wasn’t working out according to plan. Filled with sadness and regret, God decided to destroy the world. Now we read the story of Noah and the Flood, which introduces the unendearing divine penchant for collective punishment, a theme that will surface repeatedly throughout the Torah.
In Genesis 7, God taps Noah to be the Last Man Standing – and to make a new start for all living beings while he’s at it. There is an echo of the Cain–Abel narrative, in that one person or entity (in this version, it is all Creation except for Noah, his family, and a few animals) stays in place and is killed, while the other is sent out to roam. But the big picture of the Flood narrative is that it’s a second Creation story, complete with birth from the great ocean, one of the core images of ancient Creation myths around the world.
There is much to be said on the story of Noah, but we will focus on the story of the Tower of Babel (Gen. 11:1–9), which appears after the Flood narrative. To dig through the many layers of meaning the Babel story offers, we need to approach the text in the original Hebrew. There is brilliant and profound wordplay throughout the verses, such that any translation prevents us from fully understanding this tale.
Genesis 11 opens with the verse, “And the earth was of one language and unified words.” This is the most common understanding. However, the Hebrew is capable of many different translations, with vastly different meanings. Here, the phrase, “unified words,” in the original also means “very few” – very few what? The word words also means “things” or “matters,” or even “concepts.”
In 11:3–4, the inhabitants of the Valley of Shinar “said to one another, ‘Let’s make bricks and burn them in fire,’ and the bricks were stones for them, and the bitumen was mortar. And they said, ‘Let’s build a city and a tower with its top in the heavens and make a name for ourselves, lest we be dispersed across the face of the earth.’”
Of course, being dispersed across the face of the earth is exactly what does happen. It appears to be inevitable. God’s first blessing to the animals, uttered on the fifth day, is: “Be fruitful and multiply” (1:22). In this week’s reading, God blesses and commands Noah and his sons: “Be fruitful and multiply and fill the land” (9:1). The consequence, if not the very purpose of the blessing/command to procreate is to cover the inhabitable places of the earth with living beings.
In the Hebrew, the word for bricks is used twice, first as a verb, then as a noun. Likewise, the word fire: “Let’s brick bricks and fire a fire.” Next, “the bricks were stones for them, and the bitumen was mortar.” The word for bitumen is from the same Hebrew root as mortar, which in turn means “stuff” or “material.” Thus, “the stuff was stuff,” which completes the simplistic repetition pattern.
The language invites simultaneous transverse readings. The standard interpretation is that the people of Shinar all communicate perfectly and all agree on everything; they set out to make bricks and then to build a city, and then God decides to confound their plans by making them no longer able to communicate. A different, equally valid reading is that the people had one language, but very few words. Moreover, they don’t yet have a notion of manufacturing, and they have never seen or made a brick before, and so the word “brick” becomes both a noun and the verb that describes making it. The fire becomes both the kiln and the act of firing up the kiln to bake the bricks. And when all is said and done, what have they made? “And the bricks were stone for them, and the bitumen [stuff] was mortar [stuff].”
There is rabbinic commentary that says there were no stones in that part of the world, so the inhabitants of the valley of Shinar have to invent a way to make them. Having hit upon a technology, they recognize that they have created something utterly new. Here we have the first description of the process of discovery, of the purely human creation of technology. Immediately before this, Noah builds the Ark following God as the master planner. God gives Noah all the instructions; not just the dimensions, but even a list of materials to use.
The inhabitants of the valley of Shinar have no such guidance. They hit upon a technological innovation so advanced that they struggle to describe it, and so they revert to simplistic language. This is common with new inventions: first, they are called by the name of the older technology which they will soon replace, and only later do they take on a separate identity. Think, Horseless Carriage. A computer computes. Silent movies gave way to talking pictures. Everywhere we turn, we see the transition as brand-new technologies come on the scene, ideas so startlingly novel that no one knows what to call them.
Holding a new technology in their hands, the people of Shinar dream of what they could do with it. It is their common language that allows them to plot and plan together. Once they identify the new technology and discover its potential, they begin discussing what to do with it, until they decide to build a city with a tower that reaches to the heavens.
Their activities attract God’s attention, and God decides to come down to Earth to see what’s going on (11:5). Here it’s important to remember that God drove Adam and Eve from the Garden not as punishment for sin, but to prevent them from eating from the Tree of Life (3:22–24). Similarly, if God doesn’t stop the people of Shinar, nothing will prevent them from accomplishing whatever they want. As language was the impetus for launching this project, God now makes language its undoing.
When an idea is new, no one knows what it is. There is no way to refer to a brick other than to call it a brick. But when bricks become part of a city, their character changes. People speak of their nostalgia for walking the cobblestoned streets of London and Paris, of striding the avenues of Manhattan and walking on the ancient stones of Rome. And each day as I walk the streets of Jerusalem, I wonder how often I am retracing the footsteps of the Prophets, of the great rabbis. Of King David and King Solomon.
What’s so special about a stone? Once it’s put together with others into the shape of a house, it becomes precious to those who were born and grew up there. Once houses are grouped into communities, they become precious to those who share the experience of living there.
The people of Shinar lose their way in the thrill of discovery. They were seeking to connect with God – in Aramaic, the name Babel means “Gate of God” – but their love affair with their new technology gets the better of them. The building becomes not a means to connect with God, but an end in itself. As with the builders of the city that came to be called Babel, the builders of King Solomon’s Temple made a name for themselves with their technology. But here’s the thing: when we behold the remains of the Temple structure today, we spend so much time and energy wondering how they carved those giant stones and moved them into place, when we could wonder at even greater questions: How did God make those stones to begin with? Or that tree over there? How did God make the sky and the earth? And how about – Why did God make me? As with the builders of the Temple, the builders of the city that came to be called Babel made a name for themselves with their technology. They can all communicate clearly with each other, says God, and this is the best they can do? To try to elevate themselves alongside Me with their puny technology?
The story of Babel wraps up the first stage of Creation: God has created the world, has wiped it clean and tried to start over, only to learn that people are incorrigible: “I will no longer continue to curse the ground because of Man, since Man’s innermost imagination and desires are evil from his youngest days; and I will no longer strike down every living thing, as I have done.” (8:21).
God has learned an important lesson about humans: that we are incorrigible. We don’t change our behavior, even when we see how strikingly bad the outcome is for others, and even for ourselves. Exceptionalism Syndrome, it’s called. We believe that other people shouldn’t text while driving, because they will be distracted, making them a danger on the road. In surveys taken on traffic safety, something like 95 percent of respondents believed it was all right for them to text while driving, just not for others.
Are humans really that stupid? Even God is taken aback by the realization.
The people of Shinar created a technology to fill a need. They perceived that their inventions improved the quality of life, and soon the people of the valley were not thinking about bricks and mortar, but about cities and towers, and about becoming famous for what they had invented.
The people of Shinar take it further. They want to be like God in some way. They want to build a tower that reaches up to Heaven. God created stones, they say. We did, too. God created a place for humans to live and called it the world. We built a place to live and we call it a city.
When we elevate our own accomplishments above our relationship with God, we are setting ourselves up for trouble. It’s one of the easiest traps to fall into, because we work hard to succeed. And when our work pays off, we are entitled to a sense of accomplishment. And how easy is it for our pride of accomplishment to completely push aside our gratitude to God, our awareness that we must put God’s agenda before our own?
How do we best show our gratitude to God, if not by constant acts of kindness, charity, support, and compassion toward other people? Toward each and every human we meet – all of them created in God’s image? If not by constantly striving to internalize the message of true humility: I did what I did, first because God gave me talents, second because God gave me opportunities, third because God has kept me alive and healthy for this long. My role? I suppose I was just lucky enough to follow the instructions.
How easily we fall in love with what we have done! With what we have made. Worse, with the objects we have received as a reward, as a consequence of our actions.
Keeping our eyes on the prize works in the short run: chin on chest, swing at the ball, keep hitting singles so you stay in the game. But we must lift our head from time to time and look for the greater prize.
You will be remembered not for the money you will earn in your career, not for the prizes and awards you amass. You will be remembered for the impact you have on the lives of those around you: your family, your friends, your coworkers, and those with whom you engage, whether in business or in daily life. And that impact comes first and always from how diligently and patiently you work on yourself. Life is a flood. By building your own ark, you make yourself the vessel to rescue others.
Yours for a better world