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Unity vs. Diversity—The Tower of Babel and Dispersal of Government

I am currently teaching a weekly bible class on Genesis and yesterday (June 21, 2022) we finally got to the Tower of Babel. We had a long discussion about the phrase “Everyone on earth had the same language and the same words” (Genesis 11:1). What’s wrong with this? I asked. Why is God threatened by people’s unity, speaking the same language (safah)–a word which is repeated 5 times? One could argue that the world would be much poorer and linguists without a profession if the whole world only spoke the same language. I wondered aloud, wouldn’t it be better if we all did speak the same language and communicated with each other without having to make an effort to understand a different language. Wouldn’t it make a difference to world peace? Thinking of current events, I of course, pointed to the lack of discourse and refusal of everyone to listen to each other and was developing this idea, when towards the end, someone burst in and said: “Naomi, you don’t know how relevant this class is; we’re going to have new elections in October!” My reaction was “Oy Vey, not again!” Not very scholarly or teacher-like. Although I always make sure that my classes are relevant to the issues of today, I didn’t expect “breaking news” to interfere. Later that evening, as I was trying to fall asleep, I began to think this would be an excellent topic for my next blog.

The story of the tower of Babel is only 9 verses long:

1: Everyone on earth had the same language and the same words. 2: And as they migrated from the east, they came upon a valley in the land of Shinar and settled there. 3: They said to one another, “Come, let us make bricks and burn them hard.”—Brick served them as stone, and bitumen served them as mortar.—4: And they said, “Come, let us build us a city, and a tower with its top in the sky, to make a name for ourselves; else we shall be scattered all over the world.” 5: The LORD came down to look at the city and tower that man had built, 6: and the LORD said, “If, as one people with one language for all, this is how they have begun to act, then nothing that they may propose to do will be out of their reach. 7: Let us, then, go down and confound their speech there, so that they shall not understand one another’s speech.” 8: Thus the LORD scattered them from there over the face of the whole earth; and they stopped building the city. 9: That is why it was called Babel,* because there the LORD confounded* the speech of the whole earth; and from there the LORD scattered them over the face of the whole earth.

Our tradition of course takes God’s side in all of this. In the midrash (Genesis Rabbah 38:7), R. Elazar b. Shimon understands the phrase “And as they migrated from the east (mi-kedem)” to mean that when they migrated from the East they moved away, i.e. they rebelled against the Ancient one who goes all the way back in history, i.e. God (kadmono shel olam). In other words, their leaving God is already part of the story of their being one people with one language. Another midrash stresses that the people were rebelling against God’s name. One would expect, that after the flood, the world would have been a peaceful one, with everyone speaking the same language. God could now truly rest and be sure that there will be harmony. Yet, God feels he has to step in and prevent the people from working together for a common goal.

What is so threatening to God that he has to come down from the heavens to look at the city and tower that man had built? Is it the city, the tower that presents the threat? Or is it the people who want to leave their mark on the world (to make a name for themselves) that God finds so disturbing. The people’s justification for this is that if they don’t leave their mark, they will be “scattered” all over the world. “Come, let us build us a city, and a tower with its top in the sky, to make a name for ourselves; else we shall be scattered (nafotz) all over the world.” Is there a connection between not leaving physical marks (graffiti of sorts—”we were here”) on the world and being banished, spread throughout the world?

I personally think God is out of line, over-reacting to the people’s need to leave a mark on their surroundings. It is not hubris as the JPS commentary would have it, which “attributes the emergence of linguistic difference to an act of Promethean hubris on the part of a humankind still unwilling to accept subordination to their creator.” What God does is in his majestic plural is to go down to earth and “confound their speech there, so that they shall not understand one another’s speech.” But God does not only confound the language of the builders of the tower of Babel, he also confounds the speech of the entire planet.

Moreover, he scatters the people, a fairly aggressive act on God’s part, if we pay attention to the word nafotz. God relates to his creatures as if they are the enemy. In the famous passage, which appears in the torah scroll in inverted nun letters, we entreat God to scatter (yafutzu) his enemies” (Numbers 10:35). We recite this passage regularly when we take out the torah from the ark. Who is God’s enemy? God’s people have enemies! And I guess the enemy of God’s people is the enemy of God. However, in Genesis 11, the enemy is mankind and God is threatened by the people he created and scatters them throughout the earth. When we recite this passage we are colluding in God’s aggressiveness to mankind. We are accepting the fact that lack of communication is prescriptive and that divide and conquer is the desired modus vivendi.

Which brings us back to today. I am certainly not advocating George Orwell’s “Newspeak” or that we should be compliant Stepford Wives. I certainly do not think that uniformity is better than pluriformity. However, there is nothing wrong with consensus, speaking in harmony, listening to the others, not demonizing our “enemies”, giving a chance to communication—not giving up on a government which tries to iron out differences and give a chance for cooperation, namely, the coalition that lasted a bit more than a year and included parties from the entire spectrum of society and ideologies. But rather than cooperate we got a knesset which demonized each other from day one and made it impossible to work together.

But why should we be surprised! This is the God given pattern which started way back then in kedem when God over-reacted and felt threatened by people who cooperated with a specific goal in mind. He left humanity (and perhaps specifically his “chosen” people) with a legacy that cooperation is something that has to be stopped in its tracks. What we are left with is a fractious society and political darkness.

About the Author
Naomi Graetz taught English at Ben Gurion University of the Negev for 35 years. She is the author of Unlocking the Garden: A Feminist Jewish Look at the Bible, Midrash and God; The Rabbi’s Wife Plays at Murder ; S/He Created Them: Feminist Retellings of Biblical Stories (Professional Press, 1993; second edition Gorgias Press, 2003), Silence is Deadly: Judaism Confronts Wifebeating and Forty Years of Being a Feminist Jew. Since Covid began, she has been teaching Bible from a feminist perspective on zoom.
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