The Tower of Bavel

  • Rav Chaim Navon
The Israel Koschitzky Virtual Beit Midrash

Theological Issues In Sefer Bereishit

Yeshivat Har Etzion


By Rav Chaim Navon

One of the most intriguing accounts in the book of Bereishit is the story of the tower of Bavel. The scriptural account is interesting because it is not exactly clear what is happening. Let us examine the passage:

And the whole earth was one language, and of one speech. And it came to pass, as they journeyed from the east, that they found a plain in the land of Shin'ar; and they dwelt there. And they said to one another, Come, let us make bricks, and burn them thoroughly. And they had brick for stone, and slime had they for mortar. And they said, Come, let us build us a city and a tower, whose top may reach to heaven; and let us make us a name, lest we be scattered abroad upon the of the whole earth. And the Lord came down to see the city and the tower, which the children of men were building. And the Lord said, Behold, the people is one, and they have all one language; and this they begin to do: and now nothing will be withheld from them, which they have schemed to do. Come, let us go down, and there confound their language, that they may not understand one another's speech. So the Lord scattered them abroad from there upon the face of all the earth: and they ceased to build the city. Therefore is the name of it called Bavel; because the Lord did there confound the language of all the earth: and from thence did the Lord scatter them abroad upon the face of all the earth. (Bereishit 11:1-9)

A critical issue in the affair remains totally obscure. What was the sin or the error of the people of Bavel? Why did God punish them? What did they do wrong?

The words of Chazal regarding this affair are well known:

"And of one speech": This means that they spoke against two who were unique [lit., 'one'], viz. against Avraham who was one (Yechezkel 33:24) and against "The Lord our God, the Lord is one (Devarim 6:4). Said they: 'This Avraham is a barren mule and cannot produce offspring. Against "The Lord our God, the Lord is one": He has no right to choose the celestial spheres for Himself and assign us the terrestrial world. But come, let us build a tower at the top of which we will set an idol holding a sword in its hand, which will thus appear to wage war against Him.'

Another interpretation: "And one speech" means united in possessions, what one possessed being at the other's disposal...

Because the generation of the Flood was steeped in robbery, as it is written: "They remove the landmarks, they violently take away flocks and feed them" (Iyov 24:2), therefore not a remnant of them was left. And since the latter, on the other hand, loved each other, as it is written, "And the whole earth was of one language," therefore a remnant of them was left...

Another interpretation: "And of one speech (achadim)" means that they spoke sharp words (chadim) saying, "Once in one thousand six hundred and fifty-six years the Firmament totters; therefore let us go and make supports for it, one in the north, one in the south, one in the west, while this spot will be its eastern support." (Bereishit Rabba 38:6)

Chazal propose several explanations, all of which share the same basic approach. The first suggestion relates to the tower of Bavel as an ordinary act of idolatry, committed by the community as a whole and in public. According to this, the generation of the dispersion rebelled against God, their rebellion reaching its climax in the tower of Bavel. The second suggestion emphasizes the unity of the generation: "What was in this one's hand was in that one's hand." All property was jointly owned, a sort of proto-Communism. In the continuation, the midrash emphasizes the generation's unity, which stood them in good stead even after they sinned. The midrash closes with another idea: The generation of the dispersion wished to prevent another flood, and, therefore, they tried to erect supports for the heavens. They related to the flood not as a miracle but as a law of nature (similar to the attempts to explain the splitting of the Red Sea as the result of a natural earthquake). It was in this that they sinned, and also in their revolt against God and their thinking that they could prevent His plan from being actualized.

In order to find a scriptural basis for this or any other explanation, we must examine the generation's objective in their building of a city and a tower: "Lest we be scattered abroad upon the face of the whole earth." Rashi explains:

"Lest we be scattered abroad" - That He shall not be able by bringing some plague upon us, to scatter us from here. (Rashi)

According to Rashi, the tower-builders' objective was to confront God. But what is the meaning of "and let us make us a name"? Seforno's commentary might prove helpful regarding this point:

"Let us make us a name" - Idolatry. (Seforno)

The Da'at Mikra commentary understands that the words, "and let us make us a name [shem]," relate not to the builders' objective, but to their means: the word "shem" in this context does not mean "name," but "wall."

Modern biblical scholars understand that the people of Bavel had two objectives - to make for themselves a name and to prevent their dispersion. In line with this thinking, they propose that the biblical account combines two different stories. Gunkel talks about the story of "the city" and the story of "the tower." Rabbi Mordecai Breuer speaks about the story of "the whole earth" and the story of "the plain."

Seforno adds an explanation how the scattering of mankind might altogether prevent or at least minimize idolatry:

The opposite of this will happen when there will be division between the nations, regarding their strange gods, for each one of them believes that there is a "god of gods" with whom all other gods agree, and through him their governance and the governance of all existence reaches perfection. As it says: "From where the sun rises to where it rests, My Name is honored among the nations" (Malakhi 1:11). (Seforno)

Seforno explains that dispersion and division lead to the recognition of the relativism of human spiritual achievements. When there exists a variety of beliefs, people are more likely to question their own achievements and opinions, recognizing thereby that there is a supreme God whom they do not know.

Rabbi Nissim Girondi [Ran] develops Seforno's idea and proposes a slightly different interpretation. He moves the discussion from the spiritual plane to the political arena: division into separate nations is necessary in order to allow men of spirit to survive the persecution of power-hungry statesmen:

There is no doubt that for the righteous individuals of those generations the division into nations and governments was good and beneficial. For when they would be oppressed by a nation living in a particular country, they would wander to a different country where they would be able to worship God as they pleased. As has happened to us in our exile today, for when persecution is renewed in the land of Ishma'el, the survivors flee to another country, and from there [back] to Ishma'el. This ensures us partial subsistence in times of trouble and slavery...

If there is no immediate evil [in the building of the tower of Bavel], the gathering was bad for them and bad for the world... For there is no doubt that all those generations were trying to exalt their idols and cause the name of the Holy One, blessed be He, to be forgotten. But they did not succeed on account of the division into governments and lands, because those who worshipped God had a [place of] refuge. (Rabbi Nissim Gerondi, Derashot ha-Ran, 1)

Ran points out the problematic nature of totalitarian regimes, which leave no room for non-conformists. Only a plurality of different regimes can guarantee the survival of those who are hated by their own governments.

Thus far we have seen the approach of Chazal, who see in the tower of Bavel the sin of idolatry. Following this approach, we may suggest why the Torah emphasizes the etymology of the name Bavel, deriving it from the word "balal," confound. This etymology might come to mock the Babylonians, who connected the name of their city to the expression "bab-ili," "gate of god," an expression that is obviously connected to idolatry.

Other commentators propose different approaches, though they usually develop motifs that are already found in Chazal. For example, the Da'at Mikra commentary proposes the following interpretation:

Unless we construct a walled and strongly fortified city, our enemies may come upon us, bring us to submission and scatter us abroad upon the face of the whole earth... With this argument, the builders exposed their true feelings, that they no longer rely upon God, who saved their forefathers from the flood. They prefer to put their trust in their own power and might. (Da'at Mikra)

According to Rabbi Yehuda Kil (author of the Da'at Mikra commentary), the primary sin was not idolatry in its plain sense, but rather placing their trust in their own might, rather than in God. The generation of the dispersion sinned through their pride and haughtiness.

Others emphasize the social dimension of their sin:

"Let us make a name for ourselves." An idol which will be situated in the tower. The fame of its height, and the huge size of the city, will spread among the whole human race in such a manner that this deity will be considered as the "deity of deities" among mankind, and all will seek it out. The intention was that he who rules over that city will rule over the entire human race, for that city contains that which all seek out. (Seforno)

Seforno proposes an intermediate position. We are dealing here with idolatry, as well as with a desire to gain control over other people. We may learn from what he says how dictators exploit ideologies in order to establish their rule.

We find a midrash which emphasizes the social problem in and of itself:

There were no stones with which to build the city and the tower. What did they do? They made bricks and fired them like a potter, until they built it seven miles high... If a person fell and died, their hearts would not go out to him, but if a brick fell, they would sit, and weep, and say: When will another one go up in its place? Avraham ben Terach passed by and saw them building the city and the tower, and he cursed them in the name of God. (Pirkei de-Rabbi Eliezer, 24)

This midrash emphasizes the strained social relations among the tower builders themselves. Their focusing upon the giant project caused them to forget their own humanity. The midrash is reminiscent of the words of Stalin, who, when asked why he put so many people to death, answered: "You can't chop wood without making chips fly."[2] The previous midrash saw the generation of the dispersion as an example of a unified mankind. This midrash teaches that unity among the majority is sometimes achieved at the expense of the minority.

Rashbam gives expression to yet another approach:

Because the Holy One, blessed be He, had commanded them, "Be fruitful and multiply, and fill the earth," and they chose for themselves a place in which to settle, saying, "Lest we be scattered" - therefore, He scattered them abroad from there through His decree. (Rashbam)

Radak offers a similar explanation:

They were indeed the descendants of Adam, who walked after the stubbornness of their own hearts, rejecting the deed of God. For He wanted the earth to be settled from east to west, and they thought to settle only one place in the world, thinking that they would overrule God's will. (Radak)

According to this interpretation, the primary objective of the generation of the dispersion was to establish a military and cultural center that would concentrate all of mankind in one place. They sinned in that they rejected their mission: "Be fruitful and multiply, and fill the earth" (Bereishit 1:28; 9:1). We are not necessarily dealing here with pride and arrogance, but with a practical problem - upsetting God's plan for the development of the world.

This explanation is supported by the fact that the Torah makes no mention of any sin; it merely relates the dry facts. Nor is the "punishment" very severe; it is merely an attempt to neutralize the builders' actions.

All of these explanation focus on one point: the potential danger resulting from the development of civilization and unification of society. The generation of the dispersion made technological advances: they succeeded to form bricks and to build a magnificent tower. Unity and technological advances, however, give rise to many dangers. They are liable to lead to unity in worshipping false gods, for they cause the relativism of human achievements to be forgotten, as suggested by Seforno, or because a totalitarian regime offers no refuge for non-conformists, as argued by Ran. They are liable to give rise to pride and a false sense of power. They are also liable to lead to social injustices and to oppression of certain sections of the population for the sake of grandiose projects.

Professor Shalom Rosenberg maintains that twentieth century communism is a modern expression of the generation of the dispersion:

Surprisingly, Chazal interpret their words as an allusion to economic cooperation. According to Chazal, the words "and of one speech" allude to the fact that what was in the pocket of one was in the pocket of the other. Translated into modern terms, Chazal are saying that the generation of the dispersion attempted to build a communist society. They wanted to build a tower that would prevent the sky from falling. Indeed, this was one of the great aspirations of the communist vision[3]...

The atheism at the top of the tower came to expression in the bad joke: "We took pictures of all of outer space, but we did not find God." There is no reason to respond that a god that could be photographed would not be worthy of our worship and religious relationship. There is reason to pay attention to the foolish pride of man who thought that he had wiped out the distance between himself and God. The Chernobel nuclear accident testifies to the failure of Prometheus...

What was their sin? Chazal teach us about the sin of the generation of the dispersion. When a person would fall from the tower and die, they would say that it was a work-related accident and that there was nothing that could be done. But when a brick would fall, "they would sit down and weep, saying: 'Woe to us, when will another [brick] come to replace it...'" Alas, there will be a delay in the five-year plan. In the building of the new society there was no room for God, but there was also no room for man. They are mutually dependent. Society, class, and the collective became so important that the individual was lost.

The generation of the dispersion gave expression to an ideal that had beautiful elements. Chazal compared the generation of the flood "who were immersed in theft" to the generation of the dispersion "who loved each other," or at least proclaimed their love for each other. The vision of the modern generation of the dispersion presented a difficult challenge to religious belief. The collapse of the modern generation of dispersion that is unfolding before our eyes teaches us about its true nature from the very beginning. (Shalom Rosenberg, Be'ikvot ha-Kuzari, pp. 15-16)

The generation of the dispersion may be seen as symbolizing not only communism, but in general the dangers posed by the development of human civilization and scientific progress. We shall therefore examine various positions regarding civilization in general.


Is civilization and human progress something good or bad? Abravanel, in light of his real-life experience in the service of royal courts, condemned civilization as negative and unnecessary:

The overall intention of this great section[4] is to inform us that God created man in His intellectual image... And He also created everything essential for his existence - food, drink, the fruits of the trees of the garden that He had planted, and the waters of its rivers. This was all made available in the natural world, so that there should be no need for effort, toil or human activity. Everything that man needed was ready and available to him at all times, so that he should not trouble his soul to seek out what his body needs, but rather to perfect his soul for which he had been created. For this reason, God commanded man to content himself with the natural things that he had created for his needs, and not to allow himself to be drawn after luxuries which require work... All this notwithstanding, the man of his own free will and choice walked in darkness.... (Abravanel, Bereishit 3)

Kayin worked the land, his nature inclined to the material [aspects of the world] which God had cursed... He himself became a slave to the land and to beastly possessions, and did not rule over them... When Kayin involved himself in work activities, every day plowing in order to sow... For that reason God has respect to Hevel and to his offering, which was from the animal kingdom, born naturally with no work whatsoever. But to Kayin and to his offering, the product of work, he had no respect. (Abravanel, Bereishit 4:4)

Abravanel claims that nature is superior to artificial civilization. Nature suffices to provide for all of man's needs. Civilization leads only to unnecessary luxuries, and with them worries and distraction from the fear and service of God. Kayin and Hevel differed on this point.[5] Abravanel sees the pinnacle of human existence in the lives of the hunter-collectors, the most primitive form of human existence. Similar ideas echo in the approach of Jean Jacques Rousseau:

If I consider him, in a word, such as he must have issued from the hands of nature; I see an animal less strong than some, and less active than others, but, upon the whole, the most advantageously organized of any; I see him satisfying the calls of hunger under the first oak, and those of thirst at the first rivulet; I see him laying himself down to sleep at the foot of the same tree that afforded him his meal; and behold, this done, all his wants are completely supplied. (Jean Jacques Rousseau, On the Inequality among Mankind, pt. I)

An innate abhorrence to see beings suffer that resemble him... I mean that of pity... a sentiment obscure but active in the savage, developed but dormant in civilized man... Now it is evident that this identification must have been infinitely more perfect in the state of nature than in the state of reason...

Nothing less than those evils, which threaten the whole species, can disturb the calm sleep of the philosopher, and force him from his bed. One man may with impunity murder another under his windows; he has nothing to do but clap his hands to his ears, argue a little with himself to hinder nature, that startles within him, from identifying him with the unhappy sufferer. Savage man wants this admirable talent; and for want of wisdom and reason, is always ready foolishly to obey the first whispers of humanity. In riots and street-brawls the populace flock together, the prudent man sneaks off. They are the dregs of the people, the poor basket and barrow-women, that part the combatants, and hinder gentle folks from cutting one another's throats. (ibid.)

Abravanel and Rousseau maintain that man can survive perfectly well without civilization, and that technological and social progress has been detrimental to him. They describe natural life as romantic and perfect. But anyone whose yearnings for the natural life are aroused by Abravanel and Rousseau should try to imagine life without a roof over his head to protect him from the elements, without running water for a shower, without antibiotics.

How different are the famous words of Rabbi Joseph B. Soloveitchik on this issue:

Man's likeness to God expresses itself in man's striving and ability to become a creator...

Adam the first wants to be human... and to be human means to live with dignity... Man of old who could not fight disease and succumbed in multitudes to yellow fever or any other plague with degrading helplessness could not lay claim to dignity. Only the man who builds hospitals, discovers therapeutic techniques and saves lives is blessed with dignity. Man of the 17th and 18th centuries who needed several days to travel from Boston to New York was less dignified than modern man who attempts to conquer space... In doing all this, Adam the first is trying to carry out the mandate entrusted to him by his Maker who, at dawn of the sixth mysterious day of creation, addressed Himself to man and summoned him to "fill the earth and subdue it." (Rabbi Joseph B. Soloveitchik, The Lonely Man of Faith, pp. 11-16)

Rabbi Soloveitchik does not see the development of civilization as a curse, but as a blessing; not as a sin, but as a mission and destiny. Perhaps, the lesson to be learned from this disagreement is that one must try to exploit the advantages of civilization, while at the same time recognizing its disadvantages and striving to avoid them so as not to repeat the mistakes of those who built the tower of Bavel.


[1] The reference is to the precedent of the flood.

[2] Or as Napoleon formulated it: "You can't prepare an omelet without cracking the eggs."

[3] I.e., the communists wished to guarantee an orderly economy and satisfactory risk-free living conditions, thinking that they would solve the problem of poverty.

[4] Regarding the sin committed by Adam.

[5] Similar explanations were proposed by Rabbi S.R. Hirsch and Hillel Zeitlin. See Rabbi Elchanan Samet, Iyyunim be-Farshat ha-Shavu'a, Bereishit, pp. 6-17; Beit Mikra, [5747], p. 381; and Y. Rosenson, "Le-Fetach Chatat Rovetz," Megadim III (5747).

(Translated by David Strauss)