Migdal Bavel is a very weird story. I don’t think that claim necessarily requires so much justification, but what makes it so weird? For this, I need to show you the full text of the story:
(א) וַיְהִי כָל הָאָרֶץ שָׂפָה אֶחָת וּדְבָרִים אֲחָדִים:
(ב) וַיְהִי בְּנָסְעָם מִקֶּדֶם וַיִּמְצְאוּ בִקְעָה בְּאֶרֶץ שִׁנְעָר וַיֵּשְׁבוּ שָׁם:
(ג) וַיֹּאמְרוּ אִישׁ אֶל רֵעֵהוּ הָבָה נִלְבְּנָה לְבֵנִים וְנִשְׂרְפָה לִשְׂרֵפָה וַתְּהִי לָהֶם הַלְּבֵנָה לְאָבֶן וְהַחֵמָר הָיָה לָהֶם לַחֹמֶר:
(ד) וַיֹּאמְרוּ הָבָה נִבְנֶה לָּנוּ עִיר וּמִגְדָּל וְרֹאשׁוֹ בַשָּׁמַיִם וְנַעֲשֶׂה לָּנוּ שֵׁם פֶּן נָפוּץ עַל פְּנֵי כָל הָאָרֶץ:
(ה) וַיֵּרֶד יְיָ לִרְאֹת אֶת הָעִיר וְאֶת הַמִּגְדָּל אֲשֶׁר בָּנוּ בְּנֵי הָאָדָם:
(ו) וַיֹּאמֶר יְיָ הֵן עַם אֶחָד וְשָׂפָה אַחַת לְכֻלָּם וְזֶה הַחִלָּם לַעֲשׂוֹת וְעַתָּה לֹא יִבָּצֵר מֵהֶם כֹּל אֲשֶׁר יָזְמוּ לַעֲשׂוֹת:
(ז) הָבָה נֵרְדָה וְנָבְלָה שָׁם שְׂפָתָם אֲשֶׁר לֹא יִשְׁמְעוּ אִישׁ שְׂפַת רֵעֵהוּ:
(ח) וַיָּפֶץ יְיָ אֹתָם מִשָּׁם עַל פְּנֵי כָל הָאָרֶץ וַיַּחְדְּלוּ לִבְנֹת הָעִיר:
(ט) עַל כֵּן קָרָא שְׁמָהּ בָּבֶל כִּי שָׁם בָּלַל יְיָ שְׂפַת כָּל הָאָרֶץ וּמִשָּׁם הֱפִיצָם יְיָ עַל פְּנֵי כָּל הָאָרֶ
And the whole earth was of one language and of one speech. 2 And it came to pass, as they journeyed east, that they found a plain in the land of Shinar; and they dwelt there. 3 And they said one to another: ‘Come, let us make brick, and burn them thoroughly.’ And they had brick for stone, and slime had they for mortar. 4 And they said: ‘Come, let us build us a city, and a tower, with its top in heaven, and let us make us a name; lest we be scattered abroad upon the face of the whole earth.’ 5 And the LORD came down to see the city and the tower, which the children of men builded. 6 And the LORD said: ‘Behold, they are one people, and they have all one language; and this is what they begin to do; and now nothing will be withholden from them, which they purpose to do. 7 Come, let us go down, and there confound their language, that they may not understand one another’s speech.’ 8 So the LORD scattered them abroad from thence upon the face of all the earth; and they left off to build the city. 9 Therefore was the name of it called Babel; 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.
So everyone knows the basic story, let’s build a tower, G-d’s all like, nuh-uh, and boom, languages. Which, of course, raises questions, like “Why is that a problem? And why is the solution/punishment to inroduce impediments to understanding?”. Hopefully we will answer those questions in time. But I want to call your attention to some of the some of the things the text seems to go out of its way to stress, quite unnecessarily, which don’t come across when you sum it up. First of all, the passuk goes at length to describe the bricks, the process used to make bricks….a lot of time is spent focused on bricks. Why is that necessary?
Second of all, the way the pesukim describe the people deserves some investigation. These people, at the start of the story, are of one language and one speech, which is supposed to be of some significance. They find this place with bricks,. They make a tower. But why? They seem to have this pathological fear of “spreading across the earth”, and building this tower its top in the sky, will make themselves a name, which will somehow prevent the spreading across the earth thing from happening. What is the relation between “making themselves a name” and “spreading across the earth?”, and how does the former prevent the latter? More fundamentally, though, what underlies this fear? Why are they so afraid to spread out over the earth?
In the end, God, by confusing their languages, ensures that they are in fact spread across the earth, as a consequence of the very endeavor they take to prevent that from happening. God acts specifically to frustrate their intention of not spreading out over the earth, their desire to make a name for themselves. It seems their sin has something to do not with the building of the tower itself, but rather their desire to not spread out over the earth. So, that raises two questions. Number one, what is wrong with said desire, and why does God frustrate it? Number two, why is the confusion of languages an antidote to whatever problem that causes?
Of course, I’m really just writing this dvar torah as an excuse to tell you about the Netziv on this story. The Netziv, writing a century before George Orwell, sees the story of Migdal Bavel as a cautionary tale of a totalitarian government, which is really remarkable to read in the commentary on Chumash of the Rosh Yeshiva of Volozhin. To the Netziv, He sees the tower built for surveillance, to make sure everyone stayed in the city that had been built. G-d reacts to the tower because he realizes that it will not be long before they start killing anyone who dares raise a unsavory opinion . To prevent such tyranny, G-d frustrates their plan. The Netziv views the danger that God comes to prevent as tyranny and enforced conformity.
I’d like to use this idea of the Netziv and expand upon it to build (no pun intended) my own idea. Why were these people of Migdal Bavel so afraid of spreading across the earth? Perhaps it was the flood, and the generation that brought it. That generation was typified as “chamas”, full of corruption. The Midrashic Literature on this word “chamas” stresses the lack of respect for boundaries and rule of law; theft was rampant, sexual boundaries were violated, etc. It seems to typify a sort of corrupt anarchy, where might becomes right, similar to Hobbes’s “state of nature” where there is “war against all”. To correct this state, G-d brings a flood. One substance, water, covers the earth. Man’s anarchical drives and passions are crushed by the uniform, undifferentiated waters of the flood. The problem was anarchy, the solution was to destroy it all with uniformity.
Migdal Bavel is after the flood. These people know about the dangers of letting anarchy get out of hand. They can’t let everyone just do whatever they want, go wherever they want. Things must be uniform and consolidated, pressed into molds and stacked in neat rows. The emphasis on the bricks convey this idea. Mud, spread out across the earth, is gathered and molded and baked and stacked with a bunch of uniform other bricks to build a tower made up of a bunch of undifferentiated, uniform, bricks, all the same as the other.
So they build a tower. For what? When I think of totalitarian regimes and building towers, I think of Animal Farm, by George Orwell. In his fable of how a noble revolutionary spirit leads to the same tyranny that led to the revolution to begin with, he has a fascinating subplot involving the windmill the animals build. It was originally conceived by Snowball (good guy pig) to make the lives of the animals on the farm easier, but when Napoleon, (bad guy pig) takes over, over the course of time the windmill turns into something not being made for the animals, but rather, for its own sake. Slowly, the windmill becomes more important than any of the animals.
So the Netziv may very well be right that it had a purpose as a surveillance tower at the very beginning. It is possible. But the passuk doesn’t tell us that, it says it was to combat the fear of being spread out, to make ourselves a name. It is interesting how the goal becomes to turn a plural into a singular “name”. The Midrash hints at this when it tells us that if a brick dropped to the ground people would mourn, but if a person fell off the tower, nobody would notice. The goal of the project became not to help the people, but to keep them undiffrentiated cogs in a machine, all putting uniform brick on top of uniform brick, building that tower until the far off goal of its head in the clouds.
It is to that possibility God reacts. If they have begun to do this, to build this tower, to make everyone the same and uniform, than nothing can stop this society from doing anything it wants, no matter how heinous. So G-d confuses their languages. I view this as he introduces differences into human beings. Instead of all being standard-issue bricklayers, they become different, speak different languages, have different cultures, different frames of reference. Now each human being, instead of being a cog in a machine, is uniquely suited for the task that suits him, because he is the only one who “speaks that language”. Each one is now indispensable.