The Tower and Dispersion
Rambam in Moreh 3:5 states that a fundamental principal of the Torah is that the universe was created out of nothing, and Adam was the forerunner of the human race. Since the human race was later dispersed over all the earth, and divided into different families speaking very dissimilar languages, people might come to doubt that they could all have originated from one person. Therefore the Torah records the genealogy of the nations, why they were dispersed, and the cause of the formation of their different languages.
The year of the following narrative is 1996 from Creation, 340 years after the Flood. Noah and his children were still alive at the time, and Abraham, 48 years old, had already recognized his Creator. All the national families were concentrated in present-day Iraq and they all spoke one language, the Holy Tongue (Rashi), the language with which the world was created (Mizrachi).
All the ingredients for greatness were there: The nations were united, they were in a central location, they spoke the Holy Tongue and – if they desired guidance in achieving holiness – they had Noah, Shem, and Abraham among them. Instead, as happens so often in human history, they chose to ignore their spiritual advantages and turn to their opportunities for self-aggrandizement and power. It seems ludicrous that people who had first-hand evidence of the Flood could have found grounds to rationalize a way of by-passing God’s control of events, but such is man’s capacity for self-deception that he can negate reality and build substance around a vacuum.
According to the Sages, Nimrod was the primary force behind this rebellion. He planned to build a tower ascending to Heaven and from it wage war against God. But though the Midrashim perceive sinister and idolatrous motives in this plan, the verses do not reveal the evil motives of the conspirators. As for the memory of the Flood – which should have frightened them from confronting God – the builders of the tower rationalized that such an upheaval occurs only once every 1656 years, so that they had noting to fear from Divine intervention for another 1316 years, by which time they would have waged their ‘war’ against God and won.
11:2 “And to came to pass, when they migrated from the east..” – The east was where Adam was created, and where mankind was concentrated before the Flood. It would seem proper that Noah returned to his native land after he landed at Ararat which was also in the east. It was by popular consent that they journeyed westward in order to find a place large enough to accommodate them all, lest they would have to disperse when they became numerous.
It must be remembered that Noah and his children were alive at this time and Abraham was forty-eight years old, having already recognized his Creator. It is certain that they did not participate in the sinister plot of that generation although they might have been helpless to prevent it. (Radak).
“..they found a plain in the land of Shiner..” – They found a spacious plain, free of mountain and rocks, and many miles across. Because they saw that the area was capable of sustaining them they settled there and decided to build a city large enough to accommodate them (Abarbanel).
11:3 “..let us make bricks..” – The intent of the verse is that they would manufacture bricks – not sun dried bricks, but substantial kiln-fired bricks of great durability.
11:4 “And they said..” – The pronoun ‘they’ refers to the counsel of the princes who wished to make Nimrod king over the whole human race (Sforno).
According to Chullin 89a, it was Nimrod himself who primarily initiated the scheme, and as the Talmud notes in Erubin 53a: ‘Why was he called Nimrod? – Because in his reign he led all the world in rebellion against God.”
Note: The Talmud states the following.. After the Flood they multiplied greatly and they were all one people, one heart, and one language. They despised the pleasant land (Eretz Israel) and journeyed east, and settled in Shiner.
R’ Akivah said: They cast off the kingdom of Heaven and appointed Nimrod over themselves: a slave son of a slave – are not all the sons of Ham slaves? Woe to the land where a slave rules?
By virtue of Adam’s garments which passed on to him he established himself as a mighty hunter.
Nimrod said to his subjects: Come, let us build a great city for ourselves lest we be scattered over the earth. Let us build a great tower in its midst ascending to heaven and we will war against Him, for His power is only in the heavens and we will make us a great name on the earth.
There were three sorts of rebels among the builders: One said, ‘Let us ascend and dwell there’; the second said, ‘Let us ascend and serve idols’; and the third said, ‘Let us ascend and wage war with God.’ The first group: God dispersed; the second group: He turned into apes and spirits; and the third group: He confused their languages (Sanhedrin 109a).
Many years were spent building the Tower. The ascending steps were on the east, and the descending steps were on the west. It reached so great a height that it took a year to mount to the top. A brick was, therefore, most precious in the sight of the builders than a human being. If a man fell and died they paid no attention to him; but if a brick fell down they wept because it would take a year to replace it. They were so intent in their project that they would not permit a pregnant woman to interrupt her work when her hour of travail came upon her.
They would constantly shoot arrows toward heaven, which, when returning, were seen to be covered with blood. They were thus fortified in their delusion, and they cried ‘We have slain all who are in heaven!’
But God did this to cause them to err, and to have occasion to punish them for their rebellious ways….
“..lest we be dispersed across the whole earth.’ – R’ Bachya summarizes the simple interpretation:
‘…Their intention was only to find a place large enough for them to build a city and concentrate in a single location, lest they be dispersed. This is the very reason that God later dispersed them, because this scheme ran contrary to His Will for the nations to multiply and inhabit every part of the world according to His Master plan of creation…
The Midrashim perceive sinister and idolatrous motives in their plan, but, unfortunately, the verses themselves, close the doors upon mature reflection on the evil motives lurking within them. The Torah did not reveal them. The Midrash alludes to this with the comment: “the deeds of the generation of the Flood are explicitly stated, but those of the generation of the Dispersion are veiled.”‘
11:5 “Hashem descended..” – When God wishes to examine the deeds of lowly man, Scripture call it ‘descent’ (Radak). From God’s “descent” to observe conditions among the sinners of Babel, the Midrash derives that a judge must not condemn the accused until he has investigated the case fully.
Ramban comments that the Dispersion came because they attempted disruption of the unity between Hashem the Creator and His Creation. Therefore, the punishment of Dispersion (a disruption of their unity) was meted out ‘measure for measure’.
Hirsch observes that since God descended to look into the matter before giving judgment, it is obvious that building the city or tower was not wrong in itself. The danger to the moral future must lie in the purpose for which it was built and the motives of the builders, as expressed in the previous verse: ‘let us make ourselves a name.’
11:6 So unified were the people of Babel in all areas that, were they not stopped, they would have set up idol worship that would have endured for all time (Sforno).
11:7 “Come, let us descent and there confuse their language..” – In His great humility God thus took counsel with His (heavenly) court (Rashi), for ‘the Holy One, blessed be He, does nothing without consulting His heavenly famalia (Sanhedrin 38b).
The Holy One, blessed be He, turned to the seventy angels who surrounded His Throne of Glory and said: Come, let us descend and confuse the seventy nations and the seventy languages. They then cast lots concerning the various nations. Each angel received a nation but Israel fell to the lot of God, as it is written in Deuteronomy 32:9 ‘Hashem’s portion is His people’.
HaK’sav V’Hakaballah notes that according to many there was no sin implicit in the actual construction of the tower and city themselves. Rather, the construction was the vehicle from which much evil would ultimately spring, although its exact nature has not been revealed to us. That is why verse 6 reads ‘which they propose to do’; it was for their unanimous evil intent that they were punished: the evil which would have materialized after the completion of the construction.
“..and there confuse..” – As Hirsch comments – relating the word ‘confuse’ to the root which means ‘to cause to wither’: ‘we will go down, and their speech will at once be withered,’ no further action being required – the withering of their speech being the direct result of God’s descent.
“…not understand one another’s language.” – And so it happened. No one knew what the other spoke. The frustration became so great in the light of the lack of communication, that ‘every one took his sword, and they fought one another, and half the world fell there by the sword’.
B’chor Shor, according to whom each one of the seventy nations previously knew all seventy languages, comments that they each suddenly forgot all but the one language assigned to them. The Holy Tongue with which God created the world, was reserved for Israel. The Holy Tongue thus passed on to Eber, the most illustrious of Shem’s descendants, because of which it came to be called “Hebrew”.
11:8 “they stopped building..” – They gave up their grandiose plans to build a metropolis and a tower, but the group that remained behind did build city on a much reduced scale. They named it Babel (Radak). Ibn Ezra explains that the word ‘Babel’ is composed of two words which mean ‘confusion has come’ and ‘being a form of’.
The Midrash comments that a third of the tower sank into the earth, a third was burnt, and a third is still standing. The latter third is so tall that ‘if one ascends to the top he sees the palm trees below like grasshoppers.’
11:9 Whose sin was greater, that of the generation of the Flood, or that of the generation of the Dispersion?
The former did not plan a rebellion against God and the latter did, yet the former were drowned while the latter were preserved in spite of their blasphemies!
The generation of the Flood, however, who were violent robbers and bore hatred
for one another, were utterly destroyed; while the generation of the Dispersion who dwelt amicably, in brotherly love toward one another, were spared despite their evil intentions. This demonstrates how hateful is strife and how great is peace! (Midrash)