Genesis – Chapter 11

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)

Shem to Abraham

“There were ten generations from Noah to Abraham.  This demonstrates how patient God is, for all the generations kept provoking Him, until the Patriarch Abraham came and received the reward of them all” (Avos 5:2).  The cycle was repeated.  There had been ten generations from Adam to Noah, giving mankind the opportunity to fulfill its responsibility to carry out the plan of Creation.  They failed, and the Flood wiped them away.  Then the mission of humanity fell to Noah and his offspring.  The next ten generations failed as well, but this time Abraham was able to prevent destruction.  So great was he and so concerned with helping others that he was able to save the world.  Simultaneously, he assumed the role that had previously been that of the entire race: He and his offspring would be the people of God and bear the primary responsibility for bringing the Divine plan to fruition.  The children of Noah would be left with the seven universal commandments, but Abraham’s would accept the Torah with its 613 commandments.

11:10  “…the descendants of Shem:..”  – Shem’s genealogy is repeated now with the emphasis on the descent of Abraham.  The account of the years from creation to Noah to Abraham was given to enable us to calculate the age of the world, and thus clarify that the world came into existence as a creation of God at a definite point in time before which there was a total vacuum.

11:11  “..he begot sons and daughters.”  – According to Sforno, the deaths of these generations are not mentioned as are those of the generations preceding Noah because all of those died prior to the major historical event of the era – The Flood.  The forebears of these generations, however, were all still alive when the major event of their era occurred – the emergence of Abraham, who excelled all others in proclaiming the greatness of God and leading people to His service through his kindness.

Chronology of the Generations (Seder Olam)

  • Shem:  1558 – 2158
  • Arpachshad:  1658 – 2096
  • Shelah: 1693 – 2126
  • Eber:  1723 – 2187
  • Peleg:  1757 – 1996
  • Reu:  1787 – 2026
  • Serug:  1819 – 2049
  • Nahor:  1849 – 1997
  • Terach:  1878 – 2083
  • Abraham:  1948 – 2123

11:19  With Peleg, we see a dramatic shortening of the average lifespan early cut in half from his immediate ancestor’s lifespan of approximately 450 years to approximately 230 years.

11:26 “… he begot Abram..”  – Abraham was worthy of being created before Adam, but God reasoned: He may sin and there will be none after him to set it right.  Therefore I will create Adam, so that if he sins, Abraham will come and set it right. (Midrash 14:6)

Why did Shem and Eber not influence people to destroy their idols?  It may be that they protested against idols, but the people merely hid them.  Abram, however, destroyed the idols.  Alternatively, Shem and Eber lived in Canaan where they taught the way of God while Abram’s activity against idols was in Babel.  When Abram came to Canaan, he excelled Shem and Eber by actively traversing the land and preaching that the people repent.

11:27  Only Haran is mentioned as having children.  Nahor did not beget children until much later and Abram’s wife was barren (verse 30).  Lot is introduced here as Haran’s son because subsequent to his father’s death he accompanied Abram, and would later play an important role in the narrative.  Harlan’s daughters are mentioned in verse 29.

11:28  “..Haran died in the presence of Terach..”  – Rashi notes that according to the Midrashic interpretation, that Haran died ‘because of his father’.  The Midrash relates that Terach had complained to Nimrod because Abraham had crushed his idols and he had him thrown into a fiery furnace.  Haran, who was present, could not decide with whom to side, and was prepared to join whoever emerged victorious.  When Abraham was miraculously saved from the fiery furnace, Haran was asked to declare himself.  He replied that he sided with Abraham, whereupon, he was thrown into the furnace.  His innards were seared and he emerged from the furnace and died in his father’s presence.  He was unworthy of a miracle since he was willing to defy Nimrod only because he fully expected to duplicate Abraham’s miracle.

Note: Abram’s father, Terach, was a dealer in idols.  One day he fell ill and asked Abram to tend the business.  Abram, who recognized Hashem when he was only three years old, asked his mother to prepare food.  He took it to the room filled with idols as if waiting for them to reach out for it.  Then he took a hammer and smashed all the idols except for the largest.  When he finished, he put the hammer in the hand of the one remaining idol.

Terach, hearing the commotion, came running.  Seeing the carnage, he demanded to know what happened.  Abram answered innocently, ‘The small idols took food before the big one.  He was angered by their lack of manners and shattered them all!’.

Terach raged, ‘You lie.  The idols are dead.  They cannot eat or move!’  ‘In that case,’ Abram answered, ‘why do you worship them?’.

The result of Abram’s brave denunciations of idolatry was that Nimrod cast him into the furnace from which he was miraculously saved.  Ramban asks why so great a miracle is not mentioned in the Torah.  His reply will be discussed later in this study of Genesis.

“Ur Kasdim”  – (Ur of the Chaldeans)  Rashi explains that Ur Kasdim as meaning the fires of Kasdim.  It was so called on account of the miracle by which Abraham was saved from the fiery furnace.

11:29  “And Abram and Nahor took..”  When Haran died, his brothers Abraham and Nahor, married his daughters to carry on his memory and to ease Terach’s grief.

‘Sarai”  Her name was later changed to Sarah (17:15).  Just as Abram’s change of name signified a new and greater role for him, so did Sarai’s.

“Milcah”  Nahor’s wife is mentioned to establish the ancestry of Rebecca, Rachel, and Leah (24:15) (Ibn Ezra).

“..the father of Iscah.”  Isaac was Sarah.  She was called Iscah (from the word meaning to see, gaze) because she could see the future by holy inspiration, and because everyone gazed at her beauty.  Also, Iscah denotes aristocracy, as does her name Sarai, which means my princess.

Maharal explains a fundamental principle in understanding Torah.  He raises the question that it would have been more appropriate to allude to Sarah’s greatness in prophecy in Genesis 21:12 where God told Abraham to obey Sarah because, as Rashi comments there, her powers of prophesy were superior even to Abraham’s.

Maharal further explains that the Torah can be understood on many different levels, and it makes no attempt to deliver its great intellectual explanations to readers incapable of understanding them.  The scholar will understand the allusion to Sarah’s prophetic spirit in the name Iscah while others are free to assume that Iscah was a different person.  No matter how much the Torah makes plain, there will still be profound mysteries hidden within its words.

He comments further that a woman has two missions in life as if she were born twice; the first is hers from birth as an individual, while the second comes with marriage when, if she marries a righteous person, she is elevated to a higher mission.

Sarah’s two names indicate her two missions; one is used in connection with her father and the other in connection with her husband.  “Iscah”, the name indicating personal greatness, was Sarah’s for her own mission and it is the one used in telling of her birth to Haran.  “Sarah”, indicating that she joined Abraham in leading the world to its ultimate goal, was the name associated with the Abrahamitic mission and it is used from the time of her marriage.

11:31  “..his grandson, Lot..”  – Terach took Lot along because Haran had died and Lot was now dependent upon his grandfather.

“ the land of Canaan;”  – Although God had not specified which land to move to, Abraham chose Canaan as his destination because it was the most acceptable of the lands; its climate had not been adversely affected by the Flood as was that of other lands, and it had the greatest potential for spiritual development (Sforno).

..They came as far as Charan, they settled there.”  – Although Terach had originally intended to go as far as Canaan, he could not bring himself to abandon his land entirely.  He therefore settled in Charan, which was near the border of Canaan so he could be in close proximity to Abraham.

Ramban explains that from the moment Abraham was miraculously saved from the furnace, Terach and Abraham intended to flee to Canaan, away from Nimrod.  When they reached Charan, where their ancestors had always lived they settled there among their family.  Abarbanel explains that Nimrod’s dominion did not extend over Charan.  It was there that Abraham was commanded to go to the land of Canaan, and so he left his father, who later died in Charan, his native land.

11:32  “..and Terach died..”  – In the year 2083; Isaac was thirty-five years old at the time.

Based on various verses, Rashi comments that Terach died more than sixty years after Abraham’s departure from Charan. Nevertheless, Terach’s death is recorded here to avoid the public implication that Abraham disrespectfully abandoned his father in his old age.  In another sense, the report of Terach’s death is accurate.  The Sages teach that even while alive, the wicked are called dead; and the righteous, even when dead, are called alive.  Thus, in the spiritual sense, the wicked Terach was truly ‘dead’.

Ramban comments that it is common for the Torah to record a father’s death before proceeding with the narrative of the son, even though the death occurred many years later, for the Torah records a person’s death when his role is over,  Thus, Noah’s death was recorded above, even though he was still alive at the time of the Dispersion.

In a deeper sense, Maharal explains that Abraham was uniquely absolved from the commandment to honor his father because the commandment to him to leave his family and go to Eretz Israel (12:1) inaugurated a new sort of existence on earth.  Abraham had ceased to be part of his biological family, for the mantle of ‘chosenness’ had been placed upon him.  In this sense, his previous family and homeland had gone out of his life, as if Terach had died.

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