Deconstructing Migdal Bavel

Introduction

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The Unknowns

The first half of Bereshit 11 records the story of both man's attempt to build the city and tower of Bavel and Hashem's thwarting of this plan. There are a number of elements of the narrative which are shrouded in mystery including:

Human Objectives

Perhaps the most challenging issue, though, is to understand the stated purpose(s) of the project. 11:4 reads:

וַיֹּאמְרוּ הָבָה נִבְנֶה לָּנוּ עִיר וּמִגְדָּל וְרֹאשׁוֹ בַשָּׁמַיִם וְנַעֲשֶׂה לָּנוּ שֵׁם פֶּן נָפוּץ עַל פְּנֵי כָל הָאָרֶץ.

This verse raises several questions:

Hashem's Objections

In 11:6 Hashem reacts with great concern to the human scheme:

וַיֹּאמֶר ה' הֵן עַם אֶחָד וְשָׂפָה אַחַת לְכֻלָּם וְזֶה הַחִלָּם לַעֲשׂוֹת וְעַתָּה לֹא יִבָּצֵר מֵהֶם כֹּל אֲשֶׁר יָזְמוּ לַעֲשׂוֹת.
But why was Hashem so troubled by the plans that He needed to actively intervene? Surely He could not have been worried that the builders would actually reach the Heavenly throne? And what is the meaning of the relationship between "וְזֶה הַחִלָּם לַעֲשׂוֹת" and "כֹּל אֲשֶׁר יָזְמוּ לַעֲשׂוֹת"? Do these refer to two stages of the same plan or to two completely different projects, and which constitutes the main problem?

The Story's Message

In addition to attempting to understand what actually transpired in the story of Migdal Bavel, the reader of the Biblical story must also try to decipher the Torah's purpose in recounting this enigmatic episode.

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