Deconstructing Migdal Bavel/2/en

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Deconstructing Migdal Bavel

Exegetical Approaches


Commentators present a spectrum of approaches to understanding what happened at Migdal Bavel and why the Torah opts to share the story with us. Many Midrashim (and some modern commentaries) interpret it as a tale of human rebellion against Hashem which is recounted in order to mock pagan beliefs and lay the backdrop for the selection of Avraham. Alternatively, several early medieval commentators view the narrative as simply a historical account of how the world was repopulated after the Flood and how God prevented mankind from committing the error of settling all in the same place. Finally, some later medieval and modern exegetes focus on the moral dangers inherent in centralized government or urban society, and they understand the text to be attempting to inculcate proper values.

A Polemic Against Paganism

Migdal Bavel was built as a pagan shrine and as a direct challenge to God's authority. Hashem's foiling of the Babylonian aspirations and claims of superiority set the stage for His selection of Avraham and his descendants as his chosen nation.

Man's motivation for building the city / tower – The various Targumim and Midrashim focus on the tower as the source of the problem, viewing it as a platform for the worship of idolatry and waging battle against Hashem. Cassuto and others note that this fits with what we know about Mesopotamian ziqqurats,1 stepped pyramidal shaped temple complexes built from bricks. These were located in each city, with a particularly massive one in the ancient city of Bavel.2
Who participated in the construction? Rashi, following Chazal,3 states that the builders were the descendants of Cham under the leadership of Nimrod.4 This position may assume that the more righteous offspring of Shem would not have been involved in a rebellion against God.5
Hashem's reason for foiling the plans – Seforno explains that Hashem wanted to prevent the entire world from unanimously worshiping idolatry. By fragmenting mankind and creating dissension, such a situation was avoided. Alternatively, Hashem acted to counter the height of the Babylonian arrogance (cf. Yeshayahu 2:12-18, 14:12-14).
Message of the narrative – Cassuto views the Torah's account as a satire mocking pagan beliefs and hubris.6 Bavel, the Torah says, does not mean "Bab-ilu" (literally, "gateway of god" in Akkadian), but rather confusion and chaos ("שָׁם בָּלַל ה'‏").
Relationship to context – Prof. Yehuda Elitzur asserts that our story is the prelude to the Avraham narrative. In contrast to the Babylonian desire to make a name ("וְנַעֲשֶׂה לָּנוּ שֵׁם") for themselves and their idols in their city, Hashem promises in the very next chapter (12:1-3) to glorify Avraham's name ("וַאֲגַדְּלָה שְׁמֶךָ")‎7 and make him into a great nation in His chosen land.8
"וְרֹאשׁוֹ בַשָּׁמַיִם" – From the Targumim and Midrashim it appears that the people wanted to literally reach the firmament. Cassuto, however, asserts that this phrase merely parallels a Mesopotamian metaphor found in ziqqurat inscriptions used to describe a very tall structure.9
The concerns of "וְנַעֲשֶׂה לָּנוּ שֵׁם פֶּן נָפוּץ" – This approach encounters some difficulty in attempting to explain how these factors relate to the idol worship.10
"יָזְמוּ" – The root of this word might be either זמם which in Biblical Hebrew frequently carries a negative connotation of "to plot",11 or יזם which does not appear elsewhere in Tanakh.12
Relationship between "וְזֶה הַחִלָּם לַעֲשׂוֹת" and "אֲשֶׁר יָזְמוּ לַעֲשׂוֹת" – Seforno explains that these are two stages of the same idolatrous process.
Does the punishment fit the crime? RanBereshit 11:1Derashot HaRan 1About R. Nissim Gerondi asks why dispersal would have been an adequate punishment for a society which had revolted against God.13
Time frame of the story – This approach would likely understand that the punishment was a miraculous process which happened very quickly.

A History of the Resettlement of the World

When mankind attempted to settle together in one city, Hashem dispersed them in accordance with his plan that humans populate the entire world. The story thus comes to provide an account of how Noach's descendants ultimately spread out throughout the world.

Sin or error – According to Josephus, Rashbam, R"Y Bekhor Shor, and Radak, the people consciously disobeyed Hashem's command to spread out in the land ("וּמִלְאוּ אֶת הָאָרֶץ"). Ibn Ezra, in contrast, says the people were simply unaware of Hashem's instructions, and Ralbag makes no mention of the Divine directive.14
Who participated in the construction? From the words "כָל הָאָרֶץ" it would appear that all of mankind took part. Ibn Ezra states that Noach and his sons were present when the city and tower were being built, and Ralbag says that they even participated in the construction. This assumption causes Ibn Ezra to reject the possibility that the planners of the city were foolish enough to attempt to ascend to the heavens.15 Radak, on the other hand, who asserts that the builders of the tower demonstrated an intentional disregard for Hashem's command, maintains that Noach, Shem, Yefet, and Ever were not part of the consensus to build the tower, but were unable to exert a positive influence on the people.
Man's motivation for building the city / tower – According to this approach, the primary goal was for all to live in one city ("פֶּן נָפוּץ"), and the tower merely served as a clearly visible landmark which would prevent people from getting lost and not finding their way back to the city. Most of these commentators, though, do not explicitly address the question of why the people wanted to remain together in one city.16
Hashem's reason for foiling the plans – Most of these exegetes also do not provide an explanation of why Hashem preferred that mankind disperse throughout the land. Ralbag, though, offers the unique explanation that Hashem did not want the entire human race to risk being wiped out in the case of a natural disaster.17 According to him, the entire story of Migdal Bavel tells of Hashem's kindness in protecting mankind.18
Message of the narrative and relationship to context – The story of Migdal Bavel comes to complement the descriptions in the preceding chapter of Bereshit 10 of the branching out of the nations, with the same root נפץ (scatter) appearing in both chapters. While Chapter 10 merely noted how this developed on a human level, Chapter 11 explains how Hashem's hand guided the process.
"וְרֹאשׁוֹ בַשָּׁמַיִם" – Ibn Ezra says that this phrase is merely figurative language for a very tall structure. He points to a parallel usage in Devarim 1:28.
Time frame of the story – Ibn Ezra notes the possibility that the process of developing new languages which caused the diffusion of the people may have been a natural one which occurred over many generations.19

Guidelines for a Moral Civilization

The building of the city was not a direct challenge to God or a violation of a specific commandment of His, but was rather undesirable because of the dangers of centralized power and urban civilization. The story thus comes to inculcate moral and political lessons and promote the healthier functioning of society. This position subdivides:

Insuring a Balance of Power

The story of Migdal Bavel is about the potential for abuse of power that uniformity and central control bring.

Man's motivation for building the city / tower – Ran and Netziv explain that the people did not imagine that everyone would live in one city, but rather wanted to create a single centralized government for the entire world with a powerful capital city. According to Ran, the tower was a monument ("וְנַעֲשֶׂה לָּנוּ שֵׁם") which attested to the consensus on this governing system,20 while for Netziv it served as a watchtower for the region.
Concern of "פֶּן נָפוּץ" – Ran explains that this does not mean that there was an attempt to prevent the diffusion of the world's population, but rather that the people wanted to put a centralized ruler in place before they dispersed, as afterwards unanimity might no longer be possible.
Hashem's reason for foiling the plans – For Ran and R. D"Z Hoffmann, world unity per se was not inherently sinful and, in fact, it is a utopian ideal which will ultimately be realized in the Messianic era. However, until that time, Hashem preferred that there be a more diversified system of checks and balances between competing rulers to prevent a situation where a single ruler could harm the entire world. Ran21 adds that the survival of the Jewish nation throughout the ages has depended on being able to find safe harbor in one country after being expelled from another.22 Similarly, Netziv points to the dangers of a dictatorship which suppresses any dissent and enforces uniformity on pain of death.
Who were the leaders of the plan? According to Ran, the plan was being implemented by a group of idolaters headed by Nimrod,23 and had they succeeded, monotheism would have been banned.24
Relationship to context – Ran explains that the decentralization of civilization and power was critical at this juncture, as otherwise the entire world would have been controlled by idolaters. Thus, if not for the events of Migdal Bavel, Avraham would have been unable to migrate from Ur to Israel and it would have been impossible for him to find a setting and ruling structure more tolerant of monotheism.
Relationship between "וְזֶה הַחִלָּם לַעֲשׂוֹת" and "אֲשֶׁר יָזְמוּ לַעֲשׂוֹת" – Ran derives from this verse that the problem was not in the initial stage of the unity itself, but rather in its potential future consequences.
Message of the narrative – The story contains eternal lessons which shed light on how civilization, in general, should be governed.
"וְרֹאשׁוֹ בַשָּׁמַיִם" – According to Ran, this is merely an expression for a very tall building.

Curbing Material Pursuits

The story of Migdal Bavel is about man's chase after physical rather than spiritual rewards.

Man's motivation for building the city / tower – For R. Yitzchak Arama and Abarbanel, the plan to build the city reflected a desire for an urban lifestyle with all of its accompanying pursuits of material culture.
Hashem's reason for foiling the plans – While the Akeidat Yitzchak's critique of urban civilization is more muted, Abarbanel levels more severe criticism against the corrupted value system and lifestyle of the tower builders. Abarbanel thereby links their sin to the one he similarly attributes to both Adam and Kayin – see Kayin's Sacrifice Rejected.
Does the punishment fit the crime? Abarbanel attempts to demonstrate that the dispersal of the tower builders parallels the punishments of expulsion and exile which Adam and Kayin received for their similar sins. However, it is unclear if the punishment had a constructive effect on the situation.
Who participated in the construction? According to Abarbanel, the leaders were Cham and his offspring, who had inherited the traits of Kayin and his descendants.