The Tower of Bavel
Towards the end of this week’s Torah reading, a brief episode, merely nine verses long, is recorded. The people of Shinar, also known as Bavel, build a tower whose “top is in the heavens” in order to “make ourselves a name, lest we be scattered upon the face of the entire earth" (Bereshit 11:4).
It is difficult to decipher the precise crime of the ancient Babylonians. Jewish tradition brings many different opinions as to their intentions.
Modern scholarship has also enabled us to understand the issue a little better. The people of Shinar built many tall towers, called ziggurats. The remains of many are scattered over modern Iraq. We will examine why they built them.
The Psalmist writes: “The heavens are the heavens of the Lord; but the earth He has given to the children of men” (Tehillim 115:16). Essentially, the ancient world took this idea literally. God dwelt in the heavens while humanity dwelt upon the earth. If man wanted communion with God, he had to go to the place where heaven and earth meet, i.e. the mountains. Up in the clouds, heaven and earth meet and man can be at one with God. This idea exists within Judaism; after all, the Torah was given on Mount Sinai, with the cloud of God resting on the mountain after Moshe had ascended. So too, the Temple was built on Mount Moriah, the highest mountain in Jerusalem, Eliyahu Hanavi held his competition with Baal at the peak of Mount Carmel, and even the unofficial sanctuaries were known as the Bamot, the High Places.
This concept still has echoes in Christianity and Islam where churches and mosques are generally built on a village’s highest point.
However the people of Shinar had a problem. They had traveled “from the east” from the mountainous region of Ararat, and had “found a valley in the land of Shinar” (Bereshit 11:2). Their new home was a large, flat valley; there were no mountains and so, no place to have communion with God.
They solved the problem by building artificial mountains, i.e. very tall towers whose tops were in heaven, the ziggurats. Therefore, these towers, as the Sephorno writes, were actually temples. Hence, the name “Bavel”. “Bava” means “Gate” and “El” means “God”. The ancient Babylonians believed that “Bavel” was the gate of God, the place where heaven and earth connected.
The Torah mocks this idea saying that Bavel was more a place of confusion than the gate of God. As the Sephorno explains, Bavel’s leaders exploited religion to control the masses and to persecute humankind. They aimed to maintain power for themselves (”make ourselves a name”) and to keep a tight control of the people (“lest we be scattered”). God will not allow such ideas to endure and so the ziggurats crumbled. True worship of God calls for the freedom of humanity, not its persecution and enslavement.
Last year's Sedra Short for Parshat Noach, entitled: "Why an Ark?" can be found at: http://parshablog.blogspot.com/2005_10_01_parshablog_archive.html.