The Tower of Babel – From Creativity to Idolatry

Rabbi Dr. Darrel Ginsberg

One of the most intriguing stories related in Parshas Noach involves the Dor Haflaga, the post-flood generation responsible for the famous Tower of Babel episode. Reading through the verses, one is struck by the ambiguity regarding the sin committed by these people. Their stated objective was to build a tower to the “heavens,” ostensibly to make a name for themselves. There is no question that such an objective has an insidious connotation and a slight discrepancy in the verses actually helps to elucidate what the sin was and how it emerged. 

The Torah tells us as follows (Bereishis 11:1-2):

“The whole earth had one language, with conforming words. When they journeyed from the east, they found a valley in the land of Shinar and they settled there.”

At this point, things seem innocuous enough. The Torah then continues (ibid 3-4):

“They said one to another, ‘Come (Havva), let us mold bricks and bake them thoroughly.’ They then had bricks to use as stone, and the clay for mortar. Then they said, ‘Come (Havva), we will build ourselves a city, and a tower whose top will reach the heavens. Thus we will make ourselves a name, so that we will not be scattered all over the face of the earth’.”

Upon completion of the city and tower, God becomes involved and the rest is history. 

There is a subtle issue that needs to be raised after looking through these verses--why does the Torah tell us, in detail, their idea to make bricks and mortar (verse 3)? Is it crucial we know the exact building process that took place to make the city and tower? The key point to the story would seem to be the erection of the city/tower, not the assembling of materials. 

This question becomes even stronger when looking at the similar wording in each verse. The term “havva” is used both in verse 3 and 4. Rashi explains “havva” as follows (ibid 3):

“"Prepare yourselves." Wherever {Hebrew Ref} appears it means "prepare," meaning that they should prepare themselves and become united for some work, or plan, or some undertaking.”

It would therefore seem that there were two distinct “works” or “plans” in this story--the first being the fabrication of the bricks, and the second the construction of the city/tower. One can understand how a “plan” was necessary for the city/tower. However, why is it imperative to have a “plan” for the brick production?

It is first important to have a clear idea of the background of this story. On a cursory level, the people’s wish to build a tower to “reach the heavens” seems absurd. But the Ibn Ezra (ibid 3) emphasizes that it is a mistake to assume that these people were stupid, all possessing an infantile notion of somehow “reaching the heavens” using a tower. Additionally, they were not afraid of the potential of destruction (i.e., flood) due to the covenant established with Noach. The point here is that to look at these people as a primitive, ignorant group, exemplified by a foolish attempt at thinking their tower could reach the heavens, is an incorrect approach.

With that said, what exactly was the nature of their error? The objective of this tower, as expressed by the Torah, was to “make ourselves a name.”  The Talmud (Sanhedrin 109a) explains that this means their intention was idolatrous. Of course, one must ask: where is there any indication of idolatry in their actions? There were no idols, no physical representations of God --merely a city and a tower. The Talmud is teaching us an important insight into idolatry. In this case of the Dor Haflaga, mankind developed a distorted sense of self, an overestimation of their importance and power. It is this societal egocentrism that eventually leads to a denial of God, as man misconstrues his position in the universe vis a vis God. Idolatry should not be viewed merely as the action of bowing to idols; instead, it is an ideology which begins with man viewing himself in a manner incommensurate with objective reality. 

This drive to idolatry is found in diverse situations, each with a unique path leading to the same terrible result. What makes the Dor Haflaga different?  It is through the “extra” verse that we may be able to understand. Egocentrism does not just spontaneously appear. As the post-flood society developed and became cohesive, they became more advanced. Naturally, a creative drive emerged, an ambition ingrained in any developing society. The desire to create is expressed in verse 3, detailing their construction of bricks. There was nothing harmful whatsoever in the fabrication of bricks and mortar – if anything, it reflected their industrial effectiveness and efficiency. But it is what they attached their creative energy to, as outlined in verse 4, which ultimately led to their downfall. They built the city and tower, not to benefit mankind, but to enrich their distorted viewpoint. The city and tower were physical expressions of their overestimation of self. So in this instance, it is the misuse of creativity that is the expression of idolatry. Ultimately, God punishes them in a manner that breaks their unity, undermining their objective.

The ideas expressed here have great relevance even today. Mankind has an inherent creative faculty, one that is intrinsic to our definition as a species. This faculty allows for intellectual progress, as demonstrated in fields ranging from the sciences to medicine to cosmology. When man’s creative energy serves to increase his understanding of God, and his own place in the universe, he becomes a more perfected creature. However, there are times when mankind revels in this inventive power, when the creative output merely serves to increase an outsized view of the self. We see it in the rise and fall of empires, marked by tremendous creative advances, yet often linked to a thirst for immortality and power. Looking at the story of the tower, we should realize how our ability to create, that same ability which differentiates us as a species, has the potential to be our downfall. This gift must be understood for its intended purpose, enriching mankind while assisting in a greater understanding of the Creator.