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   by Jacob Solomon

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They said to one another: "Come, we will build a city with a tower up to the Heavens, and make ourselves a name, lest we are dispersed on the face of the Earth" (11:4).

This is one of the central verses in the story of the Tower of Babel. People assembled 'in the land of Shinar… Babylon' and built a city and tower. They said one to another: "Come, we will build a city with a tower up to the Heavens, and make ourselves a name, lest we will are dispersed on the face of the Earth" (11:4). (The tower may have well been a ziggurat, several of whose remains have been found in that part of the Middle East.)

A reading of the text appears to illustrate the normal development of Mankind at the time - the mid-third millennium BCE. People were moving from a pastoral-nomadic existence to create a settled, city society: 'they journeyed from the east, and found a valley in the land of Shinar, and settled there' (1:3). It describes an episode of urbanization: early cities in the region actually date from that period - so for that matter, did the much more stable Egyptian civilization.

Rashi brings a Midrashic tradition explaining the importance of the tower. The local ancients held that was to occur a global calamity once every 1,650 years. There were 1,650 years from Adam to Noah and the Ark. There would be another macro-disaster 1,650 years after the Flood. Building a tower, so it was believed, would support the Earth, and prevent mass destruction.

It was hardly an unreasonable thing to do the time. What aroused G-d's ire to the degree of His 'mixing up their languages so no-one understands anyone else' and 'dispersing them over the face of the Earth'?

A clue may be found in the key phrase which explains the key motive for building the city and tower of Babel: ve-na-a-seh lanu shem - 'We will make a name for ourselves', continuing with 'less we become dispersed on the face of the Earth'.

The primary, first-stated thing they wanted was the 'name' - to become famous. They would be the people who would be venerated as demi-gods (at least) for being the sole protectors of Mankind. As the Sforno implies, they had a selfish agenda - that they would take over society and become the leaders, with the social rewards inflating the pride - honor, and instant obedience…

Urban civilization has the potential of raising the standards of living and culture for all those who live there. It can also become a means of a few selfish, pride-inflated individuals building up a power base to tyrannize and ruthlessly exploit the rest. As Amos castigates the Israelite leaders: 'They turn justice into wormwood. They cast acts of charity to the ground' (Amos 5:7).

That explains the Midrashic source referred to by Haketav Ve-Hakabala: ve-na-a-seh lanu shem - is not 'We will make a name for ourselves', but we will make ourselves idolatry' It quotes shem being used in that context in Ex. 23:13 - 'You may not make mention of the shem of idolatry'. And their idolatry was reminiscent of a much later leader of civilization in the same place - Nebuchadnezzar - who (following the tradition Rashi brings to Deut. 7:7) said of himself: 'I will compare myself to [He that dwells] in the upper reaches (Isaiah 14:14)…

As the Proverbs state: 'It is the haughty that are an abomination to G-d' (Proverbs 16:5)

Written by Jacob Solomon. Tel 02 673 7998. E-mail: for any points you wish to raise and/or to join those that receive this Parasha sheet every week.

Parashiot from the First, Second, and Third Series may be viewed on the Shema Yisrael web-site:

Also by Jacob Solomon:
From the Prophets on the Haftara

Test Yourself - Questions and Answers


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