Diversity of Language: A Biblical Punishment?

Dear Josep,

Praise the Lord. September 1st is upon us.

This summer has been ridiculous. Just ridiculous. I can’t even. I just. Ugh. And All the Crappy/Annoying Things are not over yet. But at least the kids are back in school now. Thank. God.

Soooo. Obviously I’ve had a lot on my plate and very limited time to be engaging in my beloved pastime of rambling at you about Judaism. I’ve been scribbling down half-baked ideas, but having had a few minutes to myself this morning, I finally managed to work one into a coherent post, and here it is.

The other day, my Parisian friend Aviv asked me if he could ask a question about the Torah. I said, “Sure!” and he wrote the following very interesting thought:

In Sefer Beresheet [the Book of Genesis], it’s told that when the humans wanted to create the Tower of Babel, Hashem punished them by making 70 languages (that made the thousands of languages of today), and so the humans could not make the tower because they couldn’t understand each other. It’s also said that in the Messianic Days, the world will have only one language.

But I wonder if having several languages is not also a blessing of God. Because it has a role in the culture of each people in the world, it creates jobs, like translation, and there are people like me and you and a lot of others who love to learn languages. So I wonder if this punishment for diversity is not at the same time a blessing, or a good thing for humanity.

I responded,

That story is a very strange story in many ways. Why would God get angry about people building a tower and ‘trying to fight him’? It’s just so ridiculous, it’s like if I were to punish my kids for telling me they were planning to run away and find new parents. So what was the real sin here, and how was the punishment a fitting consequence for the sin? Just a few of the other questions one asks looking at the story.

…Oh wait, you were looking for an answer, not more questions? Hahaha… welcome to Judaism. 😛

I told him I’d like to think about it some more, and that maybe I’d write a blog post on it. So, here it is!

First off, let’s read the Biblical text describing the story of the Tower of Babel.

All the earth had but one language and the same words. As they migrated from the East, they came upon a valley in the land of Shinar, and settled there. And they said to one another, ‘Come, let us make bricks and fire them.’ And they had bricks as stone, and asphalt served them as mortar. They said, ‘Come, let us build a city, and a tower with its top in the sky, to make a name for ourselves, lest we be scattered across the land.’ God descended to see the city and the tower that the sons of Adam had built. God said, ‘As one people with one language for all, this is how they have begun to act, and as of now, nothing is preventing them from doing that which they propose. Let us go down and confound their speech, so that they shall not understand one another’s speech.’ And God scattered them from there across the face of the earth, and they stopped building the city. That is why it was called Babel, because there God confounded the speech of the whole earth, and from there, God scattered them over the face of the whole earth.

 (Genesis 11:1-9)

There are many commentaries and Rabbinic legends that embellish this story. Someone who attended a Jewish day school like I did may be surprised to see how short this passage is and how many details we were taught about this story are not actually in the text of the Bible. What we are taught as children is that the building of the tower of Babel was a sin, and the creation of different languages, a punishment for the sin. But simply looking over the text, that is not the obvious meaning, or to use the Hebrew term, the “p’shat.” Here’s what I see as the simple and most obvious meaning of the passage.

To me, it seems to be describing a stage in human development. People are learning to make and use bricks and mortar to build things instead of just stone. And they are starting to build cities. They propose building one big city for all of them, and a great tower that reaches to the top of the sky.

A 16th-century depiction by Hendrick van Cleve III
A 16th-century depiction by Hendrick van Cleve III

God sees what they are doing, and for reasons not entirely clear from the passage, sees a need to stop this process. His solution is to “confound the speech” of the people so they would stop understanding each other. As a result, they stopped building the city and scattered over the face of the earth.

It is not entirely obvious from the passage what “confounding their speech” means. We have come to understand it as meaning that multiple languages were created. Rashi (Rabbi Shlomo Yitzchaki of 10th century Provence) is the go-to commentator for p’shat interpretation, and he describes it this way: “This one asks for a brick, and that one brings him mortar, and the former attacks him and injures his brain.” I have a distinct memory of my second-grade teacher teaching us that very colorfully. It’s a cute origin story, for sure, but… what are we meant to learn from it?

And is it true, as Aviv asked, that God “punished” them with diversity? Hasn’t Judaism always celebrated diversity? Even when we started out as a nation we were divided into twelve distinct tribes!

When I have questions like these, I open my trusty Chumash Mikra’ot Gedolot, which includes all the major commentaries (called perushim in Hebrew) alongside the Biblical text.

Mikraot gedolot

I found the commentaries of Or HaHayim (Rabbi Haim ben Attar of 17th century Morocco) and Kli Yakar (Rabbi Shlomo Ephraim ben Aaron Luntschitz of 17th century Prague) particularly relevant.

Both explain that the people were trying to stay together. “One language and of the same words.” There was uniformity here. The purpose of the tall tower, Or HaHayim explains, was so that the people would stay within sight of the tower, and always be able to find their way back to the city. But God had commanded Adam to “go forth and multiply and fill the land.” He didn’t want them to stay together in one place. He wanted them to spread over the face of the earth.

Kli Yakar says that their objective in building the city and the tower was to keep the peace. “If we all stay the same, we will have no reason to fight with one another.” It kind of reminds me of the idea of communism, or John Lennon’s “Imagine.” No countries, no different cultures, nothing to divide us, and that way we will all be able to sit together and sing kumbaya around the campfire!

Now, Kli Yakar emphasizes, it’s not that God didn’t want there to be peace and harmony among the humans. But, he says, he saw that this way of maintaining peace and harmony was going to backfire in a major way, and he brings a passage from the story to show this: “Come, let us build a city, and a tower with its top in the sky, to make a name for ourselves, lest we be scattered across the land.” Kli Yakar explains that though they seemed uniform in their apparently noble goal of maintaining peace, each of them actually had his own interests at heart: this one wanted wealth and honor, this one wanted lots of food, this one wanted lots of sex, etc., “and through this comes discord, both because they do not have one [common] goal… and because each of them has a desire to ascend above his fellow… because of this, separation of these groups is better than their gathering, as it is said (Psalms 92:10) ‘All those who act in iniquity shall be separated’… but the righteous—their gathering is good, for their purpose unites them, because they have only one goal, and they become as one by His hand, as it is said (Psalms 119:165) ‘Great peace for the lovers of your Torah.’ But not for those for whom the external goal is the primary one.”

So, the creation of the different languages and scattering the peoples throughout the world wasn’t so much a punishment, as a way to prevent humanity from reaching the same point it had before the flood: violence and discord.

And the Kli Yakar seems to be saying that in principle, unity is a good thing, but only when the people are truly united with a common, unselfish goal. When people join together with others in the hopes of achieving only their own interests, it will end badly.

In other words: There are no shortcuts to peace.

Peace cannot be imposed on people who care only about themselves and their own interests.

The prophecies about the coming of the Messiah are rich with imagery of people–not just Jews, but everyone–gathering together to serve God. As I’ve mentioned, we don’t have universally accepted beliefs of specific details, and I’ve never heard the concept that we will go back to speaking one language. But I think the idea is that when the Messiah comes, we will finally be ready for the true unity we lacked when the Tower of Babel was built.



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