Justus Baird, an alumnus of the Wexner Graduate Fellowship Program, is the Director of the Center for Multifaith Education at Auburn Theological Seminary in New York and the Rabbi of Congregation Shaarey Hayam in Barnegat, NJ. He can be reached at jnb@auburnsem.org

Someday I hope to discover why the Tower of Babel captivates me so much. More than the story of Noah and his ark, these nine verses from Genesis 11, which tell of humans who come together to build a “city and a tower with its top in the sky to make a name for ourselves,” demand my attention.

Recently, a Christian colleague of mine (of whom I have many these days, since I work and teach in a Protestant Seminary), challenged me about this text. As part of the interfaith work I do, I had been using the Tower of Babel story to make a theological point about diversity. I was trying to use the text as evidence for a positive divine attitude toward religious diversity. My argument went like this: in the Tower of Babel story, all people speak the same language, then they come together to build a tower and compete with God. God takes notice, and confounds human language and scatters us across the earth, which was the fear of the tower organizers in the first place (11:4).

I reasoned that one lesson from the Tower story is that when humans all work together as one, with the same language (or culture or religion), bad things can happen. Our desire to control and our ambition for power take over, and we try to compete with God. Often we ask the question, “Why can’t we all just get along?” Maybe we should be asking, “What terrible things might happen if we did all get along?” Habitats are healthier when they are ecologically diverse (think kudzu), and citizens are safer when power is shared among diverse parties (think dictators). Similarly, by confounding our language and scattering us around the world, God ordained a level of diversity that functions to check and balance human ambition. By giving us different languages, cultures, and spiritual paths, God thwarts our ambition for absolute control and power. This was my attempt at a theological argument for responsible interfaith work that preserved religious differences and respected the particularities of our traditions.

My colleague, a bible scholar who tolerated this line of reasoning but seemed unmoved, challenged me to connect the shem (name) in verse 11:4 – “Come, let us build a city, and a tower with its top in the sky, to make a name (shem) for ourselves; else we shall be scattered all over the world” – to the Shem, the proper name of Noah’s oldest son, who appears prominently in the text just before and after the Tower of Babel text.

This is my first attempt at a response to that challenge. I have often said that the chief concern of the Tower builders was to make a name for themselves – an ambition for greatness, if not divine power. But verse 11:4 makes clear that there was both a carrot and stick driving this grand construction project. The carrot was indeed to make a shem, to achieve something of lasting importance, perhaps even to flirt with immortality. But the stick was also there – the builders were worried about being scattered over the earth by God. 

Why the concern about being scattered? Probably because right after the flood, God twice challenges Noah and his sons to not only be fertile and increase but also to fill the earth (9:1, mil’u et ha-aretz, 9:7 shirtzu va-aretz). And in 9:18-19 we read:

The sons of Noah who came out of the ark were Shem, Ham and Japheth – Ham being the father of Canaan. These three were the sons of Noah, and from these the whole world branched out (naftzah chol ha-aretz).

In verse 11:4, the Tower of Babel text makes clear that the Tower builders feared this ‘branching out’ (nafatz) process. Not only is this verb used as the direct concern of the builders, but this is exactly the punishment the generations of the Tower receive in verses 8 and 9 (va-yafatz hashem otam and hefitzam hashem al-p’nei kol ha’aretz). Certainly the confounding of language is also a punishment, and a key theme of the story, but we should not lose sight of the fear of being scattered and the punishment of being scattered.

Here’s why the fear and punishment of being scattered matters. The Tower of Babel narrative appears at a crucial transition in the biblical text. It is the moment where the Torah shifts from the universal history of mankind to the particular history of the Israelites (see Nahum Sarna in Understanding Genesis for more). Before the Tower of Babel, we read ten chapters about the shared ancestry of all of humanity. And after the Tower of Babel, who is the first person we meet, right after the genealogies of Noah’s sons are completed? The Lord said to Abram, lekh- lekha (go forth) from your native land and from your father’s house to the land I will show you (12:1). Abram is descended from Shem, the oldest son of Noah. Shem, like his brother Japheth, showed moral rectitude when his father Noah became drunk (9:23). It is Shem’s line that leads to Abram, and it is Abram’s line that the rest of Torah will focus on. The Tower of Babel is the Torah’s literary and spiritual transition from the universal story of humanity to the particular story of Israel.

So perhaps my colleague’s challenge will allow us to read the Tower of Babel story in this light. The shem that the Tower builders wanted to achieve is a name for themselves, but the shem they got was a forefather who was morally upstanding and whose offspring, Abraham and his descendents, had the courage to follow God. The Tower of Babel warns us against overly-grand visions that threaten to blot out our distinctiveness. It teaches us to look for the blessing in being spread out around the earth, and to cherish the differences that give our shem meaning and make us who we are.