Parashah of the week: Noach

“And the people said, ‘Come, let us build for ourselves a city and a tower with its top in the heavens, and let us make a name for ourselves, lest we be dispersed across the face of the earth’” Genesis 11:4


I have always struggled to understand what was so terrible about the Tower of Babel. Here is a story in which all the world’s people speak one language and co-operate peacefully towards the building of an ancient skyscraper — surely the technological marvel of its day.

And yet, God’s response was to confuse the people’s speech — so they could not understand one another — and scatter them across the earth; an act of division that would lead to future confrontation and conflict. Could it be that God would prefer separation and war over unity and co-operation?

Traditionally, we understand God’s anger to be on account of the people challenging God’s sovereignty in the heavens. However, the words in the verse above — “let us make a name for ourselves” — speak to a different interpretation.

Yes, the ancient Babylonians were able to achieve greatness through their unity, but what did they seek to accomplish with the strength of their collective? They could have solved hunger, ended poverty, or tackled any number of worthy causes. Instead, they chose to “make a name for themselves,” to elevate their status at the expense of helping others. Seeing this is their intention, an exasperated God exclaims, “This is what they do with their power?!” and duly punishes them.

In Pirkei Avot Rabbi Elazar of Bartota teaches “Give to God that which is God’s” (3:7). Rabbeinu Yonah explains this by way of a parable: the story of a king who gave a thousand coins to one of his servants and instructed him, “Keep one hundred coins for yourself and give the rest to nine other people.”

Our wealth, our energy, and our knowledge are all gifts from God and while we can personally benefit from what we receive, we should not hoard these gifts entirely for our own gain. Instead we should use them to serve others; and in serving others, we also serve God.

I believe the story of the Tower of Babel is meant to teach us that unity is meaningless if it lacks morals and is used only to pursue prestige and wealth.

It would be wonderful to leave behind division and difference and return to a state of total world harmony, but first we must ensure our priorities are in order, so that if we are to achieve great renown, it is for our righteousness, and not simply our technological mastery.

Share via

Want more from the JC?

To continue reading, we just need a few details...

Want more from
the JC?

To continue reading, we just
need a few details...

Get the best news and views from across the Jewish world Get subscriber-only offers from our partners Subscribe to get access to our e-paper and archive