The Tower of Babel and Technological Humility

by Bob Schwartz

Tower of Babel - Bruegel the Elder

This week’s Torah reading, Genesis 6:9-11:32, includes two very different STEM achievements.

The first is the story of Noah, with a boat big enough to hold representatives of everything that lives (but does not swim). The ark’s purpose is to save all life in the face of an ultimate disaster. It works.

The other story is the Tower of Babel, with an immensely tall structure that has no obvious or express practical purpose. It is an early and elegant literary example of “because we can” philosophy. Think of it as a giant cosmic finger by some very arrogant builders.

Giving the finger is always rude and dangerous. Here, though, there is no violent retribution and no smiting by flood or fire. Instead, the result of that technological arrogance is eternal confusion and failure to communicate.

The Hebrew Bible has lots to say about human behavior, psychology, and spirituality. But no story may have more to tell us about life today than the Tower of Babel, especially when read in conjunction with Noah.

If we think we can build a boat big enough to save us from a particular catastrophe, maybe we can. But even then, as the rest of the post-Noah biblical stories and the rest of world history demonstrate, staying dry in the flood is just the beginning of our problems.

And if we think we can just show how smart we are by concocting a bunch of oversized technological wonders, monuments of pride, we may find ourselves, as the saying goes, too clever by half.

Consequences are inevitable. Purposes are necessary. Really big towers are awesomely cool. Just be sure you know, more or less, what you’re doing and why.

And all the earth was one language, oe set of words. And it happened as they journeyed from the east that they found a valley in the land of Shinar and settled there. And they said to each other, “Come, let us bake bricks and burn them hard.” And the brick served them as stone, and bitumen served them as mortar. And they said, “Come, let us build us a city and a tower with its top in the heavens, that we may make us a name, lest we be scattered over all the earth.” And the LORD came down to see the city and the tower that the human creatures had built. And the LORD said, “As one people with one language for all, if this is what they have begun to do, now nothing they plot to do will elude them. Come, let us go down and baffle their language there so that they will not understand each other’s language.” And the LORD scattered them from there over all the earth and they left off building the city. Therefore it is called Babel, for there the LORD made the language of all the earth babble. And from there the LORD scattered them over all the earth.

Genesis 11:1-9
The Five Books of Moses: A Translation with Commentary
Robert Alter