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yesh omrim

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The power of the nameless ones

31 October 2003

One striking thing about the Tower of Babel story (Genesis 11:1–9) is the absence of names. In between the geneology of the ancestors of the “seventy nations of the world” (10:1–32) and the line from Shem to Avram (11:10–32), there is a story in which “a man said to his fellow, ‘let us make bricks…’ And they said, ‘Let us build a city and a tower … and make a name for ourselves, lest we be scattered all over the earth’” (11:3–4). Why doesn’t the text identify who invented the brick, or who first proposed building the city and tower?

Today, when political theorists model how people act in society, it is popular to treat every behavior, even behavior that seems altruistic and civic-minded, as an person’s attempt to advance his or her individual self-interest. (The truly au courant, of course, talk about genes promoting their own self-interest.) Two and three hundred years ago, philosophers were more sophisticated. Having seen the brutal wars between Catholics and Protestants in Europe, they understood, among other things, the human capacity for selfless cruelty. People do horrible things in the name of Great Causes that they would never imagine doing for their personal benefit.

The anonymous masses wanted to “make a name for ourselves … lest we be scattered all over the earth.” But we know, from the previous chapter, that God intended for the children of Noah to spread all over the earth. The tower-builders had tied their egos to the success of a project that was destined to fail. The only question was, how was it going to fail?

It seems to me that when God said “now nothing will prevent them from doing what they plan to do” (11:6), He means that nothing would prevent them from doing what they wanted to each other. If one person had broken away from the group and said “I don’t think this tower is such a good idea after all” or even “hey, the mortar down here is crumbling, we need to come up with a better formulation,” the energy that the community had focused on building the tower would be refocused on punishing the dissenter. They would tell each other that no torture could be too cruel for the fiend who had insulted their city and tower.

To prevent this from happening, God destroyed the group’s unity of purpose. As Rabbi Yehuda Henkin points out in Equality Lost, the Tower of Babel story uses the word safah, which is usually translated as “language,” but can also be translated as “opinion.” By reintroducing diversity of opinion into the community, God prevented any one person from becoming a scapegoat for the tower’s failure. (Perhaps everyone still wanted to build the tower, but nobody could agree on how to continue the project.)

If the people had considered the tower to be one man’s idea, then God could have convinced that man to lead the community in a new direction, or punished him in a way that diminished his authority. But as long as everyone else considered it “our tower,” they would have simply raised up a new leader. However the tower-building enterprise got started, since no single person was responsible for maintaining it, no single person deserves to be mentioned by name in the story.