Speaking one language, the builders want a united world. God declares this is not a good idea.
Here is Victor P. Hamilton’s summary of this verse from The New International Commentary on the Old Testament:
“God comes down not to inspect the scenario, as in verse 5, but to thwart it. His method is perhaps surprising: he will confuse their language. Why not simply topple the tower? Because that would solve the problem only temporarily. Towers are replaceable.
“It is not the tower that must be done away with, but what makes possible the building of that tower.”
“The solution must go deeper than that. It is not the tower that must be done away with, but what makes possible the building of that tower—an international language that provides communication among linguistic groups. If this ability to communicate is removed, it is unlikely that the individuals will continue with their work.”
Needless to say, knowing more than one’s own language is a virtue. But the Torah is making a rather audacious point: the world would not be better if people abandoned all languages but one.
It is very tempting to seek a united world—one language and one governing authority, with no divisive national identities. But God declares such a world dangerous. For one thing, it inevitably concentrates power in the hands of the few who run that united world—and power corrupts. For another, diverse national identities and cultures are a good thing.
The united world the Torah seeks is a world of nations united in acknowledging the one God and living by His moral code.
Beyond that, diversity in national identity, language, and even religion is welcome.
Regarding the latter, the Torah and later Judaism are unique among monotheistic faiths in not seeking a world in which all people are members of their religion.
Rather, the Torah wants all people to be ethical monotheists—people who acknowledge the one God of the Torah and live by His moral demands.
As Rabbi Jonathan Sacks, the former British Chief Rabbi and scholar, put it, “God is God of all humanity but between Babel and the end of days no single faith is the faith of all humanity.”
“God is God of all humanity but between Babel and the end of days no single faith is the faith of all humanity.”
Virtually every call for “unity” is disingenuous.
People who call for ideological unity do so on the presumption that it will be based on their values. When a Christian calls for Christian unity, he is calling for a unity based on his understanding of Christianity. Protestants who call for Christian unity are hardly willing to accept the Catholic pope or Sacraments; and Catholics who call for Christian unity are hardly willing to give up the papacy or the Sacraments.
Likewise, Orthodox Jews who call for Jewish unity assume it means all Jews embracing Halacha (Jewish law); and few non-Orthodox Jews who call for Jewish unity are willing to embrace most, let alone all, of Halacha.
The founders of the United States, the freest country ever to exist, understood the limitations of unity (perhaps because their values were so deeply rooted in the Bible).
That is why they gave the states of the United States so much power.
According to the U.S. Constitution (Tenth Amendment), unless a power is specifically given to the federal government, all powers belong to the states:
“The powers not delegated to the United States by the Constitution, nor prohibited by it to the States, are reserved to the States respectively, or to the people.”
So, too, the Constitution gave the United States Senate much more power than it gave the nation’s population: states with very small populations have as many senators (two) as states with enormous populations.
And the Torah never calls for all the world’s people to unite as Jews—only as followers of the Torah’s God.
Dennis Prager is a nationally syndicated radio talk show host and columnist. His latest book, published by Regnery on May 7, 2019, is The Rational Bible: Genesis, a commentary on the book of Genesis. He is the founder of Prager University and may be contacted at dennisprager.com.
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