By Nick Gendler
When I was a very small boy I had a large illustrated book of bible stories. I remember the full-page picture that accompanied the story of the Tower of Babel. It depicted a sand-coloured structure with external paths spiralling into the clouds upon which builders carried materials to raise the tower ever higher. I don’t remember how the story was told but I know I didn’t understand it, just as, throughout my adult life it has perplexed me.
The parasha is largely taken up with the story of how God, displeased with how God’s “perfect” creation turned out, decides to start again, but things start to go wrong again pretty quickly.
In a perfect world there would be a single language and all people would understand each other and share the same moral perspective. Yet the reality was diversity, difference, misunderstanding, intolerance and war. How could this unsatisfactory situation be explained? Why would God allow such a state of affairs to arise?
The building of giant temples, known as ziggurats, was a feature of Babylonian society. In order to separate our people from this polytheistic culture, the rabbis denounced these structures as evidence of bombastic impiety, and so was formed one of our foundation myths, extraordinary in that it simultaneously helped to explain why the world was imperfect while positioning our people as being on the correct path to godliness.
The story of the tower of Babel explains how the people came together to build a structure that would be so impressive that they would become a great and powerful people. This idea of materialism and self-aggrandizement is what the authors set out to challenge, and in our story God punishes the people of Babel for their conceit.
Professor Ellen Davis, a theologian and environmentalist has developed another fascinating interpretation of the Babel story.
Mesopotamia, the region essentially bordered by the Tigris and Euphrates rivers, was an area of great agricultural abundance resulting in significant population growth and material wealth. This wealth enabled the building of great cities each of which had a vast ziggurat but it also led to wars. Rather than learn to live on, and with, the land, the inhabitants of the region focused their attention on making themselves a great people, and this was to be the downfall of their civilisation. They took their eye off the ball.
The agricultural success was achieved following the channeling of those two monumental rivers and after several centuries of over-exploitation by irrigation the land began to fail. The people took the land for granted instead of respecting it. As water evaporated from the fields, mineral salts were left which poisoned plant-life. At the same time, the land flooded frequently making it harder and harder to farm successfully.
In contrast, the Israelites, confined to the undesirable rocky areas of Canaan, lacking any abundance of water, learned to respect and manage the land that they had. They were obliged to do so, and to become intimate with the needs of the land in order to succeed in living the agrarian life.
The message is clear and hardly needs re-iterating. The area that was once the breadbasket of civilisation became virtually barren. The earth does not forgive us for abusing it. Entire civilisations are at risk of disappearing into the mists of history when humanity fails to live in harmony with the environment. The Mesopotamian civilisation endured for some 2,500 years, eclipsing our own. Can we expect our civilisation to last as long at the rate that we exploit the earth’s resources while celebrating our own greatness?
Nick Gendler is a member of New North London Synagogue