Wednesday, October 25, 2023

What's in a Name: The Anonymous Builders of the Tower of Babel

The Tower of Babel,
by Pieter Bruegel the Elder [1]
"Everyone on earth had the same language and the same words.... And they said, 'Come, let us build us a city, and a tower with its top in the sky, to make a name for ourselves; else we shall be scattered all over the world.' " (Genesis 11:1,4)

Chapter 11 of Genesis has the story of the Tower of Babel. Why were they punished? It isn't obvious from the literal text. The people have one language, they build a city and a tower, and a few verses later G-d gives them multiple languages and disperses them to separate communities all over the world.

Contrast this with the story of Abraham, which begins in the next chapter: 

"I will make of you a great nation,
And I will bless you;
I will make your name great,
And you shall be a blessing." (Genesis 12:2)

Notice the difference: the generation of the Tower of Babel wants to "make a name for [themselves]". In reference to Abraham, G-d says, "I will make your name great."

The Hebrew word for "name" is shem, which is spelled shin-mem (שֵׁם).  The account of the Tower of Babel has nine verses, and seven words with this root of shin-mem.  In an indirect way, the author seems to be saying that names are quite important to the narrative.  When read with this lens, something interesting pops out. Nobody in the story has a name!

The builders of the Tower of Babel had a level of unity that we can only dream of nowadays. Unity, but for what purpose? To make the tallest tower the world had ever seen, an engineering marvel. They wanted to build something so magnificent they would be remembered for generations to come. What actually happened?  The tower and the community that built it are long gone, their names effectively erased.  Meanwhile, Abraham's spiritual descendants now account for over half of the world's population. [2]

In our generation, humans have unprecedented power to reshape the world, for good or ill.  The important question is not whether unity is a good thing or a bad thing. The important question is: for what purpose?

Photo credit: By Pieter Brueghel the Elder - Levels adjusted from File:Pieter_Bruegel_the_Elder_-_The_Tower_of_Babel_(Vienna)_-_Google_Art_Project.jpg, originally from Google Art Project., Public Domain,

UN estimate of the world population in 2020: 7.8 billion people
Accessed 2023-10-24
2020 estimates of religious composition by country:
Accessed 2023-10-24

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