GENESIS 11: THE CITY OF BABEL
So far, the story of mankind told in Genesis is a story of displacements: the exile from Eden, Cain's banishment, the Flood. Now - narrated in just nine verses - we find the dispersion of mankind from Babel.
We know the story as "the Tower of Babel", just as we know the story of Noah as "the Flood" (even though the Hebrew word for "flood" never appears there). Here, as Grumet points out, the word "tower" occurs twice, but "city" appears three times, suggesting that "God's primary concern is about the city, and only secondarily about the tower". Prager (citing Gunther Plaut, among others) agrees.
Grumet elaborates: "The city is a means to concentrate people geographically, and the tower provides a vantage point for control of those people."
Hazony: "In these verses we get to see the biblical suspicion of the state in its distilled form."
Steinsaltz: "This generation expressed the very human desire to gather in large urban centers that hold all their power, control, and technology. Their unity enabled them to build these huge centers. Such centers however, are designed for preservation rather than progress. The world they tried to build is a frightening one. Indeed, it brings to mind the world we live in today, a world that is becoming increasingly uniform, in which many languages are succumbing to one dominant language, where one type of dialogue and one set of aspirations rule. Such a powerful society does not allow anything different to develop within it, and therefore individuals cannot free themselves from its chains. In a homogeneous technological society, nothing new will grow. Only when its frameworks are broken will a few individuals be able to venture out, act, and influence others. By forming a uniform pattern of life and society, these people were acting against God's intention that there should be a rich, multifaceted world in which the differences between people lead to progress and blessing. God wanted the entire world to be settled and for people to construct productive societies. Therefore, He dispersed mankind across the entire earth. For this reason, this generation is called the Generation of the Dispersion."
Prager goes on to observe: "City dwellers are far more capable of anonymity than people who live in small towns and rural areas. And when people are anonymous, they feel less moral obligation to their neighbors - who are also likely to be anonymous. When both the individual and his neighbors are anonymous, people inevitably feel much less connected to one another. And they often act worse ...".
There's not much for me to add to these insights, but I do want to come back to the theme of wandering and exploration. The text tells us that "The entire earth was of one language and one speech" and that "they traveled from the east." This seems to indicate that the entire human population migrated together (although Steinsaltz maintains that "they" refers only to "a large group of people" - which, in turn, would imply that some other portion remained unaffected by the Dispersion). "From the east" is ambiguous: it's [mi-qedem] in Hebrew, but the word could also mean "from ancient times" - and we've run into that word before, referring to the Garden of Eden (2:8).
They settled in a plain (Steinsaltz and Alter explain that [biq'a] means a plain, and not "valley" as in later Hebrew) in Shin'ar, which is in Mesopotamia. And it seems like they got tired of wandering.
Although the episode is just nine verses long, the text takes the time to point out that the people made bricks from clay (the first architectural detail in the Bible) "which were for them as stone" suggesting that they had improvised and adapted to their new environment. But, having grown comfortable there, they didn't want to leave.
"Lest we be scattered" - this is fascinating. What were they afraid of? Who or what did they think was going to scatter them? And yet, in the end, scattered they were, and scattered they must be.
Adam was exiled from Eden, to work the land from which he was taken. Cain was condemned to wander the earth, and so to give up his own settled lifestyle and re-create the nomadic existence of his murdered shepherd brother.
And the people of Babel were scattered "upon the face of all the earth". They were cast out from the stultifying order of the city-state to the terror of the wilderness.
In each case, it is not just a change of place, but a change of habits and lifestyle. It is the biblical "hero's journey". It is a summons to mend oneself, and to grow, by encountering the danger and the chaos of the unexplored world outside.