Ibn Ezra

Ibn Ezra: Building Babel (Noach)

Tower of Babel (1992), by Aba Bayefsky

The Torah Text

The first half of Genesis 11 narrates the story of the Tower of Babel.

“And the whole earth was of one language and of one speech. And it came to pass, as they journeyed east, that they found a plain in the land of Shinar; and they dwelt there.

“And they said one to another: ‘Come, let us make brick, and burn them thoroughly.’ And they had brick for stone, and they had slime for mortar. And they said: ‘Come, let us build us a city, and a tower, with its top in heaven, and let us make us a name; lest we be scattered abroad upon the face of the whole earth.’

“And God came down to see the city and the tower, which the people had built. And God said: ‘Behold, they are one people, and they have all one language; and this is what they begin to do; and now nothing will be withheld from them which they decide to do. Come, let us go down, and there confound their language, that they may not understand one another’s speech.’ So God scattered them abroad from thence upon the face of all the earth; and they left off to build the city. Therefore was the name of it called Babel; because God did there confound the language of all the earth; and from there God scattered them abroad upon the face of all the earth.” (Translation adapted from 1917 JPS)

The main question when reading this passage is the motivation of the people’s building project – is it intended maliciously, an invasion of heaven so to speak, and therefore the ultimate arrogance? Or is it simply a misguided mistake? Abraham ibn Ezra takes the latter approach, and offers some interesting insights into who was present and doing the building.

Ibn Ezra’s Teaching

Genesis 11:1 A logical reading of Scripture indicates that the dispersion took place one hundred years after the flood, and that Peleg, which means divided, was so named because at the time of his birth the earth was divided (Genesis 10:25)… Nevertheless, the words of the Seder Olam are also correct, and we will rely upon them. If this is so, then Abraham was one of the builders of the tower of Babel. Do not be amazed at this, for Noah and Shem were also there. Indeed Shem didn’t die till Jacob was over fifty.

Genesis 11:3 The builders of the tower were not fools to believe that they could actually ascend the heavens. Neither were they afraid that God would bring another flood, for Noah and his children, to whom the Almighty swore never to bring another deluge, were there and being descendants of Noah and his children they were subservient to them. Scripture reveals their intention and ultimate goal. They wanted to build a great city to dwell in, and a very tall tower to ensure their fame and glory and to serve as a sign indicating the place of the city to those outside it, such as shepherds. The tower, as long as it stood, would also perpetuate their names after their deaths. This is the meaning of and let us make a name…

The builders of the tower hoped that that their city and tower would prevent them from dispersing, but this was not God’s will. However, they did not know this.

Genesis 11:7 Some say that the people building the tower started hating each other and each one invented a new language…In my opinion, they were first scattered. After their dispersion Nimrod ruled over Babel and other kings arose. With the passage of time and the death of the first generation to be scattered, the original language was forgotten. God scattered the people for their own benefit. God similarly said, “and replenish the earth” (Genesis 1:28). (Translation Strickman and Silver)

Reflections for the Path

Ibn Ezra makes a number of interesting points here. First, he pays attention to the chronology as recorded in the Torah, incorporating the timeline as constructed in the 2nd century rabbinic work called Seder Olam. It turns out that Abraham probably would have been present, as well as his distant ancestors Noah and Shem. This blew my mind. I never paid too much attention to the lifespans listed for the distant ancestors because they seemed so fantastical, but if you assume they are correct you get an amazing collection of figures across many generations.

Ibn Ezra’s second point is that we shouldn’t assume ill-intent on the part of the builders of Babel, because such luminaries may very well have been present. All they were trying to do was make something big that would reflect well upon them. They wanted to concentrate their capital, in the way that big cities today are drawing more and more people while many rural areas are increasingly depleted. God has other plans, and so forces them to disperse.

Ibn Ezra’s third point implies the question: how did the dispersal happen, and is different language the cause or the effect? His favored interpretation is that God split everyone up in some fashion, and over time there was a natural divergence in language, and people slowly began to lose a sense of solidarity and ability to communicate across geographic and cultural distance.

One spiritual challenge this teaching raises for me involves trade-offs in the decisions we make. God’s goal seems to have been for humans to collectively take full stewardship over the entire earth, not one concentrated city. However, in ensuring that they spread out and inhabit the whole earth, the downside is an increase in tribalism, less ability to understand each other, and ultimately a great deal of hate, violence, and oppression that continues to this day.

What choices do you make in your life that have clear goals and benefits, yet also have shadow consequences? How do you know when the strength you seek is worth the weakness that inevitably accompanies it?

For more on Abraham ibn Ezra:
1. Read my introduction.
2. Listen to ibn Ezra’s opening prayer poem for his Torah commentary.3. Explore the five paths, ibn Ezra’s introduction to his Torah commentary.