The Tower of Babel and the Birth of Nationhood

By Daniel Gordis

A unified humanity is an age-old dream - one that the Bible completely rejects.

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In the compendium of foundational myths that open the Hebrew Bible, one tale seems to be oddly out of place. The first chapters of Genesis, the prologue to “the book of the generations of Adam,”1 raise issues of cardinal human significance. The creation narrative introduces the concepts of “man, heaven, and the created order”2; the story of the Garden of Eden explores questions of temptation, sin, responsibility, and sexuality; the tale of Cain and Abel grapples with hatred and murder; and the flood deals with the inevitable imperfection of humankind. But what about the story of the Tower of Babel? What fundamental truth about the human condition does it seek to impart?
Adding to the story’s enigmatic character is its unique context, situated as it is between the tale of the flood, which concerns humanity as a whole, and the election of Abraham, which deals with one nation. What are we to make of this position? Why does the Bible effect the transition from the universal to the particular through this strange tale of the origins of languages?
The answer to these questions lies, I believe, in the story’s singular function. If the creation narrative introduces the Bible’s metaphysics, the story of the Garden of Eden its theology, and the tales of Cain and Abel and the flood its ethics, then the story of the Tower of Babel serves to present the Bible’s politics. It is here that the biblical text sets forth its ideas of nationhood, ethnicity, and heterogeneity, notions that were revolutionary for their time and went on to play a central role in the political thought of generations to come.
This essay thus offers an in-depth reading of the Tower of Babel narrative with a view toward exposing its political underpinnings. As we shall see, a close literary analysis of the text reveals it to be an eloquent argument in favor of the ethnic-cultural commonwealth—a precursor of sorts to the modern nation-state—as an indispensable condition for human freedom and self-realization.3 This is an idea of far-reaching consequences. For if our reading is correct, it demonstrates that the concept of nationhood—of a distinct group identity based on common language, culture, land, and blood ties—was not a modern European innovation, as some scholars proclaim it to be, but rather an integral part of the Jewish tradition from its very beginnings.4

Daniel Gordis is senior vice president and a senior fellow at the Shalem Center.

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