B'resheet/Genesis 11:8 And the L-rd dispersed them from there over the face of the whole earth; and they ceased to build the city.
This text is the penultimate verse in the narrative of the Tower of Babel. The story goes that after the flood, the descendants of Noah "migrated from the east and settled in a valley in the land of Shinar" (B'resheet 11:2). There they decided to build a tower "with its top in the sky" (v. 4). ButHaShem confounded their plans by making them speak different languages and - as the text says - dispersing them all over the earth. What is this story about and what can we learn from it today?
Addressing the grammar first, the first verb in the text, , is the Hif'il prefix 3ms form of the root , "to disperse themselves, be scattered" (Davidson), with a vav-conversive construction to make it a completed event in the narrative sequence. In the Hif'il voice, the root has an active meaning, "to disperse, scatter or confuse". The verb is followed by its subject, , HaShem, and object, , them. The second verb, , is the Qal 3mp prefix form of the root , "to cease, leave off, fail" (Davidson), again in a vav-conversive construction as the next completed event in the narrative sequence. It is followed by , the Qal infinitive of the root , "to build" and its object, , the city.
Nechama Leibowitz describes the way that mankind has evolved building technology. No longer restricted to mountainous areas where stone is available for building, man can now make use of the clay to be found in the valley floor to make bricks and fire them. She comments that, "Man who has the power to reach these technical heights soon imagines that he is all-powerful," and points to the psalms: "Why do nations assemble, and peoples plot vain things; kings of the earth take their stand, and regents intrigue together against the L-RD and against His anointed? 'Let us break the cords of their yoke, shake off their ropes from us!' He who is enthroned in heaven laughs; the L-rd mocks at them" (Psalm 2:1-4, JPS). Then she steps to the words of the prophet - "For the L-RD of Hosts has ready a day against all that is proud and arrogant, against all that is lofty -- so that it is brought low ... against every soaring tower and every mighty wall ... Then man's haughtiness shall be humbled and the pride of man brought low. None but the L-RD shall be exalted in that day" (Isaiah 2:12-17, JPS) - and explains that "Only then will there be an end of idolatry, that is, man's pride which takes advantage of the wisdom implanted in him by G-d in order to turn himself into a deity and worship the work of his own hands."
Why was the tower built? The Sages of the Talmud simply say that "The tower was built with unworthy motives" (b. Sanhedrin 109a). Nahum Sarna tells us that, "a prime motivation of the builders is said to have been the consolidation of group unity. However, in the present context, the stated purpose of the builders, 'that we be not scattered all over the world,' constitutes a direct challenge to the intent of G-d as expressed in the blessing to postdiluvial humanity: 'Fill the earth' (B'resheet 9:7). Man did not perceive this to be a blessing and so derived means to thwart its fulfillment."Rashi adds, "That which they said - 'Lest we be dispersed' (11:4) - came true for them. This is an example of what Solomon said: "What the wicked fears will come upon him" (Proverbs 10:24).
HaShem acted to enforce His plans and make sure that mankind did not stay in just one place and focus on the tower alone. This was, Umberto Cassuto explains, "as He had originally planned, contrary to the wishes of the sons of men when they said, 'lest we be scattered' (B'resheet 11:4).1 A similar example occurs in Shemot 1:10: Pharaoh said of the Israelites, 'lest they multiply' and immediately afterwards it is written, 'But the more they were oppressed, the more they multiplied and the more they spread abroad' (v. 12), as though to say: Pharaoh said, 'lest they multiply', but the L-rd said, 'they would multiply the more'; and as the L-rd willed so it was." Nahum Sarna adds that "the pathetic futility of man's rebellious resolve is laid bare."
Ibn Ezra takes a different tack, echoing some of the above, but asking a serious question: "The builders of the Tower wanted to keep the people together in order to frustrate G-d's plan for man to replenish and inhabit all parts of the earth, as commanded in B'resheet 1:28. Are the countless distractions and unproductive enterprises that occupy man's time and energies a frustration of G-d's desire for man to use his time wisely and well? Is G-d's plan to replenish and inhabit the earth G-d's plan for humanity or is it only a means to an end? What is the end plan?" Some writers within early Judaism suggested that scattering could be a good event. The writer of 2 Baruch, set in the closing years of the first temple, records HaShem saying, "I shall scatter this people among the nations that they may do good to the nations" (2 Baruch 1:4).
The Scriptures record another time of dispersion in the early days of the church after Stephen was killed: "And there arose on that day a great persecution against the church in Jerusalem, and they were all scattered throughout the regions of Judea and Samaria, except the apostles" (Acts 8:1, ESV). This was, however, enough to take people far beyond the physical area of Israel and its neighbours: "Now those who were scattered because of the persecution that arose over Stephen traveled as far as Phoenicia and Cyprus and Antioch" (11:19, ESV). We know that a portion of the Jerusalem church remained with the apostles in the city because Rav Sha'ul visited Jerusalem for the council in Acts 15 and again just before his arrest in Acts 21. Was this a deliberate dispersion, as some suggest, because the followers of Yeshua were not obeying His mandate to: "be My witnesses in Jerusalem and in all Judea and Samaria, and to the end of the earth" (1:8, ESV). With the 2 Baruch passage in mind, Darrell Bock comments that "a similar positive result emerges from this persecution ... out of this scattering emerge major outreaches"2 as the following chapters indicate.
Let's re-ask Ibn Ezra's question, because although he was writing in the 10th century, it seems to have particularly resonance in our day. Are we endlessly distracted - by technology, noise and entertainment - so that we never actually concentrate on anything for more than five minutes together? Are we easily sidetracked into unproductive enterprises that take us away from the urgency of the kingdom? Do our plans and ceaseless activity frustrate G-d's desire for us to use the time He has given us wisely and well? Are we engaged upon replenishing and occupying the earth for the kingdom of G-d according to G-d's plans and purposes?
Addressing the question from a different point of view, how do we respond to Yeshua's instructions: "Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, teaching them to observe all that I have commanded you" (Matthew 28:19-20, ESV)? The first thing to notice is that while the second verb "make disciples" is an imperative - a command - the first, , is not. It is a participle and has the idea of conducting oneself, living or walking; a very close parallel to the Hebrew concept of halachah - the way of walking out the Torah in every day life, how to apply it. This means that while some people rightly hear the word 'Go' and are called to serve G-d overseas or in some missionary field away from home, no-one may exclude themselves because we all live our lives in front of people; we all talk to people at work, at home and at leisure - our life is visible all the time. Most of us are called to serve where we are, where we have been planted, among the people G-d has chosen for us to bless and impact with His story, His Good News.
The second thing to notice is that we are commanded; we are a commanded people. As we go, in our lives, we are commanded to make disciples. This means that we do not have the option of sitting in our own little castles, within our comfort zones, our own little empires or enclaves. Just as the builders of the Tower of Babel were dispersed in order to carry out HaShem's original instructions to fill the earth and dwell there; just as the early church in Jerusalem was dispersed in order to carry out Yeshua's mandate to fill the earth with the witness of Yeshua and to make disciples; so too if we do not move and carry out our orders to fill the earth with our witness to Yeshua and dwell visibly in the kingdom, we also will be dispersed and sent on our way. We are not building our own city, but looking for the city that G-d has already built and prepared for those whom He has called. That's you and me! Let's go before we have to be pushed.
1. - Umberto Cassuto, A Commentary on the Book of Genesis, Part Two - From Noah to Abraham, Magnes Press Jerusalem 1984, 965-223-540-7, pages 247-248
2. - Darrell L. Bock, Acts, ECNT, Baker, 2007, page 318
Further Study: Job 40:11-14; Luke 1:51-55; 2 Corinthians 10:3-6
Application: Are you sitting on your hands and hoping that no-one will notice you? Are you keeping your head down and trying to escape notice while being very busy with your own little world? Time to hear the Master's call and hit the trail - there's a world out there that needs to see us walking!
© Jonathan Allen, 2016
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