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Noach(Genesis 6:9-11:32)

Unified Technology Against God?

"One of the greatest tragedies of intellectual human experience is that we study Bible stories when we are 55 in the same manner as we studied them when we were 5." - Rabbi Yaakov Kamenetzky, of blessed memory

We may know the story of the Tower of Bavel from our childhood, but like many Biblical stories, have we ever pondered its depth and profundity? A careful reading of Genesis (11:1-8) will bring forth some fascinating insights.

"The whole world was of one language and of unified words. It was when they migrated from the east they found a valley in the land of Shinar and settled there. Each man said to each other, 'Come, let's make bricks and burn them in fire.' The bricks served for them as stone and the mortar as clay. They said, 'Come, let's build a city and a tower with its top in the heavens and let's make a name for ourselves, lest we become dispersed across the earth.' God descended to see the city and tower which the sons of man built. God said, 'Behold, they are one people with one language for all of them and this is what they begin to do? Now, nothing will remain unattainable to them, they will accomplish everything they have in mind to accomplish. Come, let us descend and confuse their language so that they won't understand each other.' God dispersed them from there over the face of the earth and they stopped building the city."

First, some questions:

  • Why is important to know that they were traveling from the east?

  • Why must we know that they settled in a valley?

  • Why did they choose brick and mortar rather than stone and clay, and why does the Torah inform us of this?

  • What does it mean that God descends to the world?

  • Finally, what exactly were their plans for a city and a tower and what did God see in this plan that was so destructive?

* * *


It is interesting to note that the people were afraid of being dispersed across the earth and indeed, this is exactly what God does to them in the end. What is so bad about having mankind spread out? The answer is a notion that our generation can appreciate perhaps more than any other.

We hear constantly of the idea of the 'global village' -- that nothing in the world happens in a vacuum. When something happens in one part of the world, it is not only known in minutes (if not seconds) in another part of the world, but it affects it greatly.

With the advent of technology, the entire world is like a small village. Advances in communication have made the sharing of knowledge an extremely simple and fast endeavor. This has changed society tremendously.

The generation of the Tower of Bavel wanted to be the first global village.

We all know the famous cliche, "Two heads are better than one." Certainly, then, hundreds of nations (and billions of people) sharing information about improvements and technological advancements with one another will produce a much more advanced world. This contributes to new inventions in medicine, technology, and virtually all aspects of life. This is why the generation of the Tower of Bavel desperately wanted to stay together. They knew that population would continually expand requiring more and more space, but they would at least have a unifying force -- the tall tower. Although, they would populate the vast lands across the earth, they would still view themselves as one city. They would be a global village.

And they did not yet have the handicap of differences in language that create distinctive cultures and ultimately create rifts between peoples and nations. These cultural differences have at times in history limited the sharing of knowledge between peoples. The unifying tower and city would prevent disputes from developing, and mankind would be able to advance technologically at as rapid a pace as possible.

* * *


But it seems God was not thrilled with this idea. He says, 'Now nothing will remain unattainable to them. They will accomplish all that they have in mind to accomplish.' What is so bad about that?

When man can accomplish all that he wishes to accomplish, he does not need God. Witness that they left 'from the east.' The previous reference to 'the east' was to the Garden of Eden (Genesis 2:8). They wished to leave the closest possible place to God that existed then and wanted to forge their own destiny without God's assistance. They wished to build a unifying city and tower but specifically wanted to begin the building in a valley. Although the usage of a hill or mountain would facilitate making the tower as high as possible, they didn't want to use anything natural or 'God-made'. There was no room for God's involvement in their project.

There was no room for God's involvement in their project.

Thus their choice of bricks and mortar. They reject using natural 'God-made' materials like stone or clay and choose to create their own inventions for building materials.

God descends into the world to make sure that man does not claim the world as his own without God's involvement in it. He must make sure that man does not only make a name for himself (as the verse states) without God giving His stamp of approval and direction. So, God disperses man into many languages and nations thwarting the global village concept for thousands of years.

Today we experience some of the unifying force of the Tower of Bavel as we live in a veritable global village. And perhaps this is where the problem begins.

Over the past 200 years, since the advent of modern technology, man has become increasingly secular. The more we can figure out the hows and whys of the world, it seems, the less we need to believe and trust in God and religion. Man has become too confident, too secure with his control over many things in the world and looks at religion as designed for primitive thinkers.

God has opened up the vistas of modern discovery for us.

Judaism has a very different outlook. We are not afraid of technology. In fact we embrace it, but we must always keep it in perspective. God has given us the ability to master the world in ways that our ancestors never dreamed of. Technology has made life easier in a host of ways and modern medicine has resulted in an ever-increasing lifespan.

But man has not accomplished all this on his own. God has opened up the vistas of modern discovery for us. We must constantly keep this in mind whenever we benefit from modern discoveries, thanking God for all that He has given us. We do not want to emulate the goals of the people of the Tower of Bavel.

When we take the most updated pill for a headache, we should say a short prayer to God that the medicine works and not just be confident and secure with man's inventions. When we use our laptops and the Internet, take a moment to express your gratitude to God for giving man the ability to create such an amazing tool for writing and communication.

This is the kind of world that man was designed to live in. Man discovers and even masters the world, but all along man thanks and appreciates God for granting the wisdom and ability for him to accomplish.

October 13, 2001

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Visitor Comments: 16

(16) Yehudith Shraga, October 15, 2012 10:11 PM

Intresting explanation

Very good message and explanation about Jewish attitude to technology progress, thank you.

(15) Stephen, October 26, 2009 12:16 AM

Technology without Hashem is Death

Reading this article, I couldn't help but remember to role that technology played in the "success" of Nazi Germany's attempted annihilation of the Jews of Europe (and by design, of all Jews in the world"). If you don't believe me, read "IBM and the Holocaust: The Strategic Alliance Between Nazi Germany and America's Most Powerful Corporation". It demonstrates how technology - when sold and used by people without any sense of humanity of common decency used in completely horrific ways. As a computer programmer, every day I have to ask myself why - as a Jew - I allow myself to make my living working with these machines that had been used to support the deaths of six million of my fellow Jews. It is only in the hope that, by using them to help people learn and connect with their own humanity, I can use the devil's tool to bring the Torah's truth and justice into the world.

(14) Mike Lampard, October 27, 2008 7:35 AM

Great teaching.

Great teaching here, it gives a context regarding man becoming all sufficient and thereby using technology to become independent of G-d. To understand the times within which we live, we need to consider and even meditate on the Tower of Babel at length to see where we are heading. Look at the EU building in Brussels. Does that not say it all regarding the EU??

(13) Scott Granowski, November 5, 2005 12:00 AM

Tower of Bavel

Rabbi Leff does a wonderful work of advancing my understanding of this familiar story. This is one of those columns with permanent impact - learning that the world has not simply been created for us to marvel at ourselves, but to build a relationship with HaShem!

(12) Jay, October 16, 2004 12:00 AM

Gratitude & Responsibility

A large part of the gratitude to G-d for this modern technology, comes a responsibility to use this technology as G-d would see fit. Excellent article, thank you!

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