For the week of October 29, 2022 / 4 Heshvan 5783
Torah: Bereshit/Genesis 6:9 – 11:32
Haftarah: Isaiah 54:1 – 55:5
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And they said to one another, “Come, let us make bricks, and burn them thoroughly.” And they had brick for stone, and bitumen for mortar. Then they said, “Come, let us build ourselves a city and a tower with its top in the heavens, and let us make a name for ourselves, lest we be dispersed over the face of the whole earth.” (Bereshit/Genesis 11:3-4)
This week’s parsha (weekly Torah reading) features technology gone bad. The story of the Tower of Babel takes place between Noah’s Ark and the call of Abram (whose name was later changed to Abraham). A superficial reading may give the impression that God is against technological advancement. He didn’t like that they had undertaken such a project. Actually, that might be true, but not because of their technological prowess.
That human beings would engage in technological development is assumed in Scripture. From the very beginning of our existence, we read of God’s directing the first man and woman: “Be fruitful and multiply and fill the earth and subdue it, and have dominion over the fish of the sea and over the birds of the heavens and over every living thing that moves on the earth” (Bereshit/Genesis 1:28). Humans were given the responsibility to “subdue” the earth. The Hebrew for subdue is kavash’ and has to do with making something or someone do what you want. In the context of the creation mandate, human beings were to make the earth be what God wanted it to be through them. We were not to simply make sure everything just stayed the way it was first made.
Some misunderstand the Garden of Eden as perfection in the sense that it could in no way be improved upon. People could mess it up, but not make it better. But this misunderstands God’s intention for both the planet and human responsibility. One might think that people were to just laze around eating fruit from the garden’s trees and drinking water from the rivers and that’s it. I can’t say for sure what it would have been like if the rebellion against God wouldn’t have happened so soon, but the directive to subdue the earth certainly called for interacting with and developing the creation. Under this directive, it would not be long before tools would be invented, and all sorts of discoveries made. These early forms of technology would be the baby steps eventually leading to space stations and smart phones.
So, what was so wrong about the Babel building project? I remember as a child in first or second grade, when my public school in Montreal was still allowed to read Bible stories, being told the reason why the people were making this high tower. I don’t know if it was in the story itself, if the teacher mentioned it, or if was a comment from a student. However it came to me, I had the impression that the tower was to enable people to survive in the event of another flood. I eventually learned that the biblical text gives no such impression. Instead, the purpose of the tower and the city was for theexpressed purpose of the people’s making a name for themselves to prevent them from being dispersed throughout the earth. They believed that their building project would provide them with identity and security, thus enabling them to remain together in that one location.
God was not happy about this plan. Again, it might appear that he was concerned about their technological prowess in and of itself. We read, “Behold, they are one people, and they have all one language, and this is only the beginning of what they will do. And nothing that they propose to do will now be impossible for them” (Bereshit/Genesis 11:6). The “nothing that they propose…will be impossible” implies God’s concern that if left unchecked humans will devise highly destructive inventions. But it wasn’t the technology itself he was concerned about, since he already not only tolerated but instigated technological advancement. Apart from the tools already developed, it was God who supplied the design of an extraordinary boat-like structure which preserved his creation project.
The problem with the development of the tower and city was not the technology itself but the people’s motive. God had commanded human beings to fill the earth, but they wanted to stay together in one place. They believed their technology could accomplish that. This stemmed from their believing that their identity and security could be derived from themselves and their self-driven plans.
While technology in itself is neither good nor bad, when it is used for self and security contrary to God’s will, it is highly destructive. What happened at Babel demonstrated that human nature was bent towards itself and away from God. In God’s wisdom, he confused their language to put a wrench in the works, so to speak. The resultant communication barrier greatly slowed down technological innovation and its inevitable destruction.
Let me reiterate that the problem isn’t the technology itself, but how it is used. When used as a tool in the service of God under his direction and for his purposes, much blessing may result. However, when used for self, disconnected from our Lord and King, there’s no limit to the damage it can do.
Scriptures taken from the English Standard Version