In the 16th century, Belgian artist Pieter Bruegel the Elder painted one of the most famous renderings of the Bible’s Tower of Babel. He portrayed the tower as a gargantuan edifice of bricks and mortar, under construction, with its top above the clouds, reaching toward the heavens. The project’s royal leader is in the foreground with workmen at his feet feigning subservience. Within the painting itself, construction seems to be proceeding methodically, but successful completion is noticeably in doubt—perhaps reflecting Bruegel’s own concerns about technological overreach and the political abuse of power. The large painting is a monumental achievement. Yet the meaning of the tower in the Bible is far more monumental. It not only brings into question the perennial yearning for the ideal society; it also demonstrates the need for what we now call ethical monotheism.
The story of the Tower of Babel in the Old Testament is surprisingly short—just nine verses in total. However, despite its brevity, its meaning is incredibly important, occurring at a critical moment in the Biblical narrative, right between two seminal events. First, the flood that re-creates the world with Noah, the righteous man of his generation; and second, God’s establishment of His covenant with Abraham, the father of Judaism and ethical monotheism.
The story begins in Genesis 11:1 with the observation that “the whole earth was of one language and of common purpose.” The people, after settling all in one place, say:
Come, let us build us a city, and a tower with its top in the heavens, and let us make a name for ourselves, lest we be dispersed across the whole earth.
Displeased with this, God descends and says:
Behold, they are one people with one language for all, and this they begin to do! … Come, let us descend and there confuse their language, that they should not understand one another’s language.
And God dispersed them from there over the face of the whole earth, and they stopped building the city.
Commentaries on the story are numerous, but two stand out. The first takes the view that God was upset with man’s hubris, with his arrogant attempt to create a godless heaven on earth, with the aim of replacing God with a human creation of godlike proportions. The Chumash published by Art Scroll suggests that there was a rebellion led by Nimrod, the preeminent hunter of the day, “to build a tower ascending to Heaven and, from it, wage war against God.” The JPS Jewish Study Bible echoes a similar concern, noting that the text reflects “a keen sense that technology poses grave dangers when it is not accompanied by reverence for God.” Leon Kass, too, has a similar interpretation in The Beginning of Wisdom, where he observes that “the tower … must be seen as a presumptuous attempt to control or appropriate the divine.”
A second notable interpretation is that God disperses the people across the land because He’s not pleased with their attempt to create a unified borderless world with one language. On its surface, God’s displeasure may seem odd, as the idea of a unified borderless world can sound appealing. Not surprisingly, many people today look to international institutions like the United Nations as vehicles for peace and mutual collaboration. Yet, with the Tower of Babel, the Bible appears to be offering a cautionary message about international governance, one echoed in recent times by Winston Churchill. In a speech given in the aftermath of the Second World War, Churchill said that, while he hoped the UN could become “a true temple of peace in which the shields of many nations can someday be hung up,” he worried it might end up being “a cockpit in a Tower of Babel.” Moreover, the biblical story appears to convey a message that’s completely contrary to one of global unity. In order to limit the effects of man’s evil inclinations, the Bible suggests, we ought to live not as one global community but rather as distinct peoples, with distinct languages and cultures and traditions. As Daniel Gordis explains in “The Tower of Babel and the Birth of Nationhood” (Azure, No. 40, 2010), the story is “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.”
While these two perspectives offer critical insights, there’s another interpretation that’s perhaps even more important, especially today. It requires a bit of textual analysis based on the Hebrew words devarim achadim—“one common vision”—but the exegesis ultimately leads to the importance of ethical monotheism as the antidote to a dangerous and recurring human predilection.
Let’s remember from the story that after God confounds the people’s language and disperses them across the land, He then pursues a completely new approach —a new covenant with Abraham and his descendants—upon which God’s hopes for humankind will rest. Why was this necessary? After all, if God’s aim, after the flood, was to ensure that man fill the earth with separate communities with distinct languages—as a means to rein in man’s evil inclinations—then, with the dispersion after the Tower of Babel, that was being accomplished.
What then is it about the tower that’s so disturbing that requires this completely new approach with Abraham? Upon careful review, there is one other plausible explanation. The text states that the people, in addition to being of one language and settling in one centralized place, were of “one common purpose.” The actual words are devarim achadim. The Hebrew has no simple translation, so as a result the words have been variously translated—as “one common purpose,” “common speech,” “one speech,” “common words,” “the same words,” and “uniform words.” However it is translated, the words seem to connote “one common vision.”
The tower was a human design representing a grand social scheme to create a prospering society based on one common vision. This, on its face, does not seem so unreasonable. Many aspire to the common good, to find common ground, to work together collectively for society as a whole. Moreover, to yearn for such a common purpose would seem to be endemic to the human condition. There have been over the years many social ideologies comparable to the Tower of Babel that try, with one common vision, to make society look a certain ideal way. Yet the story is telling us that the attempt to impose such common visions is fraught with problems.
The most malevolent example of such social schemes in recent times is Marxist communism, which led to horrific abuses by its authoritarian rulers, not to mention the murder of nearly 100 million innocent lives. How did communist leaders justify all the inhumane treatment of their fellow man? As Juliana Geran Pilon observes in her book The Utopian Conceit and the War on Freedom, they believed that
they were engaged in the creation of an exceptionally praiseworthy, morally and historically superior social system, hence they were entitled to use all and any means that promised to bring about this ideal state of affairs.
Today there are many other variations of social ideologies that entail common visions of an ideal society—from utilitarianism to egalitarianism to socialism—often sounding quite benign. Notwithstanding their seemingly laudable aims, they all raise troubling questions.
First is the problem of knowledge. Even assuming some common vision, do we have the ability to understand society, with all its complexity, to put in place centralized plans aimed at some desired outcome? Reflecting on the hubris of the idea, Adam Smith, in his Theory of Moral Sentiments, observed that this type of societal planner “is apt to be very wise in his own conceit … He seems to imagine that he can arrange the different members of a great society with as much ease as the hand arranges the different pieces upon a chess–board.”
Friedrich Hayek, expressing his own skepticism about economic planning in The Fatal Conceit, wrote: “The curious task of economics is to demonstrate to men how little they really know about what they imagine they can design.”
Moreover, in our pursuing a common vision, it's dangerous for social scientists to prescribe what we ought to do. Sociology, psychology, and economics can illuminate much about the contours of the human being and human society, but they cannot, as sciences, tell us what the goals of our society should be nor what the ends of our lives should be. Yet many gravitate with ease from making observations about people and society to prescribing what society should ideally look like.
British economist Wilfred Beckerman discusses this precise issue in his book Economics as Applied Ethics: Fact and Value in Economic Policy. Beckerman highlights the important distinction between “normative” and “positive” propositions. “A ‘normative proposition’ is an ‘ought’ proposition … like … ‘we ought to raise taxes on fattening food.’ ” A “positive proposition” is an “is” proposition. For example, “other things remaining equal, the demand for apples is inversely related to their price.” Focusing on “ought” versus “is,” Beckerman references David Hume who “was highly critical of a widespread tendency to jump too readily from the latter to the former.” Beckerman laments that, within his own field of economics, this tendency “is still widespread.” In fact, he says, the main object of his book “could be seen as an attempt to fight against its widespread persistence in the analysis of economic policy.”
Yuval Levin, in his book Tyranny of Reason: The Origins and Consequences of the Social Scientific Outlook, expresses similar concerns. Tracing the history of the social sciences back to Auguste Comte, the father of sociology, Levin notes, “Comte was not worried about the difficulties of jumping from ‘is’ to ‘ought.’” For Comte, scientific laws, “derived from the scientific observation and analysis of society, would point the way to the proper arrangement of society, and then men of science would undertake the task of actually reorganizing (or engineering) society to fit the pattern demanded by nature.” Today, regrettably, as Levin observes, “the social scientific outlook does, as a general principle, accept a number of Comte’s suppositions regarding the discoverability of laws behind the fabric of societal life.”
The apparent hubris is troubling. Even more, the implications are alarming. While a society committed to one common vision, planned according to some social scientific theory, may seem to offer great potential, it entails the very real peril of driving out any semblance of pluralism, any consideration of the voices and rights of those in the minority, any checks and balances designed to limit the reach of those in power. As Levin sums up, “The idea that society functions by natural rational laws … is inherently tyrannical.”
Additionally, in our attempt to implement some grand social scheme aimed at a common vision, there will inevitably be a conflict with our normative, moral values. This conflict can, at first, seem odd. After all, do not our visions for society reflect our values and morals? Such social visions, however, are by definition consequentialist. Their goals are to identify the right consequences, the right outcomes, the right state of affairs, and then to devise policies and programs that will create that desired state of affairs. This may sound reasonable, but there’s a huge potential issue. There is no particular reason why our pursuit of an ideal state of affairs should align with the traditional moral values that guide our individual actions. Quite the contrary.
Paul Hurley discusses this in his book Beyond Consequentialism. “Consequentialist moral theories are not theories of the relationship between reasons to act and right action. They are instead theories of the relationship between right actions and good overall states of affairs, upon which an action is morally right just in case its performance leads to the best state of affairs.” Yet asking people to make decisions based on what leads to a desired state of affairs inevitably compromises their own moral values to do what’s right on an individual basis. Hurley observes that this puts one in the untenable situation of making moral decisions based on two different moral criteria, each likely to be in conflict with the other.
Finally, such social planning, assuming some common vision, undermines our notions of free will and ultimately our sense of morality itself. When we focus on how society should ideally look, making a particular state of affairs the primary consideration, we are assuming that everyone in our society, under the right social conditions, will somehow act rightly—as though the human person is no more than a material object, reflecting solely his or her social and economic conditions, without free will. As Bradley Birzer, reflecting on the history of social scientific thought in The Imaginative Conservative, recently noted:
For a while, the West thought that economics or biology or psychology determined our existence. Then around 1967, it became race, class, or gender. And this is the extremely dangerous situation in which we find ourselves. … Few believe in free will, and those who do have no real ability to shape intellectual or cultural trends. Yet, without free will and a belief in it, there is no dignity and certainly no freedom of the human person. And without moral responsibility, there is no certain morality.
As the story of the Tower of Babel implies, we seem to naturally yearn for a common purpose, a common vision—all presumably with noble intentions. This sentiment was evidently prevalent thousands of years ago, and it continues to be a motivating force for many today. It not only sounds appealing; it also seems virtuous.
Yet the Tower of Babel story appears to be telling us that we need to consider such grand social visions with great caution. Even more, perhaps it’s telling us that, in light of our propensity for such utopian common visions, we need to commit ourselves to a completely different approach. As Rabbi Jonathan Sacks reminds us, “after Babel, God comes to the conclusion that there must be another and different way for humans to live.”
The biblical story resumes, several generations after the Tower of Babel, with God saying to Abraham, “Lech lecha”—“Go for yourself … And I will make of you a great nation; I will bless you, and make your name great, and you shall be a blessing.” And with these words, we see the beginning of ethical monotheism—not entailing global government but rather distinct communities with distinct traditions; not focused on one common vision under the dictates of the state but rather on communal responsibilities within civil society; not with a consequentialist vision of an ideal state of affairs but with individual moral obligations to be righteous, charitable, and just, all under a covenant with God.
Bruegel’s depiction of the Tower of Babel may have included many embellishments beyond the literal biblical text, but Breugel, in the 16th century, appears to have discerned, perhaps more than he realized, the profound truth of its underlying message.