Eve And The Tower of Babel


Candlelighting, Readings:
Shabbat candles: 5:46 p.m.
Torah: Gen. 6:9-11:32;
Numbers 28:9-15
Haftarah: Isaiah 66:1-24
Havdalah: 6:44 p.m.

The theme of building is prominent in the early chapters of Genesis. The text presents certain episodes of building as positive, others less favorably.

The first instance of building appears in the Garden of Eden. Adam was commanded to populate and rule the earth but cannot find a fitting helper. “The Lord God built (vayiven) the rib that He had taken from the man into a woman; and He brought her to the man” [Genesis 2:22]. It is striking that the verb “to build” (“banoh,” the root form of “vayiven”) is used only this one time in the Creation narratives. Whereas the man is molded out of the inanimate earth, the woman is built out of the already living body of Adam.

This idea is crucial to the biblical understanding of the human condition. Human beings can never create life where it does not already exist, but they can participate in the building of life where it does exist. When God builds a woman, God is providing a paradigm for human beings to build as well. Building must be about promoting life and constructing communities. When God builds Eve He is also building the first human community. Similarly, when human beings produce and nurture a child, they are building the communities of the future. It is not surprising that the word “ben” (son or child) is etymologically related to the Hebrew root “banoh” — to build. Indeed, God’s mandate to humanity in Genesis is to “be fruitful, multiply and populate the earth” — that is, to build the communities of the world.

Although the image of building is a positive one in the story of the Eve, the very same image is presented in a more negative light in the story of the Tower of Babel [Gen. 11:1-9]. A group of people moves eastward to the valley of Shinar and learn to make bricks from clay. They use this technology to build a city and tower that will rise up to heaven. However, God thwarts this grand venture by confusing the languages of the builders so that they can no longer communicate and must cease to build the city. Why does God disrupt this episode of building?

Apparently, the problem with the building of the tower lay not in the substance but in the goal. The builders do not seek to improve the welfare of society or to gain greater proximity to God’s presence. I rather, to make a name for themselves.

Read in light of each other, the biblical stories of Eve and the tower teach an important lesson about the desirability of building as a human enterprise. Building must be about moving society and civilization forward, advancing communities. But the generation of the Tower of Babel allows technology to become an end in itself, a way for man to become as powerful as God. In the Babel narrative, building a city and tower becomes a metaphor for the aggressive and self-centered tendencies of human nature that challenge spiritual growth and inhibit human relationships.

The Torah tells the story not only of the creation of humanity but of the building of the People of Israel – B’nei Yisrael. Throughout Jewish history, the People of Israel have been scattered in many lands. What has kept Israel vibrant is a tradition that emphasizes the value of community. One of the greatest achievements of the State of Israel is that it has taken responsibility for Jews in many lands — Russia, Yemen, Morocco and Ethiopia, to name a few, because a community transcends geographical boundaries. A community is made up of living-breathing members who may be physically distant, but are united in a shared vision, a shared purpose, a shared tradition.

In the Book of Genesis, building is neither inherently good nor evil but defined by its motivation. When God builds the first woman, Adam willingly gives a part of his physical and existential being to create the first community. Similarly, when Sarah declares to Abraham [Gen. 16:2], “Come to my maidservant, perhaps I will be built through her,” she (and later Rachel) sacrifices her dignity to build the community that will become Israel.

Building must be in the service of community rather than about hubristic structures. We must follow God’s paradigm in building Eve, building for the betterment of society and the improvement of the human experience.

Rachel Friedman  is dean of Lamdeinu, a new center for adult Jewish learning in Teaneck (lamdeinu.org). She served for many years as associate dean and chair of Tanach at Drisha Institute.