Parshat Noach – The Dispersion

“And the entire earth had one language with uniform words.” (Beresheit 11:1)

This pasuk introduces the discussion of the Dispersion. After the Deluge, humankind reestablishes itself. Population increases. However, society is very homogenous. All people share common ancestors, language, and customs. It is not surprising that Noach’s offspring chose to live together and settle in a valley in Shinaar. Humanity joins together in constructing a magnificent city with a tower reaching into the heavens. They feel that this project will create social cohesion. The various members of the community will live together in this impressive city. They will not establish individual settlements. The Almighty objects to this plan. He brings about the development of a variety of languages among the families. The people no longer share a common language. Without this uniting influence, the various families drift apart and establish individual communities. Every incident included in the Torah serves a purpose. Some important lesson is taught. What is the message of this episode?

Our Sages offer a number of responses. Maimonides provides one of the most interesting explanations. Maimonides explains that the Torah asserts that the Almighty created the universe. The Torah recognizes that an obvious objection can be raised. It teaches us that we are descendants from common ancestors. If we are descendants from a single set of ancestors, how can we account for diversity? Humanity is composed of radically diverse societies. There are many different languages and cultures. How can this be reconciled with the proposition that we all descend from Noach? Maimonides explains that the episode of the Dispersion is included in the Torah as a response to this question. The Dispersion established the beginnings of human diversity. This incident is included in the Torah to account for this diversity.

“And Hashem dispersed them from there over the face of the earth. And they desisted from building the city.” (Beresheit 11:8) What was the objective of Noach’s descendants in building their tower? It seems from the Chumash that the objective of this project was to create a home for all of humanity. The builders hoped that, through creating this home, a single cohesive society could be nurtured. Hashem intervened and disrupted the builders’ plans. He instigated conflicts and division among the builders. The cohesiveness of the group dissolved. Sub-groups developed. Each group sought to differentiate itself. This led to the creation of diverse cultures and languages. Why did the Almighty disrupt the work of these social planners? It seems that their objective was admirable. Much of the conflict and hatred throughout history is a result of the perceived differences between nations and peoples. These early social engineers had the foresight to work towards preventing this tragedy. It seems that the history of humanity would be far more civilized had these builders succeeded! The Chumash does not clearly indicate the reason for the Almighty’s intervention. Therefore, the commentaries differ widely in their interpretation of this incident.

Sforno suggests that the incident must be understood in its context. The Chumash relates this incident immediately prior to the introduction of Avraham. This alludes to some connection between this incident and the development of Avraham. What is this relationship? These social planners existed at a time in which idolatry was widely practiced. The shared culture of humanity included this religious perspective. If the builders had succeeded, they would have created overwhelming religious uniformity. This uniformity would have encouraged absolute conformity. It would have been very difficult for any individual to question the religious perspective of all humanity. In addition, it would very easy to suppress any would-be critic. The fragmenting of society eliminated this problem. Religious diversity was initiated. This made it possible for a thinker, such as Avraham, to question the theologies of his era. Sforno concludes that the Dispersion was essential to the development of Avraham’s monotheistic religion. Gershonides suggests another explanation of the incident. He begins with the assumption that the Almighty created a universe governed by natural laws. In such a universe, there is potential for natural disasters. Hurricanes, earthquakes, floods are all part of the pattern of nature. These disasters can destroy communities and wipe out entire populations. However, humanity survives. This is because, generally, these tragedies are localized. A volcano may erupt destroying an entire island. However, a community five hundred miles away will be relatively unaffected. It is obvious that the survival of humanity depends upon its dispersion. If all humanity were to concentrate in a specific geographic area, survival would be endangered. A single catastrophe could destroy all humankind. In order to prevent such a tragedy, Hashem dispersed humanity over the face of the globe. This assured that natural disaster would not jeopardize all of humankind.

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Sefer Beresheit 7:1. Mesechet Eruvin 18b.
Rav Baruch HaLeyve Epstein,
Torah Temimah on Sefer Beresheit 6:9.
Rabbaynu Moshe ben Maimon (Rambam / Maimonides) Moreh Nevuchim, volume 3, chapter 50.
Rabbaynu Ovadia Sforno, Commentary on Sefer Beresheit, 11:6.
Rabbaynu Levi ben Gershon (Ralbag / Gershonides), Commentary on Sefer Beresheit, (Mosad HaRav Kook, 1994), p 98.