The Tower of Babel and Paganism

History moves in spurts. There are events that take a few years, and much scholarship is devoted to it. The American Civil War, for instance, has hundreds if not thousands of volumes written on it, whereas very little is known and written about the Dark Ages in Europe, a period lasting some five centuries. We do not have even the sources or the resources to know about it.

The Torah also moves in that fashion. The ten generations from Noah to Abraham lasted about 450 years. The previous ten generations, from Adam until Noah, took about 1,500 years. That is a lot of history to squeeze into a few chapters. However, the Torah’s point is not to serve as a history book, but rather as a teaching book – a book that teaches us how to live. The events it discusses in the almost 2,000 year period from Adam to Abraham represent major lessons about life, human nature, the human condition and God’s role in it all. The history from it is an added bonus, so to speak.

The End of Chaos

The Jewish sages describe the 2,000 years from Adam until Abraham as “chaos” – tohu va-vohu (based on Genesis 1:2). The next 2,000 years, from Abraham until the end of the editing of the Mishnah by Rabbi Judah the Prince, are called the “Years of Torah.” The next 2,000 years, which we are now a part of, are called the years of the “Messianic Era,” in which the process of redemption and perfecting the world somehow is advancing.

Consequently, when we talk about Abraham we are talking about the end of the period of the “Years of Chaos.” Even though this era contained many good people, nevertheless civilization generally had no form, no basis of morality; it did not coalesce. When it did, it did so in a negative fashion rather than positively.

The Birth of Tyranny

Noah had three sons: Shem, Ham and Japheth. Although they were not pagans, paganism began to dominate the world after the Flood.

Paganism was more than just an ideology. It was the method of tyranny. It was the way by which people controlled other people.

Throughout history, totalitarian governments made the leader of the government a god. In the ancient world, they made him a literal god. Jewish tradition, for instance, relates that Pharaoh claimed he never had to go to the bathroom. That is why Moses always went to see him in the Nile in the morning, because that was when he relieved himself.

There is a book called The Denial of Death by Ernst Becker, a famous Jewish psychiatrist. He explains that the elimination of human waste is God’s constant reminder to us that we are not gods, that we are not immortal.

Paganism was a vehicle for tyranny because by transforming a human being into a god it justified tyranny.

In modern times, too, tyrannies work this way. For instance, Stalin and Lenin were made into gods, in essence. Everywhere you went there were statues and pictures of “Our beloved father.” Hitler, too, of course was god-like in the way the Germans worshiped him. Today, in North Korea, millions of people view Kim Jong II as a god. It runs throughout human history.

The way the Jewish people neutralized this phenomenon was through the institution of the prophets. Jewish kings always had a prophet who stood at their side (and over their shoulder), whispering in their ears, “You know, you may not be right?” The prophet reminded the king that he was responsible to God.


Today, the word technology brings to mind the latest electronic gadget or advanced weapon system. However, in its essence technology is something more and reflects the long-standing, deep-seated human need to manipulate his environment. There is a curiosity, a drive within us, to improve, invent and create. The human imagination knows no limits.

Who invented technology? Who was the first human being to understand he could manipulate the environment? Jewish tradition offers a marvelous insight. Commenting on the verse that says God made clothes for Adam and Eve, the Midrash says He “clothed” them with the first ideas of technology, i.e. how to create and tame the world. That was the “clothing” that He gave them.

Tradition, for instance, teaches that Adam was the first to make fire. If you can make fire, you can make tools. If you can make tools, you can make other things. The sages say (Avos 5:6) that one of the things that was created before the Sabbath was the first tool.

God equipped human beings with the imagination and creativity to tame the world and make life more physically comfortable.

When Einstein was 12 years old, he imagined what it would be like to ride a beam of light. “If I could ride a beam of light to the end, what would it be like?” he asked himself. And that piece of imagination, he said, sparked in his mind the connection between light and gravity, the Theory of Relativity, etc. That’s imagination a work!

There was a young man in yeshiva who would always say, “Rabbi, if you explain the first line to me, I’ll be able to do the rest myself. I just can’t get past the first line!”

That is how God arranged technology for the human being. He taught us the first line. He gave us the first push and then let human ingenuity take over.

Human beings learn from trial and error, but also from the divine inspiration that lies within us, which is alluded to in the “clothing” God gave to Adam. He gave him the ability to imagine.

That spark is what drove the pursuit of ever-greater technology in the 450 year period after the Flood. Humanity experienced technological breakthroughs unheard of before. They learned how to make bricks and used them to invent ways to build taller buildings. It was a new industry and created new technological opportunities. The Tower of Babel became symbolic of this drive for bigger and better technology – to the point that the people of the time believed that they were challenging God (Genesis 11:4).

Nimrod, the First Tyrant

Together with the explosion of technological advancement in the early generations was the introduction of an idea no less influential upon future civilization: the idea of imperialism — the idea that certain groups have the innate right to conquer and dominate other groups. That idea was first brought to civilization by the great king, Nimrod.

The name Nimrod contains within it the Hebrew word mered, which means “rebellion.” He rebelled against all moral constraints. He not only said that he himself was a god, but that he was the only god.

This Tower of Babel that was built in his time was meant to symbolize his dominance over all civilization. To use a bad pun, the Tower of Babel is a watershed of human history, because with it human history took a different turn. It became a world of individuals seeking empires, a world of people wanting to dominate others. There’s an old, bad joke about the German who ate at a Chinese restaurant and left hungry for power.

That was Nimrod. The Torah describes him as a great hunter. “A great hunter” doesn’t only mean that he hunted animals. He hunted people. He hunted others that he felt were weaker than he. Nimrod was a fearsome warrior, and in his tyranny he brooked no opposition.

Therefore, he was the one that took Abraham and threw him in a furnace, because Abraham was the antithesis of everything that Nimrod stood for. Abraham said that no human being was a god. Abraham said that you had to be caring and hospitable to all people – not domineering. Abraham rejected everything Nimrod represented. Nimrod had no choice but to kill him.

That has always been the method of tyrants: deal with opposition through police truncheons and concentration camps. The miracle of Abraham’s survival is the miracle of the human spirit, of ideas that cannot be crushed.

There is a well-known story about a man named Merle Miller, who wrote a biography of Harry Truman emphasizing how he was basically a moral person (though you don’t get to be President of the United States by reciting 150 psalms a day). A senator from Ohio, Senator Taft, approached him at the beginning of the Cold War, right after the conclusion of the Second World War, when Russia began to expand into Eastern Europe. At that time, the United States was the sole possessor of the atomic bomb. Taft half-jokingly said to Truman, “Mr. President, why don’t you drop a bomb on Moscow now and prevent this long struggle that we’re going to have to be engaged in?”

Truman answered, “If I would not have to meet my Maker, I would accept your advice.”

There is a moral restraint that holds good people back. That is what Abraham represents. Can you imagine if Hitler would have had the atomic bomb? It’s unthinkable. Part of fear over places like Iran and North Korea having nuclear weapons is that there is no moral restraint there. People are not really afraid that India has a bomb.

Nimrod had no moral restraints. At the same time, he wielded the atomic bomb of his day: the new technology. Nimrod possessed the garments of Adam, of the original man, which represent the human spark of imagination and ingenuity that leads to great advances in technology.

The world Abraham was born into, much like our world, was corrupt and on the verge of self-implosion. The 450 year period from Noah to Abraham set the stage for the turning point of civilization, embodied in the person of Abraham, for without him the world would have continued down the path of the unrestrained paganism, technology and imperialism. The moral restraint, which is necessary for humanity to exist, will be legacy provided by Abraham.

Posted in:
Crash Course
Berel Wein adapted by Yaakov Astor

3 Responses to “The Tower of Babel and Paganism”

  1. denise says:

    I have been a student of the bible for many years and I have been studying Jewish history for about 2 years; I just wanted to say that I really the love the perspective of this teaching. Also, I am gaining insight and understanding that I have not received in other studies. Thanks so much for this teaching and website! Shalom, Denise

  2. Rob says:

    Thank you for your insight, Really appreciate the perspective on technology. thank you

  3. Berel Wein says:

    Jewish Midrash provides the link
    Thanks for writing.
    Best wishes
    Rabbi Wein.