The Tower of Babel



The Twin Towers and Bruegel's Tower of Babel

What is it about towers that stirs so much emotion? Why is this construction, as ancient as human culture, different from all other structures and buildings? It has provoked both profound pride and extreme antagonism. Various explanations have been suggested: it is evidence of both power and wealth; it is used to grant military advantages; it is a phallic symbol; it empowers religious belief. In my opinion, the true source of its captivating attraction is revealed in the biblical story of the tower of Babel.

The ancient people of Shinar, as we learn from Genesis 11:1-9, decided to build a tower, “And they said, Come, let us build us a city and a tower,whose top is in the heavens; let us make us a name for ourselves, lest we be scattered abroad upon the face of the whole earth”. They had a double motivation: one was to gain recognition by constructing something that had never been built before: a building that begins on earth and ends in the sky, or rather in heaven, the domain of the divine. The other was something close to modern urbanization: many people would live together on a very small piece of land.

But God did not accept this human effort. From his answer it follows that the construction of the tower suggests a competition between him and man: “And the Lord said: inded the people are one and they all have one language, and this is what they begin to do; Now nothing that they  proposed to do will be withheld from them”.  Within this divine objection lies what seems to me the secret charm of the tower: it is a manifestation of a communal spirit. Had men not been united, had they been speaking different languages, they couldn’t have constructed this unique building that challenged the divine omnipotence. From a celestial perspective, the tower is evidence of a unified humanity; and it is this solidarity that makes creating the tower possible.

The divine punishment aims at creating disarray among men: “Come, let Us go down, and there confuse their language, that they may not understand one another’s speech. So the Lord scattered them abroad from there, over the face of all the earth, and they ceased building the city”. Speaking diverse languages, being part of divergent cultures, living in different places – these are symptoms of one fact: that the communal spirit materialized in the tower was shattered.

Thus, the biblical story sets the fundamental framework for human perception of the tower, especially in the monotheistic societies: on the one hand it is hubris; constructing a tower that reaches heaven is an unmatched achievement. On the other hand, it exemplifies a spirit of oneness, uniting either humanity as a whole, or a specific community.

Modern towers, I believe, preserve these two biblical aspects. Today, architects attempt to make their towers as impressive as possible. It is rather surprising that in an era when reaching physical heights is hardly a problem (airplanes, spaceships, satellites), the competition for constructing the tallest building in the world remains relevant and vibrant.

Yet the communal spirit remains as well. People who live in places with towers will always depict their environment in relation to the tower. New Yorkers were proud of the Twin Towers, Parisians like to ridicule the Eiffel tower – like a close relative that one can’t live without – and the most well-known visual symbol of London is the Big Ben. Regardless of whether the towers are public or private, in some way they belong to the people that live around them.

A noted example of this spirit is the Sagrada Familia, the beautiful Roman Catholic Church in Barcelona. Its architect, the masterful Antoni Gaudi (1852-1926), designed a House of God not with one spire but with several. He was well aware that his magnificent plan could not be accomplished within his lifetime, and that the construction of the towers would take centuries. “There is no reason to regret that I cannot finish the church”, he said. “I will grow old but others will come after me. What must always be conserved is the spirit of the work, but its life has to depend on the generations it is handed down to and with whom it lives and is incarnated”. The towers are expected to be concluded in 2026: eighteen spires, with two, representing the Virgin Mary and Jesus, towering above the rest,

Now, think of 9/11. Even considering the many casualties, the encompassing military and political consequences – would what happened that day have had the same effect if the two towers hadn’t gone down?



  • Emanuela Rubinstein says:

    David, interesting interpretation, the tower as a moral guidance. I am not sure is approves with the divine objection to building it. But it is thought provoking.

  • David says:

    We use towers to orient ourselves – maybe that’s why the people that built Babel did so in order to preserve their identity. Everywhere they went, they could see it and know where they were, and how far they were from home. However G-d is everywhere. Perhaps the lesson of Babel is that we should only use our conscience to guide us?

  • Emanuela Rubinstein says:

    Thank you, I am very grateful!

  • Paulo Abreu says:

    I’m delighted with your perception of things, of people, of faith.

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