Comparison Of Icarus And The Tower Of Babel
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The Tower of Babel: The Whole Story Doesn't Make Sense - until now
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It tells how God created the multiplicity of languages and nations in order to curb the human tendency to overstep our proper bounds. If people had built the Tower of Babel without ascending it, this would have demonstrated that humans have a capacity to restrain our ambitions. But, as Genesis observes, we lack this capacity. In Babel, the story tells us, the madness of crowds prevailed. As a consequence, our present lives are restrained by the limits of mutually unintelligible languages and the unbridgeable divisions among nations.
The primeval unity of humanity was replaced by the internal divisions of politics and speech. We are divided by society, geography, and language, and we cannot return to life before Babel. In some ways the Tower of Babel story replicates the dynamics of the Garden of Eden story. As a consequence of this boundary-crossing, the first couple are cast out of paradise into a world of toil and trouble. From Eden to Babel the human community has increased in size and complexity. As Kafka might say, we are held in chains, and even though we know they are unbreakable, we cannot stop pulling at them.
The chains at the end of the Babel story are the multiplicity of languages and the multiplicity of nations, which entail lack of communication and mutual hostility. This is the world that is recognizable today. The storytellers in ancient Israel know that their language was one among many, and that their nation was one of the least powerful in the region. The most powerful were the empires of Mesopotamia, which ruled over Israel for many centuries, up to the Babylonian conquest and exile. The Tower of Babel story was probably written during the Assyrian Empire ca. In comparison, the great Assyrian cities were relative newcomers, lacking cultural gravity. The symbolism of Babylon as the emblem of Mesopotamian imperial power resonates in this story.
People as a whole are filled with hubris and dangerous ambitions, but most particularly so are the powerful men in Babylon. The story is a hidden criticism of present political realities, ridiculing the pretensions of the ruling foreign empire, which is masked in a story of primeval times. Yet, the story is also about us; the ancient Israelites, though not yet formed as a nation, are not exempt from the criticism it offers. The story is a critique of human nature at the same time that it ridicules the pretensions of contemporary Babylon.
Perhaps in this sense the story somehow overcomes the boundaries between languages, nations, and cultures. The sin of the generation of Babel is not what they thought, it was how they thought. The Tower of Babel was an attempt to turn humanity into one homogenous society and that is not what G-d wants from us. There is a critical difference between man and animals. A lion acts like a lion that is the only way in which it can behave it cannot adopt the character of an ant. All cats behave alike; they cannot behave like monkeys. Human beings are different. Each person has their own personality, their own behavior, individuality. There is not a page in the Gemara without arguments. We discuss, we debate.
We serve Hashem together, as part of the community, but we also develop our own individual relationship with Him. The Tower of Babel was a challenge to our individuality. It was a challenge to the essence of how the world is supposed to function. It was an attempt to rob humanity of diversity. We are not supposed to act as robots in our service of G-d; it must be a personal individual experience. G-d responded to the Tower of Babel by scattering humanity across the face of Earth. People started to speak different languages, people thought differently. The Tower of Babel reminds us that we need not all be the same.
We are supposed to use the Mitzvot to develop our own personal relationship with God. We can see the top of the tower in Vienna; the horizon in the painting in Rotterdam is much lower, so that the tower is facing us. Note the group of figures in the foreground on the far left of the painting in Vienna. It may be a depiction of King Nimrod and his retinue. They occupy an important place in the composition and play a role in the narrative. In the painting in Rotterdam, the entire group has been omitted. The tower in Vienna is built around a large rock; the freestanding tower in Rotterdam was built by man alone. Bruegel illustrates this by offering us a view into their respective interiors. He also carefully selects the colours to illustrate this aspect: for the tower in Vienna he chose a pale palette.
Built of bricks, the tower in Rotterdam comprises strong, dark hues and appears much more threatening. Only the Vienna Tower is signed and dated. The Tower in Rotterdam may once have been signed and dated: careful analyses have revealed that the painting in Rotterdam may have been cropped. Maybe this is how the signature was lost. Today, most scholars believe that the smaller Tower of Babel was painted after the one in Vienna, which is dated X-rays support this: they show that the Tower in Rotterdam initially resembled the one in Vienna.