The story of the Tower of Babel is one of the most enigmatic in the entire Hebrew Bible. Though terse—the narrative is just nine verses long—this tale has inspired reams of commentary seeking to understand why humanity wished to build a tower, why doing so was sinful, and what God’s punishment—the confounding of mankind’s speech—had to do with man’s transgression. In this essay, Daniel Gordis offers a compelling reading of the the story of Babel that uncovers its political underpinnings. Through close literary analysis, Gordis shows how this foundational Jewish myth is actually an eloquent argument in favor of the ethnic-cultural commonwealth, the precursor to what we now call the modern nation-state.
In 1861, John Stuart Mill proclaimed that “the boundaries of government should coincide in the main with those of nationalities.” As I have tried to demonstrate, Mill was merely articulating an age-old political wisdom found in the Hebrew Bible. Indeed, a close reading of the biblical oeuvre in general—and of the Tower of Babel narrative in particular—reveals, I believe, a fundamental argument in favor of the ethnic-cultural commonwealth. Human beings naturally differ from one another, and so must form distinct settings for the search of the good life. Diverse national (or protonational) entities—each with its own identity, culture, land, language, heritage, and destiny—can provide humankind with the conditions it needs to prosper and thrive[.]