What the Malbim Says about the Generation that Built the Tower of Bavel
"And all the land was one language and of common purpose [devarim achadim]...."
The event of Dor Haflagah/the Generation of Dispersion occurred in the days of Peleg who was born 101 years after the Mabul. And Noach and his sons certainly had only one language. And they had few "devarim." Sometimes, "devarim" means "diburim/words" and sometimes it means "inyanim/matters"….From the days of Noach until the Dispersion, family life was serene and secure and their needs and assets weren't such a big deal, and their dealings and responsibilities were few and the same, common....And Chazal states that what Dor Haflagah did wasn't clarified. We only understand what their sin was via inferences from their story.
"It was at the time of their journey from the east...."
Then it occurred to the new generation to leave the previous path and family life, which was included in "their journey from the East" – from their previous customary behavior. And Chazal said from the beginning of the world "and they found a plain" – they wanted to settle and establish a large kingdom and live the life of politicians with a king at their head who rules with vast governance. According to Chazal, Nimrod was their main adviser and he caused them to rebel against Hashem.
(Note: Please see here for the Kli Yakar's similar description of what "going East" really means.)
"And they said to one another, 'Come, let us make bricks'...."
The new innovations began with them building walled homes instead of being tent-dwellers, as they had until then. And they chanced upon earth that was suitable for bricks and also for building material, enabling them to erect buildings easily and with minimal toil. And that in itself was against the Divine Will; He wanted people to fill up the land as was written: "And you shall make the ark with compartments." [Beresheit 6:14]
And then they got the idea to build a large city and to establish a mighty kingdom. And within that kingdom, to build a tower that would reach the heavens – for by then, they'd forgotten Hashem. And they started to believe that their abundance descended from the heavenly fools and they wanted to erect a tall tower to set up idol worship – as if their abundance would descend via the tower from the astrological constellations. Chazal writes that it was a denial of the Supreme Divinity. And they wanted the talismans and the worship they concocted for themselves to include every person, as we see when 200 years later, Hashem was already forgotten from among them. And Avraham, who denied all the idol worship, was thrown into the fiery furnace. And if Hashem hadn't dispersed them at that time when there was no hope, when they said, "let us make a name for ourselves" – meaning that every person will be bent under their authority and forced to believe in their beliefs – in doing this, they denied Hashem and would basically say, "Not Him."
"And Hashem descended to look at the city...."
Meaning that He saw the outcome that resulted from the whole initiative, from the whole matter of the city to their political assembly; the increase of violence, banditry, theft, and murder among the people; and how both malice and the government of notoriously mighty officials grew more powerful. With the tower incident, they meant to oppose the mighty tower of Hashem's Name. They made a tower for themselves in the name of alien worship as is hinted in "and let us make for ourselves a name." And Hashem saw that they would ultimately corrupt every human being.
"And Hashem said, "Behold! They are one people, and they all have one language, and this is what they have commenced to do. Now, will it not be withheld from them, all that they have planned to do?"
Hashem wanted to stop them from removing the idea of Hashem's power in three ways:
- They shouldn't be united in their behavior, like two separate nations (as I [the Malbim himself] define "Am/Nation" – meaning, a group with particular customs and a particular ruler). Previously, they were "one nation."
- Nations are separated by language in order to make a division between them. Previously, they had "one language for all."
- If they still hadn't started their actions when all beginnings are difficult, as indicated in "this they began to do" – meaning that they were already busy with building "and now, it should not be withheld from them?" Indicating that Hashem put a restraint on them...."He initiated and plotted" (Iyov) is based upon a profound idea of great depth, in that sometimes an issue is too lofty and out of reach. He said that He won't withhold....that He won't hold the matter out of their reach and they won't accomplish everything they desire.
And therefore, "Let us descend...."
We won't wait until they corrupt every person; we will make a division now between them by differentiating their language....and this is for the general good because a gathering of evil-doers is bad for them and bad for the world. Because they split up and dispersed throughout the entire land, their heresy didn't spread to all the nations. Shem and Ever and other special individuals found refuge in Eretz Yisrael as Nimrod's reign didn't reach that area. In that area, there was a kohen l'Kel Elyon/priest to Hashem Above, Avraham called out in the Name of Hashem publicly, and many people learned from Avraham even as the Dispersion was messing up everyone's language. Even the idol-worshiping nations split ways and as it says "chose for himself new gods." And in this way, they admitted that there is a God of gods, a First Cause, and a Kel Elyon.
However, regarding that which the Torah didn't expound on – Dor Haflagah/the Generation of Dispersion – take note regarding what the story prefaced compared to what it says later: "These are the descendents of Shem." One will notice the view of their history of longevity and in the time they were having children. And in their days, there wasn't much of a need for the Torah and the emuna. After careful reflection, it clarifies the truth of the new beliefs versus that of the Divine Torah on faithful and existent foundations. And countless books have already analyzed whether the languages were ingrained within the people naturally or whether each nation agreed to establish a language for itself. And those scholars were befuddled by the different arguments. And Moshe came in the year 2448/1456 BCE and informed us that in the year 1556/564 BCE, all the people were wiped out in the Flood and only Noach and his three sons remained. And everyone was speaking Hebrew. One hundred years later, in the generation of Peleg, 70 [languages] have suddenly been invented through Hashem and His supervision. With this, we can reply with a victorious answer to those who don't believe the words of the Torah that if a man would come right now and claim that 800 years ago, there wasn't one person in the world except for a father and his three sons, and that 700 years ago, there was only one language in the entire world, they'll deny his claim by showing him ancient tombstones from 3000 years ago with inscriptions in different languages. And that will be proof that there were many people and different languages. Egypt was already a large kingdom in Moshe's days and they had sages and writers as is well-known. And who would dare say such things so recently after it supposedly happened?
The Malbim (1809-1879) was Rabbi Meir Leibush ben Yechiel Michel who was born in Russia and served as rav all over Eastern Europe. He was bitterly fought by the Reform Movement for most of his adult life, even suffering a brief imprisonment on a false accusation in Rumania by wealthy German Reformers. Fortunately, he left us an amazing commentary on the entire Torah among other valuable works he composed.