Tomorrow we will read the story of the Tower of Babel. We will read about how they tired to produce unity. And how God changed their languages, thus causing their division into distinct nations which dispersed in all directions. Why did God divide mankind into distinct nations and languages? Isn’t unity good?
God created a world which is good. However, due to the randomness inherent in matter, the same systems also cause destruction. For example, plate tectonics cause earthquakes, producing vast destruction. Yet overall it is a beneficiary system, since without it the earth would not be suitable for life. Plate tectonics are a part of the same system that maintains the magnetic field which protects the earth’s atmosphere. And is also part of the system which maintains chemical balance on earth.
When an earthquake strikes, destroying cities filled with people, we feel like God created a bad world, but when we understand the broader system we see that it is good.
According to the Ralbag and others the dispersion wasn’t a punishment, rather it was for our benefit. Like other animals, humanity is subject to extinction. If all of mankind had stayed in one place, a natural disaster (earthquake, drought etc.) would have put the human race in mortal danger. In order to solve this problem, divine providence implanted in the people a desire to create private languages for their families and spread apart (aka tribalism, later developing into nationalism), which occurred over an extended period. After mankind spread out, a disaster could still destroy a specific region or civilization, but it couldn’t destroy all of mankind.
The people of that generation felt secure in large numbers, they hoped that by joining together they could face future troubles, (perhaps responding to trauma from the memory of the flood). However, nature is more powerful than man, and even a unified society can be overwhelmed. They weren’t able to directly protect themselves from the danger, but they could spread out the risk.
Leaving aside the questions of historicity, this idea is still important. In modern times we have become aware of new threats to human existence (known as global catastrophic risk). Unlike regular national disasters these threats are potentially global in scope. Some of these threats are natural (like an asteroid impact), others are man-made (like nuclear weapons), and some can bridge the two (diseases that would make Covid-19 look like a slap on the wrist).
As they left the region of the tower, each family was thinking about their specific ambitions and goals. They didn’t understand the broader providential picture, nor the causes of their psychological desire to create languages. They might not have even noticed the slow historical process they were a part of. Similarly, we don’t understand the form divine providence takes to guide mankind out of these dangers nor how it emerges from our psychological drives and all of the myriad local decisions people make.
The existence of divine providence doesn’t exempt us from pursuing the knowledge to address these threats as best we can. A possible first instinct is, like the tower builders, to view world unity as the solution – especially since nationalism is the source of many of these threats (e.g. an arms race). But, on the other hand, the competition between nations can spur us to find solutions and make breakthroughs. What is the right interplay between nationalism and global cooperation? Between technological breakthrough and ethics?
Whatever the solution, we must remember that we too are part of nature, and as is the case for other species, extinction isn’t impossible. And it is our obligation to do what we can to prevent it.