When the day of Pentecost had come, they were all together in one place. And suddenly from heaven there came a sound like the rush of a violent wind, and it filled the entire house where they were sitting. Divided tongues, as of fire, appeared among them, and a tongue rested on each of them. All of them were filled with the Holy Spirit and began to speak in other languages, as the Spirit gave them ability.
Now there were devout Jews from every nation under heaven living in Jerusalem. And at this sound the crowd gathered and was bewildered, because each one heard them speaking in the native language of each. Amazed and astonished, they asked, “Are not all these who are speaking Galileans? And how is it that we hear, each of us, in our own native language? Parthians, Medes, Elamites, and residents of Mesopotamia, Judea and Cappadocia, Pontus and Asia, Phrygia and Pamphylia, Egypt and the parts of Libya belonging to Cyrene, and visitors from Rome, both Jews and proselytes, Cretans and Arabs–in our own languages we hear them speaking about God’s deeds of power.” All were amazed and perplexed, saying to one another, “What does this mean?” But others sneered and said, “They are filled with new wine.”
But Peter, standing with the eleven, raised his voice and addressed them, “Men of Judea and all who live in Jerusalem, let this be known to you, and listen to what I say. Indeed, these are not drunk, as you suppose, for it is only nine o’clock in the morning. No, this is what was spoken through the prophet Joel:
‘In the last days it will be, God declares, that I will pour out my Spirit upon all flesh, and your sons and your daughters shall prophesy, and your young men shall see visions, and your old men shall dream dreams. Even upon my slaves, both men and women, in those days I will pour out my Spirit; and they shall prophesy. And I will show portents in the heaven above and signs on the earth below, blood, and fire, and smoky mist. The sun shall be turned to darkness and the moon to blood, before the coming of the Lord’s great and glorious day. Then everyone who calls on the name of the Lord shall be saved.’
Now the whole earth had one language and the same words. And as they migrated from the east, they came upon a plain in the land of Shinar and settled there. And they said to one another, “Come, let us make bricks, and burn them thoroughly.” And they had brick for stone, and bitumen for mortar. Then they said, “Come, let us build ourselves a city, and a tower with its top in the heavens, and let us make a name for ourselves; otherwise we shall be scattered abroad upon the face of the whole earth.”
The LORD came down to see the city and the tower, which mortals had built. And the LORD said, “Look, they are one people, and they have all one language; and this is only the beginning of what they will do; nothing that they propose to do will now be impossible for them. Come, let us go down, and confuse their language there, so that they will not understand one another’s speech.”
So the LORD scattered them abroad from there over the face of all the earth, and they left off building the city. Therefore it was called Babel, because there the LORD confused the language of all the earth; and from there the LORD scattered them abroad over the face of all the earth.
Two stories, two tales of languages multiplying. One is used to disperse the powers that had threatened to destroy the world, and the other was used to unite the world, and to bring more people in to the saving work of Christ. Two works of God, two acts of the Spirit, both done to save the world from itself. The messages at first can seem contradictory, that on one side God is working against the unity of people, and on the other God is promoting unity, but the message of the pieces work far better together than one might initially think.
The first story we are given, that of the Tower of Babel, is part of a series of stories in which God steps in to protect humanity from itself. The first example is in the Garden – humanity transgresses God’s prohibition against the Tree of Knowledge and so God expels them before they can become immortal – saving them from eternally suffering in a fallen state. The second example shows a world that is infested with monsters and evil, we are told that not a single good deed was done on earth outside of the work of Noah and his family – causing God to do the awful work of undoing all of creation.
After God recreates the world, we are left with hope that the people of the world will finally do what is right. Immediately though, Nimrod decides to build a Ziggurat that would tower higher than God’s own thrown. We can compare this to Nebuchadnezzar, a much later Babylonian King, who Isaiah described as, “Day star, Son of Dawn! How you are cut down to the Ground… You said in your heart, “I will raise my throne above the stars of God.” But you are brought down to Sheol!”
We often put our desires before God and what God wants for our life, but seldom do we see the sort of work that Nimrod and Nebuchadnezzar put into the usurpation. On one hand, a massive temple was set up to literally climb over God, and on the other Nebuchadnezzar tried to anoint himself as the divine appointee of his God Marduk, The destruction of the Tower of Babel and the confusing of the tongues was not done out of fear that humanity would be able to harm God, but out of the knowledge that a unified humanity that placed itself above God would inevitably harm itself.
Any human being who considers themselves to have a divine right to rule over others inevitably causes great harm to their people. For these rulers, not even God had the authority to deny them anything. Since they saw themselves as the final word on any matter, they would exploit anyone they needed to to get what they wanted. The confusing of tongues seems like an attempt by God to protect Godself, but the truth is that by dividing tongues Nimrod could not harm as many people as if he had kept full power over all of humanity. The ethic of the story is not that God fears strong humans, but that God rejects oppressors at every turn.
The stories in the early part of Genesis are difficult because they are meant to tell us more about ourselves at times than about God. They describe humans as perverse, violent, and transgressive. We are oriented toward self aggrandization and not toward the mutual help of one another. God’s actions at every turn in Genesis, when understood outside of a literal reading of events, make it clear that God leans toward mercy even when we lean toward violence. The flood could have been a complete return toward the formless void, the Garden could have been obliterated in Hellfire, and the human race could have been crushed rather than scattered in the shadow of Babel.
That God responds to human failings with mercy is not to say that God is constantly saying, “I could hurt you, I just choose not to.” It is saying that God, unlike us, does not desire senseless vengeance, and always strives to do the least amount of damage necessary in any given situation. These points, again, stand in the context of the narrative that Genesis 1-13 gives to us. The day to day is seldom so clear, and anyone who tells you that your suffering is, “Merciful” in comparison to what could have happened is missing the point to say the least.
When we see God work in Pentecost, we can understand the divided tongues as a way to bring humanity back to what they once were. The division which was produced following Babel could now be erased, the diverse people of the world brought together under the united banner of Christ. This work would begin the process of rebuilding the world which existed before humanity began to damage it. The united humanity, the good works of a people in love with God and God’s mercy – this is the promise behind Pentecost.
Moreover, the world to come is greater than the world that was. God, in diversifying the languages and cultures of peoples, did not create multitudes of lesser cultures, but multitudes of equal and different ones. The different cultures formed different practices, different ways of describing things, of worshipping, of arts and poetries. The chorus of the saints now no longer would be in one style or language, but in infinite combinations of both throughout eternity. IT allows for Heaven to be more fully realized than we could ever imagine.
The scattering of the nations in Genesis opened the door for the Great Multitude of Revelation to come into existence. God saw a future where you would not have one people ruling over another, one race or person placed above another, but where all people would be equal in dignity and love. Not only did the palette of the world become more diverse, but the love of God was also able to be shown more diversely. The immensity of the Triune God’s eternal self-revelatory existence is opened up in part to us in our love of one another. The work of God through Christ in our life made manifest in the love of one another, our ministry to all people.
There is sometimes a resistance among members of the church to talk about cultural identity outside of Christianity, and we do ourselves a disservice when we do not discuss our differences. God does not create differences needlessly, and we can learn a great deal from different ways that God reveals Godself across cultures and languages. I offer now, just a few examples of how language can inform our knowledge of God.
The writers of the Gospel were able to express some amazing images of God and the church through the Greek language, and no image stands out more than the image of “κοινωνια” or communal sharing. On one hand, this word describes how the church shares its material goods with one another, on the other, it shows a spiritual fellowship. Still, yet, there is a meaning of solidarity with or participation in something. The disciples share material goods, the churches communed with one another in true Christian fellowship, and Paul shared in the suffering of Christ through his imprisonment and martyrdom.
The writers of the Hebrew Bible were able to capture a powerful image of God’s unfailing love through the word “chesed” or covenant loyalty. This word conveys images of legal participation on one hand, but on another conveys deep respect and care for one another. It is not simply keeping ones part of a bargain, but it is the transformative sort of love which puts the interest of the other party ahead – it is willing to go above and beyond the words of an agreement and strike at what needs to be done.
Even English, as troublesome as a language it can be, carries some fantastic interpretations of God. When we talk about, “Going Home” or finding our, “home” in God, we describe something alien to any other language. No word in any other language can tackle the complexities that home does – not simply as a dwelling place, but as a place we fundamentally belong.
The world was splintered at Babel, and it was splintered as a result of our own power hungry ways. Following centuries of division, God entered into creation in the form of a slave and lived the life of an oppressed and alien individual. Suffering death on a Roman cross, God suffered the same kind of death that saved the world from under Nimrod. God died under empire so that empire could be finally obliterated. While the kingdoms of the world dreamed of peace under uniformity, God dreamed of a unity which would include diverse peoples.
The ethic of Pentecost is that God is merciful, that God is radically inclusive. You cannot be a Christian living in the light of Pentecost and hold to any pretense of personal or racial power. The work of the Church is in bringing people together, not so that all people look and act alike, but so that God is the central focus of our life.
The erasure of any part of God’s people is a sin that we cannot minimize. God does not want to see Greeks become Jews, Jews become Greek. There is no need for any person to “assimilate” into the kingdom of God through a change of their customs, their clothing, or their language. The only change necessary for entry into the kingdom is a change of orientation, that the desires of our life are subsumed into the work and love of God. Lord, break every chain, wash us clean of our sin, and in your mercy bring together that which was scattered long ago. Let a thousand tongues sing your praise, O’ great redeemer. – Amen.