I am writing this on Pentecost Sunday, where the church remembers the coming of the Holy Spirit on the early church (recorded in the Bible in Acts 2:1-13). One of the significant aspects of this story is that the apostles were enabled to speak in other languages – as verse 4 says, “All of them were filled with the Holy Spirit and began to speak in other tongues as the Spirit enabled them.” The commentators on this passage often refer to Genesis 11 – the Tower of Babel incident, where the languages of the people were confused and people spread out over the earth. It is often said that Pentecost is a reversal of the curse of the Tower of Babel. At Babel the languages of the people were confused, at Pentecost people the Spirit enables people to break the language barrier. Simple.
… or is it?
I’m not sure it’s quite that simple. This interpretation would imply that languages and differences between cultures were sinful and a result of the curse – but I don’t think this is the case. Let’s take a closer look.
Putting the Tower of Babel into context
In Genesis 10, just before the Tower of Babel incident, we have the so-called ‘Table of Nations’ – an account of what happened to the descendants of Noah. The last two verses of that chapter – just before the Babel account – say this:
31 These are the sons of Shem by their clans and languages, in their territories and nations.
32 These are the clans of Noah’s sons, according to their lines of descent, within their nations. From these the nations spread out over the earth after the flood.
So, prior to the Babel incident, Genesis is already talking about clans, languages, territories, and nations. This suggests to me that the dividing up of humanity into nations is not a result of the Babel incident, but something which God intended to happen as mankind filled the earth and subdued it (Gen 1:28). The idea is that God didn’t want humanity simply to sit around in one place and stick together, but to fill the whole earth – and cultural expressions were simply a part of that plan, including language. Diversity in this way is something which brings God glory.
So what was going on at Babel?
Good question. I think a close reading of the Babel text actually agrees with this interpretation.
The passage starts: “Now the whole world had one language and a common speech.” It’s interesting that it starts in this way, given that we’ve just had the Table of Nations which talks about different languages! But we’ll shelve that for now. The people moved eastward and then: “they said, ‘Come, let us build ourselves a city, with a tower that reaches to the heavens, so that we may make a name for ourselves; otherwise we will be scattered over the face of the whole earth.’”
This is interesting for two reasons: (1) they wanted to make a name for themselves; (2) they wanted to avoid being scattered over the whole earth. Why do you think the people wanted to avoid being scattered? I believe this is because ‘scattering’ is what God wanted them to do, as we’ve just seen. The people’s sin was wanting to stick together rather than carry out God’s plan – to spread out and diversify across the earth.
When the Lord comes down and confuses their language, the end of the incident is described: “From there the Lord scattered them over the face of the whole earth.” So God scatters them, despite the intentions of the people. God’s will prevails, even though the people are against it.
This is what I think, then, is going on in this passage:
- God designed mankind to spread over the whole earth. Cultural differences and diversity are a right and good part of God’s plan in creation.
- In the Tower of Babel, mankind decided to unite together and make a name for itself out of pride rather than scattering as God intended. The sin of Babel was mankind coming together for the wrong reasons and the wrong ends.
- God therefore confuses the language (something which would have happened anyway if the people had been obeying God), and the people scatter as he intended.
So – the Babel incident is God’s way of ensuring that mankind did what He originally intended, and spread across the earth. Seen this way, the curse of Babel is not that the languages were confused – rather, God confused in the languages in order to accomplish His purposes.
I think this fits best with our experience – I love seeing Christians from other cultures worshipping God in their own ways. Of course, in every culture there will be elements that deny the gospel – all cultures bear the mark of the Fall – but in many ways each one contributes something unique to displaying the wisdom, power and glory of God.
How does this affect Pentecost?
Under this reading, Pentecost is not so much a simple reversal of the curse of Babel. We’ve seen this from Genesis, but there are a few reasons within the text of Acts 2 which lead us to this conclusion:
- The passage makes clear that it is “God-fearing Jews” who heard the apostles speaking in their own languages. The curse of Babel (if that is indeed the right phrase) was something which applied to everyone.
- People heard the apostles speaking in their own languages. It wasn’t the case that they could all understand one language, on the contrary, the Spirit gave the apostles the ability to speak in different tongues.
If we look further afield throughout the New Testament, we shouldn’t forget the wonderful vision of Revelation 7: “After this I looked, and there before me was a great multitude that no one could count, from every nation, tribe, people and language, standing before the throne and before the Lamb.” Instead of these ethnic / linguistic differences being obliterated, they are apparently still there at the end. They of course do not cause any division, but God’s glory is shown not in conformity but in the diversity of all the nations worshipping him in the unique ways that they can bring.
When Paul says in Galatians 3:28, “There is neither Jew nor Gentile, neither slave nor free, nor is there male and female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus”, he doesn’t mean these differences are obliterated – rather that they don’t matter any more, because unity is not in race, language or culture but in Christ Jesus.
How should we understand Pentecost?
This is, of course, the million dollar question. Something that struck me today as we were hearing the readings again is that mankind at the Tower of Babel did two things wrong: (1) they tried to create unity by earthly means; (2) they tried to use that unity to deny God. At Pentecost, however, (1) unity is created by heavenly means – unity-in-diversity; (2) that unity is used for God’s purposes. Pentecost is God’s answer to Babel, of sorts – but not a reversal of the curse.