Sonic word play in a story about language:
tower built by the sons of Adam, “banu banae” (built - sons)
lest we be scattered upon the face “pen na-putz al-penae”
(like “Peter Piper picked a peck”)
“Make a name” but the only “name” they make is at the end of the story, the name for the city - confusion, Babel. Babel (bbl) and “mix” “confuse” (bll)
Sidebar: Pride spends a lot of time trying not to be embarrassed, trying to “make a name”. But all that defensive posturing is often pride’s undoing. They build a city and tower so that they will never be scattered, but their very exercise in futility leads precisely to the unintended consequence they worked so hard to avoid! Have you ever been there?
Reading the Pentecost story (Acts) in the light of Babel:
Instead of constructing a connection from earth to heaven (the empty hope of the tower), heaven has come to earth. The Lord has “come down”. At Babel, that was to check us out, to see what we were up to. In the Exodus deliverance story, the LORD says, “I have come down to rescue” (Exodus 3:8). At Pentecost, the Spirit is given as a seal of salvation, manifestation of that promise in the present time. To further the connection to our recent study in the Revelation, Babel is Babylon, the unholy city full of false worship, taking advantage of the innocent and the vulnerable, falling under God’s judgment. The church is the expression of the New Jerusalem, the heavenly city, the bride of Christ come from heaven to earth with the tree of life for the healing of the nations.
In Acts, the Spirit gift of language (tongue, rather than lip, in the Greek expression) is the beginning of the scattering of the church, the mission that is at the center of being the church. The Jerusalem church resisted that scattering for some time, but it was given Spirit fuel, and a way was paved in advance by this international connection. As the church, we do not exist primarily to enjoy each other’s company, to stay together, but to go together in the mission of Jesus.
In Genesis, the first humans are commanded, “Be fruitful and multiply, and fill the earth” (Genesis 1:28). The people at Babel resist this mandate to scatter. The first Christians, likewise, resisted the command to “make disciples of all nations” (Matthew 28:18-20) until violent persecution scattered them by force (Acts 8:1). Today, we resist God’s desire for us to scatter at our peril. But when churches, and God’s people individually, embrace their mission, exciting things happen. “Bethany Church exists to honor God by making more disciples for Jesus Christ.”
The speech patterns of the people and the speech patterns of God are the same in the Babel story. “Come, let us . . .” There is emulation, desire, and the original sin: “You will not die, . . . you shall be as God” (Genesis 3:4-5).
So, is the mixing of the languages an expression of God’s speech patterns or not? In the Babel story, folks are already talking like God. But in Acts, the new languages are a sign and accompaniment of the outpouring of the Spirit. At Babel, the mixed languages terminate communication, make it impossible to hear one another. At the New Jerusalem, the mixed languages initiate communication, make it possible to hear one another, make it possible to hear God.
At Babel, the people were focused on building a monolith. Over and over in the text, there is an emphasis on “one”. “One language”, “one speech”, “one people”. Plural grammatical forms are used in a singular sense. And, when they speak to themselves of their plans, “let us build”, “let us make bricks”, it is with the “royal ‘we’” – a single voice speaking in plural form. That “royal ‘we’” echoes the majesty of God, the LORD enthroned over all the earth.
For the people of Babel, the language of oneness was a language of sameness, it was the language of monolith. They had no interest in the immense variety of God’s entire creation. They had no interest in permitting diversity in their own population. Everything had to be bent to the one will, the construction of a monolith.
Consider agriculture for a moment. In our area, crops rotate, and fields are marked out in sections – soybeans, corn, alfalfa, hay. It is beautiful. But go elsewhere and the corn stretches for what seems like miles. It is “monoculture”. And, it is more expensive, more demanding on the soil, more difficult to control insects and plant diseases, more susceptible to erosion.
“Monotheism” is the religious idea that there is only one God. The Christian tradition is a monotheistic tradition and the Scripture is clear about the uniqueness of Jesus as Savior of the world AND we believe in the Holy Trinity, one God eternally existent in three persons. We have both unity (oneness) and community (diversity) in the Godhead.
Likewise, in the biblical language describing the church as God’s people, there is lots of language describing our oneness – “one Lord, one faith, one baptism, one God and Father of all” – and there is lots of language describing our diversity. And, the diversity is essential to our unity. The unity of Babel was a unity that erases difference. The unity of the New Jerusalem is a unity that embraces difference. The common thread binding unity and diversity in the church is the Spirit, the same Spirit that John introduces to us in the Revelation as the “seven-fold Spirit” (Revelation 1.4). Paul writes to the Corinthians, “Now there are varieties of gifts, but the same Spirit” (1 Corinthians 12:4). Paul is speaking in that passage specifically about what he calls “spiritual gifts”, the kinds of gifts celebrated in our altar today, with symbols of the many gifts of the congregation laid out before God as offering. Elsewhere, Paul also specifically addresses race, gender, and class as differences that are to be integrated into the diverse Christian community (Galatians 3:28).
When we look across the church, it’s not long before we find someone who is unlike us. We may even find someone whose differences make us awkward or uncomfortable. We don’t live in Babel; we live in the New Jerusalem. We don’t build a monolith; we build a new community.
The gift of the Spirit is poured out among us in languages and diversity that we don’t understand. But as the new words form upon our lips, we’ll find ourselves praising God rather than challenging God. We’ll discover that we hear one another in ways we never heard before, and that we hear God in ways we never expected. We’ll find ourselves speaking God’s true language, entering the community of the Godhead, joining the dance of the Holy Trinity . . . as God comes down to us, as heaven meets earth, as the whole earth is filled with the glory of the Lord as the waters cover the sea. And, we’ll find ourselves scattered on the winds of the Spirit, making disciples for Jesus Christ to the ends of our community and to the ends of the earth.
The Babel confusion was likewise a gift. For human beings who wanted to be more like God, they got a sense of the dimension they were missing – diversity and true community. But they weren’t ready for it and became hard of hearing not just with one another but with God. Today, if we are ready, we will discover that our differences can open up a way to God. There is no monolithic human and no monolithic God. But we have the Holy Trinity. And, we have the Spirit’s greatest gift, to apply the love of Jesus, the death of Jesus, the resurrection of Jesus to all who say “Yes, Lord”.