Genesis 11:1-9; Acts 2:1-21
Richard Boyce said that if this story of Babel weren’t in the Bible we would immediately recognize it as “a rumble, a showdown, a battle between two teams.” It’s worse than the battle between David and Goliath. God wins – almost before the battle begins. Here, in this difficult story, it seems that God is lined up against the whole of humanity. No one speaks on behalf of human beings. So, God acted. The presumptuous human beings, who were striving to make a name for themselves -- by building a tower that would reach the heavens – were scattered across the earth. And God confused their language so that they could not readily understand one another.
If we hear the story this way, God seems to be easily offended. If God was angry at some people building a city and tower, what might God think about the world today? Wouldn’t the misdeeds of human beings today put those people to shame?
We have to remember that this story’s origins are ancient. It was used as a way of explaining the existence of multiple cultures and languages. By the time the story made it into the sacred texts, it had theological layers. So, it is one of those stories that we need to address because the picture of God it presents is a difficult one.
We live in the Babel world – a world of divisions. As we get closer to one another, as technology connects us across vast distances, we are finding that instead of a growing or deepening unity, we are increasingly fragmented. Historian Arthur Schlesinger, in the 1990s, was concerned that “tribal interests and ethnic identities would unravel the fragile bonds of unity in culture.” He looked at other countries where such things had happened. In the 1970s people would speak of the TV being a technological advance that brought people together. People were watching the same things. Now, there are so many choices that we may not have any idea what someone else finds entertaining or important. Douglas Doney said, “We are addicted to Babel.” From the story we get many of the values that are prevalent in our society and even in our faith. He suggests that Babel represents individualism. “Rugged individualism is the stuff of Babel. Individual thought is the stuff of Babel.” And it is this Babel mentality that allows injustice to thrive – because the self is the final judge of all things. “Babel is what makes a distinction between rich and poor. Babel is what makes people think they can own other people. Babel is what makes people think they can condemn other people. Babel is what makes enemies.”
The Pentecost Story in Acts has often been understood as an “undoing” of the story of Babel. In this ancient story, the people are scattered and no longer able to speak to one another. With the outpouring of the Spirit, disciples are able to speak the good news in a multitude of languages. Doney says, “The Holy Spirit comes to everyone – the intellectual and the unsophisticated, the committed and the apathetic, the fundamentalist and the pagan, the man and the woman and those in between – and for an instant, they all speak the same language.” (I would suggest, instead, that they all speak languages that allow communication. They speak the same message, not the same language.)
If this new coming together were the continuing reality of the church, we might truly say that Pentecost undid the fracturing of Babel. The Biblical witness appears to point to an early unity in the church. There are stories of everything being held in common and of erasing class distinctions. Some of the accounts may be more wishful thinking than reality. Many of Paul’s letters address the difficulties of putting diverse people together. He challenged the way the Lord’s Supper was treated in some faith gatherings. The rich brought food – but then went home to their own houses to dine. And of course, we remember his challenge to the Galatians that in Christ there is no more male or female, slave or free, Jew or Gentile.
Margaret Aymer noted that we can’t see this story as a “reversal of Babel.” In the Babel story the people move from having one language to having many languages. In this Pentecost story, the disciples are not given “one language.” They are given a multitude of languages so that the good news can be proclaimed to diverse people. Scholar Richard Sheffield said that it is unfortunate that we have loosely come to think of the description of what happened that day as “tongues of fire” resting on each. Instead, we should remain faithful to the Biblical witness that speaks of “tongues, as of fire.” “Divided tongues…better represent the divided tongues, or languages, of Babel.”
Back to the Babel story. Is it a story of judgment?
Scholar Ralph Klein reflected on recent scholarship that offers a very different way of reading or hearing the story of Babel. The new look suggests that the story isn’t about pride and punishment. The people were striving to make a name for themselves. Elsewhere in the Bible that is not seen as bad thing. But, they were driven by fear. They were driven by the fear that if they didn’t build the city (and the tower) they would be separated from one another. They were building their fortress against a fear. Yahweh’s intervention can be read differently as well. Instead of “confusing” their language, it might be translated that Yahweh mixed their language. The story may tell us that “Cultural diversity is the consequence of God’s design for the world, not the result of God’s punishment.” Klein points out that in the story it is the people who crave uniformity (which is different from unity). God wants diversity. Perhaps what they feared was, instead, part of God’s good plan for humanity.
This new interpretation fits well with the Pentecost story. God still embraces the diverseness of the world – and speaks the good news to that diversity.
Sheffield noted that the Pentecost story takes place seven weeks after the crucifixion, when those opposed to Jesus thought they had ended the “nonsense” of his message by putting him to death. They thought they had contained the threat. They had entombed the trouble maker. The tomb was their new fortress against the fears his message engendered.
Pentecost is the story of their nightmare coming true. They were afraid of the consequences of Jesus’ message, so they put the messenger to death. At Pentecost, the message spread “like fire.” We’re told that by the end of the day, three thousand people had heard the message that was Jesus’ life, his words and deeds, and his death. In the story of Babel, the people thought they could keep themselves safe by building a city. Their nightmare, that they would be scattered, came true as God dispersed them on the earth and mixed their language.
What are our worst fears? Where, when and how do we think we need to protect:
When I was in seminary, I worked at a church that sent me and the pastor to a workshop on church growth. The leader had all sorts of diagrams. But, what I remember is his story about bringing in someone new. He told of his church “evangelizing” a woman who worked in a bar. “You have to use her contacts quickly,” he said, “because she will have fewer and fewer friends outside of the church.” They had insisted that she leave her livelihood and find something more appropriate for a good Christian. His goal for conversion was to pull people out of the lives and the circles of friendship they had known – and place them within the fortress that was the church.
Yet, Pentecost startles. The Spirit comes with a liveliness that stirs up, and unsettles, and disrupts. It drives us out of our sheltered existence to encounter the diverse world that is God’s world!
Jenkins says that “the cacophony of voices becomes a chorus of praise, babble becomes communication, and community is fashioned out of potential adversaries.” It is this movement of God – toward the inclusion, the celebration, the welcoming of diversity and difference – that we are invited to join. God calls us to move from the isolation that we sometimes crave to embrace the community of faith that is never contained within walls, or cultures, or even theologies.
Today, we remember God’s dreams for us, for creation are still startling. Sometimes God’s dreams are our nightmares. Yet God’s dreams are born of love and invite us to share in the love.