Pentecost and the Tower of Babel
When the day of Pentecost came, they were all together in one place. 2 Suddenly a sound like the blowing of a violent wind came from heaven and filled the whole house where they were sitting. 3 They saw what seemed to be tongues of fire that separated and came to rest on each of them. 4 All of them were filled with the Holy Spirit and began to speak in other tongues as the Spirit enabled them.
5 Now there were staying in Jerusalem God-fearing Jews from every nation under heaven. 6 When they heard this sound, a crowd came together in bewilderment, because each one heard their own language being spoken. 7 Utterly amazed, they asked: “Aren’t all these who are speaking Galileans? 8 Then how is it that each of us hears them in our native language? 9 Parthians, Medes and Elamites; residents of Mesopotamia, Judea and Cappadocia, Pontus and Asia, 10 Phrygia and Pamphylia, Egypt and the parts of Libya near Cyrene; visitors from Rome 11 (both Jews and converts to Judaism); Cretans and Arabs—we hear them declaring the wonders of God in our own tongues!” 12 Amazed and perplexed, they asked one another, “What does this mean?”
Now the whole earth had one language and the same words. 2 And as they migrated from the east, they came upon a plain in the land of Shinar and settled there. 3 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. 4 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.’ 5 The Lord came down to see the city and the tower, which mortals had built. 6 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. 7 Come, let us go down, and confuse their language there, so that they will not understand one another’s speech.’ 8 So the Lord scattered them abroad from there over the face of all the earth, and they left off building the city. 9 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.
I believe it is the task of the church, the whole church, to interpret scripture and faith, for the benefit of the world and to the glory of God.
Just like the first Pentecost, an empowered church, stimulated by the Holy Spirit and inspired by God’s word, is transformative, unifying and positively disrupting.
It changes lives, brings people closer to God and his Son, Jesus Christ.
It not only points out injustice, it seeks to resolve it.
It not only highlights prejudice, it seeks change, understanding and reconciliation.
In doing so it brings down barriers of division; religious, political, linguistic and societal.
When we read Luke’s account of Pentecost in Acts, it is easy to be captivated by the supernatural, this breath-taking event of the Spirit’s work – tongues of fire, howling winds, speaking in tongues –
but with any supernatural event in scripture the more important thing to grasp is what these things point toward, not necessarily the event itself.
So, here is what I want to say today. Among many things the events of Pentecost teaches us that God delights in diversity and difference. Let me explain why.
In a world that all too often chooses division over difference, conflict over dialogue, and the few over the many; the Church of God that was empowered by His own Spirit, almost 2000 years ago, presents an important alternative; an important truth in today’s world.
That God delights in diversity as well as unity and he yearns to see his creation transformed by the Gospel and through his Church. This means we have a massive responsibility.
Pentecost is not so much the birth of the church as if often said, Ascension Day is the birth of Church, check out last week’s talk.
But instead Pentecost is a glimpse of what church can be, if we embrace the Holy Spirit and the Word of God for the benefit of the world and for the glory of God.
It is not so much the beginning of the Church’s journey, but a glimpse of where we are heading. In Acts 2:17 Peter is reading from the prophet Joel when he says, “‘In the last days, God says, I will pour out my Spirit on all people. Your sons and daughters will prophesy, your young men will see visions, your old men will dream dreams.”
Peter is reading out a vision of a future, of what will come when the Spirit is poured out on God’s people.
I included the story of Babel from Genesis this morning intentionally, in order that we might appreciate the festival of Pentecost in a new way.
A while back I was encouraged to read former Chief Rabbi Jonathan Sacks’ commentary on the passage from Genesis chapter 11. And in this it explains that what is now Pentecost for Christians was actually a time and still is when Jews hold festival celebrations of Shavuot,
meaning the Festival of Weeks, a festival that celebrated the wheat harvest but also marks the gift of the Torah (a summary of the Law), God’s law, to Moses on Mount Sinai.
Pentecost for Jews is about the Mountain of God, and the emphasis is on Heaven meeting Earth in the giving of the Law. The story of the Tower of Babel – is the story of another Mountain and relates well to this Jewish festival.
So while we may understand that, its also worth noting that In Christian terms the story of Babel has more recently been used as an antithesis to the Pentecost event.
In other words that Pentecost is the Tower of Babel in reverse.
Instead of people being scattered and confused in the story of Babel, at Pentecost they were in one place, one voice and of one mind.
Language is the common link.
In Babel God confuses them by scrambling the language,
at Pentecost God unifies by interpreting their language.
Now although this is quite a neat idea – I’m not sure its correct.
For a start it presents God and the story of Babel as the fall guy, suggesting that somehow God’s judgement over Babel was being reversed by the Holy Spirit’s work at Pentecost.
If that is the case then how are we to associate Babel and Pentecost at all.
Well first we’ve got to see how the story of Babel relates to account of Genesis as a whole.
Jonathan Sacks suggests that if you read Genesis carefully you’ll see that its entire focus shifts between chapters 11 and 12.
Up until chapter 11 and the story of Babel, the book of Genesis is concerned with humanity as a whole. Represented by stories of Adam and Eve, Cain and Abel – archetypes of humanity, but also of conflict too. Conflict between husband and wife, and conflict between siblings. The message is universal. That in our freedom humanity also has a problem.
Beyond Adam and Eve, and before Noah and the flood, the world was ‘nasty, brutish, and short.’ These chapters act as a warning to the reader of what happens when civilisation fails.
After the flood, God makes a covenant with Noah and all humanity, that life is sanctified and sacred. It should be looked after and cared for.
Again, the message is universal. That in our freedom humanity has a solution.
In Genesis 12, this changes radically.
The bible begins to tell the story of just one man – Abraham.
He is commanded by God to leave his home, and travel to an unknown destination. God makes a covenant with Abraham but it is not a universal one – it is just with him.
Neither Abraham nor his descendants are commanded to convert the world. To the contrary, they are charged with the task of being different, countercultural, a challenge to the status quo. Hence the unusual structure of Judaism.
The God of Israel is the God of all humanity but the religion of Israel is not the religion of all humanity. (Jonathan Sacks’ words) It is simultaneously particular and universal.
So why the sudden shift in chapter 12?
The answer must lie in the story of Babel, at the point of change. Chapter 11. So let’s look at it carefully.
The people of Babel set themselves to build a tower that reaches heaven. God “confuses their language” and the project fails.
The story begins with what we read today as an ideal – “the whole land had one language and the same words.”
Surely this is a good thing, but the bible seems critical of it.
Why would this not be a good thing?
To confuse matters even further it has already been said in the previous chapter that humanity had been divided into seventy nations ‘each with its own language’.
So, the division of languages had already happened prior to Babel. When it says “the whole land had one language and the same words.” this first line is a little confusing, it might read as an ideal but is it? It remains perplexing until we come to understand the context.
Thanks to archaeology we know the answer.
The Ancient Near-Eastern area of Mesopotamia in which this story was set, was also home to the first empires of the region.
And we know from the study and research of archaeology that the neo-Assyrians developed the technique of imposing their own language, Akkadian on conquered people and nations.
Emperors of the time, such as Ashurbanipal II (mentioned in Ezra and 2 Chronicles), and Sargon II, boasted that they made all peoples “speak one speech” and conquered many nations with strange tongues and incompatible speech, and caused them all to “accept a single voice”.
The one language and same words of Babel was not an ideal instituted by God, but actually the result of ruthless empire-building. It was a symbol of oppression and dominance.
The three-hundred-foot tower of Babel was an icon of imperialism, of empire building, not by the people themselves but by the their oppressors.
The story of Babel is therefore a critique of imperialism, the imposition of a single culture on a diverse and varied world.
The story of babel is followed by the story of Abraham, the man commanded by God to be different to show that God loves difference. God was teaching them a lesson, but it wasn’t a punishment that they were confused and scattered, it was a gift.
The gift of being set free, liberated from a world-view that forced everyone to be same.
Now, when we read Luke’s account of Pentecost, and we hold the story of Babel in our minds we start to see the same lesson come through.
The speaking of tongues was not so that we forget who we are. Luke makes a point of listing all the places that the people had come from. It is a celebration of unity in difference and diversity.
It shows that through the power of God’s Spirit the Church can be a place where diversity is chosen over division, where dialogue is chosen over conflict, and where all are cared for, not just the few.
How encouraging it is to see the church throughout the world today deal with the outbreak of Coronavirus in rich and varied ways.
No two churches are the same, services online are different, faith in action is different, because our communities are different. People are different.
Pentecost is a reminder of our charge to be radical changemakers, persistent peacemakers, courageous groundbreakers, generous caregivers, and indeed, to be Spirit-filled liberators.
Pentecost isn’t so much the birth of the church but a snapshot of the church in action.
A Church that proclaims the good news to the poor, freedom for the prisoners and recovery of sight for the blind, to set the oppressed free, and to proclaim the year of the lord’s favour.
Among many things the events of Pentecost teaches us that God delights in diversity and difference.
So go ahead, let the Holy Spirit in, be yourself, be different, be good news.
A collection of thoughts and reflections from the people of All Saints.