Babel and Pentecost

by Jennie Hurd.

I remember my delight a while back when, as a passenger in a packed but good-natured train carriage, I became aware that I was surrounded by conversations taking place between in at least six or seven different languages, including British Sign Language. It was wonderful! This experience has come back to me as I’ve thought about the events of Pentecost, particularly the phenomenon of Acts 2 when the speakers of many different languages found themselves able to understand the Spirit-filled believers speaking, “each of us, in our own native language” (Acts 2: 8, NRSV). My ministry is conducted these days mainly through the medium of my now second language, Welsh, as I serve as District Chair of Synod Cymru. It brings me great joy, but I’m also aware of the frustrations, and I’ve found myself wondering about the theology of language and languages. As followers of “the Word (who) became flesh and lived among us” (John 1: 14, NRSV), words are crucial to us, as we seek to communicate the gospel.

Pentecost is often said to have been a reversal of the events at Babel in Genesis 11. There, the people of the earth, having one language in common, banded together to build for themselves a city and a tower. So far, so good, we might think – what a great act of co-operation and unity! However, God did not see it that way: God scattered the people across the earth and made it so that they no longer understood one another’s speech. A multiplicity of languages came into being, and the people were separated and divided. And the rest, as we might say, is history.

However, there may be more to the Babel story than meets the eye. The symbolism of the tower is interesting. People did not generally build towers voluntarily for themselves in the ancient Near East: they enslaved others, making them do it for them. Language became a tool of domination, forcing the enslaved people to abandon their own tongue so that they could not plot rebellion. It’s a policy often used by imperialistic powers: the Pentecost context of Roman occupation and the dominance of the Latin language is a case in point. The people who built Babel were subject to the commandment of God, given through Adam, to “fill the earth”, to spread out, inhabit it, “be fruitful and multiply” (Genesis 1:28, NRSV). They certainly hadn’t been called to huddle all together in one place, to become all the same as some kind of identikit “generic humanity”[1] with no distinctions, variety and difference. Such behaviour hints at fearfulness, perhaps even oppression. It’s in direct contradiction to the glorious diversity of creation that is described in Genesis 1. The scene from the Monty Python film Life of Brian where the crowd shouts, “We’re all individuals” does tend to spring to mind, except that here, it isn’t really funny…

In response to the situation, God “cursed” the people with multiple languages – except that the curse can be seen more as a blessing, as the diversity and variety of creation was restored. Pentecost did not reverse Babel, returning us to oppressive linguistic unity. Rather, at Pentecost, the Holy Spirit overcame the sinful, fearful, enforced unity and “panicked prejudice”[2] that led to Babel, enabling everyone to hear the message in his or her own language, not through a single, monoglot medium. It could even be seen as one in the eye for the Romans and the cultural imperialism of the Latin language: in the words of Matt Lynch, Pentecost “reverses the imperial unification of Babylon, but not the multiplication of languages”. [3] The wonder of Pentecost is that the Holy Spirit brings unity within diversity, expressed by Peter when he quoted the prophet Joel (Acts 2: 17-18), with the promise of the Spirit for sons and daughters, young and old, slaves and free, men and women. God speaks to us and hears us in our own language, whatever that language may be, and delights in our diversity. We, in turn, are called to exercise what the philosopher Paul Ricoeur called “linguistic hospitality”[4], rejoicing in our cultural diversity and enjoying the richness of our variety of language, united in the One who prays for us “with sighs too deep for words” (Romans 8: 26, NRSV).

 

[1]Geoffrey Holsclaw, “Is Babel Reversed at Pentecost?” www.seminary.edu, accessed 01.05.18

[2] Ibid

[3] Matt Lynch, “Pentecost – A Reversal of Babel?”, www.theolgicalmisc.net, accessed 01.05.18

[4] Ricoeur, Paul 2006, On Translation, Abingdon, Routledge

7 thoughts on “Babel and Pentecost”

  1. Thank you for this, I really like the sense of Pentecost overcoming, things can never go back to where they were, but diversity is now a blessing not a curse.

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  2. Thanks for this reflection. I gained a new insight into language diversity in Papua New Guinea, where over 800 distinct languages are spoken – Pidgin and English are used between groups but within each community the uniqueness of each language is preserved. It brings interesting issues – those who are your ‘One Tok’, speakers of your language, have an obligation to support, feed and house each other. This also leads to favouring people in your One Tok in terms of jobs, justice etc. Diversity brings complexity, perhaps Pentecost in that situation is the breaking down of unjust living without loosing the beauty of diversity.

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  3. Thanks Jennie. Your thoughts leave me wondering which towers we are building today and how God responds to our (often) unwillingness to include the divine in any of our plotting and planning. Discernment (of any kind) seems to be regarded as irrelevant today.

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  4. Love these insights. Linguistic diversity brings so many blessings too – including that ideas/ feelings/concepts are expressed differently in different languages…some languages are so musical and a delight to listen to..and bridges across cultures can quickly be made just by trying someone else’s language.

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  5. Thanks Jennie, this is a reflection that I warm to especially after returning from Hong Kong where several different languages are used in worship in the Methodist Church. One way of showing hospitality to those resettling in Hong Kong from mainland China has been to start putonghua speaking congregations. It is a wonderful diversity but for some the inability to speak Cantonese or English can mean they are very vulnerable. The churches have recognised this and offer support in the language of the vulnerable.

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