Is Babel Reversed at Pentecost?

By: Geoffrey Holsclaw

I often hear that at Pentecost the curse of Babel is reversed. But this is not true. Babel is overcome, but not reversed.

The idea that Babel is reversed goes something like this: Because humanity, in its pride, sought to raise itself to God’s level, God cursed them by confusing them with multiple languages so that they were scattered across the earth.  But, as the story goes, at Pentecost, everyone hears the gospel and therefore the curse of Babel (many tongues) is reversed.

But the truth is much deeper and richer than this.

From Forced Unity… to Multiplied Diversity

It is better to think of Babel, and the tower it attempted to build, as a forced unity created by fear and enforced by oppression.  Certainly the people wanted to make a name for themselves (pride), but they also feared that they would be “dispersed over the face of the earth” (Gen. 11:4). But why is this so bad? Isn’t this what God desired for humanity when God blessed humanity to be fruitful and multiply, and fill the earth (Gen. 1:28)? Fear has caused a rebellion against our humanity vocation to represent God throughout the world. Instead of being representative of God throughout the world, those in Babel wanted to be God in one singular place.

And this is where the oppression comes in. People don’t usually build towers like that back in the day: they are FORCED to build them.  And who is forced? Enslaved people. And how do you dominate enslaved people? By destroying their native language by making them speak a different language. So, when it comes to Babel it is easy to imagine a place not only centered on sinful human pride, but a place of exploitative enslavement that destroyed cultural diversity.

When God comes down to see what is going on God notes that this situation (false, enforced unity) will just increase human sinfulness. Therefore God curses Babel with many languages so that the work ends. This curse, however, is also a blessing in that God is returning diversity to the world that had been under false unity.

True Diversity

Pentecost does not overcome the “curse” of diversity, of many languages and cultures. Rather it overcomes the forced unity that springs from human sin (expressed in Babel, and repeated in Rome during the first century, and throughout history).

In Pentecost we must remember that each “hears in their own language”, not in one common language, not some universal language.  Diversity is not reversed. Rather, each person hears in their native tongue, and these are listed in Acts (“Parthians and Medes and Elamites and residents of Mesopotamia, Judea and Cappadocia, Pontus and Asia, Phrygia and Pamphylia, Egypt and the parts of Libya belonging to Cyrene, and visitors from Rome, both Jews and proselytes, Cretans and Arabians” [Acts 2:9-11]).

At Pentecost it is the divisions caused by our fallen fear and panicked prejudice that is overcome. In the preaching of the Gospel, made possible at Pentecost, cultural diversity is affirmed even while sinful divisions are overcome (as is the reverse of sinful unity).

Diversity is not a problem but the expression and expansion of our creative humanity (being made in God’s image). The Gospel is for all people and all nations, not so each of these can turn into some generic humanity, but that they could express the human blessing and mandate to multiply and fill the earth (Gen 1:28) so that in the end people from every tribe and nation could come and worship the Lamb (Rev. 7:9).

This is the purpose of Pentecost.

The question before us, then, is twofold:

  • How are you and your church welcoming and flourishing the cultural diversity within your gospel-mission?
  • How are you resisting the false unity that is the trademark of sinful humanity (the Babel temptation toward empire building)?

May 26, 2015

Geoffrey Holsclaw

Professor of Theology

ABOUT Geoffrey

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