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BABEL AND PENTECOST

May 23, 2010

BABEL AND PENTECOST

Genesis 11:1-9; Acts 2:1-21

  

          To many people, diversity and unity are conflicting ideas.  In their minds, the way to have unity, strength, peace, and harmony lies in sameness.  People who hold this view believe that peace, harmony, and prosperity is most likely to happen if people share the same beliefs about life, come from the same tribal or ethnic group, follow the same form of government, spend the same currency, and generally avoid involvements with people outside their group.  Safety lies, according to this view, in sameness.  Outsiders—meaning people who are different—are feared, distrusted, and run the risk of being branded threats to peace.  Diversity is cause for anxiety. 

 

          Genesis 11:1-9 proves that this concern is both old and strong.  In this passage, people who shared the same language eventually feared being dispersed.  So they decided to build a city and erect a tower in that city.  The city and its tower would become the unifying force—they would be one people speaking one language in one place—that would guarantee their safety.  Their reputation would be based on their sameness.

 

          Some people interpret this passage as God's punishment on human ambition and ingenuity.  They point to the city and its tower and the following words of God found at Genesis 11:6-7:  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.  Come, let us go down, and confuse their language there, so that they will not understand one another's speech."  According to that view, cultural diversity within humanity—our many languages, ethnicities, and identities—is God's way of punishing human arrogance and ingenuity for daring to build the first skyscraper. 

 

          That interpretation of Genesis 11:1-9 is not fair to God.  Do we really think the Creator of the universe is threatened by a municipal construction project?    Are we dealing with a Being who is so insecure that a few people who put a city together and build a skyscraper get on His nerves?  If God is that petty, God should not be called good and gracious, but petty and tyrannical. 

 

          Instead of reading the passage to mean that cultural diversity is divine punishment, we should understand it to show how cultural diversity is part of the great redemptive purpose of God.  God is not threatened when people cooperate to construct cities and tall buildings.   One story buildings and rural settings are not entitled to divine favor. 

 

          What the passage truly shows is that God wants humans to be spread throughout the world and enjoy cultural diversity without being afraid.  If there is a condemnation in the passage—and I use the word if intentionally—it condemns the idea that cultural sameness as the way to salvation.  We are one people because we have a common Creator, not because we speak the same language or live in the same location.  Our oneness lies in who we are before God, not who we are physically related to by human ancestry and geography.  God loves our diversity.  God intentionally caused our diversity.  God is glorified by our diversity. 

 

          The Babel passage also highlights our human tendency to resist obeying God.  Instead of being fruitful and spreading throughout the world, the inhabitants of Babel insisted on being a local tribe.  For them, salvation meant tribal identity and location.  God's response was to mix them up linguistically.  The NRSV unfortunately uses the word "confuse" regarding language.  A better rendering of the text would interpret the passage as God deciding to "mix" their language.  The people scattered after their language became mixed.  Cultural diversity—mixing the languages—was God's way of getting the people to move from one location and disperse throughout the world.  God is at work at Babel.  

 

          And as humans migrated, the challenge became whether we would retain a sense of our kinship under one Creator.  Would distance and diversity cause us to deny our common humanity?  Would we glorify God in many languages and places or would we decide that only our place and our language truly deserved divine favor?  Would we try to re-create Babel?  If so, what does God do?

         

          The rest of the Bible answers that question.  Although humans come from one Creator and share common ancestry, we have stubbornly held on to the ancient fear of diversity.  We view people who are different as dangerous, whether they are different because they speak a different language, worship in different ways, come from different places, or are different in other ways.

 

  • The person who is homosexual is viewed as dangerous because she is different.
  • The Muslim is viewed as dangerous because he is different. 
  • People are dangerous if they belong to a different political party. 
  • The nation of Israel views Palestinians as dangerous because they are different.

 

Fear of people who are different lies at the root of much hate, oppression, and injustice in human history.  Although God loves diversity, human history proves that even religious people do not love and trust God enough to love the diversity that God loves and created.  In fact, we have often used religion to justify prejudice, bigotry, and injustice as shown by our petty denominational rivalries and bigotry.

 

          This leads us to Acts 2:1-21and the vivid description of community in diversity at Pentecost.  Just as the diversity of languages and cultures is seen in Genesis to be the work of God, the sense that community is possible out of diversity is shown at Pentecost to be the work of God.  In Babel and Pentecost, God is working.  But while God is working in Babel to scatter humanity, at Pentecost we see scattered humanity coming to hear the gospel of divine grace and truth in one place, yet each hearing that gospel in the language of their heritage. 

 

          At Pentecost the Holy Spirit moves on a handful of Palestinian Jewish people who become messengers of God's good news.  Just as God worked at Babel to "mix" languages so that people began to scatter, God moved at Pentecost to "mix" the languages spoken by the first followers of Jesus so that scattered people would learn what God has done in Jesus Christ to make us one people.  At Pentecost the Spirit of God shows that we are not one people because we speak the same language.  We are not one people because we live in the same country.  We are not one people because we worship the same way.  We are one people of many languages, many places, and many ways of worship because God has made and loves us, as demonstrated in the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ. 

 

          God has created us for glorious living in our diversity.  God has created us to live in peace and fellowship with each other in our diversity.  God has blessed us to be different because diversity is divinely favored.  In doing so, God declares that cultural differences do not make us dangerous to each other or to God.  Rather than fearing and mistreating each other based on cultural differences, we are to affirm each other as children of God who speak different languages, live in different places, and are different because God loves diversity.

 

          Our sinful ignorance and bigotry cause us to fear diversity, view it as threatening, and mistreat people who are different.  It is one thing to do admit that we act this way because we are afraid to trust God's gift of diversity.  It is something else when we claim that cultural diversity is divine punishment.  We do a tremendous dis-service to the grace and goodness of God when we try to justify our prejudice and bigotry towards people who are different on God.

 

          Babel and Pentecost also show that God is always nudging us out of our comfort zones.  The Holy Spirit's gift of languages was as much of a surprise at Pentecost as the mixed languages were at Babel.  God pushes us, nudges, and drives us from our comfort zones, away from familiar notions of oneness by sameness, and out of our insular views of life and relationships.  In Jesus Christ, we witness God's love to different people, including people who are oppressed because they are different.  And in the Holy Spirit, we see God's love and the gospel of love being spread to all people, whatever their language, ancestry, or homeland. 

 

          Babel and Pentecost remind us that children of God speak in many languages.  Children of God come in different colors and sexual orientations.  Children of God worship in many different ways.  When we grow to understand God's glorious purpose in diversity, then we will celebrate what the Holy Spirit does to nudge us out of our comfort zones. 

 

          Consider the ways that we repeat the Babel experience.  Building walls around ourselves remind us of Babel.  The Great Wall of China, the Berlin Wall, the Israeli-Gaza wall, and the electronic fence being erected along the U.S. border with Mexico show how much we need the Holy Spirit to nudge us.  The Arizona immigration law reminds us that we need the Holy Spirit to nudge us.  Denominationalism and the mindset by which we build cities, towers, and walls to keep people who are different out of our churches, out of our schools, out of our communities, and out of our lives remind us that we need to be nudged by the Holy Spirit.

 

          The good news, from Babel and Pentecost, is that God nudges!  Hallelujah!  God nudges us out of our fears.  God nudges us to new understanding about fellowship, peace, prosperity, and community.  Babel says that we must expect to be divinely nudged, disturbed, and even frustrated.  Pentecost reminds us that God nudges us so that we can grow into deeper and wider notions of community.     So we sing—We are one in the Spirit—because the Spirit nudges us.  We love in the Spirit.  We live in the Spirit.  We embrace people who are different in the Spirit.  We are nudged as the Holy Spirit impels us toward becoming one people of many languages, tribes, and nationalities who live for God! 

 

©Wendell Griffen, 2010