Today is Pentecost Sunday, the day that we Christians celebrate for the coming of the Holy Spirit and the birth of the church.
Today we are reminded that the Spirit of God is a wind that blows where it will, breathing life into moribund institutions, buildings and congregations. We experience this Spirit, this Divine Breath, as a refining fire, that both purifies and fuels us.
This morning in churches all over the world, we Christians read the famous story from the second chapter Acts, in which the Spirit blew through the meeting house where those early Christian had gathered, like a mighty wind. We read of strange images, like tongues of fire resting on heads. We read of the miracle that allowed each person gathered to hear each speaker as though that speaker were speaking in their native language, transcending cultural and linguistic barriers.
This is a strange story, and a vital story. Because it tells of the origins of the church, it communicates to the disparate churches of today something of an ideal. Something like what it means to be church.
Of course, this story - a myth rooted in our history - cannot be limited to a single interpretation any more than the God to whom it points can be limited to a single description, a single set of propositions. Good interpretations of meaningful stories do not seek so much to place interpretive limits on the story, as though it could have only one meaning. Rather, they seek to draw one of many possible meanings out of the story, and hold that meaning up to light, without denying the many other possible meanings.
That is my aim here: to see what this story might have to say to Christian churches in a pluralistic, multi-cultural context, wrestling with the challenge of plurality while trying to remain faithful to their own distinctive identity. This by no means exhausts the many possible interpretations of the stories considered here. It simply draws on those stories to speak to a particular issue.
I've written before that the Bible isn't a single book, but rather a collection of "many separate books which often overlap but sometimes contradict," written by many different authors in different locations over a vast expanse of time. As such, making connections between books in the Bible can be a sometimes problematic activity. That said, I think that it is safe to say that the story of Pentecost in the second chapter of Acts can be seen at least in part as a book-end to the story of Babel in Genesis 11. In fact, many Christians teach that at Pentecost God undid this disunifying work of Babel. So, as we look to the Pentecost story to see how we might respond to plurality and diversity, it is useful to look also to the story of Babel.
Everyone on earth had the same language and the same words. And as they migrated from the east, they came upon a valley in the land of Shinar and settled there. They said to one another, "Cone, let us make bricks and burn them hard." - Brick served them as stone, and bitumen served them as mortar. - And they said, "Come, let us build us a city, and a tower with its top in the sky, to make a name for ourselves; else we shall be scattered all over the world." The LORD came down to look at the city and tower that [hu]man[ity] had built, and the LORD said, "If, as one people with one language for all, this is how they have begun to act, then nothing that they may propose to do will be beyond their reach. Let us, then, go down and confound their speech there, so that they shall not understand one another's speech." Thus the LORD scattered them from there over the face of the whole earth; and they stopped building the city. That is why it was called Babel, because the LORD confounded the speech of the whole earth; and from there the LORD scattered them over the face of the whole earth.
- Genesis 11:1-9 (JPS)
Lest anyone take this story as literal history in some sequential order, it should be noted that in the description of post flood humanity found in the previous chapter (Genesis 10), humanity has already been divided into separate nations, each with its own language. See, for instance, Genesis 10:5:
From these the maritime nations branched out. [These are the descendants of Japheth] by their lands - each with its language - their clans and their nations.
So, if you try to see the whole of Genesis as a single text describing literal history in a linear way, you have real problems trying to reconcile the fact that in Genesis 10:5 humanity has already been divided into different nations "each with its own language," while in Genesis 11:1 "[e]veryone on earth had the same language and the same words."
Rather being seen, then, as part of a divinely inspired history text, this story is best seen as a myth, a myth that explains the origins of the dreaded enemy of ancient Israel, Babylon.
But, what is the sin of Babel (Babylon), which forces God to scatter all of the people around the earth, and to confound human language? What, in other words, has gone wrong here? This is an especially important question if you see the story of Pentecost in the second chapter of Acts as a book-end or companion story to this one, in which God (at least to a certain extent) undoes what was done at Babel.
The most conventional (in Christian circles) interpretation of the sin of Babel is that it was pride. Intoxicated by their own power, these people built a great city, and in that city a tower that reached up to the sky, into the very heavens. The text even says, in the JPS translation, that they did this "to make a name for" themselves. That, coupled with the visual image of encroaching on the very space of God, sounds haughty indeed.
And pride has rightly been seen as a sin, and a very special kind of sin from which many other sins emerge. Pride has even been seen as a kind of root sin, the sin that lies underneath all other sins. But is this the sin of Babel?
In Making Wise the Simple: The Torah in Christian Faith and Practice, Johanna W.H. van Wijk-Bos notes that pride is the sin that is traditionally attributed to Babel; and, she argues, there is some textual evidence for this view. She writes:
The people depicted in this story are presumptuous in wanting to make for themselves a name, and God punished them accordingly. On a certain level, it is probably true that pride and arrogance, specifically as personified in Babylon, are here thwarted by divine intervention... Human pride and overreaching, especially as it was witnessed at the time shortly before, during, and after the Babylonian exile, are taken down a few notched in this story.
But there are also some problem with the view that pride - or, at least, pride alone - is the sin of Babel. It doesn't seem obvious what harm the pride of Babel caused here. It is certainly the case that the kind of pride that causes some humans to be blind to the needs of other humans, or that causes humans as a group to be blind to the needs of non-human animals and the natural environment, is quite harmful. But a flat reading of this story reveals only a kind of unifying pride that drives a community to excel. Where's the harm in building a great city or a great tower? Is God so thin-skinned that all human achievements are seen as affronts to divine dignity, in need of being smacked down?
In culling contemporary scholarship, Johanna W.H. van Wijk-Bos offers an alternative view of the sin of Babel:
Some commentators conclude that the issue with which the passage is most concerned is the earth. The tower, seen as so central by many interpreters, actually disappears in the story to be replaced by the city. There is a problem depicted here and it is perhaps not the problem of human pride, but that of remaining in one place and building/making constructions that do not directly benefit the earth...
In our day this interpretation is quite compelling. We who live in cities that belch smog into the heavens can certainly see that construction projects that are blind to the divine command to tend to creation are inherently sinful. And we may be both frightened and comforted by the notion that God may intervene to bring such projects to ruin.
But, while that is a compelling view that offers a very meaningful contemporary interpretation of the text, that interpretation doesn't have much to say when placed in dialogue with the Pentecost story. While we could argue that God's restoration of communication has real value in our collective human effort to restore the natural environment, such an argument would fail to account for the fact that God confounded human speech in response to Babel. The interpretation, then, in that respect, fails to properly interact with the text. It might well be useful - and I'm all in favor of teaching anything in church that makes us more mindful of the environmental impact of our actions - but it might not be the most faithful interpretation of the text.
Recently I heard another interpretation of the Babel story; an interpretation, I might add, that is in Johanna's wonderful book, though I failed to properly take note of it. On Babel, my friend and teacher Rabbi David Ariel-Joel says that while Christians often interpret the story with an emphasis on pride, Jews look at the story quite differently. For them, he argues, Babel is not so much about pride as it is about forced conformity. It is about the sin of holding a single expression of humanity as the normative one, forcing all humans to look, dress, act, think, and speak alike. Babel, he claims, tells us that God favors a diversity of human expression.
This echoes an argument made by Rabbi Jonathan Sacks in his Grawemeyer Award winning The Dignity of Difference. Of Babel he writes:
It is the attempt to impose an artificial unity on divinely created diversity. That is what is wrong with universalism.
Babel - the first global project - is the turning point in the biblical narrative. It ends with the division of [hu]mankind into a multiplicity of languages, cultures, nations and civilizations.
In this view, then, the sin of Babel is also a very contemporary sin: making a single expression of the plurality of humanity normative, the expression of humanity. In the face of this sin, God emphasizes diversity, the plurality of human expression. In the Babel story this means confounding language and scattering people. In doing so the artificial unity of Babel is smashed, and from it many different cultures and many different languages emerge.
This brings us to Pentecost. The Pentecost story tells us:
... suddenly from heaven there came a sound like the rush of a violent wind, and it filled the entire house where they were sitting. Divided tongues, as of fire, appeared among them, and a tongue rested on each of them. All of them were filled with the Holy Spirit and began to speak in languages, as the Spirit gave them ability.
Now there were devout Jews from every nation under heaven living in Jerusalem. And at this sound the crowd gathered and was bewildered, because each one heard them speaking in the native language of each.
Acts 2:2-6 (NRSV)
In Babel a single people from a single place were scattered across the face of the earth, their speech confounded and divided into a multitude of languages. At Pentecost, a multitude of people from every nation is brought together, and while they each speak different languages, they are able to understand each other.
It is important to note, however, that while each can understand each, there is no single unifying language or culture. No expression is made normative, forcing the plurality to become an artificial unity. Rather, the unity is brought about by God's affirming of difference. How does God affirm difference here? Each person hears each other person in their own native language. No language is lost. No group forced to deny the authenticity and validity of their expression of humanity. Rather, in the face of difference, the Spirit makes comprehension possible.
The story of Pentecost then affirms and celebrates diversity. While such diversity may pose a problem for us mere mortals, God is able to translate us to each other. God, in other words, is not threatened by plurality, but instead found in the midst of it, revealing to each the insights of the other.
This Pentecost, then, as we celebrate the birth of the church and the coming of the Holy Spirit, let us also celebrate the diversity that has been present since the very beginning of the Christian experience.
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