This is a continuation in a series on Acts chapter 2 and the account of the Day of Pentecost. Pentecost was an epochal event. The way it is described in the Acts of the Apostles indicates that more is going on than a lively outreach — there has been a dramatic intervention of the covenant-creator-God to deal with the problem of sin, overturn the effects of the fall and inaugurate the eschatological age of righteousness, peace and joy. The technical term for this is inaugurated eschatology, in that while a future consummation awaits us in the new heavens and new earth, the life, power and reality of the age to come has already become present in partial form (already but not-yet). In a mysterious manner, the future and the present have intersected and overlapped so that God’s future for the world has rushed into the present time, filling it with the joy of promise fulfilled and the hope of untold possibilities that yet remain.
This becomes especially clear when the passage is understood in light of the larger narrative of Scripture and the numerous passages that are alluded to or quoted. Today I want to look at one passage in particular: Genesis 11. This chapter records the infamous “Tower of Babel” incident. It is critical to see where this story occurs in the unfolding narrative of the book of Genesis and the Old Testament as a whole. Genesis 1 and 2 record the creation of the world and all its life. Human beings are given the blessing and command to be fruitful, multiply and fill the earth. They are commissioned to be God’s vice-regents on earth, administrating and increasing his gracious rule through their ever expanding family. You’ll have to believe me on this one, since I don’t have the time to develop it, but Genesis 2 is intentionally evoking the imagery of the temple and it is intended for us to understand the Garden of Eden as a temple, a sanctuary, the dwelling place of God’s glory. Therefore Adam and Eve’s tasks of cultivating (i.e., expanding) the garden and forging a family that will fill the earth can be understood as the call to fill the earth with the dwelling of God’s glory through their world-wide family. Note the dynamic interplay here between the God-blessed relationship (marriage/family) and the God-commissioned rulership.
As grand as this seems, the plan gets muddled rather quickly, with Adam’s sin in Genesis 3, Cain’s murder of Abel in Genesis 4, and the growth of violence as documented in the Noah account. Nevertheless, despite “The Fall,” the original commission remains and Noah and his descendants are called to “be fruitful and multiply, abound on the earth and multiply in it.”
This brings us to Genesis 11. Here I would like to propose an alternate (yet complementary) explanation of why God took such issue with Babel. Of course it is clear that they were attempting to build their “tower” to make a name for themselves. This undoubtedly included some aspect of pride. However, I cannot imagine that God was threatened by a supposed “take-over” scheme and that he needed to stop it before it got out of hand. In fact, it is likely that the “tower” they were building was in fact a ziggurat and is a spoof on the temple of Marduk in Babylon, whose name “house with the uplifted head” suggests a claim that it reached to the heavens. (See commentaries on Genesis by Wenham and Sarna). Thus, they were not trying to take over the role as gods (something that would likely have been a ridiculous thought in the ancient world), but were building a shrine for God/god(s). Additionally, though attention often focuses on the “tower,” in the text it mentions that they were building a “city and a tower.” When God comes down, he comes to “see the city and the tower.” After their languages are confused the text says they “left off building the city,” with no mention of the tower. In the text, the tower is never conceived of by itself, apart from the city or even as a focal point.
This becomes further significant when the builders give the reason for their project – “otherwise we shall be scattered abroad upon the face of the whole earth.” The central motivation was to consolidate the human race in one central city. Here we come to the main problem with the Babel building project – it is a direct violation of God’s primary command (which is actually a blessing) to the human race – “be fruitful, multiply and fill the earth.” They were never instructed not to build towers. They were never even instructed how to avoid pride. They were however, instructed to fill the earth with the world-wide family as the means for ruling the earth and filling it with God’s glory. The main sin of Babel was a refusal of the blessing of creation, fertility and vice-regency with God and thus the invention of measures to derail its fulfillment. God’s comments are not against the tower, but against the entire building project understood in this light. Thus God confused the languages of the people and scattered them across the earth. Though commonly thought of as anti-climactic, certainly much less severe than the flood, there are several reasons why this judgment is the definite low point thus far in the Bible.
“First, the Flood left no permanent mark on humanity; though the generation of the flood was destroyed, humankind was preserved, and continued to grow. The scattering of humanity, however, is of lasting effect. There are no survivors of Babel.
Second, what is destroyed at Babel is the community of humankind as a family; hitherto, as the genealogies have witnessed, humankind is one family, and the Flood has only accentuated that fact by making one family in the narrowest sense of the word co-terminous with humanity. But the punishment of Babel divides humankind irrevocably from one another (as did also the first sin in its own way). Now humanity is no longer one “people” or “kin-group,” but “nations.” (David Clines, The Theme of the Pentateuch, pp. 70).
It is critical to see what happens on Pentecost in light of what was previously said or we will miss the epochal nature of the event. We will not see that what follows is indeed God dealing with and overturning the problem of sin and its effects. The idea of the disintegration of humanity and the loss of a unified family is not often seen as a direct and central aspect of sin and the larger Fall (viewed as Genesis 3-11, not just Genesis 3). Indeed, alienation is a significant theme throughout Genesis 1-11 and is central to a truly biblical understanding of sin.
So what happened at Pentecost? What we see is the beginning to undo this dispersion of nations and languages. At Pentecost, the disciples of Jesus, being filled with the Holy Spirit, began to speak in other languages and people from many nations, gathered in Jerusalem, each heard them speaking in their own native language. What is going on? The advent of the Spirit is actually reversing the curse of Babel. Adam’s and Cain’s sins alienated humans one from another, while Babel divided the nations and destroyed the common family of humanity. The Spirit of God, however, brings diverse peoples together as one family and one “kin-group.” The Spirit forges the Church as a new humanity which is reunited as a downpayment and sign of God’s eschatological purposes to bring all peoples to unity before God (cf. Zeph. 3:9; Psa. 22:27; 86:9-10; Isa. 2; Jer. 16:19; Zech 2:11). That which was alienated is now reconciled. That which was contentious is now at peace. Those who were enemies are now family.
It is no coincidence that immediately following the outpouring of the Spirit, Luke describes the profound community life shared among the early believers, meeting together day by day, having all things in common, providing for all in need, devoting themselves to the apostles teaching, to fellowship, to the breaking of bread and the prayers (Acts 2:42ff.). The “they” in Acts 2:42 undoubtedly included many of the 3000 converts mentioned in verse 41. This means that this early apostolic community likely had “Parthians, Medes, Elamites, and residents of Mesopotamia, Judea and Cappadocia, Pontus and Asia, Phrygia and Pamphylia, Egypt and the parts of Libya belonging to Cyrene…Cretans and Arabs” (v.9). This theme of ethnic diversity and unity continues to be a major theme throughout the book of Acts (esp. once Gentiles get in the picture) and through much of the Pauline epistles. Over and over again, unity emerges as a central theme and pastoral concern of early Apostolic Christianity.
To conclude, I want to give a few thoughts on a potential “Praxis of Pentecost” (praxis simply refers to practice, as distinguished from theory). If one of the major things the Spirit was doing on Pentecost was uniting the people of God as a new humanity, a new “kinship-group,” what might that mean for those of us who endeavor to walk in that same Spirit? I would suggest that a major priority of the Spirit is the preservation and the advancement of unity in the Church. While this of course begins with individuals one to another, it expands to include entire congregations and communities, to all believers in a given geographical region and indeed, the unity of ecclesial bodies over the entire earth. Shortly before his death, Jesus’ priority in prayer was for the unity of those who would follow him – unity that would mirror the divine life of the Trinity and functioned as the sign par excellence to the world. To be people of the Spirit means to be those of whom unity is a central value and priority. Let us ask the Lord to root out tendencies toward enmities, strife, jealousy, anger, quarrels, dissensions, factions, envy and things like these (Gal. 5:20-21) from our own hearts and to fill us with deep and profound love for those with whom we are in immediate spiritual relationship. Let’s not stop there though – let’s ask the Lord to fill us with a deep love for the whole church, to be open (indeed eager!) to receive from and be in relationship with individuals, groups and traditions that are different than our own. May the prayer of Jesus be our own – that the Church would be one – as He and the Father are one!
O God the Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, our only Savior, the Prince of Peace: Give us grace seriously to lay to heart the great dangers we are in by our unhappy divisions; take away all hatred and prejudice, and whatever else may hinder us from godly union and concord; that, as there is but one Body and one Spirit, one hope of our calling, one Lord, one Faith, one Baptism, one God and Father of us all, so we may be all of one heart and of one soul, united in one holy bond of truth and peace, of faith and charity, and may with one mind and one mouth glorify thee; through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.