I used to take students on a spring break trip to the Eastern Band of the Cherokee Nation in Cherokee, North Carolina. During our week there, we’d meet with members of the local community who’d talk to us about everything from Removal, to politics, to water rights, to music, dance, and folklore.
One regular guest was a man named Jerry Wolfe, who had been taken to a Boarding School as a youth, during which he was beaten if caught speaking Cherokee. Despite this maltreatment, he went on to serve in the US Navy and was a veteran of the D-Day invasion. He was also an expert in local plants and folklore, and he loved to tell us Cherokee folktales.
One of the folktales he told us involved an animal beauty pageant, in which the possum was the heavy favorite. But so obnoxious was he that the other animals conspired and in the middle of the night, shaved the hair off of his luxurious tail. Now, with a naked rat tail of a tail, the possum no longer was a shoe-in at the pageant.
And that’s how the possum got his tail.
Similarly, a mouse who really wanted to play on the animals’ stickball team came up with an ingenious strategy to impress his teammates and stitched some leather wings on himself. And that’s where bats come from.
This is not unusual in folklore, of course. A lot of folktales seek to explain why the world is the way it is. And the Bible is not immune from this kind of storytelling. After all, the book of Genesis records that the serpent in the garden was punished for tempting the first humans by having to crawl on his belly and “eat dust” for all his days. And that, friends, is why snakes have no legs.
Of course, when theologians and Biblical scholars refer to such tales, they call them “etiological,” a word that means “pertaining to why things are.”
II. THE TEXT
Against this backdrop, it’s hard not to see the story of the Tower of Babel as an etiology, an explanation for why there are so many different and mutually unintelligible languages.
In the passage, humanity possesses one language and “the same words”—apparently, not even any dialect differences. No “soda/pop” divide in the ancient world, I guess. They settle in the land of Shinar and decide to build there a fortified city with a tower in the heavens to “make a name” for themselves, lest they be scattered over the earth.
God comes down to see what’s going on and inspect the city. God says, “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.”
Now, it is appropriate to pause here and ask: Why is God so upset that the people are “one people”? Why does God greet the building of this tower with foreboding? What’s behind the statement, “This is only the beginning of what they will do”? What is so bad with all of that? Humanity communicating freely and working together? Sounds great!
Well, as always, context is important. This story comes at the end of a cycle of stories in Genesis that scholars refer to as the Yahwist’s Cycle of Rebellion and Redemption. There are four stories that make up this cycle and each consists of three elements: human sin, divine punishment, and a divine act of grace.
The cycle starts with Adam and Eve. They commit the sin of disobedience by taking the forbidden fruit. The man is punished by having to labor in the earth for food, the woman is punished with painful childbirth and the patriarchy, and the snake is punished by losing its legs. (As I said, this story is likely an explanation for the world as people knew it.) But then, as the human beings are leaving the garden, God makes clothing for them, to protect them in this hostile world in which they must now live.
The cycle continues with the story of Cain and Abel. Here Cain escalates the sin to the sin of murder. He is condemned to wander the earth. But in an act of grace, God places a mark on him to prevent him from harm.
The cycle continues with the story of Noah. Here the sin is escalated further by all of humanity who are lawless and violent over all the earth. The punishment is an undoing of the creation itself, with the return of the primordial waters of chaos covering the earth. The act of grace is that God has preserved Noah and his family as a remnant and preserved animals who can give rebirth to the world. And God promises never to flood the earth again.
The tower of Babel is the fourth story in this series. But what is the sin? It’s not particularly clear in the text. Sometimes the sin is described as the sin of hubris. But if we’re thinking of this in terms of escalation, then we understand that what human beings are doing is impinging on the heavenly realm. Remember, the ancients believed that heaven was literally up there. On the other side of the dome of sky. And here they were building a tower tall enough to get there. God is not pleased. It all reminds me of something George Carlin once said:
You know something I could really do without? The Space Shuttle. … It’s irresponsible. The last thing we should be doing is sending our grotesquely distorted DNA out into space.George Carlin, Brain Droppings (1998)
It seems that God feels the same way
And so as a punishment, God declares, “Come, let us go down, and confuse their language there, so that they will not understand one another’s speech.” Humanity will be punished for this violation of the divine realm by the confusion of languages.
It’s not clear what the act of grace is in this story, but the very next chapter is the story of Abraham, so it may be that God has shifted strategies and decided to start working small with one family and the people that will descend from him.
III. DIVERGENCE AND DIFFERENCE
But the story of Babel makes sense as an etiology. The story presents an explanation of the linguistic diversity of the human race. God changed all their languages, so they dispersed and were no longer in one place.
Now, the ancients, who had no idea how long human beings had been around, could have had no idea that language difference was the result of divergence, not the other way around. It was because people moved apart from one another that their languages began to diverge.
The Aryans of the Ukrainian-Russian steppes began a series of migrations that resulted in the emergence of different languages. At first, their speech would have been mutually intelligible dialects, but before long, they were emerging as separate languages: proto-Hittite, proto-Indo-Iranian, proto-Italic, proto-Hellenic, proto-Germanic, proto-Slavic. And then each of those languages also began to split into separate languages: proto-Germanic into Gothic, German, Dutch, Sorbian, Swedish, Danish, Norse, Icelandic, and Anglo-Saxon.
This happens with all language families, whether part of the Indo-European family or not. Proto-Semitic diverged into Arabic, Aramaic, Akkadian, Phoenician, Hebrew, Amharic, Maltese, Nabatean, and so on.
In fact, there are some scholars who believe that all human languages descend from one original language (it was not Hebrew if you were wondering, it’s something called “proto-Nostric”). But it was not the case that the languages were confused and people scattered, it was because people scattered, whether from the steppes north of the Caucasus or from the Great Rift Valley in Africa, and as a result their languages diverged.
It’s interesting that this divergence is viewed as a punishment; the inability to communicate is a curse, a consequence of misdeeds.
IV. THE PENTECOST
That’s why this story is often included with the readings for Pentecost Sunday. For it was on that day that the apostles received the Holy Spirit and began to speak in different languages.
For that reason, it’s one of my favorite Christian holidays. I always liked it when the scripture lesson would be read in different languages, just as we heard read for us a few minutes ago. I don’t know if there’s a better church holiday for language nerds.
Now, because of this linguistic connection, it is often assumed that Pentecost is a reversal of Babel. An “undoing” of the confusion of tongues. But is it?
Because note what does not happen: people are given a common language to speak in. That is, the Holy Spirit does not descend and give everyone the ability to speak Esperanto, or Interlingua, or Volapük, or any other of the created “international languages.” The Holy Spirit doesn’t even teach everyone Hebrew, or Mandarin, or Arabic, or, God’s favorite, English.
Instead, the apostles speak and each of them hears the apostles in their own language. What amazes the crowd is that they understand the apostles to be Galileans—semi-rural Aramaic speakers—and are amazed that they can hear them speaking in Greek, Latin, Phoenician, Persian, Coptic, Arabic, Berber, and more.
What becomes evident is that with the miracle of Pentecost, God does not remove the differences, God permits communication across the differences. This, I submit, is a far more beautiful solution than the imposition of a global lingua franca, because it celebrates the diversity of human culture, language, and experience while creating a unity in understanding.
In The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, the characters insert a fish in their ears called a “Babel fish” that translates any language you hear into direct brainwaves so that you can understand anything anyone else is saying. It occurs to me that “Babel fish” is an inappropriate name for this creature—although it has lent its name to a fairly popular translation website. It would be better named a “Pentecost fish.” But perhaps that doesn’t roll off the tongue easily enough.
What I find so meaningful about the Pentecost story is that it shows clearly that we do not all need to be the same in order to be one people. We needn’t erase all cultural differences, in order to celebrate a common humanity. We needn’t all speak the same language in order to share words of love.
The power of Pentecost is that it creates a new definition of community: not defined by any one national or ethnic tradition, but as something universal, available to all people, as they are, and in their language.
Pentecost is generally regarded as the “birthday of the church” and it is important to note how it was that the church was born: multilingual, multiethnic, multinational—a church for the whole world.
In an old video that has gone viral lately, Billy Graham, the noted evangelist, is seen speaking to Black believers and reminding them that the man who carried Jesus’ cross was a Black man. He goes on to say that Jesus belongs to Africa as much as he does to Europe and Africa. That Christianity is not a “white man’s religion or a “Black man’s religion; it is a world religion.” Indeed he is right. That is the church that is born on Pentecost.
It’s a church that makes claims of Christian Nationalism so ridiculous, whether it’s the Russians claiming it, the Germans, the British, or us. Christianity cannot be nationalistic because nations are irrelevant to Christian faith.
And so, here we are on Pentecost Sunday, celebrating the gift of the Holy Spirit to the apostles. A gift that helped them to reach out across the divide, to share love and grace with all. A gift that helped them to forge a unity in diversity, a unity that is stronger than any unity born in conformity. A unity that can transform the world.
Now the whole earth had one language and the same words. And as they migrated from the east, they came upon a plain in the land of Shinar and settled there. And they said to one another, “Come, let us make bricks, and burn them thoroughly.” And they had brick for stone, and bitumen for mortar. Then they said, “Come, let us build ourselves a city, and a tower with its top in the heavens, and let us make a name for ourselves; otherwise we shall be scattered abroad upon the face of the whole earth.” The Lord came down to see the city and the tower, which mortals had built. 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.” So the Lord scattered them abroad from there over the face of all the earth, and they left off building the city. Therefore it was called Babel, because there the Lord confused the language of all the earth; and from there the Lord scattered them abroad over the face of all the earth.
When the day of Pentecost had come, they were all together in one place. And 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 other 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. Amazed and astonished, they asked, “Are not all these who are speaking Galileans? And how is it that we hear, each of us, in our own native language? 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, and visitors from Rome, both Jews and proselytes, Cretans and Arabs—in our own languages we hear them speaking about God’s deeds of power.” All were amazed and perplexed, saying to one another, “What does this mean?” But others sneered and said, “They are filled with new wine.”
But Peter, standing with the eleven, raised his voice and addressed them, “Men of Judea and all who live in Jerusalem, let this be known to you, and listen to what I say. Indeed, these are not drunk, as you suppose, for it is only nine o’clock in the morning. No, this is what was spoken through the prophet Joel:
‘In the last days it will be, God declares, that I will pour out my Spirit upon all flesh, and your sons and your daughters shall prophesy, and your young men shall see visions, and your old men shall dream dreams. Even upon my slaves, both men and women, in those days I will pour out my Spirit; and they shall prophesy. And I will show portents in the heaven above and signs on the earth below, blood, and fire, and smoky mist. The sun shall be turned to darkness and the moon to blood, before the coming of the Lord’s great and glorious day. Then everyone who calls on the name of the Lord shall be saved.’"