I am fascinated by words and their impact on society. So much so, that I have actually listened to two of Dr. John McWhorter’s lecture series on the history of language available through the Great Courses. Dr. McWhorter does not explain the development of language the same way as the book of Genesis does, but his purposes are different. The story in Genesis is probably a fable – a made up story that conveys one or more great truths where Dr. McWhorter is looking for factual data that might point to interesting insights about language and human behavior. Both ways of telling the story are important.
Babylon was an ancient Akkadian city on the Euphrates River south of present-day Bagdad in Iraq. It rose to great power under Hammurabi but it’s initial significance was short lived and for about a thousand years it was just a small country. Then, like a Phoenix rising from the ashes, in 612 BCE it defeated the Assyrians and once again became the most powerful country in the region. (Babylonia, n.d.) Babylon destroyed Jerusalem in 597 BCE and forced its residents to relocate to Babylon in what became known as the Babylonian exile. This empire too was short lived being defeated by the Persians in 539 BCE. I don’t know when in this history this story first appeared, but the story teller certainly remembered the sudden rise and fall of either ancient Babylon and/or Neo-Babylon and is giving a critique of the Babylonian Empire as well as giving us a story, much like Aesop’s tales, of why things are the way they are. I can hear a child, hearing the story of creation and Adam and Eve then asking, “if we are all one family, why don’t we all speak the same language?”
From a linguistic perspective from Akkadian, we get the word babilu meaning “gate of god” . Translated to Hebrew Babel becomes the name of a tower and similarly balal , to confuse. The Hebrews loved plays on words. Translated to Greek Babel becomes Babylon (Tower of Babel, n.d.) the name of a city and an Empire and into English babble, meaning to speak nonsense.
The moral of our tale: Those who seek their own glory will end up speaking nonsense.
So what does the Tower of Babel have to do with Pentecost? In Acts, God takes this story and reverses it, stands it on its head, redeems it.
Just before Jesus ascends into heaven he leaves his disciples with the orders to wait in Jerusalem for the Holy Spirit (Acts 1: 4) and we are told they did exactly as they were told; they were obedient. Luke names the 11 remaining disciples, then says, “all these were constantly devoting themselves to prayer, together with certain women, including Mary the mother of Jesus, as well as his brothers.” (Acts 1:14). It appears that others joined them while they were waiting because verse 15 tells us that there were about 120 believers present when Peter suggests that they replace Judas Iscariot and they select Matthias by lots. Ten days pass while they wait in prayer, never leaving Jerusalem.
Fifty days after Passover is a Jewish holiday called Shavuot or Pentecost. It was a harvest festival and a time to bring the first fruits to the temple. It is also associated with the giving of the Torah. Like Passover – the time of Jesus’ crucifixion and resurrection, Pentecost is a time the city of Jerusalem would be full of Jewish pilgrims from all over the world who have come to celebrate the holy day at the Temple. This is the day God choses to send the gift of the Holy Spirit.
It begins with “the sound like the rush of a volent wind” (Acts 2: 2). Ruach in Hebrew could mean breath, or wind, or spirit. This was the breath of God, the Spirit of God making itself known in no uncertain terms. I don’t know how many of you have ever weathered out a hurricane, but the noise can be deafening and the force of the wind little can resist. “Divided tongues, as of fire, appeared among them, and a tongue rested on each of them.” This is an interesting image. If you think of humans as being “adam” earth, you have all the primal elements, earth, wind and fire co-existing without anyone extinguishing the other.
At this time the believers begin to speak “in other languages, as the Spirit gave them the ability.” (Acts 2:4) In this instance, the speaking in tongues means that people who speak one language were understood by people who spoke a different language. I have always believed that there was some kind of double miracle here, both a miracle of the tongue and a miracle of the ear. Those who were open to hearing the gospel understood what was being said. Those who were not open to hearing the gospel heard only the babbling of drunkards. In this instance, for those whose hearts and minds were open to God’s message, the story of the Tower of Babel was reversed, but it took obedience to Jesus’ commands to wait for the Holy Spirit on the part of the disciples and openness to the message on the part of the hearers.
Peter stands up and addresses the crowd, “Men of Judea and all you 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.” (Acts 2: 15) What a way to start the day!
Peter continues by telling them they are witnessing the fulfillment of Joel 2:28-32, quoting that passage to them about the pouring out of the Spirit upon all flesh – male and female, young and old, rich and poor, free or slave. “Everyone who calls on the name of the Lord will be saved.” (Acts 2:21) . Peter continues talking about Jesus’s death and resurrection, about David and the promised Messiah, making his point that Jesus and the promised Messiah are one and the same.
We are told that the crowd was, “cut to the heart” by the things Peter told them and wanted to know how they should respond. Peter tells them “Repent, and be baptized every one of you in the name of Jesus Christ so that your sins may be forgiven: and you will receive the gift of the Holy Spirit.” (Acts 2:38)
Three thousand people came forward that day and gave their lives to Christ and were baptized. This was not just a momentary emotional outpouring. We are told that from that point forward, “they devoted themselves to the apostles teaching and fellowship, to the breaking of bread and the prayers.” (Acts 2:47). This was the beginning of what we know today as the church. This is what we vow to continue in our Baptismal Covenant.
We have a choice each morning when we wake up. Are we going to seek to build a tower to our own glory and find ourselves babbling at others? Or, are we going to wait for the Holy Spirit and respond by being in communion with other Christians ,not letting language or culture get in our way, studying God’s word, sharing both the fellowship of the Lord’s Table and our kitchen tables ( once upon a time this was the same thing), and living in community communicating with God and our neighbor?