Commentary on Genesis 11:1-9
On Pentecost Sunday, the Church celebrates the coming of the Holy Spirit to the early followers of Jesus after his ascension. It is a day to proclaim and remember the power of the Spirit in our own lives today.
Praise God, who infuses us with the rush of a mighty wind and fills us with fire!
Praise God, who out of love for us sent the Holy Spirit to live within us!
The Tower of Babel story—found in our lesson from Genesis 11—is often read in contrast to the Pentecost story in Acts 2. In many interpretations, the story of Pentecost reverses (and thereby resolves) the “problem” of the Genesis story. Babel creates numerous languages; the people’s languages are confused so that they do not understand each other. Pentecost, however, unifies these languages because the Spirit allows all to understand one language.
This traditional interpretation has some weaknesses. First, it misunderstands the Acts 2 story, which does not claim that the people’s languages are unified but notes that each person understands in their own language.
“And how is it that we hear, each of us, in our own native language?” (Acts 2:8, NRSV)
There is not a single language at Pentecost.
Second, the interpretation falls into a common theological trap of finding a problem in the Old Testament and a solution in the New Testament. It implies that the Tower of Babel story cannot stand alone as an inspiring word but needs Acts 2 to resolve the matter theologically. This interpretation may not explicitly proffer an understanding of the relationship between the Old and New Testaments, but it implicitly does this theological work. It ignores how the Old Testament passage stands on its own without reference to a New Testament passage. It encourages us to allow the Acts 2 passage to set the parameters for interpreting Genesis 11. (Would we ever claim that a New Testament passage plants a seed that ultimately flowers theologically in the Old Testament?)
Do we have to understand these two stories as a problem and solution?
How do we think about diversity?
Underneath the comparison between Genesis 11 and Acts 2 is a deeper question: Is diversity of language (culture, religion, et cetera) a problem to be solved? It seems that the traditional interpretation of these passages takes this premise as a starting point. We might imagine some good intentions behind this understanding such as a call for unity among deeply fractured communities. Yet, we must continue to explore the question.
Is diversity the result of divine punishment and humanity’s great pride?
Is this the moral of Genesis 11?
Looking around at the variety of butterflies or breakfast cereals, many of us would not want to claim diversity as punishment. Likewise, we do not ascribe our children’s high school French class to God’s retribution (although our kids might!). In fact, we often celebrate and seek to foster greater diversity in our communities. It is a value, not a penalty.
God’s plan for diversity
Genesis 11 has often been read as a story of sin and punishment, but there is another way to read.
We can see Genesis 11 as a narrative that makes the opposite point: humanity’s desire for uniformity and God’s yearning for diversity. The Babel story places us on the side of uniformity and sameness and God on the side of multiplicity.
Notice the repetition of the word “one” in the passage:
11:1: “Now the whole earth had one language and the same [in Hebrew, this is the word for “one”] words.”
11:6: “And the LORD said, “Look, they are one people, and they have one language…”
God seems concerned about the oneness of the people and their language. It is this uniformity that is the problem. Sameness is not God’s will for God’s people. Monologue, monolingual, monophony—these are not the dreams of God!
In addition, the people are concerned about being dispersed or scattered (verses 4, 8, 9). They want to remain in the same place together.
But God calls them toward variety and diversity. God creates God’s dream for more languages and cultures which are spread out throughout the earth.
Come, Holy Spirit: a prayer
Come, Holy Spirit, witness to us also in our many languages.
Speak in the language of our need. Let us hear how our deepest hungers, desires, and aspirations can be fulfilled by your goodness.
Speak in the language of our fear. Let us hear how our worries about the future, about each other, and about ourselves, can find rest in your care.
Speak in the language of our gratitude. Let us hear how our honest thanks relates us, not only to those with whom we live, but also to you, the Lord and Giver of life, and, indeed, to the whole world.
Speak to us in the language of hope. Let us hear how our deepest yearning and our expectations are not just wishful thinking, but responses to your promise.