The events of Pentecost are a divine reversal of Babel. While Babel represents a dazzling logistical accomplishment, Pentecost demands a tolerance for ambiguity, messiness and diversity, writes Jo Bailey Wells.
May 18, 2010 | So many of today’s best-selling Christian books claim to present the Bible clearly. So many of our growing churches are popular for the way in which discipleship is understood simply. It seems we live such confused lives that complexity and ambiguity are out. Perhaps, then, Pentecost too? It demands so much patience and uncertainty -- when (sigh) Babel was so straightforward!
It was the early church fathers who first saw divine reversal in the events of Pentecost in Jerusalem (Acts 2) compared with the primeval portrayal of Babel (Genesis 11). At Babel the one language was confused; in Jerusalem the many languages become comprehensible. At Babel the people were scattered; in Jerusalem “every nation” comes together. At Babel earth tried building its way to heaven; in Jerusalem heaven reaches down to earth. At Babel the human ego was condemned; in Jerusalem the human spirit is renewed. At Babel we saw divine frustration; in Jerusalem we witness divine delight. At Babel we look into a mirror; at Pentecost we gaze through a window -- a window that reveals a glimpse of heaven on earth.
The harmony of heaven depicted in the book of Revelation -- of every tribe and tongue gathered around the throne -- is foreshadowed on the day of Pentecost in Jerusalem. “All nations” are gathered: their various colors, cultures and languages retained. At Pentecost these differences no longer serve as barriers; rather, the very diversity and variety is part of the excitement and awe with which God is lauded in multidimensional harmony. A decisive blow is paid to any tidy family line or unitary culture: first the descendents of Noah must be dispersed; that way there’s a chance they may grow into God’s “rainbow people.”
The church was born at Pentecost, and we celebrate its birthday once a year. But, I wonder, are we formed by Pentecost, shaped by its implications for the ways (nature or nurture) the church is raised and organized?
I find the parallel with Babel especially instructive. Babel represents a dazzling logistical accomplishment. Though the mythological language does not lend itself to organizational detail, a strong central administration is suggested. Imagine hiring the prominent architect, engineer and main contractor, who harness armies of brickmakers, bricklayers and other skilled laborers in teams that apparently pull together seamlessly. Here is the show-home skyscraper: the first among many promised landmarks, to furnish the city fit for heaven. It would have made a strong MBA case study, impressive for the clarity of vision, unity of purpose and efficiency of its workforce. (And I bet that building opened on time!)