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.” – Genesis 11:1-9
Somebody has probably told you that the story of the Tower of Babel is a story about punishment. I think they were wrong.
This is how the ancients explained the diversity in the world. Reading it as a story about punishment presupposes that diversity of language or culture is a negative thing. If, on the other hand, one thinks such diversity is good, then Babel becomes the story of a gift—a fraught gift, perhaps, but a gift.
Pentecost, which we just celebrated last Sunday, is often paired with Babel. One traditional way of linking the two is to say that Pentecost undid Babel: at Babel, our hubris brought about the punishment of diversity, while on Pentecost, the Spirit removed the punishment and allowed us to communicate again.
I think that instead of undoing it, Pentecost completed Babel. If diversity of language and culture was the first gift, then the second was the ability to hear others’ languages and understand them. At Babel, diversity; at Pentecost, the ability to harness it for the reign of God.
There are a lot of people out there who talk and think and act just like you do, but most of them don’t. That diversity has never been easy to live with, but ever since Pentecost, we’ve known this: it’s not only a gift, but the stuff that the Realm of God is made of.
God, grant me the grace both to sing your praises, and to hear others singing them in every tongue and life I encounter. Amen.
Quinn G. Caldwell is the Pastor of Plymouth Congregational Church, Syracuse, New York. His most recent book is a series of daily reflections for Advent and Christmas called All I Really Want: Readings for a Modern Christmas. Learn more about it and find him on Facebook at Quinn G. Caldwell.