Pentecost: Babel Overcome ≠ Babel Reversed

The cover of Thomas Hobbes' Leviathan.I often hear that in Pentecost the curse of Babel is reversed. But this is not true. Babel is overcome, but not reversed.

The idea that Babel is reversed goes something like this. Because humanity, in its pride, sought to raise themselves to God’s level, God confused them with multiple languages and they were scattered.  But in Pentecost, everyone hears the Gospel and therefore the curse of Babel is reversed.

From Forced Unity to Dividing Diversity

But truth is much deeper than this.  Babel, and the tower it attempted to build, was a forced unity that led an oppressive domination.  People don’t usually build towers like that back in the day: they are forced to build it. And what is a principle way of dominating oppressed people? Destroy their native language. The politics of Babel is in direct opposition to God’s bless that humanity should multiply and fill the earth (multiply in culture; not just in number).

What often is understood as the curse of Babel is also a blessing in the God is returning diversity to the world.  But in our fallen state this diversity leads to divisions, and racism, genocide, and enslavement have been the norm ever since.

True Diversity

Pentecost overcomes the forced unity of Babel, but also overcomes the dividing diversity after Bable.  In Pentecost each “hears in their own language”, not some universal language.  Diversity is not reversed, only the divisions caused by our fallen fear and panicked prejudice.

Pentecost overcomes Babel, by doing more than reversing it.

(While most would use some depiction of the Tower of Babel for this post, I instead used the cover from Thomas Hobbes’ “Leviathan”.  Think about it…it leads to my next post).

Also, these thoughts are related to the “Prodigal Diversity” signpost in Prodigal Christianity.

5 Replies to “Pentecost: Babel Overcome ≠ Babel Reversed”

  1. This was one of the few points that I stumbled over in Prodigal Christianity. I understand what you’re trying to affirm (overcoming fear and panicked prejudice resulting in true diversity), but I’m not tracking with what you’re trying to deny (that there was no reversal). The characterization of Pentecost-as-reversal, “everyone hears the Gospel and therefore the curse of babel is reversed” seems like a straw man. I could be wrong, but I know of no one who articulates the “reversal” in this way.

    Your dismissal of “reversal” language (which, IMO, could be a variation on how something is “overcome”) too quickly passes over the very present theme of disunity vs. unity. In Acts 2, do we not see the type of unity only possible in the Spirit? It seems to me that the binary Forced Unity vs. True Unity is just as appropriate as Antagonistic Diversity vs. True Diversity.

    Does that make sense? What am I missing?

  2. Seth, I think you are right on when you say “It seems to me that the binary Forced Unity vs. True Unity is just as appropriate as Antagonistic Diversity vs. True Diversity.”

    When I say reversal I think more of what people suppose to be happening in Babel rather than in Pentecost. I am tempted to say that Pentencost is the “fulfillment” of Babel in that now the diversity that felt like a curse is not received as a blessing. We don’t usually think of the Law being reversed or overcome, but fulfilled, so many that is how we should think of it, the diversity that lead to disunity is now a diversity that leads to unity.

  3. Thanks, Geoff. I need to chew on “fulfillment” language for Babel-Pentecost. My initial impression is that it doesn’t stick. I don’t see the same thing going on with Babel that I do with the Law.

    I agree that we need to say more about Babel than just “God made people speak different languages so they would stop trying to reach heaven on their own,” but at the same time I don’t know how to get around the reality that the diversity imposed by God is divine judgment. And maybe there is a sense in which Babel was “forced unity,” but it seems to me that Babel is primarily an affront to what it means to be truly human. The confusion and chaos that results is juxtaposed with the promise to Abraham in chapter 12.

    So I struggle to see the judgment at Babel as blessing outside the call/promise/covenant to Abraham in the next chapter. If there is fulfillment in Acts 2, it’s the fulfillment of Gen.12’s blessing to the nations.

    But I still agree, the diversity of culture/language is not “reversed” in Acts 2 in the sense of homogeneity. However, the confusion/chaos/division that results from diversity IS reversed, no? Through the cross by the Spirit diversity no longer implies hostility.

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