From confusion to comprehension
A reflection on Genesis 11:1-9 and Acts 2:1-13by S. Roy Kaufman
I consider myself a rural person and I’m committed to our participation in rural
revitalization as integral to the Christian mission God has for us in a rural community. Still, there are things I appreciate about the city and urban life. I like the diversity of people found on city streets, in contrast to the ethnic uniformity that characterizes most rural communities.
Yet despite this obvious pluralism of the urban population, there is a superficiality in this diversity. Though the residents of the city have a rich ethnic and linguistic heritage, they are all required to speak the same language in order to make the city "work." So the apparent ethnic diversity is something of a sham. Though the city attracts people of diverse ethnicities and backgrounds, it requires them all to conform to the purpose for which the city exists.
The often unspoken aim of the city as a spiritual power is clearly expressed in Genesis 11. The people in this story came together for two purposes: (1) to build a city with a tower that would breach heaven’s gates and (2) to make a name for themselves so they would not be scattered abroad upon the face of the earth.
The building of the city with its tower was made possible by the introduction of new construction technologies—the replacement of stone with baked bricks and the replacement of mortar with bitumen. This made the famous ziggurats of ancient Mesopotamia possible, just as steel made the construction of the skyscraper possible in our day. In each case, the intention of these impressive building achievements is the same. It is for humans to make a great name for themselves, to breach the very gates of heaven, to make into one all the diverse peoples who come to the city and thus to make God irrelevant.
This human effort to make God irrelevant becomes obvious in the creation of the city as a sphere of spiritual power. The dominant cultures of our world represent the human desire to take God’s place, to force an artificial uniformity on humankind, and to show how great we are as humans. And indeed, the achievements of the city are impressive.
Who cannot be moved by the imposing architecture, the works of high culture in art and music, the technological developments, the works of commerce and industry, the political and educational and religious achievements of urban life. We humans are indeed given great capabilities by God, being made in God's image, and the city reveals as nothing else does how nearly divine we are as humans.
At the same time, I'm grateful that God keeps intervening, as God is portrayed doing in Genesis 11, to protect us from the consequences of our human pride. Just when we think we will achieve our greatest successes, God steps in to confuse our language and to scatter us abroad upon the face of the earth. Perhaps in our time God’s hand can be seen in the economic crisis we are experiencing, as a global economic system premised on unlimited and unsustainable growth is disintegrating.
The problem is not with our desire as humans to create. That's something God-given. The problem is with the motivation that too often lies behind our creative drive. We want to make a great name for ourselves instead of honoring the name of God, our Creator. We want to impose an artificial uniformity on humanity instead of reveling in the rich diversity of humanity God has created. We want to create an artificial human environment, to build a skyscraper that will breach heaven’s doors, thus denying our dependence upon God and God’s creation.
It has often been observed that the coming of the Holy Spirit in power on Pentecost, 50 days after Jesus rose from the dead, represents a reversal of the story of the Tower of Babel we have been describing. The confusion of language that led to the scattering of the people and prevented them from completing their project of doing away with God is reversed as people from “every nation under heaven” are able to hear the gospel, "God's deeds of power," in their own native language (Acts 2:5-11). Confusion yields to comprehension as the people who hear the gospel come to understand what God has done for them as humans in the person of Jesus Christ. All this is made possible by the coming of the Holy Spirit of the risen Lord Jesus Christ on Pentecost.
Now the people are able to understand why their speech has been confused, why they have not been able to complete their human projects and why they have been scattered across the face of the earth. Now the people can comprehend that in order to fulfill their human projects, they must engage in this work not to make a name for themselves but to exalt the name of God and to participate with God in God's work of redeeming a broken world, the work God accomplished in the life, death and resurrection of Jesus Christ.
Here are a few observations, based on the stories of the Tower of Babel in Genesis 11 and the coming of the Holy Spirit in power on Pentecost in Acts 2:
First, God revels in human diversity. In the story of Pentecost, God doesn’t expect everyone present to learn Greek in order to hear the gospel. Through the power of the Holy Spirit, everyone from every nation under heaven was able to hear the gospel in their own native tongue as the apostles spoke. God’s project, as opposed to the human project described in the Tower of Babel, is not to create an artificial uniformity in which people are required to become the same and give up their unique ethnic heritage. God’s project is to create a new humanity in which the uniqueness of humanity is respected and in which the people of each culture are free to worship God in the ways appropriate to their culture.
Second, God likes to see humanity scattered. This may sound strange, and I’m sure God has nothing against having people from around the world come together in one place to worship God, as people came to Jerusalem from “every nation under heaven” on the day of Pentecost. But in the story of the Tower of Babel God makes sure humanity is dispersed. God is all too aware of our human propensity to begin projects that try to dispense with God. God likes to see humanity scattered over the face of the earth, in many local communities that live peaceably with other local communities in sustainable ways.
Third, God wants humanity united in Christ. This is a unity that respects and honors human diversity, a unity that breaks down the dividing walls that separate the human family without doing away with the unique heritage each person and each group brings to the whole. This is not a unity imposed forcibly on the human family in order to achieve some human aim, like that of building the pyramids or the Twin Towers. This is a unity whose purpose is to bring people together freely in praise and worship of God for what God has done for us in Christ.
God's intention in the creation of the church is that the church become the place in which people of every nation and race and ethnic heritage and language can come together in all their rich diversity, not to make a name for themselves but to exalt the name of God. This is what the visitors in Jerusalem from every nation under heaven comprehended as they heard the apostles speak about "God's deeds of power" in Jesus Christ, each in their own native language, on the day of Pentecost. Here the Holy Spirit had come to bring a redeemed humanity together in a new community we have come to call church—that unique creation of God that is first of all local and specific but at the same time universal and eternal.
Our world continues to suffer from a profound confusion of tongues. We can't seem to understand each other. More than ever, the world needs to hear about God’s deeds of power accomplished in Jesus’ life, death and resurrection, each in their own native language. Confusion needs to yield to comprehension, as we hear, each in our own native language, what God has done for us in Christ, and then come together to exalt not ourselves but the name of God, who has done such deeds of power on our behalf.
Praise God for the presence of the Spirit of the risen Christ in our midst and in our world, who makes this miracle possible in the creation of the church as God’s redeemed community in the world.
S. Roy Kaufman is pastor of Salem Mennonite Church in Freeman, S.D.
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