Learning the Biblical Langue
As Pentecost marks the birth of the Christian Church, a better understanding of the meaning of the event leads to a better understanding of the Church’s own identity and purpose. But the Church has, from time to time, struggled to understand the meaning of the event, and so the Church has, from time to time, struggled to understand herself and her calling. The Church learns who she is from God, and God speaks to her from the Scriptures – which means learning from God consists of learning language.
Language consists of two aspects: vocabulary and grammar. Vocabulary is the realm of names, what we call things. Grammar is the realm of rules, how we say things. The Church seems decently aware of biblical vocabulary, of the words we use to name and know the world. Most of us have heard of “Pentecost.” Many of us could quickly show where to find “Pentecost” in the Bible (Acts ii) - if we weren’t sure, we might find it in a concordance first. What seems more difficult, though, is grammar – how do we talk about Pentecost? How does the Bible talk about Pentecost?
The Bible is an excellent book because it is the sort of book that teaches you its grammar as you read it. Very, very often, the Bible reads present and future events in light of past events. (And sometimes it reads past events in light of future events, too!) The grammar for talking about “Jesus Christ,” for example, is found in passages about Adam and Noah and Abraham and Moses and David. Pentecost is no different. There are rules in the Bible for understanding Pentecost and if we learn those rules, we can understand it better, and thus understand God better and thus understand ourselves better.
Essential to understanding the event of Pentecost is the event of the Tower of Babel. The purpose of this paper is to demonstrate how the biblical record of the Tower of Babel offers us a theological grammar for reading, writing, and speaking about Pentecost, teasing out (hopefully) a much richer and clearer description of the identity and calling of the Christian Church than is popularly available. We will do this, first, by meditating on the Babel text in Genesis xi, 1-9. Secondly, we will trace themes addressed in the Babel text through Scripture, highlighting any development the theme may have over the course of redemptive history. Finally, we will read Acts ii according to the “rules” we learn along the way.
Idolatry and Idle Chatter
The Tower of Babel (Genesis xi, 1-9) is sandwiched between two sets of genealogies, the first (known as the “Table of Nations”) describing the seventy nations of the sons of Noah, the second narrowing its focus to only the descendents of Shem (which leads to Terah which leads to Abram). This hints that the story of Babel is also a story of Shem (who we will remember is to be blessed) and thus draws on both Noahic and Abrahamic themes.
Attending to the Noahic themes, chapters x and xi depict the fulfillment of Noah’s prophecy at the end of chapter ix (v. 24-27): Ham/Canaan is cursed, Shem is blessed, and Japheth is blessed through Shem. Chapter x frames the Table of Nations with the comment that all these that fill the earth are descendants of Noah’s three sons, establishing an organic unity between all men (and by extension nations). Noah is a veritable new Adam1 and we even read that he became “a man of the soil” (ix, 20), planting a new vineyard/garden. But even the Noahic order succumbs to a Fall. The Table of Nations ends tracing the Shemites down to Eber’s two sons: Peleg (“Division”) and Joktan. The “division” between Eber’s sons, ultimately, is a division between the righteous and the wicked – not all of Shem is true Shem. The Tower of Babel is the story of the Shemitic Fall at the hands of Joktan’s lot. (Leithart, A House for My Name: A Survey of the Old Testament 2000, 58-59)
Chapter x, 25-30 shows us that Joktan’s descendents migrated east. Already, this hints at apostasy as eastward movement indicates moving away from the Garden of Eden rather than towards it. (Leithart, A House for My Name: A Survey of the Old Testament 2000, 53) Genesis xi, 2 emphasizes that this is exactly where construction of the tower had begun: in the East.
Reasserting the substantial unity of the nations first noted in the Table, the Babel text couches the substance of the men’s unity primarily in their common language – or more accurately in their “one lip.” The one-lipped Shemites, we read, conspired to build “a city and a tower." Waltke helpfully notes that the nature of this city is essentially a protective wall and that the tower is most likely a ziggarut, a Mesopotamian temple structure, serving as a stylized mountain. (Waltke, Bruce K.; Fredricks, Cathi J. 2001, 178-179) Kline comments:
It is… to be understood in terms of those ancient staircase-mountain structures, the ziggurats, which are frequently described as having their top in the heavens and bear names like “the house of the mountain,” “the house of the link between heaven and earth,” and “the house of the foundation of heaven and earth” (thus, the ziggurat at Babylon). (Kline, Kingdom Prologue: Genesis Foundations for a Covenantal Worldview 2006, 273)In choosing to build a temple-city, the people of Joktan recall the tradition of Cain who also built a city in the East. But here, the god-who-intervenes comes to thwart the foundation of the Cainnite city-temple of blood.
One unpronounced aspect of the passage merits comment, particularly with attention to cult and culture. Note that the foil of God’s redemptive purposes is not mere cultic paganism. It’s paganism as city. This, of course has not gone unnoticed, but it has gone (in our view) misinterpreted. Meredith Kline reads this passage as a tacit condemnation at any synthesis of culture and cult in the post-diluvian, pre-Advent world. (Kline, Kingdom Prologue: Genesis Foundations for a Covenantal Worldview 2006, 272-278) Such a reading is hardly germane to the text and strikes this author as a projection of Kline’s anti-theonomics into a text which pushes more strongly for a polemic against pagan brands of city-craft. Subjecting this text to Kline’s reading calls into question the always already culture-cult nature of Babel’s noble twin, the Church.2
The Babel narrative lends itself to two structural readings: one that highlights the words of men (v. 1-4) contrasted to the words of the Lord (v. 5-9), and one which takes a well-attested chiastic form which pivots on the fifth verse. (Waltke, Bruce K.; Fredricks, Cathi J. 2001, 176) Obviously, these structures are not mutually exclusive. In this specific case, the literary structure actually adds an important dimension to the story as chiastic structure, with its steps, imitate the zigguratic structure of the “tower” itself. In fact, it is at the zenith of the (literary/architectural) structure that “the Lord came down” (v. 5). Precisely at this point, too, the words of men meet the words of the Lord.
That the text tells us that “the Lord came down,” by the way, is hardly mere description. The language of God’s condescension, here, communicates less the humility of the Incarnation than the poverty of the Babel building project. Or rather, while the Lord condescended to humiliate himself, it is through this humiliation that he humbles the proud plans of man. It is not only that the foolishness of the Cross is the glory of God, but it is through the glory of God that the foolishness of men’s wicked plans are exposed – even as they raised up Christ (crucified) to make a name for themselves. And they intended nothing less than this:
Let us make a name for ourselves.Let us make a “shem” for ourselves, said the Shemites. Shem sought to magnify his own name, posturing as an anti-Adam, as one who enters Sabbath rest in the east, opposing the command to be fruitful and multiply, refusing to swarm over the earth. (Genesis xi, 4; cf. Genesis ix, 1-7) Yet, God’s purposes will not be frustrated – which leads us to mention (but only briefly) that it’s through the elect Shemite Abram that the promises to Noah are vindicated.
The story of Babel then outlines the transformation of man from Noah to Abram. The Lord strikes at the lip of man both in judgment,3 dividing4 the linguistic unity that made possible the Babel project, and as a means of accomplishing his goals for humanity, causing them to fill the earth (which has been the frustrated human vocation since Adam).
Lips and Logos
God is nothing if not a speaker. The god-who-speaks is (logically) prior to the god-who-creates-of-nothing, for God’s speech is what brings the cosmos into being (further, it is his speech that brings an end to the cosmos). The Father speaks the Son upon the breath of the Spirit and a truly “Christian” account of language proceeds from this matrix of Word and Being. Essential to the human vocation, then, is to image this speech of God.5 Babel exemplifies the pride intrinsic to postlapsarian man’s speech. The speech of men still build-creates cities, but fallen man speaks violence, founding every city upon the blood of brothers. The Babel narrative depicts this contest, the contest of the word of men against the Word of God. When the Lord came down at Babel he divided the tongues of men, thus dividing the works of men against themselves. The City of God is borne of pure words borne upon pure lips, and a cursory search of Scripture for the word saphah (lip) reveals that the subject shows up well over a hundred times, so a thorough study of Babel must needs attend to this phenomenon.
The most well-known account of labial religious themes is likely Isaiah vi, the call of the prophet Isaiah, wherein Isaiah despairs of his inadequacy to bear the oracles of God upon his “unclean lips.” He cries that he dwells in the midst of a people with “unclean lips.” This, however, recalls older statements to the same effect: Moses challenged the Lord’s charge to challenge Pharaoh, complaining that he bears “uncircumcised (and thus unclean) lips.” (Exodus vi, 12, 30) Both cases betray the concern that the purposes of God require purification of the lip. The Moses-Isaiah link gives an important prophetic dimension to speech, and Isaiah tells us that the lips of the prophet are made pure by the application of holy fire. (Isaiah vi, 6-7) G.K. Beale helpfully points out that Isaiah speaks of tongues and fire in at least two other places: xxx, 27-30 and lxvi, 15-24. (Beale, The Descent of the Eschatological Temple in the Form of the Spirit at Pentecost: Part 1: The Clearest Evidence 2005, 84-87) In the former case, Isaiah compares the coming of the tongues of fire to the Sinai theophany (cf. Exodus xix), and in the latter case he emphasizes the Lord’s fiery rebuke as simultaneously an act of purifying judgment and the occasion of the ingathering of the nations into a new creation, a new Israel – in both cases, Isaiah is clear that the pure and holy tongues of fire are the Lord’s.
Lip/speech theology continues to receive play throughout the prophets. Zechariah’s vision of the golden lampstand describes the seven lamps of the gold menorah as seven lips (of fire). (Zechariah iv, 1-7) John understands the lampstands as the churches (Revelation i, 20), and so the lips of fire are the mark of the New Covenant Church. (Kline, Glory in Our Midst: A Biblico-Theological Reading of Zechariah's Night Visions 2001, 131-136) Most impressively, though, the prophet Zephaniah tells us that on the occasion of the Judgment of Jerusalem, when the nations are being converted:
[A]t that time I will change the speech of the peoplesSo the Lord explains that, at some point, he will pour out tongues of fire upon the nations such that the speech of the nations is changed and purified, that all people might call upon the name of the Lord. They will do this because he will put his words in their mouth. (Deuteronomy xviii, 186) In inheriting the prophetic call, one exhibits the theophanic glory of the burning tree, the burning bush, the menorah flame, the Shadrachs of Scripture, pure and unscathed by the glory-flames of God.
to a pure speech,
that all of them may call upon the name of the Lord
and serve him with one accord. (Zephaniah iii, 9)
It is for this very reason that we should not be surprised in the least that John’s Gospel states that the Word became flesh7 and dwelt among us (“And the Lord came down…” Genesis xi, 5). We should not be surprised at all that the Shekinah-Spirit comes and rests upon the one who comes down from heaven. It is unsurprising that this Word of God, who knows what is in man (John ii, 23-25), is baptized in the very Spirit-fire that he intends to pour out over the entire world. Christ is the pure word, the unifying creed of the holy city, the humbled word of the Cross, that the Father exalts as the foundation of the final eschatological temple. As such, Christ is the language by which humanity is reunited, reconfigured toward shalom, the means by which the Lord will fill the Earth with presence, bringing together all nations under his lordship.
Rebuilding the Ruins: Pentecost and Polis
On a literary level, two features stand out which suggest Luke intended to read the Pentecost event with Babel-tinted glasses. The minor hint is that in both narratives, there appears an enumeration of all the nations of the world. Babel is preceded by Genesis x, the “Table of Nations,” and Acts ii situates the Pentecostal miracle in the midst of “every nation under heaven.” (v. 5) The greater hint is stronger: Babel tells the tale of God confusing men’s tongues, dividing them up to set them against one another. Pentecost tells the opposite (though corresponding) tale of God of bringing men together, harmonizing men’s tongues that they might hear and understand each other. It is for this reason that Pentecost is read as the reversal of Babel. (Johnson 1997, 60, Ferguson 1996, 60, Beale, The Temple and the Church's Mission: A Biblical Theology of the Dwelling Place of God 2004, 201-203)
Pentecost reverses Babel, sure enough. But we pay mere lip service to the miracle of tongues if we fail to attend to what this means. That God destroyed one city is duly noted. That he juxtaposes Pentecost with the event tells us more than that Pentecost merely negates the curse of old. Such a reading reduces Christianity to mere soteriology – at the expense of eschatology. But no such theological triviality can be attributed to the Apostles. To the question, “What does this mean?” Peter responds, in no uncertain terms, that Pentecost is the end of the world. (Beale, The Temple and the Church's Mission: A Biblical Theology of the Dwelling Place of God 2004, 212-215) So Pentecost is apocalypse. But of what sort?
The Pent-ocalypse marks (among many other things) the eruption of a new Babel (which we will remember was a temple-city complex) upon the face of the earth. As temple-city, we do well to note the foundations. Contra Babel-Cain’s city of blood, the city of heaven subverts the Cainite programme of old, resurrecting the brethren murdered in its wake as the foundation. (Singing with Tertullian, “The blood of the martyrs is the seed of the Church”) Which is to say, the Church rests upon our murdered brother, “this Jesus whom you crucified.” (Acts ii, 36) And from our brother rains the rushing wind of ordination (cf. Numbers xi, 25), creating a nation of priests through a mighty Baptism. As the Baptist foretold, the Messiah came to baptize with Spirit and fire. With Ferguson we must affirm that this may not be something necessarily beneficent to all present company, which is why Peter answers the earnest question “What shall we do?” with a pressing “Repent and be baptized every one of you in the name of Jesus Christ for the forgiveness of your sins, and you will receive the gift of the Holy Spirit.” (Acts ii, 37-40) (Ferguson 1996, 61)
The Table of Nations makes it very clear that the Noahic world was unified by blood. The advent of Pentecost transforms this. By the Spirit the new city is yet again knit together with blood, but as Peter Leithart has commented, “it is blood shed, not blood transmitted in birth.” (Leithart, Against Christianity 2003, 93) Were we to remember that Pentecost tells us that men are yet again being re-bound by the gift of the harmonizing Word, we would do well to consider the way in which this Word supplants the wicked word of men: The Word binds men together in itself through the work of the Spirit, offering itself under the form of holy bread and wine, flesh and blood that all disciples are called to feast upon. (John vi, 53-58 and I Corinthians x, 14-22) The disciples understood this and that is why Luke indicates that breaking bread was an essential mark of fellowship in the Pentecostal Church. (Acts ii, 42)
Symbolic though they be, Baptism and the Eucharist become, under this reading, key elements of embodying the Church as a legitimate rival to Babel. In Baptism, believers are preserved against the judgment of the god-who-comes-down. In the noble Cup, all nations share in a blood-Word who binds them together, drinking and eating with lips made holy by the gift of the Spirit. In fact, not in spite of their symbolic nature, but precisely because they are symbols – words – are they the substance of the rhetoric which brings all things to their proper end, be that end the end of glory or that end the end of wrath – the peace which (simultaneously) passes (and founds) all understanding. (Philippians iv, 7)
1. This is the point of the new creation language throughout the Ark narrative. (Kline, Kingdom Prologue: Genesis Foundations for a Covenantal Worldview 2006, 220-230)
2. Peter Leithart outlines the “church as polis” reading quiet pointedly in his book Against Christianity. (Leithart, Against Christianity 2003)
3. Note v. 5: the Lord came down to “see” the tower-city. Seeing indicates God’s action as judge. (cf. God’s “seeing” in the Creation narrative.)
4. It needs to be noted somewhere that Joktan’s brother Peleg, whose name means “division,” is not so named because there was an earthquake near his birth, as Robert Alter strangely suggests. (Alter 1996) Rather, his name refers to the separation of the families at Babel. Waltke defines this literary practice as a “paronomasia.” (Waltke, Bruce K.; Fredricks, Cathi J. 2001, 163)
5. See James Jordan’s explanation of this task in his chapter “Symbolism in Worldview.” (Jordan 1999, 29-38)
6. Which means that interpreting Pentecost in light of Babel offers a powerful polemic against Islam.
7. That the Word became flesh indicates something important about anthropology and the imago dei. It obliterates static understandings of language since it says that the Word of Being is a “human word,” a Word-Man.
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