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Eco-Justice Notes
The E-mail Commentary from Eco-Justice Ministries

Babel, Pentecost, and Us
distributed 5/28/04 & 5/14/10 - ©2004, 2010

In many churches this season, the lectionary's scripture reading will include two passages which have an almost inseparable pairing -- Pentecost and the Tower of Babel.

  • The ancient story of the Tower of Babel explains the proliferation of languages, and the inability of neighboring communities to understand each other or work with each other.
  • The Pentecost story tells of a miraculous linguistic outpouring which enabled the Galilean disciples to speak coherently to people from across the Mediterranean world.
In one of the stories, the babble of languages confuses and frustrates; in the other, the babbling serves to enlighten and inspire. Of course the two stories are told together.

But the Babel story loses out when it is used only as the background for Pentecost. Our theology is distorted if we think the Babel message has been overturned.

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The Babel story fits into the first 9 verses of Genesis 11. It has the same vivid, yet sparse narrative style as the Garden of Eden account, and also shares that theological perspective -- which is hardly surprising since both come from the Yahwistic storyteller.

Back in those early days of humanity, we hear, the whole earth had one language. The growing human population discovers a new technology: durable bricks and mortar. Those creative, power-hungry, and insecure folk then say to themselves, "Come, let us build ourselves a city, and a tower with its top in the heavens, and let us make a name for ourselves; otherwise we shall be scattered abroad upon the face of the whole earth."

The same God who strolled through Eden comes to visit the construction site, and becomes alarmed. God says to God's self, "This is only the beginning of what they will do; nothing that they propose to do will now be impossible for them." To thwart the misdirected human potential, God confuses their language, and the people are dispersed.

Thus the full irony of the story emerges. Those who sought identity and security in building monumental things are scattered. They bring on themselves the very destruction that they feared.

God's intention for the humans is implicit in the story. The ones who were created to till and keep the garden should not aspire to such power and glory. The ones who disobeyed in eating from the fruit of the tree of knowledge have made the same mistake in over-reaching the appropriate scope of human endeavor.

The Genesis message about the God-given limits to human power is still appropriate and timely. It is a theme that deserves serious theological reflection in its own right. But when Pentecost leads us to believe that the Babel message has been negated, it is all to easy for us to believe that we are now empowered by God to do whatever we want.

Pentecost, of course, is not about doing what we want. It is all about the revelation of God's will. And Pentecost does not lead to the disciples coming together to create a permanent monument to their own glory. They, too, are scattered across the face of the earth -- but this time, in the intentional service of God.

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It really boils down to the use of an apostrophe. Which exclamation accurately represents our self-understanding?
        (a) We are God's!
        (b) We are gods!

The presence or absence of one little apostrophe makes a profound difference in meaning. When spoken, the two lines sound identical. But they are utterly different.

Option (a) says that we understand ourselves primarily in and through our relationship with God. We commit ourselves to God's purposes, and we claim our responsibility to care for God's creation. This is the faith perspective of the disciples at Pentecost, and of people of faith through the 3,500+ years of the Judeo-Christian heritage.

Option (b) says that we are the center of it all. Our interests and whims are supreme. We have the power, authority and right to do whatever we want. The creation belongs to us. This is the claim of the builders of Babel -- and of our modern culture.

A remarkable illustration graces the cover of a book that addresses our contemporary quest for power. It starts with Pieter Bruegel's 1564 painting of the construction of the Tower of Babel. Vast numbers of workers are building the huge tower. A modern artist has filled in the upper reaches of the building, morphing the brick ziggurat into the smooth concrete sweep of a nuclear power plant's cooling tower.

We -- the consummate city-builders, the ones who have unleashed nuclear power, the ones who tinker with genetics, the ones who warp planetary climate -- we are mirroring the tragic mistakes of Babel. And it is becoming clear that -- whether by God's direct intervention or by the collapse of overwhelmed natural systems -- our quest for power and glory also is destined for scattering and confusion.

Pentecost and Genesis 11 are both stories of profound truth. They go together well, though, only when we affirm the depth of both accounts.

I pray that we may move well from Babel to Pentecost by the re-insertion of an apostrophe. May we renounce our quest for pride and glory. May we rediscover our calling in the service of God, and of God's creation.


Peter Sawtell
Executive Director
Eco-Justice Ministries

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