Today's post looks further into The Tower of Babel and the lessons it contains about ethnicity, people groups, sin, and God's design for the nations. My thesis is that the Tower of Babel is an example story rather than an explanatory story of the rise of ethnic diversity and that therefore the causes of ethnic diversity are not a result of the Fall and are not supposed to be undone in the Church or the age to come.
In the Tower of Babel narrative you find that the corporate pride and rebellion of the city leads to nation building apart from God. A proto-nationalism is present. The reason for this according to the Genesis narrative is that the Garden of Eden was a usurpation of the Kingship of God. The rebellion of people who wanted to be like God (Gen 3:5) is echoed by the rebellion of people who say, "let us build ourselves a city and tower with its top in the heavens." The language is different but the pride is the same. In response to this God "came down to see" which implies the tower came woefully short of its intended purpose. God then confuses their language (v.7) and disperses them over the face of the earth (v.8).
Many have read this and concluded that the Tower of Babel in Chapter 11 is a mythological origin story for the various people groups. However this ignores the fact that Chapter 10 is explicitly about the rise of various people groups, with their various languages, spreading out across the earth. The Tower of Babel incident is a localized and amplified example of a process which had already begun. The question that interests us is: What does this mean in terms of ethnic differentiation?
As "peoples spread in their lands, each with his own language, by their clans, in their nations" in Genesis 10:5 (and 10:20, and 10:31) this is depicted not as a result of the Fall, but rather humans fulfilling one portion of their divine purpose. Namely, be fruitful, multiply, fill the earth, subdue it. In fact, they are obeying God who in Genesis 9:1 says "Be fruitful and multiply and fill the earth." So the expansion of people across the earth results in the formation of people groups with different cultures here represented through language. This argument is buttressed by the way that God's post-diluvian covenant with Noah functions as a sort of re-creation narrative. It is this obedience to a divine command which results in the myriad of cultures and people groups we find today. Different cultures are not a result of the Fall, they are a natural out-working of people obeying God's commands, wittingly or not.
However The Fall has affected each of the cultures which has been created through the expansion and this is the exact point of the Tower of Babel story. The location of the Tower story in the narrative serves to highlight the character of these cultures during the expansion. They have rejected the rule of God and seek their own power, strength, and glory so that they may rule. Corporate pride always manifests itself by creating new foci for worship, whether a tower in the ancient world or an individual in the Western world. Self-exaltation may be corporate or individual, but it is a natural result of the Fall. Every culture is affected.
It is notable that at Pentecost, when the nations are gathered to Jerusalem, the gospel is proclaimed in a multitude of languages at once rather than just in Hebrew, Greek, or Aramaic. The existence of these cultures is a beautiful testament to the purposes of God in creating humans. But the necessity of the gospel in every language reminds us of the need for redemption in each culture. In this way, Pentecost can be seen as undoing of the Tower of Babel. The Tower represents the sinfulness of the nations as they are scattered, while Pentecost is the beauty of the various nations displayed and brought under the Kingship of God when they are gathered.
In this way Pentecost gives us a vision for our churches today. The character of the multitude of cultures which may inhabit a single church must be shaped by the gospel message. Each person from each culture must assume that his natural inclinations given by society do not represent a culture under the Kingship of God. But also, the gathering of the diversity of cultures of the saints in one place reminds us that the gospel message allows humans to fulfill the commands of God while simultaneous doing it in a character shaped by the gospel. In other words we can finally be an "us" without judging "them."
The Tower of Babel is a scattering of people. Because of their pride and disobedience to God's good word their language is confused and they can no longer understand one another. They are sent to the far corners of the earth. They become many different people groups.
Pentecost is a gathering of people. Because of their obedience to God's good word (the gospel) the language barrier is destroyed and people hear and praise God in their own languages. They are gathered together from the corners of the earth. And importantly they become one people: the church.
Seen in this light, Pentecost is an undoing of the Tower of Babel brought about by the power and grace of God. The birthday of the church is a celebration that the ethnic or racial divisions which have divided people are being reconciled through the cross of Jesus Christ. The presence of the Holy Spirit is the mark that these people are no longer united against God in sin, but rather they are now united under God in Christ.
Zephaniah 3:9,20 -
“For at that time I will change the speech of the peoples to a pure speech,
that all of them may call upon the name of the Lord
and serve him with one accord.
At that time I will bring you in,
at the time when I gather you together;
for I will make you renowned and praised
among all the peoples of the earth,
when I restore your fortunes
before your eyes,” says the Lord.
In Zephaniah God promises a gathering of people. Because of God's redemptive purposes he will gather together unbelievers for judgement and believers for blessing. He will restore to them a common language (Zeph 3:9) that they may praise God together. And he will do this at the Day of the Lord.