‘Pentecost marked the reversal of the curse of Babel.’ So goes the traditional narrative that tries to tie together these two major events in the history of the nations: Babel marked the cursing of the nations with different languages, and Pentecost marked the beginning of the reversal of that curse. Babel scattered the nations, and Pentecost marked the global moment when the scattered nations began to come together again through the gospel. While I used to hold to this view, I no longer think it is tenable from the text of both passages, and we have to relate Babel and Pentecost together more carefully. This is an issue of huge importance, not just for how we understand the world but for setting our priorities in mission.
There is no doubt that there are strong connections between the two passages. Acts 2:9-11 is a mini Table of Nations that echoes Genesis 10. Where the city of Babel came together in its rejection of God, the crowd in Jerusalem were brought together to worship him. Where the people of Babel were ‘confused’ by what they heard in Gen. 11:7,9, in Acts 2:6,12 they are ‘bewildered’ and ‘amazed’ because they can understand. There is no question that Luke is aware of the words used in Gen. 10-11 when he writes Acts 2, and that the terminology is reflected in what he writes. So what is the connection between the two events? In what sense was this a ‘global moment’ causing the gospel to spread around the world?
If the event of Pentecost was a reversal of the event of Babel, there would have had to have been one global language asserting itself that everyone could miraculously speak and understand. Several global languages were available, including Latin, Greek and Aramaic. No such global language was used by the apostles. Instead, for one brief, revelatory event the apostles were able to speak in indigenous languages, and the gospel was clearly heard in every language present. Nor was the language barrier permanently overturned by the experience of Pentecost; the apostles did not continue to have this miraculous power to communicate across language boundaries on their subsequent missionary journeys. Rather, their speaking in many languages tells us something highly significant.
In Acts 2 as the crowds respond to what they hear, the repeated phrase frames their speech: ‘And how is it that we hear, each of us in his own native language? …We hear them telling in our own tongues the mighty works of God’ (v. 8, 11). The sign the Holy Spirit gives is not one of uniformity, of the restoration of the situation where ‘the whole earth had one language and the same words’ (Genesis 11:1). It is the exact opposite. The sign of Pentecost is that the Holy Spirit crosses every language barrier and works in each and every language, so that all nations hear the message of the wonders of God in Christ.
The Dutch missionary Hinne Wagenaar argues that this means that Babel and Pentecost are more similar than at first appears, and that Pentecost can even be considered as a fulfilment of Babel!
We are dealing with two “communication miracles”. In both cases the miracle protects the people from any centralised domination while preserving their freedom. In Babel the miracle ensures that, through the diversity of languages, communication is broken down. In Jerusalem the miracle ensures that, despite the diversity of languages, communication is established. However, in both cases the miracle ensures that:
- Direction is chosen, viz. to the ends of the earth;
- A diversity in languages and cultures is favoured and cherished;
- Any centralising and domineering tendencies are abandoned and scattered.
Wagenaar is himself a speaker of the Netherlands minority Frisian language, and worked in Cameroon where he saw tribal languages being driven out of the church as African church leaders became increasingly Anglophone. His contention is that Pentecost works against the dominant centre, and that this is demonstrated at the birth of the Church in Jerusalem by the use of such a wide range of languages.
In this new community of the Spirit, all that is peripheral, small and unspectacular will have a central place. The gospel cannot be imposed on others in the garb of a dominant culture; it needs to be translated!
I believe he is right in asserting that the direction of travel from Babel and from Pentecost is the same. Just as the nations were scattered from Babel to fulfil their cultural mandate, so the ‘Great Commission’ in Acts 1:8 spreads from Jerusalem through Judea and Samaria to the ends of the earth. What is more, just as those scattered from Babel found it impossible to remain as one unit, producing great ethnic and linguistic diversity, in the same way, as the gospel spread from Jerusalem in translatable form, it rapidly became impossible for Jerusalem to control the churches that were established, so that the Christian church became ethnically and linguistically diverse within a generation.
The work of the Holy Spirit at Pentecost means that God has invested every human language with value and dignity. As the crowd each heard the apostles proclaim the ‘mighty works of God’ in their own language, people from each nation represented would have realised immediately that this message was to be expressed, owned and believed in their language, nation and culture. They were not encountering something that belonged only in Jerusalem for the benefit of Israel. It was a message for all the nations of the diaspora among which they lived, indeed for ‘every nation under heaven’. The sign of speaking in other languages on the Day of Pentecost announced that the Holy Spirit can work in any and every language so that the gospel comes to each and every nation.
This is a hugely liberating idea in the age of the new cultural imperialism. The growth of mass media is helpful in many ways, allowing people to connect across the globe, move money around, do business and trade, and even form ‘learning communities’ so that academic dialogue can take place between scholars in many different countries.
However, while it is one thing to trade with people who speak another language and inhabit a very different culture, at a spiritual level life is much less global. People think, believe and pray in their heart language. They feel threatened by the intrusion of a foreign culture. I’ve groaned when going into a shop in Bulgaria or South Africa only to hear the music system pumping out Leona Lewis or One Direction. Roadside hoardings in Africa or the Philippines show white models and western films. I’ve never forgotten watching the Champions League final (Man-U Vs Chelsea) on a black and white portable in the street in the Gambia. (They asked me which side I supported, and when I told them I support Ipswich Town I was amazed they had heard of it!) These are all indicators of the cultural power of globalisation, and the effect is to say ‘Success is foreign. If you want to succeed, you must speak English and live in Britain.’ Little wonder people will try at all costs to reach our shores. But when they make it here, they will often be amazed at how little they are understood, and how little attention is paid to understanding their cultural inheritance.
The lesson of Pentecost is that in the work of mission we need to work against the flow of cultural and economic globalisation. Instead of encouraging everyone to hear the gospel in our language, we need to work hard to translate the gospel into theirs. Bible translation has always been the first base of Christian mission, the first step to the gospel penetrating another nation. Learning to speak the indigenous language needs to be the first priority of any new missionary, even in nations where an imperial language – English, French, Spanish, Portuguese – may be an official language. Along with language study and Bible translation, there also needs to be a full engagement with the culture to understand how people work. If all this sounds like teaching Grandmothers to suck eggs (a strange English expression), I stress these things because the temptation to work in global languages is stronger than ever, and with missionaries serving for shorter and shorter careers, the effect of globalisation is to make us lose the agenda of Pentecost.
Pentecost was a global moment, in the sense that it has huge importance for mission to the nations. But it was the exact opposite of the globalisation agenda of today. We need to subject the whole globalisation movement to the criticism of Scripture, and reclaim the agenda of Pentecost to go from the centre to the peripheries, from the large to the small, and to honour the culture and language of every nation in bringing to them the good news of the wonders of God in their own language.
 Hinne Wagenaar, “Babel, Jerusalem and Kumba: Missiological Reflections on Genesis 11:1-9 and Acts 2:1-13.” International Review of Mission, Vol XCII No 366, 415
 Ibid. 416