Pentecost v Babel

Matthew Hyde

The Left Hand of Ehud: Matt’s Bible blog

Pentecost is one of those famous stories that, if you’ve grown up in the church, you know off by heart. 50 days after the resurrection, the disciples are gathered together in Jerusalem when the Holy Spirit crashes into their prayer meeting, descending with tongues of fire as a strange wind blows. The disciples start preaching and the crowds who throng the city start hearing their words in their own languages. Peter preaches, thousands start following Christ and we celebrate the birthday of the Church. It’s an exciting story.

But Pentecost isn’t just the grand finale of the Easter season. It’s the spiritual equivalent of the D-Day landings.

Way way back in Genesis 11 we read the mysterious story of Babel, an attempt by humanity to build a tower that would reach the heavens. And this concerns God so much that he turns up on the building site, confuses everyone’s language and spreads them out across the earth. And while there’s definitely a streak of arrogance in what the people were trying to do, God’s punishment seems a little, I dunno, harsh? It’s not like we haven’t gone on to build the Petronas Towers or the Burj Khalifia.

Here’s the thing though – we’re not just talking about an ambitious architecture project here. Don’t think Empire State Building, think ziggurat – a ziggurat being a massive stone structure built by the ancient Mesopotamians, artificial mountains atop which the gods would live. Throughout the ancient middle east, mountains were associated with gods – think Sinai, think Elijah and the prophets of Baal on Mount Carmel, heck, think Mount Olympus. Ziggurats seem to have been an attempt to take matters into humanity’s own hands; they were more than mere buildings, they were believed to be intersections between heaven and earth, nexus points between the spiritual and physical. But there’s no mention of a temple to another god, no mention of the people following an alternative deity. There’s an implication here that they’re trying to invade heaven, or attract the attention of other spiritual powers (which potentially ties back to the craziness of Genesis 6 and the rebellious angels coming down to Earth). This is an act of war.

So that’s why God responded, but why confuse their language? This is where imperialism comes in; instead of spreading across the world after Noah, instead of being fruitful and multiplying and stewarding the earth, the people have united to build their own empire, to make war on heaven and made the same mistakes that led to the Flood in the first place. This is why this story is so important – it’s the moment the nations become estranged from God, where he hands them over to other spiritual powers as per Deuteronomy 32; however, he decides to keep one nation as his own – Israel. And it’s through Israel that he plans to win back the nations.

Cue Abraham, Isaac and Jacob. Cue King David. Cue the Prophets. Cue Jesus. Cue the crucifixion, the resurrection and the defeat of death and hell. And cue Pentecost, where representatives of the nations are gathered in Jerusalem, where the curse of Babel is broken and what was previously a Jewish movement starts to encompass the rest of the world as well. The spiritual forces behind Babel, the arrogance of power shown by Babel’s proto-Empire is undermined and broken down. Symbolically, the Holy Spirit comes and burns down the Tower of Babel, huffing and puffing and blowing that house down. God – through the Church – attacks the gates of sin and hell, crashing through them and releasing captives in his wake.

Now, this is heavy stuff, a spiritual reality that nevertheless can feel distant and strange. What exactly does this craziness mean for us? I guess it comes back to my earlier metaphor of the Church’s D-Day – sure the Allies stormed the beaches of Normandy, but there was still a lot of fighting to do after that. Our churches are here to fight for God, not through weapons, not through wounding others, not through being stronger or more powerful, but by being more like Jesus. There’s a danger in looking for the power of the Spirit, for the gifts of the Spirit while neglecting the fruit, but honestly, it’s the fruit of the Spirit that makes us different to the world. Throughout history, the Church has too often rushed to sanctify power structures – kings and empires and ideologies – and it’s led to disaster and atrocities. There are times we’ve turned the Church into another Babel, slapped a fish on it and got high on the power of the world. And that’s when we start laying bricks, one on top of another, a Tower that starts to grow because we’re trying to access the wrong source of power. After all, on that first Pentecost, people thought the disciples were drunk, crazy people running through the streets. Heck, my church has a set of Bibles translated in Farsi because of its work with asylum seekers. Some people would look at that and be enraged. I look at it and see Pentecost.

But sometimes all that is uncomfortable and awkward. We don’t want to be thought of like that. We want power and respect. And do we really want to help build a kingdom with love, joy, peace, patience? Self-control, faithfulness? Kindness, gentleness? The right answer is, of course, “yes”, but that’s not always reflected in our history. It’s not always reflected in my life – what about you?

I’ve written before on how Pentecost has made me see the world differently – after all, the Holy Spirit knows sign language – but today I’m reminded of a simpler truth: I want to look like more like Jesus than a builder of Babel. And if the breath and fire of the Spirit bake bricks in my life, I need to use them to build the Kingdom, not another Empire.